The Dreaded B-word: Backstory

A few weeks ago, I attended a seminar given by author and story consultant Lisa Cron. You may know her from her popular column at Writer Unboxed, her TEDx Talk, or her book Wired for Story

Her approach to writing fiction is a bit unconventional. She says that everything we have been taught about writing is wrong. (A bold statement!) “The conventions of writing—voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it—are the handmaiden of story…” In other words, focus on the story first and worry about crafting beautiful metaphors later.

But even those diligently outlining their plot with the Hero’s Journey firmly in mind may still forget the critical questions. Stories are not “a bunch of things that happen.” As she reminded us over and over, your story hinges on what those things mean to your protagonist.

Most authors (I’m looking at myself here!) get well into their novels and hit a wall. It’s usually because the events of the story are not connected to the decisions the protagonist makes. Lisa wants you to set aside your outline and stop filling out that character questionnaire. Instead, know your protagonist.

She suggests you ask yourself these five questions before page one:

1.What is yStory Geniusour point? Why do you care about it?  (Not, what is your theme? Let’s get rid of the word theme, she advises.)

There is something you want readers to take away from your story, something with implications for human nature. It may sound a bit cliche at first (It’s better to have loved and lost…), but that’s okay. This is just something to ground you in why you’re writing this story in the first place. Answering this question and returning to it will help you through the difficult times when you want to throw in the towel.

2.What does your character enter the story wanting? What would need to happen for your protagonist to get what she wants and be happy?  Whether or not the character is right about what would her happy or cannot articulate it (for example, a child), there is something she thinks would solve all her problems.

Here, the more specific the better. Winning the lottery is not specific. Picture, in detail, what that would look like for your character. Now you know what getting it would mean to her.

3. What is the misbelief that is holding your character back? This was a big one for me. This smells like the dreaded B-word: backstory. Backstory is the kiss of death, right? Wrong, Lisa says! Often the thing your character thinks is protecting her is actually hurting her. Dig to find the origin of this misbelief. Where did it come from, and why does she believe it?

It is key to understand your character’s misbeliefs as they relate to the problems she is going to face. Pinpointing this in detail will give the reader a sense of urgency and something to be curious about.

4. What is the plot problem that will force your character to struggle with this misbelief? The story problem “grows, escalates, and complicates.” Does this story problem have the power to force the protagonist to face her misbelief?

Most characters will struggle mightily to hold onto their misbelief. It is what has protected them all these years—until now, that is.

5. What is your protagonist’s a-ha moment? This is where the story makes its point. (See question 1, above.) It can come before your character has to do that really hard thing, right in the middle, or just after.

Maybe your protagonist gets what she wants, maybe she doesn’t, but readers can only care if they know what it means to her.
The huge payoff of attending Lisa’s talk was overcoming my apprehension about backstory. (That would be my misbelief!) But, as she pointed out, your protagonist had a life before page one. She didn’t step out of a bubble and into the framework of the novel. To disregard what came before eliminates what made her her. This post just scrapes the surface of Lisa’s new book Story Genius

If you feel stuck and need some guidance in generating story ideas, please consider signing up for my new online class The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity. This class will be a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

As a writer or a reader, how do you feel about backstory?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Judging a Book by Its Cover

It’s hard not to, isn’t it?  Judge a book by its cover, I mean. First impressions matter. Often there is a subtle reaction playing out on a subconscious level. I have shied away from books because I didn’t find the cover appealing. But what makes a book cover appealing? I assumed the answers are as varied as there are readers. Then I attended a publishing industry seminar about cover design, and I realized that personal taste is only one small part of the bigger picture.

Book covers have to tell their own stories, but they are “in service to another piece of art,” says Chip Kidd, the art director at Knopf.

