Monday, December 16, 2013

Back Story: Better a Small Shake than to Inundate

Janet  here. Crafting back story is my favorite part of creating characters. The more troubled the back story, the happier I am. LOL But back story can also be lethal to getting our stories in print. 

As a beginning writer, I entered my first manuscript in my first contest. A judge said: “Get on with the story and leave most of this back fill till later.” Back fill sounds like the dirt used between layers of garbage. Ugh. On page 11, another judge wrote: “This is where your story should start—at the point where everything changes.” By the time I entered the third contest with this manuscript, I’d gotten the point and eliminated the long passages of back story. 

Then I entered my second manuscript in a contest. A judge wrote: “Action stops here. You've moved into back story, which kills your pacing.” Which just proves that what I know and what I do aren't always identical. Anyone relate?

WHAT IS BACK STORY? Back story refers to what has happened to the characters before the story starts that has shaped who they are and what they believe about themselves. These beliefs affect how they will behave. At least until we torture our story people into finally growing and changing by the story’s end. Writers spend a lot of time discovering what makes our characters tick. So naturally we're tempted to share our brilliance with readers. 

WHAT IS A BACK STORY DUMPPicture filling the back of that dump truck with everything you know about your characters, then raising the bed and dumping that information in the beginning of the story. If our opening pages tell at length what happened in our characters’ pasts, piling words on top of words, the pacing not only grind to a halt, as my savvy judge said, but all that telling kills our readers’ curiosity. We want to reel readers in like this young fisherman hooked a widemouthed bass, not suffocate them under mounds of back story. 

WHY DO WE WRITE BACK STORY DUMPS?

We want to discover who our characters are. Get all that fabulous information on the page in the rough draft, then cut, paste and save it in a separate file. 

We want readers to understand our characters. If readers don’t know what happened to our characters, how will they understand their actions and attitudes? A little mystery is a good thing. We want readers asking questions.

We want readers to empathize with our charactersIf readers know how much our poor characters have suffered in the past, then they’ll bond with them. True, but a tiny hint of trouble is more interesting and keeps readers turning the pages to discover more. 

IF DUMPING BACK STORY ISN'T GOOD, IS THAT INFORMATION IMPORTANT FOR READERS TO KNOW? You bet it is!  So if dumping back story isn't good...

HOW DO WE GIVE THIS VITAL INFORMATION TO THE READER?

Sprinkle it in. The judge, who said I’d killed the pacing with back story, added: “We need to know this, but not now and not in so large a chunk.” Visualize putting all this information into a salt shaker and then sprinkling it in, a dash here, a dash there. A shake of salt adds flavor to food. A dump of salt makes food unpalatable. We want readers to “gobble” our stories without leaving a bad taste in their mouths.

TIPS FOR SPRINKLING IN INFORMATION  

Back story is telling the reader. Far better to show with actions, setting, symbols and dialogue. Often these methods can be combined. 

Use Actions: Actions speak louder than words. From Courting Miss Adelaide:  

His hand sought the telegram inside his pocket, notification that his father had died peacefully in his sleep. Charles crushed the flimsy paper into a tight ball. Maybe now he could put his past to rest.

The act of crushing the telegram reveals more about Charles’s feelings for his father than his thoughts alone and hopefully makes readers curious.

Use Setting: Use the setting to trigger a comparison to the past or to trigger a memory or flashback. Flashbacks can be overdone so use with care. From The Bride Wore Spurs: 

     Her eyes went wide, she reared back, then kneed Star. The horse leaped forward. “Race you to the creek!” she hollered. “The loser mucks the barn. Heehaw!”
     Bent forward in the saddle, hat dangling, her hair flying out behind her, horse and rider devoured ground.  
     With the force of a right hook to the gut, memories assaulted him. He broke out in a cold sweat as the horror played out in his mind. Amy. Racing her horse toward the creek. Her mare stepping into a prairie dog hole, stumbling, falling, throwing Amy to the ground. 
     He’d reached her in seconds, cradling her limp body in his arms, willing her to breathe.
                                        Too late.
                                        She was already dead from a broken neck.

Matt’s flashback is triggered by Hannah’s challenge to race, but the prairie dog tunnels make this Texas ranch area too dangerous.

Use symbols: A symbol is something tangible (can be seen or touched) that represents something intangible (feelings and attitudes). From Courting Miss Adelaide: Charles is trying to console Emma, a child plunked into his temporary care.

     Tears spilled over her pale lower lashes, becoming visible now that they were wet and spiky. If he didn't do something, she’d start bawling. The prospect sent him behind his desk.        He jerked open the top drawer and rummaged through it until he found what he sought--a bag of peppermints. “When I was a youngster,” he began, “on my way home from school, I’d pass Mrs. Wagner’s house. She’d be rocking on her porch, wearing a gray tattered sweater, no matter how hot the day...”
     Emma stopped crying, but looked far from cheerful.
     “She’d call me up on the porch, ask if I was studying and behaving. Then, she’d reach into the pocket of her sweater and pull out a peppermint.” Charles took a candy from the bag. Emma’s eyes widened. “She’d say, ‘You’re a smart boy, Charles. Work hard and one day you’ll make something of yourself.’ And, she’d drop the candy into my palm--like this.”
     He opened Emma’s small hand and let a peppermint fall into her palm. When the corners of her mouth turned up in a smile, a peculiar feeling shot through him. As it had for him all those years ago, the candy once again worked wonders.
     His entire adult life, he’d kept a stash of peppermints around, to remind him of Mrs. Wagner, the one person who had believed in him, who’d given him a desire to improve his lot. The candy still tasted as sweet as her words. 

