One More Note On Back Story

The reason back story is so awful is because it’s not back story.  It’s back data dump.  Actual back story, meaning some bit of prose that tells an actual story about a character or a world to fill in the missing history before the story proper starts, can be used to give depth to your writing. 

Stephen King is famous for creating detailed back stories for his characters that make them seem all the more real to us.  But if you want to see it done exceptionally well, read Ready Player One.  Ernest Cline uses the first part of that book to set up the world and the main character’s entire life but it reads like a story so you don’t notice you’re being told about the Zactor Migration until you’re already deep into the story.

Seriously.  Read it.

 

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TMI

What is a good sentence?  What’s the difference between good writing and not so good writing.  This is the question that haunts every writer until the moment they find themselves drowning in critical awards – and sometimes even then.  Beyond simple mechanics, what makes good writing?

The classic (probably apocryphal) story is that a friend came to visit James Joyce while he was working on Ulysses and, seeing that the author was troubled, he asked, “James?  What’s wrong?  You look so forlorn.”

Joyce looked up from his work and said, “I’ve written seven words today.”

“Seven?  But, James, for you that’s wonderful.”

“I know,” Joyce said, grabbing his hair in agony, “but I don’t know what order they go in!”

I’ve been pretty vocal on this blog arguing against sending out first drafts.  One of the reasons this is such a bad idea is that on your first pass, you’re just trying to capture the story as fast as it’s unspooling in your mind.  But go back and take a second look at your perfect prose and you’ll find sentences like this:

He clapped Paul on the shoulder and passed by him on his way to the opening of the cave where he paused and said, “Don’t come around the cottage tonight.  It’s going to be loud.

Technically, that’s a valid sentence.  It gets the information across.  But it’s a TERRIBLE sentence.  Why?  Say it out loud.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You see?  You ran out of breath on the way, didn’t you? 

TMI.  Too much information.  Too often, writers feel compelled to cram too much into one sentence.  Sometimes it’s all valid information that just needs to be delivered in two separate sentences, but very often, as in the case above, the information is unnecessary or redundant and can simply be removed:

Clapping Paul on the shoulder, he made his way to the cave opening, pausing only to say, “Don’t come round the cottage tonight.  It’s going to be loud.

Most of my drafts revolve around working out character definition and plot issues.  Very often, I will simply run into a wall in the story I can’t get over or around.  That’s when I stop, put it away, and come back to it in a few months with a page one rewrite.  But the last draft of anything I write is a polish draft dedicated to finding sloppy prose and fixing it as best I can. 

This is a classic amateur sentence I just pulled out of a first draft:

Noticing that many of the other players had turned to take note of him, Paul decided it would be best if they didn’t overhear anything he had to say with his new business partner.

Passive construction.  Opening with a subordinate clause.  Too much information.  Violation of the prime directive to omit needless words.  Here’s the better version:

Paul decided it might be better if the other players weren’t able to overhear a discussion about selling his vector.  The practice might not be strictly illegal but it was most likely frowned upon.

I was able to provide more information and a more natural read by breaking it into two sentences and eliminating the passive construction.  Again, the glaring red flag that indicates amateur writing is that need to cram too much into one sentence.  This, along with flawless characters that never fail and using the word “boobs” in a sex scene, are the hallmarks of bad storytelling.

So the admonishment to read your stuff out loud during a polish draft is a well founded one.  Even if you’re not on a first draft, reading in your head can lead to mental edits that fix poor sentence construction automatically as you read.  Reading out loud, however, you’ll find yourself stumbling over these sentences.  Image in what they would do to your readers.

Show And Tell

Remember the beginning of Alien when all you saw was the Nostromo floating in space and then a wall of text started crawling up the screen explaining what year it was and what the crew of the Nostromo was doing and how corporations had taken over the Earth and how… No?  You don’t remember that?  You know why?  It wasn’t there.  Instead, you as a viewer were allowed to glean all that back story over time on your own and in your own way. 

