Kill That Back Story…Says The Village

My writers’ group has told me in no uncertain terms to kill that back story that currently serves as the opening to my new novel.

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But the other night, I couldn’t quite believe my trusted critique partners. No, the voice of habit and comfort, never mind a fond memory of How the Muse Struck Me, was wa-a-a-a-a-y louder than they.

As I’ve been prepping my manuscript for their critique this week, I’ve stared lovingly at my opening chapter, a back story tale of the protagonist in fifth grade. The history of how the poor thing was bullied–how in the world can I leave that out?

The main action of the novel will take place in ninth grade, when the protagonist vows to seek revenge–but no matter, no matter, the back story tale is just so clever, so well-written, so full of protagonist voice, how could I ever move it from first place?

You see, the Muse brought me the first lines of the character’s voice, they came like a revelation, so OF COURSE they should be the first words of the novel, right?

And don’t readers need to know about the long-standing enmity before we see the ninth grade scenes? Won’t the reader feel the pathos of the poor little 10 year-old character and the story will be the better for it?

My head was so full of these rhetorical questions–in other words, the vote to keep the back story had already won the argument–that I couldn’t move forward. Then it hit me: Post the question on Facebook and see what the people say.

At first I wondered if it was just another one of my procrastination tactics, me refusing to face the hard work of drafting. But I headed into the virtual village anyway.

I wrote, Begin with back story, or jump right into the action? That is the question.

Bob: Only if it’s a prologue, and I’ve been shooed off of those.

Lauren: So many of my favorites start with action in the first chapter, that I lean towards that side. But that’s not to say that there can’t be backstory as well. Find a situation to put your character in that allows them to tell a part of their story as the action develops. Just a bookworm’s two cents.

Karen: Action…plenty of time for backstory later.

Jamey: I do love me some backstory, but I think that might work (at least for me) if it’s doled out bit by bit in the story…This makes me think of when we watch older movies. The credits came before any action at all. And now it has to start with a bang.

Tara: “I will destroy this mean girl.” That’s a pretty darn great first line to a book if you ask me. Flashbacks to the history as she goes would prob work.

The people spoke, and finally, I was ready to listen.

It’s not about my not trusting fabulous critique partners, Stephanie and Jen. They steer my prose well so often. It’s not about my not knowing modern storytelling strategies that work well–because I do. I think one of my issues is that I can’t always define my genre and in this limbo land, I try to be both old school and new school. I write commercial fiction, with a literary twist–but not full-on literary and not straight genre. Since I straddle the lines, those fast-dissolving lines that perhaps never were to begin with, I confuse myself sometimes wanting to be all things to all people, which is a way of giving myself a pass Don’t box me in because there are no rules. In other words, an easy way out.

Not so with writing. What does the audience want? is a question you can never ignore. You can answer it myriad, creative ways, and the voice of the people can set much-needed strictures. Nuns fret not, remember, in their narrow convent rooms; Wordsworth tells me so. Limits are a good thing.

So I got back to work on Chapter 1. And suddenly, I started asking more questions of plot events I’d taken for granted. Why didn’t Mean Girl Carli’s secret get more play? Why didn’t Carli ever directly threaten Minerva, the protagonist? What if they had a scene together? Does the pain of fifth grade seem like centuries ago to a ninth grader, and why should the reader care anymore than Minerva about that fated day, circa age 10? Suddenly my sacred manuscript suddenly looked moth eaten, a Swiss cheese of plot holes.

The new chapter might fix this. I don’t know; it’s only draft one. But if we are going to write novels in this revolutionary time of self-publishing, we must take heed of what the people say, else become part of the supposed “tsunami of crap” that would-be authors unleash on the web, or, lost in the hubbub, the roaring noise of too many voices.

Last thought: if Salinger, Lee, O’Connor, or Munro (four of my favorite authors) had used Facebook, would their writing be better? I’m not saying it would. All I know is, I needed it yesterday for my creative process, and it kickstarted me out of an idling path and revved my engine for better plotting going forward.

Now I have a new chapter called Cornered by Carli’s Cartel. Clearly I’m having too much fun with alliteration. The inspiration came from the crowd, and I’m thankful for it.

Where do you get your inspiration when you’re trying to break through a writing block? 

Focus, People; Focus!

