Getting to Know You: Backstory – How much is too much?

In my Writing Through the Body workshop this week, we talked about backstory a little. Backstory is your character’s history. It’s everything that happened before the story you’re telling.

Knowing your character’s backstory will help you make informed decisions about her or his motivations, intentions, and behaviors in the story you tell.

Shadow box prop from Found Objects the film: "Can't we sit to-geth-er..."

Shadow box prop from Found Objects the film:
“Can’t we sit to-geth-er…”

Before we went into production on my feature film, FOUND OBJECTS, I wrote extensive and detailed backstories on all the characters and sent them to the actors who would play the parts. By the time we started production, they had clearly ingested their respective characters and showed up fully embodying them.

Even though we aren’t acting out our characters in fiction writing in the literal sense, in some ways, we are. We have to be able to slip into their skins to portray them with authenticity, and the best way to do this is by thoroughly knowing their backstories.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the backstory will wind up in your story, though. In fact, oftentimes it’s better NOT to include it.

In the video below, KM Weiland quotes Ernest Hemingway:
“Backstory is the nine-tenths of the story under the water.”

Watch the video to see what else she has to say about backstory.

And Libby Hellman has more to say about her process of creating backstory
for the main character in her novel, Easy Innocence.

 How do you create backstory for your characters?

Write What You Know (But Don’t Write Autobiography)

If you’ve taken any writing classes at all, you know that one of the staple rules beginners are taught is “write what you know.” Even as a fresh beginner, I never took this advice literally. I was, after all, interested in writing fiction. I didn’t want to tell you exactly what happened the first time I fell in love or what my divorce was like or give the graphic details of my abuse. I wanted to write stories that would stretch further than my own limited experience of the world. I wanted to strive for something bigger than myself.

It’s hard for those who don’t write to understand this concept: that we writers might write from personal experience, but we’re not writing autobiography.

“Write what you know”charges us with the task of taking the essence of our emotional experiences and rendering them universal. I like the way author, Nathan Englander, puts it:

So, do write what you know, but rather than retell actual events, visit those events that left a lasting impression on you, then dig deeper. Forage your memory for the sensual details—the way the breeze delicately rippled the curtain, how the sun shimmered on the cobalt blue vase, the sharp smell of sulfur in the air that 4th of July when you got the news, or the sound of your mother crying behind a closed door.

And forage your heart for what you felt around those sensual details. Because when we write from emotional experience, that’s when we can begin to write universally about the human condition, and that’s when we give ourselves a fighting chance to touch the person who takes the time to read what we’ve bothered to write.

Find your tool fetish

While non-writers may look sideways at the fetishizing of writing utensils, a writer understands that what looks to be a mere object to others, is an important aspect of our creativity, an extension of us. Our pens, pencils, notebooks, and yellow legal pads are conduits between our muse, ourselves, and our stories. Talismans, even.

For instance, I’ve written in the past about how I use the keyboard for certain stages of writing (mind dumping big thoughts and writing the story) and write by hand for other stages (initial random snippets and editing drafts).

When I’m not at the keyboard, my writing tool of choice: a mechanical pencil.

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I’m not picky about brand or color or even design (although it does need to fit in my hand comfortably – if I’m noticing that I’m holding a pencil, it isn’t right – and I have to admit, I’ve become partial to those with a rubber grip at the base). It has to have a good eraser, too. But mostly, it’s the lead for me that’s the deal breaker.

This is it: .5 / #2

When I write with a .5 #2 mechanical pencil lead, it’s like silk on silk. The feel of the soft graphite sliding across paper is so sensually satisfying it allows me to – maybe even helps me – focus in on the flow of the story, and in the editing process (which is when I use the mechanical pencil), I’m able to see the excess and the holes in what I’ve written, and I just get immersed. It’s trance-like. A surrender, of sorts.

I can edit with a pen, but it isn’t the same. Using a pen keeps me in my brain too much. But with a mechanical pencil, I engage with the words and the paper in a whole different way. The pen gouges. The pencil caresses. It allows the flow from my psyche to go straight down my arm, into the pencil and on to the page without conscious thought. It’s magic.