Science fiction has always had a love hate relationship with back story.  Early SF writers felt compelled to explain exactly how the human race had reached this particular moment in time before launching into the story.  This is called establishing the world and it makes total sense to do it because otherwise your reader is going to be wondering just what the hell is going on rather than following your story.  This is true of any type of fiction.  Whether it’s the story of gay son coming out to his parents or a mutant son escaping his larval phase and then eating his family, it just seems to be a more obvious problem in science fiction and fantasy because the world you’re establishing is often very different from the real one.

There are two ways to establish back story: Show and Tell.  For years SF novels opened with pages of back story that would TELL you everything you needed to know about the world the story was going to take place in.  The problem with this method is that it’s highly artificial, it’s boring, and it treats the readers like they have oatmeal for brains.   There’s even a hilarious send up of this in Galaxy Quest when one of the aliens, I forget which one, tries to do a back story brain dump onto Tim Allen’s drunk, hung over captain:

“Following the Great Nebula Burst, our people were one people but then came the Zactor Migration and then the Melosian Shift and a dark period of discontent spread through the land.  Fighting among Treeb sects and Largoths… ah, the foolishness!”*

When I’m searching for a new book to read, the first thing I do is read the first several pages on the hunt for this kind of a starchy, over dry exposition.  If it’s there, the book goes back on the virtual shelf.

So how do you lay in the requisite back story without losing your readers?  Why, I’m glad you asked.  Here are three ways:

1. Don’t Do It – Or at least realize that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do.  If I remember correctly (I don’t have the movie anywhere at hand, which I find surprising given who I am), Alien opens with the Nostromo waking up and then the crew coming out of hyper-sleep.  You understand it’s a space ship.  You understand they’re the crew and waking up from hyper-sleep is really rough.  And gradually we learn who they are to each other.  And then, when Brett and Parker start arguing their shares are too small, you realize it’s damn blue collar vessel.  It’s a working ship.  Eventually, over time, you learn everything you need to know and the parts they don’t tell you your brain fills in on its own which makes it even more real to you.

2. Show Don’t Tell – Suppose Brett were to wake up and stretch and say, “Wow, we’ve been in these Hyper-Sleep tubes, which is what these things are, for seventy-two days, which is a really long time, and that has a draining effect so that you end up feeling kind of hung over.  Which I do.”  MOVIE RUINED.  Get your popcorn and go home.  Just SHOW the effects of hyper-sleep.  Does it really matter exactly how many years or months the crew was asleep?  That depends on your story. If you can honestly answer, “Yes, the fact that they were in hyper-sleep for exactly six months is important because that’s how long it takes the alien to gestate,” then go right ahead and have someone say it’s been six months.  But if not, if it’s not critical, cut it.  It sounds as unnatural as a man saying, “Hello, Margaret, my wife.  We’ve been married for 16 years.”  And, yes, I have seen that exact line in more than one script.

3. Fold It In – In Aliens, how do we know that evil corporations run the world?  Is it when Carter Burke introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I work for the evil corporations that have taken over the world”?  No, because he doesn’t do that.  He makes a joke, saying, “I work for the company but other than that I’m an okay guy.”  It’s just an inkling but it’s enough for that moment in the film.  Later, we’ll see the company hold what looks a lot like an official inquest, something that free people would expect to be run by the government, and at that point we’ll understand everything we need to about the evil corporations.

That’s just three of many ways you can deal with back story without resorting to the Zactor Migration option – which you should treat like the nuclear option.  There are many more, but the one thing I want to suggest to up and coming writers is to take six months to a year and seriously study and work at screenwriting.  Yes, I said screenwriting.  Even if you aren’t interested in becoming a screenwriter, take six months and go all out because screenwriting is the Marine Corps boot camp of writing.

