We’ve all read books with page after page of backstory. Okay, we’ve all skimmed books with page after page of backstory. We likely have even some of those books ourselves. Where does that extra verbiage come from, and why do we put it in?
There is an easy answer. Excess backstory is the visible evidence of we writers telling ourselves our stories. That backstory is there for us, not for our readers. It is the evidence of the sausage being made, and it is drawn from the period of time when our ideas are taking shape. Put simply, when we don't know what we're writing about before we write it, backstory is a dead giveaway.
I know what you’re thinking. . . . One more blog on the virtues of plotting.
No. This is about the virtues of forethought and how that forethought naturally eliminates undue backstory in our manuscripts.
But I’m a pantser! My story must be free to unfold at will and unfettered by the bondage of forethought!
Forethought this: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business. Any successful business requires forethought.
We all write for different reasons:
- Therapy—because it’s easier than talking
- Therapy—because we love words
- Therapy—because we’re unemployed
- Therapy—because writing is the closest thing we have to talking to adults while we care for our babies
- Therapy—because stories are swirling inside our heads and must get out
- Therapy—because a world where we don’t write is simply inconceivable
- And some of us write for therapy.
Regardless of our reasons, forethought is our most powerful tool for shaping a story and actually getting it on the page.
To be clear, when I talk about forethought, I’m not necessarily talking about plotting.
I’m talking about people. The characters. Also, for all of the sci-fi folks, I'm talking about world building. I recommend that sci-fi writers read through this article a second time and exchange the word “characters” for “world building” so that pages aren't wasted telling us how the planet was formed in the belly of a lizard and coughed out in the hairball of the cat that ate the lizard on the night the cat was locked out of the house because it had gotten mad when its owner ran out of soft food and only gave it hard food so it had peed on its owner's clean laundry. In other words, to naturally eliminate backstory, sci-fi folks need to know characters and the world before diving into a story.
The single best way to eliminate backstory for our readers is to know our characters and our world inside and out before we write the first draft. That prevents us from having to tell ourselves our stories when we should be telling them to our readers.
- How old are they when the book starts?
- What do they look like?
- Where were they born?
- Where did they grow up?
- Did they go to school? Where?
- What is their religion? Do they believe it, practice it, play along with it, or reject it?
- What were their relationships with their parents?
- What were their parents’ occupations and educational levels?
- Who was their first love? How did it end?
- What were the watershed events in their lives, and how did our characters change because of these events?
- How did they meet the other characters?
- What are they afraid of?
- What are their inner conflicts?
- What are their emotional wounds? How did they get those wounds? How old were they at the time?
- What do they want?
- Who is keeping them from getting what they want?
- Absolutely anything else we can ask ourselves about our characters.
In other words, we don’t just need to know our serial killer, Terrell, is a psychopath. We need to understand exactly how Terrell became a psychopath, what sort of a psychopath he is, and why he is where he is when the book starts.
I recommend answering this list of questions for the antagonist, the minions, the protagonist, the love interest, the allies, the mentors, and anyone other character who has more than twenty lines in the book.
So how does knowing all of this about my characters minimize my backstory?
The answer is summed up in a quote from Hemingway. “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, we can leave out anything as long as we know what we are leaving out.
This is twice-true with backstory. So we must know our backstory, in order to leave it out. On the other hand, if we DO know it, we don’t feel compelled to put it in. We can focus on telling our story to our readers, instead.
As an added bonus, when we know our characters, they will tell us our plot.
We never have to wonder what’s going to happen next, because our characters will behave in characteristic fashion. We avoid moments of “Oh, no! What is Frida going to do now that Gomez has left her?” Easy. We can look at Frida’s character profile and let Frida do Frida. If Frida’s a whiny brat, she will whine about losing Gomez. If she has anger management issues, she will hunt down Gomez and run over him with her car. If we know our characters, our plot is less likely to stall or leave us hanging.
Let me reassure you of this method with a little of my own backstory. My first manuscript SUCKED. No, seriously. It sucked with capital letters. My editor spent five hours (count ’em—five) on the phone telling me just how bad it sucked. That manuscript is now being used for enhanced interrogations at Guantanamo, and no one has lasted past page twenty-five without spilling the goods on their own mother. The US Navy sends me thank you notes and cookies for my birthday each year.
Out of 157,000 words (really) I threw out all but five—a, and, the, but, or—and I started over by getting to know my characters.
