Friday, May 22, 2009

Weaving in Backstory

Something I'm often asked about by new writers is how to add backstory into a manuscript without slowing the pace too much. This is an important question, because done incorrectly, backstory can halt a story in its tracks and pull the reader out of the book.

First off, be sure the backstory you want to add is important enough to merit inclusion. It has to add details or information that can't be conveyed naturally throughout the book, so give this a lot of thought. Many novice authors will make the mistake of "info dumping", usually in the first chapter, or even the opening scene. Most times all the information can be cut during the editing phase and woven in throughout the story. If this can't be done and the information is still necessary to the storyline, consider using it in either a prologue or flashback.

A prologue is generally shorter than a chapter, and always comes before the book begins. It sets up the story by showing the reader an important/life-changing event that occurred for a character before the main storyline begins. It may reveal certain motivations for a main character, or it may set up the suspense angle by leaving the reader wondering what happened, but it must set up some important element of the story. Otherwise, it doesn't need to be there.

A flahsback is another way to add backstory, and used sparingly, will avoid slowing the pace. Often offset by itallics, these scenes are written in the present tense, but show something that happened in the past. This can be done in a dream sequence, or as a true flashback, when something triggers a strong memory in the character's head. This can be very powerful, but again, it must be important enough to warrant inclusion, so use with discretion.

When you're doing revisions, make sure you're on the lookout for info dumps and see whether you can add in chunks throughout the story. If you can't and the details are still necessary, see if you can use one of the above tools. Your work will be better off for it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

More plotting techniques

In my efforts to lay out the story for my next novel, I've been researching various plotting techniques used by other writers. I figure there has to be a better way than what I'm doing. As stated in a previous entry, I am not a pantser, at least not until the final stages of drafting. In fact, the thought of starting a novel without knowing where I'm going next is enough to make my eye twitch. To me, that's like hopping in a car and driving off into the sunset without any desination in mind. Just take off and go until you run out of gas. Not the way I like to travel! I like the MapQuest way, where you have a clear beginning and end destination in mind, then you find the most direct route there and prebook your hotel before you even think about packing. For me, writing a book is a lot like that.

Since this is the fifth and final book in this series, I already know all my characters inside and out. Bonus for me, right? Yeah, but they've also been through so much already that I have to be careful to put them into new and even more perilous situations to keep my storyline fresh and interesting. After looking around at various methods online I've decided I already use a combination of the most popular, and that's worked fine up until now, with one major exception.

Drum roll...

The sagging middle. All writers out there know exactly what I'm talking about. Oh, the horror! You've got your incredible beginning, the blackest moment known to the literary world and the most astounding conclusion for the book all figured out, and then--

You have no idea how to fill in the middle. I mean, like, none. Man, that sucks.

Classically, this is where all writers struggle. They start out strong out of the gate, then fall halfway to the finish line. Some struggle to their feet and carry on even though each step is painful and grueling, but some give up and lay there until someone brings a stretcher to drag them off the track because the finish line is too damn far away. Unreachable. And while they're being hauled away they wonder, "Why did I ever think I could write a novel?".

Sometimes a writer will question their ability to make the story work long enough to reach the finish they'd been so excited about initially. If this describes your situation, take heart! You can fix it. The answer that works for me? More plotting. Now, to find a system that works and appeals to you.

There's the famous Snowflake method, by Randy Ingermanson. He starts with a high concept pitch, where the story is boiled down into one tight sentence. That's your starting point. He then expands on this to add the high plot points, and then branches into character development where the author explores the goals, motivations and conflicts facing each major character. It's all very neat and scientific, but a whole lot of work!

Personally, I want something short and concrete before I start the first draft. I like to write out everything important in a pretty notebook I buy for each book I'm working on. At night I keep it next to my bed in case I wake up with something brilliant in mind (at least, it seems brilliant to me at that time of the morning), and I carry it in my purse in case inspiration strikes while I'm out doing errands. I do a character sketch outlining background, goals, motivation and conflicts for each major POV character. I don't go into so much detail for the minor characters, but feel free if it helps you get to know them better. Try an interview if this is too sterile for you. Find out what makes them tick, their darkest secrets, what habits they have, etc.

