reflection

Backstory can become an unwieldy beast if one doesn’t keep it in check. Just imagine editor Maxwell Perkins sitting at his desk, whittling away 69,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s behemoth Look Homeward, Angel. The final manuscript still weighed in at a lofty 544-pages.  Now there’s a writer who–well, just maybe–got a little carried away with backstory.

At the same time, not enough backstory can leave a reader confused and frustrated, especially if one is trying to puzzle out the motivation behind the character’s actions.  For instance, Jay Gatsby’s obsession, and later love, for Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wouldn’t nearly be as tragic if we hadn’t known the little tidbit about Gatsby and Daisy briefly meeting before he was sent off to Europe to fight in the Great War.

[If you haven’t had the opportunity to read these novels, I suggest giving them a chance, if for no other reason than to see how backstory can either help or hinder.]


There are a few things to consider when it comes to deciding how much backstory is appropriate:

Does the backstory tie directly into the scene at hand?

If you find you’re spending more time explaining what has happened, instead of what is happening in the scene, you may want to dial it back.  You don’t want to stifle the story’s forward momentum, or leave your reader stifling a yawn.

Does the backstory help provide a deeper understanding of what’s at stake for the main character?

Backstory needs to have purpose.  As was pointed out with the Gatsby example above, knowing Gatsby met Daisy before going to war helps us understand where the origin of Gatsby’s obsession took root.  In fact, it explains why he’s gone to such great lengths to impress her with his lavish parties that just happen to be directly across the bay from the Buchanan estate.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  Now if we were told Gatsby enjoyed sailing and he spent his Saturday afternoons sailing the West Egg Bay—well, so what?

Is there an opportunity to dramatize the character’s past in some way, instead of dumping an information load on the reader?

The surest way to stop a story in its tracks is to interrupt the scene to explain why something is going on.  Could one show the reader how the past affects the character by inserting a clue into the dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist? Could the main character have a moment of internal thought while driving to his father’s house?  Could the character wake from a dream about the last time he went to a bar with his now deceased buddy? The main goal is to keep your characters active in the story so that the reader stays intrigued by what lies ahead.


Overall, you could say adding backstory is like adding a pinch of salt to a pot of chicken noodle soup.  A little goes a long way.  Give your readers the information they need to immerse themselves fully into your story, but don’t force their interest.  Always, always keep them wanting to read more.

 

handshake

Getting to know your character is sort of like going on a blind date.  You’ve heard great things, but until you meet, it’s pretty difficult to know just what you’re getting.  If you’re lucky, the two of you will hit it off right away.  But more often than not, it takes a while longer to develop a sense of trust between you and your character.

There are several exercises out there to help break the ice between the two of you.  Many writers simply start by filling out a questionnaire, listing everything from the character’s hair color to his/her favorite meal.  These are good for getting down the essentials, but in order to figure out character motivation, I’ve always found it more beneficial to sit my character down and ask the “meaty” questions.

Here’s a list to get you started:

  1. The most painful thing a friend could say about me is _______.
  2. Once when I was alone in an elevator I _________.
  3. Three things I wish I’d never said are __________.
  4. I love the taste of ___________.
  5. I’m willing to fight for ________.
  6. I once caught _________.
  7. One Thanksgiving I __________.
  8. I’ve always wanted to go to _________ because _________.
  9. My father/mother always told me  ________.
  10. My idea of a boring day is ________.
  11. Three things I could never live without are __________.
  12. I want to be remembered for _________.
  13. The most embarrassing thing that ever happen to me is __________.
  14. My biggest regret is that _________.
  15. Thursday nights are good for _________.
  16. As a kid I was known for __________.
  17. When we first got married I realized _________.
  18. Five things you’ll find in my bathroom are ________.
  19. The toughest thing I’ve ever done is _________.
  20. My favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon is ________.

Try to write out as much detail as you can when answering these questions. If these questions don’t work for you, feel free to jot down your own.  The point of this exercise is to get your characters talking.  Their responses may or may not factor into your final story; however, by the end you ought to have a more well-rounded idea of what makes your characters tick.

