Friday, May 29, 2009

Handling Backstory for Secondary Characters

I've read many articles and attended workshops where the issue of misuse of character backstory has been discussed. General consensus is: too much, too soon can be the kiss of death in a novel. I've judged enough contest entries to agree. When I read three paragraphs in the first page about little Sara's childhood and how she witnessed her brother dying and how the trauma of that affected her so much that she couldn't cope with opening her heart up to another person and on and on, the pace of the story is immediately killed and the present day conflict is put on simmer on the back burner for so long I totally lose sympathy and interest in reading more about the character. So, no question that too much backstory too soon is not necessarily the best way to let the reader get to know your characters or to get invested in your story.

However, that is not to say that backstory isn't one of the single most important things to develop as you plan for and, eventually, write your story. Especially for secondary characters.

Like in movies, supporting actors can often elevate a good movie into a great one. In books, secondary characters can add more depth and understanding to the main characters and to the themes and plot line of the book - if they are well-rounded. If they have a backstory.

I've been tackling the revisions to Illegally Blonde this week and one of the main things I needed to work on was bringing a bit more depth and understanding to one of the secondary characters. My heroine, Lucy, has a cousin who's not exactly a nice person throughout the book and there are definite tensions between the two of them. My fabulous editor suggested that there needs to be a better resolution to their relationship by the end of the book and asked some interesting questions about why this cousin did or said some things and suggested some potential rationale for her actions. And my reaction was not, 'Oh, migod. WHY did she do that? How can these two reach an understanding when they've spent most of the book at cross-purposes? Who is this person?' Instead, I rejoiced when said fabulous editor's suggested rationale was exactly what that character was all about. How did I know this? Because I already knew her backstory.

Even though this cousin was a secondary character and I perhaps hadn't fleshed her out as much as I should have I did know her backstory well enough to be able to answer the questions my editor had about her. And even though she is unsympathetic I never once disliked the character because I KNEW why she was acting the way she was acting - even if the reader didn't. I knew my character and I knew her backstory - even if I hadn't used it. Now, what I have to consider in doing this revision is where to drop a few little nuggets of the character's backstory in earlier so that the resolution is not considered totally off the wall. That way when a certain event happens to my heroine near the end of the novel which triggers the revelation of the cousin's rationale for her actions throughout the story her response is believeable and understandable - even if it has been the opposite of the way she's been acting all through the book.

I know I'll work it out one way or another. But what I won't do, for sure, is dump the cousin's history in all at once the first time she is introduced to the reader. Backstory is best handled like a particularly potent spice. Too much all at once kills the whole flavour of the dish. A little dash here and there, at the right times in the cooking process brings out the best flavour of the food. Or here's another, non-food analogy. Just think, if you go out on a first date, do you really, really want to know everything that's happened to your date in the last 30 years? A little bit of mystery, a bit of information, a few interesting anecdotes, leaves you wanting to hear and learn more about that person. So it makes you look forward to the next date. Relating this to a book, you read on to Chapter two.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I believe backstory for your secondary characters is equally important as knowing your plot inside out or what main themes you are trying to convey in your book. Backstory is what makes every character unique and interesting and understandable. People you either root for - or not. Depending on their purpose. Every character should have a purpose and some element of history to them. Remember that old quote: "There are no small parts, just small actors?"

But a word of caution. Be judicious in how you share that backstory. You don't need a complete geneology for the newspaper boy if he's just delivering the paper in Chapter Five. But if that newspaper boy is going to rip out sections of the paper or deliver it late every day because he wants to torment the old man who looks forward to reading it as the only highlight of his otherwise boring day, it might be good to know WHY the newspaper boy is doing this - eventually. Determine how important a secondary character is to the plot or sub-plot of your book and the impact that secondary character has on the main characters of your book and plan backstory accordingly and determine whether and how it needs to be revealed.

Like everything in writing, this is a balancing act. One I still work on every day. And what I'll be working on now in this revision.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Busy Mom + YA Writer = Bad Blogger

I made a commitment to myself when I started this blog to write at least two blog entries a week. Preferably Tuesdays and Thursdays because weekends are a total write off in terms of time spent in front of a computer. Not only do my kids need the new boob tube for homework, research and connecting with friends so I don't have the slimmest chance of spending more than fifteen minutes in front of it, I'm also too busy catching up on housework - and now garden work - as well as running kids around to various sports and socializing events and working on my wip and, now, on revisions to Illegally Blonde, to think about the blog. I'm still fairly new to the blogging world so it's not like anybody is waiting with bated breath for my next blog entry or anything but I know if I start to slack off early in the game I'll develop the bad habit of letting it slide, feeling guilty about it and then avoiding it because I'm feeling guilty about it and the whole frickin' thing goes down in flames.

