Writing Advice: Beware Backstory

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All good characters have a rich, storied background. But we usually don’t read those backgrounds. Backstory is a great thing to develop, but it should not appear in the final product. Of course, this can be difficult to do. It’s tempting to pad your manuscript with information about the character’s past because it adds more words and helps you better understand your characters. But that backstory stuff should be worked out before you even start writing. Developing all of that beforehand means you’ll be better equipped to write about your characters and you won’t be as tempted to include backstory in your novel.

In her post about the 10 Writing Mistakes That Will Kill Your First Chapter, author Marcy Kennedy put “backstory” at number seven. She says, “Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.”

So, how can backstory be merely “hinted at”? It can be something as simple as a character talking to their friend and mentioning something that happened in the past. This can be done pretty smoothly, especially if the friend has known your character for a long time and can easily reference the past. Another way to achieve this is to have a present-day story element connect to something in the past. That way, the character’s past is being brought up, but in a way that advances your story forward and continues the action.

A good rule to remember and follow is that backstory is for the planning stage and action is for the writing stage. In NaNo-speak, that would mean that October is for backstory and November is for writing action. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Pace Yourself

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In writing, pacing means the speed at which your story moves. It means that your story is neither too quick nor too slow. If your story has good pacing, then events occur in your plot at the right time and allow for emotional resolution among your characters. The pacing of a story sets the stage for how a reader will experience the story. Often, when I come away from a good book, part of that quality comes from the fact that it was well-paced.

For me, pacing is one of the most difficult things to achieve in a story. In the past, my National Novel Writing Month attempts have moved slowly because I know I have a long way to go, and then extremely quickly because I’m suddenly running out of time. In between, not much happens plot-wise. Even when you’re just writing in general, without some crazy deadline hanging over your head, it can be difficult to find the balance of character development, plot points, and exposition.

According to author Caro Clarke, this problem with pacing stems from a lack of conflict and challenge. In her post about pacing, Clarke says, “Challenge implies battling something, overcoming opposition, and this is the heart of novel writing. Fiction is about challenges that the protagonist either triumphs over or is defeated by (Emma or Madame Bovary, for example). A novel must have conflict, not just in its overarching idea, but in every single scene.”

She makes a good point here — conflict must show up everywhere, not just in your overarching plot. It’s all well and good to determine that your story will be a classic “man versus nature” tale, but you have to include that conflict (or at least some type of conflict) in every scene that you write. Otherwise, the scenes will fall flat and be uninteresting to write as well as read.

Pacing may be the culprit behind writer’s block as well as reader’s disinterest. If you’re not writing something that bubbles over with conflict and is intriguing enough to hold your attention, then you’re bound to get bored with it and be unwilling to continue working on it.

In general, pacing is an important writing concept to keep in mind and practice. Pacing creates the right tone for your story, keeps readers engaged, and helps you maintain interest in the story that you’re working on. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Rough Draft

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As you are reading this post, National Novel Writing Month has already begun. I’ll be participating this year, which means that this post was written in advance and I am likely, at this very moment, typing as though my life depends on it. Today I want to talk about the rough draft.

Whenever you begin a new writing project, the rough draft is what lies ahead. This is likely the draft that will be messy, full of mistakes, and mildly incomprehensible to anyone besides yourself. It’s the draft where you’ll work the kinks out of your plot and figure out who your characters really are. You will probably never want to show this rough draft to anyone. Don’t worry, I’m not here to tell you that you have to. I only want to tell you that you need to let the rough draft happen, and you need to let it be rough.

Some of us are perfectionists. If you’re reading this post and you just nodded, you know who you are. You want everything that comes from your fingertips or from your pen to be perfect right from the get-go. You’d rather avoid the rough draft than plow through it. However, the fact is that the rough draft is unavoidable. The only way to get past it is to travel through it. If you want to get to that other side, on which lies your shiny, better draft, you have to write horribly first.

To get through that rough draft, you have to leave someone behind: the inner editor. This is especially important for National Novel Writing Month, which forces you to write practically non-stop for 30 full days. If we NaNo participants were to stop at any moment to acknowledge and humor our inner editors, progress would be lost and so would that end goal of a 50,000-word rough draft. You can’t worry about the end product, you can only worry about the next word.

Although not everyone is in that crazy rat race of NaNo, I think this is valuable advice for all writers. Stop thinking about the book deal, stop thinking about the shiny finished draft, just concentrate on the rough words you’re putting down right now.

If this wasn’t enough to make you respect your rough draft, I suggest that you read an essay by Anne Lamott entitled Shitty First Drafts. I read it when I was in high school and have been thinking about it ever since. Lamott offers some wise words to live by, so I highly recommend the essay. As always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

 

Writing Advice: Outlining

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Hey, blog readers! Today is the final Monday in October, which means that November is right around the corner. If you’ve been around the blog for a while, you’ll know that every November I participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This is a mad-dash writing marathon, the goal of which is to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. I know, it sounds crazy. That’s because it kind of is. But it’s also wonderful and can be enormous fun. Most importantly, it forces you to write.

