George posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hello Mr. Ingermanson. I really enjoyed reading your book “Writing Fiction for Dummies.” It has made me become a better writer and has been extremely helpful. I have just come up with my one sentence storyline and was wondering what you thought of it.
“A young architect is forced on the run after he’s accused of helping terrorists bomb a building he designed.”
Does it have a strong emotive punch or do you think it is missing something?
Also, I’m having an issue with bringing ideas into backstory. I keep trying to bring an idea I have for one novel (that explains the main character’s motivation in that novel) into the backstory of my main character in another, trying to make it fit (though I don’t believe it works too well). Is this a common problem? It seems to have brought about a bad case of writers block.
Randy sez: This is a good strong one-sentence summary. It’s neither too vague nor too specific. It tells us immediately who to root for (“a young architect”). It puts him in jeopardy (he’s on the run). And it creates mystery which immediately implies a storygoal (how can our hero clear his name?) So bravo on the one-sentence summary!
As for the problem with bringing in backstory, yes, this is a very common problem. Backstory is good, by the way. Backstory is, in fact, great. You can hardly know too much backstory about your characters. But you can all too easily tell too much backstory, especially at the beginning of your novel when you’re trying to get the frontstory rolling.
Now the main issue for you, George, right now is that all the backstory is getting you blocked because you know there’s a pesky rule out there that says backstory is bad. Here’s how to get unblocked right away, and this is the most common cure for writer’s block:
“Ignore the rules.”
That’s, right, just ignore the rule that says that backstory is bad. Write the backstory. Write it as fast as you can. That should get you unblocked. Then move on and finish the first draft of your novel.
Here’s the thing that’s essential whenever you’re dealing with writer’s block: Nobody is ever going to see your first draft except a very few people who already love you, warts, backstory, and all. Those are your critique buddies. Frankly, they already know your first draft sucks, so it’s OK if they see some backstory. It’ll give them something to feel good about when they point it out to you.
When you edit the novel, then’s when you can apply the rules. That’s when you’ll trim down the backstory to the bare minimum, or move it later in the story, or make it live in flashbacks (you’re allowed to do flashbacks if you do them well enough — don’t let anybody tell you flashbacks aren’t allowed).
My buddy John Olson and I made it through fifteen drafts of our novel OXYGEN without dying because of one mantra that I repeated over and over: “We’ll fix this in the next draft.”
That was a brazen lie. On each draft, we fixed only some of the problems, and I knew it. But I knew that neither John nor I would quit until the book was right. We didn’t. It was right. But only on the fifteenth draft. (Which we emailed in at 3 AM on the day the book was due to the publisher.)
The process wasn’t pretty, but we got it done. You can too. If you’re stuck or blocked or whatever, make a note for yourself to fix it on the next draft and then move on. Those are words to live by.
Randy sez: Oops, in reading your question one last time after I posted this blog, I realized that maybe I misread you to begin with. It sounds like your real problem is that you’re reusing a motivation from one novel in another novel. OK, that’s actually a separate issue. It can be good or it can be bad.
Here are two tricks you can apply to possibly solve this problem:
- Interview your character and really press him on what his motivations are. As I talked about in my book, ask him exactly what his Storygoal is. Then ask what abstract Ambition this Storygoal comes from. Then ask him about his Values — his “core truths” that he believes are self-evident, which need no explanation because they’re so obviously true. Then ask yourself what it is in his background, his culture, or his subconscious mind makes him believe these Values.
- If that doesn’t work, then try my earlier advice and just forge ahead and write the story. You don’t have to know your character’s motivations fully up front. You can always figure those out on the next draft. Which might really mean the fifteenth.
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 them in the order they come in.