Baby got Back: How to use Backstory to make your front-story better.

Like most readers, I like well-rounded characters.

As a writer, I know the difficulty that sometimes arises from trying to create them.

So, what is the best way to create great characters that your readers will fall in love with?

Get to know them yourself.

One of the things that I always thought of  when trying out these “Character Interviews” was that it seemed to be a Catch-22: You needed to know about the character in order to be able to answer the questions. Yet, you only knew about the character BY doing the interview.

So, how did you get around that?

Maybe by treating the interview the same way you treated the manuscript; do a ‘first draft’ then revise the interview on the second pass through.

The thing is, as always, to have fun with your writing.

And surprise yourself by answering the first thing that comes into your head.

“Favorite Fruit?”

Paul Lynde.

 

paul-lyndes-quotes-5

 

I kid…

But just let fly and see what comes out.

There are several questionnaires online, ranging from ones with only a few question to one with one hundred questions.

How much do you need to know beforehand?

Not that much, I’d say.

Think of it as an acting class, without the potential embarrassment of having to get up in front of everyone and pretend you’re a tree.

Sit yourself down, get a beverage of your choosing and just start answering the questions, as if you were that person and a real life interviewer was seated across from you.

Or, take a blank page, have your character and another sit at a table somewhere, over dinner or drinks and start with:

(Insert Character 1) leaned back in his/her chair and said, ” So, tell me about yourself.”

(Character 2) cleared his/her throat and said, ” Where to start? I was born in……”

And go from there.

 

 

 

 

 

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If You Write, You Are a Writer

kerouac

 

One of the things we face as writers is the idea that, unless we are published, we are not ‘real’ writers.

What we need to do to break through this idea of ourselves as ‘fakes’ or whatever self-diminishing term you are using is to look at writing as a state of mind, rather than an end result.

We are Writers because of the way we look at the world. We see things in our world and wonder how to put them into our writing; we overhear conversations in the supermarket and think about how that would fit as a talk between our heroine and her friend.

 

Remember that every Writer who has achieved fame and ‘success’ started off where you are; handwriting or typing word after word onto a page. There is no shortcut to having your work written. You simply need to get down to it.

Look for hacks but don’t spend all your time preparing to write better. You only write by writing.

The Artist’s Date as refilling the well.

Refinding the muse.

 

We’ve been told that when our creative energy is lagging sometimes a break to revisit our favourite writers and being inspired by them can help us refind the ‘muse’. However, sometimes we find ourselves comparing our early drafts to their finished ones and are discouraged rather than encouraged.

I think that a different way to recharge the batteries is to visit the work of an artist in a different media. Go to the museum, go to an art gallery, watch a movie or listen to an album. Find a way to get out of your own way as a writer.

 

People often talk about ideas as a writer and how important it is to pay attention to them and honouring them and all that.

While it’s important to have ideas and to keep track of them, ideas are useless by themselves. You need to act upon them.

So, in a way, ideas are really the seed of the story in the way that wheat is the base of bread; it’s the start but there’s a lot of work and skill required to create the bread of a story.

 

Nanowrimo—-Hurts so good.

 

 

 

Is Nanowrimo a bad bad thing?

I’ll just say it.

Yes.

Why?

Because it makes word count seem über alles.

I’m sure I’m simplifying it a bit but not overly so.

You have your monthly word count goal and there are prizes galore for when you cross that golden finish line with enough words in the bank to justify it.

And most of the time the words are shit.

(Hell, the official word counter that you enter them into to “verify” that you’ve written your 50,000 words or more doesn’t even check to see that they ARE real words or that you haven’t just C&P-ed  some sentence over and over again.)

Not to say that they don’t have good hearts or actually want to help writers out.

It’s just that writing the equivalent of a novella in a month usually makes for piss-poor prose.

Forget Jack Kerouac and his alleged 3 day Benzadrine-fuelled pump-out of “On the Road”.

kerouac

It’s a lie, an urban legend, a cool story and that’s it.

The problem with churning out fifty thousand words in a month is that at the end of the month, you can have one of two things:  a stew of words and the basis of a good novel– or you can have such a mess that you feel like untangling the story from it is like separating wet Kleenex™ and give up after a few angry nights, vowing never to let yourself get hurt again in a relationship with writing a novel.

