Tag Archives: back-story

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound. Continue reading

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Kelly O’Connor McNees on Writing

When James River Writers (JRW) invited me to interview some 2014 conference speakers, I looked over the impressive list of who’s coming and jumped at the chance to interview Kelly O’Connor McNees. I love the fact that she’d founded Word Bird Editorial Services. When she’s not writing her own fiction, she’s editing other people’s novels, so I figured she’d be perfect for my blog—as much in love with the process of writing as I am. And I was right!

Kelly will be speaking on panels during the JRW conference, October 18-19, 2014, in Richmond, VA, and on Friday, October 17, will lead a master class on “Point of View: Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening?” You can find more information on the JRW website.

Kelly’s third novel, The Island of Doves, came out earlier this year from Berkley/Penguin. She’s also the author of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, and In Need of a Good Wife, which was a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award. I’m thrilled to share with you her wisdom on the writing process…

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kelly! I’ve just finished reading The Island of Doves, a beautiful novel set in Buffalo, Detroit, and the wilds of the Michigan Territory in the early 1800s, and I’d love to hear your comments on a few craft points.

Kelly McNees: Thank you for that very kind introduction! I am thrilled to be coming to Richmond for the conference and look forward to meeting lots of new friends and fellow writing geeks.

ABW: And they’re looking forward to meeting you! So let’s talk craft. I want to start at the beginning; usually I hate prologues, but yours drew me right in. You wrote it in scene, and I didn’t even notice that it was a prologue until five pages later when I hit the words, chapter one. At that point, the story had already hooked me. Very nice. Can you say a little about your decision to make that opening a prologue, rather than calling it a chapter?

KM: I think of a prologue as a snapshot of an event that came before the main action of the story, which is why it works to set it apart that way rather than write it as a chapter. But I agree with youtypically I do not like prologues. They can feel tacked on and melodramatic. Sometimes they make a big promise that the novel can’t live up to. I added this one in a later draft, after I had tried and failed many times to communicate the events it describes (in much more elaborate ways) through flashback in other parts of the novel. Eventually I realized that we didn’t need to know the entire history of this family up front. We just needed to know about this one very important event, the death of the youngest sister, Josette, because it sets everything else into motion.

ABW: Good point. I can see how it sets up the action. Now tell me a bit about your approach to backstory. I was impressed by the way you wove backstory through the novel. For example, on page 77, I hit this line: “And of course, then there was the matter of her sisters.” Then you dropped the thread about sisters and returned readers to the scene, leaving us curious. Perfect! How conscious were you that you were doing this? Were the early drafts of the manuscript more backstory-laden than the final? How do you develop your characters’ backstory and decide which parts of it to feed the reader when?

KM: I am glad to hear that those transitions worked for you because I spent a lot of time thinking about them! This book had a lot of backstory and in earlier drafts felt very much weighed down by it all. A big challenge was that the bulk of the action that motivates one character, Magdelaine, happened decades before the story begins, and it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency around that. But even though so much time had passed, Magdelaine’s pain was very fresh, and I tried to evoke that by showing how much she was living in her mind, living in her memories, and that those things were just as real as what was happening in the present. Still, the reader must always feel anchored in the time of the story, and that’s why I worked to break that rumination up with interactions with characters in the present, and construct the story so that those present relationships helped her deal with the unresolved pain of the past.

Another thing I learned while writing this novel is that while it’s important to know your characters’ backstories in detail, not all of that information will make it into the novel. And that’s okay. You need to generate a lot of material, a lot of experiences from the character’s life, before you can select the emblematic experiences that will be most useful. One carefully chosen detail can communicate more about who a character is than five more generic flashbacks that attempt to get at the same thing.

ABW: These are great answers. Thank you! I know that dealing with backstory is always a tough issue for novelists. What about research? This book clearly required you to learn a lot about the Michigan Territory. When I got to your Author’s Note, I found your extensive list of sources. Could you say a bit about your process in researching? Got any tips for writers working on historical fiction?

