Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Guest blogger Heidi Croot

Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn on the page.

Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?

Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with backstory in a way that appeals to readers.

Decide What to Throw Out

Image by Elena Sannikova from Pixabay

Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma shapeshifted a character’s personality.

Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world works in fantasy or science fiction.

Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”

1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy

Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July, drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean something.

I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it came.

My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight. Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should have been important to her.

2. Save Your Cast-offs
Image by Sophie Janotta from Pixabay

Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment. For each, ask:

  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • How does this episode propel the main story forward?
  • Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
  • Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
  • Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes nowhere?
  • Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another character’s story?

Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the door: Private. I move beloved old outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may inspire their own narratives.

Threading So the Stitches Don’t Show

Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.

1. Wait for Thirst

Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.

Image by Gary G from Pixabay

What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.

What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.

Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.

2. Show Readers the Gap

But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or feel the related emotion.

Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?

My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees the envelope with the familiar handwriting.

Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory, they understand what she risks by opening that letter.

3. Animate Backstory with Scene

Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.

Showing is better.

Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to be—including its own chapter.

Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey does this splendidly in Sweetland when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.

Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.

4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory

Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.

I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical opportunity to muse on who was this man.

5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit

Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.

One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She had written wrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.

In Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.

Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed in town.

What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.

Longlist Announcement

Longlist Announcement

Gwynn Scheltema

In May we invited writers to submit to a postcard story contest based on a visual picture of an interesting face in black and white. All just for fun, no monetary prizes. We’d like to thank all those writers who entered from Canada and abroad. We’d love to give you all a prize just for submitting because often that’s the hardest step, but of course we can’t.

Instead, today we announce our longlist. We originally planned on having five on the long list, but ended up with six.

Longlist (in alphabetical order):

Helen Bajorek-MacDonald

Adam Conway

Deb Rankine

Lisa Reynolds

Ann Rocchi

Lori Twining

So now what?

Over the next three weeks we will feature the winning entry and two runners up with comments by the writers on what inspired them and from us on why we chose them.

But today let’s talk about the advantages of being on a longlist, a runner up or an honorable mention.

Potential

If your submission made it on to a longlist, it means your entry was among the cream that rose to the top. Even if it doesn’t ultimately win, the judges acknowledged that it had potential to be a winner.

Feedback

Sometimes you get feedback, and any judge or editor comment is worth the price of admission. You’re not obliged to take their advice, of course, but it answers that eternal question: why didn’t it win? In some cases, it’s good practical advice, and in some cases, it’s subjective, but at least you know where you stand.

Learning

If you don’t get feedback on your submission, take the time to read and analyze the winning entries. How are they different from yours? What did they do to really shine? Tighter story? Great voice? Interesting unique style? Dynamic dialogue?  Don’t get emotional or defensive. Instead, focus on learning what steps to take to put you on the road to success.

Confidence

Knowing that you made it into the top group of the entire entry body can be a huge boost to confidence especially for new writers or those who feel like they are in the doldrums. It’s recognition after all. Affirming recognition. When I was a new writer, my creative writing teacher had the class enter the Toronto Short Story contest as an assignment. I’m one of those don’t-share-till-I’m-sure kind of writers and sending in my entry felt like casting a delicate flower onto stormy waters. When I placed in the top 20 in a field of over 4000, I was ecstatic. I ran around the empty house telling every table and cupboard and drapery, then phoned all my writing buddies. Even though I didn’t win, I finally felt like a real writer.

Publishing credits

Some contests publish some or all of their longlist winners, and that counts for your writing resume. Even if it isn’t published, the fact that it made it onto the long list is resume worthy. One year I made it onto the Contemporary Verse 2 (CV2) longlist for their popular 2-day poetry contest  (again, didn’t win) but received a year’s subscription to the magazine as a reward. Now my longlist success sits proudly on my writing resume. Agents and publishers look for publishing credits, and longlist placings tell them that your work has been judged as worthy of winning.

