Hold the Backstory to a Minimum

Once you deliver that commanding first sentence or paragraph, you still have the challenge of keeping your readers’ interest. You can’t let them down, either by ignoring that lead-in or by totally reversing the tone the beginning has invoked. Neither can you distract them from the current action by breaking into a history lesson – also known as the dreaded exposition.

Many writers, myself included, make the mistake early in our writing careers of trying to squeeze entire decades of a character’s history into a few paragraphs all at once. That can get very boring for readers. We’ve taken away many surprises they could have discovered on their own, one surprise at a time.

You should definitely know your backstories for all main characters, good guys and bad guys. How else can you build even the vaguest of plots? Exactly what you do describe on those next pages depends, in large part, on what your book is about, as well as the tone you have already set.

Crime fiction may require building suspicion or doubt about the protagonist; or just plain describing the murder victim – again, not with the entire backstory in one basket. Action adventure may call for some tricky encounter with the bad guys or bad creatures. It may call for a description of packing a survival kit.

If you have set an ominous tone, stick to menace or threat. If your opening began with humor, weave that humor into your text – whether that is cynical, slapstick, or dark humor.

Let most of the backstory reveal itself as a result of character interactions in those first few chapters. Spread the backstory over actions, dialogs, introspection. And that is not easy.

I don’t pretend to be an expert – I’m still struggling to master the art. But here are some resources that may help you out.

How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly  by Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

eBooks and ISBNs

I’m checking into the available options for book ID numbers when publishing digitally. Publishers of eBooks are almost as different as there are numbers of said publishers available on the Web.

Both Kindle Direct Publishing and Nook Press assign proprietary (recognized as meaningful only to them) identification numbers to each book published through their services in order to track sales. This process may be appealing to authors just getting started who don’t have the knowledge or the time to investigate or who just want to see what appeal their book might have – no real money is lost.

If you have an ISBN (International Standard Book Number), you can add it to the rest of your book’s information and it will be included with the proprietary number. If I understand correctly, oftentimes that ISBN number can only be identified with that electronic version of your book. If you choose to publish a print version of your book, or, republish through a different digital publisher, you must get a separate ISBN.

In contrast, a publisher like Smashwords provides the ISBN for you, free of charge. This publisher also distributes eBooks to several third party channels, such as Apple iBooks, kobo, blio, Barnes & Noble, and more – but not to Amazon. As the publisher, Smashwords still has some control over your book, as all other print or digital publisher do.

That ISBN has been sort of a status symbol, “Yes, I’ve been published. Here’s the ISBN number, look it up.” And many people do research books using the ISBN number – that’s what it’s for, especially if your book is published globally.

There is an excellent blog post at the Tools of Change for Publishing Web site on this subject, interviewing the product manager at Bowker, the official U.S. distributor of ISBNs. The post is a year old, but you should read it.

If you want a little more control over your eBook distribution, you can purchase your own ISBN from Bowker – even self-publish. It’s a little daunting, though, to realize that a single ISBN number costs $125.00. You can buy 10 numbers for $295.00 – the better deal at less than $30 a number, to be sure, but still quite a chunk of change for most of us. Do I use the free ISBN from Smashword or take more ownership of my book?

I don’t know yet, but the clock is ticking on that deadline.

You have to make your own informed choice.

 

Don’t Write in a Vacuum – Seek Out Writing Resources

As much as we’d like to think that we, as authors, know what we like, know what we want to do, and know just how we want to do it, we’re wrong more often than we think.

I have a bad habit of going for months (and months) without reviewing any other books or authors in my genre. Mostly because I don’t want to risk writing something I think is my great idea but I really copied from so-and-so. Of course, that’s what most of us do anyway, unconsciously, because we mimic what we like. We just need to recognize that we do it, keep it to an innocent minimum, and do not, under any circumstances, PLAGIARIZE.

We also live dangerously when we don’t keep abreast of the trends, good and bad, in the publishing world. We may need to find a publisher, editor, agent, ISBN provider, even understand bits of copyright law, and so much more. Most of the time, our inner circle of writers and friends can be a kind of source, but they’re just not enough.

Accessing other available sources online or in print can prevent a major mistake. All the sources in the world cannot prevent disappointment at one time or another of course, but we know that – at least we should.

Here are some of the resources I try to visit regularly.

Writer Beware/SFWA.org

Writers Market

Writer’s Digest

Poets & Writers

Kindle Direct Publishing

U.S. Copyright Office

I know there are so many more sources, so take advantage of them and never rely on only one. A vacuum (a void, nothingness) is not our friend.

Regaining the Passion to Write

For me, that fire to write – write anything, a poem, a short story, play, pages in my novels, even ideas for any creative piece – began to fade over a decade ago. I was devastated and embarrassed after a very bad experience with my first, and only, published work.

For a few years, attending writing classes at a local college and participating in a small writers’ critique group kept me going. I thought I’d rewrite the book – it wasn’t exactly a polished work of art, anyway – or start another book. And I began both tasks. Then, as I stopped attending creative writing classes and the critique group fell apart, so did my drive.

No argument, that was MY choice. I chose not to write more than a few hours a week, sometimes in an entire  month. I used many excuses, some fair, most convenient, to avoid facing the fear of “failure” again. But the need to “succeed” had not been the driving force for my writing in the first place.

I started writing simply for the joy of creating characters and story lines, and seeing those characters come alive. It was FUN. It was exciting to watch a character take over and become much more than I had originally planned.

In later years, the drive came from sharing that hard to define creative spark with other writers. To partake in the incredibly generous act of reading each others’ work aloud, no matter the genre, and of giving and accepting feedback. It is so revealing to hear your words come out of someone else’s mouth!

I recently began talking with a coworker about his goal to write a novel. As the conversations continued, there it was – that shared sense of fun and discovery. It’s just a whisper right now, true, but if I listen…

I have resumed writing and, on a whim, I started this journal to keep track of my voyage back to passion.