KM: I learned a lot about research in writing this novel. I didn’t have much of an outline when I began, and because of that, I spent a lot of time letting the research shape the plot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is time-consuming. Basically, there is an infinite number of things about the history of Michigan, 19th-century greenhouses, nuns, steamboat travel, etc. that interest me, and at a certain point I had to cut myself off from learning about new things that would potentially take the plot in a yet another direction. The book was marooned for a long time while I tried to figure out what it was actually ABOUT. In fact, I put it aside for a couple years while I wrote In Need of a Good Wife, and then came back to it. When I did, I could see more clearly that everything has to start with the characterswho they are, what they want. Their desires have to drive the story.

So the first thing I would say about research is that the best way to use it, and not let it overwhelm you, is to envision the scope of your story (even if you don’t necessary have an outline) and then try to stick to researching within those boundaries. In historical fiction, there is a necessary tension between historical fact and story, but the story must always win. The information you gather about the past must be used in service of the story. Otherwise it will burden the reader. I spent six hours at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago reading about how native people built birch bark canoes, and there is maybe one sentence about that in the book. The details are interesting to me, but they are not, it turns out, very important to the story. Bad historical fiction happens when a writer wants to prove how much she knows, or “teach” the reader about events of the past. Snore!

ABW: I love your sentiment that “the story must always win.” Agreed! Also, I found your themes interesting. Your characters voiced some compelling views, and I wondered if you resonated with their ideas, personally (were they part of your thinking before you began the story), or did they emerge in the course of writing? Did you set out with a particular theme in mind? Some of the ideas that captivated me were: (1) victims of domestic violence may seek both freedom and safety, but in this world generally, safety is illusive; (2) more than fear, loneliness does people in; and (3) the earth accepts everything with complete indifference.

KM: You ask whether these are my views or whether they emerged as I wrote the story, and I think the answer is probably a little bit of both. I think I had these ideas, but I hadn’t examined them much until they came to the surface in this story. I have been fortunate not to experience firsthand the violence that Susannah did; my hope there was to put myself in her shoes and try to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in that house, in the wealth that so many people envied, and yet be miserable and afraid.

But, more broadly, the safety/freedom dichotomy has always been interesting to me. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, right? I think sometimes when we want to be free (not so much in Susannah’s caseliteral freedom from violencebut in Magdelaine’s, who wants freedom from sadness), what we really want is to be safe and invulnerable, floating blissfully on some plane where we cannot be hurt. But the price for that safety is lonelinesstotal disengagement with others—because caring about someone makes you vulnerable. And I do think that loneliness is the greatest suffering of all.

Though this story does deal with some spiritual questions, I find much comfort, and I think Susannah and Magdelaine do, too, in nature’s indifference. The lake was there long before they were born, and it will be there long after they are gone.

ABW: Nice. I really enjoyed the depth in your novel, and your answer reminds me of its many layers.

Okay, now would you reflect for a moment on writing what you know? I happen to be Presbyterian, so I enjoyed phrases like the “clenched Calvinist jaw.” I felt both ownership and shame in scenes where Protestants slighted Roman Catholics (the historical authenticity rang true). Jerry Seinfeld might say you have to be a Jew to tell Jewish jokes; group-membership affords license to criticize or ridicule. My guess is that your background is Protestant, not Roman Catholic, because you portrayed the Protestants more critically than the Catholics. Care to comment? What are the challenges in writing as an insider versus as an outsider?

KM: In fact, I have much more experience with Catholicism! But it really was the historical facts of missionary work in the Northwest Territory that led me to depict the two groups as I did. The Catholics had been there since 1673, so about 150 years before the Protestants came. And while they influenced native communities in lots of ways, many of them negative, they did achieve a kind of coexistence. The Presbyterian approach was much more direct and interventionist, I guess you would say, and that was fueled by the ways their theology differed from Catholics’ (salvation through faith alone, rather than through good worksin other words, they could only save souls through conversionand often that was forced upon native people).

So there was tension on that level. But also there was class tension masquerading as religious difference. In the UK, at least, where Edward’s family had come from, Protestants were wealthy landowners who controlled all political and economic power, and they saw Catholics as inferior in every way. So those tensions of course carried over into settlements in America, like Buffalo and Detroit and Mackinac, where Protestants continued to enjoy economic privilege, and Catholics occupied a working-class position and were beholden to them. I am oversimplifying a very complicated relationship, but those are a few of the issues that underlie their uneasiness with each other.