For those of us who participate in NaNoWriMo each year, October is the month of outlines. I’ve written about outlines in the past, and I acknowledge that they may not be for everyone. Some of us would rather fly by the seat of our pants than have a sketched out plan in front of us. That’s totally fine! But those of you who enjoy the process of outlining, or just feel that you need a blueprint with which to work, here are some tips. All of these tips come from the wonderful Chuck Wendig, who blogs about writing over at “Terrible Minds.” I encourage you to check out his site, you will not be disappointed. In particular, check out his outline tips for NaNoWriMo writers.

To begin with, Chuck lists the benefits of outlines, which may or may not convince some non-outliners of their utility. He says, “One of the values of outlining is that it gives you a map forward — a fraying rope to reach for and cling to in the long darkness of the writing process. Another value is that it lets you muddle through the mistakes of your story early on — it’s a lot easier to fix a 2-3 page outline than it is to fix a 300 page novel, I promise.”

I love this! Diving into a first draft with no plan is probably an exhilarating thing to do, but if you realize halfway through that you’re headed in the wrong direction, you can’t easily turn back and redo what you’ve already done. Especially not during November, when your one goal is to strive forward. Outlining beforehand let’s you work out the kinks of your plot and understand where it needs to change before one word is even set down on the page.

The rest of Chuck’s post is a priceless guide to every type of outline you might possibly choose to create. Seriously, you should check out this post. If you want to outline just to have some direction in your story, but don’t have a clue as to where to begin, Chuck’s post is a great place to start. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Beat Sheet, which Chuck describes as “literally outlining every plot point.” What can I say? I like to be prepared! No matter what type of writer you are, there’s bound to be an outline here for you.

So, if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, I wish you luck during this last week of available planning time and I hope that you have a strong start to November. If you’re not one of us mad writers, I hope this post about outlining contains something that can help you with your current project. As always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Let the Plot Be

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Each writer has their own technique. Some of us are planners and some of us like to fly by the seat of our pants. If you’re a planner, then you probably spend a fair amount of time outlining or describing what your plot is going to be. That can be a very helpful and worthwhile process, but it’s important to remember that those outlines aren’t set in stone.

In a post that detailed random storytelling thoughts and tips, Chuck Wendig reminded us to sometimes let the plot go. He says, “If you want to know why your characters keep getting in the way of your plot, that’s because it’s the characters’ job to get in the way of your plot. The solution to this is discard the plot and let the characters be the characters. We don’t read books for plots. We think we do. But we’re also dumb. Characters are everything in a story.”

You know how strongly I feel about the importance of characters. So, it’s no surprise that I agree with this advice. If you stick rigidly to a plot that you set out at the very beginning of your story, you run the risk of missing opportunities to discover things about your characters or let your story move in a new direction.

Now, that’s not to say that you should necessarily write a rambling character study in which nothing happens. Unless, of course, that’s what you want to write. And this doesn’t mean that plotting or planning is useless. Do your plotting, but know that your characters may lead you to a new plot you hadn’t planned on.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Cast of Characters

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In the world of the internet, there is a concept known as “fancasting.” In a nutshell, this means that you take a favorite book and cast actors in the roles of the main characters. This often leads to people photoshopping pictures of the actors so that they look more like the characters in the book. It’s a fun exercise for fans of books, but it could also be a great exercise for writers.

Sarah Perlmutter wrote about fancasting your own characters and I think it could be a great way for writers to get more interested in their own stories. In her post, Sarah says that fancasting your own stories can help inspire you because you have a walking, talking person to imagine when you’re writing a specific character. You can even draw on an actor’s physical and vocal tics to use in your character’s makeup.

If you’re someone who gets passionate about fanfiction or fancasting books that you love to read, I would suggest trying out this method for your own work. Imagining who might play the characters you’re creating in a movie adaptation can motivate you to write, and it can also just be fun!

If you really want to get creative (and more organized), I would recommend the CharaHub website. It’s generally used for mapping out characters in a roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons, but writers can also use it to organize characters in their stories. I used this website for one of my past projects and was really happy with it. You can insert pictures for each character and create a full fact sheet for each one.

I hope this helps you out! Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Write to Write

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Let’s face it — we all have issues with motivation. It’s an unavoidable fact that your creative pursuits are going to hit a brick wall at some point. You can’t write 1,500 words every day. At least, not typically. But that doesn’t mean those days aren’t annoying. When you’re sitting in front of a computer and the words just aren’t coming, you might be ready to put your fist through the screen. The truth, though, is that what you should be doing is writing.

This seems like the simplest, most stupid advice that anyone could give, but writing helps you write more. Putting words down will help you create a routine and be motivated to write again the next day. A recent post from Chuck Wendig, that guru of writing advice, discussed this simple tenant. In his post, Chuck says, “That sounds strange, and here you are thinking that you need motivation just to start writing in the first place. But let me tell you — you don’t. Sit down. Put your hands around the throat of the story and just start squeezing. Write anyway.”

He makes a good point here. Most of us think that to write you must first seek out inspiration and motivation. You might think that you need to read and absorb a dozen quotes from famous writers before you even begin. But that kind of practice just derails you from what you should be doing — writing. Sure, maybe one or two motivational quotes might get your engine revved. But don’t let that distract you from making actual progress.

So, instead of wasting time on posts like this one, why not just sit down and force yourself to write? Then you’ll have something to show for the day and you’ll be more likely to continue writing the next day. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Self-Inspiration

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Inspiration is a flighty temptress. Sometimes she dips down into your brain and gives you some great ideas, and other times she spends months far away. Sometimes you have to chase after inspiration, searching for posts like this one that will seemingly give you the silver bullet you need to get your writing groove back. You might read a “help me start writing again” book to get your brain started. I’ve done those things in the past, trying to find inspiration so that I can sit down and begin at last. But I think there’s a more obvious answer staring us all in the face. Why not try getting inspiration from yourself?

Think about it, you’ve written before! You may be stuck right now and see no way out, but you’ve gotten out in the past. I’m sure you have Google Drive folders or computer files full of very real evidence that proves you know how to write. Somewhere, there is proof that you can do this. With this in mind, I’d like to propose two new methods of inspiration.

(1) Take inspiration from your past achievements. This one is really, really simple. If you’re feeling particularly stuck, try sifting through your past work. Look at projects that you’ve finished and admire just how lengthy and word-filled those documents are. Reading other people’s work is a great way to get inspired, but reading your own work should be as well. In addition to reminding you that you can, in fact, write, this might just spark a new idea. Even if it’s just a short story or vignette about a character in one of your past projects, that’s enough to get you writing. And once you’ve begun, it’s easier to continue.

(2) Mine your abandoned projects for new ideas. There’s no shame in digging up old ideas, dusting them off, and giving them a second chance. I’ve been trying to think up ideas for National Novel Writing Month in November and this took me back to an idea I started last summer. All I wrote for that idea was a smattering of short stories, but I really liked the characters. Now I think I’m going to use them again, just in a different story. If it’s something you created, it’s fair game!

I hope these ideas help you out as you continue your quest for inspiration. And if you’re already feeling properly inspired, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Talk it Out

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People often say, when you’re experiencing problems in your life, you should talk them through with someone else. Having the perspective of a third party often gives you a new outlook on what you’re facing. That third party can also give you advice for possibly solving those problems. When we bounce ideas around inside the echo chambers of our own minds, we may not find a solution so easily. Talking to other people can bring a problem out into the open and make it seem more conquerable. If this works for everyday problems, why shouldn’t it work for writing as well?

In her post about being in a writing slump, Sarah Perlmutter discusses this very topic. She says, “Talk about why you’re in a slump with someone. There may be more to it…talking to people you trust really helps. It may take you a few conversations, but eventually you’ll get there. Realizing what your roadblocks are helps you drive past them and get back to where you really want to be.”

Just as you might work out relationship problems by talking about them with a friend, you might work past a writing slump by discussing it with someone. Although it might help to discuss a slump with a fellow writer, it’s not completely necessary. In fact, talking to someone who reads books rather than writes them might give you an interesting perspective. If you have a difficult scene to write, a reader might be able to provide you with suggestions that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise.

In addition to providing suggestions, sometimes people are just a good sounding board. If you find someone who’s a good listener, you could even solve your problems just by giving voice to them. As you tell a friend about your inability to write, you might realize that what’s really holding you back is stress in another part of your life or the fact that you haven’t read any good books lately. Just by talking about your writing slump, you might discover its root and be able to get past it.

If you’re going through a writing slump right now, try discussing it with a friend. And if you aren’t in a slump, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Taking Breaks

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So, I haven’t written a single word in the month of August. And no, blog posts do not count.

In fact, writing has been very spotty for me in 2015. In the beginning half of the year, I managed to finish my 2014 NaNoWriMo novel, even if I did start to hate it near the end. Since then I’ve worked on small projects, all leading up to the latest novel idea I’ve come up with. I like this idea and I do feel good about it, but that hasn’t been enough to get my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. Somehow, other things have continued to take precedence all month. These are mostly silly things that take the form of entertainment rather than responsibilities, but I’ve been more interested in them than I have been in writing.

This writer’s block has gotten so bad in the past month that I’ve found it difficult to sit down each week and write these advice posts. After all, if I’m not actually writing, then what kind of advice can I possibly impart to you?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the only advice I can offer you at the moment is to sometimes take a break from writing. Read things, watch things, go on vacation, have weekend outings, play games on your smartphone. That’s what I’ve been doing! And yes, I do feel immensely guilty, but I’ve been fighting against that feeling and I suggest that you do as well. Sometimes we deserve a break, even it’s from the thing we claim to love the most. When you’ve finished all these frivolous or not-so-frivolous activities, your writing will be here waiting for you. Writing is good at waiting.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan