Advanced Fiction Writing Blog

Backstory From the Remote Past

In your novel, how do you include backstory from the remote past? Is that even legit? If so, how do you do it? And is that called a flashback or something else?

Eric posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, I’m trying to learn how to word flashbacks for a fiction, mystery and adventure novel I am writing. There is a woman that inherits a castle/estate in England which has a long history dating back to the 14th century. The story takes place in 2016. In chapter two she starts to explore the estate and one of the places she goes into is one of the remaining towers of the castle remains. I wrote a great chapter more than a year ago which describes a fictitious battle that takes place in a real place of a real battle between England and France.

I have been advised by writers not to use it as my first chapter but use it to show the reader flashbacks to indicate backstory and in the end of the book have the main character find an ancient document describing the battle.

So my question is: how to word it? How do I word transitioning the reader temporarily to talk about the 14th century of this place then bring them back to the present?

Can you provide an example? Once I get the hang of it I can proceed. Hard to find how to word these things online.

Randy sez: The immediate question is a “how-to” question, which I can answer pretty quickly. You want to show a scene from the remote past (before any of the characters in your main story were alive). You can easily do this using a “dateline”. This tells the year and possibly the calendar date of the story, and also might include the location. Typically, you put a dateline at the very beginning of a scene, usually centered or right-justified.

Here are some example datelines:

  • Oxford, September 16, 1325
  • June 21, 2035, 13:05 Mars Local Time
  • Friday, April 3, AD 33
  • Captain’s Log, Star Date 31.41.59
  • 18 years earlier

A dateline is simple and clear and quickly puts the reader exactly where and when you want. Some novels have a dateline for every single scene. Most novels don’t use any datelines at all. You get to decide which scenes, if any, need a dateline, and how you’ll format them. There aren’t a lot of rules here. I recommend you keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler.

It’s not uncommon for novels to begin with a prologue set much earlier than the main story. In this case, the chapter is explicitly labeled “Prologue” and the author may include a dateline.

Eric, if you really want your battle scene at the beginning of your book, a Prologue would be a simple and effective way to do it. Then Chapter 1 could use a dateline (which might be as simple as “Present day”), or you might choose to not use a dateline because the way your characters act and talk makes it clear that they’re in the present day. You really have a lot of latitude here.

There are a couple of other issues to discuss here.

About Flashbacks

First is the meaning of the word “flashback.” I don’t know if this has an official definition, but I’ve always understood this word to mean a scene or partial scene written in the point of view of one of your main characters but set in an earlier time.

Usually, the way you handle a flashback is that your character is in the middle of a scene in the main story. Then something triggers a memory from some earlier period. You show this trigger, then write a transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph that indicates that the character is about to experience a memory from the past. Then you show the flashback using all the immediate-scene techniques that you normally would—the flashback happens in real-time, and the reader lives it through the eyes, ears, mind, etc. of the point-of-view character. At the end of the flashback, you write another transitional phrase or sentence or paragraph to show that the point-of-view character is coming back to the main story. Then you just continue on.

The Harry Potter series used a number of flashbacks with a slight modification of this technique. Professor Dumbledore had a “Pensieve” in his office that allowed Harry to experience a flashback using the memories of some other character.

Flashbacks are a valuable method of giving the reader essential backstory by “showing” rather than “telling.” It’s possible to misuse flashbacks or overuse them, but they’re a powerful technique that should be in every writer’s arsenal.

So for your example, I wouldn’t use the term “flashback” because it’s not experienced by any of your point-of-view characters in your main story. It’s just a scene written in an earlier time period.

Showing Versus Narrative Summary

The second issue is the advice you’re getting from other writers. I don’t have enough information to know if I agree with their advice. You’re proposing to show an exciting battle in real-time. They’re proposing that you tell this in narrative summary in an ancient document at the end of the book.

I don’t see the reason for this advice. It might be based on good reasons that I don’t know. I don’t have much information about your story. But let me spell out the issues for making a decision.

Narrative summary is boring. It has its place in your toolkit, because narrative summary is efficient. But it’s boring.

