My loyal followers – the internet is confusing, right? First it’s blogging, then it’s Medium, and now it’s…what’s next?
After viewing the landscape and talking with smart people, I really like Substack.
I have been toying with switching my blog posts over to Substack, and now I believe this is the right thing for me to grow my audience, and also commit to what a love best: talking about books, writing, and publishing.
Don’t worry – you will still be able to subscribe to me there and keep reading (or unsubscribe if you wish). I’ll send you an invitation which you can choose to select or ignore (or just jump the gun and click here now.)
I’ll be devoting my posts to all things writing, as so many of my previous posts. Information, rumination, helpful hints. And yes, I really want to hear from you, and start discussions in the comments as always.
But she had only read the first 15 pages. I had no idea how hard I’d find the next step.
The Approach to Failure
She signed me in early December. I had to deliver the rest of the manuscript – which I was still revising – by mid-January. There went the holiday, but to a very happy cause.
And I’m a hard worker, and work I did, and I delivered as promised.
She got in touch in February and said something to the effect of “this isn’t working.”
I revised again. And again. She gave me notes; I wrote to them. She came back and said, “not yet”, and I revised again. I couldn’t figure my way through this story any longer. Her notes were fine, but I couldn’t interpret them correctly. I didn’t know which way to turn.
Worse, I could sense that she was getting frustrated and I worried that she would drop me, and if she did, I was sure my attempt at a career in writing was finished.
The Approach to a Win
In June – I still remember where I was and what I was doing – in an act of desperation, I went back to page one, and began to rewrite the story by changing one thing only: I switched the story-telling from my main character’s third person point of view into first.
By the time I finished rewriting that first chapter I knew I had nailed it. By switching into first person, I had driven myself deeply inside the mind of my character, and the emotions she was experiencing were suddenly fresh and alive. I sent the chapter to my agent who came back with a single line in all caps: THIS IS IT.
Change Something Big
If you are struggling with a story, feeling that something isn’t working and you’ve tried all the usual tricks and revision thinking and plot planning, try something big.
Change the point of view
Change the tense (it’s amazing how different something can feel when switched from past to present tense)
If you are good with voice, try using multiple points of view (caveat – there can be only one main character)
Change the setting
Change the structure (caveat – this is tricky upper-level stuff)
When you change something big, you may fail, so only apply it to a small passage. But it may help you see the entire story new.
Want More Instruction?
I have now opened my courses to everyone, and if you are struggling with your writing, I’d love to help. Here’s what available:
My Six Day Story System. One user said: “I loved the course! So many nuggets of wonderful tools and information! I took a boat load of notes…” Read all about the course here. (Note that the cost increases on June 20, so don’t wait.)
I’m so excited to announce the launch of my Six Day Story System course!
I’ve spent the past 6 months preparing this course – and a number of others that will be up very soon. This first one speaks to a need I’ve seen repeatedly: for information at a just-above-basic level. A series of lessons that both introduce the beginning kidlit writer to the business, and that have enough meat for the intermediate writer, too.
Since I’ve been talking lately about backstory wounds (see this post, and this one, too) I now want to talk about general backstory and flashbacks. That is, the stuff that comes before your story opens but plays a role in the formation of both character and plot going forward.
Where to Start Telling Your Tale
I’ve worked with more than a few writers who feel the need to tell the reader the entire back history of their character to “set the stage” for what they really want to write.
This, my friends, is a mistake.
While you must know the character’s backstory, and especially their backstory wound (see those previous posts), and you must recognize that your character has been moving around the planet before your story begins, larding the opening pages with backstory narrative is a sure way to send the reader off to the fridge to make a cheese sandwich (thank you, Alan Cumyn and VCFA).
That is, “once upon a time, a girl was born…” and we watch said character go to school, brush her teeth, and suffer her backstory wound, all in time-linear fashion, until the real story starts when said character is sixteen. A story like this is usually as dull as toast and rarely publishable. The best stories begin not at “the beginning” but with an inciting incident that sets the main character in motion to the inevitable end of something new, something life-changing.
By Example: The Movie A Knight’s Tale
It is, however, necessary at some point for audiences to understand how your character got to that inciting incident. So how does one layer in backstory? Let’s look at the movie A Knight’s Tale for a great example of plotting backstory. (And I highly encourage you to take a look at the movie if you haven’t already.)