We attendees were divided into the decision-making groups as you might find in a publishing house:

  • Publisher: Responsible for the commercial success of the book. Wants the cover to have maximum consumer appeal across all platforms.
  • Associate publisher: Ensures the book reaches its target consumer so the cover needs to speak to a specific audience.
  • Editor: Makes sure the cover speaks to the content of the book.
  • Publicity: Wants the cover to have an impact no matter where it appears: Amazon, a banner ad on Goodreads, or this blog post.
  • Author: Yes, the author has a say-so, though some authors have more say-so than others.

A designer will often provide five to seven completely different mock-ups of each cover and circulate them for feedback from the aforementioned groups. The designs are narrowed down and tweaked before showing one or two to the author. In the seminar, we reviewed each mock-up and considered the following questions (among others):

 

1. What category does this book fall into? As many of you know, book categories have gotten very specific in recent years! Contemporary women’s psychological thriller? Humorous performing arts memoir? Coming-of-age dystopian fiction? The cover design should suggest the genre.

gulp

This book is nonfiction, but it’s going to be humorous. The mouth illustration is whimsical. The title is placed on the tongue and the subtitle playfully follows the curve.

 

 

 

2. Who is the specific audience? “We’re looking to reach readers who liked The Girl on the Train.” What does that mean? A cover that has abstract elements that evoke mystery.

3. Is the cover trying too hard? The cover design should convey the heart of the story. Without a doubt, my group gravitated toward striking images.

mustache-shenanigans

This cartoonish outline speaks to the author and the silly nature of the movie (the inspiration for this behind-the-scenes book) without trying to incorporate all of the elements of the movie.

 

 

 

4. How will this cover look as a thumbnail? A book jacket needs to look good on store shelves and as an image attached to an email newsletter. There were several sample covers we saw that used a script too difficult to read when scaled down.

 

Some other takeaways:

  • Don’t forget about typography. As someone who admits to having used ComicSans, I was often surprised by my different reactions to the mock-up covers based solely on a change of font.
  • Clarity versus mystery. Should the cover be sincere or intriguing?

The Vacationers

Every time I look at this cover, I want to find a pool and take a dip. The background color, the spot of red on the girl’s bathing suit, and the clean, white type give me a hint about the story. (Read my review of The Vacationers over at Great New Books.)

 

 

 

9118135

This cover gives the reader nothing. No information, no intrigue, no hints. If it hadn’t been written by Ann Patchett, I would have never read the book.

 

 

 

 

  • Negative space can be your friend. We overwhelmingly felt frustrated by covers that were cluttered with images.

fraud

No worries about clutter here. Even if you didn’t know who David Rakoff was, you might be interested enough to give this essay collection a chance. You know it’s nonfiction rather than fiction because “Fraud” is written over the author’s name.

 

 

  • Give the reader credit.  Readers need enough information to grasp the gist of the story, but give them the credit for the knowledge they already have about this subject/author/book.

 

What book covers do you love? Hate? 

Plug for my new online class! The Writer’s Muse: Explorations in Creativity offers guided exercises to help you move through the world as a writer and cultivate your curiosity. Consider this class a mini writing retreat with inspirational exercises in a friendly environment. Hope to see you there! 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

Authorial Intrusion: Fear of Success

Have you ever daydreamed of writing a series that has touched as many people as Harry Potter? Or writing a memoir as successful as Eat, Pray, Love? I close my eyes and think about how wonderful that would be. For a moment I smile, and then something weird happens. I can actually feel the anxiety rise in my gut. My heart starts beating faster. It doesn’t feel good at all.

Not to worry, right? I’m certainly not at work on a series of high-fantasy novels titled Larry Botter. So why does just thinking about being in J.K. Rowling’s shoes cause me to twitch?

The Fault in Our Stars

Then I saw this video from John Green, author of the very successful YA novel The Fault in Our Stars. When that book was published, he was already at work on a new manuscript. “I started to feel this intense pressure, like people were watching over my shoulder as I was writing.” He ditched that story and reimagined it, but after 100 pages that too was abandoned. “I was elated and grateful that The Fault in Our Stars had reached so many readers, but at the same time I was terrified because I felt like I could never follow it up.”