Showing a scene in real-time is exciting. It’s not an efficient way to give the reader information, but it’s still exciting.

So your decision of whether to show this battle as a scene or to tell it as narrative summary in a document comes down to questions like these:

  • How essential is that information to your readers?
  • How important is that ancient battle within the story?
  • In giving that information, is it more important to be efficient or to be entertaining?

I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know your story. But you do, so the decision is on you.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

How To Choose Your Author Name

How do you choose your official author name? What if somebody else is already writing under your name? And then how does that affect your Twitter handle and your Web site domain name?

Tim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I in the middle of the first draft my novel that I plan to get out through indie publishing in the next year. I am trying to build up my social media users through my blog and twitter with the user name timrgreenebooks for both. Making it easy to find me. Here’s the problem, there is already a published author using Tim Greene. His website is timgreenebooks.com.

From what I have gather, from his site he writes for younger readers while my target audience is YA. I prefer to use Timothy R. Greene as my writing name, but couldn’t use timothyrgreenebooks as twitter name since it is too long, which is why I shortened to timrgreene. What should I do? Should I think about using a pen name, or maybe go by T.R. Greene. I prefer not to go by T.R. as I think too many authors lately have been doing this to copy J.K. Rowling. Though I know she isn’t the first to do that. I want to settle this now, so everything matches up and establish my brand. What are your thoughts?

Randy sez: A quick comment first on privacy. Normally, I prefer to only use the first names of people who ask questions for this blog, so as to respect their privacy. In this case, that isn’t possible, because Tim’s question fundamentally involves his last name. But Tim is clearly OK with that. In order to post his question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page, he checked a box giving permission for me to quote him here on this blog.

Now, on to Tim’s question.

This is a general problem for authors. I’ve faced it and many of my author friends have faced it. I suspect there isn’t any one best answer. But I think it helps to at least make a list of all the available options, along with potential pluses and minuses for each option.

There are actually several decisions to make. They’re related, but they’re also distinct.

Question 1: What author name should you use for your published books?

Question 2: What handle should you use for social media?

Question 3: What domain name should you use for your Web site?

Tim lists a few options for his answer to question #1 as follows:

  1. Timothy R. Greene
  2. T.R. Greene (which he doesn’t care for)
  3. A pen name (unspecified)

And Tim’s listed options for question #2 are:

  1. TimothyRGreeneBooks (which he says is too long)
  2. TimRGreeneBooks

And for question #3, Tim lists only one option:

  1. TimRGreeneBooks.com (but he fears this conflicts with TimGreeneBooks.com)

Let me make a few comments, first:

  • Authors who have common first AND last names are very likely to have a name collision with other authors. This happens quite often, and readers will not be surprised if they have to do a little searching to find the right Twitter handle or domain name for such an author. (You might imagine that someone like me with a very uncommon last name would be safe. However, a friend pointed me years ago to the NSFW Web site of a woman named Randi Ingerman, which is remarkably close to my name. Randi has worked as an actor, model, director, and writer. I don’t think anyone will confuse me with her.)
  • It’s usually not a huge problem to be writing under the exact same name as another author. There are a few exceptions. If your real name is “Stephen King,” it seems wise to choose a different author name. If you’re writing in the exact same category as the other author, it’s a good idea to use a different name than they do. And if the other author writes in a category that might offend your readers, you’re ill-advised to use the same name as they do.
  • It’s perfectly OK to use a slightly different version for your author name, your Twitter handle, your Facebook name, and your Web site domain name. Everybody knows that it’s almost impossible to make all these names line up exactly. If somebody knows your author name and wants to find you on Twitter, on Facebook, or on the Web, they can do it with a minimal amount of searching.
  • There are many reasons for using initials. C.S. Lewis probably used his initials because “Clive Staples” isn’t all that exciting or memorable. I’ve known female suspense writers who used their initials because they were concerned that readers might think suspense is a man’s category. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some male romance writers have used their initials for a similar reason. I’ve switched to using my initials for my time-travel City of God series, so as to create a little branding separation between those books and my futuristic science-based novels.
  • It’s a good idea to always think about the “radio test”: If you’re doing a radio interview and you’re asked for your Web site address, how easy is it for a listener to get it correctly without you having to spell it out? By this test, “RSIngermanson.com” is a bad domain, because that middle initial “S” is too easy to confuse with “F”. This is one reason I changed my domain for my personal Web site years ago to “Ingermanson.com”. It’s still not ideal, but it’s better than it was. In Tim’s case, “Greene” is a problem, because anyone who hears it on the radio will think “Green.” This suggests that Tim might consider using “Green” as his author name to make it more radio-friendly (and it might possibly solve his name-collision problem). I know at least one author who tweaked the spelling of her name to make it easier on her readers.