I’m not talking about complex storytelling like the Hero’s Journey, or colliding subplots or the nine act structure.  Rather, I’m talking about just learning the nuts and bolts of telling a story visually.  In a novel, you can say anything anywhere at any time.  “He limps because of a piece of shrapnel that remains in his knee from a terrible war wound that he received when he saw action in Afghanistan.”  Okay, yes, that’s a bad sentence and an obvious case of back story, but I’m using it here as an illustration: If you write that line in a screenplay, no one will read it.  Why?  Because you can’t put that on the screen.  You can put action on the screen: He walks with a limp.  You can put dialog on the screen: “This?  Oh, yeah, a little trouble in Afghanistan.”  But if you want to expose that back story, it has to come from the mouth of a character and the moment you start typing a line like this: “Oh, this?  My limp?  It’s shrapnel from an IED that exploded near my Humvee when I was fighting the war in Afghanistan as a soldier of the United States Army…” What you should hear in your mind is: “…then came the Zactor Migration…”

And you should immediately hit the Big Red Button.

 

*Thanks to SUBZIN for having this quote.  Unbelievably, it was the only place I could find it.

Premature Deflation

Tension is the gasoline of the fiction engine.  It powers everything.  It keeps readers turning pages.  The release of tension provides that quintessential feeling of payoff in peak dramatic moments. 

On the other hand, it’s not a feeling we crave.  As humans, one of our prime motivations is to avoid stress.  We mutter about the BMW driver who cuts us off in traffic but we don’t ram into him and pull out a baseball bat – or, as the officer told me, we’re not supposed to.  And if we do something aggressive like flip the bird we feel really uncomfortable when we then have to stop next to him at the light even though he was in the wrong.

This disdain for tension can lead to one of the biggest problems with ineffective fiction: The Indian Jones effect. 

Famously, Raiders of the Lost Ark was built around the structure of the old movie serials, short features that would show one “chapter” of a story every week or so before the feature film rolled.  These shorts were forced into a three step approach in order to move along their overarching storyline:

1. Encounter a threat.

2. Be almost defeated by the threat.

3. Overcome the threat through sheer cunning or terrible writing.  See Commando Cody for many examples of the latter technique.

If Lucas and Spielberg had employed this structure exclusively, the movie would have been awful.  To be sure, Raiders is a series of episodic encounters where the tension is raised and then released in small chunks, but those episodes are just chapters in a larger story: The race to get the Ark away from the Nazis.  And also the love story between Indy and Marion.

Ineffective fiction suffers from two common errors that prematurely let the tension out of their stories: The Immaculate Protagonist and the aforementioned Indian Jones Effect.

Think about Indy for a moment.  Did that guy do anything right?  Was he “more than a match” for anyone he encountered?  Obviously, the swordsman he shot would argue that he was outclassed, but in every other instance Indy seems to win out through sheer, insanely indefatigable determination.  Marion has so much faith that he will save her that she works out a plan to save herself.

The same is true of John McLane in Die Hard.  Do the cops ever come to trust him to handle the situation?  Do the FBI agents begrudgingly admire him?  No, and they shouldn’t.  He’s a wild card.  A loose cannon.  One of the things that made that movie such a breakout hit was that even the audience didn’t think he was up to it.  He spent most of the movie either screwing up or just plain being terrified. 

But the main character in ineffective thrillers is too often someone like Rod Chiseljaw, a man of too many talents, infinite skills and special knowledge that puts him in charge of a group of highly trained professionals.  If the author even bothers to address the oddness of this amateur leading a team of special forces soldiers, it happens in one quick confrontation:

     “Who are you tell me what to do?  I’ve got ten years under my belt as a Navy Seal and you’re, what, a miner?”

     “I’m a diamond miner, dammit,” Rod says, “and I’m the only one who knows where the terrorists are hiding in that diamond mine.”

Usually, this will do the trick but sometimes there’s a physical altercation in which Rod beats down the guy most critical of him.  After that everyone accepts his leadership and they all become manly friends. 

