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? 

Survival Tips, Part 2: 10 Ways to Get Yourself Writing

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  1. Support your local independent coffeehouse. Go where the coffee is rich, fresh, and just roasted; go where the owners take personal care of their customers. Promise yourself that for every $3 you spend, you will write 300 words.
  2. Get mad at someone. Don’t worry, someone will irritate you soon. Once he or she obliges you, write a rant or piece of fiction in honor of the irritant, and also for revenge. Then if you’ve gotten the angst out of your system, send that person a mental blessing. Say, Art has set me free. (Even if you don’t yet feel that way.)
  3. Set a deadline with a friend. Ask someone to swap writing with you within a certain time period. Make it short; over 3 days means you have way too much time to procrastinate.
  4. Go look at a gravestone and ask yourself if you really want to die with that great idea still unwritten.
  5. Play Prompt Roulette. Pick up any book of prompts you shelved with great intentions and grab one off a page. Here’s the catch; it has to connect to the project you’re avoiding. I dare you. Your writerly mind is creative enough to forge some kind of ridiculous connection. Do it!
  6. Ask 5 people you see every day if they ever dreamed of writing a book or if they’ve got one in mind or maybe one even in progress. See what interesting poll results you get, especially in answer to, “What would your book be about?” See just how many (4 out of 5 if not 5) have not yet started. Vow to yourself to break the trend and write 500 words in rebellion to everyone’s fruitless dreaming.
  7. Surf the TV (I recommend the E Channel or some celebrity-ridden site) and see if you can find at least one talent-less individual who has a book on the shelves. (This shouldn’t take long.) Vow to write your passion with craft and excellence, even if you feel your talent is very raw and unformed. Vow to pursue craft. Then go craft at least 100 words, and spend no fewer than 30 minutes on this. Hone, polish, revise. Tell yourself you’ve redeemed the world somewhat by adding craft instead of drivel. Set a date to return to this page. 
  8. Make a mix tape. It should be the soundtrack of the piece you are writing. For example, it could be your main character’s Top 10 or it could be the mood mix for your poem. It could be the collection of anthems to get your essay or column written. Spend loving, meticulous time getting this mix just right and in the perfect sequence. Then play it at the perfect volume and staple your derriere to the chair.
  9. Ask a person who loves you to tell you why you need to write and then go do what they say. 
  10. Make a list of 10 things you are grateful for or 10 things you adore. Think about how these things matter and how one or more of them might relate to your passion for the written word and uplifting theme and transcendent magic of books. 

Of course, you can be a bit more focused and methodical about attacking your writer’s block by checking out Gretchen Rubin’s “Having Trouble Getting Yourself to Write? 9 Tips” post. I think my favorite is #8 with that great piece of advice from Virginia Woolf.

Don’t forget three other tips for writing survival. Do whatever it takes.

And the 15-minutes-a-day plan Rubin mentions has been the only way writing’s getting done right now. There’s a time for productivity and a time to be lost. And while you’re lost, if you show up to the page for even 15 minutes, then my, that’s something.

Writer’s Survival Guide, Part I: Chant, Copy, and Paste Your Way into Confidence

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With the New Year barely launched, our heads full of well-intentioned resolutions, the biggest question is, How do we get ‘er started?

I’ve found and named three ways I stay focused. There are many others, because without a bank of strategies I’d never have made it through 20-some drafts of HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT in the last two years. I wouldn’t have believed I could do a third revision for my agent in six months, nor would I welcome more comments if she has them this month. I would have been too worried that writer’s block would plague me and prevent any kind of progress.

Here’s an annoying admission: I don’t let writer’s block get me. I despise my writing at times and think it’s going nowhere, but that’s different than actually stopping. Let me delve into why I keep plodding, because I’m not really sure of all the reasons aside from workaholicism, and hey, the teacher in me wants to understand why others do.

These tactics have kept me solid when I feel my edges blur and my will fade.

1. I chant my mantras. In secular speak, we’ll call this an oft-repeated phrase or a motivational pep line. But they’re best described as words to invoke when I feel fear. I wake up to fear at 4:00 AM; I feel fear when I’m considering an overhaul of my manuscript; I feel fear when embarking on a new idea for a book. I felt a ton of fear while querying of the I’m not worthy variety.

My mantras lean more to the Hindu version: a “word formula” with mystical resonance and sacred power, repeated during times of spiritual reflection. Some might view this to be a spell; some, a prayer; others, an incantation; I consider it all these things. While I won’t share mine, I will tell you it has a calming effect on this writer who has wee-hour or late-night freak-outs. The mantras have evolved into pithier phrases since 2009.

Recently at the Kennedy Center Awards, Yo Yo Ma confessed to being afraid much of the time. As the video montage shared his impressive accomplishments, I respected him all the more for sharing this truth about artistic success–that it is a product of moving through fear, self-loathing, and panic, constantly.

2. I copy and paste models of good writing into my manuscript. When I embark on a scene or section that feels out of my league, I grab something that seems far more professional and copy and paste it into the manuscript. For example, the other day I had to add a newspaper article to my novel, and though I’ve written some in my day, it isn’t my first-choice genre nor is it my area of expertise. This particular article had to be a report on a high school play. So I found a review of Shakespeare’s Henry V–done on trapezes, no less–and plunked it right inside my story so it was right in front of my eyes. A review is not a report, but seeing where the writer focused got my engines fired such that I could start typing my own lines. Maybe it’s like good company; you feel like this task is now do-able with this demonstration before you. Do as I do…it’s as if you’re watching a virtual mentor. The model coaches you along.

As an English teacher who’s forever preached academic honesty and campaigned against plagiarism, I must pause here to say, Don’t get tempted to borrow even two words in a row from another writer. Seriously. English teachers such as me still struggle to communicate the dos and don’ts of plagiarism, but this formula would serve us all well: when you have ten words you wish to paraphrase from another author, make sure five are brand new (your own words, synonyms) and every other word is be re-arranged in a new order. I even paraphrased the definition of mantra you see above, though the content comes from the Free Online Dictionary and most people would say, Copy away. I’m nerdy and precise like that. But it pays off when you’re writing. You build writing muscle–I can paraphrase in a heartbeat–because I have a word bank at the ready in my head. I’m constantly seeing new word combinations and syntax isn’t an issue when you’re writing all the time.

3. I act confident when I don’t feel confident. Though I haven’t quite graduated to the word “when” (as in, “When this novel is published”) and stay stuck on the ifs, I talk with authority about writing to my agent, to my writing group, to colleagues at work, and in my blog. I’m not an expert, but I’m a lifelong learner, and I’ve invested a lot of sweat in the manuscript and several others. I know my characters, what they would and would not do, so when we discuss these folks, it’s like gossiping about the neighbors, and I trust in my own knowledge enough to question other’s responses to my characters.

I’d say 90% of the time, I take my writing group’s or agent’s advice, but sometimes others will offer suggestions that just don’t fit. They’re good ideas, but they don’t suit your manuscript. Comments I’ve heard about my WIP include change the title, don’t have Wendy act in the play, don’t have this adult share personal information, don’t have this person die here; make Wendy happier earlier on, and so forth. All of these comments are 100% valid for the readers who were commenting; it’s what they want to see, and I harbor similarly strong opinions about every book I read. I’m not saying I won’t eventually implement some of them. But as long as I am working hard to learn and listen and address the spirit of the feedback (and sometimes that’s the challenge for all of us–giving or getting feedback that expresses the concepts, or spirit, of what changes must be made, rather than picayune fixes here or there), I’m headed the right direction.

When I’m telling a certain reader that I appreciate the feedback but I want to stick to my guns on this particular point, I do not feel I’m doing the right thing, necessarily, but I tell myself to trust in my gut even though I would rather make my reader happy. Good authors want the story to have an impact, so hearing that your audience isn’t quite moved the way you hoped is important feedback and a heckuva thing to disregard. That said, you have to trust that you see the whole landscape and trajectory of action, plus you know your characters’ back story, present story, future story–or you soon will. And you have to live with the changes, not the readers, in a way that is so personal that you must have confidence in yourself when you choose not to change the manuscript.

And from whence comes such confidence? Uh, see Tactic #1. Lather, rinse, repeat!

How’s your New Year kicked off? What tactics have kept you at the page? What’s your Survival Guide consist of?

Writing Prompts

  • Develop a mantra to keep you at the page. Create multiple mantras till you find the one that suits. Will yours be matter-of-fact (listen to your mother) or spiritual? Will it be like a Marine drill sergeant or Yoda? 
  • Which writers do you admire, so much so that you’ve either read one of their works multiple times or actually can recall passages by heart? Find an inspirational passage and keep a hard copy near your work space and also an online copy to move into your manuscript whenever you need it. This can be another kind of mantra.
  • When your writer’s block is so heavy you can barely lift hand to keyboard, surf online till you find a couple examples of great writing in your genre. Try Google Books, online booksellers, and other  sites that give you samples of writing. Start a library of Models to Emulate, at the ready when you return to the page tomorrow.
  • Rewrite a scene from your life–an incident you’ve survived–where you return to act confident when you did not feel like it. What’s your secret now?