Thursday, July 18, 2019

Common Mistake #9: Backstory: Alternating Scenes/Chapters

I have read stories and books where the author explores two different timelines, one backstory to the other, and brings these together at the end in the "aha!" moment when the author realizes why what happened in the backstory chapters determined how the protagonist responded in the current timeline the way they did. But, um, don't try this at home.

I had occasion once to judge 33 CanLit short stories, of which I think 28 used this motif. Reading twenty-seven of these stories left me scratching my head, because they were terrible. Then I read the one author who pulled this off, and it was stunning! I voted for it to win, and it won a half dozen other awards as well. Reading that story finally showed me what the other 27 had been trying for, but . . .so not.

I'm not saying you shouldn't accept a challenge, as long as you are aware that's what you're doing, and there is a good reason for you doing this particular story that way. Just don't adopt that motif because it's "in" or because you spent all that energy on developing backstory and are hellbent on working it all in somehow. If there is a simpler way to present your story, chances are, that will make a better story. (Two better stories, actually, if you can write and sell both backstory and current story, separately.)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Common Mistake #8 Backstory: Timing

In developing the character, the author may have decided to add a limp, and knows whether the limp was from their previous military service or falling out a tree when they were six. Great, that will help the writer know how the character will respond in any particular scene. But there is no earthly reason to interrupt the current action—say, limping away from the scene of the crime while sirens scream in the distance—to have a flashback to when they were up a tree and about to fall. Leaving the current scene in which you have carefully built up the tension, to start over with a different scene in a flashback to when they were six, is obviously self-defeating. If not handled correctly, backstory can disrupt continuity, dissipate tension, and throw the reader out of the character's point of view (because it doesn't make sense to be thinking of backstory when dealing with the current emergency). For this scene, the reader needs to know whether our hero gets to his car before the cops get there, not why he is limping. They probably never need to know why the limp, but certainly not now.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Common Mistake #7 Backstory: Compulsive Bloat

When an author is developing their character, or the setting, or the plot, it's important for them to know the history that led up to the point where the story starts. An author creates realistic characters or settings by knowing them inside and out. But there is generally no need to tell the reader any of that backstory.

Having put a lot of effort into backstory or worldbuilding or character development, there is a natural desire to get some return on that investment beyond just knowing how your setting works today and how your characters interact now. Working in the backstory therefore becomes almost compulsive with some authors, inevitably leading to bloating the manuscript way beyond what the current story can carry.

If the backstory is actually that good, write it as a separate story and sell it to a magazine, so that when the novel comes out, there is already a market for that character and/or setting. Readers love when they know backstory from having encountered these characters before, and will often seek out other stories with the same world or characters. Or write it as series with prequels and sequels galore. But today's book has to stay focused on the current story, unless there is a compelling reason to risk going off message. Trying to fit all of that into one book inevitably distracts from the current action and leads to a bloated manuscript.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Drabble

My first published drabble (a drabble is a story exactly 100 words long) is up at https://thedrabble.wordpress.com/2019/06/30/pillow-talk/

Writing Drabbles and other types of flash and micro fiction is a good way to 'tighten' one's writing. Editors and agents often say things like, "this is good, it just needs to be tightened up a bit" but it's not always obvious to the author what that means exactly. As I try to edit down my novel by 25% without actually cutting any scenes, paring down my verbose style to something a little 'tighter' is what's required. The discipline of writing a story in a hundred words, or even 1000 words for flash, helps develop the skills necessary to be more concise...

Try it! Harder than it looks!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Common Mistake #6: Physical Descriptions in Place of Characterization

The author often mistakenly believes s/he breathes life into a character by providing all sorts of detail; but in fact it often has the opposite effect: by lavishing attention on the physical description, the author is to that same degree likely to skimp on actual characterization. Eye color does not a character make, because one can randomly (re)assign hair and eye color and not change the character in any fundamental way. (Well, unless these things have special significance in this particular SF&F world, that grey eyes indicate elvish ancestry, or some such...). Characters are generally memorable because of their actions, motivations, attitudes, strengths, flaws—in short, their personalities— rather than eye or hair color. If one's character notes are all about physical appearance, then you're doing it wrong. As we frequently reassure each other, it's not appearance that counts, but what's inside.

Which is not to suggest that one should never provide any detail of appearance or setting; only that one needs to ensure these details are inserted when timely and relevant; that they don't occur as a disruption of the narrative, or in overwhelming quantity (see previous columns, "Common Mistakes #2 thur #4: Less is More).

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Common Mistake #5: Too Specific Physical Descriptions

Although the author may have cast the character in a particular way, imposing that one specific actor/description on the reader is unnecessarily restrictive. Yes, the author may have worked hard to picture the scene s/he is trying to depict down to the specifics of hair and eye color, but contrary to the beginner's understanding of the process, the writer's job is not to reproduce that scene in the reader's brain exactly as the author originally pictured it. On the contrary, one wants a certain level of vagueness, of blank canvas, onto which the reader may project their own experiences and preferences. Just as a playwright has to allow for a certain amount of interpretation of the script by the director and actors, the writer has to leave room for the reader to bring something to the project.

For example, if the story features a bully, then it is far better if in the reader's mind that bully merges with that bastard down in accounting who is currently making their life miserable. Of course their conscious mind is not about to suffer any such confusion, since we're pretty sure the guy in accounting is not in fact the murder or king of the space vampires, or whatever; but great fiction, like great opera, often bypasses the intellect and goes directly to the viscera, with people's emotions. The resonance between the writing and the reader's own experience may be disrupted, however, if one insists on establishing definitively that the guy in accounting is not the bully under discussion because the one in the book has red hair and blue eyes.

Or, to take an example from the other end of the emotional scale, if one is too precise in describing the love interest, one runs the risk of including a detail that is, for the reader, a deal breaker. "Electric blue eyes" is as likely to remind them of their ex as of their current lover. (It is the same reason why it seldom pays to be too explicit in sex scenes: if it doesn't happen to be the reader's kink, one is more likely to get an "eewww!" than a sale.)

So why go there? If the writer insists on determining every microscopic detail of the experience for the reader because that happened to be how the writer pictured the scene, then it's not about trying to be precise, it's about being a control freak. If one wants to build readership, one has to give up some control so the reader can take some ownership of the reading experience. If one wants readers to recommend the book to their friends, then the reader has to come to think of it as one of their books