I woke up this morning with Writer Instructor dialogue running through my thoughts. I notice this phenomenon ratcheting up as the yearly Muskoka Novel Marathon slowly approaches. This is the time when I truly begin to think about the writing process in general and the upcoming MNM novel in particular. I become this super coach who prepares a team of ONE for a marathon that does not involve any form of running, jogging or walking.
This morning I woke up thinking about all the stuff the writer has to do to learn about their characters, their plots, their settings, their universes. We have to write the stuff down that we don’t use in our story. I’m not talking about the stuff we’ll sneak in as the dreaded INFO DUMP. I’m not really talking about backstory, even, even though I am. I know that doesn’t make sense on the surface, but trust me…it makes sense.
Backstory, in general, is stuff you sprinkle into your story for the reader—stuff they discover about the characters’ pasts. Their motivations, their goals, etc, etc, etc. BUT—there’s another kind of backstory the WRITER should think about. Yes, there are motivational epiphanies we should share with our readers. That’s obvious. But there’s a whole life behind every character we create. Have you ever thought about writing out memories and experiences the characters have that have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY YOU’RE WRITING? I mean, HAVE YOU? Because you should.
This is not a new concept, even for me. But it is one I keep going back to. I wrote an article for a writing newsletter once upon a time about diary entries. It’s now on my blog and for some reason it’s one of my most popular posts. People come to it by these bizarre Google searches about writing and diaries and characters and the like. I linked the blog post above…and I might be repeating myself today.
The backstory you give your characters stays inside you and you remember it as you’re navigating your way through your story. You become an expert on what your characters would or wouldn’t do, how they would or wouldn’t react based on this backstory. And again—I’m not talking about the backstory you feed your readers. I’m talking about the backstory ONLY YOU KNOW. So, the more you explore the people you create, the more you know them…the more you intuitively know their path through the story you create. This is why I spend a lot of time this time of year in developing my people for my Muskoka Novel Marathon novel. We 40 writers get together for a long weekend in July and we all attempt to write a novel in 72 hours. I like to know who my characters are before I leap into that kind of an abyss.
Now, you can write their unseen-by-any-readers-ever backstory on paper or on your word processor, OR you can just chew away at it in your own little head. Either way works. The more stories you create about their past, the more it helps you to predict their future. And the future is the arc in which they travel through your novel. By setting up these pre-story lives as much as possible, you are doing a kind of homework that would otherwise be impossible. Even if you ‘practice’ with these characters for a hundred pages and then toss it away…those hundred pages are not wasted words. They are a foundation on which you can build the first sentence of your novel, and the second and the third.
For me, this works. Especially since I hit the ground running on a Friday evening and attempt to walk away on a Monday evening with a fully written first draft novel. I need every edge I can get.
Do yourself a favour and try this. Write situations, scenes, memories with your potential characters. Form a backstory for them that you will NEVER use in your finished work. Get to know them. They’ll pay you back in spades when you’re deep in the heart of your novel and trying to decide what your character will do next. If you know your character, you know how they’ll choose to move forward in your story…
HERE’S MY AUTHOR PAGE ON THE MUSKOKA NOVEL MARATHON WEBSITE. YOU CAN CLICK ON THE SUPPORT THIS WRITER BUTTON TO BE TAKEN TO MY DONATION PAGE…BECAUSE THE MUSKOKA NOVEL MARATHON IS NOT ONLY A 72 HOUR NOVEL WRITING MARATHON, BUT IT’S ALSO A FUNDRAISER FOR LITERACY PROGRAMS. WE’RE WRITERS HELPING READERS.