by Tasha Seegmiller
There is a tricky situation that occurs in the lives of writers. To people who are not engaged in some kind of similar creative pursuit, explaining a difficult day can be met with expressions of disbelief. “You mean sitting in your seat and typing words was hard? Exhausting? Really?”
These people may also not understand why the words of others can hurt, whether that hurt was intentional or not. It can be anything from a bad review to a critique from a well-meaning colleague or beta reader that can make us doubt, stall, quit.
I’ve been on a bit of a Brené Brown kick lately.
[Full disclosure: I gave away nearly a dozen copies of her Daring Greatly, have been listening to every talk I can get my hands on, and recount key points almost daily to my very patient husband.]
Most recently, I’ve been listening to The Power of Vulnerability, which has been great because it is a live recording of Brené and I get to hear that she is a lot like me in her resilience to this whole open and honest thing.
But it has got me thinking quite a bit about what it might mean to be a whole-hearted writer. To start with, these are the guideposts she suggests of whole-hearted living:
- Practice Authenticity
- Find Self-Compassion
- Cultivate Resilience
- Build Gratitude, Joy, And Sufficiency
- Trust Your Intuition and Faith
- Foster Creativity
- Protect Your Play and Rest
- Don’t Fear Calm and Stillness
- Pursue Meaningful Work
- Laugh, Sing, And Dance
(There’s a great visual of these you can print and/or color here)
While writers may be some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, we are also, by necessity of our craft, hyper-aware of the world around us. That is great when it comes creating characters and stories and settings and plots, but it’s less than great when the business and real world side of writing comes trickling out.
To get a quick overview of where you might stand as a whole-hearted writer, consider how you’d respond in the following situations:
- Someone signed with an agent after you and got a good book deal before you.
- People who are not now (and probably never will be) writers ask why you aren’t done with a book yet.
- You find an error in the final final copy of your book.
- You are at a conference when an agent/editor says another genre is growing faster than the one you are currently writing.
- You send out another batch of queries or go on submission.
- You are told that is the cover for your book, thanks but no thanks to your offer for additional feedback.
- You are presented with a publishing deal that is not quite what you were hoping for with a company you aren’t sure is a good match.
- A call to your agent or editor goes unanswered. Two calls. Three calls. And emails.
- Someone who writes a similar genre to yours had their book sell in several foreign countries.
- A writer shares their victory in completing 10,000 words in a day.
- Every week, you come across an article that undercuts your genre or mentions that the interest toward what you are passionate about is fading.
What was your response? Did you feel shame or unworthiness even though the situation was hypothetical? Did you want to hide, dismiss what you were genuinely feeling, or downplay the stress that was very tangible and very real? Could you envision yourself squaring your shoulders, bringing out your greatest attitude and showing “them” that you weren’t affected?
In these kinds of situations when we feel like something we hold dear, something we are working on or through is being attacked, Brené Brown suggests the following mantra:
Do not shrink.
Do not puff up.
Stand my sacred ground.
Is your writing sacred? Is your writing time? Do you allow yourself to acknowledge that people may not understand or do you feel the necessity to downplay what you are passionate about because it is entirely possible that explanation won’t change the opinion or someone else, or worse, will give them the excuse to think even less about your passion than they already do?
Do you have the courage to put out a piece of work that is honestly and truly the best you could do, knowing there is a decent chance it will be attacked in some way by someone? Do you have the courage to respond with grace and conviction, to acknowledge there was a mistake and you and your work might not be perfect? Do you really feel better when you belittle the person who left the review, gave the advice, passed you on the career path?
The greatest takeaway from all this is that being whole-hearted IS NOT EASY. But when compared with living a life that is detached, false, insincere or unfulfilled, I bet it’s the option where most of us would really like to spend a little more time.
How have you practiced being whole-hearted? What tips or tricks have you learned when your first instinct is to respond in a way you may regret later?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
by Tiffany Yates Martin
No creative soul likes receiving negative feedback on their work—no matter what we might tell you, beloved crit partners, beta readers, editors, agents.