Our hero, William (the late, great Heath Ledger), enters the story as the squire to a knight. We have no idea how he got there, but it doesn’t matter – until later. What matters up front and is information we are given is that he’s not noble-born, but goes into disguise as the knight he served, now dead, which takes him from jousting tournament to jousting tournament. Being in disguise is his story problem (his external goal/conflict), and leads to the climax.
When do we see the first of his backstory? We get a small glimpse about 1/4 of the way into the movie when we hear the theme revealed during the very young William’s observation of a knight, and the expression of his desire to become a knight himself, to which a man in stocks tells the boy that to become a knight he might as well “try and change the stars”.
Can someone who begins life in one way really end it in another with effort, persistence, and a little luck? Although William’s father says it’s possible, we see swift and subtle hints that this is a truly challenging internal goal/desire to attain.
Where Does the Full Backstory Show Up?
But we don’t know the entire story for a long while, until William and his crew are on their way to London for the first time in many years. Only then is William’s full backstory shown, as his initial engagement as a squire and his departure from home is revealed in a longer flashback. This moment comes right about or just after the 1/2-way mark of the movie. From this point we understand that William’s departure from his father was both good and important (helping him “change his stars”), but also emotionally difficult (his wound).
In short, we’re given a glimpse of William’s full past and backstory wound when we need it, and not a moment sooner.
The transitions between these flashbacks and the story present are also perfectly executed, especially the second flashback in which William recalls his first childhood ferry crossing – leaving London and his father at night – when he is crossing back to London on the same ferry, at night, (and what looks to be the same ferryman) after many years.
There’s a good reason this movie has become a classic.
When you need backstory to explain a character’s behavior, to illustrate their wound, or to enrich or deepen the theme and/or hero’s journey, consider placing flashbacks in your story well after you’ve set your character on their path. Keep the flashbacks short and transition them in and out in a way that feels natural. Your story will have more energy, and your reader will be drawn into the expectation that you’ll reveal important information when the time is right, and not one moment before.
Don’t forget that very soon (!) I’m launching the first of my courses. This course is basic, fundamental, but with enough “meat” to satisfy even experienced writers. I don’t want you to miss the launch, as there will be a limited time price discount on this already affordable program. So please click the button below to learn more, if you are not already on my mailing list. And share this with your writer friends.
Backstory. As I’ve grown as a writer and teacher, I’ve come to believe that backstory is the true secret of building a great character. This article from the archives illustrates its importance.
The Misbelief Stems From the Wound
Lisa Cron, in her terrific craft book STORY GENIUS, describes what she calls the character’s “misbelief” – a belief that has been the source of much agony for the character. This characteristic stems from an incident known as a “back-story wound”, a moment when something happens that changes the course of a life. I love the idea of a misbelief that results from perhaps a single defining moment in someone’s past.
I love it primarily because it answers the question, “Why did you do that? Why do you feel that?”
And it can stem from something startlingly simple and innocent.
One Man’s Wound
I heard a story on NPR that, in my opinion, describes a perfect, quietly tragic moment that I imagine resulted in a terrible, defining misbelief.
The story (you can read it in its entirety here) was told by 94-year-old oncologist Joseph Linsk. When he was a young boy, running across the playground, his arms flailing, he knocked the eyeglasses off a classmate, and the glasses broke. The classmate burst into tears and said that it would cost two dollars to repair them, and where could he get two dollars? He was going to tell his father, and get Joseph into real trouble.
Joseph had no idea where he’d get two dollars either, but he was scared to death that the other boy’s father would call his parents.
At the time, his mother had a housekeeper named Pearl, who earned two dollars a week. Joseph saw the two dollars waiting for Pearl at the end of the day, and he took them from the counter, gave them to his teacher, and settled the matter of the glasses.
What wasn’t settled was the matter of Pearl. When she asked where her two dollars had gone, Joseph’s mother accused Pearl of lying, of taking and hiding the money herself, and fired her on the spot, leaving her, a mother, jobless.
Joseph hid the story from everyone for 80 years.
Guilt is the Worst Misbelief
Now imagine the guilt Joseph lived with. His shame. His knowledge that perhaps Pearl’s children went hungry that week and for a long time after. His awareness that Pearl, branded a thief, was unable to get another job without a good referral. What would that guilt and shame have done to Joseph? What decisions did he make throughout his life that reflected his sickening memory? Did he stand up for himself in tough times, or did he cower? Did he try to make up for his transgression by becoming selfless, or did he toughen against those in need?