ABW: Interesting! I’d like to hear more, but we’ve gone on for a while already, so we’d better wrap it up here. I’d love to hear your reflections on working as a freelance editor. What are the most common mistakes that you see new/aspiring writers making? When clients have disagreed with your editorial comments, how have they handled those issues, and how have you responded?

KM: I think many writers spend a lot of time researching how to find an agent or researching options for self-publishing, but maybe not as much time working to develop their craft. Learning how to identify your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and then doing the hard work of developing your skills, can be a slow, difficult process, and there’s a temptation to rush through it. This is something all writers have to push against, and I certainly see it in the writers I work with.

I also urge clients to read as if their lives depend on itand they do! (Well, their writing lives, anyway). Writers must read, read, read, and read some more.

As for giving feedback, I have lots of experience being on the receiving end of tough editorial comments, and I know how difficult it can be. I talk with my clients about how, to a certain extent, this kind of feedback is subjective, and as the author of the book, they of course must decide about which suggestions to take and which to disregard. And as much as possible I strive to make all feedback specific and actionable, and by that I mean that if I tell them something isn’t working, I have to be able to tell them why and how to fix the problem. But overall, things never get contentious because this isn’t about me, and it isn’t about being right. We are on the same team, both invested in making the book as strong as it can possibly be. And good writers can disagree about how to accomplish that. My role is to make suggestions and offer support as the author navigates the revision process.

ABW: Thank you so much for giving everyone at JRW a glimpse into your writing style and your work as an editor. We look forward to meeting you in Richmond later this month!

KM: I can’t wait! Thank you!

In Service to the Story

This past February while writing a new scene, a character showed up, whispered to my protagonist, “We have safe houses for kids like you,” and disappeared. I nearly fell out of my chair. Of course, I had to run after her—had to figure out who she was, and what she wanted.

Shadowy figure2For months I learned cool stuff about her: she does music therapy with a therapy dog, a wonderful golden retriever named Calcutta. She happens to be writing a dissertation on kids raised in hate groups. My fourteen year-old protagonist develops a crush on her, the older woman, then squirms over the taboo nature of his attraction. So far I’ve written twenty-two chapters, and there’s a lot going on, but just recently it hit me that as soon as I complete my first draft and switch into kill-your-darlings mode, she’ll be the first to go.

She’s a great character! Problem is, every time she appears, the pace slows. Every time except her initial appearance when the protagonist sucks in his breath and takes off in a direction he wouldn’t have gone, not then. But once he gets where he’s going, she’s no longer needed. Now I see other factors that can propel him to get where he needs to be, and once there, these other factors matter more than she does.

So, yeah… I have to cut this therapist, and I’m already preparing myself for the day of surgery, grieving the loss of her, telling myself it’s for the best. You kill your darlings in service to the story, the greater good. I’m thankful for the role she played, and I imagine that in another novel, she might emerge with a story worth telling. But in this one, a boy is struggling with his place in the world, and it’s his struggle I’m telling, not hers. I’m still on the first draft, still seeking his story, wondering what he’s going to do. And who knows? Maybe he’ll run into her again. But if he does and if her presence doesn’t keep me turning pages, once again it’ll be, Lights out, lady.

 

Photo credit: mrhayata

Where to Begin a Novel

How and where is it best Come August, Come Freedomto enter into a particular story—which moment, which sounds and which smells should a writer introduce in the opening scene? When I first read Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and the Black General Gabriel by Gigi Amateau, I was fascinated by Gigi’s decision to begin the story the way she did. I asked her why she chose that approach, and am privileged to feature her answers here. I found Gigi’s comments as engaging as the novel.

A. B. Westrick: Come August, Come Freedom is the story of Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who organized a massive but ultimately unsuccessful rebellion in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. What I found intriguing was the way you chose to enter into Gabriel’s story. The first line is, “Ma believed,” and the chapter unfolds to show Ma nursing him when he was six months old. Why did you choose to begin the book with Ma?

Gigi Amateau:  As I read and studied about the institution of slavery during Gabriel’s lifetime, I learned (in a way that I hadn’t really integrated into my thinking about slavery before writing Come August, Come Freedom) that the crucible of slavery was the childbearing role of enslaved women. The laws governing a person’s status as free or enslaved were grounded in the concept of maternal descent—the mother’s status (not the father’s) determined a child’s status. So, the impulsion of the plot is maternal descent. Also, I wanted to create the character of Gabriel as a person who was not the first freedom fighter in his community or in his family, but one who was born into a tradition of resisting oppression and fighting for freedom. So, I surrounded him early on in the novel with men and women imagining freedom and rebelling against slavery.

