Guest post by Sara R. Turnquist
I’m here today because of my novel, Hope in Cripple Creek. I remember the day it went up for sale in the wee hours of the morning...I know, I was up at 2 a.m. checking on Amazon. It was there. And over the next 36 hours, I had many texts and e-mails from friends and family members congratulating me and wondering what it must be like for an author on book premier day. Or what it must be like to be a writer in general. It's never too late to find out.
Make the time for it. This is the most crucial thing about writing. You must carve out and protect the time. And you must practice writing. Work on short stories. Share them with your significant other and close loved ones who won't judge you but will give you some good feedback. If you don't have a clue what to write about, search for "writing prompts" and get ideas that way.
Join a Writing Group. Find a critique group that meets regularly. Preferably one that is led by a published author. And gather enough courage to participate by bringing in scenes or short stories to share with the group and open yourself for helpful critique. That is the only way to improve...by allowing iron to sharpen iron.
Go to a conference...or several. Conferences are like crash courses for writers and then some. You get to sit in on sessions about the craft of writing and you have the opportunity (in most cases) to pitch to an agent or editor or mentor. This is a rather unique experience and one I would encourage you to take every advantage of. Even if you don't feel ready. Make it a Q&A session or a practice session to ease into the idea of pitching. You can find a whole plethora of conferences here: http://www.westbowpress.com/authorhub/resources/events/default.aspx
Take an online class. I made the decision to join a national writing organization. I joined the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) and they host a monthly online class that I participate in. It is perfect for me. They focus on a different topic each month and there are one to two lessons a week (not overwhelming, but just enough to keep the juices flowing). It keeps me on my toes.
Look for other opportunities to learn/network/connect. My critique group hosts workshops every few months that I participate in. I also joined a local chapter of the ACFW, which meets monthly. Additionally, I do what I can to interact with other authors via social media whether they are other authors that work with my publisher or other authors in the ACFW (they even have a Facebook group for several different genres, so I can connect with ACFW authors in my genre).
I believe that there are people born with certain talents and aptitudes. So, some people have more of a bend toward writing than others, and even some have more passion for it than others (and passion counts for a lot). But no matter your aptitude, natural talent, or passion, there is always room for growth and learning when it comes to the craft of writing.
Sara R. Turnquist Bio
Sara is originally from Middle Tennessee where she currently resides with her family. Graduating with a B.S. in Biology, she first pursued a career in the field of Zoo Education. She also enjoyed a short stint working in the field of Sleep Medicine. However, her great love of the written word drew her to write. She is an avid reader and enjoys reading and writing clean Historical Romance. Her travels have also served to inspire her writing. Sara is the author of The Lady Bornekova, The General’s Wife, Off to War, and Hope in Cripple Creek. She is also a member of ACFW. Website: http://saraturnquist.com
Hope in Cripple Creek
Tragedy strikes Katherine Matthews and the small town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. An epidemic teams her with an old enemy, Wyatt Sullivan, the town’s doctor. In the midst of desperation and death, Katherine has decisions to make. But she has no idea to what extent they will affect her daily life and livelihood.
The town is turned upside-down when the gold miners go on strike. The owners bring in outside reinforcements, ready to break the resolve of the Western Federation of Miners. Everything in an upheaval, Katherine faces a crisis of faith and hard choices. Will life ever be normal again?
(photo courtesy of Emily Roesly at morguefile.com)
Years, ago I read this concept from author Robert Newton Peck, “Stay in the phone booth* with the gorilla.”** Basically what it means is if you are in the midst of action, especially dangerous action, you shouldn’t have flashbacks or time for introspection. Those things pull the reader out of the action, and remind them that what they’re reading is not real. And we want the story to feel as real as we can possibly make it. Flashbacks and introspection are great for when the character isn’t dangling over the edge of the cliff.
