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Re: Write – Backstory Exercise

We’ve been discussing backstory these last few weeks, and we’ll be wrapping it up today. I hope that I’ve shown you how important backstory is and how carefully you need to handle it.

We’ll finish today with an exercise that I did with two other writers. You may remember Francesca from the writing sample she so kindly offered up for public review a couple of months ago. She and Tony and I came up with a character and discussed ways that different backstories would change the direction of the plot.

Because of time constraints, the conversation has been edited for length.

 Me:  Okay, so here’s the plan. I’m going to give you some basic information about a character. Then we’re going to brainstorm possible backstory elements of his or her life.

The goal is to determine how those elements of backstory would affect the direction of the plot, or affect each other.

Our character’s name is Kendall. Male or female?

 Francesca:  Male.

 Tony:  I’d say male as well

Based solely on gut

 Me:  Sounds good. So Kendall is male. 20-something years old. Romantically unattached.

Did he go to college?

Tony:  Yeah, it’s likely

 Francesca:  Probably for a few years, at least.

He studied art.

 Me:  Did he graduate?

Tony:  Okay, yeah, he graduated, or is in the process of graduating

Francesca:  He went to college because that’s what all young adults do; you graduate high school and then you go to college. Then you get a job. It was what was expected of him… Maybe he didn’t enjoy it as much as he thought?

Tony:  If he’s a protagonist and it’s a tragedy, then he’s graduated already

Me:  Why would that make it a tragedy?

Tony: Because, typically, in a tragedy, the protagonist has it all. It’s a fall. An education can easily represent stability and success

Me:  Unless it’s an art degree

 Francesca:  Which is why he dropped out!

Tony:  lol

Or worse

Philosophy

 Me:  One of my favorite characters I ever wrote was a philosophy major who couldn’t do anything after college, so he became a PI

Okay, so, he was an art student, and he graduated. What kind of plot do we expect here?

 Francesca:  Okay. Kendall has an older sister named…Laura…who already went through the whole college biz. She was a business major, graduated with honors, married her college beau, is expecting a kid.

 Me:  Ahh, so he has a  lot to live up to

 Francesca:  Yes.

 Tony:  I’d be tempted to place him in a fantasy type setting, too

Something where there’s an element of science fiction, or magic, or something supernatural

I’d want to make take an ordinary guy and see what happens to him if he’s placed in an extraordinary situation

 Me:  Fun twist.

 Francesca:  Kendall and Laura have a decent relationship; he’s seven years her junior. He feels like his parents have always compared him to her (whether or not they actually DID isn’t relevant, but he FEELS as though they did)

He also feels like Laura was the favorite.

 Tony:  I like everything Francesca’s saying about Laura, too

But maybe this doesn’t strain his relationship with her

But with his parents

 Francesca:  Right, exactly.

 Tony:  Right. I wouldn’t see a great deal of conflict with Laura

UNLESS we made that a plot device

 Francesca:  Their parents are likely divorced, since it’s a modern setting.

 Tony:  Another circumstance to overcome

 Francesca:  Maybe there’s a step-mom

 Tony:  That’d go with the fantasy element

lol

We just wrote Cinderella for a guy

 Francesca:  …Kenderella?

 Me:  Wrinkle on wrinkle. Okay, so we’ve got wicked stepmothers and perfect sisters. So what’s his story question? What’s the difficulty he has to overcome, and what does a happy ending look like for him?

 ***For those of you watching at home, Tony and Francesca have agreed to each write out the answer to the previous question at the same time, and then send the answers simultaneously to look at how their answers differ.

Francesca:  Kendall is 22, has dropped out of school, and is now faced with having to get a job he doesn’t necessarily want to repay student loans. He is happy for / proud of his sister, and his relationship with his parents is rocky. They are disappointed that he has dropped out, and his mother insists that art was probably not the best idea in the first place. His dad is on his side.

Kendall gets a job at the city library. One day, an old cartography book is given to the library and it’s Kendall’s job to sort it and place it or whatever. As he looks through the book, he realizes that the maps are incredibly old and, also, incredibly fictitious. But its quality surpasses that of just any “fantasy book” with a map thrown in for detail. Also, at the back of the book, he finds a key taped (glued? strung?) to the inside cover. There is a smaller map attached to this, a map of his town, leading to the door to which the key belongs. Kendall’s question is whether or not to find the door. The difficulty to overcome: continue in his mediocre life, or set off on an adventure? A happy ending looks like Kendall becoming more sure of himself and feeling as though he has purpose.

 Tony:  Okay. His story… Well, I’m going to place him in an extraordinary situation. Maybe he’s a witness to something, or he sees something that he’s not supposed to. Maybe he develops an ability. An art major drop-out who is wanting to live up to the pressures and expectations of life and his family. So a happy ending for him would look like achieving that balance, and a level of self-discovery that the expectations are actually his own chains. His happy ending is freedom, whether he achieves his goal or not. Maybe he has to save the world, or maybe even save his family. I think that would be cool, that there is an outside force that is putting pressure on his family and causing conflict either from within or without or both. Laura would be oblivious to it, or, if she was aware, would be helpless to do anything. He’d be called to step up, to make his stand, and, in so doing, save the world, save his family, but really he’s trying to save himself. A wicked stepmother would be a good catalyst for this conflict, I think, but it’d be a cool device that he actually ends up being crucial and key to helping Kendall achieve his goals.

 Francesca:  The door could be a parallel to Pandora’s box.

 Tony:  What do you mean?

 Francesca:  Say that we go with the rough plot I mapped out just now, and combine it with your idea. Let’s say he finds this key, and in his insolence and frustration decides that he wants to follow the map. Turns out that the door is a door that is holding back some type of darkness, evil, or other force which then causes trouble in the world. Kendall CAUSED the problem, and now he is faced with how he must fix it?

 Me:  Kendall has to shut the door and save the town from evils galore. That process includes reaching a place of freedom and confidence concerning his place in his family and in society.

How would it change the plot if we revealed in the first chapter of the book that Kendall was an eagle scout.

 Tony:  He would have skills and abilities that would make him unique. Maybe he’s really good at X badge/ability and that would play an important role in one of the trials he must overome

He has to be uniquely suited, even though he seems ordinary, for the task at hand

Also, he hated Boyscouts and didn’t want to do it

But it was just more pressure from his folks and his desire to perform

He’d at least be able to read the map

lol

 Francesca:  It would be able to show off the resentment between him and his parents. Being in Eagle Scouts was an outlet for his parents to show their pride and love; “We love our son, we put him in Boy Scouts, he is very accomplished. We’re so proud.” But as an adult, your parents have to naturally back off. So being an eagle scout, for Kendall, is just a sign to HIM of his parents’ love that is no longer there, or at least not there in the same LEVEL, which he takes personally.

Does that make sense?

 Tony:  Yeah, I think.

 Francesca:  Also I think that it would be a natural lead into Kendall having a kind of entitlement issue.

Me:  Okay, let’s change it up. What if, instead of an eagle scout, Kendall spent a couple of his teenage years in juvie for pickpocketing and stealing.

Tony:  Well my initial instinct is, “That makes it more interesting”

Francesca:  Then the resentment begins earlier. The disappointment of his parents shows up sooner, and it gets balled up inside of him. Did Kendall go through any kind of rehab?

Me:  Rehab? No, I’d say not. A couple of cursory counseling sessions. But mostly he turned eighteen with a GED in hand, and the system turned him loose with a sealed record

How do these two different backstories affect his story question? What kinds of obstacles would an entitled eagle scout have to overcome as opposed to a jaded kid criminal?

Tony:  I think they both feel entitled to some degree. Because in both cases, Kendall would see himself as the victim

In both it’s Kendall taking responsibility

 Francesca:  Eagle Scout Kendall – He needs to overcome this feeling of self-doubt and insecurities which are mostly brought about by his own feelings; he has the capacity to succeed and he KNOWS that and he feels that he CAN get to that success again, somehow.
Juvie Kendall – Outside influences have made him more jaded. Yes, he got to juvie because of what he did, but now he doesn’t have a background of success and accomplishment. He feels that he’s a loser, and will probably always be. He doesn’t really see the point in trying, because other people will just shoot him down or lock him up, maybe?