For Charles, peppermints symbolize support, belief in him. As Charles uses peppermints to comfort Emma, he gives another clue about his difficult childhood.

Use Dialogue: What characters say can reveal or conceal their pasts. Have you ever had someone say something and the comment made you wonder what they meant or why they said what they did? You want to know more, but if you asked, the speaker might sidestep the issue. Avoiding an explanation is a good way to make readers speculate about a character's past.

Arguments are another method to reveal a secret from the past. From The Substitute Bride: Ted has wounded Elizabeth and she lashes back.

     She stabbed a finger at his midsection. “Well, I've got news for you, Ted Logan. I've got an eight-year-old brother. As soon as I can, I’m bringing him here. Then I’ll finally have an ally in this house!”
     Ted felt he’d been sucker punched. “What are you talking about?”
     “You heard me. My father will lose our house in a couple weeks. I want Robby to live with us.”
     He glared at her. “You kept the existence of a brother from me? Why would you do that?”
     “I was afraid of your reaction.” She stepped closer until they stood toe-to-toe. “But I no longer care. Robby’s my responsibility. I won’t let him end up living on the streets.” Her voice broke. “He wants to live on a farm. That’s why I married you! The only reason.”

Another fun way to sprinkle in information is for characters’ words to conflict with their thoughts. From The Substitute Bride:

     “I’m a father, Elizabeth. Fathers don’t run off to pursue every whim or urge they get.”
     She looked at the hay cascading over the haymow, the rafters where barn owls roosted, at anything but Ted. “Sometimes,” she whispered, “they do."
     Ted cupped her jaw with his hand. “Good fathers don'’t. I’m sorry if you had a childhood filled with uncertainty.”
     She jerked away from his touch. “I didn't. It was...fine. Everything was fine.”
     But it hadn't been. She was playing the game she’d been taught, the one her mother always played. Put on a brave face, pretend everything was all right and eventually Papa would come back home and make it so. For a while.

Use Introspection: Introspection refers to the Point of View character’s thoughts, what's going on in his head. Early in the story a brief thought, either alone or in conjunction with an action, symbol or dialogue can be used to give readers a tantalizing peek at the character’s past. 

IS IT EVER APPROPRIATE TO SHARE PASSAGES OF BACK STORY EARLY ON?
Of course. Like all craft guidelines, there are exceptions. Sometimes back story information is essential for readers to understand what happens in the opening pages. Sometimes back story is necessary to make readers bond with a character who is taking actions readers might not otherwise understand if they didn't know the circumstances. In the opening pages suspense writers may use back story to make readers care about characters in jeopardy. Intersperse back story with vital action to the story at the point where things change and the pace will remain strong. From The Substitute Bride:

     Elizabeth Manning had examined every option open to her. But in the end she had only one. Her heart lurched.
     She had to run.
     If she stayed in Chicago, tomorrow morning she’d be walking down the aisle of the church on Papa’s arm. Then, walking back up it attached to Reginald Parks for the remainder of his life, which could be awfully long, considering Reginald’s father was eighty-two.
     Papa said she had no choice, now that their circumstances had gone south like robins in winter. He’d reminded her that as Reginald’s wife, she’d be kept in fine style. Probably what the keepers said about the tigers at the zoo.
     She scooped her brush and toiletries into a satchel, then dropped it beside a valise crammed with clothes. No, she couldn't rely on mortality to get her out of the marriage.
     And as for God...
     Martha had promised God would help her. Well, Elizabeth had prayed long and hard and nothing had changed. Perhaps God had washed His hands of her. If so, she could hardly blame Him.
     The time had come to take matters into her hands. Once she got a job and made some money, she’d return—for the most important person of all.

In these first opening lines, readers learn why Elizabeth is defying her father by running away, a vital action that is the point where everything changes. Readers learn Elizabeth believes she’s not in good standing with God and wonder why. Readers learn Elizabeth cares enough about someone to risk returning. 

To give just enough information in intriguing ways that hooks readers and bonds them to our characters without losing the pace and keeping readers turning pages isn't easy and takes practice.

Is back story tricky for you? Easy? Have you learned to "see" that you're giving too much information too early? 

This morning I’m serving ham and cheese egg bake, juice squeezed from Tina's orange tree and homemade coffeecake. I first made this egg bake recipe for a teacher appreciation breakfast ages ago, but that’s more information than you want or need. All you need to know is it's delicious. 

