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How Much is Too Much? The Art of Backstory

Stack of old books

Backstory is one of those things that can drive any writer nuts. How much is too much? When do you reveal more? When do you hold back? Too much backstory can sink a story—because you’re not moving the story forward. You’re giving background, and while that can be interesting, readers really want the story to keep moving forward not backward. Too little backstory and you run the risk that character motivations may not make sense—or the reader may not care enough to keep going.

There are no right answers about how to handle backstory, but there are some tips to help you with the art of backstory.

Does the reader really need to know this? This is the first thing to ask. Does the reader really need to know the heroine’s puppy was stolen when she was six? Is this just a cool background fact, or is it a vital plot point? (As in the puppy comes back in the next chapter and he’s magical now.) This is a tough question to answer because you usually want to think, “Of course the reader has to know this.” Be brutally honest with yourself. It is quite possible that you—the writer—needs to know this information, but the reader doesn’t. When in doubt, save the backstory for later.

Can you show the reader instead of telling? What you tell a reader doesn’t have the same impact as showing. Instead of telling the reader the hero is a great guy, show him being great. Instead of telling the reader the heroine knows how to knit, show her doing. Look for places where backstory can be revealed to the reader instead of being told to the reader—it will make the story and backstory more interesting.

Does the reader really need to know this now? Sometimes you need to set the scene or the world for the reader. This is very important when dealing with history or alternate worlds. The reader may need to know how magic works in your fictional world. Or the reader may need to know the importance of manners in another age. These may be vital to making the very premise of your story work—and so the reader needs that information right away. But there really is an art to backstory, which brings us to…

Can you weave in the backstory with a just sentence or two? Go ahead and write those three pages of backstory. Go wild with it. Have fun. Then cut it down to just a sentence here or there. Think of backstory as colorful threads that you want to weave in—not as big chunks. Tease the reader with some information without doing a dump.

How long can you leave the reader waiting? This is a great device that requires foreshadowing. If you HINT at your protagonist having some history or issues from the past, the reader is going to start wanting to know more. Drop enough hints and the reader will then wade through any amount of backstory because now the reader is dying to know more. The good news is you can weave this stuff in after your first draft is done—or cut down on it as you edit the second draft.

Can you add the backstory with something else going on? Readers want conflict—they want the story to keep moving forward. Look at some of your backstory and see if you can have it come out at the worst time possible for your character. Instead of finding out in chapter one that your hero hates heights, have him find out in chapter ten when he’s standing on the edge of a cliff and it’s jump or die. If your heroine has some issues with her mother, maybe they can come out every time the two of them are on the phone and the sniping starts over long dead family issues that neither of them can resolve. Look to add conflict by bringing in the character’s past to that scene. The caution here is don’t overdo this…and do foreshadow with hints (and hints means hints—trust your readers and do not beat them over the head with the same information over and over again because you worry ‘they might not get it’.

Is less more, or is more more? When you’re in the middle of any story and writing madly away it’s very easy to lose all perspective. Get the book—the story—done. Set it aside for a couple of week. Then come back with fresh eyes. Now you’ll be able to look at it to see if you need to add a touch more backstory—or if you need to cut back on the backstory. If the scene is dragging pull out some of that backstory. Is the scene a little confusing, time to add a touch more backstory. Another reader can be a great help here.

Can you use dialogue to add backstory? This can be a great device—or a deadly one. Sometimes you need characters to add to the backstory—but this must be done in character and true to the character’s voice. The last thing you want is a character talking in plot exposition—that’s deadly. Nothing flattens dialogue more than making it all about exposition. Layer in emotion to that dialogue. If you have two sisters who are arguing about something that happened ten years ago, let them use the kind of shorthand siblings would use—in other words, Theresa wouldn’t tell her sister, “Remember when you stole my beau from me and asked him to the dance.” That’s too “on the nose.” Maybe Theresa says, “I remember what happened at the last dance—do you think I’m going to ever let you forget what you did!” Now the reader is also wondering what happened and wants to hear more. But here’s another place to go back to the earlier questions of does the reader really need this information—and does the reader need this now?