So, in the spirit of not wanting to feel guilty about yet another thing in my life, I'm blogging (a day late) about what a busy mom (namely me) has spent most of her last five days doing. Ready for this?

Helping my son build a medieval castle.

Yup. Epic stuff baby. And let me tell you I never want to see another cereal box, hot glue gun or silver spray paint can in my life again. Ever.

The Boy did a great job but I was the one who had to keep nagging him to work on it every day for a week. I had to drive to get more spray paint and glue when it ran out. I (and daughter 2) wielded the glue gun when the Boy burned himself on it and didn't want to touch the thing again. He cut out the cardboard, built the drawbridge and pulley system (which actually worked!) and painted the moat and buildings. He did a great job. But we were both pretty wiped by the end of it. Okay, so it's not like we were actually back in 1260 A.D. hauling stones up a hill or anything. But by the time I'd burnt my tenth finger I felt like I'd suffered just as much as any serf.

But the Boy was a trooper (or maybe a Knight?). Not only did he build an awesome castle he finished by competing in his first track and field event yesterday and coming in 2nd in the 800m. Whoo hoo! He advances to the next meet and if he places in the top four there he goes on to City finals. He's pumped and nervous and excited and worried all at once. But I told him, "Hon, if you can build an entire castle in a week, you can win a simple little race!"

Sigh. Being a busy mom is way more exhausting than writing sometimes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Three Fabulous Things

We've been having super, incredible good weather here in Toronto this week which puts everyone, including me, in a great mood already but my mood has been given even more of a jump start by some other fabulous things that have happened this week on top of the warm, sunny temperatures we've been enjoying.

First Fabulous Thing: I Got My Very First Editorial Letter

This is a significant event for me in my publishing journey. I'd been fretting about what it might say. Wondering if I could tackle whatever suggestions were thrown my way. Worrying about doing the revisions well so I wouldn't disappoint my editor or the publisher. My editor who shall from now on be known as the Fabulous Anita, tried to allay any concerns prior to me getting the letter. She is not only an editor but a very talented author herself and can see life from both sides of the fence. So she knew I was probably angsting over it and reassured me that it would not be as horrible as I feared. And, as I will probably say many times in the future, she was right.

All her suggestions were things I'd been thinking about in some way, shape or form since I'd last touched the book (wow, it's been about a year since I'd last tweaked Illegally Blonde). Mostly clarifying the relationship between my heroine and one of the secondary characters so that plot line is better resolved by the end of the book, some consistency in character motivation and some tightening of potential plot holes. Just doing things that deepen and tighten the book overall to make it stronger, better, more satisfying. She provided her comments with clarity, reasoning and sensitivity. I feel very much part of a team that is working to make IB a book of which I'm already proud even moreso. Thanks, Anita, I hope I deliver with as good a revision for you as your editorial letter was for me.

P.S. It was also quite illuminating to see some of the crutches I use in writing (nicely pointed out, of course). Like an embarassingly heavy tendency to rely on italics and … ellipses in my writing. Oi. But I love the advice I was given: Be confident in your words. Allow the reader to 'hear' the voice and inflection on their own. So very, very true.

Second Fabulous Thing: Important Progress in my WIP
I spent an hour outside in the sunshine, tanning my legs while writing a very key scene in the wip. I've not yet reached the climax but I feel things are building nicely, I'm really starting to understand the deep emotional motivations of my characters (especially Kyle who'd been giving me some problems. He was keeping himself to himself a little too much throughout the writing of the book and with this scene just written has opened himself up to both me and Abby, the heroine). This scene was so crucial that now, when I go back to do a first pass revision I will be able to layer so much more into the two main characters interactions than I'd been able to before. It may be too 'talky' a scene right now and may need to be tightened but it is honest and heartfelt at its core. And that is gold to a writer.

Plus my legs are not as sickly white as they were this morning. Bonus.

