Monthly Archives: August 2012

How Much Back Story is Too Much?

Respected literary agent and blogger Rachelle Gardner discussed in a post how much “back story” is appropriate to include in a work of fiction. Her conclusion? Less than a paragraph. This view is echoed by many agents and publishers.

Fifty years ago, authors liberally used back story as a means to introduce the reader to the characters and their motivations in a novel. Today, back story is something to be avoided. Why? First, let’s define back story. Back story is everything that has happened before the story begins. It includes the characters’ history, events, upbringing, and major life milestones.

The problem with back story is the reader doesn’t need to know all of the mundane details of a character’s life—especially when presented in a multi-page info dump. It is considered bad writing because it takes the reader out of the story. The reader only needs to know those details pertinent to the story and those details must be told in a manner that heightens the inherent tension and conflict of the novel.

This presents the writer with a dilemma. How does the writer set up the story, reveal the character’s hopes, dreams and fears, without delving into the character’s past? There are ways to do it without making it sound like back story. Visualize delivering back story through a sprinkler rather than a firehose. Giving to the reader all at once will knock the reader over with the sheer force of the water, but sprinkling it throughout with deft droplet in dialogue and action scenes is an effective technique..

Let’s say your main character is a man who has failed at every business he has attempted, but still dreams of untold riches. His wife knows differently and the gap between his dreams and reality is a source of tension in their marriage. Now the writer can spend pages chronicling the man’s business woes, but that would bore the reader. How about a dialogue scene that would read something like this:

Man [sitting at laptop]: Honey, come here. Check out my latest business plan. This one can’t miss.

Wife: Sure, I’ve heard that before.

Man: No this one’s a winner.

Wife: Look, I’ve had it. We both know that every half-baked idea you’ve hatched turns out to be a rotten egg.

The dialogue could continue in this vein as the man’s wife points out each one of his business failures. This way of letting in the back story is superior to exposition because it also reveals much about the couple and the underlying tensions in their relationship. It also speaks about a man who doesn’t give up on his dreams, and creates a degree of sympathy in the reader.

Another effective strategy for divulging back story is to wait until the time is right. Don’t tell the reader the main character can’t swim until his friend is drowning and it’s up to the character to save him.

When I was working on my first novel, Small Change, the original version of the story started when the main character was 10 years old. I couldn’t get the voice to work, so I chopped out the first four chapters and began the story when he was 14 years old. My first thought was that I lost a lot of essential back story, but when I finished the manuscript, I found I didn’t lose much at all. I was able to weave the important attributes of the main character and the essential family history into other scenes.

It’s essential for the author to know the back story, but she must be careful in how much and when to reveal these details to the reader.

What is your view on back story? Is it ever appropriate?


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What’s in a Name? Choose Character Names Carefully

Elmore Leonard once told a story about the difficulty he was having with one of his characters. He just couldn’t get the character right and it frustrated him. Then he realized what the problem was. The character had the wrong name. He thought hard about it and renamed the character and then the character came alive for him.

Character names matter and writers should consider carefully the names they give to their characters. A character’s name evokes an image in the mind of the reader. A character named Bruiser gives the reader a different picture than one named Bartholomew.  A character’s name must be consistent with her background and the time period in which the story takes place.

Here are some tips in coming up with strong character names:

  • Make it easy to pronounce. A character named Zbsyskrksi will stop the reader dead every time.
  • Avoid generic names. A character called Jack Jones is not memorable.
  • Choose a name that is appropriate to the occupation of persona of the character. Think Don “Vito” Corleone. A writer wouldn’t call a Mafia don Jacques LaFleur.
  • Select a name that was popular in the era in which the story takes place. Martha may have been a popular name a century ago, but it’s considered an old person’s name today.
  • Make sure the name aligns with the character’s looks and appearance. A fashion model named Crystal or Star works, but Mabel doesn’t cut it.
  • Avoid character’s with similar sounding names (example: Joel and Noel). It’s too confusing for the reader.

The most important aspect of a character’s name is that it must be memorable. Character names must evoke the intended emotional response. Scarlett O’Hara is strong-willed, petulant and manipulative. Harry Potter is an every-man name for an ordinary child with extraordinary powers. Severus Snape is an even better name, reflecting a complex man torn by conflicting emotions.

When it came to naming my main character in my novel, Small Change, I wanted an ethnic, blue-collar name. I chose John Sykowski. The family with whom they became intertwined was headed by a second-generation minister. I was going for an old-line English name. I selected Crandale. Two of my critics hated the name and urged me to change it. I thought carefully about doing that, but it felt right to me so I stuck with it. The author should listen to well-intentioned advice, but must trust her instincts.

Here are more resources on character names:

How do you come up with character names?



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Book Review: “Turning Pro,” by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield’s new book, Turning Pro, is tough love for fiction writers. Pressfield’s thesis is that what ails some writers is they are living as amateurs. The solution is to turn pro.

“Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy,” Pressfield wrote. There is a lot of hard-earned wisdom in this book, but the nugget that stuck for me was this: “The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. A professional has professional habits.”

Many people who aspire to be a writer or excel in other professions engage in what Pressfield called “shadow careers.” Shadow careers are metaphors for what people want. “Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life without actually writing the music?”

The attributes of a shadow life are denial and addiction. Addiction, Pressfield wrote, is “excruciatingly boring. It’s boring because it’s predictable – the lies, the evasions, the transparent self-justifications and self-exonerations.”

Many artists are addicts, but they are just running away from their craft. “We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow the calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts.” Amateurs give in to what Pressfield called Resistance. “Resistance hates two qualities above all others: concentration and depth. Why? Because when we work with focus and we work deep, we succeed.”

Resistance, on the other hand, keeps the amateur unfocused. “Have you checked your email in the last half hour?”

Another quality of the amateur is narcissism. “He continuously rates himself in relation to others, becoming self-inflated if his fortunes rise, and desperately anxious if his star should fall.” The amateur lets fear paralyze him, is easily distracted and seeks instant gratification.

Turning pro changes your life. “When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.” The pro structures his hours differently. “We plan our activities in order to accomplish an aim. And we bring our will to bear so that we stick to this resolution.”

One of the most valuable parts of this book is a list from his earlier work, The War of Art, of the qualities of a professional. Among these are:

  1. The professional shows up every day.
  2. The professional stays on the job all day.
  3. The professional is committed over the long haul.
  4. For the professional, the stakes are high and real.
  5. The professional is patient.
  6. The professional seeks order.
  7. The professional demystifies.
  8. The professional acts in the face of fear.
  9. The professional accepts no excuses.
  10. The professional plays it as it lays.
  11. The professional is prepared.

In Turning Pro, Pressfield lists some additional qualities. The professional is courageous, will not be distracted (“The amateur tweets. The pro works.”), is ruthless with himself, has compassion for himself, lives in the present, and defers gratification. And, the professional does not wait for inspiration. “He knows that when the muse sees his butt in the chair, she will deliver.”

The professional does the work for itself and no other reason. “When we do the work for itself alone, our pursuit of a career (or a loving or fame or wealth or notoriety) turns into something else, something loftier and nobler, which may never even have thought about or aspired to at the beginning. It turns into a practice.”

While Turning Pro focuses on the habits of writers, Pressfield also throws in some craft advice. He urges writers to work over their heads, write what they don’t know, and take what the defense gives you. Professionals also know how to play hurt, to keep writing when facing adversity.

On a recent Saturday morning, I slept in. It was a brilliant summer day and I was headed to the beach later. That evening I ran into a published author, who told me he awoke at six o’clock in the morning and wrote for a couple of hours. He was finished writing before I even woke up that morning. That’s what I call a pro.

Do you see yourself as a pro? What habits make you a pro?


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Plumbing the Clutter to Unearth Our Memories

Anyone who has gone on a cleaning binge knows there are stories in our debris. It’s amazing what one comes across when cleaning out the garage: roller skates, baseball bats, children’s art work, report cards. It may just be “stuff,” as George Carlin used to say, but it can trigger a host of memories.

Last weekend, while cleaning my garage, I came across one small item in particular that brought back a tender memory. It was a green plastic water bottle with my son’s name written in black magic marker. I remembered it well. My son was eight or nine years old. It was his first summer at day camp. He had his water bottle and lunch sack. On the first day I drove him to the bus. He was quiet—a little too quiet. As he stepped on the bus, he looked back quickly. This might have been an agonizing moment, but I was comforted with the knowledge his older sister happened to be a counselor at his camp and would keep an eye on him. He was fine and he returned to that camp year after year.

I couldn’t bear to throw away that water bottle. I put it in the dishwasher. It may eventually get thrown out, but not by me.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? One of the best techniques for “showing” back story through narrative is to place the main character in a setting where she is going through items from her past. In his well-crafted 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan used this technique. The book follows three generations of a family as they vacation for the last time at their summer lake resort. There is a scene in which Ken, the matriarch’s son, is going through all of the stuff in the garage and comes across a pair of work gloves, still shaped to his father’s hands. It triggers all sorts of thoughts. It was one of those small details that really worked.

Kathryn Magendie used this technique to great effect in her Graces trilogy. Virginia Kate Carey, the main character, returned to her childhood home in West Virginia following the death of her mother. As she is going through her mother’s things, every object summons up events from her past, some happy, but many sad.

Here are some tips for getting at the heart of your story by making your character root through her stuff:

  • Be specific. Don’t just describe a pair of old work gloves. Do as O’Nan did; paint a picture of the stiff gloves in the shape of the father’s hands. This is vivid and powerful stuff.
  • Avoid a “list” narrative. Pause to let the main character reflect on the meaning of these objects.
  • Be selective in using this technique. A scene sprinkled here and there is effective, but a whole novel devoted to a character sifting through his stuff would quickly bore the reader.
  • Choose objects with meaning: clothes, a children’s drawing, an ornate mirror, for instance.

Writing about cleaning up the clutter is not sexy but there is gold in that garbage.

Have you ever written a scene where the character looks through old stuff and finds meaning or a revelation?



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It’s Never Too Late to Revise

I was ready to push the button on my first novel, Small Change. The manuscript was set to go. Seven rounds of line edits and outside critiques were done. And yet, there was a nagging doubt. Two scenes bothered me. I rationalized that they were “good enough.” They weren’t great by any means, but they got the job done.

I received my cover art from my graphic designer, but I couldn’t move forward. I had to revise those two scenes. I read them again (for the umpteenth time) and I couldn’t stand it. I knew if I didn’t fix these two scenes, the book would suffer.

Let me share some background. The two scenes in question were crucial to the story. It was a turning point from the end of the main character’s adolescence to the rest of the story, which centered on the children of the two families in the book as adults. The two glaring problems with the scenes were simple: the scenes consisted of all telling and no showing, and they had a “wrapping up” quality to them, with no emotional depth or tension.

Though it was late in the game (nearly five years after I started this book), I had to scrap both chapters and do a complete rewrite. The first scene centered on the moment the main character, John Sykowski, met his future wife, Madeline McInerney. Here is the original scene:

SC Chapter 26_original

It described what happened but it didn’t get the job done. I needed to take the reader on John’s first date with “Maddy.” I needed to show the reader why they were attracted to one another. John was a stoic, not prone to showing his feelings. Maddy was the opposite. She was smarty, mouthy and knew John’s strengths and weaknesses. And she saw his basic goodness. Okay, so I had a date scene, but it needed a focal point. It couldn’t be the dinner conversation during the date—too pedestrian. I came up with the concept of a jukebox. Maddy would take John to a dive bar with a juke box and they would each pick out a song. Their selections and their reactions said a lot about themselves. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 22_Revised

The next chapter was the last one in part one of the book. It would be the last time the two families gathered for their annual summer vacation at the lake before significant changes would take place. Here’s the original scene:

SC Chapter 27_original

Not bad, but it lacked tension and foreshadowing. I decided to eschew the birthday party at the beach. The scene instead focused on John driving his younger sister, Mary, to the airport for a trip to the West Coast after she had spent only a day at the beach with her family. This would foreshadow her withdrawal from the family. Here’s the revised scene:

SC Chapter 23_Revised

There is a major risk in making revisions that late in the process. When I make wholesale revisions, I like to let them marinate, like a good steak. I would put the scene aside for a few days or even a week, tweaking and massaging it. In this case, there wasn’t time. I was committed to uploading the manuscript to the Kindle. I read the revised scenes twice and then it was time to publish. I didn’t even have time to show the scenes to any outside critics.

I knew in my heart the two revised scenes improved that section of the book immeasurably, and the feedback I received from other readers validated that opinion.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend making wholesale revisions that late in the game, but you have to trust your instincts. If you’re not happy (or your editor is not happy), it’s never too late to revise.

Do you ever find yourself making late revisions as you are about to submit your work?


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