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EDITING--Manuscripts, Short Stories, Ad Copy and More!

Back Story Discussion
A Pertinent Question
Update in July 2008
What I WILL and WILL NOT edit--Pls Read!
Editing Recommendation
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I belong to an MSN Writing Group (Children's Book Writers' Cafe) and posted some advice about Backstory. Here is the dialogue that resulted.

This was my original post~I am now very active as an editor for My Editor is a Saint, and have edited 5 novels. I will tell you honestly that 4 of the 5 have started with back story (I was born a poor, white boy...and goes on for 5-10 PAGES of info, very tedious and sometimes boring info). I will say that if I can give any advice, it is that you start your stories with a bang. Starting your stories with life, description of setting, dialogue and a real bang of a plot, you'll be way ahead of many of the writers out there trying to make it.

Each person who replied is in a different color.  Here are the replies~

What age is it written for? Young children can't handle flashbacks, which is what much of backstory is told in.

Is it historical or fantasy? I find they both require more exposition, and often that includes backstory.

I haven't done a ton of writing, but I do find that when I'm writing fiction, I need to write out the backstory. It's kind of like thinking out loud. Then, I keep going, roughly outlining the plot line. After that's done, I go back to the story and figure out where the story the readers will read actually begins. I cut the backstory out there and paste it into another page - my resource page. That's where I keep my character sketches, setting, and anything I cut. It could come in handy later.

This is a tough area, because is seems a lot of beginning writers easily get bogged down in the backstory and so it takes the story awhile to get off the ground, and people, especially children, are not going to wade through the backstory to get to the real story. I've heard it said so often to start the story where things change for protagonist, but I have to disagree. Now that I've been working with editors, I realize that you need to show the protagonists ordinary so that as the story unfolds you can see how he or she changes due to the challenges he or she faces.

It's a delicate balance. Backstory to start off a story is never good, but showing the ordinary world in an interesting way (that hooks the reader) is the way to go. Think of your favorite movie. Most movies begin with the characters in their regular setting. For example, if you were to start The Wizard of Oz where things change for Dorothy, that would put her in the twister straight away. The story means so much more since we see Dorothy in her farm setting with her aunt and uncle, the farm workers, Mrs. Gulch, and the professer guy. This shows her in her ordinary world, but it's exciting because of the trouble Toto gets into with Mrs. Gulch and Dorothy running away. While some backstory is slipped in (we learn some about Dorothy's past), the story shows us how things have been going for Dorothy before her whole world changes.

And more replies~

I also agree with the writers on this topic who talk about how boring pages of backstory can be, and often how backstory is the writer's way of thinking out loud, which all needs to be cut from the actual story. This second tip, I tell my students all the time, it's okay to think out loud on paper, but you need to figure out where the point of impact is and cut the beginning "telling" that bogs down getting into the story. Remember, most eds won't read past the first page before deciding whether to even bother reading further.

Think of backstory as description. You don't take physical descriptions and write out a laundry list first thing in the opening of a story:

Laura had raven black hair with red sun-streaks on the tips like a bad dye job. It clashed with her green eyes like Christmas lights in Febrary.

Instead, you work in the details within the text of the story.

Laura's raven black hair caught in the car window when her brother played with the electric button.

"Ouch! Down, Brian, roll the window down!" Laura screamed, her green eyes flashing like Christmas lights, and her face turning as red as the sun-streaked tips of her hair.

Okay, enough bad writing for one night (gag me with a spoon -- cough, cough), but you get the idea. Work in whatever background is necessary within the exposition, dialogue, and action, and don't tell backstory in huge blocks till the readers' dozing from lack of action and plot progression.


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