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.
Another lesson I took away from my experience with that group is to make sure your early readers understand the expectations of your genre. Some genres demand fast action and very little depth in the characters. Others require that the reader get inside the characters’ heads and do not require big action scenes to satisfy the reader. It is helpful to work with other people who “get” your books from the get-go and can give cogent advice.
If you want to read a great book about backstory, I recommend Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It will change the way you write.
Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writers Support Group. The purpose of the group is to share and encourage each other to express our doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds, so consider joining the group.
To mark Cervical Health Awareness Month, I am running a Goodreads giveaway for copies of How To Climb The Eiffel Tower. We all need to remember that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be the end of the story.