When I sat down to re-write the book, I discovered something. I naturally left out everything except the actual story. It was an epiphany. As a result, I have a far better story. That book became my debut dystopian thriller, Firelands.
Once I knew my characters' stories, I didn't have to spend the whole book figuring them out. It makes all the difference.
What are your issues with backstory? Do you develop your characters before you write?
Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She is also a belly dancer and a former hospice volunteer. She has been working daily with her good friend Jay Holmes for the past decade, learning about foreign affairs, espionage history, and field techniques for the purpose of writing fiction and nonfiction. She currently pens espionage nonfiction and international spy thrillers with Jay Holmes, as well as post-apocalyptic fiction of her own.
Visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.
Why is it so damned difficult to believe that we are really writers?
I was discussing imposter syndrome recently with a highly successful author who has two bestselling non-fiction books out and is in the middle of an extensive, publisher supported tour. She confessed that she doesn’t really feel like she’s a writer.
Sound familiar? I hear this from my clients and writer friends. I see the phrase “aspiring writer” all over the internet. I often feel like a fraud myself, despite eight published novels and more under contract.
Part of the problem is that we keep adding silent tags onto the word writer, associating it with qualifiers like:
Successful (whatever the heck that means).
The truth is, if you show up to the page in any form with any level of consistency at all—you are a writer. This holds true no matter where you are on the journey. It doesn’t matter whether you have an agent or not, are indie or traditionally published, or are just beginning to explore yourself on paper and nowhere near the point of publication—you are still a writer.
You are a writer while you’re cleaning cat boxes, changing diapers, making dinner, or slogging away at the day job to pay the bills.
When we don’t believe this—when we buy into doubt’s whispers and think of ourselves as wannabe writers, or aspiring writers, or even newbie writers—we enable all of our excuses and stunt our potential. If you’re not really a writer, then why should you work to learn the craft and skill that will make your words sparkle on the page and keep readers glued to your plot? Why should you sacrifice other parts of your life to make time for writing? Why should you risk the fallout of bringing the deepest part of yourself to the page?
One of the most essential steps you can take toward deepening your writing life, pursuing your writing dreams, and getting closer to your personal definition of success is to embrace and internalize the belief that you really, truly, unequivocally are a writer.
No qualifiers. No tags. No unspoken “buts.”
Here are five steps to get you started growing into your writer identity.
1. Claim the Writer Title.
Say to yourself, right now as you’re reading this, “I am a writer.” In fact, get up from your chair, go find the nearest mirror, look at yourself and say, “This is what a writer looks like.” Practice telling other people that you are a writer. If you’re tempted to add a qualifier or a but to the statement, explaining that you’re not published or nobody’s heard of you--resist the temptation. Stand fast. Practice saying, “Hey, I’m Kerry and I’m a writer.” If this feels wrong and strange, if you feel like a fraud, that just means you need more practice.
2. Find a community of other writers.
If you hang out with writers, you’re going to find it easier to assimilate the belief that you too are a writer. Whether you join a local writing group, hang out in an online forum, or join an online critique group, you’ll discover that you’ll feel more like a writer if you belong to a companionship of writers. This is your tribe.
3. Write anyway.
On the days when everything is totally dark and you’re convinced that every word you’ve written is horrible and that you were really born to be a ditch digger—write anyway. Write for five minutes. Give yourself permission to write horrible, sloppy, godawful prose that you would never show to another living soul. Just showing up as a writer, even for just a few words, helps dispel those paralyzing doubts.
4. Love your writing.
Passionately. As if it’s a secret paramour you can’t get enough of. It’s so easy to get swept up in lofty, down the road goals of agents, publishing contracts, record breaking sales, and the elusive rainbow gold of fame and fortune. This focus can feed the doubt and keep us from the page. Whatever success we’re aiming for is always a gazillion miles away, and it’s hard enough to keep believing that we’ll ever get to the end of a draft. Bring yourself back, over and over again, to what you love about the process of writing. What drew it to you in the first place? What do you love about your current work in progress?
5. Practice believing.
If it’s hard to believe in yourself as a real writer, see if you can believe it just a little bit, or for a minute at a time. Employ your imagination. Ask yourself this question: “How would it feel to believe I am a real writer?” And this one: “How would a successful writer approach this situation?” Act as if, while the belief catches up with you.