As an added bonus, this exercise can also be helpful when you’re having trouble getting started on something new because it gives you a chance to let go of the inner critic while you sit back and listen to what your character has to say for him/herself.  You never know where the conversation might take you.

 

pens

 

The pen is the tongue of the mind. — Horace

 

This weekend I found myself on the search for pens.  Not just any ordinary pens, mind you; but, Pilot G2 Retractable Premium Gel Ink Roller Ball, fine line, in the color black, please.  What can I say?  I love the way they balance in my hand.  And the ink—glides like a figure skater on new ice.  My writer’s journal almost groans in ecstasy when I break one out of the package.

Oh, I’ve used other pens—absolutely hate ball point pens.  They skip all over the place.  And don’t get me started on those ones that bleed ink right through the paper.  For our anniversary one year my husband gave me an elegant silver number with my name engraved on it.  It sits in a fancy leather box on my desk because I love him.  The pen, though, too heavy.

Now I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m a bit obsessive.  I know it.  But hey, I’m in good company, especially when you take a look at the quirks some of the more recognizable authors have possessed over the years.

It’s said that Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain had a thing for wearing only white, even after Labor Day.  Poe, of course, wore black.

Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf preferred to stand while they wrote.

Balzac drank at least fifty cups of Jo a day.  Faulkner went for the whiskey.  Be still my heart, Jane Austen nibbled chocolate.

Thoreau and Dickens wrote best after a long jaunt.  James Joyce had to lie flat on his stomach.

Nabokov wrote his novels out in pencil on index cards that he kept in a slim box next to his bed.  Only Bristol index cards and a sharp, but soft tipped pencil with an eraser head on top would do.

And Rudyard Kipling shared my proclivity for the blackest black ink.  I once read somewhere that he fantasized about keeping an ink-boy around to grind him the best Indian ink.  Hmm…

Yes, those quirks and idiosyncrasies make writers an interesting lot, or at least a fascinating case study for anyone in the psychology field.  Quirks or not, what one has to remember is that these writers created an environment conducive to writing and well, wrote.

How about yourself?  What do you need to be the best writer you can be?  Do you need to listen to some Soundgarden to get you started?  Read a few sonnets by your favorite poet?  How about a cup of tea?  Do you work best in your husband’s old college sweatshirt?  Don’t be embarrassed.  Whatever it is, go ahead, flaunt it for all it’s worth.  A happy writer is a productive writer, even when the ink runs dry.

 

Sources:

https://writetodone.com/20-weird-and-wonderful-habits-of-famous-writers/

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/09/23/odd-type-writers/

https://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/9-weird-habits-that-famous-writers-formed-write-better.html

Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves; New World Library; Revised edition (August 24, 2010)

 

 

 

 

secret

Be careful how quickly you give away your fire.  — Robert Bly

 

It’s tempting, isn’t it?  To want to tell someone, that is.  An idea churns away in your mind, characters begin knocking on the door, a few pages get written and hey, they’re not too shabby.  Things start to pull together.  Then the itch hits.

You’re at a dinner party and someone asks THAT question.  You know the one I’m talking about.

“So, what have you been working on lately?”

You fight it for a little while, but before you know it, you’re dishing out the goods.  By dessert, everyone knows about George’s loneliness for his deceased wife and you’re not sure whether the story should open with him sitting at the end of the driveway in his Buick or to have him stand in the kitchen re-warming the meatloaf his wife tucked away in the freezer for him because she knew this day would come.

The next day you sit at your desk and instead of hearing George’s voice, you hear Hannah suggesting you spice things up by giving George a girlfriend or Tom telling you the first-person point-of-view is dead, dead, dead.  You spend the next few hours trying to rekindle the flame of your original idea only to find the tinder doused.