Is less skimping on detail? Details are what create the world for the reader and put the reader into that world. It is possible to be so worried about pacing—and a slow story—that you end up robbing the reader of a rich and vivid world. This is where the reader needs to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the world—this is where you can weave in a character’s backstory by how that character experiences the world and their emotions. An artist has a different experience than a soldier—someone who gardens sees the world differently than someone who is city born and bred and couldn’t care less about the outdoors. Use the details to show the world to the reader through a character—it is a great place to use bits of backstory to enrich the story.

Is the backstory missing? It’s quite possible that an idea has carried you away—it’s a great setup, or scene, or concept, but is that all it is? Did you flesh out the characters—or did you dump them into an idea? This is where a character won’t really make sense because the motivations are missing due to not having any backstory. If you don’t know your characters, the reader won’t either. This is where you want to know WHY do the characters act as they do—and why a character might act ‘out of character’ as well. This is particularly important for antagonists. It’s not enough to have the bad guy kidnap the heroine—you need to know WHY he would think this is a good idea, and why he is a good guy in his own mind. It’s not enough to have the ex-girlfriend cause problems just because you need that story idea to work—there needs to be backstory here for her about WHY she would do it (and it needs to be more than ‘to get her boyfriend back’—why would she want the guy back? What’s her deeper reasons and motivations? What’s her backstory?) A lot of times, you as the writer need to know this—then you can figure out if it belongs on the page of the story or just as background you’ve developed so that the characters have strong motivations for what they want.

Finally, did you make it interesting? If the backstory is boring to you, it’s going to bore readers, too. Making it interesting means great writing—clean prose, cutting repetition, and really good editing. Making it interesting means compelling information that fascinates you—and the reader. Lean into your strengths here. If you do great dialogue, do more of that to weave in the backstory in an interesting scene with action. If you do great description, use that skill to make the backstory a compelling read.

The good news in all of this is the more you work on your writing—scene structure, story pacing, character development—the better you get at it. But you’ll also find yourself studying other writers and how they handle backstory, which can destroy your reading pleasure. You’ll end up reading like a writer. But you’ll get ideas on how to deal with the art of just enough backstory.

The Story’s in the Details

Every now and then I’ll help judge in a writing contest, and one of the things I often see is that details are wrong or missing. I’ll admit I am a little OCD—I like jigsaw puzzles, and I need the right details to even write a scene. Details matter—a lot in fiction. Why are they so important?

A woman who drives a restored 1963 VW bug is different from a woman driving this year’s BMW, and her attitude about each vehicle says something about her. Does she love her car, name it, curse it, treat it like a moving trash can? A man who owns and uses his grandfather’s pocket watch is different from one wearing a ten-dollar Timex. The details reveal the character to the reader, and specific details matter. If you just have a woman who drives a car, that doesn’t say much about her, other than that she lives in an era when most folks drive. Same goes for a man who has a watch—the lack of details means there’s a lack of characterization on the page.

Details need to show the reader how your characters are different from any others. Too often in romance the hero is tall, muscular with startling (or piercing or arresting) blue eyes. The heroine has strawberry-blonde or auburn or reddish hair with emerald green eyes. In other words, we’ve all read these descriptions so often the characters blur together into sameness. What details make your characters different. Details that could fit into a list (height, muscles or curves, hair color and eye color) are what I call a ‘laundry list’ that don’t help a reader to really see your character. Next time you’re watching a TV show or you’re out people watching, start really watching—you’ll find that what you  notice first are the details that are different. It’s the limp that old lady has that she’s working hard not to show. It’s the large, dark mole on the woman’s left arm, visible because of her sleeveless dress. It’s the chipped front tooth when the man next to you smiles, and you wonder if he got it from a bar fight or playing some kind of sport because he’s got both the attitude and the tan to go either way. The details give the reader a vivid, specific picture in mind.

The wrong details can also derail a reader. Too often I see things like a tall man who rides an Arabian stallion (why it’s always a stallion, I have no idea). But Arabian horses are typically not all that big—put a large guy on one and you might as well have him riding a pony. It’s a funny image, not at all sexy. Then there’s the use of reigns instead of reins—and spellchecker won’t help you with that one. Or the heroine who does a Cinderella and goes from wearing ugly dresses to beautiful ones, but we’re never really clear if it is a Victorian dress with hoops and bustles or a Regency empire gown.