And while you’re growing into your writer identity—keep writing. Thank all of the writing gods for this one thing: doubts are just doubts, and we are not defined by them.
Kerry Schafer, also writing as Kerry Anne King, is the author of nine novels, including the Amazon Charts and Washington Post bestselling novel Whisper Me This. She is also a writer mindset coach and speaker, helping writers ditch their doubts, dance with their demons, and delve into creative delight so they can get their words out of their heads and onto the page where they belong.
While every great novel I've read hasn't had a memorable first line, fabulous first lines tend to stick with me. And more than once, I've purchased a book based on a reel-me-in first line or paragraph.
Here are just a few favorite openings:
“As an interactive horror experience, with beasts from Hell, mayhem, gore, and dismemberment, it was an impressive event. As a high school prom, however, the evening was marginally less successful.” – Prom Dates from Hell, Rosemary Clement-Moore
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
“I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.” – Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis
“Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal.” – Red-Headed Stepchild, Jaye Wells
"Trevor Dunham talked quite a bit about his man part just before he drowned." – The Lifeboat Clique, Kathy Parks
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
But today, we invite you to share the opening lines of your current WIP (work-in-progress) or recently finished novel in the comments! Or share a favorite from someone else. Give us the title and genre, then your opening lines. Feel free to comment on others' as well!
We'll get you started.
The Six-Percent Baby, a memoir
My dreams died on a sunny April afternoon. There would be no baby for me. Not from this body.
Book 2 in the Rx for Love series (Thea's story)
If she didn’t have sex this year, her girly bits were gonna stage a revolt. Thea Armstrong stared at the magazine in her hands, contemplating her love life.
When did I last have sex? Oh hell. When did I last go on a date?
Definitely not this year. Her BFF almost died this year. Last year, she’d raced to finish her degree. The year before was speed dating. What a bleeding disaster.
She did a frantic mental count.
Six years? Six years since she’d kicked Mr. Oh-so-wrong Keith out of her life. Almost seven years since she’d been with a man.
Holy smokes, I’m practically re-virginized.
Fire on Roof, a speculative fiction book
What had seemed like an exceptional decision a year ago, now reeked like month-old garbage in the settlement’s incinerator hole.
Compromising Harmony, a Keep sphere book
“Behold—the unwilling virgin.” The sputtered words escaped from between Harmony MEcar’s clenched teeth. Flipping up the farview lens of her tactical helmet, she watched her laughing target emerge from the pool.
Untitled contemporary romance
The universe could not have found a worse match for her.
Prepare to Meet Your Undertaker, cozy mystery
When someone asks me to arrange a Viking funeral for them, I deliver.
You can’t just toss a corpse in a boat and light it on fire anywhere. It takes event planning, coordination with legal authorities, and knowledge of the proper disposal of dead bodies.
Thankfully, I’m an expert at making dream funerals come true.
My fave of my own work will always be The Sweet Spot:
The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.
The Road to Me, women's fiction
I was born to be a hippie. I resisted. - Jacqueline Oliver
As-yet untitled western romance
“Hon, we’ve talked about this. I can’t ride bulls forever. Why not go out on top?”
When Lacey’s brow furrows, I know the jig is up. She doesn’t expend a wrinkle for minor irritations.
Share your opening lines—or a favorite from another author below!
I'm a fan of fairy tales. Not so much the Disney re-tellings—though some are good—but rather the rich lore of the originals.
But what if your writing career was a fairy tale? Which one would it be?
Cinderella was a hard-working young woman cursed by a stepmother who didn't care one bit about her dreams. But Cindy was special, so when a fairy godmother showed up and offered her a pretty dress, slippers, and a carriage to the prince's ball, she headed out the door. Even better, she came upon Prince Charming, who fell in love with her at first sight and made all of her dreams come true.
I used to believe this was the writing fairy tale! I'd get my fairy godmother agent who'd set up my meeting with a publisher who'd fall in love with my writing...and together they'd make all my dreams come true. Yeah, I was a little naive and starry-eyed back then.
Look, I'm not knocking Cinderella's work ethic—the girl is forced into servitude and hangs out among the cinders to keep warm, for heaven's sake! But she's not the hero of her own story.
Likewise, imagining that someone else is going to deliver your writing happy-ever-after on a silver platter is a bit unrealistic these days. Be your own fairy tale hero. Get the manuscript finished, be smart about your choices, and take charge of your writing success.
