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:


Writing Through Hard Times

Note: I actually wrote this a few weeks ago, but my computer died so I couldn’t post it. I’m feeling a lot better and a lot more inspired, but I still think this is an interesting question to examine so I’m posting it.

I was trying to come up with a really clever title for this post, but I guess this will have to do. Suffice to say, I have been going through a hard time lately, the details of which I will not be getting into in this post. But the reason I wanted to bring this up is because it’s effecting my writing, which is kind of what this whole blog is about, right?

I have never really believed in writer’s block. I’ve always thought of it as a lack of imagination and I have lacked many things in my life, but never imagination. I’ve never had the feeling that the well was dry. If anything, I’ve felt that I had too many ideas, more than I could ever possibly write down or do justice to. Of course, now that I’m saying all this I’m thinking, “Just wait, Shawna. Wait until you’ve written fifty books and then see how full the well is.” I’m sure there is someone older and wiser out there who has experienced writer’s block and is probably cackling at me behind my back, but whatever. This post is not about writer’s block. This post is about what to do when you don’t feel like doing anything, least of all writing a novel that the critic in your brain assures you probably sucks anyway so why bother?

Anyone who writes seriously is familiar with the age-old arguments from the ranks of more inexperienced writers: I just don’t feel like writing today. It’s Thursday, I can’t write on Thursdays. I’m not in the mood. I’m too tired. I’m not feeling inspired enough. I’m not wearing the right underwear, blah blah blah, I need a marionberry muffin. Anyone who feels this way should try doing an MFA program and see just how far inspiration gets them.

Moving on, Peter Beagle tells this story—which I think is the best description of what it really means to be an artist that I have ever heard—about his uncle who was a painter. Everyday this guy would get up, go to his studio and do the work, just like…wait for it…IT WAS HIS JOB! In other words, he didn’t wait around for inspiration to strike. He would paint and sometimes it would go well and sometimes it wouldn’t. He didn’t lock himself in a garret and wait for a full moon to rise while wearing a spotted undershirt and holding a purple balloon (who does that?).

Still, being a pretentious pseudo-artist, being uninspired, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. What do you do when for lack of a better word you are simply depressed?

I’ve often been amused when going through hard times in the past by the well-meaning advice of friends who insist that I use my pain as inspiration in my work. I am not too embarrassed to admit that I love the romanticized notion of the despairing poet/writer who spills his soul onto the waiting page in heartsick despair, and I think everyone does use some of that pain in their work to some extent, but in reality it is really difficult to be in any sort of mental anguish and manage to write something coherent, much less powerful and moving and true. Pain is a raw emotion, especially recent pain, and those who try to make instant art out of it mostly get melodramatic, maudlin poetry that should probably never see the light of day. I have only ever managed to write one thing that I thought was beautiful when experiencing a great amount of raw pain and that was when my cat died and I still have no idea how I managed it.

It’s much easier to write about pain you can think about than it is to write about pain you don’t want to think about or that paralyzes you. So anyway, you’re in pain and you’re stuck and nothing seems very magical or meaningful and you’re pissed off at the universe because you had this whole word count goal you were aiming for and life so got in the way of that and what do you do? How do you get up every morning and pretend like nothing has changed? My answer so far has been: you don’t. You take a break from the angsty YA novel that is driving you insane and you write a new short story full of silliness and Christmas and a very depressed Norse god. And you don’t feel guilty about it. Because sometimes you need to push through a story, sure, but sometimes you just need to stop and take a break. Do something different. Do something fun and silly and lighthearted and not care if it sucks because it’s your Christmas present to yourself!

And the crazy thing is it seems to be helping. I’ve actually got ideas about going back to my novel and shaking things up. Like moving all the chapters around (thank you scrivener!) so they’re all in chronological order and I can actually try to build the story from the ground up instead of getting all confused cause my story has no foundation. Or even just allowing myself to daydream about it and play with all the what ifs. The hardest part has actually been starting, but once I get into a chapter (if things are going well) I actually do get a little swept up in it so it’s not such a slog. And I do feel bad still about not getting very much accomplished, but sometimes shit happens and it makes you realize, “I’m not writing for a word count goal or to impress people or get a publishing deal. I’m writing out of love. And what I need the most right now, after everything that’s happened, is love.”

