AN AUTHOR'S RELATIONSHIP
WITH HIS CHARACTERS AND READERS
I came across a humorous/serious essay about the writing process from author George Saunders, and I want to share a portion of it with you. He tells us he didn't want "to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt." He goes on to say "My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it."
If you would like to read more of the essay, you can find it at:
WHAT WRITERS REALLY DO WHEN THEY WRITE
BY GEORGE SAUNDERS
What does an artist do, mostly? She tweaks that which she’s already done. There are those moments when we sit before a blank page, but mostly we’re adjusting that which is already there. The writer revises, the painter touches up, the director edits, the musician overdubs.
I write, “Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch,” read that, wince, cross out “came into the room” and “down” and “blue” (Why does she have to come into the room? Can someone sit UP on a couch? Why do we care if it’s blue?) and the sentence becomes “Jane sat on the couch – ” and suddenly, it’s better (Hemingwayesque, even!), although … why is it meaningful for Jane to sit on a couch? Do we really need that? And soon we have arrived, simply, at “Jane," which at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.
But why did I make those changes? On what basis?
On the basis that, if it’s better this new way for me, over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.
This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man," you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.
Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you – he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.
Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.
The empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation both to his characters and to his readers.
We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties – the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her.
This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: “No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”
And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.
TIPS TO HELP YOU BOOST READERSHIP
A FEW WEEKS AGO, AUTHOR SUSAN CLAYTON-GOLDNER WROTE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE LAUNCHING HER NOVEl. SHE HAS LEARNED A GREAT DEAL ABOUT MARKETING AND IS WILLING TO SHARE INFORMATION ABOUT THE PROCESS AND HER SUCCESS.
HERE IS SUSAN'S STORY:
I'm 5 days into launch week for my novel, A Bend In The Willow. It has been a time of excitement, anxiety, awe and of humbleness for me. At last one of my big dreams is coming true. I spent a lot of years saying I wrote because I loved to write. That publication wasn't important to me. But I was only fooling myself. Most of us write because we want to be heard. Without readers, we remain mute.
As of this hour, the novel has 47 reviews on Amazon and 60 on Goodreads. They average about 4.5 stars. A Bend In The Willow is rated #1,462 in all Amazon Kindle books, #31 in Saga, #33 in Family Saga, and #48 in Women's Fiction Saga.
And this morning, as if I needed anything else to dance about, I learned it was selected as one of Amazon's Hot New Releases--rated #4. It has already dropped to #5 (the stats change hourly) but still, I was thrilled beyond measure. The rainbow in the photo above was taken a few minutes ago from my front porch. It seemed somehow appropriate on this banner day.
A friend suggested I talk about the process of getting to this place--that it might be of interest to other writers. This is what I've learned:
1. Write the very best book you can possibly write. Don't think you're finished because you've come to the end. Edit. Rewrite. Edit and rewrite some more until you've done all you can.
2. If you are self publishing, hire a good editor. Take her suggestions unless you have a very good reason not to.
3. Get someone who is good with grammar to proofread the book.
4. Have a great cover design. I was very fortunate that Tirgearr assigned me an editor, had the book proofread and designed a fantastic cover. If you are self-publishing, you need to take the same steps.
5. About six weeks before the book is to launch, start soliciting reviews. Some publishers will do this for you. Most will not. I went through Amazon's Top 10,000 reviewers and pulled out the ones who reviewed books similar to mine and who'd left an e-mail. There are websites you can join that will do the scanning for you and provide you with a list of e-mail addresses.
6. I wrote query letters to each one--giving them a brief summary of the book along with the cover art. I was polite. I told them how much it would mean to me if they'd review the book. But even if they didn't want to, I appreciated the time they'd taken to read the query.
7. When I heard back, I sent their requested format. Since Tirgearr publishes first in e-book, I had mobi (for Kindle) e-pub (for Nook and other e-readers) and PDF. Be polite. They are doing you a favor. I sent out twice as many ARC's (advanced reader copies) than I have, so far, received reviews--but 50% is a good turnout.
8. When they wrote back with their reviews, I thanked them profusely and asked them to post the review on Goodreads (they allow reviews on books that have not yet been launched) On launch day, I already had 35 or so reviews on Goodreads. I also asked if they would like to be on my list of reviewers for my next book, Redemption Lake, which will launch in May. All of them said, "yes." This is important because it will decrease your work load when your second novel is released.
9. The morning of book launch, I sent an e-mail to everyone who'd requested the book, reminding them that they could post their reviews on Amazon. I told them not to worry if they hadn't read the book yet, I'd greatly appreciate their review whenever they had time to do it. Again, be nice.
10. About a month before launch, I set up promotions for that week. Places like: Book Lovers Heaven, Book Goodies, My Book Place, Ebook Soda, Read Cheaply. EReader News Today (ENT) is one of the better sights but requires reviews. As soon as I had some reviews in place, I contacted them. According to my publisher, 162 ENT readers bought the book. Well worth the investment of $50.00
11. You might want to start out with a low price. Tirgearr started A Bend In The Willow at .99. The price goes up to $4.99 tomorrow. Readers are more likely to take a chance on a new writer with a low price. And for the first book, you want to get your name out there. You may not make a lot of money, but you are getting name recognition and fans who will want to read your next book.
12. Don't be afraid to ask other writers who have been through this process (either self publishing or with a small press) for help. I would have been lost without my very generous writer friends. Most writers like to help and share what they've learned.
I hope you found this advice helpful. I'm flying by the seat of my pants a lot of the time, too. It's a learning curve.
Watch for your rainbow. But be willing to work to make it happen.
MEET SUSAN CLAYTON-GOLDNER
I am fortunate to know a talented novelist and poet, Susan Clayton-Goldner, whose new book, A Bend In The Willow, will be released on January 18. You can pre-order it on Amazon,
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N0HL432 or at http://tirgearrpublishing.com for $.99 until January 25 when the price will go up to $4.99. Susan’s previous novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest. She won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. Wellstone Press released a collection of her poems, A Question of Mortality, in 2014. Susan and her husband, Andreas Goldner, live in Grants Pass, Oregon.
Welcome, Susan. How does it feel to have a new novel coming out?