The fact that he became an oncologist may answer some of these questions, but the deeper issue raises new ones. And if I were writing his story, I’d be asking them. Because that incident, recited in a halting voice brimming with emotion, clearly colored who he became.
And where did this terrible, life-long, tragic feeling begin?
A child ran across a playground.
Think About the Wound and Misbelief
In your current story, what backstory can you give your character that results in a wound, and a misbelief? As you see, it can be very simple.
As simple as running across a playground, and then an incident. Something small. It creates guilt, and then a lie, and then shame, and then remorse. Which drives the character to do what with his life?
Hopefully, possibly, as it should in all the best stories – it leads ultimately to forgiveness and redemption.
I’m very excited to announce that I’m preparing the first in a series of writing courses, and plan to release it into the world in May!
First, My Fundamentals Course
This has been long in the making – and it’s only the first of many.
This first course will cover the basics of writing for children, including a review of important features of character and plot, but also a summary of marketing and publishing today. For those who are just getting started or have been trying to write for children for a while but haven’t made progress, this self-guided affordable course may be just the boost you need.
In the future I’ll be building more advanced “masterclass” style courses that may include live feedback/coaching, so if you are intermediate and beyond, stick with me.
If you aren’t already on my mailing list – or if you forward this to someone who could use help – please click the button below for more information. And note that you’ll receive a free copy of my “Imagine Your Story” workbook when you sign up.
If you are already on my mailing list, but never got your copy of Imagine Your Story, comment on this post and I’ll be sure to send the free workbook right off to you.
Many of my colleagues are preparing courses, too. I can vouch for their quality.
This one is coming up soon: Writing With Feeling I’m a huge believer in the power of harnessing emotion in your stories, and that’s what this course promises.
I’ll be bringing more attention to these as I can.
In the Meantime…
I’m booked out for one on one coaching through August, and I’ve recently raised my pricing. I do still offer my more affordable Discover Your Story Heart, which is a packed workbook and way to get feedback from me on your opening pages, and I do now coach picture books, too.
I love revision. My first drafts tend to be real ugly ducklings. If there’s a swan inside, it only emerges after multiple revisions.
In this post, I’m giving you two things: first, my ten-point global revision technique; and second, my detail checklist. The detail checklist is especially helpful for getting rid of those pesky errors introduced through laziness. I hope these help!
Ten-point Revision Checklist
Reread entire manuscript in one sitting, making margin notes and keeping track of details (i.e., character eye color, dates, place names) for consistency.
Identify your characters’ arcs. Make sure you have a “story-worthy problem” (the true underlying problem your character must resolve) and a resonant theme. Make sure that the story-worthy problem is discovered by both reader and protagonist late in the story, ideally around the climax.
This week I’m going back into the archives for a refresher on voice. Editors and agents often say that they sign an author because of the excellent/compelling “voice” of the work in question. What does this mean, and how do you accomplish it?
First, Some Definitions…
Tone: the “atmosphere” of a narrative, generated by using diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure). Specific genres are characterized by their tones (think western, noir, romance, science fiction, fantasy). For example, the tone of a piece might be old-fashioned, stilted, verbose, punchy, and/or humorous, etc. The tone of Captain Underpantsis irreverent and silly; the tone of The Hunger Games is serious and driven.
Voice: There are two things we mean when we say “voice”:
Author voice. Each author brings to their work a unique voice that is a product of the author’s education, upbringing, personality, ideology, and beliefs. Your voice, which tends to persist regardless of the genre in which you write and the tone you set, bleeds through in the way you structure the narrative, and in particular your syntax and diction. For example, you may tend to use repetition, alliteration or parallel construction. The best example of tone/author voice is the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln sets a reverential tone honoring the dead, and uses parallel construction to emphasize his point: we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow, this ground
Narrative voice. This is really what editors are looking for. Regardless of tone or author voice, a strong narrative voice is distinctive and unique to the work. Regardless of how many books you write and how strong your author voice, your narrative voice will be different with each book unless it’s part of a series (like The Hunger Games). It doesn’t matter whether the work is written in first person, second person, close third, or omniscient (see below); the voice of the piece evokes an emotional response in the reader to the character(s) and story. Here are a few examples:
It started in detention. No surprise there, right?