Yes, we may admit we need it, and that it helps immeasurably to get objective input on what may not be as effective on the page as it is in your head, but as one author I work with memorably put it, having someone offer positive, constructive critique of your story is like an Orange Theory workout: You dread it going into it, hate every second while it’s going on, but afterward you feel great having done it.
But receiving negative, destructive input—criticism—can do more damage to your writing, and your creative efforts in general, than almost any other pitfall of writing life. I’ve heard too many horror stories—one just this week that inspired this post—about feedback that shut down authors’ creative impulses, filled them with self-doubt about their story and their writing in general, and in one awful case decimated the author’s confidence so badly that she told me she was giving up writing. (Don’t worry—ultimately she didn’t.)
“Positive” feedback in this sense doesn’t mean all praise, or empty flattery. It means framing feedback as the carrot, not the stick. “This scene isn’t working” feels a lot different from, “This scene might be a bit stronger/have more impact if…” Just like in a marriage or any relationship, as soon as someone feels under attack, they shut down.
So how do you solicit useful critique, and perhaps more important, how do you assess the input you receive to determine what’s helpful for you and your story and what isn’t?
Crit Partners and Beta Readers
As with so many areas of life, asking for exactly what you want gives you a much greater chance of getting it.
With beta readers and crit partners, you can save yourself—and them—a lot of wasted effort by offering specific guidance for what kind of input you’re looking for:
- Does it hold together overall?
- Was there any place your interest flagged?
- Did anything feel unrealistic to you?
- Were there any characters who didn’t feel real or believable or relatable to you—and if so, why, exactly?
- Did you understand what they were working toward and why that mattered to them, and were you rooting for them; i.e., did you care about their goals?
- Was the end satisfying?
I advocate giving your readers not only your manuscript, but an actual accompanying questionnaire. They will appreciate the clarity and structure of knowing what you want from them, and you will guide their feedback to the specific areas where you need it.
That also lets you set the tone of it with your questions so that you elicit information about their reactions to the story, but don’t leave a ready opening for their unsolicited elaboration on what you did wrong and how to fix it. You are looking for objective input into how well the story you wanted to tell is coming across on the page—so what you want to know is how it impacts readers, and your betas and crit partners are your “test cases.”
To paraphrase the famous Nail Gaiman quote, when someone tells you what’s not working for them in your manuscript, that’s good information. When they tell you what you did wrong or how to fix it, that’s generally not.
That brings us to agents and editors—the trained and experienced professionals who will, occasionally, offer more prescriptive input: not just how the story comes across to us on the page, but why certain areas may not be as effective as they could be, and sometimes suggestions for ways you might address the issue.
It pains me to say this, but some of the horror stories I’ve heard—no small number of them, in fact—involve these industry professionals. They may be harsh in their tone or assessment; might try to tell an author what she should or must do with her story; might co-opt her vision with the person’s own preferences, biases, or market needs. None of that is helpful to you as a writer.
A good editor/agent should offer feedback that, as with beta readers and crit partners, reflects her reactions—“Readers may not understand why she would leave her husband here after such a minor disagreement,” for example—as what they are: personal impressions and opinions, not absolute fact, as in, “It makes no sense why she leaves here.”
That may seem like a hairbreadth distinction or simply a nicety of phrasing, but it’s more than that—the former fulfills the proper function of any objective feedback, which is to hold up a mirror to the author so she can more clearly see what she actually has on the page, rather than what she’s filling in because she knows the story so well.
Our job is to tell you how what is on the page may come across to readers, based on our hopefully broad experience not only with many other manuscripts, but in your genre and in the current market. Good agents and editors weigh and need intimate knowledge of all those areas.
Trained professionals also ideally have a broad and very deep knowledge of writing craft so they can share with an author why something may not be working—the kind of actionable, practical input that lets her figure out how to address the issue. For instance, in the above example an editor might observe that the character’s motivations feel unclear and the stakes feel a bit low, because readers aren’t yet specifically seeing why saving her marriage is important to her.
