This is the second in the series of five blogs about comments my critique partners have made so often about my work, that I developed a quick abbreviation to mark manuscripts. Today’s abbreviation is VSOP.
Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) Cognac is a brandy, is distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes, grown only in the region of Cognac, France. To carry the VOSP label, the brandy must be distilled twice in copper pot stills, and aged at least two-and-a-half years in oak barrels.
When I write VSOP in the margin of my manuscript, it mean condense this material down. Find the key, the most important information or feeling in this material and extract it, so that every drop—that is every word—counts. VSOP often identifies back story that will work better if distilled down into context.
Back story is anything that happened before the book begins, whether it was five minutes before or twenty-five years before. Here are some common ways writers try to sneak in back story and hope the reader won’t notice:
A prologue, especially one that happened a long time in the past or that is from the victim’s point of view. Okay, I’m going to put on my personal opinion hat and say that I absolutely despise prologues, and I find this “taste of the past” particularly offensive. I’ve settled in to think that the book takes place in 1956, and it has a dark tone, when bam, I’m suddenly transported to an amusement park in 2007, as Chapter 1 begins. It makes me reconsider if I really want to read the book at all.
What my friend, the writer, Candas Jane Dorsey calls Rod-and-Don, using dialogue to convey back story.
“Well, Don, every mystery reader knows that cyanide has a bitter almond smell, but very few people are aware that, due to an apparent genetic trait, some individuals cannot detect any odor to cyanide. Dr. Banton had that genetic trait himself, which makes it unlikely he he had any suspicion at all that his spiced almond tart was laced with cyanide.”
“Wow, Ron, who knew that about the professor?”
“Well, Don, anyone who had had his organic chemistry class would know. He always mentioned it in class.”
Very akin to Rod-and-Don, the expository lump. One of my favorite, read-again books is “Written in Blood,” by Caroline Graham. In it, a motley crew of would-be writers invite a famous author to speak to their writing group. One of the writers asks the famous author for advice:
“I write spy stories. . . .I’m very interested in armoured vehicles—the one-ton Humber Hornet especially. I’ve written roughly ten pages describing it’s various functions. Do you think that’s too long?”
“I do rather,” said Max. “I’d’ve thought your readers will be wanting to get back to the plot long before then.”
Context is just enough detail to make sense to the reader plus the emotional response of the POV character. Just like Ugni Blanc grapes, a copper pot still, and an oak barrels are essential to make VSOP Cognac, the emotional response of the POV character is essential to context.
I was introduced to a woman at a party. I said, “How do you do.” She said, “My father raped me when I was five. I’m a recovering alcoholic and a breast cancer survivor. Who are you?” I thought, I’m the person who is heading for the other side of the room. She had revealed too much, too soon, and I had no desire to hang around and hear more.
I took a pottery class one winter. The instructor was an affable man in his thirties, who took time to get to know every one in class, but was very circumspect about himself. One morning, as I was making up a missed class, he and I were alone in his studio. As I worked on the wheel, fashioning a bowl, we chatted about families. I asked if his parents lived in town. He replied, “My mom lives in Vancouver, but my dad is dead. He was eaten by cannibals in New Guinea.”
I stopped the potter’s wheel. “You’re not kidding, are you?”
He wasn’t. His father had been on a cruise and his group, separated from the rest of the shore party, had been kidnapped. Because we had gotten to know one another, and because we discussed this tragedy in intimate circumstances, it hit with much more impact.
The woman at the party was back story; the potter was context.
Donald Maass, the agent, writer, and teacher, proposes a very strict ban on back story. Absolutely no back story for the first 100 pages. No prologue, nothing snuck in as dialog, no expository lumps. Okay, I can hear you whining, do I really have to do this? It’s a challenge, not a requirement. Try it and see how much better your book reads.