 

 

Again, this is a problem of scale that I clearly don’t have, but something in the honesty of his video made me see the universality of the fear behind his words. I’ve read similar posts and articles by writers with more commonplace levels of success, and I realize the fear is the same. The fear is the same if you’ve sold 10,000 copies or 1 million copies. And the question is the same, what next?

In her TedX Talk, Jemele Hill, a host on the ESPN2 network, suggests that we fear success because it creates expectations and stakes and accountability. Success feels more complicated than failure. It’s more demanding. That “what next” feeling is always lurking, whether you’re publishing your first story or a book that has achieved phenomenal success.

That word phenomenal made me think of an interview Oprah did with J.K. Rowling in 2011 as the last Harry Potter movie was being released.

Winfrey: But I read something recently. It was the story of Michael Jackson in the making of Thriller and in that story the writer said Michael Jackson never realized that Thriller was a phenomenon that, it being the number-one selling album of all times, is a phenomenon. That what happened when that album came out and people all over the world doing that dance and listening to every song and that he spent his life chasing the phenomenon and therefore was never satisfied.

Rowling: I read it and that really resonated with me.

Winfrey: And it really resonated with me, too and I thought “I don’t want to be that.”

Rowling: Exactly.

Winfrey: I don’t want to be chasing the phenomenon that I know –

Rowling: I have to do it again. I have to do it again.

The fear of success stems from the pressure that we or others place on us to “do it again.”  In fact Rowling goes on to say, “People say to me, ‘Well, you must just think how on earth am I going to top that?’” It can be paralyzing.

 

Elizabeth Gilbert knows what it’s like to come off a resounding success:

…that whole Eat, Pray, Love thing was a huge break for me. But it also left me in a really tricky position moving forward as an author trying to figure out how in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody, because I knew well in advance that all of those people who had adored Eat, Pray, Love were going to be incredibly disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t going to be Eat, Pray, Love.

 

This all makes me sweat just a little bit. Is it possible to feel anxiety about what comes next even before there is a before? What to do? Aim for mediocrity?

Here’s Elizabeth Gilbert again:

…you have got to find your way back home again as swiftly and smoothly as you can, and if you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. So that might be creativity, it might be family, it might be invention, adventure, faith, service…your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.

 

That, I think I can do.

Have you experienced fear of success?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Authorial Intrusion: Giving and Receiving (Part 2)

My last post was about things to consider if you’re planning to attend a writing workshop. Let’s say you’ve found the right workshop for you. Most likely one important component will be submitting your writing for feedback by fellow participants.

And this is where things often fall apart.

I’ve seen it happen in my MFA program. In small critique groups. In online forums. In structured workshops. Writers come with the best of intentions but have different expectations. Someone gets offended and the whole thing implodes.

New Orleans

I had three long months between being accepted to a recent workshop and attending which gave me plenty of time to worry about the group dynamics. How would we get along? Would we have productive sessions or would things languish into an awkward silence? Happily we quickly got into a nice groove. By the end of our session, we knew each other’s preferences and tendencies.

Here are five guidelines to help make sure you have a productive workshop experience:

