Ninja Writer’s Academy: Backstory, Bodies, and Books

stocksnap_l4i1pqe99fWelcome to the ABCs of Fiction Writing!

We’re moving right along to the letter B. And B is for Backstory, Bodies, and Books.

You can follow this series on Medium. Also, if you’d like a PDF of each post in this series, head over to Patreon and support Ninja Writers at any level.

Backstory

Backstory is what happens to your character or characters before the story starts. It’s basically everything from conception up to the point when they enter the stage of your book.

I think a good and very famous example of backstory is right there in the Star Wars franchise. You have the original three movies, where you’re introduced to a truly evil, iconic bad guy (Darth Vader.) Then, a generation later, you get the backstory in another trilogy. Watchers get to watch Darth Vader grow up, fall in love, lose his mind. All of that, everything that happened in movies 1-3 is backstory for movies 4-6.

Make sense?

You obviously don’t have to (nor should you) put all of your backstory into your book. But you should know. If your hero is afraid to fall in love, you should know why, even if it doesn’t make it into the story. If your hero’s best friend follows her around like a puppy dog, you need to know why. If your villain can’t stand to see women hurt, you need to know why.

Do this:

Pick a character. Now pick a quirk. It can be anything that makes your character unusual. Have they eaten Corn Flakes every morning for breakfast? Do they have insomnia? Have they lived alone since they were seventeen?

Now write the backstory for that quirk. It can (and really should) just be a few paragraphs. A page, tops. A couple of sentences is fine.

Bodies

One of the things that is the easiest to get caught up with in writing is describing your characters. Especially point-of-view characters. A mistake I see pretty often is dropping an info dump when a new character is introduced. Like this:

Hannah had long blonde hair. She was short and squat and all that hair made her look like a Sasquatch, though. She’d refused to cut her hair, though, because her mother had told her that short hair would make her face look fatter–and it stuck. Her best feature was her eyes. They were blue-green, an oceanic color that would have been attractive if anyone ever saw past her hair.

So, see what we have there? A big block of exposition. A whole lot of telling. And if you’ve been deep in Hannah’s POV, this pulled you right out. Because it’s very unlikely that Hannah herself is sitting there having this thought in the moment of the story.

I mean. Who thinks of their own eyes as oceanic?

There are a couple of things you can do to make this better.

  1. Only give character description when absolutely necessary. Don’t go crazy. Let the reader use their imagination.
  2. Give description as part of scene, instead of exposition when you can.

Here’s how that might work in this case.

“Let me cut your hair.”

Hannah stopped dead, a hair brush halfway through her waist-length hair. “What?”

“I’m serious. You could probably sell it. Some chick with platinum extensions would pay a fortune.”

“I’m not letting you cut my hair.”

Shannon shook her head. “Why not? You’d look fantastic.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Yes, you would.”

Hannah went back to brushing. The sun streaming in her bedroom window caught the white blonde strands. “Short hair makes your face look fatter.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“My mom says so.”

“You’re mom’s crazy. You’re too short for all that hair. It makes you look like a Sasquatch.”

Hannah put her brush down. “Jesus, Shannon.”

“I’m sorry. You know I’m kidding. But serious, let me cut your hair. It would make your eyes look fantastic.” Shannon came up behind her, bent down and wrapped her arms around Hannah’s shoulders, looked at her through the mirror in front of them. “I wish I had eyes like yours. They’re the color of the ocean when we went to Jamaica last year.”

I just spit that out, but you get what I’m talking about, right? Now, not only do we know that Hannah has long hair that’s too much for her frame and ocean blue eyes, but we learn more about her. She’s got a blunt friend who means well (maybe?) and that her vanity is warring with her mother’s advice.

Do This

Pick a character and write a scene where you reveal something about their appearance without exposition.

Books

Stephen King said: If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.

Here’s how I interpret that: If you have certain amount of time set aside for writing everyday, you need to chunk some of it to reading. It’s part of your work. It’s part of your business.

You cannot be the best writer you can be if you’re not reading. Period.

You just can’t.

I’m going to talk about reading more generally when we get to R, but I want to talk to you today about books–specifically building a writing craft library.

I’m going to share what’s in my personal craft library with you, but it’s personal. You might have other favorites and that’s okay.

My advice is to try to read at least one craft book a month. Do the exercises. Apply what you’re learning to your work. Don’t just skim, is what I’m saying. My list will get you through the first year.