 Tony:  The Juvie Kendall is more interesting because now he doesn’t just have broken up parents, but also a system that has disciplined him and he feels oppressed and jaded

 Me:  One last question. If we go with Juvie Kendall, do we reveal at the beginning that he was a miscreant? Or do we reveal it toward the end, and hint at it along the way. How does that change the plot?

 Tony:  Later. I want you to hate him at first, and ask yourself, “Why the heck do I even care to read about this guy?”

He’s like Luke Skywalker and the beginning of A New Hope

 Francesca:  It alters the pace significantly either way.

As far as “big reveals” go, I think juvie is pretty minimal.

 Me:  So if it’s a later reveal, it needs to be bigger

 Tony:  Yes

 Me:  Like maybe he killed a guy

 Francesca:  Yeah.

Exactly.

If he was just a petty thief, then you can reveal that early on.

 Tony:  Agreed

Or he had a traumatic experience in Juvie

 Me:  Ah, like what?

 Francesca:  Say he was, oh, molested or even raped. THAT is big-reveal-worthy.

Also gross to think about.

And sad.

 Tony:  Yeah, but it would humanize an otherwise deplorable character

 Me:  Is that cliche? Are there other things that could have happened there?

 Francesca:  Witnessing somebody else murdered, perhaps.

Witnessing some kid commit suicide?

 Tony:  Beatings, somebody else killed

HIs best friend suicide, specificially

Or his love interest

Me:  Okay, well, I think I have more than enough material to give the readers. Thank you for all your help..

 Tony:  No problem. Hope they get something out of it. Have a good one, internets.

Backstory: A Case Study (Cline vs. King)

I’m a picky reader. I’m not shy about it. If I start a book and it doesn’t grab me quickly, I’ll put it down. I don’t know where I get it from ; my dad feels duty bound to finish any book he picks up. Not me. Books need to prove they deserve my time.

So I was on a train between Rome and Salerno last week (yeah, that’s bragging), and I started Ready Player One, a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline that’s apparently all the rage. And, if I hadn’t already promised someone that I would read it, I would probably have put it down.

It’s a short book, fewer than 350 little paperback pages. So it says a lot that the vast majority of the first 70 pages is backstory, with a couple of dialogues thrown in. Once I got past page 70, the action picked up and I actually started enjoying it. Before that? Drudgery.

Much of the problem is that it’s such a very simple plot for such a very complex milieu. Not much has to happen to carry the story forward, but if you’re going to understand any of the plot devices or riddles, you have to know all about the intricate culture and history of the world. This means that the author has to spoonfeed you every little piece of information for the action to make any sense.

To the author’s credit, very little of the information in those first 70 pages is Priority 3 information. You really do need to know most of it for what follows to make sense. But the end result is that the majority of  the beginning of Ready Player One is spent explaining the past, with very little time spent in the present. I wanted to put it down because I just didn’t care.

Which is disappointing, because the second half of the book is actually pretty good. If he’d hooked me from the beginning, I would have had no problem getting there.

I finished Ready Player One. I lay back on the hard, little hotel bed trying to figure out what the author could have done better. I couldn’t cut any of the backstory without weakening the book. I couldn’t add any action just for action’s sake. We just needed more–more character, more drama, more story.

Then, on the plane from Rome to DC, I started 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Oh, man, what a difference.

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s first novel. 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s umpteen millionth. It shows. I read the first five pages, leaned back my head, and sighed. This is what I was missing.

11/22/63‘s plot is every bit as complex as Ready Player One‘s in all the same ways, because the milieu of each book is inundated by the cultures of previous decades. And yes, the first 70 pages of 11/22/63 is largely backstory. But King does two things differently. First, most of that backstory takes place through dialogue, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is much more engaging than narrative. If Cline had found a way to deliver his backstory through dialogue instead of narrative, it would have kept my interest.

But what really got me was those first five pages. Before the backstory, he had a prologue with a scene from the protagonist’s life. It was simply a beautiful scene. It showed us the main character’s personality and exactly why we should love him. It led directly into the main plot. It even introduced a refrain that appears periodically throughout the rest of the book (“I’m not what you would call a crying man.”). It was essentially the perfect prologue.