Historical fiction brings its own issues with a need for research, and a tough time deciding what’s enough and what is too much—you can overwhelm the reader with too many details. But I think it’s easier to pull back on this and much harder to weave in enough. (The same actually holds true for emotion on the page—it’s easier to pull back on this with a little editing.)

The trick in all of this is to find the right detail, and that means you need to know what it is that the reader should understand about this character without explicitly telling the reader. An example of this is if you want the reader to understand that a character is understated on the surface, but a dangerous man underneath. This means you might put your character into a faded Yale sweatshirt and baggy Levi 501s that leave room to hide the .35 and holster on his hip—notice these are specific, too (it’s not just sweats and jeans and a gun). Or maybe you want the character to come across as high class and respectable, meaning instead of telling this to the reader, you show the character tugging on her gloves, tying the ribbon to her bonnet at the precise forty-five degree angle that both remains out of her way and yet is flattering, and she chooses a parasol to match her kid slippers in a fashionable shade of Pomona green, and which compliments the stripped gown delivered yesterday from her dressmaker. The reader has both images in mind and is also picking up the clues you are dropping that this woman has money to spend on fashion and is particular about how she wears things. This is not someone throwing on the nearest shawl to dash outside.

All this means you have to spend time thinking about the right details to use, and also some time researching those details. You can also use details you already know a lot about. I’ve written horses since I was a horse-craze kid, so writing about anyone who rides—or about those lovely animals—is easy for me. The details are familiar to me, but I do have to stop and think about making sure I don’t dip into jargon that will leave a non-horsey person scratching their head. Some terms like ‘a sweet-goer’ are self-explanator, but others such as a ‘bog spavin’ could throw a reader out of a story, so again it’s about thinking of the right details and being careful to choose the right ones.

I often think this is similar to constructing a painting. If you work in oils, you have to think about shapes, colors, and contrasts. You have to look at light and shadow, and what to put on the canvas to convey the images you see either in font of you or in your mind’s eye. You have to choose details to put in or leave out with the brush strokes you put onto the canvas. Too much and the painting can become a muddy mess. Too little and the canvas ends with blank spaces, leaving the image unfinished to anyone who views it.

This is where layering can help. It’s difficult to get all the details you want into one pass, or one revision or edit. You may have to do one that is just about putting in the right touches for the setting, and another that is about putting in the right details for just one main character. And yet another edit to put in the right touches for the mood of the scene with weather, scents, the feel of the air, and other details that make the world vivid to the reader. Sometimes you may need to get out in the world to get that right detail. It’s hard to know that a barn smells of leather, hay and horse—a wonderful musky mix—if you’ve never been inside a barn, with the soft nickers of horses asking for some grain as you pass by, or shifting in their stalls, straw crunching under their hooves. It’s tough to know that if you slam a poker down on a wooden box, the vibration is going to travel up your arm unless you do this (yes, I did this for a scene in A Much Compromised Lady because I needed that ‘right’ detail). You might not think about the vibrancy of wildflowers in a pasture—bright yellow, softer pinks, pale purples—breaking like a wave under a summer breeze unless you’ve seen this. Experience—writing what you know—helps a lot. So does enough immersion in research.

Immersion in your fictional world comes from thinking about it, from delving into books about the subject you need to know (there always seems to be something new for a story that you have to find out about—I needed to know the weather in 1815 Paris, and I was happy enough to have been there to know spring can be miserable and wet, with splashes of sudden sunlight between fast-scudding clouds). The right details can also come from talking to people who know an area or a subject, so you can get those specific details that will realize the world for you and for the reader.  

You want to keep looking for those right details—the vivid ones, the perfect touch. It is that one dab of titanium white against aquamarine that makes those colors into a wave. It is the specs of umber against strokes of green that reveal seeds sprouting from grass. It is the right detail that makes your character suddenly different from all other characters, and shows your character to the reader because you got the details onto the page and into your story.