Industry pros may even offer occasional suggestions for how an author might address areas that might benefit from strengthening (all respect to Mr. Gaiman)—but it should be a suggestion only: “Perhaps you could let us see a scene where her goal of becoming an artist is a bit more concrete, and how her husband doesn’t support it—for instance, maybe she’s throwing a new piece of pottery and he casually walks in and criticizes it, or she gives him one of her pieces for their anniversary and he tucks it into a drawer, or something similar that illustrates their dynamic more clearly?”
Suggestions like that should be used simply as a “for instance,” to illustrate the point and perhaps spark ideas. The author might love one of the specific suggestions and run with it, or she might use the ideas as a springboard to come up with her own version that accomplishes the same end—showing this fuzzy dynamic more concretely—but in a way that feels more organic to her vision.
But even with these pros, the tone should always be positive, constructive, and respectful of your work, your vision, and you as a writer.
Indie publishing has marvelously democratized the industry…but it also means a lot of people are hanging out their shingle who perhaps don’t have the qualifications or temperament to do so, from small presses to agents to developmental editors to book coaches.
I can’t stress this enough: Vet the professional you are paying or contracting with to assess your work. Not just by checking their experience, track record, references, etc.—although that’s also crucial—but get a sample of their work. See how they approach your writing.
Just as editors can tell from a few pages what areas of a story may benefit from strengthening or clarifying, authors can tell from a few pages of sample edit whether an editor is offering practical, actionable, positive critique. (You can find a free 13-page guide on finding and vetting professionals on my website here.)
The Most Important Takeaway
This is worth boldfacing: All feedback is opinion—whether that of a professional or not.
Ideally professionals’ opinions are informed by their breadth of experience and expertise, but just as with any other reader, they are still subjective impressions, and can be based on more than simply whether they think the story is good. Readers may be influenced by their personal preferences, market trends, the author’s platform, a publisher’s or agent’s current list of authors/titles, even their mood.
Which means no critique or criticism is a referendum on the objective worth of you, your story, or your writing.
And if someone tells you in any fashion that your story—or you as a writer—has little or no worth, walk away from them and never look back—never give it a second thought. That kind of feedback is utterly unproductive, and frankly it’s flat wrong.
In almost thirty years of working as an editor with everyone from major bestsellers to first-time authors, I can truthfully say I have yet to see a manuscript without worth, that doesn’t have something we can work with and build on.
Nor have I ever seen an author who should hang it up and stop writing—because you are human, and as such you have a story to tell—multitudes of them—and you, and they, are fascinating.
And because this is the process: Writing is rewriting. It’s how we improve. Good critique helps you dig out that gold; it doesn’t blow up the mine.
What are your thoughts on critique vs criticism? What is your favorite (or least favorite) type of feedback? Do you have any questions for Tiffany? Please share them down in the comments!
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller IntuitiveEditing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren't (Berkley). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.
by Margie Lawson
A hug is more than just a hug.
Hugs may be long or short, hot or cold, loving or perfunctory.
Hugs carry psychological messages. Do you have those messages on your pages?
Dig deep—and you’ll have more fun and depth and power on the page.
We’ve all read sentences like:
- They hugged.
- She gave him a quick hug.
- He pulled her into a tight hug.
- He grabbed his brother in a one-armed hug.
Nothing special there. No subtext. No power.
Hugs with Power
Check out these examples of hugs. I’ll share short deep edit points. The blog would be crazy-long if I Deep Edit Analyzed each one.
Please read them OUT LOUD. With feeling. Each one carries a compelling cadence.
(Plus I've sprinkled in some photos of happy hugs.)
Amazing Grace, Elaine Fraser, 2-Time Immersion Grad
Emily wrapped herself around Grace in a hug so close that the thud and thump of their hearts harmonized, and for a few seconds, everything was close to perfect.
Deep Edit Point: Notice the double alliteration – thud, thump, hearts harmonized
Since You’ve Been Gone, Christa Allan, Margie Grad
My mother hugged me, her elbows close to her sides. The kind of hug dispensed with brief and minimal contact, as if my body might scorch her hands if they lingered.
Deep Edit Points: Definitely deepens characterization. Lots of power words too.