With those points in mind, let me suggest a fuller set of options for Tim. I don’t have enough information to know which of these is best. That’s going to be Tim’s call. And there are probably other options I haven’t thought of. But these spring easily to my mind:

Author name options:

  1. Timothy R. Greene
  2. Timothy Greene
  3. Tim R. Greene
  4. Tim Green
  5. T.R. Greene
  6. Timothy R. Green
  7. Timothy Green
  8. Tim R. Green
  9. Tim Green
  10. T.R. Green

Twitter handle options:

  1. TimothyRGreene
  2. TimothyGreene
  3. TimRGreene
  4. TimGreene
  5. TRGreene
  6. TimothyRGreen
  7. TimothyGreen
  8. TimRGreen
  9. TimGreen
  10. TRGreen
  11. Any of the above with “Books” or “Author” appended.

Web site domain options:

  1. TimothyRGreene.com
  2. TimothyGreene.com
  3. TimRGreene.com
  4. TimGreene.com
  5. TRGreene.com
  6. TimothyRGreen.com
  7. TimothyGreen.com
  8. TimRGreen.com
  9. TimGreen.com
  10. TRGreen.com
  11. Any of the above with “Books” or “Author” appended, except “TimGreeneBooks.com, which is taken already.

In my opinion, any of the above choices would be acceptable to readers, with the proviso that Tim should stick with one spelling for the last name—either “Greene” or “Green”.

But I think it would be fine to use different variants of the first name. So Tim might use “Timothy” as his author name but shorten it to “Tim” in his Twitter handle and/or his Web site domain. Readers are smart enough to figure out these kind of minor variations. If somebody really wants to find you, they will.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Should You Go Indie?

Should you go indie, or is the traditional route to publishing the right way for you? How do you make that decision? How do you know for sure it’s right?

Amber posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been the BIGGEST advocate for traditional publishing, mainly because I thought indie publishing was for writers who either have huge followings/audience or who know in their guts that their work is not high-quality enough to be traditionally published. But I think I’m changing my mind…and considering independently publishing my debut novel. My main hesitation is that I don’t have a huge following (email subscribers/social media/real-life contacts). I have been doing my best to grow my social media followers and have recently written a story that I am serially posting on Wattpad. (I want to accumulate as many email subscribers/Wattpad fans as possible regardless of if I go indie or traditional).

My change of heart has come after querying over 300 agents for three different manuscripts over the course of the last 2-3 years and barely getting anything more than form rejections…the kind where I can tell the agent didn’t fully read my query or get to the sample pages or synopsis. From the query letter to the synopsis to the genre…I just feel like I’ve done months and months of revising, off and on, an still nothing gets me responses from agents. I’ve worked with beta readers, critique partners and hired multiple editors and a couple industry insiders, including a former agent. I get the same response: my book is very well-written, the premise is very interesting, I should just publish it myself since I’m not getting anything from the agents I query. I’ve been extremely stubborn and resistant because I do believe that I could have major success as an author and I don’t want to cheat myself out of anything. But I’m finding that having an agent represent me just might be out of the cards for my particular book/writing style. (By the way, I write thriller/suspense and contemporary romance.) I’ve also been realizing that since nowadays publishers really rely on authors to promote themselves/their books, I might as well publish my book myself and take a higher percentage of the profits since either way I will be doing the promotion myself. Besides distribution (because of my lack of audience) I’ve starting to become convinced that indie publishing is for me. Actually, I think I’ve always sort of known indie publishing would fit my books, but not ME. That’s the main battle I have daily.