It's been an interesting and exciting process from the letter I got from Tirgearr Publishing last July saying they wanted to send me a contract up until all the edits were made, the proofreading done, and the cover designed. I have also signed a contract with Tirgearr Publishing for another novel, Redemption Lake.
What is A Bend In The Willow about?
It takes place in Willowood, Kentucky in 1965. Robin Lee Carter sets a fire that kills her rapist, then disappears. She reinvents herself and is living a respectable life as Catherine Henry, married to a medical school dean in Tucson, Arizona. In 1985, when their five-year-old son, Michael, is diagnosed with a chemotherapy-resistant leukemia, Catherine must return to Willowood, face her family, and the product of rape, her nineteen-year-old son she gave up for adoption. She knows her return will lead to a murder charge, but Michael needs a bone marrow transplant. Will she find forgiveness, and is she willing to lose everything, including her life, to save her dying son?
Sounds like a fascinating concept. What inspired you to choose that story?
Almost all my stories start out with a question. What would happen if a teenaged girl killed her abusive father, disappeared and reinvented herself? One question builds upon another until the story emerges. It seems I most often write about themes of forgiveness and redemption. How a character finds her way back to herself.
Have you received any reviews yet?
I'm in the process of getting reviews. I have to admit I was terrified when I sent out requests to Amazon's Top Reviewers. Would they hate it? Would they say terrible things about my book? When the first five-star review came back only two days after I sent the Advanced Reader Copy, I cried. I hate to admit it, but I did. I shared the review with some of my best writing friends, confessed my meltdown and asked the question, "Why does it mean so much?" My friend, Lloyd Meeker, a wonderful writer himself, sent the following e-mail and I think he nailed exactly why it means so much to us writers. This is what he said. "This is wonderful, Susan! It's incredible when someone really ‘gets’ what we write—not just the technique, structure, pacing, dialogue, etc., but the actual story. Why does it mean so much? Because an understanding stranger really ‘saw’ your creation, and therefore saw something of your truth, too. The anthropologist Eliade declared that the two strongest desires in human experience are to know another and to be known. When someone ‘gets’ something I've written, I feel known at some deep psychic level, and it is an indescribably rich, nourishing experience for me."
That’s an inspiring message. When did you decide to become a writer?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. Let’s face it, writing is isolating and doesn’t pay very well. I’m not sure many people would choose to write if they could avoid it or were of sane mind. When I was a little girl, my father won a Smith Corona portable typewriter in a poker game. He gave it to me. It came with 45 rpm records guaranteed to have you typing. It was the beginning of my life as a writer. I taught myself how to type with the help of those records and started writing poems and stories.
How would you describe your writing style?
Somewhere between commercial and literary. My creative writing focus in college was on poetry, so my style tends to incorporate metaphor and simile. I make use of some poetic devices while trying to keep moving the story forward. I realize most readers are more interested in the story than in beautiful writing—so I strive to find balance.
You said a writer who chooses this career might not be “of sane mind.” How were you able to handle the inevitable rejections that come with this business?
My father and his struggles have influenced my writing more than any other person. A grenade blew up in his hand during WWII. It was before the birth of four of his five children, but in many ways that bomb blew up in our lives as well. He was in and out of VA hospitals for years and suffered from what would now be called PTSD. He was often difficult, but had more tenacity than anyone I’ve ever met. Tenacity is a wonderful gift for a writer. My father never gave up. He was a carpenter by trade and the grenade blew off most of his right hand. It broke nearly every bone in his right leg. He was told he’d never walk again. But he did with the help of a brace. And he became a pretty good one-handed carpenter, as well. If he could overcome all of that, I could survive the rejections that come from being a writer.
Writing is a solitary career. Do you have connections with other writers?
I belong to a group of writers who have supported me for the last twenty years. Many of them are very accomplished. We meet once a month for two days and critique each other’s work. We celebrate whenever anything good happens for one of our members. We encourage and console after rejections. They are the best support group a writer could imagine. My mentor, James N. Frey (author of How To Write A Damn Good Novel), has also been an enormous influence in my life. I knew how to weave words when I first attended Jim’s workshop, but he taught me how to tell a good story.
What advice do you have for writers who hope to be published someday?
My advice is to stick with it. Tenacity pays off. I received over one hundred rejections letters before I finally got a New York agent. I thought my trials and tribulations were over. She loved the book and was very vocal in her praise. But a few months later, she accepted a salaried job with another agency and let go of her clients who weren’t yet making money for her. I can’t blame her, but it was a huge blow. This was the first time I ever considered quitting, but I couldn’t. I have to write. I was born to write. And if you were, too, don’t let anything or anyone stop you.
Good advice. Thank you, Susan. Best of luck with A Bend In The Willow.
As the author of twenty internation-ally best-selling novels, Lee Child must be doing something right.
The New York Times calls his books “utterly addictive.” Rick Geko-ski of England’s The Guardian calls Child’s protagonist, Jack Reacher, “a one-man wrecking crew, hurling bad guys into the darkness with breathtaking efficiency.”
I won’t go into whether Jack Reacher is Child’s alter ego. Let’s just say Jack is the man most men want to be and the man most women would like to crawl into bed with.
So how does Lee Child do it? What makes his novels so popular? Let’s look at it from a fiction writer’s point of view.
His protagonist is an extreme character.
What does that mean? He is extraordinary and does things ordinary people like us wouldn’t have the passion or courage to do.
To say Jack Reacher is different is an understatement. He has no middle name and no home address. He lives mostly in shabby motels. He travels light—no luggage, no backpack. However, he does keep a toothbrush in his pocket. He doesn’t own or drive a car because he “failed defensive driving,” but he gets where he wants by hitchhiking or traveling by train or bus.
He’s six foot five and weighs about 250 pounds, and he knows how to throw his weight around.
He’s also implacable. In one passage, the bad guys are blocking the road. When the lovely woman driving the car asks Reacher what she should do, he says, “Drive straight at them.”
“And crash?” she says.
“That’s always an option.”
He doesn’t have an itinerary. In Make Me, he stops at a small town called Mother’s Rest. Why? Because, “He had no place to go, and all the time in the world to get there, so detours cost him nothing.”
When a female ex-FBI agent asks if he’s in town to work, he says, ”I’m not here to work. And I’m on nobody’s side. I’m just a passerby.”
When his clothes get grungy, he goes to the local hardware store and buys a shirt and a sturdy pair of pants. He tosses his previous wardrobe in the trash. He has a “default breakfast”—“pancakes, eggs, and bacon, but most of all coffee, first and always.”
He didn’t carry any identification until after 9/11 when he needed a passport. He has no apparent source of income, and yet when he needs money, he simply acquires it by eliminating a drug lord or a similar villain and confiscating thousands in cash.
Reacher doesn’t carry a gun but, when necessary, manages to find one and blow his enemies into very tiny bits. At one point, Child writes that Reacher looks at a guy “with the glassy stare of a psychopath.” He has killed more than 200 people, mostly without remorse. But in Make Me, he does have a moment of hesitation.
"Some small part of Reacher’s mind didn’t want to shoot at the one-eyed guy. He’s a poor old handicapped man.”
But the guy was pointing a weapon at Reacher’s current lover so, of course, he had to kill him.
Reacher has casual sex but he’s selective, attentive and careful. Not exactly a good candidate for a husband or a father, though.
He’s not in prison, but the FBI is looking for him.
Okay, but that’s just his bad side.
Jack Reacher is an anti-hero, and a characteristic of an anti-hero is he has a good side, usually a very good side.
In this case, our anti-hero is smart, sexy, cerebral, introspective and moral—in a way. He isn’t your stereotypical alcoholic, wounded man trying to heal himself. He doesn’t have a recently murdered wife or a disastrous love affair.
As one reviewer said, “Just tell the damn story! Some of us read mysteries for the mystery, not to learn yet more about Harry Bosch's tortured internal life. There are actually people who are ok with themselves and just do whatever they do well and don't spend a lot of their (and our) time navel gazing.”
As Kevin Nance wrote in The Washington Post, Reacher has “absolute clarity about the world and his place in it.”
Reacher is a graduate of West Point and served in the military long enough to acquire two Silver Stars, the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier’s Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
He’s skilled in physics, geometry and psychology, so when he needs to take down a bad guy, he first works out the logistics of space and time in his head and moves into action like a human evil-seeking missile.
Here’s Reacher’s analysis of a gunfight:
“’If Knox is right-handed, then he was shooting diagonally across his body. He would want reasonable arm extension. The muzzle was probably out the window, just a little. The ejection port on a Glock is on the right side of the gun. So he had to be very careful with his position. He had to keep the ejection port inside the car. Kind of cramped. No opportunity to aim down the barrel. Yet he hit the guy right between the eyes. Not easy. Is Knox that good a shot?”
‘I don’t know.’
‘You should try to find out.’”
Here’s another example:
“Reacher’s gun tracked his move. Rear sight, front sight, target.
Reacher fired. Single shot. Range, eighty feet. Nine-millimeter Parabellum, 124 grains, full metal jacket. Muzzle velocity, more than eight hundred miles an hour. Time to target, less than a fifteenth of a second. Virtually instantaneous. The round hit the guy high on the back, dead center, at the base of the neck. A spine shot.”
Reacher’s natural intelligence, his physical mass, military training, curiosity and analytical abilities are his major strengths. Without them, he’d be a one-dimensional character, just another hulk.
Child’s books are heavy on dialogue. Short, staccato sentences and fragments with little need for modifiers. Reacher is a minimalist when it comes to talking, and, yet, we learn more about him from his dialogue than from inner thoughts.
He isn’t vindictive and he never kills innocent people. He does only what needs to be done.
His dialogue is simple, underlaid with dry humor and subtext.
“A click. A purr. The voice. It said, ‘Where the hell are you?’
Reacher said, ‘What? Now you’re my mother?’
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you.’
‘I’m out at the Air Force place. Trying to get in. Looking for the key. I need to know the top twenty ingenious places you’ve ever found a small hidden object.’
‘VCR slot, kettle, shoe, inside a TV set, the battery compartment of a transistor radio, a hollowed-out book, cut into the foam inside the seat of a car, in a bar of soap, in a tub of cream cheese.’
‘That’s only nine. You’re hopeless.’” As usual, there’s a smile underneath Reacher’s words.
So what is Lee Child’s secret? What makes people wait for his next novel?
Jack Reacher is a engaging extreme character. He’s completely unique and lives a life many of us are attracted to. Who doesn’t occasionally want to walk away from a burdensome, boring daily existence and be completely independent? Okay, so he breaks the law but only when necessary and only to right wrongs. He’s clever and he is continually calculating how to get out of dangerous situations.
Child’s books have lots of tension, suspense, a little romance and explosive endings. What more could you want?
A novel is organized life. In both reality and fiction, we’re on a journey filled with highs, lows, good choices, bad choices, safe passages and roadblocks. We’re not the same at the end as we were at the beginning. Our experiences transform us. No one goes through life and stays the same—nor should the characters in your novel.
In fiction, that transformation is known as the character arc, and if you want to write a meaningful book, one that rises to the level of literature, your protagonist must have one.
As Robert McKee states in his book on the writing craft, Story, the real meaning of a story is to learn “life’s great lessons.”
Life is chaotic but a novelist plucks segments from it and organizes events into a plot that makes a point. She chooses events that challenge and change the protagonist. She gives him a problem or a goal that isn’t easy to solve or achieve, and then she puts pressure on him.
Why? Because it is through struggle that a person, whether real or invented, reveals his true nature.
So, how do you go about developing those difficulties for your story people?
1. You create a sympathetic character. If we don’t care about your protagonist, we won’t care whether or not she gets what she wants. If she isn’t sympathetic, she should at least be someone we want to know more about.
2. Next, you put her in trouble—not just a misfortune or two—but horrible, inescapable trouble she can’t easily walk away from. The worst trouble, of course, is death, especially of a loved one. That’s why so many stories put the protagonist’s child or significant other in peril. We watch with anxiety and tension until the situation is resolved and then with relief when our favorite characters are safe.
3. Consider putting your character into a crucible, a place or situation that has no apparent escape. It can be physical entrapment or it can be circumstances in which the character has a strong emotional or moral investment, such as the relationship between parent and child.