Test of Faith, Christa Allan, Margie Grad
1. Carried by the irrational current of the moment, Julia embraced her. As could be expected, there was a reciprocal effort—the teacher treated hugs like a contagious illness—but Julia didn’t care.
Deep Edit Point: Universal Truth -- Most of us have been super excited and hugged someone we wouldn’t usually hug.
2. She passed around her signature faux-hug, one hand on your shoulder and enough forward body movement to suggest hugging.
Deep Edit Point: Universal Truth. Conveys how the POV character feels about this woman.
The Mortician’s Daughter, C. C. Hunter (Christie Craig), Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller
1. His arm comes around me and I feel him pull me closer. It warms my soul. But it’s the kind of hug that makes you want to fall against a shoulder and cry.
Deep Edit Point: Shares impact on POV character. Smart. Smart. Smart.
2. We walk into each other’s arms. Her hugs started lasting longer since she and Dad separated. Mine got tighter when the big C stained our lives.
Deep Edit Point: Uses a hug to slip in backstory.
This Heart of Mine, C. C. Hunter, (Christie Craig), Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller
1. Brandy gives me a best friend hang-on hug. The kind that only comes from real friends.
Deep Edit Point: Digs for her truth.
2. Mom and Dad give me the thumbs-up and a proud-of-you hug. There’s so much happiness in their expressions that I almost start crying.
Deep Edit Point: Shares impact on POV character.
3. Moving in, I hug her, then Dad. It becomes one of those group hugs. I hear my mom’s breath shake, but it’s not the bad kind of shake.
Deep Edit Point: Shares impact mom.
Summoned to Thirteenth Grave, Darynda Jones, 2-Time Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller
1. By the time we got back to HQ, Belinda’s mother, Geri, was there. They hugged for twenty minutes before Belinda introduced her mother to her children.
Deep Edit Points: Hyperbole fun. And deepened characterization.
2. I bolted out of my chair and tackle-hugged him. He hugged me back, his lanky arms locking me into his viselike grip.
Deep Edit Points: Fresh writing with a clear visual – tackle-hugged him.
3. I grinned and pulled her into a hug. She fought me, but it had to be done. I got about three-quarters of a second before she wiggled out of my arms.
Deep Edit Points: Universal Truth -- Hugging a kid, And Humor Hits.
4. Two Paragraphs:
“I don’t care what you say, you are the bravest person I’ve ever known.”
I fought a tightening in my chest. Now was not the time to argue with her, so I simply thanked her and hugged her for as long as time would allow, wishing we’d had this conversation years ago. I think we could’ve been great friends growing up. We’d wasted so much time.
Deep Edit Points: Shares visceral, shares impact on POV character
A Bad Day for Sunshine, Darynda Jones, 2-Time Immersion Grad, NYT Bestseller
1. Without another word, Quincy pulled her into his massive arms. His hug felt like home. Warm and comforting and oddly constrictive.
Deep Edit Points: Shares impact on POV character. Frag with polysyndeton (Many Ands).
2. Sun tackle-hugged her. The duo soon became a dog pile when Elaine and Cyrus joined them, Elaine tickling her daughter while Cyrus held her down.
Deep Edit Point: Tackle-hug again. Same author, different book.
3. Sun stood and hugged first Elaine, then Cyrus, and then she stole a sandwich.
Deep Edit Point: Humor Hit!
4. Two Paragraphs:
Auri threw her arms around him.
He let her hug him for all of eleven seconds, then pushed away from her. Not in a bad way. Not to be rude. But to survive. He could only handle so much affection and Auri knew that.
Deep Edit Points: Humor Hit. Deepened characterization.
5. Two Paragraphs:
Auri turned to Cruz, her top applicant and career hopeful, and she hugged him.
He hesitated, then hugged her back. His long arms wrapped around her and pulled her tight, and he buried his face in her hair. They hugged until someone, a teacher perhaps, cleared her throat.
Deep Edit Points: Humor Hit. Clear visual.
6. Sybil latched onto her, and they hugged for a solid ten minutes. They both cried, and Sun sent up a quick thanks for having a kid like the one he’d given her.
