Writing “rules” you wish you’d never heard


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I am enjoying these monthly IWSG questions. They make me think about my writing life on a macro level and it’s fun to see how other people answer the questions. The question for January is:  What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

Very early on in my writing career, I was a member of a critique group where I met some exceptionally toxic people. I didn’t realize that my manuscript wasn’t ready to share and it was a poor choice to stay in the group, but we all make mistakes and I thought these people knew what they were talking about. I was dead wrong. Anyway, the leader of the group spouted writing rules like the were pearls of wisdom.


The most damaging rule I heard from this group was: get rid of all the backstory and only write about what is happening in the time period of the novel. This sounds like good advice and I agree that too much backstory kills the immediacy of the novel, but it is too draconian. Absolutes can be paralyzing. My novels are not only about what the characters do; they are about why the characters do what they do. I am all about the psychology behind their actions. It’s hard to write about motivation without including some backstory to show how the character got to where they are in novel’s timeline. It took me a few years of banging my head against my desk (figuratively, I am not a fan of concussions) to realize the guy in that group was talking out of his hat and ignore that absolute.

Backstory is an important part of any novel. The reader needs to know why the characters are doing what they are doing and reacting the way they are reacting. I’m not saying that you should include everything you know about your characters. That is a rooky mistake and can easily be remedied with the generous use of the delete button. A little context can go a long way though to deepen a story and connect the reader to your characters.   Continue reading