Books and movies often make use of crucibles. Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s World War II novel, Das Boot, is the story of the crew in a German submarine that goes deeper and deeper to avoid the enemy, to the point where water pressure is crushing the hull. The boat sustains heavy damage and the weary sailors barely survive. The disabled vessel is a metaphor for a crucible, a container subjected to increasing heat, sizzling with tension, dread and hopelessness. A place that seems to have no escape. As you plot your story, consider how you might put your protagonist in a similar place or situation.
In Sophie’s Choice, a young mother is consigned to two excruciating crucibles: a horrific World War II death camp and an unbearable moral dilemma. Sophie recounts the night she arrived at Auschwitz with her young daughter and son. A Nazi officer tells her she may keep only one child. The other must die in the gas chamber. When Sophie begs him for the lives of her children, he starts to take both of them away to their death. In a sobbing frenzy, Sophie chooses her son to stay with her and spends the rest of her life suffering from guilt and despair.
The conflict and emotion are woven into the story. Styron never tells the reader how to feel. He doesn’t need to.
4. Your protagonist must struggle, often to the point of death. The hero must struggle so hard and be so beaten down that the reader believes he won’t make it. The death doesn’t have to be literal. It can be the loss of a dream, a relationship, a contest, even a boxing match—anything that’s so important the hero is willing to risk his life for it.
It is the crisis in the story that provides the most tension. He fights for what he wants. He faces failure head on. He may be beaten down, physically and mentally, and believe all is lost. But then he calls upon strengths he didn’t know he had to get what he wants, and through that process he emerges as a different person. It’s important the character has strong motivation for his choices and his transformation is gradual. A sudden change of character will feel contrived and haphazard.
The event mirrors real life, as exemplified by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous phrase, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." If the hero has struggled enough, he will survive and be reborn and permanently changed. Your novel is more compelling if characters other than the protagonist also have an arc, but the protagonist should have the most significant one of all.
In some genres, particularly mystery and high action series, the protagonist has a character arc in his personal life but not in his public life. Lucas Davenport in John Stanford’s Prey novels marries and has children but remains the steely maverick detective throughout the series. Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s novels is the same restless drifter at the end that he was at the beginning.
James Bond doesn’t change much in Ian Fleming’s novels. Readers expect him to be the same clever, urbane British intelligence agent and playboy in the twelfth book as he was in the first. Ironically, each of the eight actors who play him in the movies gives his own spin to the character. Viewers are not looking for a character arc. They jam the theaters to see what new cars, gadgets, girlfriends and explosions Bond will come up with.
In some novels, the protagonist grows by recognizing and overcoming his flaws. Perhaps he’s ignored them for years. Maybe he drinks too much. Maybe he and his parents are estranged and he’s too stubborn to heal the relationship. As the story progresses, he doesn’t completely change but he resolves his own problems, allowing him to become stronger and more effective in achieving his external goals.
Even if the protagonist recognizes his weaknesses but still refuses to change, we expect him to have learned one of “life’s great lessons” or some universal truth. In Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, Captain Woodrow McCall, a proud, stubborn and unyielding former Texas Ranger, promises his dying friend Gus that he will take him back to Texas to bury him. The novel’s main theme is mortality. Several men die during the cattle drive to Montana but their comrades accept it and push on, trying to find meaning in a life filled with death. Captain McCall values duty over love and he suffers for it.
Near the end of the novel, McCall realizes his mistakes have robbed him of happiness, but he’s too rigid to change. Although McCall knows that one of the young men on the cattle drive is his son, he won’t acknowledge him publicly. McCall wants to speak to the boy about their relationship but at the mere thought, “a tightness came into his throat, as if a hand had seized it. Anyway, what could a few words change? They couldn’t change the years.”
He gives his son his horse, his gun and his father’s watch but he can’t—or won’t—give him his name. We admire Captain McCall for his accomplishments but pity him for his choices. Although he saves the lives of several people, he can’t manage to save his own.
At the end of the novel, McCall realizes he has lost everything—his son, his closest friends, his meaning in life and the town of Lonesome Dove itself. Nothing is left for him there.
Most novels have a less tragic ending. Usually, the protagonist gets what he wants or, even more importantly, what he needs. Sometimes he moves from one end of the spectrum to the other. The change may be positive or negative, but in fiction as in real life, a journey of any significance is transformative.
A classic story of complete transformation is Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. In the beginning, Ebenezer Scrooge is despicable. In typical over-the-top Dickensian fashion, the author tells us, "The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice...”
Scrooge exploits the poor, hoards his money and cares only about himself. On Christmas Eve, four ghosts take him through a retrospective of his life and its possible future. Scrooge learns he will die alone, despondent and remorseful if he doesn’t change his selfish, miserly ways. This epiphany totally transforms Scrooge into a kinder, more generous man.
The character arc is the heart of a novel. The real significance lies in the protagonist’s self-discovery—that moment when his emotions break through the surface and he must face the truth—and hopefully make life changes based on his new knowledge.
If you are nearing the end and you don’t see your protagonist evolve or at least face his flaws, look at the events in your story.
* Is serious trouble for your protagonist embedded in the story concept?
* Do you give your characters significant moral dilemmas?
* Do you put enough pressure on them so they'll reveal their true natures?
* Are they strong enough to survive the physical and emotional tests that you (the author) will put them through?
* At the end of the story, will they be reborn because of their struggles? Readers worry about characters they like and are fascinated by characters who must fight to achieve something important. They admire heroic and noble acts. They respect the underdog who triumphs over seemingly impossible odds. A skilled fiction writer knows that a novel without conflict, emotion, a crisis that tests the protagonist and a satisfying character arc is a blank page.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
You have finished your first draft. Congratulations. That’s a significant accomplishment. More manuscripts are abandoned than actually finished.
Most first drafts are wordy—and that’s okay, because your goal in the beginning is simply to turn a story into sentences on a page. But when you rewrite and edit that final draft, each word must prove its worth.
The problem with verbosity, vague word choice and generalizations is they distance the reader from your characters. The closer your reader gets to your character, the more likely she is to connect emotionally, and emotional connection is what a novel is all about.
You want your reader to feel what the character feels. Your goal should be to close the “aesthetic distance,” that space between the reader’s conscious reality and the illusory world. If the reader is so emotionally engaged with the novel that he’s unaware of the outside world, a clumsy or confusing sentence (the sort you have to read several times to understand the meaning) can jolt the reader right out of the fictional dimension.
