Archive for July 1st, 2016

How to Use Backstory to Keep Readers Reading

1 July 2016

by K.M. Weiland, @KMWeilandV8374c_JaneEyre.indd

Backstory is a weapon. And just like any weapon, it can end up doing more harm than good to those who wield it without proper experience and care. But in the hands of a writer who knows exactly what it’s capable of and how to wield it to advantage, backstory can take even ordinary stories to extraordinary places.

Arguably, the most important function of backstory is its ability to hook readers’ curiosity. Forget explaining the protagonist’s past and what motivates him. Try notexplaining it. When we let readers know there’s somethingdelicious and dark in a character’s past, without telling them what that something is, we’ll hook their curiosity so deeply they’ll keep reading just to solve the mystery.

Charlotte Brontë understood how to wield the weapon of backstory as well any author. In her beloved Gothic romance Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic), she creates almost her entire plot out of the tantalizing hunt for the backstory. What can you learn from her and how can you apply it to your own novel? Start by answering the following questions.

What Is Your Backstory?

Before you can use backstory to hook readers, you first have to have a backstory. When creating your characters’ histories, look beyond just the obvious necessities of birthplace and parents. Look for secrets. Look for tragedy and shame. Look for hidden motivations. You don’t want to bore readers with tedious home videos. You want to thrill them with tabloid-worthy escapades.

Protagonist Jane Eyre’s tragic backstory is shared straight-up (for the most part). However, the story is powered by her need to uncover the shocking history of her mysterious employer Mr. Rochester. Something strange and possibly supernatural is afoot in the tower of Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, and he hints to Jane, again and again, that the mystery is all tied up in the sins of his youth. What better incentive for readers to keep reading?

How Does Your Backstory Power the Plot?

Even relatively mundane backstories can capture readers’ attention, but only if they matter to the story as a whole. An outrageous skeleton in the family closet only becomes interesting if it affects the outcome of the central conflict. Why does the discovery of the backstory matter to the protagonist? How will it help or hinder him in obtaining his main story goal?

Mr. Rochester’s history isn’t important just because Jane happens to be curious about him. As it turns out, its revelation—in one of the most enduringly and delightfully shocking moments in literature—affects Jane’s every hope of happiness and love. Readers are more than just curious about Brontë’s backstory; they care about the backstory because of how sharply it will turn the plot and affect all the characters.

What Is Your Backstory’s Hook?

Once you’ve come up with a great backstory and figured out why it is an integral piece within your main plot, you then have to artfully plant its hook. You must let readers know there is a great backstory without giving too much away. One or two solid details will often be enough to get the ball rolling, especially if you solidify their importance by making some of the characters adamant about hiding the past, just as other characters are adamant about uncovering it.

Brontë builds her hook into the very walls of Thornfield Hall. From the moment Jane arrives in the symbolically dark and dusty manor, readers sense something is afoot. The housekeeper warns Jane to stay away from the tower, Rochester himself speaks of the great mistakes of his youth, and creepy laughter wafts through the halls at night. With minimum effort, Brontë hooks her readers for the long haul.

How Can You Tantalize Readers With Clues?

After that first hook, keep the clues coming. To some extent, you can repeat some of those clues, since all you’re needing to do is keep reminding readers of their curiosity. But eventually, you’re going to have to add new information. The trick, of course, is to provide new clues to whet the readers’ appetite without giving away the whole mystery.

A good rule of thumb on backstory is to avoid sharing information until it becomes vital to the story. Clues need to be more than just breadcrumbs of information; they need to each be catalysts that drive the plot.

Brontë is one of the best at scattering her clues. She deftly adds new information, leading readers right up to the brink of the truth, only to cleverly misdirect them into believing what they think is the truth can’t possibly be right.

Why Will Your Backstory’s Payoff Matter to the Story?

Readers wait throughout your entire story to reach the truth about the backstory. You can’t afford to disappoint them. This is why it’s so important to come up with a humdinger of a backstory in the beginning. If you tantalize readers with promises of shocking discoveries only to back off in the end and say, “Surprise! The butler did it!”—they’ll probably chuck your book across the room.

Brontë perfectly times the revelation of Mr. Rochester’s backstory. The revelation arrives at the crucial Third Plot Point (at the end of the Second Act), which allows it to be the catalyst that powers Jane’s decisions and actions throughout the climactic Third Act. Every bit as important as the timing, Rochester’s backstory is just as powerful and moving as Brontë promised her readers it would be. Anything less, and we would have been disappointed. Instead, we were transported.

Powerful backstory can elevate otherwise commonplace stories to astonishing heights. Without Rochester’s backstory, Jane Eyre is just another nice tale of a poor orphaned governess falling in love with her wealthy employer. With that backstory, it has become a timeless classic that has thrilled and moved centuries’ of readers. With the right backstory, your story could do the same!

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survivesK.M. Weilandprimarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning websiteHelping Writers Become Authors.

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Contests – Gotham Writers

1 July 2016
Invent a Word
Deadline: August 15, 2016
Description: 
“We invite you to invent a word. Not just any word. A word you think will greatly enhance the English language.

