Sunday, June 29, 2014

Narration and Backstory Blues, Part 1

When you are composing your story, you can add as much narration and backstory  as you want. Feel free to cram in everything you see, hear, imagine, know, and wonder about.

You can do that because you are writing for yourself. Capturing lots of details and getting down the history can build a wonderful base for a convincing, layered, and rich story. The only danger you face in the drafting stage is slowing things down so much you miss the action and harm the pacing. Unless you fall in love with what you put down.

That's a real danger, and the most common flaw I see in manuscripts. You should never force any readers (including contest judges) to wade through big blocks of worldbuilding, flashbacks, memories, reflections, and descriptions. They may like all of these, but they come for the story and most commercial fiction proceeds at a brisk pace, moment to moment.

Why does slowing things down matter? Why does commercial fiction need to consist overwhelmingly of action and dialogue in the present? Because we like to identify with the characters. Since we live moment to moment, any deviation from that in the world of the story is distracting and distancing. It takes us out of the story. 

Now, some narration and backstory needs to be there. A cardinal sin in writing is being unclear. Except in cases where you are deliberately raising questions (which happens a lot in some genres, science fiction probably leading the way), your readers should know what's going on. But they don't need to know as much as you do. I had the pleasure of hearing Candace Havens speak recently, and she referenced icebergs. The story your reader gets is the visible tip, while most remains hidden. Now, you don't have a full iceberg unless the portion below the waterline exists. (Meaning, the writer needs to know a lot more that is expressed in the story or doesn't work.)

For most writers, the hidden part of the story finds expression in exercises (like character building) and what pours out in the first draft. So the problem comes with a failure to deal with all the extras -- the parts that need to be out of sight -- in rewriting.

How to do that, to get the balance right, and to keep the story from being hobbled, is what I'll cover in the next post.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Writing Process - Answers to four questions

I've been tagged by Nancy Bilyeau, scriptwriter and the brilliant author of The Crown and The Chalice to participate in a blog hop on the writing process. I have four questions to answer, and then I have to tag two authors to do the same.

Here goes.

1. What are you working on? 
I always work on two fiction pieces at once. In the morning, I add to a work in progress. Ingenious Daughter is a historical YA romance based on the life of the first female scientist in North America. With no formal training, she outdid her male colleagues and earned the admiration of Ben Franklin. All the while, she had to evade her father's attempts to marry her off to wealthy landowners. I have the story, but my word count is low, so I'm adding fresh chapters.

In the afternoon/evening, I do revisions on a completed draft. Knocked Off Balance is a contemporary YA about a circus arts fanatic who transfers into a school that's had a shooting. I'm sprucing it up in response to an agent's request to see the full manuscript.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre? 
One thing I bring to Ingenious Daughter is a deep knowledge of the joy of experimentation and exploration. I've worked as a chemist and interviewed dozens of scientists about their approaches, so this adds a dimension that's unusual in a romance. I know what drives the heroine to persist even though everyone pressures her to stop research and return to more feminine pursuits.

In Knocked Off Balance, the main character has a weird talent that allows an exploration of what happens to students after the news crews are long gone but the rupture of violence is still fresh.

3.) Why do you write what you do? 
I resisted writing YA because I did not want to revisit my teenage years. It took a mentor to point out that much of what I was doing in novels included YA themes and many of the short stories I'd sold were YA stories. So, despite myself, I've found these tales, whether historical or contemporary or SF/F, evoke the emotions that hook me and carry me through to the final words of the project. In the end, it's all about powerful, sometimes overwhelming, emotions.

4.) How does your writing process work? 
Not surprising, I work at top speed. For new works, the day before, I decide what scenes I'll compose, usually writing complete sentences. This is as close as I come to outlining nowadays, but I'm not a pure pantser. Years of plotting have worked structure into my bones, so I tend to move toward story beats without planning. I dictate the scenes the next morning (using Dragon Dictate) in 40-minute bursts, breaking for coffee and stretching in between sessions. I keep at it until the scenes I wrote sentences for are all done.

