I’m not as far along as I’d like with my WIP (Work in Progress) because I sent a partial to my agent, and he sent back a note saying, essentially, “Kill the backstory and start with someone bleeding.”
When I saw this I slapped myself upside the head and said “D’oh!” because it took me back some years to when I worked in news. I’ve been a news reporter, radio news anchor, radio news director and producer of the local TV news. There’s a nasty little saying in broadcasting: “If it bleeds, it leads.” This means if you have a shooting, horrific accident or tornado, it goes at the top of the newscast. In a newspaper, it’s called “Over the fold”.
There’s a reason for this: You want to grab peoples’ attention and hold it. A story about the proposed tax hike is important to everyone in the county, but it’s a snoozefest–unless you can tie it to some poor schlub who’s going to lose the little hardscrabble piece of land his family’s owned since they settled it before the Civil War. That’s exciting! That grabs attention! It tugs at your heart-strings!
It’s just like the first and most basic rule of newsgathering: “Dog bites man isn’t news. Man bites dog is.” Get the reader’s attention by showing her something she's not expecting. The ordinary isn’t news, the out-of-the-ordinary is news. One of my best journalism professors would snidely scrawl “So what?” in red ink across my news stories if all the facts were correct, but the story was b-o-r-i-n-g.
And he was right. It’s the same thing with writing your novel. “Make someone bleed!” is good advice. Don’t get sucked into loading your backstory up front because your reader 1. Likely doesn’t need as much information as you think she needs and 2. You can work it into the story down the road. Make the reader ask “What? How did she get onto a pirate ship? How’s she going to stay alive on a pirate ship? Is that guy going to die?”
They’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. You can always insert details of her terrible childhood later. Think about all the exciting books you’ve read, the ones that kept you up past your bedtime ‘cause you had to find out what happened next–if you can hook ‘em at the beginning and keep the excitement rolling, the reader will stay along for the full ride.