Friday, April 9, 2010

Now Where to Begin…

In February I did a Review of THE HIGHLANDER'S SWORD. I like doing reviews and the opportunity to read some fabulous books and some wonderful debut books. Reviews are all about THE BOOK and not much about the author aside from their bio, unless you also interview them--which isn't always possible due to time/scheduling factors.


So this time around we get to do that with Amanda Forester. Her topic is one that many writers struggle with in today's writing market. Where's the beginning of the book and the problems with backstory.

When I started to write my novel, THE HIGHLANDER’S SWORD, I thought I would begin at the beginning. I know… rookie mistake. My historical adventure romance tells the story of a Lady Aila Graham who finds herself an heiress after the death of her brothers in battle. In order to gain needed warriors to defend her clan against attack, Aila is married off to a Highland warrior who is poor in material wealth but has a large fighting force. The Highlander, MacLaren, is filled with bitterness because his fiancé betrayed him, so he agrees to marry an heiress he doesn’t know in order to provide for his clan.

I thought I’d begin the story where I thought it started, when MacLaren learns that the woman he loves has betrayed him to the English. I wrote the scene, polished it up, and sent it off to the Emerald City Opener Contest feeling rather proud of my literary masterpiece. When I got back my score sheets, any sense of accomplishment evaporated. The comments were kindly meant, but to the point. I had started in the wrong place. I had started with… backstory.

Backstory came to be the bane of my writing existence.

Backstory is all the stuff that happened to the characters leading up to the main event, the primary conflict in the story. Books of yesteryear commonly began with what is now considered backstory. I’ve enjoyed reading Georgette Heyer lately, but if an editor got a hold of those romance books now, huge sections in the beginning would be chucked. For myself, I am content with a slower paced book, a book that creeps up to the primary plot slowly, so as not to scare it too awful much. I actually like backstory (there, I said it). But if you want to get published in the 21st century, backstory is a big no-no.

So I revised. I cut out some things and this time started with Aila. I showed her daily routine, her difficult relationship with her mother, her shyness around others... and, yeah, you guessed it – more backstory. So I began with Aila’s father on the walls of the castle looking over his fields which had been set ablaze. More backstory. Next I wrote a scene where MacLaren receives the message from Aila’s father and MacLaren debates whether or not to enter into the marriage contract. And yes, that was more backstory too.

By this point I had written about four chapters, none of which made the final cut. As a writer this is hard. Some of the chapters I loved… loved like a comfortable old bra whose elastic is all stretched out and only has one remaining hook in back. It doesn’t really do a good job anymore, but it’s so comfy. Well, these chapters became comfy too. But no matter how much I liked them, it was still backstory.

So where to begin? I think this is one of the hardest questions for a writer, or maybe just a novice writer (or maybe just me!). I had to really stop and consider where the primary plot began for my characters. I struggled for a long while, wrote the rest of the manuscript, and then came back to the beginning. Eventually I little light bulb clicked on in my brain. My primary plot is a love story about two very different people who have every reason to distrust each other, but fall in love instead. Chapter one in my published novel begins with the relationship – at the moment Aila met MacLaren and discovered she had been given to him in marriage.

Since I have all these “deleted” scenes taking up space in my computer I thought I’d share one with you (kind of like the extended DVD offerings). So here is a scene from my original beginning, where MacLaren is betrayed by Marguerite, his French fiancé.

“I bring you good tidings of the defeat of your enemy.”

Marguerite smiled at Maclaren’s declaration, radiating her beauty, drawing him toward her. “You have done very well.”

“But it came at a high cost,” MacLaren continued though the words caught like ash in his throat. “Sir James Patrick is counted among the dead.”

Marguerite looked blankly at MacLaren before recalling the name. “Oh, your cousin, what a shame.” Quickly closing the distance between them MacLaren reached out to take her in his arms as he had long ached to do, but she put up a hand to stop him. “Oh, no sir. Perhaps you do not care for your appearance but I do not wish my gown to be bloodied.”

“Shall I have this person removed?” Gerard de Marsan, a neighboring lord, strode through the door. He was dressed in velvet of scarlet, a jeweled dagger hung from his belt, and his shoes had the exaggerated pointed toe that was the latest fashion. Gerard gave MacLaren a quick glance then snorted in disgust.

MacLaren returned the favor and turned back to Marguerite. “Margot, what is he doing here?”

“It is customary for a man to visit his betrothed,” Gerard said with a malicious grin.

“You are daft Gerard. Marguerite is betrothed to me.” MacLaren held out his hand to Marguerite, but she laughed and turned away.

“Oh dear. You didn’t really believe that did you? I could not actually marry you.” She turned her violet eyes back to MacLaren. “You’re a Scot,” she said with a shrug as if that explained it all. MacLaren felt like he had been knocked in the gut with a mace. He looked at his feet on the floor surprised to see them still standing there. Cold realization began to dawn.

“You deceived me,” he said softly to Marguerite. “You feigned love to win my defense of your lands.” He waited for her to contradict his words. The lady simply looked away.

“We have no need for your defense, barbarian. While you needlessly fight the English we have simply allied with them,” Gerard sneered with open contempt.

“No!” MacLaren refused to look at Gerard and watched Marguerite as she carefully smoothed her gown with a delicate hand. The truth became clear in her silence.

“But why?” asked MacLaren, his voice hoarse.

“You really must not upset me with your impertinent questions.” Marguerite’s tone was impetuous, but she could not quite meet MacLaren’s eye. “The English were too many, too strong. Submission was inevitable, but their conditions were unlivable.” Marguerite gave him a slight pout. The effect would have been more endearing if her words had not been so chilling. “When you marched against them it made our alliance more valuable and the terms became much more to our liking.”

MacLaren stared at her. His heart that had been pounding in his ears suddenly seemed to stop, his breath caught in his throat.

MacLaren grabbed Marguerite’s shoulders. “My cousin died so you could better your terms of submission?” He choked on the words. She tried to look away but he turned her face with his hand to force her to look him in the eye. All he saw was the glint of the knife.

Ah that lovely backstory.

  • What is your preference when you read a book?

  • Do you like a slow build so you really understand the characters at the beginning, or do you like to jump right into the action?


Amanda Forester holds a PhD in clinical psychology and a Masters degree in theology. As a psychologist, she has worked as a clinical researcher and a university instructor (what they call you when they don’t want to give you tenure). None of which has anything to do with writing romance novels. After trying for many years to stop the internal storylines floating around her head, she finally gave up and wrote one down. Now when she is caught daydreaming and talking to herself she can just say, “I’m plotting a scene for my next novel,” which sounds so much better than, “I’m hallucinating and responding to internal stimuli.”

Amanda lives in the Pacific Northwest with her officer and a gentleman husband and their two remarkably active, naturally brilliant children. They share their home with two fiendishly destructive cats and one lazy dog.

The Highlander’s Sword is Amanda’s first novel, so she would greatly enjoy hearing from readers. You can view her book trailers and fun facts.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Welcome back to Over Coffee Amanda.

Honestly, I do miss some of those books, especially historicals, that stop and give us the richness of the times which has to include backstory.

I also think it takes a skilled writer to be able to weave backstory in so it's not and info dump.

Like you, I have some problems starting the story where it should start. I figure I have to know the back story so I just write and then go back and figure out where it should start later. :-)

Olivia Cunning said...

It really depends for me. With my first published novel "Backstage Pass", I started it pretty much where it starts now. I added about a page to give the heroine motivation for crashing the bar/lounge table of the hero and his band... not even a page actually. More like half a page. So no problems starting that one.

In the second novel of the series, I originally started smack dab in the action - the hero's erm... "action"... with some random groupie and how much he missed his exfiance and noone will ever replace her, and yada yada, love-sick-broken-hearted stuff. So when I switched to the heroine's POV in a couple chapters, folks were mad at her for breaking the hero's heart in the past. I kept getting comments such as, "I don't get the heroine's motivation. Why is she so mean to the hero?" Well, he was a HUGE jerk to her. But I never SHOWED that. You were just taking her word for it. So I went back and added two short chapters to a) show the breakup of their engagement and b) to show what the heroine's life is like two years after she broke up with the hero - she's still trying to forget him, too. I wouldn't have known where to start without second readers' comments though. Those are invaluable to me, even if they do sting sometimes.

Nice to meet you, Amanda. I used to devour mass quantities of historical romances. It's about time I picked up a new one. Congrats on getting published! And I wish you much success!

Olivia Cunning said...

I guess from a reader's standpoint, I like to be put right into the action, but not so abruptly that I'm confused.

Other Lisa said...

Oh, man. This is something I've wrestled with. I am gonna go with, "depends on the book." I know, the easy way out.

