Archive | November 2012

Backstory vs. Story

One of the most common bits of advice given to young writers is to cut the first three chapters–this is often good advice. Many a manuscript that I’ve read in contests could have used the first one, two, or even the first fifty pages cut. It’s all backstory, not story. Now, don’t get me wrong–a lot of times the writer needs to have written these pages. Writing helps you get to know the characters, but then you have to ask, “Does the reader really need to know this” and, “Does the reader need to know this in right up front?” Very often, the backstory, but it’s set up stuff. So how do you know what’s backstory.

1-Things that happen before the incident that sets the main story in action all belong to Burn Baby Burnbackstory. In Burn Baby Burn, the main story starts with the heroine finding a half-demon baby on her doorstep. That’s what I want on page one to kick off the story. There are small bits of information that need to be woven in later, but having Zie (our heroine) find trouble on her porch sets the action moving. However, I still needed to know more about Zie and Josh (her partner), so I had backstory to write–but that backstory didn’t belong in the story. (You can read these pages in a free PDF here.)

2-Things that impact the character may be needed in the story–but hold onto them until they are absolutely needed. Again, in Burn Baby Burn, I had information about the characters and how they met, but there were also secrets that each of the characters were keeping. I wanted the characters to hang onto these secrets for as long as possible. Josh, the hero, had to give up his secret earlier than Zie, but Zie’s secret was one she was ready to carry to her grave–it’s a huge moment for her to trust Josh with her past, and so hanging onto this information gave it impact in the story.

3-Weave in what the reader does need to know as if it were a strong spice–meaning keep it to a sentence or three, not a paragraph or three. The key word here is “weave.”  Obviously, some backstory helps the reader into the story. You need setting and some background in order for the reader to settle into a scene. Too little information is like throwing a reader into the deep end of a pool and the reader may leave the story rather than try to muddle through. (Or the reader just may not care because there’s so little to care about.) If you think of your story like a good stew, you want a rich flavor–but you don’t want the first spoonful to overwhelm the reader. Or, if you want to use the metaphor of weaving, think of your backstory as threads. You want threads in the weave, not a big lump.

4-Look for the story to start as close to the start of the main story arc as possible. In a romance, this means you want the main characters on the pages and meeting up and having major conflict issues as soon as possible. In other stories, such as Urban Fantasy, you want to get the reader into the fantasy–and the big issues for the characters–right away. The one way to break this rule is if you can make the writing–and the information–utterly fascinating, go ahead and put in a lot of background. However, this takes a lot of talent and work.

5-When in doubt, start with conflict–start when the main character’s life is pushed out of balance. Any character who is in trouble is pretty much automatically in conflict–that character has to decide what to do next. That’s at least going to give you something interesting for the character to do (and so you have a greater chance of grabbing the reader’s interest). In Burn Baby Burn, Mackenzie Solomon is a demon hunter–so finding a half-demon baby on her doorstep gives this character an immediate problem. She has to make immediate choices–she has a problem in her life (and conflict over what to do next). In the next book in the series, Riding in on a Burning Tire, she wakes to find security from work pointing guns at her–an obvious, immediate problem. Stories that start off with the characters faced with choices and conflict and a lack of balance in their lives will tend to pull the reader in more so than a story that starts with a character getting into a car and going to work and nothing happening.

6-Watch out for using action that is only action at the star of a book. This is one of those double-edged swords–done right, action can give you a great action opening. But there are dangers. If you throw the reader into the middle of bank robbery, the reader has no idea who to root for–the robbers or the cops? If you toss the reader into the middle of action, and the writing is not clear and crisp, you can confuse and lose your readers. Action that is just action might give a movie a big bang opening, but if the writing is not brilliant, this can be boring on the printed page. In general, focus more on the characters who are in trouble–strong characters will better pull the reader into your story.

Where Book Ideas Come From

The question most asked of writers might be: Where do you get your ideas? John Cleese, when asked this, likes to reply that he has a little old lady in Cheltenham who gets hers from another fellow and he gets his from…well, you get the idea. He’s making a point that you can’t really pin down where ideas come from: they come from nowhere and everywhere.

Burn Baby BurnThe idea for Burn Baby Burn came from a reader’s conference (thank you RomCon). A bunch of writers and readers were sitting around talking books and covers and what not, and the penchant for babies on book covers came up…and i said the only way I’d put a baby into a book is if the baby was half-demon and trouble on someone’s doorstep. Well…hun–there’s the idea. Naturally, if you have a half-demon baby, it’s going to arrive on a demon hunter’s doorstep–the job of a writer is to make life worse for the characters. From there the story started its own path.

Now the idea can also be about a character–I once had a dream about a woman watching young girls play on a lawn and wishing they were her girls. That become a story about a governess who keeps ending up with girls who don’t need a governess (A Compromising Situation). But an idea is not enough–and sometimes the idea needs to simmer (not forever, however).

