Craft Intensive: Building Backstory

As a couple of my fellow Pennies can tell you, I love to do a deep dive on characters’ feelings and motivations. In fact, one of my favorite things to do while writing and critiquing is to explore and uncover why the characters act the way they do.

I’m also a firm believer in that old adage that the easiest way to know what someone is going to do in the future is to look at what they’ve done in the past.

But until recently, I never managed to put those two ideas together in my writing! As much as I love the behavior analysis part of penning a novel, I have been leaving a huge chunk of motivation on the table: Backstory.

It’s not that I’ve been ignoring backstory. I actually like it quite a bit and enjoy imagining pre-novel scenes. But I haven’t always written down that backstory or given it much more than a cursory glance. It’s always been an under-developed, well-you-see-this-once-happened explanation available if someone asked.

But after Julie recommended Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS to me, I started paying a lot more attention to backstory in my books. And I’ve picked up some great new habits that — I hope! — are making my current WIP a much more emotionally engaging read.

  1. Write that backstory down. I used to be content to dream up a nice, somewhat vague backstory for my character — e.g./ “She’s watched her mom cut people out of their lives for little to no reason and she’s scared of that happening to her.” But with this draft, I’ve written out several scenes from her past that show her mom turning on their friends and family. The details that writing the scenes forced me to conjure up are helping me show my character’s fear so much more vividly, and they serve the dual purpose of propelling actions that are making my story zing.
  2. From STORY GENIUS: Find a moment that made your character believe something about the world that your novel’s story will prove wrong. Think Professor Snape. For almost the entire seven-book series, Harry believes that Professor Snape is evil. He has ample evidence for this belief — much of it circumstantial and misinterpreted — and for him, it is confirmed at nearly every turn. We even get to see memories of Snape’s boyhood that seem to confirm Harry’s suspicions. All of which makes it so deeply moving for us and for Harry when he learns the truth behind Snape’s actions late in the final book.
  3. Real people often take unexpected lessons from life events — so can your characters. A character whose mom died when he was thirteen could vow to remain a bachelor for life because he’s seen how painful it is to lose someone you love…or he could decide to become very religious because he believes his mom might have been saved if she had gone to church…or he could fervently wish to create his own family very young to make up for what he missed out on…or, or, or. Any one of a thousand reactions to that one event — losing his mother — is possible, which means you need to keep digging. What else was happening in his life at that time that shaped how he reacted? What kind of person was his mom, and how did she shape him while she was alive? What did he believe about the world before she died, and how did that death challenge that belief? Try to find the core belief that led your character to choose the specific lesson that makes him behave the way he does — and that belief will do a lot of heavy lifting to move your story forward.

As I’ve started incorporating backstory questions into my writing, I’ve found that not only does it mean I get to do more of what I love — exploring character motivation! — but it is also helping me improve my much weaker area of plot development.

Because if the truest predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then knowing your characters’ backstory backwards and forwards will help you know exactly what they’re going to do next.

Going Dark: How Do You Tune Out Online “Noise”?

focusAfter being almost completely disconnected for ten days this summer, I found it a bit jarring once I returned to my normal online-heavy life. I’m deep into drafting at the moment, and all that “noise” has been wreaking havoc with my ability to focus. Hearing about others’ progress, chasing the link to yet another craft article or agent’s wishlist, or just keeping up with the daily lives of friends can be distracting. When I’m drafting, I need to keep my head down and my eyes on my own work.

I’m thinking about ways to keep myself wrapped in that vacation quiet by going “dark” (or at least darker!) on social media and the Internet, but I’m not sure how to do that while still maintaining my connections and taking care of business.

So, of course, I turned to my fellow Pennies for their wisdom. Here’s what they said about drafting and the need to go dark on some front:

Sussu: I go deep down in my cave when I draft. I need to retrieve authentic feelings, feelings I have experienced before I can lay them down on the page. At home, we have unplugging periods of time. No one in the house is allowed to plug in any way. No movie, no tweeting, no phone. These periods of complete silence help me go deep down inside myself. That doesn’t mean we are not communicating, because we are, but the communication is different. I also can use these moments to discuss a story and what my family would like to see in my next book. At the end of the day, I’m all fueled up.

Kristi: I don’t go dark on the technological front, but I do on the reading front. Having said that, I do disconnect during the day and “reward” myself with internet connection for a bit after the kids are sorted and in bed. I even try to keep my research down to a minimum and instead create a list of things I want to research so I don’t get too distracted. But I’ve found that reading during my drafting tends to really distract me. If I go dark on social media, I find that I just never catch up.

Rebecca: Like Kristi, I go dark on reading. (Okay, maybe brown out, not pitch black.) I find if I write a lot or a particularly difficult chapter that my brain is literally tired and I don’t want to pick up a book, but just veg in front of the TV or even just “be” to relax. I also feel like I need more blank space to process where I am in the story, and what needs to come next, and what the characters are feeling. I create very long lists of things to research or deepen. I’m 19 chapters into a story right now and still using [nightmare] for a bully I haven’t fully developed and [bg1] for the first bad guy. That way I can concentrate on the two main characters and the plot for the moment, then go back and search and replace once I’m ready to get serious about those characters.

Gita: I find being online incredibly distracting, whether I’m drafting or revising. I really prefer to start a writing day—any day, in fact—without checking my phone or anything else, like I did today. While I’m working, I use an app called Self Control that blocks internet access. I need that quiet to think, reflect: to work from the depths rather from the surface. I personally love to read alongside my writing, but what I read has to be excellent: I only want good words in my head. 🙂 When researching for my (future) Writer’s Desk post, I came across Austin Kleon’s great post on just this topic—he includes Joseph Campbell, Edward Tufte, and Francis Ford Coppola’s take on what Campbell calls “the bliss station.”

Mark: I do stop reading MG books because the voice does tend to get in the way. I like reading adult fiction while I’m writing MG though. There might be some phrase or beautiful passage that helps me sprinkle some new ideas into my project. I’m finding it hard to get going on my next revision, but I’m trying to be patient with myself and use the time to think and reorganizing in my mind. I think it’s actually probably a good thing that I’m forced to think before diving back in. I can reflect on how to approach my fixes this way. Plus I use the opportunity to distract myself with shorter projects and problem solve on those for a time. I liked what Jeff Zentner said in Gabrielle’s interview. That he sits with it for weeks, even months, before writing. I like that idea. Daydreaming about your story is part of the process.

Julie: I’m terrible at this! This winter, I started getting up and drafting for 60-90 minutes BEFORE I was allowed to check Twitter/Facebook/email. This has given me a big productivity boost. And I know some people who are even more rigorous about it–one of my husband’s colleagues, who is a designer, only checks email twice a day at 10 and 2 so that he has three big chunks of creative time during the work day. I may try that in the school year because I spend way too much time stalking email and hanging out with you guys on Twitter/Facebook.

How do you increase your focus and tune out the “noise” of online life — or life in general? Do you need tunnel vision while you draft? We’d love to hear your tips — sound off in the comments!

8 on Eight: August Contest Feedback

eight on eight 2Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.

If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for when our next contest window opens at 8 PM on August 31st. Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

 

ZACH BEACON STRIKES OUT: Contemporary middle-grade novel

I knocked the dirt from my cleats and glared at the pitcher. “Gimme a fast one, Joey, if you’ve still got it in you.”

“Whatever, man. It’ll be midnight before my arm gets tired.” Joey went into a windup—and fell over laughing.

I’d done my signature bat-waggle butt-wiggle. It gets them every time.

“All right, Zach, knock it off,” said Coach Clark from the dugout.

I rested the bat on my shoulder. “Aw, Coach, we’re just messing around.”

“Zachary!” yelled a voice from the stands. “This is the last day of spring tryouts. Pay attention!”

Jessica: This opening does a good job of pulling me in to a concrete scene. That said, I can’t quite put a finger on Zachary. In the first line, he issues an ultimatum to the pitcher and glares at him, which makes him seem quite intense. But then the butt-wiggle (which I love) tells me he’s a total goofball. My sense is that he’s baiting the pitcher with the first line, but I’m not sure why he would glare, rather than grin or something more consistent with him being a clown. In addition, I wonder about the voice yelling from the stands. It feels as though the voice knows Zachary quite well, which makes me think Zachary would immediately recognize it (Mom or Dad, perhaps?) rather than think of it as “the voice,” which feels unfamiliar. Overall, though, this is a solid opening that would make me want to read on. Nice work!

Michelle: Love your opening! A lot of first-person POV middle-grade opens with the MC telling you a bunch of stuff, but you smartly skipped all of that and pulled us into the scene. You do a great job of giving us glimpses into the MC and his relationship with Joey, which is no easy task within 8 lines. I agree with Jessica that the word glare threw me off, because at first I thought Zachary and Joey were adversaries. But I’m pretty sure they’re buds.

Just a couple of things I want to point out. The sequencing here threw me off.

“Whatever, man. It’ll be midnight before my arm gets tired.” Joey went into a windup—and fell over laughing.

I’d done my signature bat-waggle butt-wiggle. It gets them every time.