Recently I saw a different form of this in someone else’s story. The monster is coming, bad things are happening, and everyone is going to die unless the heroine can overcome the monster. Then the action was put on hold while the heroine takes time to say good-bye to four different people. What? Wait! I thought the monster attack was imminent. Therefore, the monster would arrive and crush everyone and the story’d be over. I suggested to the writer that those good-byes shouldn’t happen in a safe bubble. In a movie we'd be seeing and hearing what is going on around the heroine as she has these conversations. We’d know how far away the monster was and would see and hear him getting closer. But that action wasn’t written in, so I as a reader didn’t experience it. There weren’t sensory details outside of these five people. I didn’t feel the danger. The tension was diminished. Then, once the heroine’s good-byes are done, the action picks up again. Almost like, oh yeah, the monster.
Sometimes less is more. Isn’t it more poignant when the reader knows the hero loves the girl, but doesn’t get to say so as he rushes off to his possible death? I like how Kelly Barnhill says it, “I tell my students: Tension=the raft is headed for the falls and the character's struggle to divert. Action=point of no return.” No one is going to be making long speeches in this situation.
Along with this make sure your descriptions during a tense time are only what’s necessary and add to the tension. It’s doubtful that someone on a raft in a fast river is going to be paying much attention to the beautiful red rhododendron flowers under the dark evergreens when he is headed for the falls. That information could be introduced earlier, before the danger. Instead the details during a tense time need to be those things that make it worse. The sound of the falls getting louder. A log hitting the paddle and knocking it out of the person’s hand. The spray of water, the loosening of board on the raft…
To sum up:
- Keep the action moving in a tense situation.
- Don’t stop it with flashbacks or introspection – save those for the times in between.
- Sometimes less is more - no long speeches.
- In a tense scene focus on description that adds to the tension.
*Some of you may be too young to remember, or may not have even seen the enclosed glass phone booths, except in movies. They really only fit one person comfortably. Think standard restroom stall cut in half with a folding door that folds inside the booth. And scrunch it into a square box. If you were in a phone booth with a gorilla, you’d be so up close and personal with the gorilla that you’d smell his breath, see his teeth right close to your face, and would be uncomfortably smashed against the glass or the phone itself. It doesn’t leave room for thinking about anything but “get me out of here!”
**For further reading, check out Secrets of Successful Fiction by Robert Newton Peck.
Chuck Wendig says, “Writers are not born. They are made. Made through willpower and work. Made by iteration, ideation, reiteration. Made through learning — learning that comes from practicing, reading, and through teachers who help shepherd you through those things in order to give your efforts context.”
Read, read, read what you want to write. And not just the old favorites, but new books in the genre. Learning what is out there—the genres, the styles, the lengths, the ways “things are done”—will improve your writing.
Take classes, workshops, and go to conferences and retreats where you can learn about your genre and connect with other writers and with editors and agents. I always glean some nugget by listening to others, and participating in these events. And I got my adult novel published because of word of mouth from another writer. If I'd stayed in my house, I wouldn't have met her and heard about this publisher.
Get in a critique group or do manuscript exchanges. I have learned so much from my critique partners over the years. Not only do I learn by what they say about my pieces, but I learn from what I see in theirs. We teach each other because we all have different areas where we excel.
Write, and keep writing! If you want to be a writer, that means you have to actually write. This is where the will and hard work comes in. Schedule a time. Put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and put something on the blank page. Any kind of writing is better than none, but it’s better if you have some kind of goal and can meet it. E.g. “Today, I’m going to get one scene written.” “I’m going to write for a minimum of one hour.” “I’m going to complete the first draft of my short story.” I love this quote from Jack London, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” Yes, the act of writing itself can inspire you. Putting thoughts down will make more thoughts come.
Writing is also about rewriting. Isn’t it a relief that you don’t have to get your writing exactly right the first time? You can revise and rewrite and edit it as many times as necessary. I find it helpful to have space between the time I wrote something and when I come back to edit. That helps me see it afresh and discover what isn’t working so well, or is overdone or incomplete. Reading aloud helps me hear errors and see missing or wrong word. Only when it is the best I can make it, do I submit.
