Back Story. Should you or shouldn’t you?

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Back story is difficult. It’s essentially what the writer wants you to know about their character – the who and why – but what the character them self doesn’t get the opportunity to tell you.

Some writers and editors say cut it out altogether because it’s telling (not showing) and interrupts the flow of your story by taking readers out of the action.

I’m not of that view, but if you’re going to use it, here are some ideas on how to make it most effective:

  1. Break backstory up into short paragraphs or even sentences such as asides. That way you’re inserting interesting tidbits as the story moves on rather than great chunks of history that make readers fall asleep, or worse still, put your story down for good.
  2. Be sparing. Decide what it is you really need to say about the character. This way you can pare back four paragraphs of backstory into one concise, powerful and to the point paragraph or less.
  3. Pace your backstory so it’s eked out over the entire story rather than appearing in one chapter early on, which is a real trap. That way you’re using it to build and reveal character slowly.
  4. Also ensure a balance between backstory and the present moment. Backstory should be used sparingly. Did I say that already?
  5. Link backstory to action. Maybe your character is having a crisis of confidence so you flashback to an incident or summarise their family history to explain where this behaviour came from.
  6. Ask yourself if instead you can include backstory by having your characters say something to another character. That way the reader learns about their history but in the context of the present moment.
  7. Make backstory in deep point of view,  not authorial. It needs to be in your character’s voice with their emotion so it’s meaningful and not a history lesson.

I’m off to cull and disperse more backstory in my MS. Good luck!

How to write again after a break

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For whatever reason you’ve had a break from writing. Perhaps life happened, you had a holiday, you felt burnt out or were just sick of your own words. Writing breaks can be good as they can:

  • Re-energise and refresh your writing enthusiasm
  • Give you a new perspective 
  • Re-inspire you
  • Allow your subconscious to solve writing challenges
  • Make you miss and remember why you write
  • Heal or prevent burnout

But how do you get back into it? The page seems daunting. You re-read what you wrote before and you aren’t sure if you can write that well again (It was a fluke. Not!). Or perhaps you don’t like what you wrote and it hits you that there’s more rewriting to be done.

Here are some ways to get back into it:

  1. Do morning pages, even if only for a few days or a week. They really are the way back into creativity versus rote writing. I’ve written about them here.
  2. Just do it. Take a breath, sit down (or stand if you’re like me) and begin. It may not be as bad as you think.
  3. Write something, anything to get your juices flowing again. A journal, a short but rich descriptive piece about your cat or big toe, a room or people you’ve watched in the street. A few paragraphs will do.
  4. Copy a page from one of your favourite author’s books. This is always a good way to get our writing going no matter whether you’ve had a break, need inspiration or want to take your writing up a notch. It’s a good way to learn from others you aspire to.
  5. Don’t forget to read good writing. That’s always motivating.

Don’t forget to have fun. You write for a reason, because you want to, you need to. Remember and honour that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One writer’s rules. What are yours?

IMG_0474.PNGSome of mine off the top of my head include:

  • Write even when you don’t feel like it. Often you can turn that around
  • Write regularly
  • Trust YOUR writing process, no one else’s
  • Sometimes down time is writing too e.g. problem solving, fermenting characters, problem solving
  • Writer’s block means something is wrong. Listen, learn and overcome
  • Constantly challenge yourself to improve
  • Get feedback for your work from supportive people, experts perhaps or a writers’ group
  • Read, read, read good writers inside and outside your genre as well as writing books. INVALUABLE!
  • Write for you, not for anyone else or fame or money and so on
  • That said, your drafts should move from writing to get things out of your system out to considering your reader
  • Enjoy writing. Again, if you’re not, look for what’s going wrong and change that.

Writing multiple books at the same time

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Should you write multiple books at the same time? Perhaps you have ideas and characters bursting out of you. Or you have two or more stories of equal importance.

I believe it’s possible under some circumstances to write two manuscripts at the same time, but with some clear boundaries.

