Wednesday, June 06, 2007

More random backstory thoughts...

Okay, so I'm reading Kristy Kiernan's impressive debut novel Catching Genius right now. It's really gripping. Definitely the sort of book I enjoy reading.

And it may be ill advised for me to make a comment/observation while I'm still 3/4 of my way through a book, but I'm making this observation not only on her book but based on other "women's fiction" novels I've read, too. (And an aside... anyone who reads this blog and my own with any regularity probably knows how I feel about the term "women's fiction".)

My observation is about back story. In many types of stories, it's considered bad form to include too much of this stuff. The wisdom goes that you slow down your story by telling us what happened in the past versus "the real story". Donald Maass goes so far as to suggest you should have zero back story in your novel. I've taken his class.

But what if "the real story" is what happened in the past?

My "big revelation" this week is that having the "real story" be the back story is super common theme (okay, not a theme... a device? a structure?) in commercial women's fiction. That is, there are many commerical women's fiction stories published about characters coming to grips with something in their past. The craft, the skill, comes by way of the writer carefully controlling how and when that information is dolled out -- not necessarily chronologically, but in such a way as to maximize impact.

When I think of it that way, I guess the back story principles in that type of past-heavy book aren't that different from those for books that are more "in the present". It's all about controlling what you let the reader know and when... It's just in some stories there's more of it to control.

I think Kristy did an amazing job of this with Catching Genius. There are "present time" stories/character arcs for both the main characters, but (at this point in the book, anyway) I feel like the present day stories are subplots and the "real story", the part the reader (me) is dying to learn more about, the part that's pulling me through the book, is wanting to know more about what happened to these sisters in the past.

Thus, the main story is, well, back story. (Is it still back story when it's the main story???)

Don't know why recognizing this past-heavy story telling structure was such a revelation to me. I mean, one of my ms's (the one in this year's GH) actually has two timelines, and what happens in "the past'" is pretty key to the resolution of the overall story... but I guess what I simply realized is that back story isn't necessarily an evil word -- especially in some types of books.

Back story. Wisely used, it can be your best friend. I think this revelation will really help me with my current WIP.

(Now, all you romance writers who read this blog. Don't take his as permission to include more of your hero's and heroine's backstories in your romance novel. (Not that, "one of the drunk writers said I could," would get you very far, anyway.) Romances are about a couple falling in love. Sure, both main characters probably have to get over stuff from their past to get there, but since the main action is, and must be, in the present for them to fall in love... back story should be used quite sparingly in romance in my humble opinion and mostly show up in the subtext and the characterizations... But I digress.)


Unknown said...

Not having read a lot of "women's fiction", I find it interesting that this is a major difference. You're right, in romance the backstory shouldn't be too heavy, because it takes away from the developing relationship.

I'll have to pick up Catching Genius. Another one to add to my pile. :)

Maureen McGowan said...

I really recommend it, Christine. Sadly, you might not find it in a bookstore. Chapters/Indigo seem to carry very few books published by Berkley trade. But you can get it from Amazon.

Kristy Kiernan said...

Hey, thanks Maureen! I'm so glad you're enjoying it and am very glad that it struck a chord writing-wise.

Backstory is a constant struggle for me: how much to put in, how much to sprinkle through, how much to slam in right at the beginning, is it necessary at all, etc., etc., etc.

FWIW, there was a lot of backstory I took OUT of Genius. Scary, huh? I love to know about characters when I read, and for me, bakstory, if it's done well, is an important part of that.

I learned a lot, especially about backstory, during and after the writing of Genius. My next book will have less of it, but there will still be more than I know everyone in the biz will want in there.

But what I keep hearing from readers is that they became attached to my characters. And I don't think that's coincidental. I think that readers who want to read what I want to write, long books about complex characters and their relationships, aren;t the sort of reader bored by backstory, but feel an enrichment of character by it.

Of course, I could be completely wrong! I'll let you know on the next one :D

Kristy Kiernan said...

Oh! BTW, for readers not in Canada, Catching Genius is available at all bookstores in the States!

Maureen McGowan said...

I think you're absolutely right that the readers are getting attached to Connie and Estella because of the amount you've included about their childhoods.

In fact, since I wrote this post, I've been reconsidering the definition of back story. (I guess I was kind of getting there in the post, too.)

I mean, you could have written a book about those two sisters when they were kids -- but then it wouldn't have had a happy or satisfying ending. And to explore the relationship of adult siblings, I don't think it's possible to ignore the past.
And the past of your two characters is so fascinating and gripping... I don't think the book could have been written any other way and been as satisfying and engagin.

Again. LOVE the book.

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