Why do we do it?  Why do we tell others our ideas, our secrets?  Oh, I suppose one could chalk it up to human nature, but perhaps it has more to do with a need to validate ourselves, to hear our friends tell us we’re headed down the right path, that we aren’t wasting our time.  And if they’re really nice, that they’ll be the first ones in line beating off the hoards at your book signing.

Sure, we all crave affirmation.  Yet, we also set ourselves up for being judged prematurely when we expose our raw ideas too soon.  One needs to keep the fire going.  Time is never wasted exploring the depth of your ideas.  Immerse yourself.  Allow characters the chance to tell their stories.  Write, write, and write some more.

Like most things in writing, no hard-fast rules or magic formulas exist to tell you when the time will be right to share your work.  All I can say is that it’s kind of like falling in love.  You just know.

The time will come, trust me.  But, for now, button your lips and get writing.

photo of woman holding book
Photo by i love simple beyond on Pexels.com

 

People did not want to hear about simple things.  They wanted to hear about great things–simply told.   — Jane Addams

What makes a story worth reading?  I decided to conduct my own ‘unscientific’ poll and here’s what the reading public at large had to say:

  • “Oh, it has to absolutely grab me from the first page or forget about it.”
  • “Hmm…good characters, interesting events and of course, some risks along the way.”
  • “I like the kind of suspense that keeps me up at 2 a.m.”
  • “I think it’s important to make a connection with the main character.  I like stories that relate.”
  • “I want a story that’s going to make me sit back and say I never thought of it that way.”
  • “Two words: gripping plot.”
  • “When I get home from work all I want is an escape for a while.  A good story will do that for me.”
  • “I think one of the purposes of a good story is to remind us that life is indeed manageable.”
  • “Stories that begin well, usually end well.”

And my all-time favorite:

  • “Why don’t you ask J.K. Rowling?  I think she has it figured out.”

With writing comes an awesome responsibility, wouldn’t you say?  Just look at this list.  Compelling characters, gripping plots, nail-biting suspense—and oh, make it look au naturale.

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.  The bad news is that I couldn’t get a hold of J.K. Rowling.  The good news is that there are a few things one can do to help heighten the chances that your story will be found compelling from page one.

Have frequent conversations with your characters

Get to know your characters.  Sit down and ask them questions that not only pertain to the story, but also ones that help you understand the passions and motivations that drive your character.  Your readers might not give a wit about George’s favorite meal, but maybe there a difference between how a ‘meatloaf & mashed potatoes’ guy responds to a situation than, let’s say, one who embraces a low-carb diet.  Talking to a character also helps the writer become aware of the character’s voice and body language.  William Faulkner once said he knew his story was working once his character stood up and cast a shadow.  When characters become real people to you, they’ll also become real people to your readers.

Keep the background in the background

Imagine how silly it’d be if we walked around wearing billboards that not only explained our origins, but also in short order listed all the experiences we’ve encountered along the way.  Pretty ridiculous, huh?  The same holds true for your characters. Sure, as the author, you know the whole story, but don’t explain more than necessary.  Ernest Hemingway called it the “Iceberg Theory,” or as it’s sometimes known the “Theory of Omission.”  Basically, the theory states the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface but be made transparent implicitly.  Allow your readers to inhabit your character’s world through action and dialogue.  In other words, ‘show, don’t tell.’

Let your characters speak for themselves

Don’t merely write dialogue, but let your characters speak for themselves.  Listen to what they have to say.  Pick up on the nuances and rhythms.  Write only what you hear.  Allow the character to create the story and never, never, never manipulate a character to make a plot work.  It’s not fair to the character or the story.

Start your story at a critical point

To pique your readers’ interest from the get-go, place your character at odds with something much larger than him or herself by the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph.  What does your character yearn for?  What are his/her needs or desires? What obstacles stand in the way?  What are the stakes? If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Write out of passion

Many times, writers are given the advice to write what they know.  That’s all fine but think how much more exhilarating it is to write about something you love.  If you write about the things that move you, you’ll soon find your readers following you on the journey.

 

What kind of stories keep you reading?  Feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.