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Seven Ways to Wrangle Your Back Story

If you’re like me, you just lo-o-o-ve telling the tale before the story begins. That’s because you care so much about your characters and you can envision where they were when they were three, and you know the whole cast of characters surrounding them at key moments in their lives. These people don’t only live and breathe for you; they’ve got reason for being, and you’re damn well determined to explain that to anybody who’s listening.

But then suddenly, the manuscript is cluttered with flashbacks. It’s dragging with dips back in time. And guess what? Your reader, or your agent, or your editor, is saying to you loud and clear: Here’s Where I Stopped to Rest.

I’ve got seven ways I wrangle my ever-burgeoning back story. Let me know what works for you, Wonder Women, Wonder Men, Wonder Humans & Creatures of Fabulosity!

#1: Back Story Can Be Many Things. Be Flexible.

Don’t define it as full chapters or even a page. Don’t insist on prologues as the only and most obvious place for back story. It can be one sentence, it can be 100, it can be–gasp!–a PHRASE. Yes. Let’s be clear that you can allude to what happened before in your story without making a big deal of it.

See the opening chapter of my latest novel, No Small Thing, at the end of this post, so you can read in bold where I insert bits throughout a present scene of dialogue, whether in summary or mini-flashback sentences, or via the dialogue itself, before and breaking into a couple paragraphs of true back story (scene and summary), and then I return to the main narrative.

My agent, Tara, helped me see that back story carried on far too long in chapter one and that I had to both shorten it and break it up or risk losing my reader.

#2: Do It With Voice.

We won’t notice back story if it’s told with verve, with snark, with anger, with the unique rhythms and diction of a character’s voice and the unique angle of lens. If back story is delivered with a certain point of view, it’s much easier to swallow. Easy for me to say: I prefer to write in first person. But if you’re working the third person, remember that third-person close point of view insists on a careful and direct lens as only the character sees and experiences things. How does the character see their own back story? Remember that as you deliver it.

In other words, if the voice is loud enough, it distracts from the time switch. We don’t care what era we’re in as long as this particular voice keeps telling us the tale.

#3: Ask: Is It Really Important We Go Back in Time?

Sometimes the present just speaks for itself. You don’t always need to hearken back to the original cause, the Prime Mover of someone’s character or fear. It might be better to immerse readers in a full scene. We’re best equipped to ask this question when the whole book’s written, so if I were you, I’d write all the back story, place it wherever you like, and then come back with a big, fat red pen with this question in mind.

#4: Leave Yourself Notes of Yea and Nay.

I’ve got so many questions running through my head when I write, so to not stop the flow, I leave Notes to Self, all the questions about the back story, in various places with yellow highlights. Example: NEED BACK STORY ON DAD’S RELATIONSHIP TO B HERE, or, REDUCE THIS BACK STORY. Just get it all out, then move on, and when you revise, listen to your neon-yellow reminders and that sixth sense you were getting about something missing or something too long.

#5: A Great Scene Cures All.

If you’re determined to take us back in time, do it well. Do it with scene that immerses, that gets the heart racing a little, that makes us live it along with whomever’s taking the journey.

Summary? The “telling” versus “showing” part? It works well if done right with voice and other techniques.

If you don’t know the difference between scene and summary, check out my posts on the key ways to improve both.

Make It Fascinating

Make It Fascinating, Part 2

#6: Worship the Word Count.

When you’re in revision mode, and revisiting your piles of back story (like I am), with a red pen poised like a scythe to wreak much-needed reaping, make it a goal to get the back story down by 50 words or more. Oh, heck, why not 500? Challenge yourself to make it tight as possible.

If you get stuck, see #2 and #5. If you’re doing both of those supremely well, who cares how long it takes to get this part of the story out? (Well, editors and publishing house budgets, or your publishing budget, sure.)

Stand ready to cut hard and unfeelingly at this stage of the process. Remember what the core narrative’s about–the question you ask and attempt to answer–and then let those words go, Marie-Kondo style, out into that good night.

#7  Trust the Process

Sometimes while in an early draft of a novel, it’s tempting for me to stuff back story in and over-explain something, like I don’t trust myself or the reader to “get it.” It’s also tempting to cut all back story in a mass-murder move because you think your story’s suddenly boring and no one will ever keep reading. Here’s a truth: it’s way to early to tell in a first or second draft if this is the case, or at least it is for me.

My process involves really getting to know my characters. They are not pawns in a chess game. They’re people with my goals and plans, sure, goals and plans meant to trouble their waters, but they often surprise me in a new draft what they can do as they seek to be fully human. When I rewrote No Small Thing this year, new scenes appeared to meet the challenge of tightening plot and suspense. Characters replaced one another. And back story got moved all over the place if not deleted entirely. That was I believe my fourth draft of the book (I do lose count) and I’m really glad that a) I did over-explain early on, to understand where Audrey and friends came from and b) I didn’t cut huge sections early on. With enough distance, I was able to cut hard in a later draft and piecemeal back story or remove it entirely.

If you need more meditation on the art of patience while writing, and how I have learned that going “super-slo-mo” is actually okay, check out this post:

Go Super-Slo-Mo Until It’s Time

 

Need a sample of how I integrate bits of back story in a scene? Here you go.

