30 April 2012

Examples of Backstory

A few evenings ago I watched the first episode of a new series - to be honest it was a new series several years ago, I tend to find these things long after everyone else. The series is a spin-off, with the supporting character of the original series now taking the main role.

This is a example of where a writer might want to throw in a lot of backstory.

The opening shots were of a passenger aircraft landing, and then the main character (a Detective Inspector) being met in Arrivals, by a Detective Sergeant. They haven't met before, and so with the difference in rank and age they aren't very comfortable with each other. To make conversation while he is driving the young DS says, 'I expect there's been some changes in three years.'

Nice one. We now know there's been a period of three years since we last saw this character, and that he's been out of the country for that length of time.

The DI replies, 'The changes all happened before I left.'

Ah - so it wasn't an extended holiday, or a pleasure trip around the world.

The DI asks the DS to take a short detour, and we next see him standing in front of a grave. The camera shot moves to the headstone, and we see the name of the Inspector's wife. Another piece of information skilfully and briefly inserted.

If writing a novel we might have filled our first chapter with lots of backstory about the death, and the Inspector's decision to take a secondment to another country, but in two lines of dialogue and a brief shot we have all we need to know at this point.

We have to wait until the DI is talking to someone impacted by a murder before we find out his wife was killed by a hit and run driver.  Not only are we given this information, but we see the DI is angry the driver hasn't been found, and that he is compassionate with others, even though his wife's killer will probably never be caught.

I thought these were excellent ways to give the viewer just the information they needed, and exactly when it was required, rather than writing a chapter of backstory.

There is lots of advice on backstory, namely not piling huge chunks of it in the opening chapter, or at any place in your novel, but I thought this was a great example of the advice in action.

I don't worry too much about backstory in my first drafts. There is often a lot of information through it that I needed to know, though I'm getting better at putting this in my planning, and leaving it out of the writing. Subsequent drafts are where you need to cut everything that isn't needed, and then place only what is needed, when the reader needs to know it.

26 April 2012


Usually I work from home, but my present contract job involves me working in the city. The autumn sunshine was very tempting, and so today I ate my lunch in a nearby square.

As I looked around I noticed the name of one of the low-rise buildings - the Pioneer Women's Memorial Hall. I've just done a little research and discovered it was built as a monument to the pioneer women of the city, and as a memorial to Miss Ellen Melville, who in 1913 became the first woman councillor in New Zealand. New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote.

Yesterday was ANZAC day, which is a national day of remembrance, and commemorates all New Zealanders killed in war, as well as honouring all returned servicemen and women.

As I ate my lunch, indulged in some people watching, and enjoyed the sunshine I was very aware of my good fortune to have been born in this time, and to live in this beautiful country. It is indeed a privilege and not a right, and I am very grateful.

25 April 2012

Book Covers

One of the pleasures of book browsing is looking at the covers.  A good cover can give you a hint of the genre or style from the images, colours and font type used.  This is an excellent, and very amusing, TED talk by Chip Kidd on book cover design.

23 April 2012

Skateboarding Lessons

Most days I try to go for a walk or a run.  As I live close to the sea my walks often take me to one of my local beaches.  Along the length of one beach is a wide grassed area where there is a children's play park with swings, climbing frames and slides.  Next to that is a skateboard area.  Most days this is full of older children and teenagers on skateboards, bikes and scooters, and I'm often amazed at the tricks and manoeuvres they're able to perform.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at how good they are, because they're there most days, and spend hours practising the jumps and manoeuvres.

Sometimes they don't get up enough speed for the ramp or miss a jump.  They pick up their skateboard, and do it again.  Each missed jump teaches them something new about speed and distance and angles.

Why is it then we feel such a failure when we don't get placed in a writing competition, or receive a rejection from an editor or publisher, or read something we've written and think it's rubbish?

It takes a lot of hours of practising our craft to improve our writing skills.  Each time something comes back from an editor or publisher we should look for a way to improve it, especially if we're fortunate enough to receive some feedback with the rejection.  We might not get skinned knees like the skateboarders, but dealing with rejection is hard.  We all know we should be objective about it, but that's difficult when you're reading the letter or scrawled comments on a slip of paper.

Ultimately, unless we want to give up, we have to handle the rejection (chocolate often helps!), and get on with practising our craft by more writing, more editing, and learning from each experience.  Time now to do that.

20 April 2012

Rules or Guidelines

I remember receiving a leaflet a few years ago from an insurance company.  The message was their insurance policies were now being written in 'plain English', as opposed to a language most people can't understand.

When I write training materials, the guiding principle is to write for your target audience. The purpose is not to show how many long words you know, but for people to understand what they are reading. Surely that is the point of grammar, to help people understand.

People talk (or even argue) over the rules of grammar, but our language is constantly evolving and changing, and so I prefer to think of them as guidelines.  Though I do note the dictionary defines grammar as a set or body of rules.

Publishing Perspectives has these thoughts on grammar today, and Sarah Duncan recently posted this guide to punctuation.

19 April 2012

Barbed Wire

I heard this yesterday.  A little girl describing the barbs on barbed wire.  "They're like stars."
Not a description I would have thought of, but how beautiful.  
It made me realise (yet again) the need to look at things with fresh eyes.

15 April 2012

Keep It Simple

The KISS principle seems to apply to everything.  If you do an internet search on those words there are dozens of topics to which it's been applied.

Although I don't talk about it much on this blog, the majority of my paid writing is non-fiction: technical writing and training materials, together with occasional articles.

I recall reading an article, years ago, on how to write articles and news-type features. It described them as pyramid shaped.  The title is the pointed part of the pyramid - short but effective, giving the reader an idea of what the article is about. The first paragraph is the middle of the pyramid, covering the main points - the who, what, where, when, why and how of the story.  The succeeding paragraphs contain the whole story in greater detail.

I read the article years ago, but in this age of information overload the principle applies even more.  I find myself doing exactly this whether I'm reading a newspaper, magazine or webpage.  A title or heading catches my attention.  I read the first paragraph, and that should let me know whether I'm interested enough to read the rest, or move on.

If you're reading a technical manual or training material, it's usually because you have to read it as you need the information.  But that doesn't mean the writer can get away with not making it interesting and easy to understand.  Non-fiction material should also have catchy, but useful chapter/heading titles, and the initial paragraph should give an overview of what is coming, before launching into the subject content.

For training materials, and actual training sessions or presentations I keep this in mind.
  • Tell your audience what you're going to cover.
  • Give them the information.
  • Summarise what you've just told them.
The evening news is a good example of this.  The presenters start with the headlines. They then cover each of the items in more detail, which often involves on-the-ground reports from journalists.  Finally there is a roundup of the headlines.

Some of the best non-fiction books I've read start each chapter with a set of objectives - this is what you will know/understand/be able to do by the end of this chapter, and then finish the chapter with a summary of what the reader should have learned.

In between this I find it useful if the content is sprinkled with relevant examples, case studies or anecdotes.  People love stories.  We relate to stories and so remember them longer than just an isolated piece of information.


12 April 2012

A Net for Catching Days

Writers often moan about a lack of hours for writing, due to fulltime jobs, family and a myriad of other responsibilities. I also do my fair share of moaning about this, although I don't think we have a monopoly on 'not enough hours in the day'.

This quote by Annie Dillard resonated on a number of levels.

'How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.'

The word schedule often feels like it could be swapped with straightjacket,  something that constricts us and removes our freedom.  I'm certainly against a schedule that leaves no room for spontaneous activities, but I've also seen how much time I can waste when I don't have a plan for a project. I love the line 'It is a net for catching days.'  What a beautiful thought.   

'A mock-up of reason and order - willed, faked...'  The faked sounds a little like some of my plans, or at least my suggested timings for tasks!  I always seem to under estimate.

'A peace and a haven set into the wreck of time.'  I can certainly agree with that.  Starting a new project can be overwhelming, and I find myself doing other jobs simply because I don't know where to start.  That's when I need a plan.

10 April 2012

Reading Fiction and Your Brain

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post on the sense of smell, and more recently I read this article on what happens in our brain when we read detailed and evocative writing. Apparently words such as lavender, cinnamon or soap, elicit responses not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

The article also discusses other research, but I'll stay with the sense of smell for the moment. I recall when I wrote the first chapter of Driftwood, I specifically added details about the smell of coffee. I always found this amusing as I hate coffee, and can't stand the smell of it, but I know it is a smell many people enjoy.

I love the smell of cut grass, honeysuckle and jasmine, and freshly baked bread. Earlier today, on a walk along the beachfront, I passed a house where they are building a new deck, and the smell of cut macrocarpa was lovely.

What scents do you like most, and do you have a favourite descriptive passage about a particular smell?

05 April 2012

Voyage of Discovery

It's been a week for quotes - the universe must be trying to tell me something.

'The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands, but of seeing with new eyes.' Marcel Proust

I love the way I start seeing my local area in a different way when I have visitors to stay.  It begins even before they arrive, as I try to think of interesting places they will enjoy.

Working with a writing group or beta readers is much the same. I'm always fascinated by the way people see meaning in elements that maybe my subconscious added (if I'm that smart).  Or irritated at the errors I've missed over numerous edits. I hate that one - how did I miss typo?

01 April 2012

Romance Formula

Apparently the best selling books on Amazon are thrillers and romance. Not exactly a surprise I guess. I was discussing this with a writer friend, and we thought we should combine these into another genre - crick-lit.

This article talks about a romance formula and scientific options for finding the right person for you.  It looks at smell tests, DNA analysis to assess compatibility, and facial analysis. Interesting article, but I'm not sure it would make a good romance novel.