In my debut novel, I solved the whole backstory thing by having the backstory be a flashback plot-line. I still cut a ton of it out though. All things that informed the character but didn't necessarily move the plot forward.

The WIP has very little backstory, and what it does have is sprinkled throughout the narrative. I was determined to start off with some suspense/action right off the bat so I wouldn't have to go back and amp up the beginning (which is what I had to do for Book 1).

I've heard historicals are making a big comeback, Amanda -- are you finding this to be the case?

Helen Ginger said...

I like the scene you let us read, but I would say, cut the backstory. And I do write that a lot on manuscripts. New writers tend to love backstory, but you learn that for today's readers, it slows things down.

Straight From Hel

Sheila Deeth said...

Okay, that's a timely reminder for me. But how do you do book three of a series without adding some backstory? (I've just turned one backstory section into a new event, so maybe that'll help...)

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I prefer action-suspense up front. Definitely. I don't mind some backfill mid-book, but I'll probably not read to the 50% mark without the draw of intrigue, or creativity

Other Lisa -- a flashback plot line? Please explain what you mean - all in italics?


Other Lisa said...

No italics! Basically, the flashback plot is interwoven with the "present day" plot -- it explains some things that are going on in the present day and, uh. I don't know. Why the MC is who she is.

It's a sort of literary suspense novel, coming out on June 1 from Soho Press.

You can read about it here.

Amanda Forester said...

Hi Sia - thanks for inviting me to chat today! I do think it was helpful for me to write those four chapters, even though they were eventually cut, because it gave me the understanding of the character's history and motivation in order to write the rest of the book.

Hi Olivia! I wish you all the best with BACKSTAGE PASS! Sounds like we have the opposite problem - I start too early, you start too late. Maybe we need to work together! You bring up a good point of wanting to begin with the action, but also needing to give the reader enough history so they understand the motivation of the character and what is at stake.

There is a definite tension between dumping too much backstory in the beginning on one hand, and starting in the midst of the action and leaving the reader bewildered on the other. This writing stuff ain't easy!

Amanda Forester said...

Other Lisa - best of luck with your debut in June!! I think that flashback plot line is really tricky to do. I'm actually thinking of doing it for an upcomming book, but I'm struggling with how to work it in. If you have any good tips, let me know! I do hope historicals are making a "comeback". I know my agent and editor were really excited about the medieval Scotland time frame.

Hi Helen! Sounds like you do some reviewing. Yes, you are very right, if you want to get published today, you have to begin with a strong hook. Telling all that backstory can get in the way of that.

Amanda Forester said...

Hi Sheila! Yes, how to give the reader the background info they need to understand the story without doing a backstory dump is a really tricky thing to do. I think you're idea of taking a backstory scene and moving it to the present plot line is a good idea - especially since I did it too! I think it did work much better and conveyed the information without losing the tension in the plot.

Hi Lana! I think you convey the majority opinion of most readers of today. Folks want to begin with some action - they want that plot out of the gate and moving strong!

Other Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Other Lisa said...

(take 2)'s a teeth-grinder. This was actually the fourth novel I'd written (the other three were for practice) but I definitely stretched myself with this structure (and I'd even played around a little with flashback stuff before). The past action needed to lead up to something in the present, and it wasn't as straightforward as, "there's a mystery to solve, and the mystery in the past story will help solve the mystery in the present." But I think that's a good way to look at it -- your flashback plot is a mystery that leads to a solution/resolution to both the flashback story and the "present" one.

Mysteries are a good place to look for examples of it, too -- I've read a few mysteries that have used this structure pretty effectively (would that I could think of a couple titles right now).

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hey Amanda. Hope your day was good. I sure did enjoy the sample you left with us.

Like Lisa, I've seen flashback plots used and as she says, it's effective in suspense. I've seen it done in some contemporaries and historicals and the authors made it look seemless and the flashbacks weren't terribly long. I'm thinking it needs some practice to do well. For me that is. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

I'm just surfasing from some intensive writing and thought I'd check in here before heading off to bed.

But I'm falling asleep over my keyboard, so off with me.

Amanda Forester said...

Other Lisa - your right, I actually have seen the flashback used pretty effectively in mysteries. Since the whole premise of a mystery is trying to figure out what happened in the past, flashbacks make a lot of sense and seem to be used frequently in this genre. Thanks for the tip!

Amanda Forester said...

Goodnight Sia! Thanks again for inviting me hang out with you today!