A lot of people I come across have the mindset of “just put it out there.” I’m the most impatient person I’ve ever met, but just putting it out there is not my style. I want my book out last year, but if I’m going to do it then I’m going to do it right. So I guess my question to you is how do I know if going the indie route is the right decision?

Randy sez: These are great questions, Amber. I think many of my blog readers will be asking the same questions. Just to make sure everyone’s up to speed on basic definitions, here’s a blog post I wrote awhile back on what we mean by the terms “indie authoring” and “traditional publishing.” (I hope there are no people left on the planet who confuse either of these with “vanity publishing.”)

Making Traditional Publishing Work

I was raised on traditional publishing. I started writing my first novel in the spring of 1988, and finally got a novel published in the spring of 2000. During all that time, traditional publishing was the only game in town, for all practical purposes. Even back then, some entrepreneurial writers were self-publishing their work, but I never considered self-publishing because it just seemed like too much work.

And so I did what you’ve been doing, Amber, which was to write hard, go to critique groups, query agents, and generally work the system, hoping for a break. I also went to writing conferences, and that’s where my break finally came. Amber, you don’t say if you’ve been pitching your work to editors or agents at writing conferences. If you’re trying to make it in traditional publishing, conferences are the way to go.

Yes, conferences are expensive. No, you probably won’t break in right away. Definitely conferences can sometimes be incredibly discouraging, if you go in with the wrong mindset. But conferences are also the place things happen. Most of the published novelists I know got their first break at a conference—usually not their first. And of my twenty closest friends, probably eighteen are novelists, and I met every one of them at a conference.

That’s why I’ve taught at many conferences over the years. Because they connect writers with publishers better than anything else.

Conferences are not cheap. Between the conference fees, travel expenses, food, and housing, you’re looking at a thousand dollars or more for a large multi-day conference. But if you want to go the traditional publishing route, then going to good writing conferences will dramatically boost your odds of getting published.

That’s the path I chose and it worked for me.

Why Some Authors Go Indie

But ultimately I found that traditional publishing really wasn’t working for me. There are some good reasons for that. I write about themes that are mostly of interest to Christian readers. But the traditional publishing Christian industry doesn’t really do well with the kind of books I write. It took me a few years to see clearly that this was a problem.

The solution was to quit writing for that industry and go indie. And that’s been working out very well for me. My first traditionally published novel, Transgression, only sold about 6,000 copies in its trad-pubbed edition. I re-released it in May of 2014 as an indie e-book and made it permanently free on all the major retailers. As of this morning, I’ve now given away 157,632 copies. Books 2 and 3 in that “City of God” series are selling well and earning much better than they did in their first editions as trad-pubbed novels.

So the indie way has been good to me.

Amber, you’re correct when you say that most traditional publishers will expect you to do most of the marketing for your books. And you’re also correct that trad-pubbed authors earn only a fraction of the net revenue for each book sold. Indie authors earn it all. That’s a huge advantage in favor of the indie, and it’s the reason so many indies are earning tens of thousands of dollars per year. At a retail price of $2.99, the indie gets right around $2 per copy, which means that an indie only needs to move about 5,000 copies in a year to earn $10k. And that’s very doable. It’s much harder to earn $100k per year, and it’s very difficult to earn $1 million per year.

Should You Go Indie?