Positive Proofing

When writing, there is one thing you can never do enough of and that’s proofing. I find it takes several passes—and several sets of eyes—to catch all the typos, find the awkward sentences, punch the dialogue, trip over the things that clunk, and sharpen the descriptions. A great book to help you learn to be a good editor on your own work is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown & King. In the meantime, these tips can help.

First off, do multiple edits, looking for different things in each pass. It is hard to catch everything in just one edit.

Do an edit on dialogue. This is the time to cut every extra word—what doesn’t improve the writing will detract. Double-check your punctuation. Keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style handy to look up anything you’re not sure about. Know your weaknesses—if you’re bad with knowing when to capitalize a proper noun, or have a hard time with commas, or don’t know when to hyphenate, Strunk & White can help you

Do an edit just on descriptions. Are you weaving in the senses, or just leaning on visuals? Can you be more vivid and detailed without being overly wordy? Are you showing enough, or telling too much? Look for those “writerly” phrases that may stand out too much—those darlings that don’t really belong. You may have a lyrical passage that throws the reader out of the story and back into “reading” instead of being caught up deep in the story.

Do an edit just on each main character. Is the viewpoint slipping in spots? Does that character’s voice stay consistent to that character? Does the protagonist have a strong arc?

Do an edit just on each scene. Do you have conflict in every scene? Is it building to an outcome?

Do an edit just on pacing—does the story flow and does tension build? foreshadow the ending?

Do an edit just on theme. Do you realize the theme? Do you weave in theme with metaphor and really explore your theme?

Once you think you’ve got all your edits in, rest the story. Give it a couple of weeks or more to become fresh again.

Print out your work for proofing. The brain wants to put in things that it thinks go into place, breezing right past the missing word, the misspelling, and the wrong punctuation. To trick the brain into giving you new eyes, a different perspective is needed. A couple of more things to do is change the color of the paper—go from white to pink or to green—and change fonts. Anything to make the page look fresh to your eyes.

Read your work aloud, and try to get through as much of the book in one sitting as possible. This is very important. If you trip over something, the reader will as well. Mark stumbling places and come back to them later for revisions.

Mark anything that might need a fact check. It might be just checking that you got the setting right, or the historical details, or maybe you got the streets in a city wrong or the wrong kinds of plants for your setting.

Remember that if you rewrite anything, that work needs revision so it doesn’t stand out as “first draft” when everything else looks more like polished third or fourth draft.

When you think everything is perfect, that’s the time to bring in a beta reader or two. This is again about getting those fresh eyes. Have the beta reader mark up where the pacing drags, or where something isn’t clear, or where there’s a plot mistake, or anything else.

Once those corrections are in, you’re now ready for a copy editor to go through it and again flag typos, mistakes of punctuation, and plot holes. And, yes, they’ll be there.

Depending on how many issues a copy editor finds, you may want a clean revision to go through yet another copy editor for fresh eyes to make sure you caught everything.

None of this includes a development edit—meaning having someone look at the story early on to catch issues of characterization or plot or pacing that need major revisions. All this proofing work is done long after you know you have a solid story, with good pacing and a great character arc.

A word of warning here—you can polish and edit the emotion out of a scene. If a scene is working, and the emotion is on the page, be careful with your edits. Do light revisions just to smooth out any mistakes or typos and don’t overwork the scene.

You want to also make sure any revisions do improve the original. It is easy to end up with just pushing mashed potatoes around on the plate instead of making everything more palatable. This is where having that printed version of an early draft can help you—you can compare the two and really see which is better.

All this sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But it will give you a much stronger story if you take the time to do your best to get the story in you head onto the page in a way that flows and make the writing invisible to the reader.

Voice–Your Character & Yours

VoiceI’m linking to an excellent post on Deep POV at Live, Write, Thrive that got me thinking about voice. Writers need to do more to guard their voices–too often I see writers looking for outside validation or trying to write like someone else. Now it’s fine to have those experimental phases–I certainly did. I had my Edgar Allen Poe phase and my Ray Bradbury phase and my Dorothy Sayer phase and my Georgette Heyer phase. I finally wrote enough to start developing my own voice, and I can now look back at my past work and think “at last” because it all sounds like my voice. And like my characters voices.

