Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music!
ASK THE AUTHOR: Bill Giovanenetti via Facebook: What are some do’s and don’ts with backstory?
AARON: I’ve heard that backstory should be avoided at all costs. I think this is a newer, trendier “rule” bandied about by industry professionals. If my guess is right, it’s likely because they’ve seen it done poorly far too many times. Instead, I think that backstory must be handled in an appropriate way. Namely, you need far less backstory than you think you do. New writers like to give all the backstory for all their characters the minute they step on scene. Resist that urge. Instead, let some of the mystery smolder. As you get further into the story, you reveal some of the backstory (again, less than you think you need to). Readers are smart and well practiced. They’ll fill in the blanks.
POPS: Every story is different and every tale has a unique set of needs. Backstory is not bad, but (as Aaron has noted) often overdone and/or done poorly. Give the reader only what he or she needs to understand the character quirks, fears, motivations, etc. The other thing to bear in mind is that a character’s past should be unveiled over time, not poured down the throat of the reader. So, make sure the backstory is needed, share only that information that will further the story or define the character or play an important role later (ex. Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes). One last thing: Include as much backstory as you want in the first draft. It might help you understand your characters better. Then cut out everything you can without doing harm to the tale you’re telling.
HL: My rule of thumb is simple. If I were telling the story to a stranger over coffee or dinner, what would I feel necessary to share in terms of backstory? In conversation we tend to only to share past details as they are pertinent and necessary for our listener to enjoy the present story at hand. Treat the reader of your novel or story with the same respect as you would a listener.
MJ: Don’t ask me, I’m just a writer. Seriously, I’m completing my first novel. I’d say from listening to others, and from experience, as an author it’s important to know your character’s backstory, as an editor, writing it out isn’t required. Without repeating much of what Aaron and Al have said, I will reiterate, whatever moves the story along, is necessary to the plot line or explains the why’s of a character is good. Everything else is fluff and can probably go.
Firsts in Fiction
Managing Multiple Projects
This week, we talk about the why and the how of managing multiple projects. While this may seem like we’re talking about writing several books at the same time, it might also mean balancing your time between writing and reviewing, or editing and blogging, etc. So, to be as relevant as possible, we’ll explore these ideas with our answers to the following questions.
QUESTION: What are some advantages and disadvantages to working on multiple projects simultaneously?
AARON: For me, the disadvantage has always been the necessity to split my attention. I get distracted easily, and if I’m doing multiple things, I can’t give my complete attention to both. I like to really focus on things and do them one at a time. I feel much more productive that way.
However, some writers swear that working on multiple projects help both stay fresh and exciting. Some think working on one helps them overcome blocks on the other. I’ve not found this to be true, but then, I may not have enough practice with it to be a fair judge.
AL: Working multiple projects at one time can be detrimental to a writer. There are times when a writer gets in spot of difficulty and has to produce more work than expected. Ideally, you should have one project on the table with others lined up waiting. So, a few things:
Thing 1: Ask why you want to do more than one project at time. Is it because you’re stuck? Have you lost confidence in your project? Are you looking for something easier? There are many wannabe writers who are never published because they spend all their time on social media talking about becoming a writer, or can’t settle on one project. I am by nature a butterfly flitting from one idea to the next. It’s miserable and counterproductive. There are times when a writer must focus like a laser beam and not a spotlight. Commit, work, finish, move on.
Thing 2: Some writers, like Isaac Asimov, keep multiple projects going, but one of those is the primary job. Asimov would turn to another project if he got stuck.
Thing 3: Keep a list of ideas so you don’t forget them. You’ve heard us discuss Dean Koontz and how he was working on one book when the idea for the Odd Thomas books came to mind. What did he do? He made a few notes, put them in the drawer, and finished the book he was writing.
Thing 4: If you have a ton of ideas, maybe you’re better suited for shorter works like short stories, articles, etc. You job is to live up to your potential, not someone else’s.
MOLLY: Depending on the type of projects you’re working on (blogging for several sites, for example), you can build your platform and get your name out there faster. If you’re talking about working on two or more novels at the same time, I caution against this. Those are the big babies, and they’re usually not twins. You can’t give proper attention to both at the same time. Having one or two minor projects (a poetry submission or contributing blog posts) is an easier way of marking off more completed projects.
HL: I think the disadvantages have been discussed already, so I guess one advantage might be financial. Novels can take years to produce fruit, so many writers I know work on other projects in order to keep some money coming in the door. But this might be more in terms of doing freelance writing and editing while working on a personal project vs. just juggling multiple personal projects. If you are juggling personal projects, a pro might be what Molly said – publishing some stories or articles and keeping your name out there while you work on a longer project. I like to do this because I am a painfully slow writer on the novel front and I want to show a consistent publication record. This is also something my agent recommended to me. I know I can usually juggle multiple projects at the same time if they are different. Novel, poem, article vs. several short stories at once. They need to be different enough that I can compartmentalize my brain and time.
