Waiting for "The Call"

“Honey, it’s always crap. Every book I write is crap. It’s my job to fix the crap afterwards,” according to Nora Roberts. Well, I've got it half right. Still working on the "fixing it" part. "Trust your characters to be complex enough and to have enough emotional baggage. Force them to make hard choices." Advice from Michelle Styles that might help!

Rewrites and backstory February 5, 2011

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 11:45 pm
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I’m just about ready to start on my rewrites of Cady and Lock’s story. This is the story aimed that SuperRomance that I had a rejection for in December. Megan wrote-

“the plot relies too heavily on external forces and secondary characters to bring Cady and Lock together.
Everything that happens comes about because of actions taken by other people, not from any decision made by the hero and heroine. For this story to be successful, we’d need to see the characters be more proactive in their lives and their relationship instead of simply reacting to the other people around them.”

So I looked at ways to make the characters more goal driven, more proactive, and give them far higher stakes. I’ve spent the past week planning the story, trying to get good strong conflicts and character arcs.

The good news is, I think I have a handle on it. I feel like I really know the characters now. I hope I’ve made their conflict strong and believable. Apart from the inciting incident not externally driven at all. Cady and Lock are the ones making things happen. The structure seems solid. I have a plan that it virtually a synopsis, focused on their emotional growth and change and how this affects the relationship, not just a list of what happens.

The bad news is, there’s very little in the original first draft I can use. It was all discovery draft.

 *sigh* This is going to be a long process.

It feels as if I’m really starting from scratch again, except I’m not. I know the characters well, I know their backstories, I know why and how they hook into each other’s deepest internal issues. I know the things that get in the way of them having a relationship. I just hope I can write it!

Thinking of backstory, I read this excellent article today, especially relevent for me as my first draft is just loaded with backstory in internal monologue. One of the hazards of knowing my characters well, and them having a history together, which I know has to get the chop. I hope I’ll be brave enough to use his method to eradicate any remaining infodump when I edit up the next draft!


One of the biggest problems I see in fiction manuscripts is a big glop of backstory in the first two or three chapters of the novel.

Every novelist who has ever committed this sin justifies himself by claiming that the backstory is necessary because otherwise the reader won’t know what’s going on.

This isn’t true. Readers don’t read your novel for your marvelous backstory. They read it to get immersed in your main story. Once you get them hooked on the story, they’ll begin to get interested in the backstory and u can start feeding it to them in small doses.

You may be thinking, “That’s great advice for everybody else, but I’m different. My story is different. My readers HAVE to know my backstory.”

The answer is yes, but.

Yes, you’re different. Yes, your story is different.

But your reader really doesn’t care that 35 years ago your main character Luke got beat up every day in kindergarten.

Your reader cares that RIGHT NOW Luke is peering through the sights of a sniper rifle. Which happens to be trained on the head of the state governor. Who happens to be 40 years old. Who happens to be a bully. Who happens to have gone to kindergarten with Luke.

NOW your reader cares just a wee bit about what happened way back when. But your reader still cares a whole lot more about Luke’s trigger finger than about his horrible childhood.

It’s true that your reader is going to need to know a little about your backstory. How do you provide that without losing momentum in your frontstory?

One way to do that is by inserting “presuppositions” into your sentences.

And just what exactly is a “presupposition?”

Loosely speaking, a presupposition is a statement that is implied by a sentence. If the cop asks, “Have you quit beating your wife?” there’s a presupposition that in the past you beat your wife.

A classic example of how presuppositions work in language is the following sentence, which Bertrand Russell analyzed many years ago:

“The present King of France is bald.”

Is the above sentence true or false?

Since France is a republic, there is no present King of France, so the sentence can hardly be true.

But is it false? If it were false, would it be true that the present King of France has a full head of hair?

Obviously not. Russell pointed out that this sentence carries along with it some unspoken presuppositions:
* France has at least one king
* France has no more than one king

When you say that the King of France is bald, you are also implicitly asserting these presuppositions, and the combination of the three statements is false because they aren’t all true.

Some people would say that it’s simply meaningless to say “The present King of France is bald.”

But if you were watching a movie set in 1753 France, and if one of the actors said, “The King of France is bald,” everybody would know exactly what he meant.

Context matters. Presuppositions imply context. And another word for “context” is “backstory.”

Now here’s the point for fiction writers. Many of the sentences you write in your novel carry along with them certain presuppositions. When your reader reads your work, she unconsciously analyzes those presuppositions and makes conclusions about your Storyworld and the backstories of your characters.

When Han Solo brags about his ship in the original STAR WARS movie, for example, he says, “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”

Here are some presuppositions which are implicit in this line:
* The Millennium Falcon is famous
* The Kessel Run is long or treacherous or both
* A parsec is a unit of time
* Twelve parsecs is an excellent time for the Kessel Run

Notice that these presuppositions may be false (parsecs are units of distance) but they still tell us something about Han Solo and the world he lives in. Solo is not only egotistical, but he’s also sloppy in his use of language.