When my Writescape partner Ruth entered the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2011, she was thrilled to be placed on the longlist. It meant her poem Gilt made it into the online longlist anthology, and became a proud item in her literary resume.

Exposure to the Industry

Ruth was equally chuffed when her short story entry received an honourable mention in Geist‘s Literal Literary Postcard Story contest. Then the icing on the contest cake: the prestigious U.S. quarterly, Utne Reader, asked for Ruth’s permission to reprint her story in their online magazine. So not winning top spot can give you inroads to places you didn’t foresee.

In our years as editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview Ruth and I were often asked to be judges and many times, deciding on final winners from the longlist was a painful process. All too often, a great story didn’t win but was eminently publishable. Knowing this, when we received submissions that could boast a longlist placing on the piece, it made it out of the slush pile pretty quickly.

Networking

With the ease of modern social media, making contact with your fellow longlist peers or others following the contest results can increase your writing network, and suggest possible writers for critique sharing or beta reading.

Motivation

Yes, it’s disappointing to be on a longlist and then not make it to the finish line, but the trick is to focus on the fact that the piece had enough merit to make it that far, and let that success propel you forward.  Take a second look, edit it or polish it and send it out again. If it’s that close, it will find a home.

So hearty congratulations to our longlist writers! Stay tuned for next week’s announcement and publication of our third place entry.

Submissions: Why We Chose It

Submissions: Why We Chose It

Ruth E. Walker.

I subscribe to the Kenyon Review‘s newsletter, a literary journal out of Kenyon College in Ohio. I enjoy reading “Why We Chose It.” This feature explores some of the reasons why Kenyon Review selected a particular piece to publish in their journal.

Here’s an excerpt of Kirsten Reach’s post about “He Comes to Feed the Horses”, a short story by Mary Terrier:

Our interns were the first to cull this from our submission pile; we had no connection to Mary Terrier before. Within a few paragraphs, I think you’ll find yourself listening closely to the voice she’s found in this tough, nameless narrator. “By the time I was desperate enough to call hospice, you were already pretty far gone,” she says, addressing her late husband. Henry can hardly manage to get a straw into his mouth, and nurses have taken up residence in their house. She needs help, but she hates the help. The bathroom is too small to fit even the two of them, and each body that enters their home seems out-of-place.

Sounds like a good story to me. But it isn’t a new story, is it? So why did Kirsten and the interns pick this one?

Like every magazine that publishes short stories, we get a few dozen stories about unhappy marriages or spouses handling end-of-life care in every submission period...As an editor, you’re looking for an author with style, and a caretaker who makes you care deeply about this story, in the vein of Alice Munro’s “A Bear Came Over the Mountain,” or Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.

Style. Caretaker. How do those two connect? And why do they matter?

Style:

No one writes like you. When you are writing, your words land on the page in the style that belongs to your voice. For a lot of writing, such a corporate writing, you refine your style to fit with expectations. Your own voice is usually restricted in those forms of writing.

Fiction, however, allows you much more freedom to explore how your style works. You can refine your style by editing out weaknesses or even developing them into a strength. For example, relying on too much description slows the pace and you lose your reader. But at a crucial point in your story, perhaps an extended, detailed description is just what you need to bring focus on something vital. Dust off that urge to overwrite and use it to the story’s advantage.

Caretaker:

What does Kirsten Reach mean when she calls a writer a caretaker?

From 1999 to 2008, Gwynn and I were fiction editors for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Along with Mark Medley, we had some vigorous discussions championing stories to be included in upcoming issues. Limited journal space combined with hundreds of submissions made our work a challenge. We never referred to a writer as a “caretaker” for their story. But we could tell when a story was finely crafted.

I remember one story in particular. In Volume 8-2, Brian Reynolds’ “First Goose” is told in reverse, slipping back from a dreadful tragedy, hour by hour and layer by layer, peeling away the emotions of a adolescent First Nation boy on the cusp of adulthood.