If you're a writer, let me know in a comment if you're up for a critique of the first five pages of your opening chapter. If you're a reader, leave in a comment a desire to have a copy of one of the books I used excerpts from, The Substitute Bride, Courting Miss Adelaide or The Bride Wore Spurs.


122 comments :

  1. Oh, yes, those judge comments about back story dumps. I've seen them on my entries.

    But that's how we learn.

    Thanks for defining the problem and explaining the solution,

    The coffee pot is set.

    Helen

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  2. Ah, Janet, this is so excellent. Thank you so much.

    Sprinkling in back story gets easier every time you do it..and do it well.

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  3. Hi Janet:

    You’ve given many great ways to level a dump which makes me think that the problem is not with ‘back story’ pre se but rather with the ‘dump’. Would a 'dialogue' dump, 'description' dump, or 'denouement' dump be sny more welcome by contest judges? I think your ‘dump-leveling’ techniques apply to crafting the complete narrative. You've provided a lot more story here than just that found in dealing with back story. Brava!

    BTW: the cover art for “Courting Miss Adelaide” is the essence of ‘charm’.

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  4. Reader here! Would love to be a writer but was not given the talent. Would love a copy of The Bride Wore Spurs!

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  5. Janet, the salt shaker analogy is perfect. Thanks for the reminder!

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  6. Oh, such a great post! And I love the excerpts! I have Wanted: A Family but none of the other books.

    Count me in!

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  7. Hi Janet,

    What a great post. I love the peppermint story and how you tied it in to his back story. You've got my creative juices flowing now. I'll be thinking of something tangible for my characters. (Something besides a car, that seems overused in books and TV to me.)

    Thanks Janet!

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  8. I'm in for breakfast and this post!!!!

    Janet, it seems like I have to write a back-story dump with every book... and then excise it... to get to know my characters, where I'm going, what I'm thinking...

    And it happens even when I guard against it, but the good thing now is that I know to go back and DELETE it!!!!

    I'm learning!

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  9. Oh Janet, isn't this one of the tougher things to do? Goldilocks Syndrome- too big, too little or just right?

    Perfect examples. thanks so much!

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  10. I like the 'salt shaker' analogy. Gives me a clear picture to bring to mind when I'm caught frolicking in a huge pile of back story. :-)

    Thank you, JANET, for a wonderful post! :-)

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  11. Helen, I'd say dumping back story is what most beginning writers do. I'm grateful to contest judges for the help they've given me, dumping back story being just one. Contests, critique partners and critique giveaways here in Seekerville are a great way to learn!

    Thanks for the coffee!

    Janet

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  12. Thanks Tina! Practice makes perfect--when writers are aware. Otherwise we keep making the same mistakes with each book. Ouch. Done that. :-)

    Janet

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  13. Janet,
    Like you, contests taught me all about back story. "Story starts here" or, "Too much info, not enough action," were had lessons to learn. I still struggle with a chapter that seems really important for the history, but gets too mired in the dumping. Thanks for insight. I'm always up for a critique. Eileen

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  14. Hi Vince! Excellent point. Too much of anything gets boring and slows the pace. Readers want action and conflict.

    I've heard many readers skip description. If we write snippets here and there, they won't see it coming. LOL

    Hard to imagine too much dialogue--unless the characters aren't talking about anything that pertains to the plot. Tea scenes that don't matter are deadly, as is dragging out the story's conclusion.

    Adelaide's cover is unusual. Love Inspired doesn't use headshot covers often. Thanks!

    Janet

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  15. Hi Danielle! We love readers in Seekerville! You're in the drawing.

    Janet

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  16. Good morning, peaceful Julie. Thanks! Wish I could've gotten a picture that actually showed the salt sprinkling, but thanks for using your imagination.

    Janet

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  17. Hi Virginia! Thanks for your interest in my books. One on your shelves is definitely not enough!

    Janet

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  18. I have to guard against this all the time...and I don't do a very good job of it. A back story dump always seems to be lurking, ready to pounce into the middle of an otherwise perfectly acceptable paragraph! Gah! And then I have to wrestle it out and try to figure out what to do with it. Love your examples 'cause that gives me some ideas.

    I think, in my case, back story dumping is pure laziness. It takes way more effort to artfully sprinkle backstory info so I try to get it over with all at once. LOL

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  19. Been there; done that; proudly display the t-shirt, LOL!

    Oh Janet, you bring back painful memories of beginning contests! I received comments identical to the ones you mentioned.

    Really? How could the judges say something like that? This is brilliant work!! LOL! Glad I didn't keep that attitude long.

    I love your salt shaker visual. Exactly! Sprinkle backstory with care.

    Great post!!

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  20. Hi Jackie. I'm thrilled that the symbol part of my post has your creative juices flowing! The secret to writing symbols is to think of your character's past and create little details that they could've experienced and that stick in their mind.

    I love chocolate covered cherries at Christmas. When I was a child, my bus driver would give us a box on the last day of school. Can you imagine what this meant to me in a family where horehound and hard candy were considered Christmas treats? I had a great childhood so this doesn't have any deep meaning, but I've told our girls this story. And every year at Thanksgiving one of them gives me a box of chocolate covered cherries. That detail from my past must've touched them. As details can touch your readers.