So what about you, denizens of the interwebs? How do you manage to write through hard times and pain? Any advice?


In Which I Reveal My Not So Secret Secret Plan

So I thought now would be a good time to talk about what I’m doing this semester, besides the critical thesis. If all goes as planned I am going to write an entire first draft of my novel by the end of the semester. The goal is 15,000 words every month through December.

Current WIP word count: 15,029 words!

I can’t believe I’ve managed to get this much done in one month. Basically what I did was work on my thesis until the 15th (the due date) and the second half of August I tried to write at least two single spaced pages a day. Now that I met my word count goal I’m going back to working on the second draft of my thesis and then I’ll have to write another 15,000 words of my novel by the end of September.

So far it’s proving to be a pretty amazing/helpful journey. I spent so much time last semester trying to figure out what I was writing, what this story is really about, and because I’m a perfectionist I spent a lot of time revising the first fifty pages. After workshopping the beginning this summer at residency I realized there was so much I was ignoring–backstory, character motivations, the rules of the fantasy elements/magic, etc–that I decided to step back and dig deep into these issues. I haven’t figured out everything yet, but I feel much closer and I’m really excited about what I’ve got. Unfortunately, it does mean I’m mostly rewriting everything.

Anyway, sitting down and just writing out the story without worrying about making everything pretty, or getting every detail exactly right, is so freeing. I have such a hard time looking at the big picture with my stories. I love to focus on the intricate details, ie., all the pretty words. Writing out large chunks at a time gives me more of a sense of the arc, of pacing, of who my characters really are outside the pretty words. In other words, I feel like I am figuring shit out. And I am well pleased. Hell, I’m even letting my characters TALK to one another. A minor miracle! They have conversations. They interact. They do things!

My current advisor once told me in my first workshop at VCFA that when we are writing a rough draft we are telling ourselves the story. That’s what I’m trying to give myself permission to do. What’s nice about this attitude is that I know that if there is too much backstory in the beginning, if I give away too many secrets or mysteries too soon, I can always go back and move things around. It’s not static. And once I have the whole story I can look at the whole arc and see what needs to change, and only at the very, very end focus on all the pretty words 🙂


My Critical Thesis and a New Poem!

Whew! I finally finished the rough draft of my critical thesis. Now I can breathe again. I have never written a paper this long (35 pages! Eek!) and I’m still a bit shocked I managed to get through it all. It was…challenging. I won’t lie, but it helps to be writing about something I love: Omniscient Narrators. Many of my favorite middle grade books feature an omniscient narrator, and the more intrusive the better, in my opinion, but there’s a fair amount of animosity towards omniscient narration nowadays. So I wanted to explore the various ways in which intrusive narrators can actually pull a reader into a story instead of pulling them out (as many who argue against omniscient narrators claim).

And, of course, I got to read some awesome books like Maryrose Wood’s The Mysterious Howling and Pseudonymous Bosch’s The Name of this Book is Secret. I would have happily read all of Lemony Snicket, but sadly there wasn’t time. And I got to include some books I had already read that I absolutely adored like Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm.

After struggling through most of my school days writing papers in literature classes it was wonderful to write from the perspective of a writer and not a literary critic. And after years of convincing myself I couldn’t write papers it’s pretty awesome to say I wrote 35 pages that are mostly coherent. So hurray! Now I’m going to give myself a little break for a few days and go back to my novel.

Last, but not least, I’ve been terribly remiss about posting the link to my poem Said the Satyr to the Wood Nymph that was published in the Summer edition of Goblin Fruit! Hurray again! You can even hear me read it aloud, if you so wish.

I’m so excited to be in yet another issue and with such wonderful company 🙂 And I’m sorry it took me so long to post this. Anyway, if you haven’t already, you should check out the whole issue. You won’t regret it.