Occasionally, a novel, movie or television program will intentionally violate the aesthetic distance by speaking directly to the reader. Kevin Spacey’s character often does that in the television program, “House of Cards.” William Goldman repeatedly interrupts his story and speaks to the reader in his meta-fictional novel, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.
Another way to close the aesthetic space is by eliminating “filtering” words, as Janet Burroway calls them in her book, Writing Fiction. Phrases such as “I thought,” “I heard,” “I saw,” and “I felt” are examples of filtering words. I call them “distancing words” because the narrator experiences the event rather than the reader. They also slow the pace. Most of the time, you can delete these words and let the rest of the sentence stand or make it more active.
Look at the difference:
I heard his head hit the floor with a thud.
His head hit the floor with a thud.
The first sentence conveys the information through the narrator. The second sentence puts the reader into the scene so she can hear the sound.
Ms. Burroway says it’s “a common fault and often difficult to recognize—although once the principle is grasped, cutting away filters is an easy means to more vivid writing. As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness.’ Yet when you step back and ask readers to observe the observer — to look at rather than through the character — you start to tell, not show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
As you work on your second draft, make sure your plot is solid. I use a list of 26 questions, all of them concerning basic storytelling elements. If I have to answer no to any one of them, I rewrite that section.
Here are my questions with brief comments. Use this guide to make sure your manuscript is the best you can create.
1. Is your story fresh and original? Is it a tale about a cigar-chomping, alcoholic, misogynistic cop who calls women “dames”? I’m sorry but that’s been done—a lot. Try turning that stereotype on its head. Make the sheriff a quiet, intelligent, pregnant woman whose husband is an artist. Or take a story that’s been done many times and change the setting, the historical era and the characters. It worked for Jane Smiley, whose novel, A Thousand Acres, based on William Shakespeare's King Lear won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What’s unique about your novel? Are there places you could make your plot or your characters more unusual?
2. Do you open your novel with a strong hook? Do you start out with the protagonist’s predicament? Does your plot have a significant story question on the first or second page? Will your beginning grab the reader?
3. Does your plot organize your story effectively? What is your inciting incident? The inciting incident is an event that seriously disrupts your protagonist’s life.
Does your protagonist want something, have opposing forces and expect a serious loss if she doesn’t reach her goal? Is the goal clear to the reader? If you’re having trouble organizing your plot, consider using the classic Hero’s Journey narrative as a guide. (http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm)
4. Does your novel have conflict? What or who provides it? Your story must have opposing forces: a protagonist who wants something and an antagonist who wants to stop the protagonist from achieving his goal. The antagonist does not have to be evil but he should be a complex character who has clear motivation for his behavior.
5. Does your story have high stakes? A high-stakes situation has important consequences for the protagonist and the antagonist(s). If the character fails in reaching the goal, her life cannot return to the way it was. She will have lost something significant. Danger to someone’s life would be considered the highest stakes.
6. Does your protagonist take direct action as soon as possible, preferably within the first five pages? It’s okay if your protagonist resists getting involved at first, but when she does, she must drive the action throughout the novel. If she’s passive or weak, the reader will lose interest.
7. Are your characters complex (not necessarily likable but fascinating)? If you’ve watched the TV series, “House of Cards,” you’ll be familiar with the corrupt protagonist and his equally corrupt wife. They’re neither ethical nor pleasant but they’re certainly captivating. For your characters to be complex, they should have good traits as well as flaws.
8. Does your protagonist have some sort of special gift or ability?
We admire people who are exceptional, especially when they use their talents in a heroic way. That’s why comic book heroes (Examples: Batman, Superman, Spider-man, Captain Marvel) are so popular. They have talents that save the world.
9. Is your protagonist (and preferably some of your other characters, too) extraordinary? Your protagonist may start out as ordinary, but she quickly should do things ordinary people won’t do. Readers are fascinated with characters that have extreme qualities because they take on seemingly unattainable quests.
Examples: Katniss Everdeen, the young, resourceful heroine from The Hunger Games; Edward Cullen, the teenage vampire in Twilight; the eleven-year-old wizard in Harry Potter, the abused Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the brave Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings and the quintessential noble attorney Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Everyone loves an underdog.
10. Will readers connect emotionally with your protagonist?
A novel is all about emotion, but the author can’t manipulate the reader into feeling something unless the emotion is intrinsic in the story. For example, if the story is about a dying man, a character we have grown to like, you won’t have to tell us how he and the other characters feel. Simply describing the events and the characters’ behavior and dialogue will show us. Avoid maudlin emotion.
11. Do you show rather than tell and tell rather than show when it’s appropriate? You can’t show every real-life minute in a novel. It would have a gazillion pages. You show major events in the story and tell unimportant information.
12. What is your novel’s central dramatic question? The CDQ is that question that the reader wants answered. It might be: Will the protagonist be able to fix the spacecraft’s computer failure and land safely? Will the protagonist catch the killer? Will the protagonist win the race? It’s that question that hooks the reader in the beginning and must be answered for a satisfying ending.
13. Do you stick to your central dramatic question? Eliminate rambling, purposeless tangents and use subplots only when they strengthen and forward the main plot?
14. What are your novel’s theme and premise? The theme is the subject of the novel. The premise is the author’s position on that subject. Suppose the theme is racism. The author’s position would likely be racism should not be tolerated.
15. Are your characters’ motivations clear? It’s true that real life people often seem to act randomly, but characters in a novel should have a clear reason for behaving the way they do.
16. Do you use color and the five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) to bring a scene to life and make the reader feel as though she has stepped into the story. If you’re worried that description will slow down the novel’s pace, put the characters in action. The reader will remember the description better than if the characters are static. Sensory details are almost as important as emotion and conflict in a novel.
17. Do you use figurative language (with caution) to enhance your prose? Metaphors, similes, symbols, literary motifs or similar narrative devices add depth and richness to your scenes and often help the reader visualize an abstraction.
18. Do your characters behave like real people?
Are they stereotypical, bland, boring, melodramatic? Believable? Do they have flaws as well as good attributes? Do their actions seem predictable? If so, consider adding a twist to your plot.
19. Do all your scenes advance the story? If you can remove a scene without losing anything significant, delete it. Or if it has only a small amount of important information, put that into another scene.