Writers constantly try to explain too much. This is true for the greenest novices and the most advanced experts, and it provides unending employment for editors, who earn their keep by scrawling “Resist the Urge to Explain” in the margins.

How do you fix things when you’re explaining too much?

The first step is to cut out the backstory. (Don’t throw it away. Save it to another document so you’ll have a record of it. Then delete it from your main story. Yes, all of it.)

The second step is to look for those places in your story that are now confusing to your reader because she lacks some essential context — some piece of backstory. Insert ONLY the fragment of backstory that your reader needs in order to make sense of the story.

One way to do that is to imply a chunk of backstory by rewriting a frontstory sentence so that it now contains a few well-chosen presuppositions.

Your reader is smart. When she reads a sentence that carries presuppositions, she immediately assumes these presuppositions are true and are part of your backstory. If she knows or learns that these presuppositions aren’t actually true, then she concludes that your character is unreliable.

We’ve already seen how George Lucas used a few presuppositions to characterize Han Solo. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how other writers have done it.

Here’s the beginning paragraph of a scene in ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card, in which we meet Ender Wiggin:

The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of that horrid monitor. Well I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”
This only makes sense if the following presuppositions are true:
* Ender is a fairly young boy
* He’s had a monitor installed for quite a long time
* The monitor is unpleasant to wear
* Ender has had some painful medical procedures before
* Monitors are managed by a bureaucracy

We can also deduce from all of these that the story is set in the future.

Card could have told us all those things and a whole lot more about the history of monitors and why they’re necessary and thereby slowed down the story. Instead, he let us figure out only what we need to know right now. With presuppositions.
Here’s an example from the opening two paragraphs of THE KEY TO REBECCA, by Ken Follett:

The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.
The first paragraph carries with it this presupposition:
* More than one camel has died already

The second paragraph has these presuppositions:
* The owner of the camel is a lone man
* He is no longer in Gialo
* He is familiar with camels

We can also deduce that the owner of the camel is making a long and dangerous journey across the desert. This isn’t a presupposition, but it follows pretty readily from the presuppositions and from the first sentence.

Presuppositions are useful because they let you say more with fewer words. That is a worthy goal for any novelist.
If you’d like to see some more examples of how presuppositions work, check out the Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presuppositions

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 24,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

Another blog I’ve been reading  a lot this week is one Janet commented about- Plot to Punctuation. I liked this series on Revising Character in particular, and his stuff on character arc is very good.


Backstory October 31, 2009

Filed under: Writing and Life — Autumn Macarthur @ 1:30 pm
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Something I have biiiiiiiiiig problems with.

Of course, as soon as I hit send on my submission, I started thinking of how I could have made it better. Not to mention reading a couple of excellent entries from writing pals. Nothing like reading truly sensational writing to give that “Eep, mine’s even worse than I thought it was,” feeling.

Subtly handling backstory without lapsing into infodump is one of the many things I really need to work on. I know my characters so well, I could spend the first three chapters just on backstory. I want to tell everyone everything I know about these people who are so fascinating to me! Not that anyone would read that far without either falling asleep in boredom or throwing the book against the wall in frustration at waiting so long for something to actually happen. I am the queen of infodump. I thought I’d solved that on the fifteenth edit of the first chapter, but maybe not!

This blog post from agent Rachelle Gardner talks about keeping the reader guessing instead of telling them even a few words more than they need to know at that stage of the story.

Rachelle says-

There are ways to bring the backstory into the book, and the key is to do it slowly. Think about giving just enough information to illuminate one tiny aspect of your character at a time. Place your characters in situations, let them react, and let your reader wonder how they got there and why they reacted that way. You want to be strategic, almost cunning, in the way that you let little bits of information from the past appear on the page. Use those pieces of backstory to slowly and carefully flesh out that character, never giving away too much, always leaving the reader guessing a little.

That’s one of the things that keeps readers going – when they’re asking themselves questions about your character. They want to know more and so they become engaged in the story. If you try to feed them all the information they could possibly need right up front, readers aren’t experiencing that desire for more. You could lose them.

Think of backstory as a precious commodity of which you are the guardian. You will release it on a need-to-know basis. Only give the reader what they need for that moment of the story, just little bits here and there. Be stingy with it. Keep the forward momentum of the story going.

Fabulous advice. I tend to want to explain my characters’ motivations too much too soon. The reader needs just enough information to stop her jumping so far to the wrong conclusions about the character’s motivation that she stops reading. Enough to keep her interested, wanting to find out more. But not telling her everything. Why should she keep reading? And on the other hand not misleading her. I hate those stories where the writer is keeping key information secret from the reader, to be revealed at the end in a deus ex machina type resolution.