At Residency

I forgot to mention (for anyone wondering why I dropped off the face of the earth) that I’m currently at my third residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts! I can’t believe how quickly time flies. Tomorrow is graduation and I will be sad to see The League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches go.

I’ll try to post more when I get back home, but I’m heading into critical thesis territory so I may just panic and lock myself in my room for three weeks. I have to do all the reading, research and write an entire rough draft of my thesis for the first packet so that’s my priority right now. That and sleeping for a very long time, lol…


A New Review of Mar Portugues

 There is a new review of our CD Mar Portugues on Amazon!

Shawna Lenore & Darrell Kastin – MAR PORTUGUES: A Tribute to Florbela Espanca & Fernando Pessoa

Pianist and guitarist Darrell Kastin’s vision was to musically transcribe the beautiful poetry of Portugal’s Fernando Pessoa and Florbela Espanca. Kastin’s mother was born in the Azores, and he has spent considerable time in the country soaking up the culture. Married to a Portuguese woman, Kastin was clearly inspired by his love and passion for Portuguese music, poetry and culture. The country is well known for its rich, deep fado music (literal definition meaning “fate”). As with fado, Kastin’s melodies and arrangements provide great emphasis on stringed instrumental accompaniment. While the project was conceived in Oregon, Kastin travelled to Lisbon to record with top Portuguese musicians including Pedro Barroso (vocals on two tracks, adufe, percussion), Miguel Carreira (accordion), Luís Sá Pessoa (cello), Luis Petisca (Portuguese guitar), and the Vox Nobis Choir. Barroso also served as producer.

The project’s emotional radiance and success is largely carried by the hypnotic voice of Kastin’s daughter, Shawna Lenore Kastin. She demonstrates considerable emotional depth, range and control as she sings the ballads and songs with haunting beauty. Like fado music, she uses warm, conversational vocalizing to present graceful stories of life, destiny, dreams, love and desire. One example of the strong emotional impact of this poetry and music is found with “O Maior Bem” that makes mention of deceit, suffering, pain, sorrow, weariness, disdain, and torment. There is a long Portuguese tradition of poetry and literature, both academic and traditional. Also, balladry has been part of Portuguese tradition since long before the early 19th century. Thus, Darrell Kastin is able to keep one foot grounded in tradition while providing engrossing contemporary music that captures the soulful concerns, stories and declarations of undying love found in the poetry. Besides his love of this kind of music, he also says the album took alchemy and a little madness. Alchemy was needed to bring many elements successfully together, and he attributed the madness to his desire to musically journey uncharted waters. (Joe Ross)


In Which I Am Amazed By The Awesomeness Of My Friends

Back in high school my best friend Sophie Green and I wanted to be actresses. Oh yeah. We took drama classes, auditioned for plays, became members of the Thespian Society and nursed dreams of wildly successful careers on stage and film. I even briefly entertained dreams of being a film director, only in my case I realized I was too much of a control freak to ever survive life in the performing or cinematic arts, so I started turning back to my other great love, writing, where I could happily control everything to my heart’s content. Sophie, however, went on to study theatre in college and when she graduated moved down to LA to pursue her dreams.

About a month ago she contacted me to tell me about this amazing new film project she and her friends were doing. Tired of waiting around for jobs to find them they decided to create an interactive film-making organization called Finite Films that draws on audience participation to set the parameters for a short film which they will then write and produce themselves.

This is how it works: Anyone can submit a one sentence constraint (ie. “One character must hate fish sticks” or “Must begin in a graveyard”). They pick 21 of these constraints to narrow it down and then anyone can vote on which ones to include in the actual film. The top 7 constraints set the groundwork for a short film which they will then produce and which will be featured on their website. They also have a ton of production videos you can watch to keep track of their progress.

How amazing is that? Artists taking art into their own hands instead of relying on an often fickle industry! Artists drawing inspiration from their audience! It makes me so happy and just reinforces how amazing my friends are. Seriously. Please check out their killer website and watch their first film You Are Here. And do go ahead and participate. You will be amazed.

Finite Films: