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!

Presuppositions

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.

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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.

 

What now? December 4, 2010

No writing this week. Not wasted time- I’ve read two Blazes which I loved, as I wanted to get a feel for the line and I hadn’t read one for a while (they were Sam Hunter’s Taking Care of Business and Kathy Lyon’s Make Your Move). I’ve also done a lot more reading and thinking about a whole lot of stuff that goes into making stories with strong proactive characters who drive the plot. Main things seem to be good conflicting goals for the hero and heroine, something that drives them to act and therefore drives the plot. In my stories at least one character always seems to have the goal of keeping their life how it is when the other character erupts into it. I’m not sure that’s good enough, as it’s almost always going to make that character reactive and not proactive. Unless they can then come up with an active plan to stop their life being disrupted, which is something I only just thought of…

Anyway, all that thinking and I can’t decide what to do next!

Option 1– Do I use what I learned so far to have a go at rewriting the rejected Superromance story? Reasons for- I love these characters and have a completed first draft. It may not take too big a change to fix the issue of reactive rather than proactive characters and too much external stuff. It’s hard to explain that one- it is a big change, but I know how to do it so it won’t be hard,  just a lot of new words, if that makes sense. Reasons not to- I suspect this story has other problems besides the key one Megan mentioned. Mainly that a lot of the heroine’s internal conflict hinges on her big sekrit, which she keeps from both the reader and the hero until the big reveal at the 3/4 mark, which triggers the Black Moment. That needs rethinking too. She can’t reveal it to anyone else, that’s not at all in character, but maybe the reader needs to know, needs to understand her conflcit, why she’s so torn, why she can’t accept what the hero is offering her. The other issue is that while she has a big character arc, a lot of growth and change, as it is the hero does not.

Option 2– Do I keep going with the WiP, which I know has the same problem of at least one essentially reactive character,  the additional issue of not being clearly targetted to any line ( it’s feeling too sexy to be a Super, as the sex is the way into the relationship; yet not sexy enough to be a Blaze), and also conflict that just doesn’t feel strong enough to carry the story? I know the basic internal conflict can’t be right yet as I needed to add something new in- the heroine can’t have kids and the hero wants them- what I am doing is an old problem of combining lots of conflicts rather than one core conflict. I did think of one thing that would tie it all together for the heroine and make her key issue one of seeing herself as a defective woman so rejecting her femininity and any sort of traditionally female role. Lots of backstory in her family of origin that created this, topped off by her discovering a health issue aged sixteen that meant she would never menstruate and could not have a child. Needs to be worked out more. Her issue will be self-acceptance then. The hero needs more work too- his issue is more around being willing to roll with change, and the heroine is a change agent. It’s all a bit messy. Odd that when I started writing I thought I had a good clear-cut conflict- it just gets messier and messier- which tells me I don’t have it at all! I did have a good aha moment when I realised in my plan as it was I had the heroine’s resolution of her conflict looking like it came from an external event. I know now that it can’t- she has to decide to change. I want to keep the external event, but she needs to have already decided to change. All the external event does is delays her being able to tell the hero, and gives her more emotional grief and some deep regret- she’s ready to be with him, all her excuses have fallen away, and now not only can she not tell him, their chance of a future together might be gone. It feels kinda powerful that way. Almost will give a double black moment- it looks resolved, then this external event gets in the way. She needs to have made the decision to go to him, be feeling happy and relieved and as if it’s all going to work out before she hears about the external event that puts the hero in danger. Not sure if it will work like that (though now I think about it I do remember reading a Sarah Mayberry- Home for the Holidays- that had something similar) but it feels like it would.

Option 3 -Do I start over and try to get it right from the start with the new story idea?  Build in strong organic conflict and goals that will drive the characters into action. Have both characters needing to change, and their impact on each other forcing that change. This new idea seems to offer that, good opposing goals, the hero and heroine both have much the same internal issue and need to change (both of them have their whole personal identity and self-esteem wrapped up in their work, and they both want the same external thing- to run her father’s hotel chain), but I can’t see what the resolution will be! Also, is that enough of a relationship block? Neither allow close relationships, neither want to fall in love or be in a committed relationship. I need to know more about why.

She has been burned too many times by men who only wanted the heiress and not her, which is why she doesn’t tell the hero who she is when they first meet, and also doesn’t feel she is lovable (both because of the jerks and more fundamentally because she’s spent her whole life not measuring up to her father’s and her own memories of her perfect, beautiful, dead mother). He doesn’t want to let another person into his heart because his sensitive older brother committed suicide in his teens due to the pressure to succeed in their family. Mace succeeds easily, feels he owes it to his brother to be even more of a success as he took on the role in the family company that was meant to be his brother’s. Giving that up will feel like betraying his brother again. Allowing himself to love means risking the same hurt again he felt when Adam died. Hmm, there’s some potential there.

I want to go back and read the fabulous blog series the even more fabulous Julie Cohen wrote on character arc.  She shows how she plans character arc and then the key plot events flow for that. I want to see how that works with my characters for all these stories.

I’m inclining towards starting a new story. Of course, that shoots down any chance of entering SYTYCW, with a closing date of the 15th. I could possibly have a first chapter (though not really polished) and a synopsis- but not anything resembling a completed story! So maybe I should try option 2. Now I’m thinking that would be better- want to see it the double BM works.  Or why not option 1?

And now I’m back to being confused again!