Monthly Archives: March 2014

Death to Backstory – So That My Manuscript May Live

Time is running out! April 2 is the deadline to submit your applications for the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. So finish scrubbing that manuscript and hit the “submit” button now!

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I’ve been revising two stories and trying to decide which one to submit. Laurel helped me make the decision, and for that I’m forever grateful! But before I send it, she suggested I remove almost all of the backstory.

I’d sent an earlier version to Zoetrope ages ago, and I’d received a hand written note on the form rejection letter that said something like: “You’ve created a couple of memorable characters, but you should rethink how much of this story needs to be on the page.”

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Say what?!

Ok, so it finally sank in when the news came from Laurel, my trusted colleague. I pulled out my book, The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell, and then read my story as if I were encountering it for the first time. I took out some backstory, and then read it again.

The story wasn’t missing anything. In fact, it read better, tighter. It killed me, but I cut some more. And then I read it again.

The story didn’t miss those cuts, either. In fact, it read cleaner, meaner. It killed me, but I cut some more…

Before I started this process, the story ran about 6,200 words. For the Squaw submission, I had revised it down to about 5,000 (max word count allowed) before giving it to Laurel to read . After her comments, I cut another 1,200 words. For those who love math, my story lost nearly 40% of its weight in excess fat—

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but it could probably lose a few more pounds before I ship it off.

Hemingway has famously said: “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”

photo credit: 123RF_lightwise

Um, he was right!

But it is sooooo HARD!!! I love my two main characters, because they are so weird and so misguided. I had such fun with their backstory, they just kept getting more and more interesting—to me. I read the story out loud to myself. I thought, can you believe these two? Aren’t they hysterical? How can I cut that?

My iceberg was sitting on top of the water.

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Here’s a sample outtake:

Her anger at Charlie had been cubby-holed in that part of her mind where she kept unpleasant thoughts such as her dissatisfaction with her marriage, gruesome murders she’d read about in the Daily Picayune, and repentance for her own sinful acts such as dancing in the living room, her occasional nip of sherry and whatever weakness in her character kept her from successfully reforming her husband. The Lord knew about Elvis’s power over her, and Elvis and the Lord were long acquainted. Whenever she listened to Elvis sing “How Great Thou Art,” she pictured him in heaven, sitting with Jesus at God’s feet. His songs always helped her put things into perspective—or the cubbyhole. All these years, he had been her one true savior—not that he had replaced the Good Lord in her prayers. Like Mary to Catholics, Elvis was an additional comfort to the soul.

But as it turns out, the pain was worth it. The more I cut, the more the cuts were “contained” in what remained.

It's a miracle!!

It’s a miracle!!

 

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Information Management: It’s a Little Like Goldilocks

Hi doggies, I’m so thrilled to be back in the Dogpatch!

As I’ve been entering my revisions for Dream of a City of Ruin (Book II of the Dreams of QaiMaj series), I’ve been thinking a lot about managing information in a novel.

Information is broad word so I’ll define it here as anything that the reader might need to know in order to follow your story. It might be backstory about a character, technical details about how something works, or the description of a setting. Lately I’m thinking the single most difficult part about writing, and the thing that ultimately separates “a book I’d like to read” from “a book I’d like to hurl across the room” is information management.

It’s a little like Goldilocks and the three bears: not too much, not too little. You have to include just the right amount of information for the reader to follow the story, without dumping in too much information, and you have to reveal the information so that the reader isn’t taken out of the story, so that your book doesn’t read like a technical manual, and so that your characters don’t sound like infomercials. It’s easy to fall into the trap of either including rambling, disruptive dumps, or trying to hide important information in a misguided attempt to create suspense, resulting in a lost and confused reader.

While there is no simple answer, I’ve picked up a few tools over the decades, from teachers, mentors, editors, peers and books on writing. For what it’s worth:

1. Kill your darlings, ruthlessly

It’s tempting to get carried away with including information. Chances are you’ve written pages and pages of backstory, world-building, research and character profiles. But just because you are in love with a particular bit of information doesn’t mean that it serves the story. Always ask yourself, does the reader absolutely need to know this particular information right now in order to follow and enjoy the story? If not, omit it. If a piece of information doesn’t either develop character or push the plot forward, we don’t need it.

Readers read fiction when they want a story, not a college textbook. If the reader isn’t already invested in the characters and plot, they aren’t going to care about how the hero’s gamma-ray gun works.