Character voice can be tough. Some characters show up right away, others have to be coaxed into revealing their voice. Character voice can be there on page one or may not be there until page one hundred. A common mistake I see as well is a writer inserting the writer’s voice into what should be the middle of the character’s thoughts or dialogue–that’s an interruption that can throw the reader. That’s where editing comes into play–and developing the writer’s ear.

This is where I think writers can develop their own voice–in editing. Voice comes out through word choice and through structure of sentences and paragraphs. All that is best tuned in editing. I will often to an edit just on one character to make sure that character’s voice is there on the page–and that I haven’t stepped on that voice with my own. I’ll save my voice for places where narrative is more important, as in transitions, setting up scenes, or places where I may need to slow the pace a touch or weave in vital plot exposition. Character voices need to show up in their dialogue and their thoughts–and that’s where I need to make certain I am not putting in that very clever phrase that I thought up, which doesn’t match the character’s personality, mood, or step on what their attention should be focused on.

An example of this is where the writer says something like “she never noticed the gum stuck to the bottom of her shoe”. Well, if she’s not noticing this and we’re in her POV why is this here? Much more effective to write, “she heard the snick of the gum sticking the sole of her shoe to the polished wood floor–with every step, her face heated, but she couldn’t stop to scrape it off.” Now we’re in the character’s POV.

This is where the phrase “kill your darlings” comes into play as well. We all come up with those oh so clever lines that just don’t fit a character. Wonderful descriptions are great–but they should be there to serve the character’s voice as well. They can be revealing–and not just darling lines that we fall in love with that really need to be cut. Again, we’re back to learning to edit your own work.

Self-Editing For Fiction WritersFor that, I recommend Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers–a wonderful book. The other thing I do recommend is protect your characters’ voices and your own–that means you want to be careful about how much advice you take in from others. Some folks will tell you how they would write a scene–that’s not going to help you. Others will tell you about not liking a character–and that’s actually good if that character is meant to be tough to like. That doesn’t mean you want to change the character. And this means a writer needs to learn what advice is useful and what should be accepted with grace and then thrown out.

Voice matters–it’s what makes a reader want your stories above all others. It’s worth the time to develop and to guard.

Dialogue–What Your Character Doesn’t Say

V for Vendetta QuoteI’m teaching my workshop on dialogue this September, and so it’s a good time to bring up some tips on dialogue. A story can live or die just on dialogue. Bad dialogue will make a character flat and uninteresting, and may even send the reader running from the story–no amount of great action or terrific plot twists will save a story with weak dialogue. But great dialogue can make a reader forget to look for plot holes or poor pacing. That’s because great dialogue is where you characters can shine.

Now, learning to write great dialogue is no easy task. It takes time to figure out how to make fictional dialogue sound better than how folks talk in real life but still sound possible. All of this starts with your characters.

The workshop will go into detail on dialogue–and exercises to improve dialogue skills–but here are a few tips.

1-Get to know your characters. I don’t mean charts or lists, and I mean beyond a few scenes. How does that character lie? What are the verbal habits? Is this person a talker or not? Spend some time away from the story just getting your character talking.

2. Become a habitual eavesdropper. Listen to how real people talk–and jot down notes. Notice how real conversations usually make for terrible dialogue–there are pauses, jumps, repeated phrases and words. It is still useful to pay attention to all this stuff because this is what fiction mimics. Notice how rarely people stick to one topic. Notice slang, and how words are used as leverage. Notice how one person will speak differently to the different people in that person’s life.

3-Close your eyes in the next movie and just listen to the words. Pay attention to how dialogue–and the pauses–are used to reveal character. Listen for the emotional words. Use just your ears to get a sense of rhythm, and so you won’t be distracted by flashy visuals or the actor.

4-Take apart your favorite writers’ works. Yes, this means getting out some markers and marking up the book–ebooks readers also let you mark up books. Pause over the really great dialogue moments and look at how the words are used. Look at word choice, at sentence structure, at paragraphs and how they link.

5-Write a lot of dialogue. Write pages of the stuff. Write just dialogue–fit in any description later. Nothing helps you learn faster than writing–a lot.

