fiction writing

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! 


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!


Authorial Intrusion: He Admonished Gravely

How do you choose your next book to read? It’s a difficult question to answer, right? Some mysterious mixture of serendipity, subconscious awareness, and mood comes together to make me pull a specific book off the shelf and say, “Yes, this one.”

A few weeks ago, I knew I’d be entering a busy period between work and teaching, and I wanted to read something that wasn’t too demanding. Something that would envelope me like a hot cup of tea or make me smile like an old episode of Happy Days.

My eye landed on Anne of Green Gables.  The perfect choice! I hadn’t read it since I was a girl. Now I’ve been whisked away to Prince Edward Island and the Lake of Shining Waters with chatty, imaginative Anne. (That’s Anne with an “e” thank you very much.) It’s every bit as charming as I remembered.

You may be familiar with the story: the Cuthberts have decided to adopt a boy from the local orphanage to help out around their farm. When the orphanage sends Anne instead, the Cuthberts nearly return her. She’s not at all what they were looking for. Anne grows on them, staying true to herself, despite many innocent mix-ups.



Boy, how times have changed, and I don’t only mean in terms of social norms. The craft of fiction (and nonfiction for that matter) isn’t static. It’s a living, breathing art that’s evolving. Just as the Renaissance gave way to Baroque and Celine Dion led to Idina Menzel, so too do styles in literature. We read with a 21st century mindset. I can appreciate Dickens, but my modern sensibilities balk at pages (literally) of description of fog. (Note: if you find fog intriguing, Dickens is your guy.)

I noticed this as I was reading Anne of Green Gables. The way Montgomery told the story of a young orphan girl is different from the way John Green or Rainbow Rowell would tell the same story today. Some are subtle and some are glaring. One that stood out immediately was dialogue. While these dialogue tags were commonplace in early modern stories, they are discouraged now, and for good reason.

  • “It’s so nice to be appreciated,” sighed Anne rapturously.
  • “I’ll try to be a model pupil,” agreed Anne dolefully.
  • “I don’t think there’s much chance of you dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.
  • “I must go home,” repeated Diana, stupidly but determinedly.
  • “Now please help yourself, Diana,” she said politely.
  • “It was dreadful of me to forget,” said Anne apologetically.

I could go on. About half of the dialogue used tags other than “said” or added an adverb to describe how the dialogue was spoken. It was all I could do not to get a red pen and mark up the book.

As author Elmore Leonard said (only partially tongue in cheek), “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

So why bother reading classics? We may not want to emulate the omniscient POV or the abundance of adverbs, but classics are classics for a reason. They provide a snapshot of a time and place and writing style.We learn what was important to people in the Jazz Age or what life was like in mid-19th century Russia because someone put ink to paper. They are a conversation between author and reader, who may have lived thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart. We can still find value in the conversation.

And styles have a habit of coming back around. That’s why I’m still holding onto my circa-1983 Madonna lace gloves. You never know.

What was the last classic novel or essay you read?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Authorial Intrusion: The Details

How much detail and description do you want in the book you’re reading?  My creative writing students often ask me this. My answer: it depends.

I tell them that the most important criteria is that the narrator (whether in first person or third) needs to be a good guide for the reader. By “good guide” I mean that the narrator should curate the information given to the reader in much the same way that the Louvre might display certain Monet paintings. The rest is up to personal preference, tempered with a healthy dose of expectations for what the reader can absorb.

As a reader, do you want to be brought into a room and receive a run down of every tea cup in the cabinet? I’d argue not, unless perhaps the character is a tea cup collector. Does you need a head-to-toe description of what a character is wearing? Again, I’d argue not. In fact, I would argue that too much of this type of information loses its potency. I’d much rather the narrator focus my attention on one or two important details (Dr. Who’s bow-tie or Mr. Darcy’s morning coat) that define the character, instead of a jumble of words that get lost. For me, less is more.

