I consider myself a new writer. I’ve only been writing for a few years and I’m still learning the ropes. As I look back to two and half years ago, when I sat down to write the first sentence of my first novel, I’m overwhelmed at how my writing has improved. But that learning curve was out of this world, insanely huge and I’d rather lessen the blow for others along this path.
I’m starting New Writer Wednesday to share things I’ve learned to help others avoid the same mistakes I made. Maybe you are staring at your first NaNo manuscript and wondering what to do next. Or maybe you’ve always known you wanted to write but have yet to open a Word document and try. If that’s you, then New Writer Wednesday will become a place where you can discover easy concepts that will save you from wasting your time.
Both agented and non-agented writers will be sharing their wisdom on New Writer Wednesday. There is so much to learn about writing from both sides of that imaginary line. I’m really excited to start this series and I hope you enjoy it as well.
Today, I want to briefly talk about the use of backstory. Backstory is EVERYTHING to the writer but not always necessary for the reader. (Side note: when writing,always be considerate of your reader. Otherwise, you’re just being selfish. ) In my first draft of my first novel, I spent ten pages within my first chapter– I had no idea what an appropriate chapter length was– revealing my MC’s background. I felt that every moment was important fuel for the story. And, it was. It still is. But it’s not there anymore. As a writer, I needed it to help me fuel the story. But my readers… well… they barely needed any of it.
When I realized that my draft was a bit front heavy, I had a stroke of brilliance – ok, what I thought to be brillance at the time. Ready for this? I changed the back story into a prologue! Brilliant, right? … Too bad most agents hate prologues. (Yeah, that’s another thing you may want to know as a writer). So I had a twelve page prologue. Technically, it was all action and dialogue that showed, rather then told my back story. It was a huge step in the right direction… but not good enough.
It wasn’t until one of my lovely critique partners, Fiona McClaren, pointed out that I needed to approach writing back story like cooking, delicately using it as seasoning throughout the manuscripts process, that everything clicked for me. The best way I can explain it is through examples.
Ok, so say your main character’s parents are divorced. Don’t throw the reader into even two paragraphs (let alone five pages) of an explanation behind their divorce. If you simply have a character think “Great, Dad’s got another girlfriend”, you give the reader a hint of past infidelity. If the reader really needs to know the extent of the history, reveal it throughout the manuscript.
Another YA example: Bullying. Instead of explaining the whole bullying event in a prologue (*cough* another big mistake I made *cough), just have your main character (MC) shudder when the bully walks by. You don’t need to explain right away why. Let the back story be seasoning. The next time the MC gets dressed, maybe their fingers brush a scar that leads them into a brief thought of an event. Like, “Charlie always knows which rocks cut the deepest.” Be small with it though. Only reveal what the readers absolutely need to know.
What I’m trying to say is this: don’t dump back story on your reader, even if you’re technically showing it. Don’t do too much at once. What’s too much? I’d say anything more than a handful of sentences. If you need to fit more, then sprinkle it throughout with actions or dialogue. Too much back story can kill the pace of your story.
I’ll admit, I’m still learning about how to season with back story. I’m always open to learning so I’d love to hear what you know. I will say that knowing this seasoning secret has saved me about a year of editing. AND, honestly, helped my first manuscript bloom into something I’m very proud of.
Does that make sense?
I hope it does. If not, I’m sorry. I’d love a referral to a blog post of how to cure an exhausted mother’s brain.
Please check back next week for another New Writer Wednesday. 🙂