Snow White is a tale of jealousy, pure and simple. An evil queen approached her looking glass each day and asked how she measures up. But she didn't do it based on how looked the day before or how she'd look the day after. She compared herself to others. And what happened? Well, she got bested by a sweet young thing who hung out with seven dwarfs in the deep of the forest and a local prince who fell in love with that black-haired beauty. As Dr. Phil might say, "How'd that work out for you, Queenie?"
Yet, plenty of us fall for the same thing. We plug away at our writing, look over and realize that someone else is ahead of us, and become discouraged, frustrated, and jealous. Well, guess what? Someone will always be ahead of you. If you write 5,000 words this week, someone else will write 10,000. If you get a five-figure book advance, someone else will get a six-figure one. If you hit the New York Times bestseller list, someone will too—and stay on it longer.
What if the queen had just looked in the mirror and concluded, “So I’m not 20 anymore, but I look dang good. In fact, I'm one hot mama. I’m going to get on my exercise steed, use a beauty product or two, and look even better tomorrow”? Of course, there'd be no conflict and thus no story, but everyone would have gotten a happy ever after!
Forget how you measure up to others. Write the best story you can, so you can look in that mirror and say, "Heck yeah, I'm the fairest I can be!"
Rapunzel was locked away in a tower at the age of 12 and didn’t cut her hair for years. Of course, it was the enchantress who shut her away in the story, but it's a story of isolation until some guy comes to rescue her. (And here's where the Disney version is better, because she totally rescues him back. So there.)
Do you, like Rapunzel, feel isolated and alone in this journey? We've all heard those stories of the writers who lock themselves away for the sake of finishing a manuscript. They ignore healthy eating, sleeping, and grooming and write so much that they're only a few hours away from naming their blinking cursor "Wilson."
But is the "always writing" approach a great idea? Actually, more and more research is showing we need playfulness and novelty and social interaction to keep our minds functioning at full capacity. It's okay to let down your hair now and then, take care of yourself, and enjoy time with others. Maybe hang out with some other writers. I hear they're a cool bunch.
Beauty and the Beast
A widower in need of sustenance came upon a palace and found food and water within. But the Beast who owned the palace would not let the man go unless his daughter took his place. Once the daughter arrived and swapped spots with Daddy, the Beast tried to woo her, but she would not return his affection. Finally, he let her leave to visit her family, but after a while, Beauty worried he was back at the palace dying without her. Upon her return, she found the Beast almost dead, realized she loved him, and brought him back to life—as a human prince.
Writing can be a beast, can't it? Maybe it's at the level of drafting the manuscript, when you can't seem to make it all work. Maybe it's just finding time to write among the pushes and pulls of life. Maybe it's marketing that makes you want to roar like a beast yourself.
And yet, stories keep wooing you, and deep down, you know you love writing. It's just a matter of bringing them all to life with all your Beauty-ness. Mind you, it will take time, and you wish the road was easier. But with some attention and nurturing, you may well turn your beasts into bestsellers!
Now that would be a happy ever after.
Can you compare your writing journey to any of these fairy tales? Or how about others?
Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. She is also co-author of the Muse Island supernatural suspense series, which begins with Mark of the Gods, under the pen name Jules Lynn.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
by the WITS Founders
One of our founding members, Sharla Rae, recently passed away after a long battle with cancer. She was pivotal in all of our lives here at Writers In the Storm. Fae, Laura and Jenny have shared memories of her below, as well as photos of our great times together.
Jenny ~ Ah, that Charla. She could always make me laugh and she sure did know how to sexy up a boring scene. Her heroes were alpha and her heroines were feisty. She was an Iowa girl, married to a Chinese man from Singapore, and she could cook Chinese food better than any restaurant I've visited.
I miss you and your sweet smile, Char. I know you're organizing a glorious party in heaven right now that includes great food and fun, with your beloved son as your co-host.
Laura ~ In 2008, I was a newbie to RWA (Romance Writers of America), having belonged to a local chapter in Orange County, CA for about six months. I was hungry. I wanted an agent and a New York contract. But I knew I needed input on my manuscript (embarrassed to admit I'd titled my WIP, A Fawn in Winter, which became my second book, Her Road Home. Yeah, newbie). Someone in the chapter said that a long-standing crit group had lost a member and was looking for a new one. Score!