Third Fabulous Thing: So You Think You Can Dance Premiere's Tonight!!!
Honestly, this may be almost more momentous than the first two things - but only if I can find a dancer to cheer on. Last year it was Mark Kanemura. Sigh. LOVED his dancing. I even bought tickets to the tour when it came through Toronto. My girls and I even waited after the show to meet Mark!!! Total fan girl, am I. And proud of it, too.

My girls and I had a complete blast watching this show last year and we are all primed for another season. Poor hubby and son will have to tolerate us for the next few months while we obsessively watch every week and check YouTube for rewatching of our favourite dances.

Yes, I know. I have no life.

So there you go. Here's to great weather, great editors, progress in writing and more awesome, mindless entertaining TV. Sigh. Life is good.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Free Time Does Not Always Translate into More Writing Time

So this past weekend was a long weekend here in Canada - the unofficial 'start' to the summer. It is traditionally the weekend where many people - our family included - go up to the cottage to spend a few days lounging, barbequing and, if it's nice warm weather, doing some boating, canoeing or kayaking. The lakes may still be freezing but if the sun is out we Canadians don't care. What's a little freezing water when we survived sub-zero winter weather for six months? I took my wip, thinking I could easily find a couple of hours here and there to work on it. Especially if the family was out and about doing outdoorsey things (I'm not an outdoorsey person - especially if the dreaded black flies are out). Well, as they say, best laid plans and all that…

First of all, the weather sucked. Cold, rainy and not at all inviting for people to go outside and frolick in the outdoors. Sure the bugs were nonexistent (they don't like the cold, rainy weather any more than their human feedbags do ) but all it meant was more time spent indoors which we could have done in Toronto. Normally, I wouldn't mind. I'm more of an indoor girl anyway. But when you're in close quarters already, shutting yourself off in a bedroom to write or read makes you seem even more anti-social than you already are. But, if I'm being honest, I didn't feel like writing at all. I kept thinking "I'll do it later. I've got the whole weekend." Instead, I read, worked on a cross-stitch Christmas stocking for my son that should have been done ten years ago and might be handed down to his son by the time I'm actually finished with it, cooked for the kids, visited with the other family we share the cottage with, walked the dog in between rain showers, watched movies, read trashy magazines. Everything but write.

I'm starting to think that I can only write when I'm abnormally busy with day-to-day life. I know I won't have tons of time during the week or on weekends when I'm catching up on laundry, grocery shopping, ferrying children around to various events etc. so I cram in writing when I can. The urgency to write seems to be more when I have less time available. What is up with that? I fear that when I eventually retire from the day job (unfortunately not until years and years from now) I won't be able to write a thing! I joke that I'll have to travel on the subway for hours at a time after retirement to fake myself into thinking I'm going to work so I can actually get some writing done. This when I would have an entire free day stretched out ahead of me!


Well, at least we came back home a day early and I was able to take my daughter to her skating lesson on Monday. And guess what? I wrote a few pages while I was waiting for her lesson to end too. Sigh.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Preparing for Death

Wow, now that's a depressing blog entry title, isn't it?

No, the stone hasn't killed me. Though it's tried its best, the bugger. No, what I'm referring to here is the fact that I'm approaching the critical, climactic scene in my wip and a major character is going to die. I knew this was coming, had it planned from the start, in fact. But as I get closer to that scene I'm getting very antsy about it. I like this character. So does my heroine. Like, a lot. This is not going to be easy. And, well, let's face it, when is death ever easy?

It's not that I haven't had characters die off before. In my YA paranormal (which I plan to revise heavily this summer) I had quite a few gruesome deaths. But they weren't major, likeable characters. I never grew to become fond of them. They deserved to die (insert maniacal cackle here). But this one, well, this one will be very hard to do. It's not like I haven't faced death before and know the kind of gut-wrenching emotions you go through when faced with the loss of a loved one. When we had to put our beloved first dog, Kenya, down and our girls came with us to say goodbye it was both a heartwrenching and a beautiful departure with much love and many lessons about life, caring and moving on shared as a family. I can draw on that and other events to make this fictional good-bye feel very real. But, still, I worry about the execution of it.