That said, there are circumstances where your writing energy would be better spent getting one project to a certain finished point first. How do you know?

If you can’t stop yourself from writing more than one book at a time, here are some guidelines:

  1. Your manuscripts must be very different. Perhaps one could be non-fiction and one fiction. Perhaps one could be crime and the other literary fiction. This way it will be easier not to diffuse your writing energy.
  2. Your manuscripts must also be at different stages. For example, you could be having a break from a first draft manuscript while your beta readers are looking at it or you’ve put in the drawer to get some distance. Alternatively, one could be at the plotting or first draft stage with one and on your third rewrite with the other.
  3. Make sure you have the energy for each story. If not, then go back to your priority story and let the other sit for a while. Trust that it will be developing in your head as you work on your priority manuscript.
  4. Your stories are part of a series. In this situation, you might find it natural to work on more than one part in the series, as long as you have a clear idea where they’re going and one doesn’t constrain the other.

But if like many people working on two manuscripts means you’re diffusing your energy, there are ways you can keep your non-priority project alive.

  1. Keep an ideas book and jot down your ideas so you don’t lose them. Keeping them on the back burner doesn’t mean you can’t develop them. Often they are stronger for this.
  2. You can even develop your plot and characters so that when it’s time to write this story you have a lot of preliminary work completed.
  3. You could also do research while you’re working on your priority manuscript. Again, more work will be done so you hoe straight in to the next book when the time is right.

Good luck fellow writers. Remember, never never never give in. Keep on learning and improving.

Should you write every day?

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I’ve been tussling with this one for a while. Some people are happy writing when the mood takes them and produce plenty of work they’re satisfied with. Others find weekly word quotas work for them. I thought I was one of those people. But if that’s the case, why did I struggle to get back into my manuscript after a weekend break?

Over the last two weeks I’ve attempted to write every day, which I largely managed except for one day. Here are the things I discovered:

  1. Writing is a committed relationship
    When writing a story, whether fiction or creative non-fiction, it’s as though you’re in a long-term relationship with your characters and story. By dedicating daily time to spend with your work you’re remaining connected. That means it’s easier to pick up where you left off the previous day. Your work is fresh, alive and growing, like a plant you have to water daily for it to thrive. Also, the characters and story stay with you, which means you’re more likely to be working on them at a subconscious level. It’s all about maximising your flow.

    The other point about writing being a committed relationship is that if you treat it well like you would a loved partner, your writing becomes less like work and more like fun. With your story and character connection strong, you’re happier to nurture and spend time with them. This has to be a productive thing.

  2. Set time aside, even if you don’t write
    By setting time aside every day, be it half an hour or two, you’re allowing the possibility of writing to happen. You’re receptive and open to the possibility, like you’ve put the kettle on or wine bottle in the fridge in anticipation of a good friend’s visit. This is about giving your characters permission to speak and allowing your story to move forward as it needs. Perhaps they don’t turn up on the day, but by creating the space you’re extending a welcoming hand. You never know what might happen.
  3. Form the habit
    There are loads of myths out there about how many days of repeating something it takes become you form a habit, but my research showed the correct number is sixty-six. If writing becomes a habit, you’re more likely to do it regardless of your mood or circumstances or other forms of resistance. Do first, think later.
  4. Write little and often
    You’ve probably heard the maxim that goes something like, ‘Don’t write a lot, but write often’. I’ve been doing a lot of this—an hour’s writing, half and hour of something else, another half an hour of writing and so on. For me it takes the pressure off having to sit down for hours, taking on large chunks of work, big themes and major events etc.. I can attack my work in bite-sized pieces and come back refreshed and willing to write the next bit.
  5. It feels better
    Writing is an outlet and a purpose, and on the days I write I simply feel better. I feel more me, more grounded, more satisfied. I’m not sure I’ll write every day, but most days seems to work well for me at the moment. Try it for yourself.