  • Honor the rules. They are there for a reason. Most workshops have formal or informal rules. Submit the required number of pages in the required format. At the required time. Send your comments to other writers as requested. If the workshop leader asks you to remain quiet while others are discussing your work, then remain quiet. That also means no strange faces, no audible sighs, no slumping back in your seat.
  • It’s all about giving and receiving. I’m often amazed when a writer tries to slide by with lame feedback on everyone else’s work but expects a dissertation on his or her work. First, this is a two-way street. Second, you learn as much (or more!) by offering thoughtful comments on another writer’s work as you do reading comments about your work. You’re engaging in critical thinking, rather than passively reading.
  • Check your ego at the door. Your group doesn’t need to be bombarded with comments insisting that they MUST change something or they will be sent to writing purgatory. And no piling on without adding something new.
    • Addendum: Likewise, check the cheerleading at the door. Writers are there for honest feedback. While I’d love to hear that you think I’m the next Ruth Ozeki, I also need information about how to improve.
  • Honest feedback doesn’t mean brutally honest. Yes, we writers need a thick skin. If you can’t take having your work dissected, this might not be the best creative outlet for you. But there is a line between offering constructive criticism and criticizing. If you’re not sure where that line is, ask the group leader.
  • Remember that the character’s lifestyle and beliefs don’t necessarily match the author’s…or yours. And that’s okay.
    • Addendum: Just because you’re not familiar with something doesn’t mean it’s not possible. A long time ago (in a land far, far away), I had submitted a short story for feedback. One woman found my character unrealistic because she lived in an apartment above a hair salon. “Who does that?” the woman asked.

 

Have you been part of a writing workshop? Have any items to add to the list?

Next time, I have some suggestions on the most difficult aspect of a workshop: what to do with all those comments you received.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

Authorial Intrusion: Attending a Writing Workshop (Part 1)

I’m just coming off a terrific week. I attended a writing workshop, my first in more than a decade. I was nervous at the outset, but soon the week settled into a nice (if tiring) rhythm. It was a win all around: I received invaluable feedback on my novel-in-progress, met some great writers, and learned new techniques.

The best part? I feel invigorated, ready to tackle current and future writing projects with enthusiasm.

Here are five tips if you’re considering attending a writing workshop.

  • Think about what you want. There are so many options out there. Ask yourself what you want to take away from this experience. Be honest! Do you want:
    • feedback on your current writing project?
    • craft lectures?
    • to meet literary agents?
    • to mingle with other writers?
    • quiet writing time?

The workshop I attended offered many of the above items, but there was no set writing time. In fact, the schedule was so jam-packed, I often spent what little downtime we had in a daze. That brings me to the next point.

Virginia Woolf's Writing Desk

Virginia Woolf’s Writing Desk via The Guardian

  • Know what you’re getting yourself into. You’re going to be out of your comfort zone. Plenty of people you don’t know will be reading your work. Maybe you’ve come to the workshop from out of town. There might be a (gasp!) mixer. It can be scary. Read the details about the workshop, including the fine print.
    • How are the days structured?
    • Will you have “homework,” e.g. reading workshop submissions in preparation for the next day?
    • What is expected of you? What level of participation is needed?
    • What is the participant-to-teacher ratio? Is it reasonable for this type of workshop?
    • How many participants will there be? How diverse is it?
    • Are “big name” authors/agents/editors important to you?
    • Do you want to attend a venerable workshop (read: very competitive), or are you willing to go for the scrappy upstart (read: possible bumps in the road)?

If you poke around on the workshop’s website, you should be able to find the answers to most of these questions. Be wary of vague statements and no contact info.

  • Get behind the scenes. Once you’ve narrowed your options, the best way to find out about the workshop is to ask someone who has been. Don’t rely on the blurbs posted to the workshop website. Post the question on social media and follow up privately to make sure this is the right workshop for you.
  • Understand that fellow participants and teachers are there to help you…but not coddle you. If you’re seeking a lot of one-on-one attention, it might be better to attend a formal class or hire an editor. If you’re seeking unabashed praise, it might be better to ask your mother. (Thanks, Mom!)
  • Be generous. Most workshops ask that you offer feedback to other writers. This is such an important part of the process, it is not to be taken lightly. I’d argue that you can learn as much or more by giving than receiving. If you’re not at the stage where you are ready to give thoughtful comments on another writer’s work, consider postponing to a future workshop.

Here is a link to upcoming workshops in the US and Canada. 

Next time, I’ll have some specific details on what to expect during the critique sessions. Until then, do you have any tips for attending a writing workshop? Have you attended a workshop recently?

Have a great weekend, everyone!