I think you need at minimum a paragraph break between Joey’s dialogue and his action since the bat-waggle butt wiggle happens before he falls over. Even better, I think having Joey do something else before the windup would help- like wipe the sweat of his face, adjust his cap, nod with a focussed gaze on Zachary. Also, should the last sentence here say, “It gets him every time?” Or is this a move he always uses on the pitcher?

It would also be nice if we know how the coach reacts to what Zachary says to him before you break to the voice (is this someone he knows?) in the bleachers.

Have you considered writing this in close third POV? I’ve been playing with your words in my head, and I think it would work really well with your story.

I would definitely want to read more! Keep in touch with us about how things go!

Richelle: You have a lot of zing in this opening — I love how it moves. I agree with Jessica that there’s a bit of a disconnect between the glaring, smack-talk Zachary and the butt-wiggle Zachary. While I love both moments, it does feel like two different kids. When we later learn that this is spring try-outs, it made me wonder: Does Zachary take try-outs seriously? Or is he assured a place on the team and so feels comfortable joking around? What about Joey? Is he nervous about making the team? How do their respective attitudes about try-outs color this interaction?

I also agree with Michelle that the sequencing of the pitcher falling over and the butt-wiggle — it threw me off, and I had to read twice to figure out what was happening. And since I love character motivation, I really wanted to know why Zachary was joking around. Is he trying to mess Joey up? Trying to lighten the mood for everyone? Is that his way of shaking off his own tension?

Generally, I would love to see Zachary interacting more within the scene. How  does he respond to Joey’s trash-talk? How does the coach’s gentle rebuke made him feel? What does he want out of this moment — to make the team? To get attention? To get under Joey’s skin? To get try-outs over with?

Thank you for sharing. I love the title, and as a baseball fan, this seems like a very fun read! Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

Halli: Thank you for sharing your work! I am a huge baseball fan and the title grabbed me right away. You have a great opening here, getting us right into the action. Reading this, I felt like I was in the stands watching the kids play. You did a great job of setting the scene with just a few words – I knocked the dirt from my cleats and glared at the pitcher. Even those not familiar with baseball would be able to identify with that.

My comments are pretty much the same as the others. At the beginning, I though Zach was taunting Joey by glaring at him, but come to find later, they are friends or at least friendly acquaintances. Just changing that word will make all the difference.

My other comment is about the order of the sentences involving the butt-wiggle and Joey falling down laughing. They seem out of order so I’m current, then thrown back. As a reader, I prefer to keep moving forward. I am also in agreement about identifying the “voice” from the stands. Unless you have a reason to be mysterious, which we may not know in these eight lines, I would identify that person.

Katharine: I love a MG sports story! Fantastic title, and your MC sounds like loads of fun. I also love that you start us right in the action – perfect! And the butt wiggle dance is hysterical. My son did something similar in his short-lived little league career.

I agree with the other Pennies about the disconnect between the glare aimed at the pitcher and the goofing off behavior. I think it would help if you changed the word glare to something a little more clearly silly and over-the-top, like “shot him my best [insert baseball player – sorry! don’t know baseball!] scowl.” I also found myself a little thrown when I heard it was the last day of spring tryouts, which sounds kind of important and like he wouldn’t be goofing off. Is that right? If so, I hope we get a sense quickly of how Zach is actually feeling – is he goofing off because he’s super nervous? Does he think this is all a joke? Is he trying to impress someone in the crowd? Oh, and I would agree with the others that if that yell from the stands is a parent, he’d identify the voice immediately.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with it!

Kristi: I love it when a story makes me laugh in the first few lines. Zach’s spunk and goofiness make this instantly engaging. I agree with the previous comments that you can change the sequence of the butt wiggle and then the pitcher falling over. I do like having the coach comment that they need to knock it off, but then I think you need to get back to Zach and focus on him. How is he viewing the situation and the impending tryouts? You’ve drawn us in with a great start, so don’t lose us! This sounds like such a fun read. All the best with it.

Rebecca: I love your MC’s voice and the fact that you’ve started in the middle of the action! Everyone else has already talked about the glare and identifying who “the voice” is so I won’t belabor it. What I think is important here is that it sounds like you have a very strong picture of Zach in your head. Good for you! That’s tough to do, right? But so important. So now your work is to convey that clear picture to your audience, and that’s even harder. Sometimes the only way to see how a reader will react is to share your work, like this, and see where the reader reaction is not what you intended, and make adjustments. I had a best friend smirking at my MC in a first chapter for months before I realized my critique partners thought he was making fun of the MC. But I thought the best friend’s natural reaction to most things was a smirk. He was just a laid back guy that found the humor in everything, even annoying things that happened to his best friend. But figuring out that it was being read differently than I’d intended and fixing it allowed me to convey both characters more strongly.

