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Writers' Newsletter

Issue #208
July 2020

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Character Backstory?

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach

firstwriter.com – Saturday July 4, 2020

One question that often arises for an author is what comes first, the protagonist’s backstory or an introduction to the character in action.

Well, the reader might not care about the protag’s history immediately, but a quarter of the way through the novel, once we readers have seen her in action—her heroism, her vulnerability, the sacrifices she makes for others—we might wonder how she came to be this way. Well, let the author finally tell us…

The argument that turns this one around is that readers need to know her sad story immediately, her birth to a disability, the raid on her village by the rebels, and their murder of her brother. Then we’ll understand how later, she is able to do what she does to save her parents when the rebels come again.

So the backstory—later on? Or first?

But actually a third possibility exists. My client had started her novel a little way into her protagonist’s story. The character is working as the back-office person for a gang of car thieves. She seems nice in a way, but obviously has some moral imperfections. Many readers will have trouble identifying with her.

So an agent asked her to start with more of the explanation—in action—of how this came to be. No big drop-in of back story, but the agent’s suggestion was to show her in court after her daughter has been taken away. Now the protagonist reacts to thoughts of her own childhood in the “system,” which failed her badly. Readers find out how she was treated as a servant by foster parents who were supposed to take care of her.

Now perhaps we understand a little of how she wound up where she is.

No lengthy backstory is inserted—we don’t flash back to the past except for a few sentences here and there in her thoughts, and in her reaction to her child having to enter the foster system. The protagonist hasn’t been able to care for little Jilly as she should be cared for.

The backstory then isn’t discarded exactly, but it’s compacted and integrated with the current story, and the idea of what the protagonist has gone through is now delivered upfront.

From there, bolstering her backstory, the protagonist goes to the garage where her present employers do their business, and as she introduces a new car thief into what goes on here, we see the desperation, hope, and fear of the newbie. Thus we gain even more insight into the impact of what the loss of parental care can do to a young person.  

No big information dump is dropped. The backstory is integrated on the fly. Backstory is thereafter woven into the plot at points where an explanation of behavior may be needed.

A novel should generally start at the moment of action, but backstory may be required. In that case, when backstory is needed, threading the past of a character into the action-charged start will give an extra layer of why readers ought to care about this person.

Each scene can be shown in the present story with the added depth of how the character came to be this way. In this instance, a little backstory explains why the protagonist is suspicious of the judge, the caseworker, and the woman fostering the protagonist’s daughter. She has been there herself and never would have wanted her daughter to suffer the same nightmare she underwent.

Deciding what to do with backstory, especially backstory that is essential to understanding the characters and their actions requires a sense of balance.

Showing the Past
Does what happened need to be shown in flashback form? Or can it be displayed though internal thoughts and memories? Here, my client demonstrates how her character deals with her childhood abuse, her psychological mechanisms of getting through those awful moments by counting items in a series and by paying attention to the environment around her, not focusing on what’s happening to her. This defense continues in her current world when she’s confronted by whatever threatens her in various ways.

Now, the decisions the character makes add to a decision the reader makes about her. Knowing that she’s coming from a hard place and doesn’t have a lot of options, or at least doesn’t think she does, allows the reader to be a little less judgmental, a little easier on her and willing to see her through this difficult time.

After we understand the adversity the protagonist has faced, we like her a lot better when we see her trying to help the new car thief, despite the newbie’s hostility and lack of appreciation.

Another way to insert backstory without a big information dump is through dialogue. The protagonist can be talking to a therapist or friends who she trusts. Snippets may add necessary information or pique our curiosity about what went on in the past—something significant we find out about later. The warning here is not to make this the occasion for a whole lot said. Again, the narration of the past should be essential and brief, and relate to events taking place in the “now.”

The main precaution is to not have the character walking down the street while thinking about her past and how she came to this point. This is a static way to open and pretty much means the manuscript will soon be closed and placed in the circular file.
 
Whatever advice writers have been given about creating character charts doesn’t mean readers need to see those delineations in stories. That’s often for the author to know and to inform choices in the story and not to reveal in less-than-intriguing detail in the novel itself.
 
Of course, if authors are writing a sequel, they might need to sum up some of what happened in books one and two, which was what I felt was required in editing the third of a trilogy. With no explanation being given of what had gone on before, I wasn’t concerned by the sudden death of a character who had been essential in book two. So I advised the author to start with a scene of her while she was still alive. After all, the rest of the novel was about hunting for her killer.

And, of course, the action used to define a character at the beginning doesn't have to be the breathless, life-at-risk sort of event the author will build up to. It can be some of the day-to-day happenings, the little comings and goings that make up a life and define us as individuals. That tells us about the character so that we care about the person enough to want to know the backstory and to come to worry when the person is in mortal peril.


About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is the author of the award-winning guide for mystery writers, Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, available now from JP&A Dyson.

"Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you'd like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer's Digest: https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/. Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Find me on Facebook."

G. Miki Hayden always has a new class starting at Writer's Digest. The feedback she gives is personal, thorough, and actionable.

https://www.facebook.com/GMikiH1/

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News

Some of this month's news for writers from around the web.

Richard and Judy relaunch writing competition

Richard and Judy relaunch writing competition

eveningexpress.co.uk – Monday July 13, 2020

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan have relaunched their competition for unpublished writers.