    Janet

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  21. Hi Ruthy! If we don't write all that back story, we won't know what makes our characters tick. Cutting it out and sprinkling it in is very doable. As your wonderful books prove! Writers never stop learning. Or for me, relearning. LOL

    Janet

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  22. Good morning, Debra! Love your Goldilocks reminder that it isn't easy to get it just right!! Very clever and apt. Thanks!

    Janet

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  23. Good morning, Mary H! Love the image of you frolicking in the huge pile of back story! LOL If you frolick long enough, you'll fling the information far and wide. At least that's what our girls did to the piles of leaves we'd raked.

    Janet

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  24. HI JANET, Like AUDRA, your contest stories brought back memories. "What do you mean cut the first two chapters and start with chapter 3???" Were they crazy? No. You are so right. We have such a tendancy to dump that back story. Loved your visuals btw.

    Have a great day.

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  25. Great post, Janet!

    Learning when to use back story and how much of it to use can be a challenge. Despite my desire to sprinkle it in, there are times the lid falls off the shaker, I dump in too much, and I have to go back and scrape it out.

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  26. Janet, I loved this post. I've always heard use "back story breadcrumbs," so I've sought to do that. With varying degrees of success.

    I love the idea of using setting and symbols to weave in backstory. I hadn't really thought about that. I'm planning to come back and study this more in-depth after I drop kids off at school.

    Great post!

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  27. I learned early on not to include backstory at the beginning. But sometimes I see it in books written by famous authors and I wonder how they get away with it.

    My mother used to love backstory and flashback -- maybe because so many stories were written that way back in her day.

    So maybe it's a matter of style and taste.

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  28. Good morning, Eileen! Some stories require more information early on. It'll feel less like a dump if the character is active doing something that is important to the plot. You're in for a critique.

    Janet

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  29. Good morning, Kav. You make a great point. It is way harder to sprinkle back story than to dump it. I don't think you're lazy. More that you don't yet see how it's done. Just being aware of the issue is a great first step. Try different techniques: A short thought or a snippet of dialogue that intrigue the reader or use a symbol or action that shows a peek at the trouble in the character's past.

    Janet

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  30. Good morning, Audra! Writing back story dumps is something most beginners do. So we're normal. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

    Janet

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  31. Good morning, Sandra. I find it comforting that so many wonderful writers had the same issues early on. And those things can still sneak up on me. The reason we have revision cheat sheets!

    Janet

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  32. Hi Keli! Your visual made me smile! Thanks! The lid falling off the salt shaker makes me think of April Fool's Day. LOL Anyone experienced that? Scraping off all that salt is a chore, but worth the effort!

    Janet

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  33. That salt comparison is perfect--a little makes everything taste better, but too much ruins the meal. All those examples were great.
    Also, the cover for Courting Miss Adelaide is so pretty:)
    I'm always up for a critique--count me in.

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  34. Hi Jeanne T! Delighted I planted a new thought. Impressed that you're going to take the time to study the concepts. Try them out. Maybe think about your own life. Is there anything that triggers joy or guilt or fear? Maybe you'll see a way to apply to your characters.

    Janet

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  35. Hi Cara! Style has changed radically. Readers today want quick beginnings. Established authors can probably do anything, but that's not most of us.

    Janet

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  36. Hi Courtney! Thanks! You're in for the critique.

    Janet

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  37. Hi Pam! LOL Thank goodness there's no prison sentence tacked onto the guilty verdict.

    Janet

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  38. Janet, awesome post! Aren't good contest judges worth their weight in gold? Definitely. I still struggle a bit with backstory. Sometimes I don't take the time to really figure out their backstory before I start writing, and that can cause all kinds of problems. And then it's hard to know exactly how much to tell the reader and when. I recently read a book where we didn't know the hero's painful moment from his past or why he acted the way he did, or what his greatest fear was, until almost the end. But when we find out, it's very powerful. Not sure I could ever wait that long to reveal such things about the main character! But it taught me that that the longer you can wait to reveal something, the more powerful it is. Of course, it was foreshadowed all through the book, but you don't know the details until the end. But even if I can't wait that long for the main character's fears and black moment from the past to be revealed, I could probably wait that long for the villain. Which could be a real stroke of genius ... and could make for a very powerful scene ... as ideas float through my little brain.
    :-)

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  39. I think it is so important for a writer to remember that your backstory needs to be cut from the beginning but that work isn't wasted.
    It's painful to cut all that away but your time wasn't wasted. You needed to do that work. You needed to find out for youself what the character's back story is. So don't let it hurt you when you cut all of that out of the beginning.
    You need to get it out of there. But remembering that you need it and you will use it, helps to make it bearable.