Deep Edit Points: Shared length of hug and impact on POV character.
Never Let Me Fall, Abbie Roads, 5-Time Immersion Grad
She turned in to him and gave him a hug. He stood there not sure how to react, then hugged her back, the little boy inside him clinging to the comfort his big sister offered.
Deep Edit Points: Sweet and deep.
Mad About the Marquess, Elizabeth Essex, 2-Time Immersion Grad
He shook his head and hugged her as if he could possibly contain all the impossible, contradictory feeling careering around within him. “Devil take me, I was right. I did know a thrill-seeker when I saw one.” He wrapped his arms tight around her, to show her what she meant to him. To prove to her that he did not mean to let her go.
Deep Edit Point: Amplified hug, shares what the POV character hopes to convey.
Dear Wife, Kimberly Belle, 5-Time Immersion Grad, International Bestseller
1. “Now get up here and gimme a hug so I can go.” It’s the fastest hug on record, as is my trek down the stairs.
Deep Edit Point: Humor Hit!
2. “Oh, Jeffrey, you poor, poor dear. I heard about Sabine on the evening news.” She rushes around her desk to pull me into a hug. What is the proper amount of time to stand here while a colleague holds you in her wrinkly arms? I count to three, then extricate myself.
Deep Edit Points: Universal Truth and Humor Hit!
3. She grabs me by a shoulder and yanks me in for a hug. I wasn’t expecting it, and for the first few seconds, stand stiff as a board in her arms, but she smells so good and her breasts are like two giant, soft pillows against my cheek, so I relax and give in to the embrace even though the clock is ticking. She pats me on the back with a giant paw, murmurs into my hair, “Poor, sweet girl. It gets easier, you know.”
Deep Edit Point: Super Amplified Hug. Shows emotional shift.
No blah-blah hugs in those examples.
You can see the difference between a shares-no-power hug, and a makes-your-scene-strong hug.
Amplify. Use power words. Go deep. Share subtext. Share humor hits. Share the impact on the POV character. And make every sentence cadence driven.
BLOG GUESTS: IT’S YOUR TURN!
Want to share a fresh hug?
Or comment on these hugs?
Or just say Hi?
See you on the blog!
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Margie Lawson left a career in psychology to focus on another passion—helping writers make their stories, characters, and words strong. Tired of the same old writing rules and tools? Try something new.
Using a psychologically based, deep-editing approach, Margie teaches writers how to bring emotion to the page. Emotion equals power. And power not only grabs readers, it holds onto them until the end. Hundreds of Margie grads have gone on to win awards, find agents, sign with publishers, and hit bestseller lists.
As an international presenter, Margie has taught over 150 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as multi-day intensives on cruise ships in the Caribbean. Pre-COVID, she taught over a hundred 5-day Immersion Master Classes across the U.S. and Canada and in seven cities in Australia too.
COVID Update: Immersion Master Classes are now virtual, taught through Zoom. Virtual Immersion classes are limited to six writers. They're two days long and, as always, writers get one-on-one deep editing sessions with Margie.
She presents a monthly series of "Dig Deep Webinars" and hosts a "Get Happy with Margie" open house each month too. She also founded Lawson Writer's Academy, where you'll find over 30 instructors teaching online courses through her website. To learn more, sign up for Margie's newsletter.
March Classes at Lawson Writer's Academy
- Empowering Characters' Emotions - Becky Rawnsley
- Writing Thrillers and Other Dangerous Novels - Julie Rowe
- Shortcut to Your Author Career - Sandy Vaile
(Please tag #fearlessprose in social media)
- Just-For-You Personalized Mentorship - Rhay Christou
- Navigating the Tightrope Between Historical Fact and Historical Fiction - Anne Mateer
- Essentials of Science Fiction and Fantasy - Suzanne Lazear
- Submissions that Sell - Laura Drake
- Battling the Basics: The Essentials of Writing - Sarah Hamer
- Profitable Facebook Ads - Michelle Fox
- Crazy Easy Awesome-Author Websites - Lisa Norman
- Dazzling Developmental Edits - Jenn Windrow
Top Image - Margie and Lori Freeland, West Texas Writers Conference
by Barbara Linn Probst
If you’re like me, you have a shelf of books and a computer folder (or two) of tips, checklists, bullet points, blogs, and advice about how to write a good story. Even though many of these strategies are, on a closer look, rather similar, it’s still pretty overwhelming. No one can do everything, so we find those that appeal to us.