Cline’s prologue was just more backstory, a scene that showed the personality of a character who was already dead when Cline started talking about him, and that character was just awkward. Then we started Chapter 1 with a main character who was basically flat throughout the first half. After all, it’s hard to develop a character when you’re spending most of your time describing things that happened before he was born.

That prologue symbolizes the difference between an okay book and a really good one. Character first, idea second.

I don’t know your book, but based on my work as an editor, there’s a pretty good chance there are ways you could be handling your backstory better. I provide you this tale of two novels as a demonstration of what to do and what not to do.

What should you not do? Inundate your reader with thick backstory without first giving us a reason to care about your real story.

What should you do? First let your readers really fall in love with your characters in the present, then worry about explaining the past. And when you do give us that backstory, don’t give it all as narrative. Use dialogue. Use internal monologue. Fill that backstory with character, so that we see it through the eyes of the people we’re getting to know.

Because your book is about them. Everything else is just a tool.

This article took two readthroughs.

Researching Your Setting

frenchheadshot2In two words: Do it.

Real World

If your fiction is set in the real world, you’ll want to include setting details that give your story color and depth–verisimilitude. The best way to create that is to research the location you choose. Where in Oklahoma City is that park in relation to the State Capitol? Just how cold does it feel atop Pike’s Peak in July? How long would it take to stroll across Golden Gate Bridge?

Nowadays, Google makes it ridiculously easy to do this type of research…but of course, the best way to do it is to go there. I set my novel Colors of Deception on the campus of Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, Oklahoma. Conveniently enough, I live about twenty minutes from there, so I was able to spend several days a week there while writing my first draft. I wrote in a student lounge or outside on a bench, all the while soaking up the sights, scents, and sounds of my surroundings. Many of those details made it into the book. I wouldn’t have known to include them had I not experienced them firsthand.

Contrary to what you might think, you’re not doing this kind of research to placate those readers who are familiar with the location you’ve chosen. Many students and alums of Oklahoma Christian University have contacted me with feedback on the novel’s setting–and not all of that feedback has been positive. Some took exception to my changing the layout of a building to fit a certain scene. Others simply found it uncomfortable to read a story set in a place where they live or have lived. Of course, the fact that the storyline includes demons stalking students might contribute to the discomfort. ; )

No, when you research your setting, you’re not doing it for the readers who know the place inside and out. You’re doing your homework research for the readers who’ve never been there. They need to see what your characters see, smell what your characters smell, hear what your characters here, touch what your characters touch. When you research your location, you find out little details that take your setting from flat cardboard backdrop to 3-D IMAX. Setting research enables you to immerse your readers in what is, to them, another world.

Otherworld

Oh, did I not mention? Yes, writers of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m talking to you as well. You didn’t think setting research is the job of only chicklit, lit fic, or urban writers, did you? Nay, my hearties, though you set your stories is worlds unknown, still you must research your settings, lest your stories lack the lustre they might otherwise have possessed.

“But wait!” you say. “How can I research my setting when my setting doesn’t even exist?”

Bell tower of St. Annenkirche, Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony

Bell tower of St. Annenkirche, Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony

Well. That’s why I’m here to help. See? This is me. Helping.

And the best way for me to do that is to share another personal example, which will also include another gratuitous link to one of my novels. Sorry ’bout that. ‘Tis just how it goes.

My epic fantasy novel Rethana’s Surrender is set entirely in another world, one where magical powers and dragons and elves exist. In building that world, I invented a crapton of stuff and made rules for how it all works. None of that required research; I made it all up. Boom.

But.

My heroine, the redoubtable Rethana Chosardal, spends half her backstory growing up as a bellringer in a tiny southern town. She and her family live in the top of the belltower. I knew what that should look like, because I’d already visited the belltower that inspired Rethana’s story. But in order to add more tasty tidbits as I wrote, I needed more details.

Enter Wikipedia. Suddenly, I found myself reading about bell metal.

Seriously? Bell metal? I’m a fantasy writer who enjoys painting and hiking and weird word games…and now I’m reading about something as mundane as bell metal*? Really?

Really.