“If Mark Twain had Twitter, he would have been amazing at it. But he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to writing Huckleberry Finn.”

— Andy Borowitz

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Despite the best intentions with my writing, I’ve become this wandering, forgetting, unproductive woman. This woman with adult-onset ADD. Check out this charming, silly British video and see if you recognize yourself. For anyone older than 35, ask yourself if you used to be different. You know, able to concentrate for longer than 10 minutes? Ah, the good ol’ days.

The kitchen timer is working for 30 minutes at a time; no worries there. Bits of writing are getting done. But facing my unfocused behavior and my relationship with Facebook and other modern distractions means I’ve had to try other strategies.

These tactics worked this week to keep my focus:

  • clearing my desk (not my office) of clutter. This means grabbing everything in sight and tossing it on the floor. This is key because if you start cleaning, two hours later you’ll have a clean office. But you won’t have writing. Writing is more important. And when I can see nothing but my keyboard and the screen, the way is clear and the words will flow.
  • locking out the cat. I felt better when I learned from my writing partner I’m not the only one with an obsessive cat. Sonny (blog mascot, sure, but 100% feline diva) knows just how to emit babylike cries to break concentration and paw me with such plaintive looks I’m convinced I’m the worst cat mom, ever. So I turn up the music, lock the boy out, and let Sonny do whatever he wants outside my domain.
  • making a checklist. My problem is, I’m rushed with so many ideas, I’m afraid I’ll lose them. So I jot them down fast as I can on random pieces of paper (thus the desk clutter) and I also make a big list of All I Want to Do. Then I get back to writing. 
  • starring priorities on the checklist. Much as I want to do it all, I have to choose. As mystery author and freelance writing business expert, Hope Clark, writes, “Pick one project that will represent you well in 2012. Then center your world around it.” Hard as this is for me, I remember when I’m avalanched with ideas to pick the priority. YA fiction. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT. So when Sarah gets back to me on my most recent draft, you can bet I’ll drop my short stories and next education book idea. And though I’ve been picking at some short stories these last few weeks, I know I need to get back to my YA dystopian novel project ASAP. (Am very excited about that one, by the way.) But you get the idea; I have dreams of being a Renaissance woman but I’m more of a Mistress of Mishmash, a Hit or Miss Gal Trying to Do Too Much. And the only way Wendy’s story got written was by getting up daily for six months and doing nothing else first save make the coffee. Nothing got in my way, not even Sonny. 
Do what Hope Clark says. She just released her mystery, Lowcountry Bribe, a labor of love for many years while she built a business teaching writers how to get funds, find publishing venues, and keep focus. If you don’t already subscribe to her Funds for Writers newsletters, check them out. It’s been yet another ongoing strategy I’ve employed–the encouragement of a fellow writer who doesn’t give up and doesn’t make excuses.
How’s your focus? If it’s a little fragmented, take a breath, skim some survival strategies, and get Hope in your inbox.  
Writing Prompts:
  • Which social networking site has you in its grip? And not in a good way? Write about the high it gives you and estimate how much time you spend on it per day. Ask yourself these questions: 10 years ago, what were you doing with the time you now spend “networking”? What are you doing on these sites that matters, meaning, are you connecting and comprehending, or are you bragging, gossiping, ranting, or snooping? How can you use the best of social networking to achieve your writing goals? How can you limit your time on these sites? When you think about your life, how do you want to spend your time? 
  • What is your number-one distractor when you’ve sequestered yourself for writing? Name its causes and its remedies. Make your list and implement them at your next writing session. Inform the irritants (your cat) that you won’t be bested or disrespected next time around. 
  • What is your number-one priority for your writing this year? (This question is from Hope Clark. Check out her newsletter for an exploration of how to get your mind on one relentless goal.)

What’s the Moral of the Fable of Facebook?

“Breathe, eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and check Facebook: these make up a significant portion of a very short list of daily activities that you have in common with a quarter of a billion other humans.”

— D.E. Wittkower, “Why Mark Zuckerberg, Not Julian Assange, is Person of the Year”

I’m always trying to find morals in things. I have this writerly need to understand the world in a sentence. I indulge the illusion that somehow, someday, I’ll absolutely, completely understand this person, this place, this situation…It’s addicting. Are all writers control-freak analysts like me?

No disrespect, Aesop, but morals bring the property values down on a piece of literature. Not only should we never tack them like bumper stickers to the tail end of our stories, but we should never write them all over the living room walls, like the previous owner of our house did. Let’s just say BELIEVE IN YOURSELF spoke loud and proud for several months before the realty figured the place would sell better with a new coat of paint. My neighbors told us later that there’s a buried message in our living room.

We must also beware of characters in our stories spewing theme capsules–like Ron Weasley vomiting slugs in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. No one wants to see slugs on the lawn while touring the grounds.

Inserting a moral isn’t wrong; it’s just bad form to leave it there. In fact, moralizing is a necessary step in the writing process. First you discover a truth of human nature or “how things are”; then you own it in a topic sentence, stating this grand idea oh-so-boldly; then you delete the ego and make the idea speak subtly, luminously through scene, character, and image. I don’t always follow that particular sequence, but I get better and better at spotting theme cropping up in a draft–cue final metaphor!–ugly weed you need to pull before the realtor shows with client.

So like my stories, life gets the same once-over (AKA, neurotic contemplation) in search of message. Since life is full of Facebook these days, I continually ask what this form of social networking means. I first wrote to understand it in two stories: “Facing It,” where a man struggling with Asperger’s discovers more than he wants to know about his wife via Facebook, and in “Postal,” which begins with a ten year-old girl pestering her mother for an account. Her mean-girl pal already has a profile, yet one more notch in the bully’s belt. Facebook plays the role of evil technology in both stories, a tool for characters to pursue their worst desires.

One theme I’ve derived personally from my travels through Facebook is that it’s a platform to be childlike or childish. (I thank Seth Godin for the inspiration to see things through this lens.)

Childlike means playing with new ideas, being open to new people, and engaging in dialogue. Childlike is embracing adventure and opportunity and reaching out…attending new events, liking new things, joining new groups. Facebook is a great platform–trampoline–for these activities.

Childlike also means playing school, where we take turns teaching each other. Recently two of my friends engaged in a fascinating political exchange regarding the deficit–people who may never meet except through my status update. I see writers in my local network post on various topics, and suddenly I’m hip to latest news in the publishing industry or have a good summary of a bestseller. I’m more culturally literate than I was seconds before.

If childlike is open, joyful, and curious, how great is it to use Facebook to encourage a fellow writer and to invite one another to book signings?

Like blogging, Facebook extends the conversation when the print you read alone leaves you hungry for dialogue. I read of Laura Maylene Walter’s writing journey at Poets and Writers and now I follow her blog. Every experience worth sharing can now be shared with so many.

If you can do all of the above with the adult wisdom of not revealing too much personal data and not taking an obnoxious, righteous soapbox stance (cue my mistake), then childlike is great.

But it’s hard for us not to cross the line into childish (i.e., Status update: Flossing my teeth…My husband just told me to lose weight…My wife told me to sleep on the couch). It’s hard to craft a political post or an angst-ridden statement without sounding too indignant, too angry, too martyred. Tantrums. Pouts. And once you have done this, consider you have successfully walked into the mall with a megaphone (thanks, Greg, for this perfect analogy). So many of us have forgotten this bio hazard. Maybe because we’re not left standing with the megaphone and everyone staring, we think we got away with it. We didn’t.

Childish is making it all about you, all the time. Try pitching your book incessantly, grasping at fandom without giving anything back. Facebook must be a gift to others in some form, or people won’t read the post. No one wants the sales guy knocking on their front door; why would they want it on the computer or phone? Jane Friedman dissects the problem beautifully here at “When or Why Social Media Fails to Sell Books.”

Childish is staying on Facebook when you should be writing.

Childish is ignoring live, real-time relationship for virtual. Be wary, O introverts, of siren songs, screens luring you away from complex, raw, uncontrolled face time. It’s in the rough shuffle of daily life where we get our best inspiration.

Facebook starts something. It gets wheels turning and forces us to write 420 characters or less. Child’s play, child’s speak. Then comes the question: are we ready to deepen those thoughts, best shaped offline? Slowly, reflectively, sans distraction? That’s adult behavior.

The adult inside me just posted this update: I’m nowhere near done understanding the message of Mark Zuckerberg’s new medium. Stay tuned.