Stepping into the forest of my mind

Stepping into the forest of my mind
Just as every journey begins with a first step, every story begins with the first word.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What Does Backstory Do in Memoir or Fiction? #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

The question of “why” continues in memoir and fiction. Why this protagonist? Why now? Why does what happens in the story present matter to the protagonist?

Through backstory, we find the why of the present story we are trying to tell, according to Lisa Cron, the creator of the Story Genius method of writing. The reader wishes to understand why the protagonist behaves as she does. What is her backstory?

In memoir as in fiction, backstory shows the reader why what’s happening in the story—the story action—matters to the protagonist.

            In Victoria’s memoir story, she had always revered those who went to college. College graduates were smarter than she was, she felt. They were successful, in her mind. And, the college-educated were in charge of her children’s education—especially her special needs oldest daughter.

            Victoria dealt with these feelings of inferiority until the high school guidance counselor told her that her oldest daughter shouldn’t go to college. She wasn’t capable. She wouldn’t be able to handle the work.

This is where the writer brings in “why this matters to Victoria.” Without the “why” of the story, the memoir would be merely surface. Who cares? Just stick the child in special education and let the educated people deal with teaching the child.  

            But Victoria had never done that. She was a team player and always supported all her children through their education. Until now. Until high school. Victoria didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to teach her children high school subjects.

            Okay. But why let this bother Victoria? Why did what the counselor tells her matter so much to Victoria?

It matters because Victoria has always wanted to be included among the college-educated. She feels she could be a better mother, if she is college-educated.

Then go to college, the reader thinks.

But Victoria believes, at the time the memoir story opens, that the opportunity to attend college has passed. She has five young children, the oldest special needs. Her husband travels for work.

To go deeper, Victoria was told by her father she wasn’t smart enough herself to succeed in college because she too struggled in her early education. Her father felt he was saving his daughter from possible failure in life.

This is why what is happening in the present memoir scene with her daughter’s high school guidance counselor matters so much to Victoria. This is where specific backstory comes into play.

            You put story-specific backstory into the scene at a moment when something triggers the protagonist to think back to a particular past situation or action in order to make sense of the present situation.

A protagonist may use his or her personal backstory to make a decision on how to respond or how to act in a specific confrontation or situation in the story. Backstory helps the reader understand why the protagonist is reacting the way she is.

            Think about it in your own life. We use our own personal backstory; how we were brought up, our experiences and learned life lessons, to make sense of our present world and personal life. Our past—our backstory—helps us to decide what to do next in life situations. Our past helps us to make meaning of our present.   

            Backstory can be a few words, a few paragraphs of explanation, or even an entire scene to explain what happened in order to show why a character acts the way she does in story present.

Backstory is uniquely tied to the origin scene in story. In the origin scene, a flaw is found in the logic of the protagonist. Where is this scene in the life of your protagonist, the particular flaw that is addressed through your story or memoir? Why did Victoria believe she wouldn’t succeed in college? We’ll address this next month.

Please offer me any feedback about the logic of Victoria’s memoir story, for it truly helps me to move forward in my work. Also, feel free to pose memoir topics. I will share what I know through my blog posts.

Thank you for visiting Adventures in Writing. Please follow my blog if you haven’t already and connect with me online. I’ll be sure to do the same for you. To continue hopping through more amazing blogs or to join our Author Toolbox blog hop, click here

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Insecure Writers want to know: Have You Ever Surprised Yourself with Your Writing?

I surprise myself every time an editor accepts one of my short stories. When I create my YA adventure stories, I feel as though I have both the inner and outer struggle for the protagonist. I have antagonists: one human; a cousin, sibling, friend, or self and one nature; an avalanche, a thick forest, a thundering river, or wild animals. I craft the adventures meticulously, usually setting them in a national park.

One of my five children or my husband will find me talking to myself—or worse, to the computer—and leave the room. Or they’ll discover me sitting on a dining room chair with one of my son’s canoe paddles, trying to understand how the mechanics of paddling works when negotiating rocks in a river, how to explain it to the reader. The kids—mine—help me re-enact stage directions with a stuffed [animal] snake or read what I have written to see if they understand the actions explained. The family can sometimes refresh my memory of what a trail was like when we were last on it during a camping trip to the particular national park I’m using as a setting in my story.  

I have a trusted writer friend who diligently tells me the short story is awful. So I fix it, and then fix it again. I stare at it. And “fix” it again. Then I sigh and submit it, and pray. You know how long writers wait to hear back after submission.

I try to move on in life and with my memoir, which mostly I’ve been staring at and crying about. I know what happens there. It’s truth. I can’t change it. And you’d think that knowing what happens would make it easier to write. Nope!

Memoir needs to be told as story. And the framing of this memoir story paralyzes me. My writer friend doesn’t have time to read or help me with this longer work. She says she’s not knowledgeable about memoir. I’ve taken memoir writing courses and story writing courses, the last being Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method, which is incredible. I have some good scenes. I’ve deepened the memoir story greatly. But each scene needs to be linked to the next. There must be a cause and effect trajectory. It seems like knowing so much about the story process makes me afraid to move forward in memoir because I can’t create what is needed. I must craft what really happened—choosing the events needed to do so—and create a story.

And until I can crawl ahead with my memoir, I live for an acceptance letter for my short stories. Like many writers, I ache for readers to enjoy my stories. But when the letter or e-mail comes, I hold my breath before I open it.

I had two stories in the queue at Cricket Media this time. I’ve had two stories before and Cricket Magazine, a literary magazine for 9 to 14 year olds, had accepted both stories. However this time, they only wanted one, a YA adventure about cousins canoeing the Delaware. Instead of rejoicing—okay, maybe I rejoiced a little bit—I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t want the second one.

I received the standard rejection letter: “it is not quite right for our magazine.” Yet I feel my stories are of the same quality. The only difference with this particular story was that I name dropped Susan Boyle, trying to connect Susan’s difficulties in life to my protagonist’s. Maybe an international children’s magazine such as Cricket doesn’t allow for name-dropping. Has anyone had experience with comparing a character to a known person in an attempt to imply that character has the same attributes? Is there a better method to explain how characters are in a few words without well-known comparisons?

The last story I sent to Cricket, they didn’t want either. Same standard rejection letter. I understand they don’t have time to tell you why. But the guessing on the writer’s part as to why it was rejected when other stories weren’t is grueling. In that story, I had one character receive a glancing bite from a rattlesnake. No one dies. It is a dry bite, which is explained in the story. Because it’s YA, maybe I can’t have the characters literally attacked by the wild animal, only frightened by them. Does anyone have any comment about that? I never have anyone die in my YA adventure stories. I know the editors wouldn’t accept that.
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This post was written for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. We post on the first Wednesday of every month.  To join us, or learn more about the group, click HERE.