NaNoWriMo Tip #6: When your “backstory” should be the story.

During National Novel Writing Month, many an aspiring novelist will start with a great character. He will know his hero backwards and forward, as if he is his very best friend.

He'll describe how the hero looks, down to the cleft in his chin. He'll know about his childhood, his teen angst, his tribulations and his desires.

But now that it's time to give his hero something to do, the writer stalls out.

Why does this happen?

Because in this case, the backstory is the story.

So why not move it front and center?

If you can answer yes to these four questions, then the Muse is trying to tell you (HELLOOOOO!) that the better book to write starts where your hero first intrigued you:

1. When describing your book to others, do you find yourself spending more time describing your hero's past, but get stuck on telling what will happen to him in the book?

2. Is half of what you wrote in your synopsis his backstory?

3. Did it take all of Chapter One to describe your character before you realized you had nowhere to go with Chapter Two?

4. Do you find yourself rewriting the details of your hero's past, because it's more interesting than considering his future?

Take a broad hint: There is gold in the hills of his backstory.

Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had started her epic story with, say, Book 6 The Half-Blood Prince — when Harry was already at Hogwarts and just realizing his true role in a world turning darker, more sinister? Surely this book in the series and the seventh, could  have been tweaked to stand-alone…

But consider how much was gained by knowing so much more of Harry's backstory.

That's because it was never just his backstory. It was the story.

Bottom line: start at the real beginning: when you first realized that your hero intrigued you.

Maybe it was when he did that old-soul thing at age three. Or when he had his first kiss. Or when he accidently drove his parent's car into the lake.

Not all stories were meant to start where we want them to begin. Sometimes they start earlier, or later.

If you start your story at a point that is most interesting in your character's life, your readers will be sucked along on his journey, too.

So take them along for the ride.

It ain't the prequel. It's the beginning of a wonderful friendship between your hero and your reader.




I've got a question for you: Which character's backstory would you have liked to have read about, as a book?

For me, it is the character of Ethan Gage, in the wonderful historical suspense series by William Dietrich. We know that Ethan once studied under Benjamin Franklin. it would be a hoot to see his antics stateside, before we're introduced to him in Napoleon's Pyramids.

— Josie

Kid Lit: Are Children’s Books Depressing Our Offspring?

Alice-in-wonderland An interesting conundrum is posed below, in this article from London's TimesOnline:

Are children's books too depressing these days?

That question was broached to both a current and former UK children's laureate, and their answers come from complete opposite points of view as to how the stories of contemporary authors may affect our children's outlooks on life.

My two cents? I think it depends on the child, the children's ages, the story, and how their parents helps the children comprehend and process the story's message after it is read to or by them.

In hindsight, I wish I'd read my kids Dickens as opposed to Berenstain Bears. No offense to the latter, but certainly the stories are richer, and the dialogue can bring one to tears. In any event, they were riveted by the Goosebumps series all on their own, and my younger child loves all the Harry Potters, so dark isn't necessary the new black, just classic and timeless.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this,


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August 25, 2009

Anne Fine deplores 'gritty realism' of modern children's books

Once upon a time, in the spiffing
1950s, characters in children’s books enjoyed wonderful adventures after which
they all lived happily ever after. By contrast, reality weighs heavily on
today’s young readers, a former children’s laureate has warned.

Anne Fine said that cosy tales in which
children’s characters looked forward to future adventures had been replaced by
gritty stories that offered no hope for their weary protagonists.Contemporary
literature is dauntingly bleak, with depressing endings that do little to

“In the Fifties, when a strong child
was dealing with difficult circumstances, there was always a rescue at the end
of the book and it was always a middle-class rescue,” she said.

“The child would win a scholarship to
Roedean or something, and go on to do very well. That was felt to be
unrealistic and so there was a move away from that. Books for children became
much more concerned with realism, or what we see as realism.

“But where is the hope? How do we offer
them hope within that? It may be that realism has gone too far in literature
for children. I am not sure that we are opening doors for children who read
these books, or helping them to develop their aspirations.”

The bestselling writer made her
comments at Compelling Novels, Vulnerable Children, an event organised by the
umbrella group Children in Scotland for the Edinburgh Book Festival.

She told The Times that she did not
wish to see a return to the standards of Enid Blyton, but that she was worried
about the effect that gloomy books can have on children. “I can’t see how we
roll back from this without returning to the sort of fiction that is no longer
credible — books with a Blyton-ish view of things.”

Her concerns were not shared by Anthony
Browne, the current Children’s Laureate, who believes that a lot of children’s
literature remains upbeat. “There are both types of endings, happier and
unhappier. I prefer open endings. I don’t think we are living in an age of
depressing, dark endings. If you look at Jacqueline Wilson, she does deal in
gritty realism, but her books don’t lack aspiration.”

He recently changed the ending to his
forthcoming book — Me and You, a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in
which Goldilocks comes from an impoverished background — so that the ending was
less miserable. “My original version had Goldilocks being chased out of the
bears’ house and her ending up on bleak, dark streets. I decided to give it a
more ambiguous ending, so now she is running toward something that may or may
not be her mother.”

Amanda Craig, who reviews children’s
books for The Times, said that Fine’s example of an aspirational ending, in
which a girl is given a place at a good school, appeared some years ago in
Dustbin Baby, an otherwise gritty book by Jacqueline Wilson.

She added that Fine was also capable of
producing “utterly bleak” books such as Road of Bones, about a boy growing up
in totalitarian Russia. The title of the book, which was shortlisted for a
Carnegie Medal in 2007, refers to the bones of political dissidents who dared
to oppose Stalin.

Fine was accompanied on the panel at
the book festival talk by Melvin Burgess, whose children’s books have dealt
with child abuse in a care home and teenage heroin abuse. Burgess argued that
young people had a right to know about the seamier side of life. “I think
well-informed young people are better able to deal with things they may come
across,” he said. “I have had letters talking about the humanity of my books,
even when the situations the characters are in are very dark and difficult.
Just the fact that they are still making jokes and falling in love. Perhaps the
light of hope comes from the reader and not the story.”