Detention was invented by the same idiots who dreamed up the time-out corner. Does being forced to sit in time-out ever make little kids stop putting cats in the dishwasher or drawing on white walls with purple marker? Of course not. It teaches them to be sneaky and guarantees that when they get to high school they’ll love detention because it’s a great place to sleep.
I was too angry for a detention nap.
Tone: contemporary, using youthful direct address (“right?”). Voice: snarky, dark, angry (cats in the dishwasher?!) First person.
They couldn’t just leave him on the ground. For now, it wasn’t such a problem, but very soon, the track ahead would be cleared and the train would need to move on.
There were two guards.
There was one mother and her daughter.
The mother, the girl, and the corpse remained stubborn and silent.
Tone: somber, intellectual. Voice: formal, distant, using short sentences that punch the narrative with energy and imagery. Third person, with an omniscient narrator (Death).
Creating a strong narrative voice comes from understanding your main character and their point of view and going deeply into their psyche and blending that understanding with your own author voice.
And Clarification on Point of View…
Points of View: the “eyeball” or camera lens of the narrative:
First person. “I do” or “I did”. Limiting, because the reader can only see through the eyes of the narrator/character. This means that the character may in fact be unreliable (lying, hiding information), but the reader can’t really know this right off. This is also the most deeply felt POV and is used a lot in YA fiction because it’s so easy for the reader to identify with. It can also be hard to take if the character is truly suffering.
Second person. “You do/did” Rare, because it’s hard to pull off. When done well it can be effective. See All the Truth That’s in Me, and Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink and Caution. Limiting, like first person, because the reader is still deeply inside the head of the narrator/character.
Third person limited. “He/she does/did” The limited third person stays with a single character, as in first, but the focal lens is pulled slightly away so that other character behaviors are visible and their motives can be revealed through their actions. The main character doesn’t ever exit the stage in limited third person; it’s rather like a camera following them around as they move but not being inside their head revealing their thoughts except through action and some internal reflection. Common in middle grade fiction because it’s less limiting and emotional. A good example is Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl: Sun did not suit Artemis. He did not look well in it. Long hours indoors in front of a computer screen had bleached the glow from his skin. He was white as a vampire and almost as testy in the light of day.
Third person omniscient. “He/she does/did” The narrative lens is pulled way back. The narrative may move from one character to another but always in third person (unless there’s an identified narrator as in The Book Thief; Dickens used this POV all the time, often with narrators; Jane Austen used it exclusively). The reader has the feeling of being on Mount Olympus looking down at the behaviors of all the people in the story more or less simultaneously. This POV can fall into an old-fashioned tone unless the narrative moves at a rapid clip. A good example is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, which also uses direct address effectively:
Halfway down the Bayou Tartine, the land drops off in a channel, which creates just enough room for a little bayou, the Petite Tartine. It makes a semi-circle and rejoins its big sister, and all the land between is marsh and swamp and quicksand.
Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and it little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine sisters.
A note on direct address: use with caution. For one thing, it can be an old-fashioned-sounding affectation: “And so, dear reader, we come to the heart of the story.” For another, it can remind the reader that they are reading a book, taking them out of the story moment, and not “living the story”. Done well, it can be powerful. See, for example, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux – although I will add that some critics didn’t like her use of DA in this book.
The next time you begin reading a book, you should be able to identify the tone, narrative voice, and POV on the first page. Make a note and see how it feels to you. Then, see if you can identify the author voice, which may take a bit of reading.
Read the first pages of several genre books, especially noir, murder mystery, western, romance. Identify the tone/voice in each.
Write the opening pages to a number of works of fiction using different combinations of voice, tone, and POV in each.
We humans all carry baggage from our past. If you are a devotee of Jungian psychology, you’ll note that digging into and confronting our past is one way to relieve our current problems. Jung called our past issues our “shadow”. As writers, it is essential that in order to bring characters truly to life we recognize their shadow past, or, as Cron calls it, their backstory wound.
The Effect of the Wound
When we start writing about a character, we need to understand that the wound has a long, deep-seated impact on that character. The character has adopted a protective shield from the wound of the past that Cron calls the misbelief. This misbelief has guided the character through life, protecting them from the things they fear.
