It’s Still the Story

I’m reading a memoir right now.  I don’t normally read memoir or biography anymore, at least not in the past thirty years or so.  But the book I’m reading is a memoir about life in New Mexico, and I decided to try it as a diversion from the scientific and science fiction books I usually read.  So far I like what I’ve read.  Mostly.

The writing is well done, and I’ve gotten into the feel of the book.  The author is a poet by profession, not a writer of prose, but does a good job with the story line.  It’s true, poets frequently make good writers of prose.  Yet, several chapters are nothing but backstory as the author dips into her and her husband’s earlier life before they came to New Mexico.  That’s important to a memoir, no doubt, but it interferes with the story.  I have to read fifteen or twenty pages to wade through earlier facets of a person’s  life, holding off the important story line for just a few more pages.  I want to get to the action–what were they doing in New Mexico?  I don’t mind a few backstory facts, perhaps two or three pages, but whole chapters are a distraction.  I go back to this point time and time again: it’s the story line i.e., the plot, which is the important thing.  Don’t worry about the damn writing, worry about the plot.

I’ve had to learn this the hard way.  Too many of my works have been saturated with backstory, and I’ve had to rip up several short stories because they were filled with too much of earlier events.  This has been perhaps the hardest thing to learn about the craft of writing: don’t overload the reader with the character’s previous life history.  Drop it in at small points here and there.  That’s particularly hard to do in science fiction where the main character’s earlier life may have been on a different planet, and the author has to familiarize the reader not only with the character’s early history, but also that of the planet and of his/her civilization’s history too.  But it can be done, and I’ve done it (hopefully) a couple of times.  We’ll see.

Keep that story line going.

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