Give us your word, a one-sentence definition, and use the word in a sentence.

The winner gets a free Gotham class of his or her choosing.

Submit your entries here: https://www.gothamwriters.com/contest/invent-a-word-contest-2016
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#storieseverywhere
Deadline: monthly
Description:
“Each month we invite you to post a story on Twitter using #storieseverywhere for a chance to win a free class.

Your stories (which can be true or made up) will be inspired by what you see, know, or do, and they should relate in some way to our monthly “themes.” 

Our theme for the month of June: Superhero.”
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We’re always hosting contests. Writers can go to “https://www.gothamwriters.com/contests” to check them out.

Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2016 – less than one month to go

1 July 2016

Set up in 2009 to support emerging writers in competitive times,

the NWP has been successful in helping to boost the confidence of

creative voices of all ages and from all around the world.

Supported by renowned names in world literature, including Brian

Chikwava, Colin Grant, Maya Jaggi, Jackie Kay, Tabish Khair,

Toby Litt and Blake Morrison, we are delighted to have Diran Adebayo,

Imtiaz Dharker and Vesna Goldsworthy as this year’s judges,

with Wasafiri’s Founding Editor Susheila Nasta.

The prize welcomes submissions in three categories,

Poetry, Fiction and Life Writing,

HOW TO ENTER

The competition is open to anyone who has not published a complete book in the category entered. We welcome submissions in one of three categories: Poetry, Fiction and Life Writing.

Simply fill in anentry form and send it to us with your entry and fee of UK Sterling £6.00 if entering one category, £10.00 for two and £15.00 for three categories (please see the terms and conditions).

The closing date is 5:00pm GMT, on 15 July 2016. Entrants who are visually impaired or who are prevented from typing through disability can enter their work on audio CD.

PRIZES

£300 will be awarded to the winner of each category and the work will be published in Wasafiri.

JUDGES

Susheila Nasta MBE (Chair) Founding Editor of Wasafiri and Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature at the Open University.

Diran Adebayo Named ‘one of the Best Young Novelists’ in 2002, Adebayo is also a cultural critic, academic and journalist.

Imtiaz Dharker World-renowned prize-winning poet, Dharker also works as an artist and film-maker.

Vesna Goldsworthy Award-winning writer, former BBC World Service journalist and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

and is open until 5pm GMT on Friday, 15 July 2016.

Further details are at: www.wasafiri.org/wasafiri-new-writing-prize.asp

Introducing Our Next Short Story Contest!‏ Lesson Learned

1 July 2016

School may be out for the summer, but The Writer is still looking to learn a thing or two. Our latest short story contest is about education in all forms: life lessons, coming-of-age lessons, lessons learned the hard way. Whether your character is steeped in academia or getting educated at the School of Hard Knocks, we want to see them at the brink of change – and about to learn a lesson they’ll never forget.

 

Deadline: August 31st, 2016

Grand prize: $1,000 and publication in our magazine

Word count: 2,000 words or less

Other prizes: Our second-place winner will receive $500 and publication on our website, writermag.com; our third-place winner will receive $250 and publication on writermag.com as well.  

Not the writing contest for you? Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear when we launch a new one. 

 

Guidelines:

• The submission deadline is midnight eastern time on August 31, 2016.

• The entry fee is $25 (including processing fees).

• We encourage you to submit multiple stories – for a discounted entry fee of $15. All entries must be submitted on the same transaction in order to get the discounted rate. The first submission will be $25 and each additional submission (up to 5 per transaction) will be $15.

• You may enter simultaneously submitted work.

• Please remove your name, bio and any contact info from the file that you submit – including title page, header and footer.

• A blind reading of all entries will be conducted by the editorial staff of The Writer.

• $1,000 and publication in the December 2016 issue will be awarded to the winner. The runner-up will receive $500 and publication on writermag.com. Third place winner will receive $250 and publication on writermag.com.

• Close friends and colleagues (current & former) of the The Writer staff and Madavor Media are not eligible to compete.

• All submissions must be submitted via our online submission form manager. We will not accept mail or email submissions. 

• All submissions must be previously unpublished.

• Entry fees are non-refundable.

• International (non-US) writers are welcome to submit. 

• Must be 18 years or older to enter.

How to submit, visit: https://writermag.submittable.com/submit/61113

CLOSING in a Few Hours: $4K Worth of Writing Courses, Books and More‏

1 July 2016

Deadline: July 1, 2016

Full Details Here >>

I know I probably shouldn’t be surprised. After all, who offers more than $4,000 of writing courses, books and software… from 65 of the leading digital experts in the industry… and ALL for only $27 !?

At first, I thought the folks at Blogging Concentrated had LOST THE PLOT. But now, I wish I’d known about it in time to get one of my own products included!

Unfortunately, it’s about to close.

There are a few hours left, and because this has been so popular, I decided to send out one final reminder.

Check Out this SUPER Stack of Writing Courses, Books, Software and More:

Full Details Here >>

In a few hours it will be gone!

That’s it, I’m done. It’s time to get back to writing our newsletter for this coming Wednesday.

Have a good weekend!

Gary McLaren, Editor