The caretaker, Reynolds, could have written the story in ordinary linear fashion. Instead, he chose to give us the devastation before forcing us on the backward journey to see how the man rose out of the boy. It was cruel and wonderful because it was completely contrary to expectations. The inescapable ending haunted the reader through every hour revealed.

Do all editors look for a “caretaker”? I don’t know. What I do know is that at our 2016 fall retreat, literary agent Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists shared what she looks for in submissions. “Really great skill with language, that goes without saying.” And then she added something. “And an original voice telling a really unique story.” Hilary was talking about style and about the craft.

What’s Your Style?

Are you a caretaker for your writing? Before you press SEND on that submission, step back and take a close look at your work.

  • is your voice loud and clear in the style?
  • are you using your style in the best possible way?
  • have you taken care to ensure your story is being told in an original manner?
  • is there another way to lay it out so that readers (and editors) are surprised or intrigued?

Some writers benefit from a writing coach or editor to help take their work to the next level. For other writers, growth comes from paying attention to feedback in a critique group or workshop setting. In all cases, it helps to read other people’s work, especially those stories chosen for a prestigious literary journal.

You can read Kirsten Reach’s full post here. And I encourage you to follow the link and read the excerpt. Mary Terrier has, indeed, been a caretaker with style.

Read the fine print

Read the fine print

Heather M. O’Connor.
I recently stumbled across a contest for writers and artists, run by a well-known government-funded organization. The topic was intriguing. So were the $500 prize and the no-fee entry. Until I read the rules.

By entering this Contest and submitting an entry, you grant to Sponsors the right use to any material related to your entry for use in any and all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised (which use may include without limitation, editing, reformatting, modifying, publishing, posting, distributing, displaying, and transmitting for print, audio, visual, digital, or broadcast media and the like), for any purpose, including without limitation, the Contest and advertising Sponsors  or Sponsors’ products, services and organization.” 

Hold the phone.

If I entered, I’d surrender ALL RIGHTS to my work. In perpetuity. Contest organizers and even their sponsors could publish my story even if I didn’t win. They could reformat it, modify it, post it or publish it anywhere and as often as they wished.

And remember. This rule doesn’t just apply to the winners. It applies to EVERYONE who enters.

This is the second such contest I’ve seen recently. The other was the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) nature photography contest. Again, ALL entrants (not just winners) must agree to grant:

“…to the ROM a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, create derivative works from, and display his/her wildlife photo (the “Work”), in whole or in part, on a worldwide basis, and to incorporate it into other works, in any form, media or technology now known or later developed, including for promotional or marketing purposes; in connection with the Contest.

The Canadian literary magazine Geist, on the other hand, makes a more modest and reasonable rights request:

“Winning entries: Geist takes first serial rights for print and non-exclusive electronic rights to post the text and image at geist.com. All other rights remain with the author. 

All publication rights for non-winning entries are retained by the entrants.”

That’s more like it. So what am I giving up?

  • First serial rights. That’s one-time publication in their magazine, then the rights are mine again. That’s fair.
  • Non-exclusive electronic rights. They can publish it online forever, but it’s still mine.

And there’s none of this “waiving of all rights in perpetuity” nonsense.

Don’t go in blind

Always read the rules when you enter a contest. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What rights am I giving away?

Publication rights can be for a country or a language, (e.g., Canadian, European, world, French language.) They can cover a variety of formats: print and online, audio and visual, or “all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised.”

Will I ever need the rights again?

I might if I want to publish that story in an anthology, or include it in a novel.

Moral of the story?

When you enter a contest, verify the rights you’re signing away. Even trustworthy organizations can include unfair conditions.

Did you know…

There are plenty of places, in print and online, to find contest listings. Here are a few you might like:

Got a good tip on good contests to enter or your favourite places to find them? Let us know in the comments below.

Learn from two contest insiders when you spend a day with writing contest judges, winners and organizers, Ruth E. Walker and Dorothea Helms. Watch for their always popular Write to Win workshop later this spring.