20. Does your dialogue sound believable and further the story?
Some writers have difficulty with dialogue. It is not conversation. It should indirectly communicate the speaker’s underlying thoughts and emotions. It should feel natural, reveal character and advance the plot. Study dialogue from various authors to see how it’s done well.
21. Do you create tension by:
b. Cutting out the boring parts?
c. Making the conflict and the stakes high enough to support an entire book? Putting your protagonist (or someone she loves) in danger or trouble and then making the situation worse? Having the scenes move toward a climax in which the protagonist either gets what she wants or doesn’t?
d. Using subtext to convey inner conflict, enhance dialogue and deepen emotion?
e. Maintaining an appropriate pace?
22. Does your protagonist have a character arc? Your protagonist is on an important journey that will change her life. She should be a different person at the end of that journey than she was at the beginning. The experience will reshape her, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
23. Eliminate filtering words. Use narrative techniques that close the aesthetic distance in your manuscript? Avoid “that” unless it makes the sentence clumsy without it. For example, instead of “How did you know that I like yellow roses?” use “How did you know I like yellow roses?” You can use a global search to find the unnecessary “thats” in your manuscript.
24. Avoid vague words (“nice,” “beautiful,” “good”). Show us what makes something nice, beautiful or good. Avoid “–ing” words. For example, use “He sat…” instead of “He was sitting…” Be specific. Use a Dodge Ram rather than a truck, a red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap rather than a hat. Use words that evoke sensory feelings. Let the protagonist smell the smoke from the fire, hear the sirens and taste the ash in the air. Make the house green so the reader can visualize it. Avoid repetition and redundancy not only in words but also in ideas.
25. Do you give your characters the ending they deserve? A novel is about struggle. As the writer, you should put pressure on your protagonist until it seems he may not survive. If your protagonist has done the very best he can, he deserves to achieve his goal. If he fails, he may still acquire wisdom, which often is more important than what he originally wanted.
26. Is the manuscript clean, clear and well written? Your novel should be in the best condition possible. Poor spelling, odd formatting and lack of clarity are the signs of an amateur. One way to check your own work is to read it aloud. You may be surprised at the number of awkward sentences, typos and other problems you’ll find.
FICTION’S SILENT LANGUAGE
In my last blog, I wrote about villains. As part of my research, I watched a You Tube interview with the sadistic serial killer, Ted Bundy, on the day before his execution. Bundy chose Dr. James Dobson, a Christian author, psychologist and the perfect image of a kindly uncle, as the only person he would speak to.
What’s curious about the video is Bundy’s body language. During the conversation, he alternates between closed or downcast eyes and direct stares at Dr. Dobson. Bundy is hunched over. He occasionally smiles slightly, squirms a little and clasps his hands but, otherwise, his demeanor is flat.
I found his behavior so fascinating I watched the video again with the audio muted. It became even more obvious he was wearing a cunning, carefully constructed mask.
Body language is nonverbal communication expressing emotions, or lack of them, through behavior. Bundy’s closed eyes, slumped posture, hand gestures and flat affect revealed more about him than all his words.
So how does body language apply to fiction?
It pulls the reader into the scene and helps her recognize and share the characters’ emotions.
As writers, we’re taught extensively about dialogue, but silent language is just as important. In real life, we expose our feelings in a symphony of movement. Folded arms, hands on the hips, a shrug of the shoulders, a roll of the eyes, a shake of the head. We continue to “speak” even when we don’t open our mouths.
Certain behavior is considered universal. A smile, laughter and a frown convey the same meaning throughout all cultures.
However, movements or gestures that are acceptable in the United States may be offensive in other cultures. In Saudi Arabia, it’s taboo to shake a woman’s hand. Turks nod their heads up and back to nonverbally say “no.”
Holding a man’s hand in public may be acceptable in Pakistan but don’t try it in Montana. And be careful of the hand gestures you use in other cultures. You might get punched in the face.
Some people unknowingly make micro-moves (a shift of gaze, a twitch, a bite on the lip) that reveal their feelings or intentions. In poker, players watch for a “tell,” an unconscious action that suggests a bluff or deception.
In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote in his book, The Expressions of Emotion in Man and Animals, that humans and apes share similar body language passed down from a common ancestor. Other animals also convey emotion, often expressing dominance by puffing out their chests or showing off their plumage in the way a woman wears a lovely dress, cosmetics and perfume to attract a man. And what man doesn’t puff out his chest when he sees a beautiful woman?
A 1989 academic study shows that couples who gaze at each other for at least two minutes “rated their partner significantly higher on a liking and passionate love scale.” Be cautious about whom you stare at. It could lead to marriage.
Sometimes, body language can contradict a character’s words and reveal her true emotional state. For example, your protagonist says, “I’m not afraid,” but her hands are shaking.
Dogs are so expressive they seem almost human. After he’s made a mess on the carpet, the culprit often shakes with anxiety and hides under a table or in a corner, lowering his head and tail in guilt. At other times, he offers a wagging tail and sloppy kisses to show affection.
Anne Tyler uses a dog, Edward, in her novel, The Accidental Tourist, to replicate the feelings a person might have after the death of a loved one. Here’s how Anne Tyler describes the incident:
“Edward when he snarled was truly ugly. His fangs seemed to lengthen. He snapped at his leash with an audible click. Then he snapped at Macon’s hand. Macon felt Edward’s hot breath and the oddly intimate dampness of his teeth. His hand was not so much bitten as struck—slammed into with a jolt as you’d get from an electric fence.”
Macon falls in love with a woman who has a young son. Alexander is approximately the same age as the child Macon lost. He is just what Macon and Edward need. Tyler shows how their emotions change when they have a boy to love.
“There was no mistaking that stiff little figure with the clumsy backpack. ‘Wait,’ Alexander was crying. ‘Wait for me!’ The Ebbetts children, some distance away, turned and called something back. Macon couldn’t hear what they said but he knew the tone, all right—that high, mocking chant. ‘Nyah-nyah-nyah-NYAH-nyah!’ Alexander started running, stumbling over his shoes. Behind him came another group, two older boys and a girl with red hair, and they began jeering too.