I don't want to gloss over it - and I can't, it's the climactic scene. But I don't want to make it maudlin either. This will be a tearful, wrenching good-bye. My heroine will see what death looks like - will face the finality, the reality of it for the first time. She will grow from it, as she has to do. But I don't want to wallow in it either. I know, I know. I should probably read over some great death scenes in other books and see how great writers tackle it. Yeah, well those may just get me so bummed out I'll never be able to tackle this one without a major investment in the Kleenex corporation. I know that J.K. Rowling said she was bawling as she wrote about Harry's 'walk toward death'. But that scene was so, so beautifully written (and yes, I too was bawling like a baby, alone in my house, weeping copiously but trying to keep my daughter's pristine HP book free from the salt tears at the same time. Heck, if I didn't then I'd really have something to cry about!) I know if I go and re-read that scene now I will feel so woefully inadequate as a writer and completely not up to the task of creating a simple, heartfelt, deathbed scene that I'll chicken out of the thing completely and just let the character live. So much easier that way.

But so very wrong.

I must kill my darling. This death is inevitable. And I must face up to it. And learn and grow from the experience.

Like we all do when faced with the real thing.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

I think I've mentioned on this blog before that I hate waiting. As my family and friends know (poor souls) I am not the most patient of people. Yet, it seems that the last few weeks all I've been doing is waiting.

Waiting for this God d*&m stone to pass. Please, let it be soon.
Waiting to receive the revision letter from my editor (due any day now).
Waiting for my kids to get ready, get out the door, and get to school on time. For once.
Waiting for my husband to get organized, finalize the house renovation plans and start the God d*&m renovations already. Before the roof blows off our house in the next big wind.

I understand procrastination. I understand delays. But when I have no control over the things I'm waiting for it makes it sooo much harder to be patient. I definitely need to get some zen because, unless I become a hermit, I will always be waiting for something or someone. And in the book publishing biz, baby, I could be waiting for years.

So, I must remember that Mercury is in retrograde this month which means a lot of stalled communication (affecting the progress of kidney stones too, it appears!), a lot of do-overs at work, a lot of revisions (maybe) to Illegally Blonde and a lot of waiting until this phase of stalled everything is over.


Pass me a bottle and let me put my feet up.

Hey! I think I found my zen.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Finding the Time to Dive into Big Books

I picked up the latest Elizabeth George book, Careless in Red, the other day thrilled to see the next installment in the Inspector Lynley series. I've been reading this series since her first book, A Great Deliverance. This is almost as long as I've been married! So this obvioulsy shows how committed I am to following the characters and the author. And, for the most part, I've been very satisfied with what Ms. George has delivered. I love how she imbeds even her most minor characters with voices and attributes that make them stand out. The complexity of her characters and the intertwining plots necessarily make for big, thick dive-into-for-days book reads. The last one I read was when we were vacationing on the beach in the Dominican and her surprise twist at the end made me actually drop my mouth open in disbelief and cry - in public! So you know that I love me my Elizabeth George.


I've discovered that her books are not for the kind of reading I'm doing now. The twenty-minutes before I collapse into bed exhausted from the day kind of reading. The snatches of time I have to read don't work for the big, multi-character, complicated stories that she writes. I've found that when I go back to it, I have to try and remember, who is this character again? What did he say in the last chapter? Was this person related to that person or just a friend? Arghh!! It's so frustrating!

I've found that for my own writing - maybe because I'm always thinking of my characters - snatches of time work for me. I can pick up on writing the scene I've left midway and continue without too much trouble because I'm always thinking of what my characters have done or are about to do. But that's also because I don't have a gazillion characters in my novels to keep track of.

It's sad, really. I used to dive into big books with the anticipation of spending a few solid hours at a time getting lost in that world. Now, between work, kids, my own writing and the necessities of eating and sleeping I don't seem to be able to do that anymore. And diving in, curled up on a comfy couch, eating your favourite snack and reading a big book is one of the best things in life. Sigh.

Maybe I'll just have to save big books for vacations. With really long plane rides...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Would You Like to Be 17 Again?

So I just saw the movie 17 Again on the weekend with my girls (boy had to tag along too but it was fine - there's basketball and goofy guy stuff in it so he was okay. Not too much icky kissing stuff. Which, of course, disappointed the girls). I really enjoyed it. Funnier than I expected and I predict Zac Efron is going to be more than just a teen idol star. He has that certain screen presence and enough talent that makes him able to carry a movie on his own. I found it unbelievable though that he would ever morph into looking like Matthew Perry at 35. Nuh-uh. Sorry, Matthew.