But think about what opportunities were wasted here.  Most obviously, the chance to have ongoing tension among the men going to face the terrorists.  The soldiers don’t like being led by a civilian.  What about their distrust of his motivation?  Maybe they suspect he only wants into that diamond because it’s, you know, filled with diamonds.

We could have a long running source of tension that could then be paid off when Rod actually comes through and maybe saves their lives or kills the main terrorist at the end of the novel.  But, nope, we’re into the tension and out again like tiptoeing through a baby pool. 

Another thing about Rod is his decisions, while unconventional, always pay off and the men following him learn to trust his instincts.  Again, think about what is wasted here.  Suppose Rod screws up the first time out and now faces resistance from the special forces soldiers at every turn.  In this case, he has to gradually gain their trust which allows the story to gradually release that tension.  It also puts the reader in a place where even they don’t know if he’s going to screw up again. 

The same is true for the conflicts in these books. There is no sense of a war, just a series of disembodied battles.  Characters tend to pop up when needed and then get killed.  Critics are permanently silenced (Major General: I now understand that you are the perfect man for this job, Rod) either by coming to acknowledge Rod’s unblemished perfection or, more often, by straight up getting killed.  Whatever the reason, that source of tension, like all the others, is very quickly whisked away. 

It’s important to remember that, as much as you don’t care for tension personally, it is critical to your story.  If you find you’ve let the air out too soon or too quickly, step back and see if you can’t move that down the line a bit.  Think of yourself not as someone who gets rid of tension but rather someone who cultivates and curates it. 

The Plan Takes Shape

The question of how one comes up with a bunch of content in a short period of time has been answered.  I believe.  I wrote a novel eight years ago called Peace On Earth (a working title, I know it’s terrible) that ended up being kind of unwieldy.  Not only was it over large at 800 pages the story was evenly divided into three separate parts complete with location changes.  I put it aside to think about it and promptly switched to writing detective novels.

Later, I remembered the novel and the unique world in which it took place and wrote a companion novel, a different story and characters but in the same universe, to go with it.  I called this one MSRW, for reasons that are made clear in the book.

My original plan was to publish MSRW as the first in a series that takes place in that universe, but then I remembered that it was based on the much larger novel Peace On Earth.  I revisited POE and realized that its problem was that it was really three different books.  Essentially, I had written a trilogy stitched together into one very big book.  So what I have in hand right now, as a gift my self of eight years ago handed to me on a silver platter, is a series of four books.  One has already been written, MSRW, and the others just need to be rewritten as three individual stories.

That’s the plan: Come out with a new science fiction series of four books in six months and then add the fifth book while sales are firing up.

But is that a realistic plan?  If I were coming up with this series from scratch, I would say no, but I have a blueprint of everything that happens across the three books.  This is a page one rewrite of all of the first three novels in the series, I can’t simply rewrite the existing text and stretch it out, but it’s a second draft.  I know from the source material everything that is going to happen in all three books – all the characters, character development, challenges, plot twists.  I just have to type it out.  Still, that’s 900 pages in 180 days, an average of five pages a day.  I can do that.  I can do better than that.  I believe, if I really work at this like a job, I can put out 50 pages a week.  That puts me at the finish line in 4 ½ months.  So I’m going to set my goal to be finished with all three volumes (and come up with a name for the series) by the first week of November.

Just to clarify, this is an attempt to treat writing more like a job than a hobby not an excuse to publish unreadable crap.  If I’m not getting the quality I normally expect, I won’t hesitate to toss pages.

I’ll keep you posted.

Me vs. Change – Round Three

As I’ve probably said before (I’m too lazy to look it up), the publishing industry has changed mightily since I got my first publishing contract in 1979.  Back then, editors were editors and you didn’t have an agent until you wrote a best seller.  Along the way, the editors started letting agents man the front lines of over-the-transom submissions. 

Bill Thompson, my first editor, didn’t offer me a contract because my novel was flawless.  He did it because he saw some talent in me, something he felt he could work with over time to produce a solid writer.  Had I had another book in me when Bill asked for it over thirty years ago, my life would have undoubtedly turned out completely differently. 