When I work on revisions in the afternoon or evening, these are done with a timer set and I am very specific about what work must be done -- a pass for missing scenes or checking story logic or reading aloud for the sound value of words. I never just sit down to "rewrite." I focus in on one task at a time.

Of course, this blog (How To Write Fast) is filled with details on every aspect of the writing process, and I apply most of these to my own work. Feel free to explore. 

I'm passing the baton to two writer friends whose fiction I admire.

Melanie Meadors

A writer of speculative fiction and lover of geeky things, Melanie R. Meadors lives in central Massachusetts, in a one hundred-year-old house full of quirks and surprises. She's been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on on more than one occasion.

Her short fiction has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and has consistently received honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest. One of her short stories was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction contest. She’s a publicist with Market or Die Author Services and Publicity Coordinator at Ragnarok Publications.
Her blog address is

Alison McMahan

Alison McMahan writes historicals romances and mysteries for YA and NA audiences. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. Her short story, "Monsters on the Border," won an honorable mention from Writers of the Future. Her YA historical mystery- romance, "The Saffron Crocus" won third prize in the Joyce Henderson Contest, second prize (historical category) in the Melody of Love contest, second prize (historical category) in the Utah RWA Great Beginning's contest, and finaled in Daphne and Rosemary contests. She reviews books for Entangled and the Historical Novel Society. Member of RWA, FRWA, AWP, the Historical Novel Society, MWA and ITW.  

McMahan is an award-winning screenwriter and author. Published books: The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Hollywood (Continuum 2005), and Alice Guy Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema (Continuum 2002), which won two awards, was translated into Spanish, adapted into a play, and optioned for a film. She has written hundreds of articles; complete list on her website. Her blog address is 


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How to Give Positive Criticism - Clues for other writers

One of my earliest experiences with writing criticism was of an editor flinging my pages at me and shouting "This is an insult!" Some contest crits are just as harsh. I'm coordinating for two contests at the moment and the spirit of that editor is alive and well.

Here's my radical statement: Every writer is good at something.

It is the job of the contest judge, mentor, crit partner, and writing buddy to find that good thing and articulate it. Not only will this make what needs to be fixed easier to hear and absorb, but it will provide real knowledge.

Many critics assume writers know what they are doing right, but that's not necessarily the case. Those editors in their heads may focus on what's totally messed up, awful, inept -- an insult. They don't have time to worry about the "good" stuff. And maybe that's true for the critics (who usually are writers, too). It makes me wonder what they tell themselves about their own writing.

When I teach a face-to-face class, the simple solution is to ask people to lead with "what worked." In fact, I usually write it in big letters on a whiteboard. When someone gets his or her turn and begins with a screed I hold my hand up, wait for silence, smile, and point to the board. People may stumble a bit with the positive words, but they find them.

Since I can't stand in front of contest judges or online students or most of you who are criticizing manuscripts, here are some things you might consider saying first:
  • The beginning really hooked me.
  • I love the main character.
  • The voice is fresh.
  • I wanted to read parts of it out loud.
  • I never got confused.
  • I didn't see the twist coming.
  • I could see the images.
  • I felt like I was in the setting.
  • Great premise.
This list can keep going, complimenting the author on having the courage to test the hero, pointing toward new perspectives, and clever lines of dialogue, etc. One sentence, of course, is rarely enough. Explanations -- I like the hero because he saved the cat -- can make it a real learning experience.

The follow-on words come much easier once the one positive sentence is spoken or written. I think we all want to tell people what they did right and a help them to keep doing it. Having a starting point releases the good words and pushes the harsh editor into the background.

Now, I am not averse to telling people what needs fixing. We all need that (in consumable doses, not laundry lists). But "catching them doing something right" (advice I heard in the context of parenting) reenforces the talents and capabilities of writers. It is just as important to their growth as eliminating problems.

As an added bonus, when you learn to provide positive criticism for others, you can provide it for yourself. And that will help with your own growth as a writer.