 

 No Small Thing, Chapter One Excerpt

 

“Coach, please! Let me!”

This is my workout before every guys’ basketball game: trotting behind Coach Hale, begging for a place on his bench.

“No.”

I’ve lost count how many times he’s said that to me.

“But I’m quick, you know I can dodge anything!” I’m huffing as I tail him down the athletic department hallway. “How often does the bench take a hit?”

“Audrey, I said no.”

“Coach Azzi says yes!” I’m Coach Azzi’s “manager.” She lets me sit on the girls’ bench and grab footage and audio. The woman gets me.

Silence as he stomps on to the gym. A former Division II basketball player, Coach Hale is only five-eight, but pure muscle, and strikes fear into the hearts of players with ten inches on him. But not me, nine inches shorter. The guy who hung the hoop in my driveway never scared me because I’ve seen a hammer make him cuss a blue streak. The dude knows I’m athletic, and though I be but little, I am FIERCE.

“Come on, Coach! I’ve got health insurance!”

“It’s a huge liability. NO.”

We’re feet from Athlete’s Alley, the tunnel into Gurney Gym, when I toss today’s Hail Mary: “1500 likes in the last hour, and 300 comments last week on the Threepeat show—

Coach spins around. We almost collide, as in my nose to his chest. “We don’t need the media.”

“It’s my SENIOR YEAR!” I holler.

“Your mom would kill me!” he hollers back, and storms into the gym.

Mom: 25 billion; Audrey: 0. I turn and hit the wall with the side of my fist. After all I do, covering his team—three straight years of amazing highlights, interviews, profiles—he won’t grant me this tiny request? “Dude, you NEED me!” I tell the wall.

That’s the real reason he said no: because my mother, Ellen Powers, says so. The guy who bought me my first hoop also buys the Mom propaganda.

Audrey is petite. Audrey is frail. Audrey is breakable.

When I was born, I wasn’t just a preemie: I was a micro preemie. So raw, barely cooked, my skin was blue, sticky, and gelatinous. At 23 weeks and two days old, I weighed less than one pound, 12 ounces. But I prefer 800 grams because it sounds bigger, and no one in America really knows how much that is.

My skin was so fragile and ready to tear, they had to treat me like a burn patient. The nurses wrapped me in plastic to keep me warm. Instead of Mom, IVs nursed me. They said the chaplain had tears in his eyes when he came to the NICU to baptize me, and that my dad had to leave the room. Those first weeks, no one thought I’d make it. Vegas would have put 5:1 odds against me. Maybe it’s good Mom’s not a sports fan or one to worship stats. Because I certainly wouldn’t have made the draft.

 

 

Six Tips for Chapter One Success

How do you make sure people–readers, agents, editors–keep reading Chapter One of your Great American Novel? How do we get them to Chapter Two?

After publishing three works of fiction and after writing (and discarding) several novels, I’ve figured out how to crack the code of success in the first chapter. I love Save the Cat and the Story Engines methods, so I use a hybrid of these two formulas plus some other wisdom out there to make sure these six things happen in Chapter One.

  1. DESIRE. Read through your chapter and mark in red any evidence of a character wanting something badly. What drives the person? What’s the mission here?
  2. SOMETHING WRONG. The Save the Cat method talks about Six Things Wrong for your character in the early scenes. Mark in blue something that makes your character blue/upset/angsty/angry. Have you shown at least one thing wrong with the person and/or with the world before it’s about to transform?
  3. THE WORLD BEFORE. The setting, the landscape, the context, some bit of that must be established to let us know what’s about to go away. Use yellow to shine a spotlight on the situation as it stands–whether it’s a stick of furniture or a satellite view of the landscape.
  4. ARRESTING IMAGE. Save the Cat recommends beginning with an opening image that resonates. Even better if it sums up the story! (Just think: English teachers will make their poor students talk about that symbolism for ages.) Mark with pink something that catches the eye in the first page or so, something that gets us curious and leaning forward.
  5. IRRESISTIBLE VOICE. Whether it’s the perspective or lens on the story, or it’s a resonant, engaging person talking to you, mark with purple the angle and sound and point of view that is unique. In other words, the teller of this tale must be king or queen and rule us for the rest of the pages.
  6. A CHANGE. It’s not the catalyst in my books–but that’s surely coming–and it’s not the Game Changer that the Story Engines method speaks of, but there should be something happening. Mark in green enough of a change, a plot moment that makes us sit up and say, Things are transforming here.

All in a Hour’s Work

 

They say teachers make over 100 decisions an hour. Writers are right up there, too.

Global vs. Local Choices

We face the big plot questions, all those arcs and growth and struggle. There are the back stories of characters that need exploration but not to the point of slowing the pace. I could keep going about the bird’s eye view stuff you always have to keep in mind: the outlines, the maps, the intricate analyses and free writes and imaginings. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes and far more of discarded ones. These are part of the global decisions, big trends that affect many pages, once decided, like dominos tipping. Right now, as I finish the first full draft, my biggest concerns are these elements.