It works well when the reader knows something about a character what the other character doesn’t yet. The reader keeps reading, waiting to see when it will be revealed and how the characters will react.  But it still needs to be dripped in, on a need to know basis, as an organic part of the unfolding story.

I just realised something. The reason backstory takes the reader out of the flow of the story is that it’s often cerebral, detached from the moment, even if it’s done in dialogue or internal monologue. The character is telling us the past or telling us about themselves. We’re getting told not shown.

Can I find ways to ground the information about the character’s past in present events, in physical sensation and emotions? And even then, only give the minimum necessary information? If the heroine gets tongue-tied, dry mouthed, and shaky around the hero when they first meet, does the reader need to know she’s always been like this around guys she finds attractive, even since Ryan Mitchell, the cutest guy in the class, who she’d had a crush on all year, came over and sat next to her at the school dance when she was fourteen, and she couldn’t even squeak out a “Hi” so he walked away, and by the end of the night had hooked up with another girl who he dated for the rest of the year, while at twenty-four the heroine’s still never really had a date? In a short category romance, I don’t have the word count to go into that, I need to stay focused in the moment. In a longer more humorous women’s fiction piece, I might stay in the moment for the meeting but have her recount to her girlfriends later that it was “Ryan Mitchell all over again,” if I want to choose that way to have the reader find out more about her spectacular lack of romatic success so far.  But the Ryan Mitchell thing is both too much information and drags the reader out of the physicality of the moment if I drop that in at the time.

It’s especially relevant to me now, as I move on to editing chapter two. The hero takes the heroine back to his island birthplace, back to the place and the people he left behind 12 years ago. There’s a lot I want to tell the reader about his past history there. I need to be very careful both in how I do it, and when I do it. There may be a lot I know that the reader never needs to know. There may be some things that need to be hinted at now so the reader doesn’t feel cheated if it turns out to be important later. There may be some things that impact enough on the present events that the reader needs to know right now.

This is getting complex. So many levels of “need to know”! There’s what I need to know as the writer to understand these characters and their goals and motivations fully. There’s what the readers need to know to keep them interested in the characters and the story, right through to a satisfying ending. There’s what the characters need to know about themselves and each other at each stage of the story. All of these will be different.

This is what one of the Mills and Boon editors put about backstory on a detailed rejection letter one of my fabulous and talented writing buddies received-

the reader becomes bogged down by unnecessary exposition. It is often best to reveal back story through action, when it has the most impact on the story and the characters.

I’m still not 100% sure how to do that. Looks like I better learn, PDQ!

Okay, edited again to add more links! Looks like it’s backstory learning day today because everywhere I go I’m seeing stuff about backstory, without even looking. Or is it just that because I’m thinking about backstory today I’m noticing it? Whatever.

Anyway, found this post and this one on Romance University that add more to this. The first one has jolted me out of a belief I had about backstory and motivation- that characters need backstory to explain motivation. Editor Theresa Stevens makes a strong point that goes against what I thought I knew-

beware the backstory used to shore up character motivations. It often points to a lack of real conflict or to other plot problems. Every time you’re tempted to reach backwards to explain why characters are behaving a certain way, stop. Ask yourself if you can fix it in the present story moment, because this will almost always be the stronger fix.

Oops. I do this all the time- try to explain present behaviour using the past. But how much better to use present events to explain the character’s motivations or beliefs! She uses a great example of the impact on story of a hero not trusting the heroine because of his past failed marriage, or because he actually sees the heroine doing something that appears untrustworthy. No need for backstory at all, it’s all happening in the now.  Woo-eee! This ones almost a paradigm shift for me. I need to think hard about how I can apply this to Luk and Emma. She also gives an example of using setting- how things are now in the character’s life- to illustrate backstory without spelling it out too much. Yippee! I did get that one right for Emma, as the first chapter was set in her home (once her grandmother’s) and I hope I managed to give a lot of information about her life and relationship with her grandmother in just a couple of sentences about the sitting room.

The other post focuses more on a specific issue, illustrating motivation that does stem from past events without the info dump. I like the way Theresa says something very similar to the post I started with this morning-

In the process, some backstory will be more naturally revealed. How much? Exactly enough for the argument (or current situation- my addition) between them to proceed to its conclusion. And not a drop more. Your job at this point is not to “fill the reader in” on all the details of the landscape. Your job is to lure them in with conflict and dynamic change, and keep them guessing.In other words, don’t give them enough information to explain everything that happens on the *current* page. Give them just enough – just barely enough – to get them to the *next* page. Otherwise, you’re in danger of undercutting your conflict by explaining it away.

Good stuff. Relevant stuff. Now I just gotta apply it to the rest of Luk and Emma’s story.