There are ways to help yourself out:

If you don’t want to end up on December 1st with 250-ish pages of mush, I think that one solution to this is spending the month before getting ready,, taking notes and generally getting a feel for the basic direction that you want the writing to go.

This doesn’t meaning that you pre-plan everything you want to say.

It just means that you have SOME idea of the direction you want to go.

If you want to end up with a draft of something.

Thinking of it  as saying  “I want to end up in Toronto.”

There are several ways you can go to Toronto and they will all give you a different driving experience.

However if you walk out of your door, get into your car and start driving and turning at random places, just because in the heat of driving, you started making decisions with no over arcing goal as to where you want to go.

You end up 200 Kms in the wrong direction and lose the will to now drive the 500 Kms to Toronto.

Now, all that driving around may give you great ideas for getting astory together; there might be snippets of things you see that you say “Wow, that would be something if I could just weave that into a story.”

But that driving isn’t a destination in itself, which is kinda what you want to have at the end of writing 2000ish words a day for a month, if a draft is what you are going for.

HOWWWWEVERRRR.

Say you don’t.

Say you want to just want to blow:

 

“Here’s a guy and everyboy’s there, right? Up to him to put down what’s on everybody else’s mind. He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas, people, yeah, yeah, but get it, and then rises to his fate and has to blow equal to it. All of a sudden somwhere in the middle of the chorus he gets IT- everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back and do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows its not the tune that counts but IT”

Jack Kerouac. ‘On The Road’

 

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Then blow.

Know that what you’re writing might not be the thing that ends up in the final draft.

Any of it.

You want to to write fifty thousand (or a hundred thousand or a quarter million) words on the backstory of the guy with the green jacket the two main characters pass on the street on page 156 so that you know exactly WHY that green jack is so important to him, go ahead.

(Like you ever need permission from me to write.)

[I’ll probably devote a post or two to backstory, because I kind of like the idea of it.]

However, before you throw yourself into maelstom of Nano-s know the why as well as the what.

I think that it will help you come out of the process with a much better product and better mental health.

 

 

Everything you do should be making you write the story.

“Hello, my name is Mike and I’m a dollar store addict.”

“Hi Mike.”

One of the things that I love in dollar stores, besides the cheap candy and chips is the stationary section, in particular the composition books and the index cards.

For my last novel, I tried plotting everything out onto multi-coloured index cards,splitting up things like plot, character, ideas, and questions onto different colours. It made things easier in some ways: I knew all the blue cards were about character and I could reference them faster if needed.

But I found that too quickly the cork board I bought at the local stationary supply store was full, then over-full, then crammed with cards everywhere and tacked together to the point where I was no longer writing, I was compiling.

 

Arno-Schmidt-Zettels-Traum-cards1

I like knowing where I’m going in a story; too easily can I go off track when writing because I like to write to see where things are going, without really thinking about the plot.

My characters love to take on lives of their own and have conversation that are independent of what I want.

As much as I love this, I often find that I’ve written half a dozen pages about something that doesn’t really advance the plot.

So, as a bit of a wall against that, I try to know before I write a scene where I want to go with it and where I want it to fit into the next scene and the book as a whole.

As much as I want to get to know more about one of my characters, I think an equally important thing to consider is the fact that there has to be some sort of constraint on the amount of daisy-picking I allow myself to do.

There’s obviously going to HAVE to be times when you free-associate and let your sub-conscious work through things: some of the best character trait seem to fly out unbidden during conversations with other characters and that a great thing to have happen….If you are also writing the actual story as well.

And here’s where we get to what I think is the crux: You have to be writing a lot to justify lolly gagging or going off on tangents.

If you are spending all your time figuring out your characters’ motivation, background, favourite pizza toppings etc etc etc (I know there’s only supposed to be one ‘etc’) and not very much time APPLYING that knowledge to making the story happen, then you’re not serving your writing self well.

Not to get me wrong; I love world-building and having the kinds of deep characters that really seem like they are part of a rich and complex world.

It also helps tremendously to know a lot about a character, so that I can make plotting and character decisions from a place of familiarity and ‘logic’.

However, ultimately, everything we do in the service of creating a book must serve story and the best way to serve story is to tell it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The different types of “Peril”

When we see the word ‘peril’, we often think of the physical, a  ” damsel tied to a railroad track” type of danger, the kind where the Good Guy™ better do something and fast or there’ll be a messy corpse somewhere .

animated-cartoons-classic-help-tied-Favim.com-374407

The truth is that these days, most stories are not that cut and dried about what constitutes ‘peril’ and danger and whatever other tribulations that occur with a story. A lot of the conflict within a story comes not so much about out and out “Danger” as it does from opposition; opposition to getting that girl, that job, that week off when you need it.

The ‘peril’ comes from the potential negative consequences of not getting the thing you desire.

And sometimes (heck, most of the time in your better stories) Perils can be stacked up like sticks in a Jenga™ game; solving one issue might not solve all your issues. In fact, solving one thing might create another problem: Getting that big promotion means that you might have to miss your girlfriends’s best friend’s wedding and THAT could be a real game-changer in your relationship.

 

When plotting out your writing, take time and effort to make your perils interesting and complex.

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Don’t worry about being ‘convoluted’; readers like a bit of messy in their fiction. Our lives are often messy and complicated and hard to unravel, why shouldn’t our reading be a little of the same?

The best writing has us constantly wondering whether or not the ‘hero’–another concept that can be used in a lot of differing ways to make the story interesting– will overcome all the things that stand in their way and make it to the final pages of the story having achieved all that they want to.

Often the best thing about a novel is that the reader is anticipating something coming ‘down the pipe’, based of what they see happening in the story:the joy of being a reader and having that feeling of suspecting something will happen and seeing it come to pass.

Will the arrogant  character see his arrogance before it’s too late?

Will the friendship survive the decision a character needs to make?

Will…….well, whatever you want to happen…will it?

 

Ideally, peril should be just one part of the story, with characterization, setting and plotting being the other things that mesh with it.

Peril, like any part of good writing, should seem organic to the entire story.

Peril, to me is something that, when it comes to the character, the reader should not feel like it was introduced just to move the story along or simply to give the character ‘something interesting to do.’

Peril should be something that comes out of the situation that is set up by the parts of the story that have come before.

As long as the peril and the resolution of it flow naturally and logically from what you’ve written, readers will accept it, even if the peril is something they don’t want for the character.

So, go out there and write some interesting, imaginative ‘peril’ for your characters  and an even more interesting way for them to overcome it:

kung_fu_girl-26368 (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revision as Re-vision

 

revise

 

 

Writing anything really can be divided into major stages:

“The Writing” and “The Rewriting.”

 

The writing is really all about getting the story out on paper, regardless of how ‘pretty’ the writing is.

A bit part of getting the story out is getting the words written and a bigger part of that is evading the ‘Internal Editor’.

The best way to get past an Internal Editor is just to write as fast as possible, going forward and not stopping to correct errors or second thoughts or whatever. By doing this, we get words on paper which is the entire point of writing: to have something written.

While this is great, all this fast writing often leaves us with a hot steaming pile of words that only vaguely resembles a finished novel

But it’s a first draft.

 

The challenging thing about first drafts is that at the end, you feel like you’ve climbed a mountain, finally got to the summit, then looked up to realize that the real summit is on the other side of a valley of revision and rewriting and then another mountain of rebuilding a second or third draft of the novel.

You realise that all the hard work you put into a draft is only the start of the process.

The end of the process is having a piece of work that you feel is as good as you can possibly make it be.

But to get there, you need something that you can work on.

The first draft is just there to get you to the next stage.

An analogy is that it’s a lot like lifting weights: it’s usually the last two or three ‘reps’ in a set that are the ones actually building up the muscle, but to get to those useful reps you need to work through the first half-dozen reps or so. Are those first reps productive in themselves, in terms of building muscle?

Not really, but it’s only by doing those reps that we can arrive at the point in a set where our muscles are aching and in the physical condition that allows for muscular growth and success.

A first draft is like those first reps. It’s not intrinsically valuable, in that it is not publishable or finished. But it is the foundation that we must have in order to reshape the story.

You need the lump of clay to make the vase.

We must learn to view the First Draft as built on sand, not carved in stone.

One of the hardest parts of looking at revision as re-vision is that we often get attached to first draft scenes and characters that we must extensively rework or even get rid of in second, third and subsequent drafts.

You want everyone you started off writing about to be there when the curtain comes down on the process, heck even at the Cast Party if possible.

But you know that even the best characters sometimes don’t fit.

But how do you go into the re-drafting process with that knowledge?

In a way it’s like leading a squad into battle and knowing that not all of them will be there at the end:

 

Your characters from the first draft trying to survive  the editing process:

battle

 

How do you stay invested in characters that may die?

I think the answer is in assuming or pretending that a character won’t die (we usually don’t know who might not make the cut in the next iteration of the novel.)

Write your characters as well as you can right from the start;  it is good practice to have dynamic characters, regardless of their ultimate fate.

(And who knows? There might be a spot for them in your next piece of writing.)

And here is the part of the process that you can yield the most best results in your writing:

Take your first draft and put it away and forget about it for a while.

This is common advice; almost every professional writer advocates for this, if you can afford to.

And there’s a good reason it’s so popular as advice.

Because it works.

 

When you have pretty much forgotten about the specifics of the draft, you come back to it and look at it with new eyes, the eyes of the reader-writer.

You need to look at it like a reader because you need to read the work as if it is a stranger’s work, look for the parts that work for you and the parts that don’t.

Be able to say to yourself, “Would I want to read this this if I had to pay for it, either in money or time?”

Read like a writer to see if the work tells the story the way you want it to, if the story that is there is the one you want to work with.

And then make the resolution to manipulate the text and the structure to create the story you’d want others to read as a writer and the story you’d want to read as a reader.

Re-think everything if need be.

Re-affirm the parts you want to keep.

Re-linquish the parts that don’t fit in the new vision you have of the work.

Then courageously re-work the writing.

 

The thing is to not fear re-visioning your writing, because fearing it makes you resist the need for revision and the thought that you can get away with not having to do it extensively, when that might the very thing you need to do.

 

Use Your Past to Enrich your Writing

beach 1984

 

To quote REM, that’s me in the corner.

Top left to be exact.

The pale looking guy between the two young ladies on the right?

The novelist Dan Lalonde.

This was taken in “The Beaches” a sleepy little neighbourhood in East Toronto.

Judging from the mix of Mod, Proto-Goth and New Romantic fashion, I’d ballpark this photo as being from early 1984, when the lot of us were in our last year of High School.

At least three of us had already started writing, at least in the sense that we wanted to develop a body of work that would mark us as Authors.

This photo is somewhat significant because this was a night where we all went to an all night club (Well, we were club-hopping and were hoping to, at the end of the night, get admitted to a little hole in the wall club that ran until dawn.)

Whether or not we all ever wrote about this particular night, I can’t say for sure.

However, the experience of being there was something that at least informed our sense of who we could become and there are aspects of that night that have been incorporated into our writing.

A lot of the writing I do for my novels is generated based on OTHER people’s experiences, as well as some judicious research. I have never been a Sheriff, a Combat SAR operator, a Detective, a Woman, a First Nations Grandfather or a Meth Manufacturer, but I either know of people who are or have been these things or made their experiences available to read about on the internet.

I have lived in British Columbia, though and know the region I set my novels in, if only a little (I spent summers just up the road from the fictional town in which Matt Will lives).

However, a lot of the everyday details in the books, things that go into creating the characters’ everyday lives, I have experienced so I can put that into the writing, based on what I know and what I imagine the character would do in that situation.

The most important thing that you can do for your writing is to get out and experience things that you can use, not just in your writing but in your life as a Writer.

Read, walk, do the groceries, go get take-out from a place you  don’t normally order from, maybe in a part of town you hardly ever get to.

Go see a local band at a bar, if that’s something you never do.

Take it in, write it down.

Repeat as needed.

Here’s the Caveat though: many Writers argue both for spending a significantly large amount of time writing to generate results, as well as knowing that you have to set limits on that writing time.

You need your writing hour (or two) a day but you also need the other 23 hours to create the kind of life that’s worth writing about.

Let your life inform your art and your art inform how you look at your life.