My Favorite Four Writing Exercises
Here are four of the exercises that I’ve found the most useful. They address character, plot, and the quality of the writing.
Listening to Your Protagonist (Adapted from Donald Maass)
The exercise: Visualize yourself sitting across the table from your protagonist. (I like to visualize the setting, too—in my mind, we’re at my kitchen table, but your conversation might be at Starbucks or in a park.) Ask your protagonist these questions, and listen to what she has to tell you. Write down everything that comes out of her mouth, exactly as she says it. (It only works if you actually write down what you “hear” her saying. Don’t just think it.)
- How do you feel about the way I’ve portrayed you?
- What do you really want to do that I’m not letting you do?
- What are you afraid I might put you through? What do you dread seeing yourself do on the page?
- What about the other characters? You know them better than I do. Whom am I not getting? What am I missing?
- What do you want to say to one of the other characters in the story that I’m not letting you say?
- What’s this story really about—to you? What am I getting wrong?
My experience: I did this with my WIP, and it was one of the most amazing exercises I’ve ever done! My protagonist pulled no punches and told me exactly what she thought of me—how I was projecting my own hang-ups onto her, making her too defensive, and suppressing her kinder impulses. She told me that I needed to love her more.
Luckily, I listened to her—and when I did, the story got so much better.
Understand secondary characters more deeply (Adapted from Kate Racculia)
The exercise: Consider a secondary character who doesn’t feel real to you, seems one-dimensional, or eludes you in some essential way. Answer these questions about her, even though the material won’t actually be in the book.
- What’s her home town, and what does she really think of it (even if she doesn’t say it aloud)?
- What’s her job, and what does she secretly think about it? If she could change something about her job, what would that be?
- What’s a hobby that people would never guess she has?
- What’s her favorite food? Why is it her favorite? Who knows it’s her favorite?
- What motto would be on her coffee mug or tee shirt?
- What’s her recurring dream?
- What’s something she lost, and how did she lose it?
- What’s something she found, and how did that happen?
My experience: I was surprised by how easy this was—and how much fun. I think it was the freedom of knowing that the material wouldn’t be in the book, so I didn’t have to worry about whether it built tension or led to an emotional turning point, or anything other than letting the character come to life. It felt like getting to know someone who already existed, rather than working to “create a character.”
Mapping, interiority, and exteriority (Adapted from Sandra Scofield)
The exercise: Print out the manuscript. (Yep, do it on real paper, not on your laptop; trust me on this). Get out some colored pens or highlighters. On every page, use a different color to underline or circle these elements, without thinking about the plot:
- Green for sentences or passages of interiority—when the POV character is in her head reacting, reflecting, thinking, wondering, or remembering. It’s the internal material that no one else has access to, except her.
- Blue for action—when a character does something physical or there’s an action you could observe (like a car crash). Think of external movements that you could depict with a puppet or see if you were watching an old-time “silent movie.”
- Yellow for exposition—when something is narrated, rather than depicted in-scene. For example, there might be a description of the setting or a paragraph to indicate the passage of time (“telling”). This differs from interiority because it isn’t inside someone’s head. It’s more like the voice of the narrator.
My experience: Actually “seeing” the way I write was pretty dramatic. I sort-of-knew that I had a habit of making my protagonist reflect on every single thing that happened, but seeing it on the page, in blue and green, really brought it home. It made me stop to consider whether each bit of interiority was needed—or needed right then—since interiority interrupts the forward movement of the story.
In some cases, I consolidated the protagonist’s inner reflections and put them together at the end of the scene, rather than interspersed throughout. In other cases, I pondered whether the passage of interiority was truly necessary—and decided that it wasn’t.
The point of this exercise isn’t to indicate how your writing should change; it’s to show you how you actually write.