Then there are the local choices, the line edits. Sometimes, not always, you can attack these quickly while trying to bolster the big patterns and trends. The other day I caught myself wondering about a few. I watched how I made some small choices–yet still important ones–and then moved on. I could wait till the first draft is done, but sometimes, digging into these choices now allows me some greater understanding of who my protagonist is and what my story’s about.

How do you navigate and balance global and local choices in your writing process? Share below!

 

Decisions on the Local Level

  • For example, should my character say, “The guys watch us” or “The guys are watching us”?
  • Or how about “the journalism life” or “The Journalism Life”?

For the first example, the choice is this: present tense or present continuous? I went with the present continuous because I want to convey suspense. I want to show a girl alone at a car wash with several guys there watching her talk to another guy. The action carries immediacy and continuity. I convey the ongoing menace and suspense of the girl’s experience. Check out this Grammarly post on present continuous for more info.

For the second example, capitalization conveys importance, precision, and voice. Wendy Redbird Dancing and Minerva Mae Christopoulos, my other gifted, weird, wise girls, they love capitalization and tend toward capital abuse. This is because for Wendy, drama and deep-seated anger must be outed. There’s a lot of low-grade shouting in her head, which capitalization conveys so well (she’s not an exclamation point kinda gal). For Minerva, she often thinks as a teen journalist in headlines, and she’s also socially awkward and extremely intense, so it makes sense for her to push the rules of language.

Does Audrey, the character I’m forming now, need to work her capitals the same way? No. She’s more mainstream, and though she’s also a journalist, she’s more a hash tagger than a headliner. When referencing her mom, however, a very intense and controlling person, Audrey on occasion will label her mom’s actions in capitals. I can count these times on one hand, and hopefully the snark and sarcasm is stronger because for her its rare.

How Local Helps Global

Now I know two things about Audrey I didn’t know before:

  1. She’s facing danger, and that’s part of her gig as a teen journalist. This is not just the stuff of movies; in my interviews with journalists, they have faced some dicey situations. I need to make sure the job gets rendered right and that I add suspense for the reader.
  2. Audrey’s not dramatic like Wendy–she’s more practical and even keel–and unlike both Wendy and Minerva, much more mainstream. Audrey doesn’t fool with certain rules whereas my other characters question and mock them. Audrey’s intensity manifests with intrepid reporting and basketball fandom. And though she’ll eventually flout the rules, as she delves into the corruption of academic and athletic systems, we’ll first meet her playing much of the mainstream game. The grammar game is a nice symbol for this. There are rules there for a reason, and then there are rules (like some of the NCAA amateurism rules) that just make no damn sense.

So these moments of grammatical choice aren’t so little after all. These kinds of decisions can stop the presses if you’re not careful, distracting you, and they can tangle up the bigger process of pattern building, plot development, and character exploration. (Trust, I’m guilty of spending hours on nitpicking a manuscript rather than generating new scenes.) But the more we master language and style, the quicker we can dip in and dip out of the manuscript with these decisions and actually aid the big-picture process. A local choice can resonate up to the stratosphere of global choice.

Stop procrastinating, Lyn. Time to ascend the heights and write on the ladder of plot arc. Time to soar the upper realms of character. Eyes above, with the occasional glance down.

 

Bless You, Beta Readers

There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.

The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Blessing Christ, Savior of the World by Bernardino Luini. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).

I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”

Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.

Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.

Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.

Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.

Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King’s Memorial

He was part of a Movement of hundreds of years long, yet we must always build a Monument to one Man. I wonder what Dr. King would have said about that.

He was a writer.

He was not a drum major but a peacemaker, preacher, and pavement pounder. He was an organizer and a thinker and a dreamer.

As he wrote so well: “…let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”

If you don’t think this speech is for you, read it and think about your car shopping and your response to advertising. Read it and think about your children. Read it and think about yourself. King’s words could have been written on the verge of our recent economic collapse.

I like that in this country, we can edit monuments.

Writing Prompts:

  • What do you believe needs a monument today? What person, movement, place, or thing deserves recognition? Whom or what do you admire most? What will be the inscription?
  • What has too many monuments in our society and needs less attention?
  • Read about the development of the monument–the origins of the idea, the fundraising, the design, the building–and ask yourself what you have learned about monument making in America. You can use sites such as the history as found at the Memorial website and at this Telegraph article. Do more research till you get the full picture, and ask yourself what is “American.”
  • Should the Dr. King Memorial be edited? Other monuments have been. How accurate must monuments be? How much are they about ideas rather than facts?
  • Read Dr. King’s speech, “The Drum Major Instinct,” and write a letter to yourself about where in your life you could be less “all about me.”
  • Read the inscription on the monument (as created in 2011) and discuss why its excerpting is inappropriate or appropriate, just or unjust. What difference does the original context make? Should the visual and spatial concerns of the architect and sculptor matter? Should the spirit of the man who spoke the words matter more?
  • Read Dr. King’s speech and write a letter to a leader or other public figure who could use a dose of the message. Keep Dr. King in mind as you craft your words and tone. Advise this person who influences so many as to how he or she might be a better role model.