2. Prioritize information in order to determine how to reveal it

In order to understand how and when to reveal information, you have to have a sense of how important the information is to the story as a whole. You’ve likely heard the caveat that a gun on the mantle in Act I must be fired in Act 3. Well, the reverse is true. If something significant happens later in your story, you want to be leading up to it so that your reader is not so surprised by it that the story loses credibility. For example, if the villain is killed in the end by a gamma-ray gun, the reader should know both of the existence of such guns in your story world, and at least a little bit about how they function and how dangerous they are. Obviously, the presence of a weapon is a much more important piece of information than the details about how the fabric of the villain’s cloak was made. (Unless the fabric can teleport the villain, in which case we’d like to know something about it.) But the importance of some details isn’t as clear. So, how do you know what information in your story is going to be important?

3. Tell the story first

Whether you’re discovery drafting, outlining or summarizing, when you’re constructing your story, I’d advise you not to include any information you don’t absolutely need to craft a scene. That paragraph of backstory you think you need in Chapter 1—skip it. Chances are your information priorities will change by the end of your draft. When you tell the story first, you begin to get a sense of what is important and therefore what the reader will need to know, and when.

4. Choose key details: take cues from visual artists

It’s all well and good to wait and add in backstory and technical information later, you say, but what about the details I need to include now in order to build a scene? Character descriptions, setting, etc? I can’t very well wait and add everything in later.

As with backstory, description often falls into the too much or too little categories.  To avoid either pitfall, take a cue from visual artists: when artists paint a picture, they don’t include every single thing their eye actually sees on the canvas. Of course, there are a wide variety of artistic styles, just as there are many different writing voices. A comic artist can tell a whole story with a few squiggly lines. But even the most photo-real painting is an illusion; the artist did not paint, grain for grain, what they saw in the real world. Instead they use lines and contrast to trick the eye into thinking what they are seeing is like the real thing.

In writing, you want to do the same thing. A lot of writers start to describe a character by listing every detail about a person, their height, eye-color, hair color, girth, etc. While it is important for you to know this information about your character, this doesn’t translate in the readers mind to a picture of the character. Instead, pick key details that leave the reader with a solid impression. Visualize what you are about to describe, and then ask yourself, what are three specific images that would best convey this setting or character? Limit yourself to those three impressions, and you won’t overwhelm the reader with information. And speaking of description . . . Continue reading

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Writing and the “Personal Brand”

I found some photos while cleaning my office the other day, photos from a l-o-n-g time ago. They were taken during a hike through Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains on the north side of Tucson, Arizona. The canyon contains some spectacular rock formations and a dessert ecosystem where water runs freely during the rains of winter/spring. And it was a fairly secluded place when I lived there. That’s an important detail.

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Sabino Canyon in the Sonoran Dessert

I’d show you some of my photos, but they’re not digital, they’re not appropriate for a PG website, and I’m not sure they’re meant for anyone’s eyes but my own.

The photos were taken by a boyfriend, and they were “artistic.” Skin and stone and water and light and shadow.

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No skin, but you get the idea

What could be more beautiful? And while they have meaning for me, I’m not sure they would have value for anyone else.

An aside: The top of Sabino Canyon did have the nickname “nipple peak.”

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I’m not a photographer, and I do not have the ability to step outside myself while viewing the person I once was in the photos that I’m NOT going to show you. In other words, I cannot judge them with any objectivity, so I’m going to stop talking about them now.

But I am a writer, and when I find old work from my youth stuffed in folders or boxes, my editor steps in. Does this piece strike a chord solely with me, or will others find value in it? Is it purely for the confessional, or can it be shaped to create some sort of universal experience?

Can I now step aside and write about an event as if it had happened to someone else? By removing my ego, can I go more deeply into the story or the character and find things I wouldn’t have been able to see had I not stripped my “self” from the work?

Is stripping the “self” from any work really possible? Is “self” stamped all over everything that I have ever written? Does a writer’s work bear a lasting imprint that can never be washed away? Do we want to wash the imprint away? Do the best pieces of writing contain that indelible imprint?

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Is the idea to strip the writing of self when writing while at the same time making sure the writing contains the self that becomes the lasting imprint? And does any of this happen consciously?

I guess I’m just one half of a pair of crows today, the question woman. The answer woman has gone missing. Maybe she flew south for the winter.

That’s it for today, folks. I used up all my energy writing not-so-pithy sayings to fill 600 fortune cookies for our school’s auction tomorrow. “Good fortune comes to those who support the library fund-a-need. Give generously.” Uninspired, and not really a fortune, but to the point, yes? If you’ve got any better suggestions for fortunes—or questions, or answers to questions, I’m all ears.

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I’m listening

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