How long’s a piece of string or how many REWRITES should you do?

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You thought your novel was finished. Did you send it out to publishers who rejected it? Or did you put it away for a while like you’re supposed to and realised months later it needed more work?

What to do? This is the point where plenty of people self publish. If you’re convinced — and others in the know are too — that your novel is ready, then go ahead. But if you see problems with your manuscript and are serious about your writing (as in you want to continually improve it), you have other options.

You could shelf it. You could see your story as a learning experience and move on to the next project with a sense of liberation. On the other hand, is there a voice in our head niggling at you to keep going until you get it right? Perhaps your story is too good to let go or you’re simply stubborn that way.

1.  Should you rewrite?

Recently I’ve been considering whether to rewrite my first novel again after already having rewritten it twice. I’ve had six months away from it, which has given me a new perspective on its strengths and weaknesses. 

There might be things you can learn by rewriting and improving your novel. For example, in writing my new novel I’ve been working hard on improving my style and other aspects of craft, which I could apply to my old story.

When discussing this with a friend, however, they suggested that after three versions and much time, I should give the old story up and move on; I should focus instead on finishing my current novel. Are they right?

2.  When should you let your manuscript go?

There are situations when you might consider giving up your novel such as:

  • You can’t finish the story, it ran out of steam and there’s nowhere to go
  • You’ve lost your passion for it and you can’t get it back even though you’ve honestly looked at everything that might be blocking you such as structure, style, voice, character etc.
  • It’s just not working despite having rewritten it umpteen times. Perhaps you’re too close to the story or you’re being held back by the first draft, which you wrote when you were less experienced
  • It’s destroying your love for writing after many attempts at rewrites. Ask yourself, is it worth it?
  • You’ve put it away for months, tried to rewrite it and you have nothing more to give. Your story is dead.

I’m not at the point where I’m ready to let go of my first story. So what now?

3.  How to rewrite your story for the umpteenth time and not lose your will to write:

  • Apply new craft skills such as  improving dialogue, heightening conflict, adding nouns and verbs, creating a compelling first page, showing not telling and so on. Really get into the words and challenge your grasp of technique. I love this stuff, even if it’s hard. It keeps me from getting bored.
  • Change your manuscript sufficiently so the process becomes engaging again. Don’t just edit, which is where you tighten your manuscript by moving line by line from the beginning to the end. Rewriting involves meatier processes like adding, subtracting or deepening characters, making structural changes such as moving chapters or the order of events, and cutting large sections. Rewriting involves prioritising problems by issue, not fixing the smaller stuff in a straight.

I’ll let you know how this goes in six month’s time. I’m encouraged by author Richard Flanagan’s struggle with his Man Booker prizewinning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which took him numerous attempt over many years in various formats before he created something he considered publishable. The story was problematic, I suspect, because it was close to him, which is my challenge too.

My only decision now is should I burn/trash every single earlier version like he did before starting afresh? This sounds dangerous and scary, but possibly liberating. What do you think?

Writing Book Review – The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

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Another oldie but goodie is Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. Its good less so for technical advice but strong on how to deal with the roller coaster ride that is writing from the point of view of an experienced editor.

Lerner helps you sort out what kind of writer you are, and therefore what strategies you might need to invoke to get that manuscript finished, how to deal with rejection and has some practical advice for what editors are looking for and what publishing is like for authors. It’s done with compassion and humour.

Key take outs:

  • Editors see themselves as de facto therapists in that their ‘author presents a set of symptoms as clearly as a patient visiting a doctor…When an editor works with an author they cannot help seeing into the medicine cabinet of their soul.’
  • She has many great quotes, including this one from Don DeLillo: ‘The writer has lost a great deal of influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way?…This is the perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead centre of things…The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.’
  • I’m not alone, there are other writers out there like me. Writing is hard for many people and that’s normal. Phew!

Score: 8/10 Reassuring