The core question you’ve asked is how to decide whether to go indie. That depends on you and what you want in life. Here are the main diagnostic questions to ask yourself:

  1. How much do you want the validation of being traditionally published? Some writers don’t feel like they’re “real authors” until they’ve been trad-pubbed, and this includes some successful indie friends of mine.
  2. How entrepreneurial are you? As an indie, you and you alone are responsible for making the book happen. The indie way requires you to do four things that your trad-pubbed cousin doesn’t have to do:
    • Hire a freelance high-level editor to do a “macro edit” of your book. (No author can do this for herself, because you don’t know what you don’t know.)
    • Hire a graphic designer to create a professional cover for your book. (Very few authors have the graphic design skills PLUS the marketing savvy to create a good cover.)
    • Hire any copyediting, line-editing, and proofreading services you might need for your book. (Many authors can do some or all of these tasks for themselves. You know if this applies to you.)
    • Format the book into an e-book. (Almost all authors do this themselves, and it’s an easy task with the right tools, but you can also hire somebody if you need to.)
  3. How much of a self-starter are you? Some writers must have a deadline imposed by a big corporation in order to motivate them to write their book. If that’s you, then the indie way is not for you, because nobody makes you do anything.
  4. How many books can you write in a year? Only a few trad-pubbed writers can publish more than a couple of novels per year, because their publishers don’t want them “competing with themselves”. (Cynics have argued that the trad-publishers actually don’t want the writer competing with the publisher’s other authors.) As an indie, you can write a book every week if you want to, and it’s not uncommon for indies to publish five or six books per year, or more. If you’re hyper-productive, you might want to go indie.
  5. Which way just feels best to you? Your instincts are often right.

Make A Decision And Run With It

I don’t believe there’s any one right answer. The indie way works well for me. The trad way works extremely well for some of my friends. I have other friends who take the hybrid route, publishing with both traditional publishers and as indie authors. It’s possible to succeed all three ways. Please be aware that the odds of great success are against you, no matter which route you take. There are just over a hundred authors of any stripe who earn more than a million dollars per year.

What’s not possible is to be certain that you’re making the right decision. Life is the art of making decisions with incomplete information. Learn all you can about your options. Make the best decision you know how. Pursue your chosen path with all your strength. Then do a reality check every year or two, and give yourself the freedom to change your direction.

Good luck, Amber!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Creating 3-D Characters For Your Novel

What if the characters in your novel don’t want to do what you want them to do? How do you motivate them to do the right thing? How do you do that believably?

Kate posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy! I love the website and all the books, all the information I’ve read has been very helpful. But I need help. I’ve been reading a lot of books (maybe to many) in regards to characters. For endless days and weeks, I have been trying to figure out how to develop a realistic character arc (external conflict, external motivation, but the inner conflict, inner motivation and figuring out the theme is confusing me to no end! I’m in need of a better understanding (more simplified) and guidance to a characters internal NEED and external motivation. I have the beginning of the protagonist arc. Which is a callous lieutenant who fears abandonment which causes him to stray away from relationships of any kind and also provided him the inability to forgive anyone for any kind of wrongs they did to him. I have the WANT which is surviving an invading army by any means necessary (EXAMPLE: avoiding survivors so he doesn’t have to care for them.) I have the main GOAL which is to return home, and a sub-plot GOAL (or maybe this is considered the external motivation) which is my MC wanting to return home to tell a woman that he loves her. I have the ending of the novel where the MC saves a survivor because he’s regretful for not saving anyone else and is willing to sacrifice himself in order to prevent the invading army to further their agenda of world domination.

But I can’t figure out the NEED that will drive my character to the conclusion of sacrificing himself rather than saving himself and what’s the internal conflict that will make him resist the realization.

I also can’t figure out what external motivation is considered. Is the goal of my MC’s wanting to confess his love to the woman the external motivation? Or am I missing a key factor?

As I’m sure you can imagine, since I’m missing key pieces to a beautiful puzzle, I can’t figure out the theme.

Can you help me Randy?

Also, what formula do you use when figuring out the character arc for every character?

Randy sez: Good questions, Kate! It sounds like you’re well on your way to designing a strong novel. You’re very close, in fact.

The problem you’re facing is that your lieutenant really, really wants to get home to the woman he loves, so he can tell her (and hopefully something will come of that). So why in the world would he do anything to jeopardize that Goal? Why would he risk his life right at the end of the story, to save somebody he doesn’t know?

That doesn’t make sense. As a novelist, it’s your job to make it make sense.