6-Get the technical stuff out of the way. Dialogue can clunk with periods in the wrong places, or commas that are missing, or with quote marks that don’t make sense. All of this can trip up the reader. Buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and nail the punctuation so it becomes invisible.

7-Look to give your characters great lines. Think about your favorite actor playing that role–wouldn’t you want him or her to come up to you and gush about having wonderful lines. Let your characters be more witty and better than anything in real life.

8-See how long you can have a character talk and not mention the real topic. This is the art of subtext. Make what the character doesn’t say important. Make the reader want to know what the character isn’t putting into dialogue.

9-Punch and polish, and then polish some more. Great dialogue often comes with revision, rewrites, edits, and then even more edits. Polish those words. Say them aloud to see how they sound. Fall in love with those words and make them wonderful.

10-Keep learning. Some links to help you with that:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Dialogue&Detail.htm

Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

Got Subtext? Writing Better Dialogue

Dialogue: Don’t Let’Em Say What You Mean by Shannon Donnelly

 

OCC Book Buyer’s Best Finalist – Davinia’s Duke

Davinia's DukeI am so behind things–that’s what happens when you spent the summer teaching an EMT-Basic class (you end up reviewing lectures and tests, as if you were taking the class yourself). But that’s done–everyone passed (yeah!). And now I can catch up on new.

Some of the best news is that Davinia’s Duke is a finalist in the OCC RWA chapter’s Book Buyer’s Best contest for novellas. This is delightful not just because OCC was once my home chapter back when I lived in California, but because it’s a contest judged buy booksellers and readers.

So thank you, OCC, and thank you readers and book buyers!

The novella took longer to write than it ought to have–life interfered, and then the story stalled out, and shorter is always harder than longer. It’s also a quiet story–mostly just people on the page talking, which is one of my favorite kinds of stories, but not everyone thinks that in a world where if there’s not an explosion or a big fight scene it’s just not exciting. It is nice to know there are other readers looking for something a little quieter.

Point of View — The Value of Variety

InkyI finished Dean Koontz’s book Devoted not that long ago (wonderful book by the way–I highly recommend it), and it got me thinking about how omniscient point of view is sometimes a neglected art. The POV, by the way, is expertly handled by Koontz who uses the point of view–changing/shifting and swapping–as only a master can. (How lovely to have the dog’s POV–actually, several dog’s POV–as a main element in the story. The story wouldn’t have worked without that.) And that left me wondering if it really is a matter that omniscient POV can be tough to pull off gracefully.

Now…first person is easier in some respects. One person, one point of view, and that’s that. However, I’ve read really weak first person that gets stuck in too much I…I…I. The best Urban Fantasy pulls off great first person ( Rebecca Roanhorse springs to mind–fabulous books and great writing that pulls you in).

Then there’s third person, most commonly used for romance, since it lets you swap between characters but you can still do deep POV. This is my preferred way to write viewpoint. However, I’ve often dipped into first person for a scene and then switched it over to third person to get that deeper point of view. I find this lets me dig more into my characters’ emotions, which is important with any romance (or almost any novel).

But I’ve heard from young writers that they’ve been bashed when using omniscient, and accused of “head hopping” which is not really a valid critique if you’re using omniscient, which can be a powerful tool.

I think part of this is a stylistic choice. Urban Fantasy–first person. Thrillers or suspense–omniscient. Mystery–pretty much first person, but some will go for third person. And romance–third person, except for those break-out books that dare first person, but rare to find omniscient unless you step back in time. I’ve been enjoying the reissues of Elizabeth Cadell’s books which are a delight, and were written decades ago when a novel was a novel and she’s not shy about mixing up point of view, as well as putting in romance, suspense, mystery, a murder in some, and even paranormal if the story goes that way. A true story teller with a gift.

All of this boils down to what does the story need? What’s the writer’s preference? And how is the story best told. Thankfully, with self-publishing the world seem to be getting back to a good story well told, and “the rules” can be bent to suit the tale. It’s about the writer using their skills to the best purpose. Which is how it should be.

The indieBRAG Medallion

Davinia's DukeDavinia’s Duke–my most recent Regency romance novella–has been awarded the indieBRAG Gold Medallion. I’m delighted by this–it is my second independently published book to earn the medallion, which is awarded based on ten categories. This award is a boost for authors who publish independently–promotion is always hard to come by.