Here’s an example. A young boy, while playing, falls into a deep well and is trapped; he is swarmed by bats while in this dark place which sets up an innate terror of bats and darkness. Later he witnesses the murder of his parents at the hands of a terrible villain, and his life after that is guided by a desire to deal with villains by assuming the shapes spawned by his own deep fears – darkness and bats.
Batman adopts the shield of the very thing that he is afraid of and uses it as a disguise to avenge his parents’ murders through surrogacy – by ridding the world of anyone who might be a terrible villain. He is guided by the misbelief that he can truly rid the world of villains through adopting a dark demeanor, which sometimes leads him down his own dark path where he makes costly mistakes.
To Find Your Own Character’s Wound
Here’s a way to unearth your character’s backstory wound:
Write between three and five scenes from earlier in their life that could be considered wounding scenes. These can be anything from taunting and bullying to the death of a pet or loved one to something physical (like falling into a well, or suffering a natural disaster).
Pick the one that has the most emotional resonance for you and your character. Write it out in full.
Look for the shield or misbelief that the character might assume. For instance, bullying might lead your character to become an extreme weightlifter; death of a loved one might lead your character to avoid deep connections with other people; suffering a natural disaster might lead to over-preparedness (hoarding) or under-preparedness (“I can’t do anything about it so I’ll live on the edge”).
Once You Know the Wound…
Use it. Build the character’s internal journey around trying to avoid the wound (through the misbelief or shielding), until it’s essential that the character confront the wound and overcome it. Only when your character understands their wound and faces their misbelief – dropping the shield – will they succeed in the story you create for them.
Or, only when Batman realizes that he’s making mistakes and confronts the reason why, will he succeed in defeating the evil around him.
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Whatever you are writing – for kids or adults, picture book or young adult or older – your protagonist must have two story arcs: internal, and external. And each of those arcs has a destination. Just to keep it simple, we’ll call the internal destination your character’s desire, and the external destination their goal.
In CARRY ME HOME, Lulu has the external goal of keeping herself and her sister safe, and the internal desire to find her father and a home for them all. Notice they overlap but aren’t the same thing. You’ll see in a moment what I mean.
External Character Goal
Your protagonist will need an external goal, something that provides both a challenge (story stakes and tension) and an end to the story, a resolution of those stakes.
This is the easier of the two destinations to define. Let’s use Harry Potter as an example. His external goal, the task that is placed upon his shoulders almost literally from birth, is the defeat of Lord Voldemort. If he fails, not only will his world crumble but so will the world of muggles, since Voldemort has sworn to get rid of them.
On his way to achieving that goal Harry needs
The skills he needs are the wizarding skills, and he has to get those by going to Hogwarts and practicing magic. He’s pretty good at it to begin with, but part of the mastery of those skills is then being able to turn around and teach them to others, as he does in the Room of Requirement.
Harry needs friends, and fortunately he finds a couple on his first day – Ron and Hermione. As it turns out, Harry is as good at making friends as he is at magic, and the school is filled with potential allies (and enemies). In his worst moments, when he tries to do things on his own, that doesn’t turn out well at all.
Self-control is Harry’s most difficult need, as he has to figure out how to keep Voldemort out of his head in order to figure out how to overcome him, and Snape is a good but not very pleasant teacher. I would say a certain lack of self-control is probably Harry’s biggest flaw, playing an important role in thwarting his efforts in achieving his external goal.
Internal Character Desire
It can be a little harder for you, as the writer, to define your character’s internal desire. Sometimes we don’t know our protagonist’s internal desire until we’ve written a first draft.
In Harry’s case, his internal desire is also with him almost from birth, and it is to “find his family”. His parents are dead, and the Dursleys are a miserable substitute. He will only be truly happy when this character arc and desire are resolved.
This is where one arc overlaps with the other because the thing Harry needs in order to find his true family is friends.
The friends he makes at Hogwarts become his “found family”, and (spoiler alert) he even marries one of them, creating a wider family circle than he could ever image at first. And notice that the climax, where (spoiler alert 2) Harry “dies” he is resurrected through the assistance of his truly dead parents and other family members.
To write a great story, as soon as you can, define your protagonist’s external goal and internal desire.
I’m putting the finishing touches on my first online course, Five Foundations For Writing Your Best Book. I’m aiming for a soft launch in May. Want to be on the list to hear more? Click the button!