Anyway, this post is not about reviewing the movie. What I've been thinking about since I saw it was whether, if given the chance, I'd ever like to be 17 again. If I had a chance at a do-over would I take it? In this movie, the 35 year old Matthew Perry does. He's regretted a lot of choices in his life - one in particular - and looks back at a major turning point in his 17 year old self that set him on a path that he felt wasn't his true path. Suddenly, he gets a chance to relive his life. Would this be a good thing?

Now most of us probably have something we wish we'd done or hadn't done or tried or wish we'd tried for but didn't that might have changed our life path. But would it have been for the better? It's like when we're plotting out a book - if the hero does this then this or this could happen. But what if he does this instead? Argh! A person could go crazy with the choices made or not made in ones life.

In my case, I might have changed a few things - like going away to university instead of staying at home.
But then... would I have moved to Toronto after I graduated? Would I have met my husband, had my amazing children?


Or I might have made my 17 year old self take that creative writing program instead of majoring in English Literature and studying other writer's and avoiding writing something of my own. Maybe if I'd have started the craft earlier I would be further ahead right now.

But then... would I have become discouraged too quickly because I was still young and naïve and impatient and too interested in travel and just having fun? Would I have been able to keep the discipline my older self developed after having children that drove me to write and keep writing? Maybe my life path was supposed to take a later course for writing and not one that started in high school.


Maybe that's why I became a writer of teenage fiction. I'll never get the chance to be 17 again but I can live vicariously through my characters and make them experience the consequences of choices that I'll never be faced with again. Yeah. 17 might be a great age but I don't think I'd want to go back there.

But then ... there is that whole eat-what-you-want-without-consequences aspect to it.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Wanting It Badly Enough

There have been many writers I've read or heard speak over the years that have given advice to other writers that basically says if you never give up you'll achieve your publishing dreams. The road to a book publishing contract is littered with the carcasses of writers not any better than you who, if they just kept going, might have seen their book in print. You may have talent up the wazoo but without the tenacity and discipline it takes to write -to keep writing - to 'never give up' you won't be published. Heck, you won't finish a book. And that is absolutely true. Absolutely. And I've always thought that tenacity was the key ingredient to getting a publishing contract. A smidgen of talent, a dose of luck, and a huge dollop of never giving up. But, as I think on it more, I believe there's something else that needs to be added to the recipe for making that publishing contract pie. Something more important than all these other ingredients.

You must want it badly enough.

Now, this 'wanting' can't be an ephemeral, 'oh, wouldn't that be nice if I got it' kind of feeling. Like you want those really nice suede boots or maybe a pay bonus for working on a really tough project. And the wanting can't be because you think getting a book publishing contract is going to make you rich, famous, happy and solve all your problems. Ha! You'd need some serious de-programming if you thought that was going to do it. Remember - be careful what you wish for. No, what I'm talking about is wanting that is a deep-seated, eternal flame buried in your gut that will not let you go and that you really can't explain why or how it got there. It must arise from a passionate love for what you are doing. Something that you feel you need to share with the world because - for whatever reason - you think it's important for it to be shared. Think about it. Why would anyone, ANYONE, put themselves through the weeks, months, and years of learning craft with no guaranteed payoff? Why would ANYONE put themselves through constant, sometimes painful rejection of their work year after year? Why would ANYONE spend so much time pulling their hair out when a book isn't going the way they envisioned or it's taking longer to finish then they thought or it needs to be revised for the umpteenth time? I mean, some days I'd really rather just go to the movies or read a book that someone else wanted published badly enough and had to agonize over than doing it myself. Shoot, I used to write in my diary for years, almost on a daily basis and that satisfied my writing needs for a long time. But at some point, the wanting to write for publication grew inside me. I wanted to put my words out there - even at the risk of ridicule. I wanted my stories and ideas shared, maybe discussed, maybe dismissed but at least out there. I wanted to expand my world and learn and grow and be excited at creating something that no one else had created. It's partly about validation. It's mostly about being excited and passionate about something and wanting to share it with the world. It doesn't have to be books - it's about whatever makes you passionate about something. You have to find that in your life otherwise life is pretty bland.

So when things look hopeless and you feel like you're not getting anywhere, when you've been rejected and you wonder why you keep doing this, ask yourself the only question that really matters: Do I want this badly enough to pick myself up and go after it again? And again?

And if you answered yes ... then you will be a published writer one day.