The Unoriginal World of bobbi leblanc

The Unoriginal World of bobbi leblanc

Gwynn Scheltema

I was reminded about poetry when I went to the ballet this week. And not necessarily what you may expect…expressions of beauty through pattern or escape to a lyrical world (although that certainly happened).

No, I was reminded about the quest for meaning in art and the effect of succumbing to fads and affectations.

The Quest for Meaning

The National Ballet’s mixed winter program began with two offerings of classic Balanchine choreography: The Four Temperaments and Rubies. As the knowledgeable and always eloquent creative Director and Principal Ballet Master, Lindsay Fischer reminded us in the pre-performance talk, Balanchine choreographed always with the music uppermost in his mind. He didn’t start out with an idea he wanted to express. Instead, he listened to the music and let the music suggest the movement.ruby-1254568_960_720

When you listen to a symphony, you don’t spend that time wondering what it means. You let it transport you and enjoy the way it makes you feel. Balanchine’s ballets are like symphonies. You enjoy them for the emotions they stir in you, for the beauty in the patterns that delight you, for the surprises that please you when you least expect them to.

Good poetry is like that too: the music of the words and rhythms, the surprise of juxtapositions and turning points, the satisfaction of found mutual experience and ah-ha moments. And the delight of images that make you feel like you see what the poet sees. To paraphrase Chekov, poems that allow the reader to experience the moon by seeing “the glint of light on broken glass”.

And always emotion. It’s not necessary to read poetry looking for meaning. Allow the images to evoke whatever emotion or memory they do for you. There is no right or wrong reaction to what is written. Like a symphony, or a Balanchine ballet, let the poem transport you and move you.

 

Fads, Trends and Affectationscactus-659128_960_720

The final offering was a new work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman called Cacti. At first it was disturbing, confusing, but it didn’t take long to become comical, in fact, hilarious.

It poked fun at all the trendy things we’ve seen on stage and in dance competitions: androgynous dancers; bizarre props that seem to be symbolic but aren’t; weird, intrusive (and often annoying) lighting and stage sets; contorted body positions and music that isn’t sure what rhythms or mood it’s going for.

In short, it was using conventions and trends that others had been using, in fact, overusing. And did it result in “art”? Was it trying too hard to be “art”?  What resulted was a parody of art.

In this case, the choreographer was going for that and succeeded brilliantly. But it was a heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.

It took me back tofun issue 2004 when Ruth and I were on the editorial board for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Submissions of poetry went through a “fad” at that time, where everything was lowercase, even the pronoun I, and the poet’s name. Poems were made up of numbered parts, had words in italics, parentheses and were often divided by slashes. And all of them (it seemed) started with a quote from someone else or notes on what inspired the poem. That’s not to say that these devices cannot be used; there are some very fine poems with one or more of these elements in them. But what we were seeing was random, put in there without meaning or context because the poet had seen it elsewhere and was imitating without understanding why it was like that in the first place. That’s the pretentious part.

Given that we had to deal with hundreds of submissions, it was frustrating. Our 2004 spring issue was the “fun” issue, so as a lark, and to do much the same thing that Ekman did in the ballet Cacti, we (the editorial board) collectively wrote a poem that parodied all these affectations. We published it as “The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem” by a fictitious poet called bobbi le blanc (Notice: non-gender, possibly French and/or English and all lowercase name.). It was a hoot. But in the fun, like the ballet Cacti, there was that same heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.

It was a long poem with many numbered parts (of course), but just to give you a taste, here are the first two stanzas. Enjoy a giggle. The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem

 

Can You Use Parody?

Interestingly, parody is a great way to loosen up the mind and your writing. Try taking something you’re editing and rewriting it in the same style of a well-known writer, say, Ernest Hemingway (simple, direct and plain prose) or William Shakespeare (image-rich, iambic pentameter, 16th-century prose) or Margaret Atwood (precise, ironic and witty). When you are finished, consider how  your own work is different. What makes your style, your voice, unique?