Once that's done, I already know what each major character wants, why they want it, and why they can't have it (goal, motivation and conflict--cool, huh?). By the way, conflict drives the plot. No conflict, no novel. Readers don't want to be bored, and neither do agents and editors. So whatever twists and turns your storyline takes from page one to The End, you'd better have unresolved conflict along the way. And lots of it.

Begin with an opening that introduces the major conflict for at least one of your major characters. If you can make it matter to more than one, so much the better. Then you need to figure out the major crisis points in the book, and how you want things to wind up. Once all that's done, you have the most critical parts of the book laid out already. Now, all you have to do is flesh out the scenes in between to fill in the blanks. Easy, right?

Not so much. There's still that darned saggy baggy middle to contend with. Trust me, it can stop a writer dead in their tracks and keep them mired down for weeks. Months, even. Not good! So, back to the drawing board. Tackle it on your own if you want, but don't feel bad if you need help. Talk to someone in your writing group. Find a critique partner. Bug your spouse, or your mom, or your best friend, and get some ideas going.

Try to identify why you've stalled and why the middle is so lacklustre. I bet you'll find there's not enough conflict going on at that point. So? Make something exciting happen. Introduce another subplot. Throw in a twist, or even two or three. Do something! Once you do, the story will begin to flow again. Really, I swear! And always remember you can change it later if something even better comes to mind. Just make sure that whatever conflicts you have, don't resolve them too soon or it could be a really short book. Us authors still have that pesky thing called a word count hanging over our heads.

With all this in mind, I wanted to see if there was a boiled down, nitty-gritty kind of plotting system out there. Like magic, I stumbled across a concise story line layout designed by Lynn Viehl.

Wow! How come I didn't think of this? She lays everything out in an organized way that really appeals to my Capricorn, control freak nature, and streamlines my process. I daresay it will even help me stave off that dreaded sagging middle. Hallelujah! I'm revved and ready to rock.

So now you have a few other ideas to kick around when you're in the early stages of tackling a novel. I hope at least one will be of help to you. To all you pantsers out there, my hat is off to you. I will never understand how you guys can create a novel out of thin air, but that's just me. To each their own, I guess.

Happy plotting!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Final proofread and another Submission

Yesterday I finished off the final edits for my fourth romantic suspense with The Wild Rose Press, called Relentless, and sent it off to my editor. Feels great to have it done! My critique partner was a big help, and she's pointed out on several occasions that I intrude on the story with my own author voice from time to time. Bad Kaylea!

In the final pass, I always try to add as many of the five senses as I can to make the writing more vivid. Smell and taste are the ones I most commonly neglect during the drafting phase. Then, I always look for phrases beginning with "It was", or "There was/were", since they denote passive language and most of the time can be rephrased. Another biggie is "which", and most of the time that can be replaced with "that", or ommitted entirely.

Catching little inconsistencies is the toughest part at this stage, since I've been deeply into the story for months, so that's why it's so important for a fresh pair of eyes to take a look for those. Hence my fabulous critique partner, whom I have no doubt will be a NYT bestselling author someday soon.

Mistakes I've noticed a lot of new authors make is adding too many dialogue tags, or using too many adjectives with them. For example, "Why can't you just leave me alone?" she yelled angrily, can be reworded as, "Why can't you just leave me alone!" We get that she's yelling both from the exclamation point and the itallics, and by her words I think it's pretty clear she's ticked off. Try to make sure your dialogue is uncluttered, and only qualify how a character says something if it's important or can't be conveyed by the words they're speaking.

Last check--typos! You know the ones... Your instead of you're, their instead of there. I could go on. They're tricky to catch if you're doing your fourth or fifth pass through the manuscript. As the author, your eyes tend to skip over these little guys unless you take my advice and read the thing out loud. Your family might look at you strangely, but it really works. Promise!

So after I did all of these last minute things, I submitted the novel off into the ether. Hope my editor likes it!

What techniques do you use when doing the final polish on a manuscript?