Great job on your opening lines and best wishes for your progress with the story!

Sussu: Thank you for submitting to The Winged Pen. It takes courage to put your writing out there. Kuddos to you!

This opening, IMO, does a good job setting the mood. It reflects the title well. The opening also does a good job answering the question who? Where? I immediately know what’s going on and I can picture the game easily. The problem is this setting has been used a lot and I wonder how you could make it a little more original.

The conflict is clear though and pulls me in right away. But because the story wants to be funny, the tension I sense in the first sentences disappears completely when Joey laughs. I feel like this is not supposed to be funny because Joey and Zachary are rivals of some sort. Zachary “glares” at Joey and dares him. I feel like the beginning goes in different directions. It’s not grounded enough for me. Also I’m not sure I like that Zach explains himself “We’re messing around.” I’d like him to be more daring. I’d like to see more of his personality breaking through. For example, saying “Let it be, coach!” would make him sound more courageous and more daring. That’s definitely how he appears in the first sentence. Of course the voice has to reflect the age better.

Also, I found the switch between tenses confusing.

What I would recommend for this beginning is 1) to keep everything in one tense.2) Then the actions should appear in the order they happen. 3) I also would like to see the consequences of what Zach does, and the stakes. The beginning could work well as a mini-scene and hook the reader better as such because it would have a beginning, a middle and an end. And we would then want to read more to see what’s going to happen next. Remember that each part of a story (dialogue, scene, chapter) answers a question. What is the question here and is it answered?

EXAMPLE:

I knocked the dirt from my cleats and glared at the pitcher. “Gimme a fast one, Joey, if you’ve still got it in you.”

“Whatever, man. It’ll be midnight before my arm gets tired.” Joey went into a windup.

 I did my signature bat-waggle butt-wiggle. So what? It got them every time.

Joey fell over laughing, missing the ball. Strike.

“All right, Zach, knock it off,” said Coach Clark from the dugout. “You’re done.”

I rested the bat on my shoulder. “Aw, Coach, I can’t be done.”

“Zachary!” yelled my mom from the stands. “This is the last day of spring tryouts. Pay attention!”

Joey cackles.

Seriously, mom!

Thank you for trusting us with your story and good luck in the publishing world.

Fear, Fan-girling and Flambé: SCBWI Oregon Conference Recap

Recently, two of our Winged Pen members attended the SCBWI Oregon Conference. We sat down with them to talk about what they learned.

scbwiWhat was the most inspirational moment of the conference for you?

Richelle: Lately, I’ve been focusing on the joy of following my own quirky path – in writing and in life. So I was very inspired by Victoria Jamieson’s keynote, which was a funny, charming and moving talk about the success and creative satisfaction she’s had doing just that. I left the conference hall excited to get back to it!

Julie: On one of the Q&A panels, middle-grade author Rosanne Parry shared a story about how, even after she had an editor interested in her work, she had to write multiple manuscripts before he finally bought one from her. That was such a great reminder of how important persistence is in this business.

What was the best new writing exercise you learned or writing prompt you tried?

Richelle: There were a few exercises I think I’ll be carrying with me and using in the future. But the really revolutionary one for me was creating a picture book dummy. I’ve only recently started dabbling in picture book writing, and wow! Seeing the words on the page with space for pictures (and my own little stick-figure drawings) really drove home how few words you need when you have illustrations doing such heavy work to tell the story. Plus it involves cutting and pasting! For someone who types all day, the tactile nature of dummy-making was really fun.

Julie: One exercise that was particularly useful was taking the last paragraph from a novel and trying to imagine the first paragraph without reading the book. It really helped drive home how the first chapter and the last chapter act as bookends for our stories and it made me go home to my bookshelf and read first and last paragraphs from my favorite books.

Any great new techniques or takeaways that you’ll be using on your current WIP?

Richelle: In Taylor Martindale Keen’s session on voice, she mentioned that her client Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each character. She gave the example of a chef character who “flambés” his alarm clock. I usually do try to keep in mind how one character might see the world differently from another, but I’m excited to take that extra step to deepen voice by creating a vocab list for each character in my WIP.

Julie: Yes! This was huge for me. I’d done vocabulary lists before, especially for my dual-POV manuscript, but instead of just using that vocabulary in dialogue, as I had done before, Lord uses it in description/action as well. I went home and the first thing I did Monday morning was draft a vocabulary list for the main character in my work in progress, and it led to a huge breakthrough.

Conferences can be scary – what was your most heart-pounding moment?