Here’s my library:

Do this:

Pick a writing craft book. Get your hands on it (paper or digital, but hopefully in some form that you can keep for your personal library.) Read it. Do the exercises. Really ingest it and apply what you’re learning in your own work.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

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Ninja Writers Academy: A is For Active Voice, Action, and Acts

I thought it would be fun to do a Ninja Writer Academy series: The ABCs of Fiction Writing.

Let’s start at the very beginning. With the letter A, of course. And A is for Active Voice, Action, and Acts. Plus, an important little bonus dose of Audacity at the end.

You can follow this series on Medium. Also, if you’d like a PDF of each post in this series, head over to Patreon and support Ninja Writers at any level.

Active Voice

Let’s get the grammar part out of the way.

A passive voice is an ACTUAL thing. It’s when the subject of a sentence is just sitting there (passively) having something done to it.

Here are some examples of passive voice:

Beauty was kissed by the Beast.

Humbert was infatuated by Lolita.

The books were burned by Montag the Fireman.

See how that works? Beauty, Humbert, and the books are the subjects of these sentences and they just sit there being DONE TO.

Let’s make those sentences active.

The Beast kissed Beauty.

Lolita infatuated Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burned the books.

There we go. Now we have an active voice. The previous subjects become the objects and the subjects now are: the Beast, Lolita, and Motag. And they are actively acting.

They can also be present tense.

The Beast kisses Beauty.

Lolita infatuates Humbert.

Montag the Fireman burns the books.

These sentences are technically active, but weak enough to feel wishy-washy or passive-like:

The Beast was kissing Beauty.

Lolita was infatuating Humbert.

Montag the Fireman was burning the books.

Meh. Right? Use a good, solid past (or present) tense verb and most times you’ll have an active voice going on.

Do This:

You can start by searching your whole manuscript for the word ‘was’ and the verb ending “-ing.” Get rid of as many as you can. That will help you make sure you’re using nice strong active verbs.

If you have any actual passive verbs (remember, that’s the subject of the sentence having something done to it) cut that out.

Action

A couple of years ago I went to a conference where the author Walter Dean Myers was the keynote speaker.

First: he was amazing.

Second: the thing he taught that stuck with me the most was the idea of making sure that every scene in your book has an action.

It doesn’t have to be a crazy balls-to-the-wall action. You probably don’t want your entire book to be one giant fight scene, broken up with car chases and skydiving.

But if you’re going to have two characters talking to each other, make sure they’re doing something that moves the story forward while they do.

The action can tell the reader something about the character or the situation. It can move the story forward by solving a problem through action (sometimes a car chase/fist fight/skydive is necessary after all.)

Do this: 

Walter Dean Myers spoke at a conference I went to about how he comes up with 30 key scenes as part of his pre-writing and makes sure each one has an action. It’s a great exercise.

Acts

This one is pretty simple and I bet you already know it.

Every book-length story has three acts. Basically: A beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m not blowing you away here, right?

Usually, the beginning and end of a book are each about one quarter of the whole, and the middle is half of the story that can be divided in half.

That’s right.

Modern stories generally follow a FOUR act structure. We just call it a three act story because we always have, since cavemen pretty much.

Thinking of your long second act as two acts is useful for a couple of reasons.

It reminds you to put a climactic scene in the middle of the book, which helps make sure your second act doesn’t sag.

And it gives some structure to build your subplots around.

Do this:

Go to thescriptlab.com and read how a bunch of your favorite movies break into three acts. It helps to see how a story you can take in all in a sitting fits into this structure.

Bonus A word: Audacious.

If you spend anytime at all around writers, you are definitely going to hear some variation on this theme: I’m never happy with anything I write.

It’s almost like writers think that to be taken seriously, they have to think they suck.

The thing is though that it’s a long, often lonely road between wanting to be a writer and being published so that anyone other than your mother and your best friend can read what you write.

I’m just going to be very blunt here.

If you don’t love your story, how are you really going to expect anyone else to.

It’s okay (and maybe essential) to know that you’re still learning. It’s fair to understand that you are still a work in progress.

But for God’s sake, if you hate your work, don’t expect readers to love it.

Do this: 

Give yourself permission to have the audacity to believe that you’re talented and that you’re writing a killer story. You’re going to need it.

Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Pick an assignment and do it, then come share your work on Facebook.  It can help to get feedback from other writers.

Come hang out with me during office hours. I’ll be online in our Facebook Group on Sunday 3/12/17 from noon to 1 p.m. PST to answer all of your writing questions.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

If you’d like to support Ninja Writers, check out our Patreon page.

Continue Reading