Had I sent in that early draft of Sending Down the Fare in today’s publishing climate, I would never have even heard back from the agents.  Not that it’s their fault.  The internet has increased the volume of submissions to floodgate levels.  No one in the business can afford to spend any appreciable time on work that isn’t, basically, ready for the printer. 

But at the same time, more than half the books published by physical publishing houses go on to sell less than a thousand copies. 

We all know that the industry is changing again.  We just aren’t really sure how.  We know it has something to do with the internet but we’re not entirely sure what.  Oh, and eBooks.  But what about them? 

The reason I’m back to puzzling over this issue is that I discovered B. V. Larson over the weekend.  I’m not really even sure how I found him.  I was looking for a new book to listen to and I just sort of came across him in the Science Fiction section of Audible.com. 

I always want to know about an author before I commit to reading his work, so I found his site and started reading.  He had been writing novels for ten years with zero to show for it when he tried just putting everything on Nook and Kindle.  After a decade of rejections from agents, he puts all his books online and in three years, he has moved over 250,000 copies. 

Now, this is impressive but whenever I see an author who puts out 36 books in three years, I get suspicious.  I bought the first book of his first series, Swarm, and fired it up on my phone.  Not only is not badly written, it’s actually very well written – certainly better than the little bit of Breaking Dawn I was able to get through.  It’s face paced, literate and fun science fiction. 

Yes, he has put out a lot of books in a short period, but the truth is that half of those books were written over the previous ten years.  No mistaking it, though, the guy is a machine.  It appears he’s written over fifteen books across three genres in the last three years.  What is that?  A book every two or three months?  For me, that would mean publishing partial first drafts.  But, you know what?  Legend has it that Harlan Ellison does everything in one draft.  So who knows?

Anyway, all this new information got me wondering where I went wrong with my detective novels.  I’ve moved just under a thousand units of all four books combined.  Five star reviews and quite a few readers of The Vengeance Season go on to buy all my other books, but the spark failed to catch.  Where is my sales report saying I moved 250,000 copies over the last 36 months?

I can tell you where: in my flawed plan of execution.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I’ve come up with a list of mistakes that I’m about to try to rectify.

1) Wrong genre.  Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (truthfully, all sub-genres of Fantasy) are far more likely to get gobbled up in eBook form than detective novels.  The demographics of who is buying books in those two genres make it pretty obvious why.

2) Not enough content.  I put out The Vengeance Season and the other three books and then ran a huge promotion that moved 750 copies.  Then nothing.  Why?  Because what I should have done was write all five volumes of the Roy Doyle series, put them all out at the same time and then run a huge promotion on the first volume to drive purchases of the other volumes.  eBook readers, especially science fiction/fantasy readers, aren’t will to commit to volume one of a series until they know volume five has already been written.

3) Bad attitude.  I still, in the back of my mind, have the same opinion of Kindle and Nook publishing that I got from the vanity press self-publishing industry from back in pre-internet days.  Vanity press books were for deluded wannabe writers with no grasp of grammar, plot, characterization or dialogue.  They had to self-publish for a reason.  They stunk.  But we’re seeing something different now with eBook publishing.  Agents and publishing houses are using sales in the electronic market to weed out the weak for them.  They just watch the numbers and then send out offers to whoever is moving units.  It makes sense.

My attitude was very half-hearted when I went out with detective novels.  I didn’t see it as an avenue to reaching readers so much as a place to dump novels I hadn’t been able to get New York interested in. 

I also took my time.  If you read this blog at all, you know that I routinely take three years to get to the final draft of a novel.  That’s not acting like a working writer.  That’s acting like an amateur with all the time in the world to pursue his hobby.  Even though I write every day and I produce a ton of material, the pipeline is still three years long.

What am I going to do about it?  I’m not entirely sure yet, but a plan is coming and you will be the first to hear it.