While I haven’t pondered, to any great length, why writers have these seemingly quirky requirements for their writing materials, I can’t help but think it has something to do with the fact that writing is not just a mental act, but a physical one. Each writer’s special need when it comes to tools must have something to do with the that writer’s physical make-up and response to tactile sensations.

Whatever the reasons for these special requirements, our fascination with knowing the writing quirks of famous writers is clear. In Alison Nastasi’s article on the subject, we learn about the writing fetishes of twenty famous authors, and while most of us wouldn’t dream of using a fountain pen to write a novel these days (unless you’re Neil Gaiman), thanks to technology, we have even more tools are at our disposal. For instance, Sara Juckes describes, other tools at our disposal to enhance our writing lives: things like CTRL-Z, Sticky Notes, and Pinterest, among others.

Some of us would benefit from other, newer tools that aren’t directly attached to the writing process, but that allow us to get the work done, such as Cold Turkey, a program that locks you out of the internet if your willpower is low, as suggested by Robbie Blair in his article that details “9 Modern Tools Every Writer Should Use.”

Discovering our old-school writing tool fetishes, as well as adapting to and utilizing new-school technological inventions that can make our jobs easier, is just one more facet of defining and honoring ourselves as writers.

In addition to my old-school .5 #2 mechanical pencil fetish, I’d say my current new-school fetish is toss up between GoogleDrive (love, love, LOVE that I can write on any device, anywhere, anytime, and not have to remember to email myself the last draft of a piece) and Notes (so handy when I have an idea and no paper, napkin, or envelope to write in the moment.

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What’s your writing tool fetish?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Know when to quit

Know when to quitWhen many writers talk about writing, they focus on getting the machine started and keeping it running—that is, creating the right mindset and environment to allow flow to happen and actually get words on the page or screen.

But what about knowing when to stop?

And I don’t mean stop, as in quit or give up on writing altogether. I mean, how do you know when to stop on any given day?

Comedy writer Ken Levine writes about this subject and tells us how he and other writers know when to stop. And the answer to this question is most definitely the different-strokes-for-different-folks kind.

For me, as I’ve written in the past, achieving flow is not a problem. I have a busy brain that mutates ideas fractal-style, so I’m never at a loss. (Generally, I have too many things to write about or two many ideas for a story in progress. It’s a good “problem” to have, so I’m not complaining.)

Because I have my fingers in a lot of different things right now, I’m not able to write every day, so I’ve blocked out two full days each week – Monday and Thursday. These days are devoted to writing and nothing else. I don’t let anything interfere. I close my browser windows and leave my cell phone in the other room.

But two days isn’t enough writing time for me, so my tendency is to want to just keep going and going and going when I’m finally able to get back with my characters. I love them, and I love the world we’re creating together. But the reality is, for me, that after so many hours, things start to feel stale.

For instance, yesterday I was working on the beginning of the second act of my screenplay, Miranda’s Garden. I’m working from an outline (I can do this with screenplays, but not so much with fiction.), so I always set a milepost for myself at the beginning of every writing day and decide how far down the outline I plan to work.

Yesterday, about two-thirds of the way there, I caught myself writing scenes that did nothing in terms of moving the story forward. I LOVE dialogue, so I can just sit and listen to my characters perform idle chit-chat endlessly, but if I’m going to sell scripts or get them made into films, or if I’m going to write novels that have a reasonable page count that anybody’s going to what to publish, I can’t do that. That said, though, I never feel the time spent writing unusable prose or dialogue is a waste, as it always gets me where I need to go.

So yesterday, when I found myself acting like a person who was just hanging out with her friends rather than a writer telling a story, I stopped long enough to think about what I needed to accomplish to not just move the story forward, but to deepen character development and the relationship between the characters in the scenes I was working on. I did this knowing that on Monday when I sit down to work on it again, I will, more than likely, need to revise that section. I prefer this, though, as it gets my head back in the story and back with the characters. Then I’m off, writing forward until I start to go stale again.

Another way I know it’s time to stop is by listening to my body. If I’ve sat in a chair tapping away at the keyboard long enough that my back, neck and shoulders ache, it’s time to quit. Sometimes, though, I just have to forego the pain a while longer so I can get to the place that feels right. So I can start in the right place the next time.