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  40. The opening of Over the Edge is a good example of salting in back story.
    We open with a bullet whizzing through the window. A stagecoach hold-up. That's it. A running gunbattle. And we're learning about Callie, the heroine of the book from watching her operate and we learn she's left her father's ranch in Texas in one line and we learn she's there with her baby by the way the baby is terrified and she's terrified for him.
    But none of this really tells us what she's got to do with the Kincaid Brides series.

    It's on page 9, third paragraph, hit and then forgotten, I finally reveal the first inkling of the connection.
    >>>>>>>>>>
    Callie had plenty of bullets but she was a conservative woman and she didn’t intend to fire blind and waste lead. She was mighty low on money and she needed ammunition for when she finally tracked down that worthless Seth Kincaid.

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  41. Ah, the Dump. I'm hoping that learning here at Seekerville will allow me to avoid getting those "Lose the backstory" comments from judges and go straight to a different bugaboo I need fixing in my writing *heh*.

    Love this post and the examples that go with it. It is very helpful for me and gives me ideas to "salt" my backstory in creatively. I learn something new here everyday - yay!

    I would like to be in the running for critiquing. Tina gave me a taste with her critique of my short story and now I seem to be desiring more.

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  42. Melanie, seat of the pants writers will discover back story as they write. Even as a plotter, I still discover more about my characters as I put words on the page. The reason I suggested writers cut and paste back story then figure out ways to sprinkle the clues in. I have never waited until the end of the book to reveal back story. Not sure I could! But it is fun to keep some things from the reader.

    Janet

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  43. Jeanne T, I like the Backstory Breadcrumbs. Cool term. It makes me think of a trail leading somewhere, something to follow, which is such a perfect way to think of it.

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  44. And KAV I've been told and I really think it's true that if you put a backstory dump in your book and then you just CUT IT COMPLETELY no one would ever notice.
    Because you need that backstory for a reason.
    You made it up for a reason.
    And if you went through your book carefully you'd find out that your DUMP is also salted. The very reason you created it was to use it here and there and you HAVE used it here and there. You can cut the whole backstory dump and just throw it away because almost certainly you've already salted that story in exactly where you needed it when you needed it because if you DIDN'T need it you'd have never created it.

    I think that's true. If you do a backstory dump, most backstory is in your book twice. Once done right and once done wrong.

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  45. Hi Mary. So true that nothing is wasted when it comes to back story. Vomit it out. Clean it up. Sorry, must be thinking about all that stomach flu going around. LOL

    Janet

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  46. A great and timely post Janet. I have an R&R from an agent (didn't realize it wasn't an R until I read the last line saying she wouldn't mind seeing a revised version--Lol!). Her comment was that the back story was slowing the pacing down at the beginning. So back story can impact the reader being pulled into the story as well. Lesson learned.
    Hard to avoid backstory dumps in a second chance story, but I'm reworking it and I hope she likes it this time.

    Thanks!

    Piper

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  47. What a great post, Janet!

    I've had to cut out so many pages of backstory dumps...but I'm learning. Now I start my writing in a different file - write out the backstory there, for all the main characters, and how their backstories intersect and affect the real story. Then I save that file, bring up a completely new page, and start the story from scratch.

    And then there is the opposite problem - as I've started judging contests, one of the things I've seen are writers who don't know their character's backstories. I end up asking, "Do you know why she did this? What is her goal? Her motivation?" You're right! Backstory is so important!

    And I love the salt shaker image. That will stick with me :)

    I'd love to be put in the drawing for the critique! Thanks!

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  48. Janet, I love the salt shaker analogy. Great post and I'd love a critique from you.

    Thanks for the juice - fresh squeezed is wonderful.

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  49. Hi Piper! I'm delighted to hear you have an agent interested in your story! Wishing you all the best with your revisions.

    I relate to the difficulty of sprinkling in back story with a second chance for love novel. I had that same difficulty with writing An Inconvenient Match. Another tricky part was forcing them together when that's the last thing the heroine wanted. Why are these people we create so hard for us to control? LOL

    Janet

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  50. Hi Jan! Sounds like you could have written this post! Excellent point! Back story is vital. And best dished up in small bites. Glad the salt analogy puts a visual in your mind.

    You're in the drawing for a five page critique.

    Janet

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  51. Good afternoon, Terri! Hope the post helps. You're in the drawing for the critique!

    Thank Tina for sharing oranges from her tree. She has a lemon tree, too. That's for another day when we're discussing those times life tosses us a lemon and we find a way to make lemonade. :-)

    Janet

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  52. The salt shaker is a hit today, Janet! Thanks for providing a great visual. No doubt, we'll all "salt" our stories from now on. No dumping allowing. :)

    Like Ruthy, I often find those back story dumps in my first drafts. Maybe I need to assure myself that I understand what happened earlier in my characters' lives. Then out come the scissors. Cut. Cut. Cut.

    I end up with a hint of the internal conflict that will play into the story as it develops. I leave just enough to hook the reader -- hopefully -- and have him or her fully engaged from the beginning to the end.

    Thanks for providing excellent instruction on a difficult writing concept.

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  53. Wow, Janet way to take my lovely comment and make it .... truly disgusting.