Researching your setting will take you all sorts of peculiar places and give you all sorts of new ideas for your story. So go on. Do your homework. Give your characters a real place to live and breathe in, with real sensory input. If you keep your fiction real, your readers will live and breathe there, too.

*It’s actually kinda interesting, as chance would have it.

Writing, (W)romance, and Wraiths

frenchheadshot2Greetings, O Fair and Lovely Ones!

A few weeks back, we talked how-tos, wherefores, and what-nots of writing romance and chick lit. This week, it’s all about taking those sighs and heaving bosoms and transplanting them into your paranormal or fantasy romance.

The Sighs and the Heaving Bosoms

I have a good reason for linking to that previous article on romance. The reason is that I recommend you go read it. Since that one was all about the romance, for me to repeat it here would be exactly that: repetition. And I don’t think any of us want that. So go ahead and click the link and read the post. I’ll be here when you get back. I promise.

See? I’m Still Here

Toldja. ; )

The Ghosts, the Gnomes, and the Goblins

In order to find helpful hints on paranormal/fantasy romance in particular, I consulted my trusty sidekick, Ye Olde Google. The following are my favorite points from the two most informative articles I found, as well as my remarks upon them.

From “Writing Paranormal Romance: 5 Tips to Remember”

1. Solid mythology

This is worldbuilding, y’all. And it’s essential. In fantasy and paranormal anything, your world has to be believable. Yes, you’re making it up, but you’ve also gotta make up rules for it and stick to them. If you want your vampires to sparkle, fine–but give your readers a good background reason for it. On the other hand, if you want your vampires driven and bloodthirsty and vulnerable to sunlight, maybe you should make demonic possession of an Egyptian queen and king part of your world’s backstory. Tell a background story that has its fingers in all your foreground’s pies, and you’ve got a mythology your readers will believe.

2. Strong female lead

She might be a damsel, and she might be in distress, but that doesn’t mean she needs the hero to come swooping in to rescue her every single time. She needs to be active. She needs to know what she wants, and she needs to be able to go out and get it. Let her. Don’t hold her back, waiting for a man to come save her. Yes, he should also be a strong character who plays a role in answering the story question. But his character shouldn’t be so strong that his overshadows hers. Consider being bold enough to let her rescue him once in awhile!

3. Sex appeal (The Return of the Heaving Bosoms)

These characters must have their flaws. They can’t be perfect inside and out, because your readers won’t be able to relate to them.

BUT. In addition to having flaws, they’ve gotta be smokin’ hot as well.

Ahh, conundrum. How I do love thee.

Actually, I’m not kidding. The sexiest people I know? They’re physically sexy because of the little flaws. The cute little crooked tooth. The slightly hooked nose. The quirky upper lip. Symmetry is nice, but it’s kind of boring. Especially when you’re a reader and you have to read the word “perfect” over and over again.

Aside from physical smokin’-hotness, there’s the smokin’-hotness of personality as well. Don’t let a single one of your characters be just another pretty face (unless the character’s particular role is to be just another pretty face, and then you’d better have a rock-solid reason for writing them this way). Add depth and nuance to these people. Give them backstories. Give them inner paradoxes. Make your hero irresistible to your heroine because he says exactly what she needs to hear at exactly the right time. Make your heroine the kind of woman who demands that your reader sit up and take notice.

It’s about more than voluptuous curves and cascading hair and sweeping lashes. These people must have presence. That’s sexy.

3. Violence in service of the Greater Good

If your hero must be violent, then he’s gotta be the “good-guy” kind of violent. Protecting the innocent. Standing firm against all comers. Pursuing the evil. In romance, you want to avoid the hero who’s so flawed that he’s basically a bad guy doing bad things to worse guys. In romance, your hero can be violent, but only because he has no other choice; the Good will suffer if he refuses.

DPB

From “Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Romances”

4. Think Aragorn, Arwen, and Éowyn

This article provides what sounds to me like the best definition of paranormal/fantasy romance:

think Lord of the Rings with the focus shifted away from the battles and toward Aragorn and Arwen (via Anne Marble).

I would add that if you drop a determined Éowyn into the mix for a love triangle, you’ve got a pretty good heart-throbbing set-up. How would LotR have turned out if Éowyn had refused to let Aragorn go?