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How do you know when it’s time to stop writing?

 

Read

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One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read other writers. By reading the work of other writers, we can gain a multitude of benefits.

Reading fiction is like taking a vitamin for your brain, psyche, and soul all at the same time.

Besides creating something in our brain called grounded cognition, literary fiction also increases empathy because it helps us to “understand the emotions of others.” And specifically literary fiction, because it “has more depth,” is better for us than mainstream fiction. It’s like the difference between organic food and fast food for our bodies. The fast food might fill us up, but it won’t give us the same nourishment or have the same lasting beneficial effects as the organic food.

 

While these benefits can be had by anyone who picks up a novel or a short story, for writers, the benefits don’t stop there.

When we read other writers, it causes us to step outside our tried and true habits, go-to word choices, and predictable rhythms. Can you imagine having only one window from which to view the world and never being able to go outside?! Reading other writers affords us the opportunity to look through many windows and expand our view of writing and of the world.

Expanding our vocabularies is also important, as is studying how other writers turn a phrase. And we can reap the benefits by reading fiction both mindfully and unmindfully.

By reading mindfully, I mean that we can choose a particular book with the sole purpose of studying the mechanics of it to find new ways to freshen our own writing, which is not to say we should be moving away from our own voices that took so long to find in the first place, but being aware of how others utilize the language, approach story, and tend to character should be a regular exercise for any writer.

Likewise, reading unmindfully, just reading for pleasure, can also benefit our writing because it wakes up our imagination, works on our subconscious, plants seeds for future use that we aren’t entirely aware of.

And lastly, reading diversely is also important. Life is busy, and our days are full. Finding time to read our favorite authors is hard enough, but it’s also important to read authors who aren’t our favorites. Or authors we’ve never heard of. Especially under-represented authors. Filling our heads with as many voices at possible, letting them hang out together and talk to each other will only add to the rich cacophony of possibilities in our own work.

On my nightstand right now
Mythic Imagination by Joseph Campbell
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

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What are you reading?

 

 

 

 

Nobody does it like you: develop and know your process

For me, the hardest part of writing is getting my butt in the chair. Once I’m there, and I begin, everything flows.

When I’m wrapped up in a story and a character, I’m unable to turn it off, even when I leave said chair. Images and dialogue (mostly dialogue) filter through my mind, and if I’m not at my desk or near it, I have to put these fragments down. Otherwise, they fade away, like a dissipating puff of smoke.

Before iPhones, I collected the pieces of stories that landed in my brain like jigsaw puzzle pieces on napkins, old envelopes, concert program notes… Anything that was handy. This was especially true when my kids were little and writing time was a premium. I also carried a small hand-held tape recorder with me everywhere I went.

Now I use Notes and Voice Memos in my iPhone, but I still do a fair amount of scribbling on random remnants of paper and other things when I don’t feel like thumb typing. Then, eventually, I organize them in a digital file and keep it on Google Drive (along with the piece I’m working on) so I can access it wherever I am and no matter which device I’m using.

For me, it’s typical for this stage of jotting down random snippets to continue throughout the writing of an entire piece. Once the substantial writing begins, another process takes hold in which I do a fair amount of moving forward, then backtracking, adjusting so that what I’ve set up in the past makes sense for what I’m setting up now.

In an interview, Margaret Atwood describes this as the rolling barrage technique.

She also says she uses “a sharp object with a pointy end” (pen or pencil) and whatever flat surface is nearby when the beginning of a new novel comes. As she progresses, she uses sticky notes and a bedside notebook.

Knowing your process is crucial to your production. If you know your process, the writing will come more easily, and you won’t find yourself staring down the snout of the mythical monster called writer’s block.

As Atwood says, “If you’re not finding this happen somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity.”

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I do a different kind of writing at the keyboard than I do by hand, and both approaches served different functions.

By hand

initial random snippets
editing drafts

Keyboard

mind dumping big thoughts so I can organize
writing the story

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Do you start with pen/pencil and paper or with the keyboard? Do you know why?

If it works and you don’t find yourself sitting, stuck, that’s great!
If you do find yourself stuck, try changing up the way you work.

 

“I just have to plunge into it.” – Margaret Atwood