I’m squarely in the Hemingway camp on this one (but not as far as the McCarthy camp). But maybe you’re in the Diana Gabaldon camp. I understand that her narrator in the Outlander series regales readers with pages and pages of landscape and historical details. My co-worker read one of Gabaldon’s novels in a weekend. When I asked how she managed to finish the 800-page novel in two days, she said, “I skimmed the descriptions until I got to the action.” Hmm.


I recently finished The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller. I really enjoyed the story and the author’s skill in crafting realistic characters who are flawed but likable. But the narrator’s descriptions of characters handling mundane tasks were overkill for me: getting undressed for bed, standard bathroom routines, preparing a meal. The New York Times book review called it “filler detail.”

As he hung up, he was suddenly aware that the house felt chilly. On his way to the kitchen, he stopped and turned the hall thermostat up. He could hear it trigger the switch, then the faraway roar in the basement. Though he wasn’t hungry, he fixed himself dinner. Pasta. Pasta with olive oil and some tarragon he found in the refrigerator and chopped up. He made himself do this.

These details can be significant, if they are significant for the character. In other words, if the character is somehow defined by them, including these banal details might be important. Otherwise, I don’t need (or honestly want) to know that the character picked up his keys, put on his scarf and coat, turned the doorknob, and went outside. I can assume these things. I can use my imagination. But others may feel they are getting to know the character.

 What do you think? Do you prefer lots of little details? Or would you rather the narrator leave out small acts of everyday routine? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!





The One With Starting Over

Last fall my novel-in-progress came to a standstill. I eked out a few sentences here and there, but I’d stopped writing any major forward motion of the plot.

It wasn’t that I’d lost interest in the story idea or the characters. In fact, I busied myself researching the time period, which I found fascinating. (Clue #1)

I was well over 120 pages in, roughly 30,000 words, and I started rereading those pages, shifting paragraphs around and making important edits, like changing characters’ names. (Clue #2)

What had me stumped, I realized, was what the characters should do next. I am largely a “pantser,” but I know that an outline can be invaluable help. I spent a couple of weeks writing one. (Clue #3)

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Lo and behold, a lovely idea came to me like a bird on the wind. It was an unrelated character for a different story. It felt important to write this other story before the idea escaped. (Clue #4)

By this time months had passed, and I’d been dancing around what I knew I had to do. I opened a new document on my computer and started over.

My writing students gasped in horror when I shared this news. How could I throw it all away? Couldn’t I just rework the pages? Often reimagining a scene or a chapter is the right way to go, but sometimes it’s not. Can I be a bit vulgar for a moment? It’s just us here and I hope you won’t mind. Reworking crap is still crap.

Now, there is a big difference between thinking your work is crap and it being crap. Recognizing that gap is key. It is the difference between the cat that sleeps in your bed at night and a mountain lion; between a writer and a good writer. We all have doubts about our creative output. Is this writing good enough? (What “good enough” constitutes is the subject of another post. It’s a constant battle for me.) That’s true whether you’re painting or making origami or renovating your basement.  But this isn’t about losing your mental mojo.

Let’s say you wake up one morning and realize the story you’ve been writing really is crap, as I did. Do you pack it in? Grumble that you never wanted to be a writer anyway and reach for the Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer? Mourn the lost 120 pages? No, you don’t. You open a new document and you start over. Because you are a wordsmith and words are in endless supply. You’ll never run out.

Now that I think about it, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not really starting over. I’ve gained insight. I’ve learned about my characters—their personalities, their lives, why they want the things they want. That means I’m not starting over. I’m beginning again.

Each day we wake up, we begin again. That, of course, is a good thing. Aside from the obvious up shot of being alive another day, we have a chance to be our best selves, to do our best work. Here’s what I way to say: don’t be afraid to get rid of those words, scenes, chapters that aren’t working (or anything else for that matter). It can be difficult, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Ernest Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Ernest Hemingway: Getting the words right.

– The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Have you stared over on a project?

Have a great weekend, everyone!