To sum up there are: “Three Rules for Literary Success: 1. Read a lot. 2. Write a lot. 3. Read a lot more, write a lot more.” -Robert Silverberg
I recently read a published book and a work-in-progress where the backstory bogged down the action. In one, backstory was blatantly put in dialogue in such a way that it felt very unnatural. In the other, the backstory was aimed to get the reader back into the world that had been written in book one, but it wasn’t personal to the character. Or at least I couldn’t tell how it was personal. All of the information was overwhelming. It’s a common problem.
Let’s talk about various ways to NOT include backstory.
The Info Dump
Written like a character interview or a summary, it tells the reader the character’s history. This is how such an item might be written for my book ALONE. The book is written in first person, so this is also in first person:
After the death of my mother, I learned how to be sole cook and bottle washer before I was sixteen. After graduating from high school, I started my first job as a housekeeper when my father remarried. I’m twenty-five now and have completed college, but have continued working as a live-in housekeeper. I love running houses and doing all the cooking.
This past summer I was looking for a new job as a cook/housekeeper for several months when I heard that Mark Andrews, my favorite bestselling author, needed one. I jumped at the chance—applied and was accepted, packed up my possessions, and moved from California to Colorado.
All those things are true for my character, but not an exciting way to start out a story. It’s not till Chapter Six in the book that Mark Andrews asks Cecelia how she became a housekeeper and she responds. We do find out in Chapter One she moved from California to Colorado, but it’s in the midst of an argument with her new employer, versus a recitation of facts.
Or it might be world building that’s dumped on the reader. This is especially something seen in fantasy or sci-fi. There’s so much about the world, how it is different from the here and now. It’s all about the technology or the magic. It’s an introduction to the society, the setting, the time period, the culture. Sometimes we don’t even meet any characters. (Sorry, I can’t write an example.) But sometimes you hear it at the beginning of movies—that voice over with a variety of scenes flashing by. It always makes me want to say, “Get on with it!” And even if I like the movie, it’s the part I fast forward past on a DVD or in digital format.
So sprinkle your backstory in. If your reader doesn’t need to know it now, don’t include it. Show us the culture and setting instead of telling us about it. Let us see the character interacting, struggling, doing—we’ll be more interested.
If your character is saying something to another character that the second character already knows, it’s likely to sound odd. For example: “You know how I was working on my math homework, Mom? Well, it’s done,” Stephen said. “You said I could go to Eric’s when I was finished, so now I’m going.” That doesn’t sound very kidlike. A kid would be more likely to shout out, “Mom, I’m done! Off to Eric’s now.” Stephen slammed the math book shut and dashed out the door. See how I worked in the backstory with a bit of action?
Or if your character’s dialogue is all about getting information out—not a conversation or conflict, it’ll sound forced. E.g. “Dan lost his job two months ago” Lisa said. “He got fired for arguing with the boss about some ethical question. And now his unemployment is about to run out. But his wife doesn’t know he’s not working. He gets up every morning, dresses like usual, and goes out the door at the same time. I think he goes to an internet café and does job hunting. Or maybe he plays computer games all day. I don’t know, but it’s all going to come crashing down when he doesn’t have any more money.” It’s a lecture. It’s telling. Even if there is interaction with another character, it doesn’t change what this character has to say. It doesn’t move the story forward. Nothing is happening besides talk.
Conversely, if you include snippets of backstory in dialogue naturally, and things are happening in the story, no one will notice the backstory.
Think of it this way. When I meet a new-to-me person, I might shake her hand and introduce myself. But I don’t go on and on with my backstory. E.g. I’m a writer. I have two daughters—both are married. I have three grandsons. My husband and I have lived here for almost five years. Before that we lived in Kansas, then the Seattle area, and before that New Jersey and Denver. Of course, we lived in the Seattle area before. We’ve also lived in Eugene, Albany, Corvallis, and Klamath Falls, Oregon. We have a dog and a cat, and when these two die, don’t plan on getting any more. AGHHH! The woman would probably slip away from me as quickly as she could. Instead, we find information about each other gradually. Today I just found out that a friend plays piano—we met about fifteen years ago. We haven’t been in a position for that to come up and there’s been no need to know. It hasn’t hurt our friendship. We’ve dealt with more relevant things when we were together.
Make sure any backstory you include is relevant and comes across naturally. Or as Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.