    Merry Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!

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  54. Great post, Janet!

    Back story is tricky. After reading a lot of articles warning against the back story dump, I tried to implement what I'd learned. Then I got critiques that begged for a little more info about the character to make the reader care. In an effort to avoid back story clumps, I'd cut out ALL back story, and left the readers with a one-dimensional character. Oops! :) I'm still walking the tightrope. Hopefully it'll get better with time.

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  55. Hi Debby! Fully engaged readers from the beginning to the end of our stories is every writer's goal. Beautifully said! Love the image of you with those scissors snipping away at back story dumps!

    Speaking of dumping, I want to thank Mary's cowboy for the dump truck photo! It takes a village to write a post. :-)

    Janet

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  56. Mary, sorry! I didn't know you were prone to being queasy. Okay, I'll try again. Think of mice and what they leave behind, a back story of sorts. We all understand wanting to get rid of that! Better?

    Janet

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  57. Hi Natalie. Yes, if you take deleting back story too far, you lose opportunities for readers to bond with your characters. The trick is to sprinkle it here and there in an intriguing way. This writing gig isn't for cowards. LOL

    Janet

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  58. It really isn't easy. You have to find that point of luring them in and then sprinkle in the emotional back info.

    Good night, my first book was a back story dump with a perfect heroine and an unlikeable drunk hero.

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  59. I agree that you have to let the backstory come out somewhere and if it is the first chapter, go ahead. And then remove as much as possible. I'd hate to think someone gets stuck on the first chapter and never goes farther. the 'rules' can really put a damper on newbi-ness.

    Let it flow and then figure it out.Sometimes it's the only way we can get into our characters' heads

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  60. Great post, Janet! Such a simple way of explaining this concept!

    Cheers,
    Sue

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  61. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!
    I MEAN ...........
    EEEEEKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!!!!!!

    Thanks Janet.

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  62. And the dump truck is our neighbor's. We have a very snazzy grain truck that looks like a dump truck and I wanted to take a picture of that and send you. But My Cowboy was horrified.

    "That is a GRAIN TRUCK," he said. "Not a dump truck."

    (as if Janet would know the difference? Right Janet? They look the same, I swear--only ours is new and shiny)

    So he went to the neighbor's and got this picture of a real dump truck, which is clearly an old and LAME dump truck.

    I apologize.

    This in no way lessens the impact of your dump truck/salt shaker blog post.

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  63. haha!

    Janet, I read your comment as "One on your shelves in definitely enough" and I thought... "Is this reverse psychology?"

    Haha! New marketing techniques brought to you by sloppy reading. :P

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  64. P.S.

    One question:

    that pic of the green shaker- is that you?

    Is that a vintage green glass Depression era shaker?

    What's the bowl?

    I don't collect glass but I do admire it!!

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  65. Virginia, the bowl is Polish pottery, which I love.

    Not sure about the shaker.

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  66. Tina, ah, confession is good for us, right? LOL Those first books we wrote are pretty interesting. As long as the unlikeable drunken hero is in the back story, I'm guessing you could pull that off!

    Janet

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  67. Janet's telling Mary to "hurl"...]

    Oh mylanta, get the video camera, this is too funny! :)

    Dying laughing!!!

    Deb, Kav, I think it is often a part of the necessity for some of us. I'm just more at ease launching into a story if I write that stuff... then dump it... because now I have a path and arc established in my brain.

    Once it's in my head, I can write kind of quick and steady, but I need to Davy Crockett my way to "trail blazing" by writing info first.

    Love Inspired has trained me well!!!

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  68. Debra, you're exactly right. We need to get that back story on the page. We can fix it later. Rough drafts don't have that name for nothing. :-)

    Janet

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  69. Hi Deb H! Sorry that I somehow skipped over you.

    Yeah, one thing fixed and something else will pop up in its place.

    You're in for the critique.

    Janet

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  70. Hi Sue,

    Thanks! Hoped the post made sense. We all come from things differently.

    Janet

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  71. Mary, those screams are good for you, aren't they? If so, you're welcome!

    Janet

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  72. Mary, the difference between a grain and a dump truck might not register with me, but your cowboy's stance is an important reminder that the details matter when writing our books. So easy to mess it up when we don't have a clue. Or forgot what we knew.

    Those lines would make a great country song...

    Maybe not.

    Janet

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  73. Virginia, at first I thought I left the NOT out. Had to check. Heaving a sigh of relief. You messed up. Not me.

    There goes my sales. LOL

    Janet

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  74. Virginia, the green glass salt shaker is old. Belonged to my dh's mother. Not sure if the set is depression glass but probably. I love the dented screw tops. :-)

    The bowl is Polish pottery. I love it. We use the dishes every day. I'm not Polish but a friend is and she introduced me to it.

    You get an A for noticing details!

    Janet

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  75. Yay! Ruthy is wearing a coonskin cap! The perfect accessory for blazing trails. Love it!


    Janet

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  76. Virginia, Debby knows the bowl is Polish pottery because she has loads of lovely pieces.

    Janet

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  77. Your examples, Janet, were excellent. I love the analogy with a salt shaker. When I first began entering contests often received comments about backstory dump. In time I got the hang of using it sparingly in the first chapter. Later was told not to use it at all in the first 55 pages. Now that's a huge challenge when you think the reader will want to know what drives this character and makes them tick. Still working on that one. Thanks for the blog on the subject. Would love to be in the drawing for the critique.

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  78. There's nothing quite like being told by a couple of contest judges that your story begins on page 24 of a 25-page entry. We live, we learn :-)

    Editing is my best friend when it comes to finding backstory dumps. After I've been away from the story for a little while, I can easily see where too much backstory slows the pace ... and I wonder why on earth I didn't recognize the 'drag' when I was writing it.

    Thanks for an interesting post, Janet.

    Nancy C

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  79. Great post, Janet! I tend to dump too much too soon. And this is a great reminder.

    Also really enjoyed the excerpts. Loved how you managed the backstory.

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  80. I lived in Poland and an older lady I used to visit had dishes just like that!

    I wasn't sure whether to say that because I thought the answer might be, "No, it's from Target" and I'd look goofy!

    And I think that distinctive green glass is Depression-era. My sister collects it and she has some very lovely pieces!

    I avoid glass. I love it, but it would never survive in this house. :P

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  81. Jackie, I loved the peppermint example too. Brought a lump to my throat.

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  82. >>After I've been away from the story for a little while, I can easily see where too much backstory slows the pace<<

    Uh, edit that ... I can see where too much backstory slows the pace but I can't easily see it. Oh that such was true!

    Janet, I forgot to tell you how much I enjoyed the excerpts. Thanks for the examples.

    Nancy C

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  83. Pat Jeanne Davis I think 'don't use it at all in the first 55 pages' is both overkill and pretty darned arbitrary.

    However a better way to say it might be to RESIST it as much as possible FOREVER. No backstory dump every. The salting is the trick. Almost none at the beginning when you've jumped right into the middle of exploding your story, then you start salting and, of course, you do it with such a deft hand, so skillfully, that you only make your book tasty and no one will ever notice that they are learning all about your characters as your story unfolds.

    Somehow they just KNOW.

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  84. As with almost everything...a point Vince made almost the first thing this morning...any kind of 'dump' is over doing it.

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  85. Virginia, I noticed her pretty painted nails instead of the dishes. LOL

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  86. Good evening, Pat JD. I've never heard you should wait a certain number of pages before you reveal back story. I think each story is unique and determines when the time is right. I love sprinkling snippets of back story early on. Main thing is to avoid dumping a lot at once.

    You're in for the critique.

    Janet

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  87. Hi Nancy! You said: After I've been away from the story for a little while, I can easily see where too much backstory slows the pace ... and I wonder why on earth I didn't recognize the 'drag' when I was writing it.

    Your comment made me smile. I'm like that too. The reason I leave plenty of time to revise.

    Janet

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  88. Thanks Missy! You made my day!

    Janet

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  89. Hi Virginia. I didn't know you lived in Poland. Tell us more.

    Our green salt and pepper shakers aren't fragile. They were used a lot and survived. I have boy and girl Polish pottery salt and pepper shakers I could've used in the photo. I thought they might be confusing. Though a dash of back story from the hero, then a dash from the heroine could've worked. :=)

    Janet

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  90. Thanks Nancy. You and Missy are great for my morale.

    Janet

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  91. Mary, no one explodes the opening of a story any better than you.

    Janet

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  92. LOL, Missy. Good thing I wasn't holding that bowl with my toes.

    Janet

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  93. Wonderful post, Janet! (and please excuse my later arrival---I'm convinced someone has sped up the clocks and the days zip by too quickly, LOL).

    This will go into my keeper files. Even though I still have to be careful in this area, I thankfully don't "dump" it in at the beginning anymore (oh my--I cringe when I think of one of my very first manuscripts---tons of info. on the first page--YIKES!).

    I've loved all of your books, and look forward to reading many more Janet Dean stories. :)
    Hugs from Georgia, Patti Jo

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  94. Thanks for sharing with us, Janet! Loved reading the excerpts. :)

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  95. Good to see you, Patti Jo! I'm surprised and pleased by how many stopped by when I know the To Do list has to be long this close to Christmas.

    Thanks for your sweet words about my books. Sweeter to my writer's heart than your gift of honey!

    Janet

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  96. Thanks Anna! Thanks for stopping in!

    Janet

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  97. Hi Patti Jo. I think we all start out with that urge to tell all about our characters. Why wouldn't we?

    It's the first reflex. It's what we're doing, telling about people.

    Learning to make it a compelling story is just like any education, just like learning basic math then advancing to algebra and geometry and trigonometry. (yes, let's pretend I know anything about any of those)

    We're working on advanced degrees here until we graduate into publication.

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  98. I remember very early on with my first online critique group one of my critique partners would ... instead of saying BACK STORY ... she'd say THIS STOPPED THE ACTION.
    It was a good way to explain why a backstory dump in the middle of an action scene didn't work.

