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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Also ensure a balance between backstory and the present moment. Backstory should be used sparingly. Did I say that already?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Some 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
This how-to writing book was first published in 1995 but it’s my latest writing book read. Stein is a successful author and respected editor. While it’s a little outdated on the state of the book market, it’s a standout in its genre because it’s practical, technical as well as strategic, well written and inspiring. Stein also covers fiction and non-fiction, while many books do one or the other.
The topics he covers include the technical essentials such as character, point of view, opening, dialogue and how to stand out, albeit in a more strategic way than I’ve seen before (by that I mean he writes about these issues as part of the whole rather than as distinct aspects).
He also offers some different and more strategic approaches such as how to use all of the six senses in your writing, particularity, resonance, love scenes, tapping into your originality, ‘guts’ ad how to revise fiction. His great writing, frequent use of examples, and strategic point of view, and all done in an encouraging way, are memorable. I’ll always find his lessons useful.
Key take outs:
- In the chapter ‘Triage: A Better Way of Revising Fiction’, Stein offers a prioritised approach to rewriting manuscripts. Rather than going sequentially from beginning to end, he offers up a list of issues to resolve beginning with the main character, antagonist, minor characters, conflict, memorability of scenes, motivation etc.. I found this approach very helpful. Even if you don’t use it, it provides a thorough checklist.
- Practice is essential. Practice is good. Practice is normal. “By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve a level of mastery without practice.” So don’t feel bad if you’re not there yet. Just keep working at it. Be open to learning, search for constructive criticism, attend workshops and read read read books like this.
- I yawn at those lists to of questions to ask your character to get to know them better. He has a much deeper set of exercises that I found interesting and much more useful, including listening to your character complain bitterly, having a heated argument with them, picturing them old/young or in an unusual situation, and having a conversation to have with them before sleeping in the hope you’ll wake up with a solution to any story issues.
Score: 10/10 Instructive