Richelle: When Victoria Marini read our opening pages to say whether she’d continue to read on or not – and mine was unexpectedly the first one she read! I don’t think I heard the first two paragraphs because my heart was beating so loudly. Fortunately, she liked it and said she’d keep reading – whew!

Julie: I participated in a first pages session where eight middle grade authors read their work in front of two industry professionals and got public feedback. The main character of my work in progress is a very scientifically minded young lady and has the Latin names for any animals that are mentioned in the book (and there are many, including on the first page). Of course, although she can rattle off Latin names without flinching, I totally flubbed the name as I read aloud, got flustered, turned red, and felt like a fool. It’s a good thing that kidlit writers are such a sweet bunch!

SCBWI Oregon was attended by some heavy-hitters. Any fangirl moments you’d like to share?

Richelle: I didn’t have any close encounters, but I loved taking classes from Newbery winner Matt de la Pena and agents Victoria Marini, and Danielle Chiotti, all of whom I’ve admired for a while.

Julie: In a fit of madness, I signed up for a manuscript critique with Newbery award-winning author Matt de la Pena. By the time the conference rolled around, my imposter syndrome had me in a complete panic. I spent the whole session so star struck and nervous that I could not formulate a single coherent question. His feedback was so insightful that I’m pretty sure I’ll keep that packet of pages forever. 

Anything else you think other writers and potential conference-goers might be interested to know?

Richelle: It was so amazing to meet Julie for the first time in person and discover she’s even more awesome in real life. (Maybe that was my fangirl moment!) That is always one of the coolest things about writing conferences – meeting interesting and creative people and talking, talking, talking about writing!

julie-richJulie: Meeting Richelle, and another of my friends from 2015 Pitch Wars, in person was definitely a highlight of the weekend. When so much of writing is done alone in a room or even when we do interact with other authors, via email or online, I find it very energizing to be in a room with other writers. I can’t wait until my next conference at the end of July!

Thanks so much Julie and Richelle for sharing your conference experiences with us!

Photo credit: Gail Werner
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. Since her first work-study job critiquing resumes and proofreading papers at DePauw University, she’s made her living with the written word. In a career spanning two decades, she’s written everything from computer manuals to training materials, from press releases and marketing copy to gardening articles, from flash fiction to novel-length works. Now, in addition to her creative writing, she shares about travel, gardening, reading, and writing on her blog, Terminal Verbosity, writes about local Washington history for Gatherings, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Untangling Your Characters

I love character motivation! When done right, it gives stories depth and texture and makes the characters seem like real people.

I also hate character motivation! Sometimes I just want to get my characters from point A to point B in my story without having to worry about why. 

But if you want to write books with characters that people hate to part with, then you have to really get into your characters’ heads. As young as I feel, though, I’m pretty far removed from my teenage years, and those struggles and feelings that are so monumental to a 15-year-old can sometimes seem a little overblown when seen through an adult lens.

Enter UNTANG9780553393057LED: GUIDING TEENAGE GIRLS THROUGH THE SEVEN TRANSITIONS INTO ADULTHOOD by Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

Using her own experiences as a psychologist at a girls’ school, a private practitioner, and a parent of girls, Damour explores the physical and psychological stages of development that girls ages 11-19 go through as they struggle to reach adulthood.

One of the most fascinating tidbits was about the teenage brain, and how it goes through a process of rewiring to become an adult brain. Those wild emotional swings we all attribute to hormones? That’s not so much hormones as the brain starting that process in the limbic system, where emotions begin!

As Damour explains, girls travel along seven strands of development, some sequentially, many simultaneously. They are…

  • Parting with childhood
  • Joining a new tribe
  • Harnessing emotions
  • Contending with adult authority
  • Planning for the future
  • Entering the romantic world
  • Caring for herself

Each strand comes with its own characteristic behaviors and challenges. And while many YA books focus a lot on Entering the Romantic World, Joining a New Tribe, and Contending with Adult Authority, each strand is incredibly important.

The book outlines what’s involved in the range of normal development, but it also devotes a section into what can happen when something gets off-track. Peppered with stories of real kids and parents facing the challenges that crop up, it gave me an incredible window into how different families and girls approach this critical time.

Reading UNTANGLED sparked several ideas for editing my YA WIP. I found scenes where my protagonist was working on Harnessing Emotions, and others where she was
having difficulty Caring for Herself. I could see that her ability to Plan for the Future was being compromised by her decisions, and I was able to ratchet that tension up even further.

Understanding character motivations is key for all writers. UNTANGLED cracked open that teenage world for me again. And I know my characters will be richer for it

Now to find a similar book on adolescent boys!

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children, mischievous beagle and long-suffering cat. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.