QUESTION: Do you work on multiple projects simultaneously?
AARON: I try not to, but the need often arises. Typically, for me, this is an editing project or an endorsement that needs to be done while I’m working on a novel. I really try to avoid working on multiple writing projects at the same time because it’s hard for me to get into the groove. Hard to live in two places at once. Writers know, they live in their novel world as well as the real world, which is challenging enough as it is. Thinking about living in two novel worlds and the real world is intimidating to me.
AL: I once produced something like six books in one year. That wasn’t planned, but I took on projects for others to supplement my income. I think I wrote one book in six weeks. Not as much fun as you might think. If, like Aaron, you’re not a full time writer, then forging time to work one project and keep up with everything else is demanding enough. There are writers who so love the process of writing, they can work twelve hours a day at the keyboard and feel good about it.
Those times when I’ve had to juggle projects I felt as if I was robbing one project to pay off another.
It is better to do less work that is superior than more projects that are inferior.
MOLLY: For me, being a writer, editor, blogger and social media person are all branches on the same tree. I try to keep a common thread going through them, which helps maintain the large focus, while still allowing bits of differing creativity to happen. I like being able to close out a day and have several finished projects, or steps to the main project, completed. A blog post, a meme, a few hundred (or thousand) words written, a chapter edited. It makes me feel productive and creative that way. Having said that, I don’t do this every day. There are days where I will commit to just one project for hours and crank out a good workload.
HL: I do. Right now I’m editing a novel for a client, writing my 2nd novel, writing a 2nd draft of a new short story, and I’m also coaching a nonfiction writer through her first book.
QUESTION: When working on multiple projects, how do you prioritize which should get the majority of your attention?
AARON: For me, it’s the deadline (or the money). If I’ve got a paid project, that goes to the front of my list. If I’ve got a deadline approaching, that project gets my attention. If I’m not on deadline for either project, and neither has a contract (or both have equal contracts), I’ll prioritize the one I’m most excited about. Then, as I near the end of that project, I try to get myself excited about the next project. Still, I don’t bounce between projects. That’s harder for me to do.
AL: Fulltime writers have an easier time with this. They can (and I have) say, “I’ll work on this novel in the morning when my creativity is higher, and I’ll work on project 2 in the afternoon. Then I set page goals from each. Sometimes, I use one project as motivation to finish the other. If I get my page count in, then I will allow myself some time to work on project number two.
If you’re not a fulltime writer, then avoid multiple projects.
MOLLY: What Aaron said: Priorities for me are deadline vs income. Then it’s the little things. Get one or two out of the way and focus the rest of the evening on the big project. I always try commit at least twice as much time in total to my novel. So if I’ve spent half an hour writing poetry or editing, NOLA should get an hour.
HL: I have nothing of value to add here – what they said! I try to write down exactly what I accomplish each day (10 pages of editing or 1500 words on new novel) just to keep myself motivated. When I’m doing several things at once, it is easy to feel like you are never gaining ground because the daily steps per project seem small. But completing next steps, a day at a time, eventually equals progress, right?
QUESTION: In terms of scheduling, how should you allocate time to each project?
AARON: I think there are several ways to handle this. My strategy has always been to finish one before I start the other. If I’ve got deadlines for both, I move one up to motivate myself to finish quickly so I can make my second (later) deadline. However, I’m sure some people bounce back and forth between projects. Some wait until they get blocked on one project to switch, others rotate day by day, or week by week, or do Monday through Wednesday on one project and Thursday through Saturday on the other. Really, this is going to depend on how you work the best. Like everything else in writing, you’ll want to find what works best for you.
AL: This is a function of your personal schedule. When I was working and had office hours, I was limited in how much writing I could do. So I stuck with one project. Multiple projects can drain your creativity, so plan some time for rest; time to revive. If you don’t, you’ll finish your multiple projects but no one will care.
MOLLY: I don’t think there’s a solidly right or wrong way to do this. There’s definite pro’s in what Aaron and Al suggest, and to be honest, they’ve been at this for much longer than I have. I defer to them and their wisdom on this.
HL: This is of course a very personal question. There is no “right answer” per se. I would recommend writing down what you need to get accomplished and by when. Then budget your time and create a daily/weekly schedule for yourself. The KEY here is to make sure you GENEROUSLY estimate the time each project/daily goal will take. Take a hard look at the other life obligations you have and what “real” time you have to work. Then physically write out a schedule for yourself. On paper. Pin it up where you can see it while you work. Especially early on when you are trying to establish the right habits for managing your time.