The winner of the competition, which has been run in previous years, will see their manuscript published.

Madeley said: “Across a wide range of genres, including crime, historical, romance or contemporary, we want to hear your stories and give one talented writer the joy of seeing their novel in print.

“We know how testing the last few months have been for everyone, so if you’ve been motivated to write – or just want to dust off that manuscript in your bottom drawer – send us your submissions.”

[Read the full article]

Writers' Handbook 2020 - Out Now!

  • Over 1,000 markets for writers
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  • Available both in print and as an ebook

Writers' Handbook

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Will The Lockdown Produce More Writing Talent?

Will The Lockdown Produce More Writing Talent?

businessnewswales.com – Monday July 13, 2020

A new survey of writers has yielded powerful evidence that writers have been more resilient to the impact of lockdown.

Whether or not we see the next big literary success story, we are on track to see a flurry of new books, unlike new film and TV content where productions have stalled.

With book downloads and Kindle sales currently going through the roof, more content and talent discovery is fantastic for avid readers. And many more people have taken up reading since pandemic restrictions locked them into their homes.

[Read the full article]

Dead Ink and Influx launch collaborative imprint

Dead Ink and Influx launch collaborative imprint

thebookseller.com – Tuesday July 7, 2020

Independent publishers Dead Ink and Influx are launching an imprint, called New Ruins, focused on books that "defy the conventions" of literary and genre fiction. 

The imprint will make commissions and invite submissions from literary agents, with its books available to the trade alongside Dead Ink titles, represented by Impress Books. 

Nathan Connolly, publishing director at Dead Ink, said: “New Ruins will bring an exciting and dynamic range of new fiction to readers, so it is important that it is produced in an exciting and dynamic way. Collaborating with Influx Press to break a few boundaries and bring something new to the industry is exactly the way it should be done.”

[Read the full article]

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Listings

A selection of the new listings added to firstwriter.com this month.

New Publisher Listing: Romance Publications

New Publisher Listing: Romance Publications

firstwriter.com – Wednesday July 15, 2020

Publishes romantic stories that include a central love story and emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. In addition to novels, we publish novellas, novelettes, and short stories. We are currently accepting short stores (450-550) words to be published in our monthly newsletters and anthologies of short stories. Anthologies will be sold for a profit, and the authors will receive a portion of the royalties that is typically given to a single author, which is 25%.

[See the full listing]


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New Publisher Listing: Favorite World Press

New Publisher Listing: Favorite World Press

firstwriter.com – Monday July 13, 2020

An independent publisher based in New York City. We believe that one of the best ways to help change the world is to start small. Our primary mission is to educate, entertain, and inspire young readers with books that focus on nature, wildlife, green living, and compassionate action. Our titles are specifically chosen to encourage creativity, critical thinking, and the confidence to show caring. By fostering an appreciation for the wild and the wondrous and an understanding of the importance of being kind towards both people and the planet, we aim to help shape the next generation of brave, big-hearted, planetary stewards. We help shape them - they help shape the world!

We also focus on young adult and adult fiction and nonfiction books for a general audience that illuminate and celebrate the splendor of nature, demystify the functioning of the environment, and promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable living.

We globally distribute high-quality hardcover, paperback, and electronic books through all major outlets, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, and Booktopia.

For a complete list of genres and submission guidelines please see our website.

[See the full listing]


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New Literary Agent Listing: Mark "Stan" Stanton

New Literary Agent Listing: Mark

firstwriter.com – Wednesday July 8, 2020

Actively searching for new novelists and nonfiction projects, particularly in the areas of sport, culture and politics.

[See the full listing]


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Articles

Some of this month's articles for writers from around the web.

How To Write The 'Right' Book

How To Write The 'Right' Book

forbes.com – Monday July 13, 2020

I have a confession: It took me 20 years to write and publish a book. 

“Getting one done should be easy,” I thought. While I did finally figure it out (today, I have 12 books that are all bestsellers), I’m not the only one who has wanted to write a book and not been able to get it done.

In fact, 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them and want to write it. Simple math: That’s 200 million people!

But here’s the trap. Most people approach it the wrong way. (Yes, there’s a right and wrong way.) The result? Most people make books nobody cares about.

Writing the right book means it makes a difference to your reader.

So let’s debunk the misinformation (lies) some traditional publishers and/or writing coaches may tell you. Here’s how to write the right book — fast.

[Read the full article]

Naomi Alderman Was Writing a Pandemic Novel Before the Pandemic Hit

Naomi Alderman Was Writing a Pandemic Novel Before the Pandemic Hit

nytimes.com – Tuesday June 23, 2020

For two years, Naomi Alderman, the author of the 2017 dystopian novel “The Power,” had been working on her next book.

Then in February, with 40,000 words already written, she decided she had to stop. The story she had devised, about tech billionaires fleeing a pandemic, now seemed a little too close to reality.

“I just thought, ‘Bollocks! I am not going to be able to write this book,’” Alderman said in a phone interview. “It just felt incredibly disrespectful to the many people who had lost loved ones. And I thought, ‘God knows where this pandemic is going to land, and what is possibly going to be the world that comes after it.’”

[Read the full article]

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