The other thing that is wonderful is the award encourages independent writers to make sure they have good editing, and good copy editing. Again, both those things can be difficult to come by. A good editor will improve the work without messing up the writer’s voice. A really good editor can also point out glaring problems that really do need to be fixed–pacing problems, plot holes, or just stuff that doesn’t make sense. Let’s face it, we all get lost in the woods at some point and need someone else to point out a better path.

Copy editors are then just as important–not only to catch the typos (the ones that hide from your eyes because your brain insists on making the correction in your head and not on the page), but to also finish untangling things that crept into the story.

I had very good editing from Leigh Kaye, and a great copy edit from Red Adept Editing, and a cover that fit the story from What the Hay Designs, which all goes to show that a book needs a team behind it, and not just a writer.

I also think that it is the writer’s job to first produce as clean a story as possible in the very beginning–and I used some beta readers just to make sure the story worked. My philosophy is that as the writer, I should know where the flaws exist to begin. If the early readers don’t catch them, then the magic act has worked. If they do catch the issues, then it’s time for revisions. And I like to get all those revisions done early. Because, guest what–yes, every new word on the page introduces problems for more plot holes and pacing issues and other mistakes. First draft is always first draft and needs another draft or two for some polish. However, the caution there is that it is possible to polish out the emotion on the page–so that’s where experience helps and some caution.

So…here’s to a nice, shiny gold medallion on the book, and to independent authors who publish their works! May we all strive for great stories with great characters.

First Ten Pages

As a writer, one thing you can depend on–reader attention spans have gotten shorter. This means you have to hook the reader faster–and that means starting the story on page one. What is the story?

The story is where your protagonist is faced with a problem–a big one that’s going to carry the protagonist through a character arc of trial/errors, defeat and then victory (or tragic downfall). You want to establish just who is the protagonist, what is the problem, what’s keeping the protagonist from an easy solution, and you want to set the tone of the story (is it comic, dark, romantic, or something else), and establish the world.

Here’s what I like to keep in mind for those opening pages:

1-Who is the protagonist? In every story, you really one one character who has the main character arc. Yes, even in a romance, you might have a couple who falls in love, but one of them really has the major growth, and that is the protagonist.

2-What’s the big problem? I want this to be on page one if possible, but it must be within the first ten pages. This is part of the big hook–a big problem that will make the reader think, “How is this going to be solved?” I want conflict right away, and that doesn’t have to be a gun fight or a car chase, but it does mean getting the characters talking and doing as soon as possible.

3-How is the reader going to bond with this main character? You don’t have to have the protagonist saving kittens on page one, but it sure helps to get the reader on that character’s side if you give the reader something. The something can be an admirable trait (humor in the face of danger, intelligence, charm, or a mad skill), or it can be an action undertaken that puts the reader on that character’s side, or it can be simply an understanding of the character’s motivations. Understanding helps with sympathy.

4-Where and when are we? This is one I often see skipped over. The where and when are important to establishing both mood and setting. Readers want to be immersed into a world, and this is done by layering details of that world so the reader experiences it. Or, as Chekhov–the writer, not the Star Trek character–once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing takes time to put the reader into the world. What are the smells? The sounds? What time of year is it? Are you showing the heat, or telling the reader about it? What details better build the mood? What details reveal the character to the reader? Details matter–and the right details are vital to making the world vivid. I want the reader to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the world right away, and doing so within a character’s viewpoint can help bond the reader to that character (which is why it is so important to start off with the right character as the protagonist). 

5-What’s the overall tone of the story? If I want a light, comic romance, I’m going to go for a setting, a scene, and a situation that gives me the material I can use to set the tone. I am not going to start with a funeral–not unless it’s dark comedy. If the story is action-adventure, then I want that on page one. If the story is paranormal, I want the weird on page one to help hook the reader. Don’t hold back–the reader got a promise from the cover blurb and title, but those first few pages is where a reader will decided to settle down to the story or not. Know what you want to deliver and get it up front. Tone comes from word choices, from the setting, from the viewpoint you use, and from what you have your character doing. Again, it’s all about getting the details right.

