How Much Backstory is Enough?

I’ve been thinking about backstory lately, and just how hard it is to judge the right balance.

I think part of the problem is that it can come down to a personal choice. Depending on the preferences of the reader or critiquer giving the feedback you can get either no comment, a request for more information, or a desperate plea to cut! Cut! All for the same piece of work.

One of the crit groups I was in had no other writers working on fantasy. That was good when it came to clarity and brevity, but the sort of atmospheric description that often makes a fantasy manuscript was pretty much taken as unnecessary padding by this group. It’s hard to stand in the face of such united feedback, even if it is dead wrong for your manuscript. I learned a lot from that group about putting in only what was necessary and cutting sections that described the same thing from different perspectives. But, based on that experience, I really started to think about the point of view of the person giving the feedback and making some real judgements about whether the suggested changes would take me in the direction I wanted to go.

The rule of thumb is to cut backstory to an absolute minimum in the beginning of the story. It’s a good maxim. I try hard to do this, but there are limits. Many of my worlds, particularly the fantasy ones, have lots of new concepts and terms that need to be explained from the beginning for the story to make sense. I’m caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. I’m still trying to puzzle that one out.

The other thing that makes me unsure about this is that many stories seem to launch straight into huge sections of backstory/reflection and work well and also find commercial success. In this case it is almost always supporting the establishment of character, rather than the world, but it’s still backstory.

I guess I fall into the same trap as any writer who has spent a long time building a world and getting excited by the concepts – I love to talk about it! And I tend to talk about it on the page. ‘Oh, I have to mention. . .’

But how much backstory is enough? How do you decide?

Who are you Writing for?

I’ve never really thought too much about audience while I was in the process of writing. I think about it plenty after I’ve finished the work – trying to decide what markets to send material to.

From a marketing point of view, I guess I usually go about the whole business upside down. If you were to design a product from a clinical standpoint you would look at the market first and see where the demand was, then go and build your widget to match that.

The only problem is I cannot create this way.

I usually get an idea for a story, or character,  or setting that starts the whole business of world creation, then the story gradually grows from that seed. I very much feel as though I am following a particular conception.

As I am writing I usually try to stay as true to that initial conception as I can. To bring to life what I have already see in my mind’s eye. Up until now I have never brought a potential reader or intended audience into this process.

But recently I went through an exercise of trying to summarise the themes I dealt with in each of my manuscripts to help me articulate what they were about in marketing pitches. A strange thing happened. I started to think about the sort of reader the work would appeal to. Now I find that if think about that person as I write it helps me to direct my energy.

Do you think about your ultimate readership when you are in the middle of creating your work? Do you deliberately target your stories for markets?

Thought and Environment

Just getting back to normal at the moment after five days without power.

For those that missed it in the news, Queensland has taken quite a battering over the last week or so with heavy storms and wild weather. We live in quite an elevated position, so thankfully we were not flooded like many other people in Queensland. The city of Bundaberg, just north of Brisbane, was particularly hard hit.

Our suburb was subject to some pretty severe weather – including some pretty extreme wind gusts. One thing I really like about the area is the large blocks and the pleasant greenery. Unfortunately the trees in combination with the wind gusts led to hundreds of fallen power lines. In the region there were more than two thousand fallen lines and 300,000 households without power. Some people in our suburb are still waiting after six days.

The lack of electricity and the muddy water entering the main Southside treatment plant led to problems with mains water, with low levels in local reservoirs, but thankfully we did not lose water supply, although one adjacent suburb did.

After that many days without electricity I realised how much I had come to rely on electronic devices for distraction and entertainment! Cooking was fine. I had a good amount of camping equipment and thankfully some good books.

Now, getting back into writing involved finding a local council library that still had power (and air conditioning! The humidity after the rains stopped was pretty awesome).

The interesting thing about working in the local council library was how good it was. I found I really managed to focus on the work, despite the babbling toddlers and other punters all flocking there to check their email and take advantage of the free wi-fi. I had forgotten how well I usually work in new environments, like hotel rooms and cafes. I can switch off from the noise, so that’s not an issue.

I think what makes these environments so good for me is that they are ‘psychic blank slates’. My usual home and writing environment seems to come ‘pre-loaded’ with a whole set of feelings and thoughts that more often than not act as a barrier to getting work done and tuning into the world.

I did a motivational seminar once were the presenter said something along the lines of: ‘Each day we have around 27,000 thoughts. The only problem is that 97% of them are the same ones we had yesterday!’

I’m not sure about the numbers, but I know that getting into a completely new environment really works for me, screening out some of these ‘pre-loaded’ thoughts. Something that I had forgotten.

Do you work well in new environments?

Mixing up Writing Sessions

Hi, everyone. I have been having fun with another writing-exercise analogy.

Getting back into the exercise after the usual excesses of the Christmas and New Year break, I found myself musing on the best ways to develop body strength. For years I would just attack workouts, pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. That’s great for stamina (and weight loss), but if you really want to increase your strength the key is actually taking your time. The secret to increasing strength is the strategic use of repetitions interspersed with breaks long enough to allow the muscles to recover. The best programs seem to mix things up. Some days there will be 8-9 sets of low reps, other days perhaps a lower number of sets where you push closer to ultimate exhaustion (and take longer breaks). Yet the key is always adequate recovery time between the sets.

Chewing through all of this while I was in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens getting blood to my brain and watching the Ibis’s walk around made me realise I never do this with my writing.

There seems to be a real cultural push toward a static work program. Write so many pages, so may thousands of words. Then get up tomorrow and do it all again, and again. Check back in ten years for result.

But this flies in the face of what I was considering. To use the same analogy, you really should give yourself adequate recovery time between the workouts. And if you really want to improve, you need to mix up the program.

I guess the mechanics of muscle development are a pretty much the same for everyone, whereas there are as many approaches to developing a finished story as there are writers, but still. . .

So how would it translate? Many shorter writing sessions across a day, broken up with deliberate intake of inspiring material? I’m going to contradict myself and say that would probably drive me nuts. It usually takes me 15-20min to break the ice, and I’d be doing it each time. Maybe varying the goal?

Or is writing more like meditation, where consistency of place and time is the key?

Anyone got any ideas?