    That kind of aside, backstory, even a small slice of it, didn't work so many times, it just doesn't keep things moving forward. And you always want the story to move forward.

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  99. One of the most interesting comments I ever received in a contest was from a judge who asked about a scene of mine that I had removed. In my thank you letter, I thanked the judge for his/her kinds words, and then told the judge that the scene was backstory and I had broken it up and added it in later.

    I'm always up for a critique (and would have to be anyway as I already have all of Janet's books).
    I'm al

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  100. Thank you for the blog about backstory. With my first manuscript, I entered contests and received the comments that I needed to start farther into the story. With my second manuscript, the first contest I entered had the comment that I didn't have enough backstory. I was so worried about including backstory that I didn't realize I hadn't given any info about the heroine that would make readers care about her. So I would absolutely be thrilled if I could have a 5 page critique for my second manuscript which I will be resuming next month. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

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  101. Such an interesting post thank you.

    I am a reader. I'd love a copy of one of your books thank you.

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  102. I'd love to have my first 5 pp. critiqued. Email me in the newsletter box at www.carolynchambersclark.com

    Thanks so much!

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  103. Sorry I missed stopping in yesterday, Janet. This is an excellent post!!!! Loved your examples!

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  104. Hi Walt! How fun that a judge remembered the particulars of your story!

    You're in for the critique.

    Janet

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  105. Hi Tanya! Back story is important. It's hard to find the right balance. Helps to remember to clean up a dump and sprinkle the back story in. You're in the drawing for a critique.

    Janet

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  106. Hi Fiction Writer. Thanks for your interest in the critique. Hope you'll stop back this weekend for a list of our winners.

    Janet

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  107. Hi Myra. Thanks! Always good to see you anytime!

    Janet

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  108. I always try to sprinkle rather than dump in my story. It helps that when I reread my work, I tend to want to skip over long passages of back story and I know the read would too.

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  109. Hi all!
    I totally know what you mean about back story. I really struggle to keep from dumping.
    Janet, I don't know about a stomach bug going round, but right now we are recovering from the flu. Everyone in the house came down with it!!!
    (Lucky for you, I can't email any germs.)
    Take care!

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  110. Janet~

    I love the salt analogy. If a dish is seasoned correctly, you don't know it's the salt that makes it good. The same is true of back story, if it's done right, the reader doesn't even notice it.

    In my very first attempt at my WIP, I wrote several scenes that had to come out later. In the next attempt, I started the story later, and used some of those scenes as flashbacks. In a critique, the very wise and generous Tina Radcliffe advised me re. one of my flashbacks, "This would be compelling without all the other flashbacks."

    Guess which flashback got to stay when I started hacking at those critiqued pages. Which was good because that particular scene is essential to my story.

    I think I'll remember Tina's advice for ever, and not only because it made my work better. It also made me feel good because I was pretty proud of that scene. And I barely even smarted at the fact that she didn't like the other two flashbacks.

    I was struck as I read this post by how helpful good contest feedback was to you. "Good" not in that the words were complementary, but in the fact that it helped you learn and made you a better writer.

    I am a writer, but I don't have anything right now that would stand up to critiquing. I am also a reader, and I would LOVE to win a copy of Courting Miss Adelaide. I have wanted to read that book since the first time I saw that glorious hat on the cover!

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  111. I'm a reader, not a writer. All three of your books sound great. I loved all the excerpts, but if I have to choose one it will be The Substitute Bride. Thank you for the chance to win this giveaway and please enter my name.
    Barbara Thompson
    barbmaci61(at)yahoo(dot)com

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  112. I have wondered if I have given too much background info or description at the beginning. I need to reread and see. I would appreciate a critique. Thanks.

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  113. Hi bookishqueen. Great point! If we bore ourselves, we know our readers will feel the same!

    Janet

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  114. Crystal, I'm so sorry you're all sick! Hopefully the bug won't stay around long. Take care!

    Hugs, Janet

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  115. Hi Andrea! Contests and critiques are learning opportunities when we're teachable. Not everyone is. So I commend you for listening to Tina. Congrats on that well-written scene!

    You're in the book drawing.

    Janet

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  116. Hi Barbara T! You're in the drawing. Check back for winners in The Weekend Edition!

    Janet

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  117. Hi Jacqui 19. Hope the post helped you see your manuscript with fresh eyes.

    You're in the drawing for a critique.

    Janet

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  118. Hey, Janet, I am SO sorry I'm late, but I have to say that this is THE BEST piece I have ever read on back story in my life. You could teach a course with this one, my friend -- EXCELLENT!!

    LOVE THE LINES: "A shake of salt adds flavor to food. A dump of salt makes food unpalatable. We want readers to “gobble” our stories without leaving a bad taste in their mouths."

    Hugs,
    Julie

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  119. I'm a reader and I'd like to be entered in the contest to win a book. Courting Miss Adelaide sounds good. The food sounds yummy. I really don't like orange juice; I'd drink apple juice or Tropicana fruit punch.

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