Ascending and descending from the core scenes (My own exercise, with nods to Ann Garvin, Sandra Scofield, and Kathryn Craft)
The exercise: Identify the most critical scenes in the book, no more than four or five, and draw a timeline with those scenes as high points or “mountains”—literally. Leave plenty of space between each mountain.
Draw steps leading up to each peak and steps coming down the other side. What goes on each step? In other words: what events lead up to the peak? Without those events, the mountain (or critical scene) could not have happened. Then consider the descending staircase. What events were the consequences of the peak moment—the unfolding, the subsequent events that would not have happened otherwise?
This timeline, with its mountains and staircases, is the core plot. There will be other scenes that don’t fit—but you still need to be able to justify their presence in the book. Do they belong to a subplot, foreshadow, reveal character, ease the tension? That might be fine. But if they duplicate merely something on one of the steps, it might signal that the scene isn’t needed.
Note: A critical scene is a moment when something important takes place, after which the story goes in a new direction, for “better” or “worse.” It’s often a moment of choice for the protagonist— when something significant happens that she must now respond to. A “realization” isn’t enough, in itself. She may understand something in a new way, but not just by thinking about it.
It can be interesting to mark each mountaintop with a plus or a minus: is the protagonist closer to her goal or further from it, at the end of the scene? If there are a string of plusses, you might want to change one of them to a minus or add a minus (a new obstacle, a setback, a mistake, the loss of an ally), to make the storyline more interesting. Or vice versa, of course.
My experience: I find that the concrete act of drawing and diagramming can be so illuminating. It can show blind spots in a fresh way—and if it ends up showing me that what I have is working, that’s good too!
What about you? What writing exercise has brought valuable insight for you? Did you try any of these? How did it go?
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.
by Lori Freeland
My favorite line from Tangled is when Flynn Rider tells Rapunzel, “I don’t do backstory.” To me, it sets the tone for who he is and how he’s going to change. His past is his past, and he refuses to dump it on anyone—even himself. And that is his backstory.
Backstory is everything that’s happened in your characters’ lives up to the moment we meet them. It’s the people, places, and events he’s experienced. The family and friends she did or didn’t have. How his parents raised him. The way her childhood illness colored her world.
Like real people, your characters have a past. It’s what’s shaped them into who they are and what pushes them up and over their character arc into who they’re supposed to become.
If we share too much too fast, it pulls the reader back in time and slows down the story’s pacing. If we share too little too late, it leaves the reader confused and your characters hollow.
The same way that it’s hard to connect with shallow people in real life, it’s hard to connect with hollow characters in a book. Also, remember, backstory is mostly telling rather than showing. That’s okay sometimes, but too much telling runs the risk of readers skimming your pages.
Backstory. You can’t write with it. You can’t write without it. So how do you sidestep the information dump and slip subtly into the middle ground?
Let’s start by figuring out what’s important. Initially, everything you learn about each person in your story is for you as the writer.
Sometimes you create the characters. Sometimes the characters create themselves. That’s what’s fun about writing fiction. Figuring out the past helps you write a deeper, more rounded character. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs or wants to know every detail.
Try listing your character’s backstory in bullet points. Use those points in small chunks, sprinkling them throughout the book where they fit the best. Checking off each one as you use it helps keep track of what you’ve already included and what you’re still missing.
Keep the Circle Small
Just like the reader doesn’t need to know every piece of a character’s backstory, not every character needs a backstory.
Unless the doctor or flight attendant or police offer plays a crucial role in a main character’s development, we never have to know his wife left him, her daughter died, or he’s retiring early. If it doesn’t matter . . . it doesn’t matter.
Enjoy the Journey
Sometimes writers believe the reader must have the backstory. Right away. On the first page. They feel the need to explain why Sarah cries at comedies or Josh hates the rain or Penny believes she’ll never find love.
“You don’t understand,” they say. “The reader won’t get my hero without knowing where he came from.”
I do understand. And they’re right. Sort of. But timing is everything. Just like when we’re getting to know a person in real life, we don’t want all twenty or forty or sixty years dumped on us at once, especially when other (more important) action is going on.
Part of the fun is the getting-to-know-you process. Don’t be afraid to take your time. With each new situation you put your characters into, the reader will learn more about who those characters are.
Set Up the Chase
Think of unfolding the past as the thrill of the chase. Make your reader turn the pages to discover pieces of your character’s personal puzzle. Don’t give it all away upfront. Make finding out an adventure. And give opportunities to ask “why.”
Why is Jim afraid of the subway? Why does Kelly suddenly refuse to go out with her friends when that’s all she used to do? Why is Susan turning down the promotion she’s worked a lifetime for? Why do fireworks send six-year-old Sam scurrying under the bed?
Consider what you’ve already shared and what you’re going to be sharing in the future. Don’t repeat information your reader knows just because another character needs to find out.
There are creative ways to mention what’s already been revealed. Keeping track is where your bullet list is helpful.
Your character’s past affects future choices/actions/words. Sometimes life heals. Other times, it leaves scars. If someone tried to commit suicide in a bathtub, they’re not going to take a hot soak to relax.
Don’t Leave Us Hanging
Omitting backstory when it’s needed takes away motivation. If she steps completely out of character or he acts inappropriately without a hint of what prompted the change, the reader will wonder what’s going on. And not in a good way.
As you’re editing, ask yourself if you didn’t know the backstory, would your dialogue, character interactions, and story make enough sense to keep your reader hooked but not confused?
Sneak in backstory by actively weaving it in. That way it feels natural and organic to the story and the characters. You can do this many few different ways. Below are some examples. I’ve put the “backstory hits” in bold.
- DIALOGUE, and what comes before and after the dialogue, addresses moments where you’d rather do more “showing” than “telling.”
“Wallflower!” Zander belted out the nickname he’d given me in eighth grade.
“It’ll be our secret,” he said.
“Like how you kept my underwear a secret during the last performance of The King and I?” And sent me bolting out of town.
“Aw, come on, Hendrix.” Zander’s blue eyes burned into me. “It was supposed to be a tiny little slit down the back of the dress.” He held his thumb and index finger apart. “Not an entire costume malfunction.”
- INTERNAL THOUGHT (inner narrative) can be a natural place to drop backstory.
“I guess being alone at night is getting to me.” I reached deep for an old Kate smile. One I hadn’t worn in a while.
I couldn’t lose the only family I had. Couldn’t leave him alone and vulnerable. Not the grandpa who’d stepped in as a dad when my mom didn’t want me.
- REACTIONS to what’s going on around your characters gives an opportunity for the reader to learn more about their pasts. People respond to things based on their experiences and how things make them feel.
Six years, and Zander still had the ability to throw me into a steep spin.
“Yes, ma’am.” Alek’s silly smirk went pure Texan, and he moved in to put his arm around me.
A chill broke over my skin, and I stumbled back.
His grin dropped quicker than his arms.
My auto-flinch didn’t care. It overrode the thousand hugs he’d already given me, the hundred times we’d squeezed into a crowded restaurant booth, and every single one of the nights we’d fallen asleep on the couch watching horror movie marathons. together.
- HUMOR disguises backstory in a way that makes it fun.
My grandpa had been everyone’s grandpa ever since I could remember, his kitchen table more popular than the town’s only bar.
- DESCRIPTION is an easy way to add a hint here and there. You can use people/places/things/voices/body language/expressions.
The house hadn’t changed in the six years I’d been gone. The L-shaped, brick ranch with narrow rectangular windows still had the same 1960s doctor’s office vibe.
Just as I turned to retrace my steps, a deep voice yelled, “In the back.”
A voice that zip-tied my chest. A deep, throaty, guitar-thrum of a voice I hadn’t heard since I bailed on this town after graduation. Actually, Alexander Ryland was the reason I’d bailed after graduation.
Backstory can be fun. So can inventing new ways to add it in.
Now it’s your turn. Do you find you have too much or too little when it comes to backstory? In what ways do you sneak in a character’s past? I’d love for you to share examples in the comments.
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her book, Where You Belong: a runaway series novella, is currently free on Kindle Unlimited.