A Compromising Situation

Ideas are launch points which then require a writer to sit and write. Characters and complications need to be worked out. Backstory and motivations need to be developed. If you’re lucky, the characters jump onto the page, ready to play their parts with everything in place. Some characters, however, need to be coaxed–and some need more complications that will twist the story (and the idea) into new directions.

But that idea–like the theme–is a touchstone. It’s the place you go back to when you’re stuck. It’s the phrase that makes you–and the readers–excited about a book (and you need a lot of excitement to finish a book). NY Times Bestselling writer Bob Mayer calls this the Kernel Idea. And, like a kernel of grain, it’s got to be planted, watered, fed, and not overexposed to bad weather–too much exposure will kill anything.

So if you’re looking for ideas–look around you. Look at the people you know, eavesdrop on conversations, get into lively discussions, and pay attention. They’re all there waiting for you.

New Book, New Genre

Burn Baby BurnWriting in a new genre always has its risk–in some ways, you’re starting over. Folks who have read my Regency romances may not like the new book, Burn Baby Burn, which is Urban Fantasy. That may seem a huge jump, but it wasn’t–and was a lot like old home week for me. I started off writing YA Horror stories (which I loved to do). And paranormal/Urban Fantasy has a lot in common with writing Regencies–it’s all about the world building…and the characters. The setting wasn’t hard, either–I grew up in and around LA, and I’m very fond of the place. It’s no longer my stomping grounds, but the City of Angels was a natural backdrop for a series about demons/angels and the folks who are trying to keep them from tearing apart everything in between.

The other fun part of Burn Baby Burn were the characters. Great characters are always fun, and when you have demon hunters, who have to get along with demonic jinn (otherwise known as genies), freelancers in the paranormal gray space, and charming charmers who may just be too powerful for anyone’s good…well it’s all good from a writer’s view. All of this made for a great change of pace for me…which is something writers need at times.

We all need to stretch every now and then and try new things and just do stuff because it’s fun. We all start writing with stories in our heads–it’s just that sometimes you get too caught up in the “what will sell” mode and you forget that you started off this adventure to amuse yourself. If other folks come along with you on the ride, that’s great. But it’s also gravy. It’s the bonus that comes after you’ve written the story and sent it on its way to have its own life.

Cool Gus Publishing has given the book a great cover. So even if folks who love the Regency stories (and there will be more of those) don’t like this book, it should find it’s own audience. There’s also going to be more books in this series–that was something else I’ve been wanting to do.

When you write, you fall in love with your characters. They become (or you hope they become) folks that you just want to hang with. I’m particularly fond of these characters–Zie and Josh, and Marion and Felix. They’re not hard to hang with. So it’s going to be fun to head out with them on their next adventure. I hope others feel that way, too.

And isn’t it great that there’s so many avenues for authors these days to bring books out and try new things, and find just the readers who like those types of books.

Structure is Structure – The Long and Short of Stories

Cat's Cradle

Cool Gus Publishing is bringing out my Regency novellas, starting with Cat’s Cradle and that started me thinking about story structure. I’m a believer that structure is structure–it doesn’t matter if the story is long or short, it still has the same structure. And there is a little more to this than a story having a beginning, middle, and end.

The first thing a story needs is a character (who is the story about)? and a setting. To me, the setting is vital. It influences everything about the story, from the mood to the story arc. And that arc–the main spine of the story–is vital. The story arc is very much like any spine–without it, you have a shapeless mass. The story arc has to address the question–what is the story about?

It’s never enough to just say the story is about a romance, or the glib answer that the story’s about 100 pages. At some point, you have to figure out why are you writing this story? And why should anyone read, or remember, this story?

I’ve read many a manuscript where the story starts off rambling and keeps rambling–this is because the story arc is not yet in place. The story arc gives you an opening (the kick off of that arc), the middle (what needs to happen to make stuff worse), and the end (what’s the resolution that give you the answer to what the story is about).

As an example of this, in Cat’s Cradle, the story is really the hero’s story–it’s about a gambler who has never really staked anything of value. He’s a man in search of something, only he doesn’t know what. It’s a story about assumptions and how sometimes we need to let go of old ideas. It’s a romance, but it’s also a story of finding your place by finding the right person to give you that sense of place. And, of course, it’s about cats and how pets often push us into things that we don’t want to do.

With a spine in place–a story arc–the other bones can fit onto that spine. (A good article on story arc is also posted here.) Then comes the muscle (the meat), and the fun stuff (the fat and the skin and the little things that make the story look good). But it’s the spine that gives the structure, the arc, that carries the story. It’s where theme fits into the story to make sure the story resonates and stand tall.

So next time you’re reading a story–or a book–take it apart and look for the spine and the bones. That will help you learn how to put these elements into your own stories.