I am in no way a professional. I don't have a fancy education to back up writing (that is reserved for mathematics), but I do know what I like to read and I do know when I read something that doesn't quite jive for me. So WELCOME to my CRITIQUE PARTNER SERIES! It is minus the partner, because I don't actually know any of the writers whose work I am reading, but here I will offer my advice. Much of my advice you can find everywhere else on the internet. None of it is professional. All of it is...I can't think of anything to finish this sentence with. I liked the whole "Much of it, none of it, all of it" thing I had going on at the start of each sentence, but I'm far too lazy to spend time thinking how to end that sentence, especially when this is only a blog developed for my personal enjoyment. And forward ho!
#3 Critique Partner Series - On Beginning with Memories
Today's manuscript begins with a bang. We've got an old man overlooking a sea, thinking some great thoughts. Brrr, it was cold. I could really feel his isolation. I was completely connected...until the fifth paragraph when he goes into a memory. It's not that the writing was poor. By all means, it wasn't. It's just that it was a memory. And it's not that I don't like memories; it's just that I don't like memories. Kidding!
Here are two things I want to focus on today:
1.) Memories that rid the book of mystery.
2.) Memories as info-dumps.
Memories Minus Mystery
I love mystery when I read, especially in the first few pages. Mystery keeps me turning those pages. When the car backfires and the main character jumps and looks for the gunman, I want to know what in this man's history makes him think he's going to get shot. Does he suffer from PSTD? Did he lose a loved one in a hunting excursion gone bad? Maybe he's a retired assassin and he thinks his past has caught up with him. I don't know, but I want to know. And I turn those pages.
But when the memory informs me he has mob ties and someone threatened him because he didn't want to sell his property, I'm like, "Eh. No big surprise there. I'd probably be jumpy, too." Even though the car backfire didn't kill the man, the mystery is dead dead dead.
Moral of the story? If you use a memory, especially in the beginning of a novel, make sure it is essential to the plot without taking away that drive to turn those pages. Readers don't need to know everything. They don't want to know everything...yet.
Memories as Info-Dumps
This particular manuscript did not begin with an info-dump (thank the stars!). I realize they are sometimes unavoidable, but info-dumps in memories? Probably avoidable. When Suzie remembers the day her grandmother died, it better be for a good reason.
I'll be blunt here. I don't care that the memory tells us Grandma was a kind woman who loved her family, went to bingo on Thursdays and church on Sundays, enjoyed planting herbs in window boxes, own seven cats and twelve birds (all of which have names beginning with the letter H), and that the day she died she was wearing a pink dressing gown and had a checkered blanket across her lap. Oh, by the way, Grandma also lived on the third floor apartment in a run-down city that in its heyday was The Place to live. She worked as a receptionist for a law firm that specialized in domestic violence cases until the lawyers fired her because she had to take her birds to the vet too often because the cats would try to eat them (eat the birds, not the lawyers; although, that would probably be grounds to fire her, too).
You probably didn't read all of that. I don't blame you. You didn't read it because it's boring. I was bored writing it. Yes, we get a lot of information about Grandma, but it doesn't tell us much about Suzie. When your main character begins to reminisce about the good ol' days, even when she wasn't part of those days, make sure the memory is essential. If it's not, cut it.
Did you want to illustrate how much Suzie misses and loves Grandma? You can insert those little bits of information into later scenes. A brief sentence here and there (Look how much Suzie thinks of Grandma! Everything reminds her of the poor ol' gal!) will go a lot further in explaining Suzie's relationship with Grandma than a single memory in which you dump it all at the reader's feet.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure everything you put into your novel plays double duty. It advances the characters while advancing the plot. You'll hear me talk about this a lot. Readers don't need to know everything. In fact, they don't want to know everything.
My Question for You:
What do you like about memories in books?