6-What are the stakes? This is another one I often see overlooked. For something to matter to the reader, the reader must know the potential cost to the main character. What will the protagonist gain from achieving the big goal? What will he or she loose if failure is the result? If the reader doesn’t have a clue about this, then why should the reader care about the outcome? Let the reader know up front that there are high stakes (and later on, you’ll want to raise those stakes even more).

7-Where is the protagonist going to end up? I want the end to mirror the opening, but to do so in a way that shows the protagonist’s growth (that the protagonist has indeed really changed and come out the other side–the old self is dead). This means I am often thinking of the ending at the same time I’m thinking about the beginning of the story. However, not knowing the ending shouldn’t hold you up from starting a story. It just means you need to keep in mind that you may need revisions to the opening once you get the ending written. Keep it fluid.

I know writers who think, “I’ll hold this back because I want to build anticipation.” Good luck with that–you are just as likely to lose the reader. Or you may think, “But the reader really has to know all this background about the protagonist.” No, the reader doesn’t need to know backstory or setup–the reader needs the story to start. Save your backstory until the reader really, really, really needs it. A good guideline is keep any background to one or two sentences, not one or two paragraphs unless you can make the writing utterly compelling.

Finally, don’t get stuck on editing the opening. Get it down and get going–you can always come back to it later. You may find out, too, that where you really needed to start the story was in chapter three, but those first two chapters at least got you writing.

 

Writing Workshops 2020

UPDATE–2020 is almost full!

February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW

March 16 – April 12, 2020 Show & Tell: An Interactive Workshop, OCCRWA

May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW

June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA

August POV: It’s More Than a Point of View, YRW

September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA

October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW – NEW WORKSHOP!

There also might be a workshop coming for November!

I’m starting to plan writing workshops for 2020. It was nice to take a year off in 2019, but I find I miss the interaction of the workshops–it’s enjoyable to help other writers find their path.

So far, I have scheduled:

  • February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW
  • May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW
  • June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW

I’ll be adding a few more, but in the meantime, for anyone interested in taking a workshop, here are a few tips to get the most from any workshop:

Interact. This may seem obvious-and I’ve lurked in a few workshops, too–but I find that those who ask questions and post exercises get the most from the workshop. You may have to clear the decks to participate. It is hard to juggle too many things all at once, but it can give you better value for your time.

Don’t worry about your ideas. I’ve known many people who are paranoid about ideas being stolen. What I’ve found is that if you give the same idea to two writers, you’re going to have two different books. Don’t sweat the ideas. It is your voice that matters. And if you are still worried, do the exercises with made up stories–it might even spark a new book.

Make mistakes. A workshop is a great place to experiment and learn. I find many people, however, come in with the idea of ‘doing everything right.’ That actually won’t help you learn anything. Use workshops as a place to try new things, to push beyond your comfort zones, and to make mistakes. You’ll get more from the workshop by doing so.

Have fun. Many folks come into workshops with grim determination (this goes along with not making mistakes). Again, workshops are a safe place to let loose, try new things, and be creative. They are places to reconnect with experimentation, which can often get the creative juices flowing.

Use what works for you. In any workshop, if you come out with one great thing learned, that’s a positive. You will find that every writer has a different process–including you. This means what works for one writer may not work for another. This is okay. If something doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to shoot down the idea–just don’t use it. Take what does work, and feel okay about abandoning the rest.

Try new things. If you’ve never written first person, try that. If you’ve never written third person, try that instead. Try out new techniques. This goes along with making mistakes. Yes, what you try may not work, but it may lead to new discoveries.

If you don’t post, do the exercises at home. I am a great believer in writing exercises. I’ve used them to discover my own comfort zone for what I want to write. I’ve used them to improve my viewpoint control, to work on dialogue, to do better narrative. Writing exercises to me are like warm-up for a dancer–they’re vital to improve technique. All my writing craft workshops include exercises–and the writers who get the most from the workshops do them and post them for feedback. However, even if you don’t post the exercises, you will learn a lot by doing them.

And that’s it–some tips on how to get more from an online workshop, particularly one that I might teach.