I am not talking about "hooking your reader from the first word" or whatever bullshit advice non-writers are pawning off on writers this week. I mean simply that you have to have a real story you're telling and you have to start telling it at the start of the book and tell it all the way through.
A lot of the unpublished manuscripts I'm allowed to read spend a great deal of time at the start just setting the stage, moving pieces around the game board and explaining the rules of the game. None of that is story, usually.
The main way I use to determine if I'm drifting out of actual storytelling and into stage setting is to remain aware of my scenes. Am I writing a scene, or am I writing an essay? If there's no scene, if nothing is being dramatized, then I'm not telling a story and so I'd better stop writing and think about what I'm trying to do.
My book has some good-sized chunks of backstory to work in, and I have worked out a provisional system for giving it to the reader. There are a couple of rules I make myself obey for this:
1. Write in scenes. This is just my overall rule of writing novels.
2. There is no backstory. By which I mean that in general, I simply don't allow myself to talk about what happened; I only let myself talk about what is happening. If there was some incident in a character's past that had to do with his/her motivations or personality, I find a way to have that incident--or a similar incident--happen inside the main storyline, in the "story present." If I can't find a way to do that, then I am increasingly tempted to just not include it at all. We do not have to explain every single thing about our characters. In real life, we meet people where they are and figure them out as we go along.
3. Action before explanation. This is a sort of framework I am using in the current book, that goes sort of like this:
- Dramatized scene begins. Show major conflict of scene.
- Insert necessary background information.
- Finish dramatized scene.
Not only is this how I structure scenes, it's also how I am structuring chapters. It's also how I am structuring each act. It's also how the overall structure of the book works. I'm a fan of nested structures; they make me happier than is reasonable.
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that, especially in the beginning of a book if it's a book being written by me, it's very easy to drift off from the story and describe the world and the history of the world and I don't think that's necessary and I don't think it's a good idea and so I am trying now to write carefully and make sure I'm still telling a story with each page of prose and that's causing me to write more slowly than I'd like and so it feels, frankly, like I'm making no progress at all. I have a large cast and I have to introduce all the characters. I have to introduce them in dramatized scenes. Each scene has to be an important part of the actual storyline; I don't get to have scenes just to introduce characters. I don't get to have standalone chunks of backstory. I don't get to have flashbacks or a prologue. I just have a story that starts with the first word of the book and continues to the final word of the book. Writing: harder than it looks.