ABW:  The opening chapter establishes a strong sense of place—a footpath, the creek beyond the fields, an apple seedling. While it grounds Gabriel and his story, literally and figuratively, it also sets a tranquil tone for a story that’s anything but tranquil. Again, can you talk about choosing to begin the story in this place rather than in, say, a blacksmith’s shop or marketplace, or some other place that Gabriel would have frequented? You might even have chosen to begin it with the scenes that became chapter two—glimpses of slaves treated harshly and slaves dashing for freedom—but instead you chose this tranquil tone. Can you say more about that?

GA:  First of all, thank you. Writing a convincing sense of place both in the countryside and in the city was important to me, as was conveying a feeling of tranquility and beauty at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. To me, it’s valid that Gabriel would have experienced beauty as well as terror. That’s the human experience, right? Even in the darkest days of our history, the human spirit fights for beauty, for love. It would’ve been wrong for me to write this book by dismissing the real suffering and unbearable oppression that was an everyday part of enslavement. All of history shows us how the human spirit insists on faith, hope, and love, so I think it would have been wrong of me to lead with anything but such a spirit.

Gigi Amateau

Gigi Amateau

As I studied the primary source documents related to Gabriel’s Rebellion, I saw that much of the recruiting and planning took place outdoors—on the river, at Young’s Spring, under the bridge at Littlepage. For sure, the blacksmith forge, taverns, and the cityscape were key, too, but the people gathered outside for worship, funerals, weddings, fish feasts, and barbeques. You know, I feel like the evidence suggests that the natural world offered Gabriel some refuge, a place where he and his men could speak candidly. Trial testimony shows that the men did discuss the rebellion at taverns and on the street, and in these places they often spoke in code: The boys on the brook are ready to do the business.  When they gathered outside, their words were direct: We have a plan to rise and fight for our freedom.  ­­

ABW: Writers are encouraged to begin a novel “in scene” rather than in back-story. You manage to do both: your opening chapter is very much a scene, and at the same time, it depicts Gabriel’s life before he set out to organize the rebellion. I think your approach works because of the sense of yearning, of desire, of feeling that emanates from the opening pages. In early drafts of the novel, was this your opening scene, or did you craft it later?

GA:  Hmmm…I always liked that beginning! When I look back at the earliest draft, the first line is: Ma believed. You know, I just feel like this is a story about a man who was part of a multi-generational rebellion, a freedom-movement that started well before him and continued, or continues, long after 1800. So, to me, the story had to start with a linking of generations and end there, too.

ABW:  How long did it take you to write Come August, Come Freedom, and can you tell me a little about your process in writing it?

GA:  Well, my first research notes are dated 2004. I thought a lot about Gabriel, saved clippings, and dabbled in the research before really starting to write the pages in 2008. My editor, Karen Lotz, and I went on a candlelight tour of Mount Vernon one Christmas… maybe in 2006 or 2007? There, we shared a profound moment while we were standing in the area where the quarter had been at Mount Vernon. The only way to describe it is that we experienced a lingering, a really deep encounter—for me and, I think also for Karen—with the history of our nation’s enslavement of men, women, and children. That’s about when I moved more into researching seriously. The research informed my writing constantly. I never stopped researching! I wrote, then researched more, then wrote more, then researched. It was a very circular and layered process.  I’m still researching the story. Who knows, I might stick around the 1800s for a while yet.

ABW:  Thank you so much for sharing some of your thoughts and process in writing Come August, Come Freedom. I even enjoyed reading the comment Candlewick Press printed on the book jacket: “Gabriel’s story illustrates how one individual’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can intersect with a nation’s pursuit of a more perfect union. Gabriel went all in for freedom. To me, he is one of American’s greatest patriots.” Thank you, Gigi, for bringing his story to life!

Bringing in the back-story

For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest.  We hold a large, quiet party.  Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.

Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene.  Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.

The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in.  Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area:  introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.

Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should.  But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.