5. Remember the romance.

This seems a rather duh statement, but for realz: When writing paranormal/fantasy romance, don’t get so involved with your ghosts, vampires, or elves that you let their otherworldliness overshadow the romance. The core of your tale is the relationship between two characters, or the triangle of relationships, if that’s what you’re writing. Who ends up together and why and how? That–and not the origin story of your vampires–is the heart of your tale.

6. Don’t forget the laughs.

Romance is funny. Sex is funny. Romance and sex between a human and a non-human (whether dead or undead or ghostly) has the potential to be downright hilarious. (Or gross. But that’s another blogpost.) Exploit the slapstick in your characters’ romances–which sounds a whole lot dirtier than it probably is.

Maybe.

7. Hot sex

Should you include hot sex in your paranormal/fantasy romance? Well, that’s really up to you. Be aware that sex is actually pretty difficult to write, at least if you want to write it interesting and believable (READ: not cheesy; also, see “potentially gross” above). You’ll want to be very clear in your own head who your audience is and what they’re expecting. If the sex you write is too hot, you might cross over from romance into erotica, and that might be a very different readership. So, as you consider “to sex or not to sex,” keep respect for your characters, your genre, and your audience.

But if you do decide to write the hot sex, have fun. ; )

C.R.E.A.M.

With special assistance from the Wu Tang Clan, I’m going to try and address one of the weirdest, most all-over-the-place topics in the ongoing, evolving mess that is indie and self publishing.

What the HELL should these things cost?

As far as advice, you’ve come to the wrong place because I HAVE NO IDEA.

Money Down!Race To The Bottom?

Once upon a time, $.99 was a magical price for e-books, and people sold tons of them and made a lot of money, and thus was born the e-publishing revolution. But then Amazon figured out that their bottom line would be better if they could get people to charge more for their e-books (probably due to all the teeny tiny credit card transactions, each with its own special fees, but that’s just me guessing), so Amazon incentivized charging higher prices by paying better margins on them.

Now authors, nearly all of whom got into writing so they could avoid doing complicated math problems, found themselves doing complicated math problems to see if they could make more money by upping their price. Many of them upped the price without doing the math, many of them started the math and never finished it before upping the price, and many left the price alone for various and sundry reasons.

Suddenly you had multiple tiers of e-book pricing where once the $.99 stronghold had reigned. This naturally led to what marketing people call “perceived value.” Perceived Value is when consumers assume one product is better than another just because it costs more. This is the Jedi mind trick used by Apple, for instance, that allows them to charge otherwise intelligent people a higher price for owning a device with an apple logo on it just because it has an apple logo on it.

And just as suddenly, you had authors concerned about their image and how this tied into what they charged for their e-books. These authors started to use phrases like the aforementioned “perceived value” and “race to the bottom.”

How Unique Can Your Pricing Be When They All End In 99?Money up!

So now you have short stories settling in at around $.99, novellas sometimes costing $2.99, and full length novels slotting in somewhere between $2.99 and $4.99. Or more. Then you get into givewaways or loaning options, and you get to add a new bottom called “FREE” to race too.

Even more complicated, you have very smart people (many of whom blog about their experiments) changing the prices of different books in a series, giving one away this month and jacking up the price next month, and any other permutation you can imagine. Then they combine this with their sales figures and their ranking, and do some kind of voodoo economics behind the scenes and come to rock solid conclusions.

Rock solid conclusions that probably don’t match anybody else’s rock solid conclusions. Which leaves those of us who didn’t want to do the math in the first place swimming in even more confusing, information-rich waters.

Running MoneyThe Oldest Price in the Book

As I am one of the math-challenged, I have no idea what to charge for e-books. On the other hand, I know exactly what to charge for them. The same thing you charge for anything.

As much as you can get.

That’s right, get the money, dolla dolla bill y’all.

Now figuring out what that is…well, now I want your input. Friends, readers, authors, lend me your thoughts. What’s the right price for an e-book? Does it change  if  it’s self- or indie-pubbed versus traditionally published? When does it get too high? Does a too low price make them worth less in your head? Do the answers change for you if you take off your author hat and put on your consumer hat? Tell me what you think!