The Trouble with Backstory

I spent most of last semester alternating every other chapter of my novel between the past (backstory) and the present (the actual story, I guess) and in the process lost any semblance of logic. Characters would do things for no particular reason I could think of other than that I didn’t know what else to have them do. Or they would become my plot bitches and do really stupid, nonsensical things just to further the plot I wanted the novel to have. I have a problem with that in particular. So I finally decided to put my foot down and rearrange everything in chronological order.

There’s a lot of stuff that happens to my protagonist in the past that affects the present day story and it’s been phenomenally helpful to explore that past, but I think—for me, at least—writing the draft chronologically is the way to go. Otherwise it’s too easy to get lost in chains of events or actions that don’t make sense. What amuses me is that I had to do the same thing with the last novel I was working on. I kept trying to write from whenever the “actual” story was supposed to start and just couldn’t figure out what I was doing, so I ended up writing the protagonists’ stories from their birth to the present day. So maybe this is just my writing process. Maybe I just need to write out my characters’ pasts before I can get anywhere. It does make me wonder about non-linear novels in general, though. Do most people write them chronologically and then make them non-linear in revision? Or do other writers have a greater capacity for organizing things in their heads than I do? I don’t know.

The thing I worry about is (once I have the whole draft written out) trying to figure out how to work that backstory into the rest of the story. Do I tell the whole story in chronological order? But then how would it fit into the genre of YA? Are there any YA books that start with the protagonist as a young child and then work their way up through adolescence? If I don’t keep it in chronological order, then do I go back to alternating every other chapter between the past and the present? Do I alternate in chronological order or mix up the flashbacks so that they come up at relevant times? One of my classmates in my workshop this residency suggested I could use a particular image to tie chapters together. So for example, a key might show up in the flashback and then reappear in the present day scene. I love that idea and I think I’ll definitely have to try it once I have the whole draft written and can reorganize it. But for now I’m trying not to stress out and just focus on writing the draft in whatever way I need to write it. Still, I think it’s interesting to ponder these questions…and perhaps interesting to know that a novel can be written in one way, but ultimately structured in a completely different way.

Back to Work

I have returned at last from the frozen wasteland that is Vermont and its below freezing weather ready to launch into my fourth (and final!) semester at VCFA. *Weeps* I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Fourth semester is when things get serious. We have to complete a publication worthy manuscript of at least 75 pages and prepare the lecture that we will give our final residency. After hearing the graduating students read their work this january and attending a number of fascinating lectures I’m feeling slightly intimidated. I have never written/given a lecture in my life. I don’t even have a completed draft of a novel (although most of us fourth semesters don’t either, so I really shouldn’t worry about that). Still, I get the sense that I really need to go deeper than I ever have before this semester and I’m excited to see what I come up with.

So with all that said, here is what I’ll be focusing on this semester:

The novel: I’m going to continue working on the novel I’ve been writing the past two semesters and right now I’m trying to cement as much of the backstory as I can. I also plan on drawing maps of all the important locations real and fantastical, a floor plan of the house so I don’t get lost, and descriptions of all the important places events unfold. I think I may even break out my sketchbook and draw *gasp*. I am super excited about this. I’m also going to spend some time focusing on all my main characters so I can get a better sense of who they are and what they want. I really struggle with this sort of thing, so I’ve got a bunch of character worksheet templates I’m going to fill out to get me thinking and I may sit down and interview my characters again.

The reading/research: Since my novel is about a family of Iberian (Spanish) origin and the fantastical elements draw on Spanish folklore (duende) I’m going to focus my reading on the culture and history of Spain. I’ve found very few YA or MG books actually set in Spain or dealing with Spanish American families from Spain so I’m probably going to be reading a number of adult books by Spanish authors. The exciting part of this is that many of these books I can’t find in English so I get to read them in Spanish. Yes, that counts! I’m also going to explore magic realism and other sorts of fantastical genre-bending books. And finally I’m hoping to read more books about non-anglo american characters because I think there are some aspects to the immigrant/“outsider” perspective that are universal.

The lecture: And finally, for my lecture I’ll be doing something on characterization. Right now I’m not sure how broad or narrow my lecture should be because I’m fascinated by the different tools various writers use for characterization (character collages, interviews, worksheets, free writing, etc), but I only have 45 minutes to talk about this and I don’t know if it would be more helpful to give a broad overview of various techniques or just focus on one or two. So I guess we’ll see how that goes.

I’m going to be working with Julie Larios (so exciting!) this semester so I’m hoping I’ll get to do some poetry, too. I’ve been neglecting my poor poetry! As for this blog, I’m going to really try this time to post something once a week, so I’ll probably be going more into depth on some of this stuff in the next few months. That’s all for now. If any one has any book suggestions or character development techniques I’d love to hear them 🙂

Off to Residency and Some Advice From Anne Lamott

Tomorrow I fly off to Vermont for my fourth residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts! I can’t believe it! This will be my last semester and then I graduate in July. And it has gone by so fast! Just a year and a half ago I thought: two years? That’s going to take forever! Apparently time flies when you’re working your butt off and having fun.

I’m also trying to mentally prepare myself for working on my creative thesis (which will probably be the YA novel I’ve been working on the past two semesters) and my graduate lecture (which is very up in the air at the moment but might involve characterization and how writers create compelling characters). In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying lectures and workshops and (maybe?) some snow 🙂 So I will leave you in the capable hands of Anne Lamott who has some pretty clever things to say about finding more time to write:

http://www.sunset.com/travel/anne-lamott-how-to-find-time-00418000067331/