I’ve just finished a serious and rather lengthy revision of my first novel, a science fiction work of—in its final form—about 124,000 words. This revision was prompted by reading about and talking to people about that nemesis of novel writers, the dreaded backstory. You’ve got too much backstory in your novel, some people will say, many times without even reading your novel. They may or may not be correct in every case, but I decided to take a long hard look at my first novel and try to do something about the backstory. Was it too much? Not enough? Or just right? I decided it was too much. Not just too much, but way too much, and most of it had to go. I had whole chapters (four of them to be exact) consisting of nothing but backstory. Those chapters interrupted the flow of the narrative, and while they added some substantial information to the reader’s knowledge of the past history of the two main characters, they were basically wordy descriptions of nothing (or very little) that the reader actually needed to know. So, out they came, all except one, and that one does reveal some vitally important information about one character’s early life. Some important details about backstory from the material cut out I did manage to work into the narrative in little spots here and there, and I think the story is much better for it.
In cutting out the backstory so drastically, I reduced the word count from 127,000 to 122,000. But there was a further change I needed to make. Several years ago I pitched the novel to a New York literary agent, and she asked to see the whole manuscript. Even though she eventually decided not to represent the novel, she made one comment that, at the time, left me somewhat confused. She said she would have liked to know more about what was going on in the main character’s head. To know what the main character was thinking. At the time I didn’t know how to take that, because I thought I’d put enough in about what the main character was thinking, and I didn’t want to add more because the novel was too long as it was. But now that I had removed so much backstory, I decided to revisit the agent’s advice and see what I could do. So now the novel has grown from 122,000 to around 124,500. Still leaner than before, although still rather large for a novel. But I think much better overall. Is this the final revision I need to make? Stay tuned.
I will be attending the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in late April this year, and will be pitching to an editor representing a well-known sci-fi publisher. Perhaps this year will be the one. Maybe he’ll like the new version.
Why don’t you check your novel? You’ve probably got too much backstory in it.