I got up the courage to approach Charla Chin (a published author!), and she told me in a no-nonsense tone that I would need to submit a sample of my writing, then attend a crit session so they could judge if I were a good fit. Yikes! I submitted, and went to the group, palms sweating. It was the most important interview of my writing career to date, and I needed this! There was Char and Jenny, and to my horror, I was told there was another applicant (Fae). She'd "interviewed" the night before, and they told me her stuff was good! I was toast. All was lost. But the next day Char and Jenny told us they decided to take us both on—alleviating my need to hate Fae Rowen forever—which is good, because she's about my best friend now.
Char was an integral part of starting this blog, but that's a story for someone else to tell. I'm just proud that Sharla Rae allowed me to use her name for my main character in my first published book, my RITA winner, The Sweet Spot.
Thank you Char for all you've given me. Sweet dreams.
Fae ~ I first met Charla Chin the night of my "interview" to become a "Slick Chick." The name of their four-member critique group was The OC Slick Chicks, which, of course, provided us with a lot of laughs.
I knew the member who had moved, Theresa, and the group wanted a replacement. I sent them my chapter, they each sent me theirs. I showed up for our meeting, copies of my critiques of their work in hand.
After I finished explaining my comments, they shared their individual thoughts on my chapter. I'd been in two critique groups before health and moves blew them up, so I was used to people reading my words and making comments like, "But what are they feeling?" or "Real people don't do that."
Charla, Jenny, and Deb gave me good feedback, but even better, at the end of that evening, they told me they had one more person to interview, but they wanted me to become part of the group.
I drove home happy, sure that I'd found my "forever home" in the writing community.
A couple of nights later, Char called to let me know that they'd decided to invite the woman who'd met with them the next night—Laura Drake—to join, too. I knew who Laura was from OCC meetings, but, I have to admit, a bit of my sparkle and glitter dimmed, knowing that I hadn't gotten "the nod" by myself.
Best turn of luck, ever! Funny how the Universe does that for you.
Charla was a great critique partner. She was multi-New York published and she could write sexy! Sometimes I wasn't happy with her comments of "You need to sex this scene up, Fae." But she had great suggestions about how to do that, so it ended well.
Soon after Laura and I joined the group, the fifth member, Deb, took a writing hiatus. We were down to four.
On one of the rare nights that we met at someone's home (for some reason we had dinner at Charla's that night), we talked about getting into the social media age as a writing group by having everyone join Facebook. Jenny showed us how to do that, and we all left with Facebook accounts, including one for our group. I have to admit, I did nothing with mine for at least a year.
We also came up with the idea for this blog site. We threw out different names and nothing stuck, until I semi-channeled The Doors and suggested Writers in the Storm. Laura and I have the same musical sensibility, so she jumped on the name, looking for pictures for a banner. Jenny talked about administration of the site and volunteered to get it up and running and shepherd it through the first three months as long as we all wrote one blog a month and learned how to post it, as well as comment on the other posts.
This was a new time-sump for all of us. We asked every writer we knew to blog for us. The technology wasn't easy for us to master, so we bothered Jenny. A lot.
Unfortunately, Char's son was diagnosed with cancer. She was very involved with his treatment and semi-moved to Texas to be with him. When his treatment was over and it appeared he was cancer-free, we celebrated with her. But then, his cancer returned. After his death, she was diagnosed with cancer and chose to remain in Texas for treatment. During this time we prayed for her, e-mailed her, talked on the phone with her.
She, too, was declared cancer-free and sent home. But the drug protocols had been brutal and taken a toll on her. She tried to get back up to speed with her writing, critiquing, and Writers in the Storm, but eventually decided to concentrate on her family. Her rights were reverting to her on her first three books, and she was going to revise them for self-pubbing.
I wish she'd had time to finish that task.
I miss our rides to our WITS critique sessions. I miss hearing about what was going on in her life. I miss her excitement when she added a doll to her collection. I'm sorry we all lost her so early.
Some links to her most popular posts:
- Are Your Characters Stylin'? Descriptive Fashion Phrases and Terms
- Writing About Hair: The Thick and Thin of Descriptions
- Character Eye Descriptions: The Window to Your Story
- Using a Crowd To Create Tension in Your Story
- 10 Tips for Writing Children and a Descriptive List
- How is Writing a Futuristic Novel Like Writing a Historical
If you'd like to share a memory about Sharla Rae, we'd love to hear your story.