Alexander wheeled and looked at them. His face was somehow smaller than usual. ‘Go,’ Macon told Edward and he dropped the leash. Edward didn’t need any urging. His ears had perked at the sound of Alexander’s voice, and now he hurtled after him. The three older children scattered as he flew through them, barking. He drew up short in front of Alexander, and Alexander knelt to hug his neck.”
Notice how Tyler shows Alexander’s vulnerability through body language. He’s a “stiff little figure” and “his face was somehow smaller than usual.” Edward has changed, too. “His ears had perked at the sound of Alexander’s voice, and now he hurtled after him.” Tyler’s skill at showing her characters’ —including the dog’s—feelings through body language is masterful.
Here’s another example from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams:
“’Hallie always favored Doc more,’ Viola said.
I pondered this but couldn’t see it—Hallie was so vital and Doc Homer looked drawn. But then what I saw really was their interiors, not their facades. Your own family resemblances are a frustrating code, most easily read by those who know you the least.”
Later, Viola makes “an odd sound, like unconsummated laughter.”
And another example from Michael Chabon’s Summerland:
“He looked at Ethan, his tiny brown eyes blinking furiously between the lenses of his glasses. He scratched his right calf with the toe of his left foot…The silence went on for an uncomfortably long time.”
And in the same novel:
“He mumbled and muttered, waving his arms around, then cursed loudly and stomped his foot. Each time he stomped it the car creaked loudly. It was hard to believe a little foot like that could stomp so hard.”
Notice that in all these examples only one person, Viola, speaks. The rest is nonverbal.
Think of the characters in your novel. How can you express their feelings without using dialogue? What can you show through your characters’ facial expressions, eye movement, laughter, stance, gestures, sounds, silence and all the other nonverbal means of communication in your repertoire? Body language can deepen your characters and convey more than a chorus of words.
HOW TO CREATE A BELIEVABLE
COLD, HEARTLESS VILLAIN
Nurse Ratched is the head nurse at a psychiatric hospital, where she wields almost complete control over the patients through trifling rewards and ruthless manipulation. If they displease her, she takes away their food, denies them medication and humiliates them. She has a calm, sweet demeanor but no compunction about forcing shock therapy and lobotomies on her patients when necessary.
Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, routinely makes the top ten lists of the vilest villains in literature and film. The book is based on Kesey's work as an orderly during the graveyard shift at a mental health facility and consequently has the creepy feeling of truth.
So how do you create a fictional villain as cold and heartless as Nurse Ratched—or Hannibal Lecter, Count Dracula, Lord Voldemort and dozens of other famous evildoers—without turning them into comic figures?
It’s perfectly acceptable to construct antagonists that have no redeeming qualities at all, as long as they fit the genre, but the most we can expect from the creature in “Alien,” Cruella de Vil in the novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Goldfinger from the James Bond novel and other caricatures is entertainment. Does anyone really believe these people or creatures exist?
The key to creating a believable, memorable villain is complexity. The best villains are good at being bad but they’re clever enough to live seemingly normal lives. They have extreme characteristics, such as collecting bodies in the basement or skinning their victims, but they keep those habits to themselves.
We have so many real life fiends out there that a reader can easily believe in Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer in Silence of the Lambs; Norman Bates in the pulse-pounding thriller, Psycho; Annie Wilkes, Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan,” who straps the novelist to a bed and breaks his ankles in Misery; Cruella de Vil, who wants to make a coat from puppy fur in The Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Anton Chigurh, the ruthless killing machine in No Country for Old Men.
In fact, Robert Bloch's novel, Psycho, is all too real because it’s based on murderer Ed Gein, who moonlighted as an unofficial gravedigger and made trophies from the corpses’ bones and skin.
Here are ten tips for creating authentic sicko killers.
crazed killer on its head. Make him warm and friendly. Make her sweet
and ladylike. Surprise your reader.
One last observation: Psychopathic killers look perfectly normal and live among us. That’s why they’re so hard to catch.
WEAVE IN BACKSTORY
Every character has a history. If you travel back in your protagonist’s past, you’ll find she became an orphan at the age of two, he had a disastrous marriage that left him fearful of relationships, she spent three years in prison, he lost his son in the Vietnam War. The characters will have secrets they’ve harbored for years, unhealed wounds both physical and emotional, hopes and dreams unfulfilled. They will have good times, of course, but those events rarely cause conflict and conflict is essential to every well-crafted novel.
If you’re going to create a complex character, you need to know this information before the book opens, but the reader can wait for it. In fact, you want the reader to wait for it because that information builds suspense.
Give away all the character’s backstory in the first chapter, and you reduce the reader’s interest.
You can include backstory at the precise moment it’s needed through five techniques:
Here’s an example that includes all three mistakes:
“Hi, Bob, howzit going?”
“Okay, how about you, John?’
“I was just thinking about you the other evening. Remember when we were camping and you had nightmares about monsters and you woke me up screaming that they were chasing you. After we got home, you went to the shrink and got some medication that really helped you.”
“Yeah, I remember that. Your mother told you not to hang out with me anymore.”
“Uh-huh. And we didn’t see each other for a year.”
Not only does this conversation seem manufactured, it’s meant to convey information to the reader, not to John, who already knows what happened. Even worse, it doesn’t appear to serve a purpose. If it led to deeper conflict between the two men and that conflict was central to the story, it could be rewritten in a way that arouses the reader’s curiosity and presents story questions, but in its present form it’s as dead a squashed toad in the road.
Let’s look at another example and examine why it works.
I sat on the porch swing with my sister, Maylene, and my father, watching twilight spread over our front lawn like tarnished brass. It was the time of the evening when fireflies flickered and cicadas droned in the nearby trees. Voices and laughter floated lightly across the still, sultry air from nearby homes, and in the house next door Frank Sinatra crooned “Night and Day.”
A noise—a low reverberation like a rumble of indigestion in the very earth itself—began in the distance, a block or two away and grew louder as it approached. Several seconds passed before I realized it was a car coming down the street.
Dad raised his head, cocking his good ear in that direction. “Muffler’s gone.”
An old black sedan with a thick rope securing a dilapidated brown trunk to its roof lumbered into view and slowly passed our house, spewing steam from under its hood.
Maylene sat up straight. “Did you see that?”
Dad nodded. “ It’s a ‘46 Ford. The radiator’s overheated.”
“I’m talking about the woman driving it.”