Here’s how you do that.

The missing link in your explanation above is something I call “Values.” Values are the magic key to creating 3-D characters. What’s a Value? I’ll give you an example, and then the definition will be clear.

The Godfather is Mario Puzo’s classic novel about a Mafia kingpin, Vito Corleone. Vito is a complicated guy. He runs a small underworld kingdom with ruthless efficiency. Vito rules by helping people. If a poor widow comes to him in tears because she’s being evicted from her apartment, Corleone can make the evil landlord change his mind. All he asks is that the widow gives him honor. Why? Because honor is the currency of his kingdom. A man who has honor has everything. Money, power, happiness, all come from honor. Nothing is more important to Vito Corleone than his honor. He would kill to maintain it.

But Corleone is also a Sicilian, and therefore his family is supreme. He would do anything for his family. Vito has three sons, each with problems. The oldest, Sonny, is impetuous and quick-tempered and insolent. The second, Freddie, is a bit of a sissy. The third, Michael, is bright, intelligent, disciplined—but he scorns the family business and plans to make his own way in the world without his family and without being a criminal. Still, Vito Corleone loves all of his sons. Nothing is more important than family. He would give up his own life for any of his sons.

But that raises a terrible problem early in the novel. A seedy thug named Sollozzo comes to Corleone with a business proposition. Sollozzo wants help in getting police protection for his heroin operation. And long-term, he’ll also need help from the corrupt judges in Corleone’s pocket. Sollozzo offers a generous cut of his profits in exchange for the protection that only Vito Corleone can give him.

Corleone believes that this will endanger all of his other operations. Corleone’s consigliori and his oldest son (Sonny) are at the meeting, but Corleone doesn’t consult them in this decision. He simply refuses Sollozzo’s offer, explaining his reasons—that it would destroy all that he has worked to build.

But Sonny doesn’t like this, and he blurts out a question to Sollozzo that makes it clear that he’s interested. This is a huge mistake. Sonny has just dishonored his father by questioning his judgment.

What should Vito Corleone do? He loves his son. But his son has just violated his honor. His son should be banished from the organization—immediately. Corleone must make an instant decision. He chooses to make a joke of his son’s rash comment and then repeats his decision—no, he will have nothing to do with narcotics.

That decision drives the entire novel.

Three months later, Sollozzo’s henchmen shoot Vito Corleone in the street, nearly killing him. Their hope is to get Vito out of the way so they can do a deal with Sonny. But Vito survives, barely, and the rest of the novel tells how he claws his way back to power, pulling his youngest son Michael into the family business.

All because of one decision. One very difficult decision. Difficult because of Vito Corleone’s two clashing Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than honor.
  2. Nothing is more important than family.

Those can’t both be the most important thing. When they conflict, Corleone must choose between them. And nobody knows what that decision will be until he makes it.

Now let’s define a Value. A Value is anything that your character would put in the blank in this sentence:

“Nothing is more important than ____________.”

When your character has only one Value, then he’s boring and one-dimensional. When he has two or more Values that can conflict, then the character becomes vastly more interesting.

Kate, you’ve already given me enough information to define two of your lieutenant’s Values:

  1. Nothing is more important than avoiding abandonment.
  2. Nothing is more important than the woman I love.

To that, I’d add a Value that most people have:

  1. Nothing is more important than staying alive.

Note that #1 and #2 are in conflict, so that’s good. But it’s not enough. None of the Values above will explain why your lieutenant would endanger his life to rescue somebody he doesn’t know. If you’re going to explain that, you’ll need to give him a fourth Value that would drive his decision. And then you’ll need to show your reader that Value throughout the novel, giving enough reasons for the reader to believe it’s a strong Value. It’s your choice exactly what that Value should be, and it’s your choice why he should hold it so strongly. The art of fiction is the art of making those choices.

Once you do that, then at the end, when you have multiple conflicting Values, the reader can’t know how your character will decide, but a choice to be altruistic will be believable.

This issue is discussed at some length in my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, in chapter 6, “Nothing Is More Important Than Characters.”

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

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