I had seen her. Tiny and the color of strong coffee, she stared straight ahead, clutching the steering wheel as though it might get away from her. I had seen the boy too, a head taller than she was, sitting in the back seat, the angled sun glinting off his glasses, his skin the same brass sheen as the twilight sky, his dusky brown hair clinging to his head in tightly twisted filaments.
The Ford slogged on.
Maylene stopped the swing’s lazy glide, her lips tight, her blue eyes hard. “That woman was a nigger.”
“You could barely see her,” I said, “and, besides, the boy was white.”
Of course, the woman was a Negro, the boy at least part, but I didn’t like the contempt in Maylene’s voice.
Her round face glistened with perspiration, the front of her blue-patterned housedress tight and damp against her ample bosom. Her upper lip curled like a petulant child’s. “She’s a nigger, Isabella, and not light either. Brown as dirt.”
“Maylene, do you really need to call her that?” I said.
“Well, that’s what she is.” She turned to Dad. “What’s she doing here and, for that matter, why’s she got a mulatto boy with her?”
He frowned. “How the hell should I know? You’re sitting here on this porch seeing things the same way I am.” He leaned back in his wheelchair, revealing patches of sweat under the arms of his short-sleeved plaid shirt.
“They’re probably just passing through,” I said.
She snorted. “Nobody passes through a town that’s on the road to nowhere.”
“So, maybe they’re looking for the resort.”
“Why would they be headed to the resort? They’re not allowed in there.”
I shrugged. “Maybe the rules have changed. All kinds of things have been going on out there since Nicholas Asher Sr. had his stroke.”
She swiveled her gaze from me to Dad. “What kind of things? No one’s told me.”
“Well, Maylene,” Dad said, “if you don’t know about them, they can’t be all that important, can they?”
Her face appeared to be leaking red. I pushed my feet against the porch floor, setting the swing in motion again, causing her to lurch a bit.
Dad picked up an oval-shaped fan from his lap and flapped it so fast that the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd” and “Ideal Beach Baptist Church,” sent out a kaleidoscope of blues and yellows. “Damned heat. Can’t even go in the house ‘cause you two turned it into an oven putting up those beans.”
Maylene was still staring at the street. “We’ve never had niggers in this town before. If there’s some now, someone should make it their business to find out what they’re doing here. I would think you’d be more curious, Dad.”
“Can’t see why I should be. They’re not here to visit me.”
She made a face.
“With that car in the shape it’s in,” he added, “they’ll be lucky to make it to Moon’s Garage, and since he’s closed by now, I ‘spect you’ll get plenty of opportunity to poke into their affairs tomorrow.”
She glowered. She said Dad treated her mean because she wasn’t a boy, but I don’t think that was the problem. I was the oldest at twenty-nine. Maylene came two years later and then Sophia fourteen years after that, but Dad never picked on Sophia and me the way he did Maylene. He said the problem was her big mouth, but the real problem was they were too much alike.
She abruptly swung toward me. “Isabella, don’t you at least wonder what that woman and her boy are doing here?”
“No, Maylene, I don’t.” Although, of course I did.
She pressed her lips together. “Well, I suppose not. You never were suspicious of strangers, not even when you should have been. It’s a good thing she’s not some flashy-looking man. Bet you’d be wondering then.”
I heard a clunk and realized Dad had dropped the fan to the porch floor. He gave her a hard stare.
“Don’t you need to get on home and put those boys of yours to bed?” he said, a dangerous edge in his tone.
“It’s all right, Daddy,” I said. “She’s just envious.”
“Envious?” she scoffed. She stopped the swing and stood up with a thump of her shoes on the boards. “Envious of who? Why on earth would I be envious of someone who scandalizes our entire family by running off to Florida to sail around the world with a con man?”
“I meant you’re just envious of anyone who leads an exciting life,” I said.
I thought for a second she was going to slap me.
“Dammit, you two,” Dad said, “stop your bickering.”
Maylene stomped toward the porch steps. “I’m going home.” Over her shoulder, she gave me a murderous look.
After she’d left, Dad murmured, “Don’t let her get to you, Isabella.”
I smiled sweetly. “Why, Daddy, I never do.”
But I felt the familiar anguish of memory and knew I would go up to my room and use the razor blade.
Here’s what works with this example:
1. It begins on the first page with action that is central to the story. A black woman and a young man arrive in a small town populated only by whites. Hook your reader and follow up with dialogue and behavior that complicates the situation.
2. Important story questions are introduced almost immediately, some delivered directly, some hinted at subtextually. What are the black woman and young man doing in this small out-of-the-way town? What will happen to them if the other inhabitants are as bigoted as Maylene?
Maylene accuses her sister, Isabella, of creating a family scandal. The father reacts with annoyance, but Isabella seems to brush it off. However, her intentions (interior thoughts) show otherwise. Why does she mention the razor blade and what will she do with it? Story questions are significant because they cause the reader to turn the page to learn the answers.
3. All of this information, including some of Isabella’s backstory, is woven into the narrative and dialogue through implication. Notice that the father shows his feelings toward Maylene through his behavior. We already have open conflict between the sisters and the arrival of outsiders promises more conflict.
Isabella’s inner thoughts give us insight into her character. Publicly she is one person; privately she is another. Already, the reader assumes she, Maylene and the two black people in the car have intriguing backstories that will be revealed as the novel goes along.
4. Weaving in backstory without disrupting the flow of action requires a delicate balance. Dwelling too long on past events can pull reader out of the main story.
5. Because the reader will want to know more about the characters than what is briefly implied, it’s likely the writer will later use flashbacks to give the reader more information and answers to his questions. However, it’s still possible to deliver backstory through a few sentences.
Here’s an example:
A middle-aged woman returns to her hometown and visits her elementary school While she’s on the playground, she hears the voices (inner thoughts) of her childhood. “White trash, white trash. That’s all you are. White trash.” Just a few words but we don’t need a long flashback to know the bullying she suffered there.
The writer’s job is to create a believable fictional world through sensory details, dialogue, behavior, foreshadowing and internal thoughts that reveal motivations for the character’s actions. It’s akin to giving the reader one bite of a tantalizing dessert, enticing her to want more. Once you learn the technique of weaving in backstory, you’ll find you can create it with very little effort and few words.