Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What Successful Writers Need: A Back Door

I found myself figuratively painted into a corner recently. 

In the midst of an unsolvable problem that clearly, to me anyway, the only answered seemed to just let it go. 

It dumped my thinking into a Joseph or Job situation, and all I could do was hide my frustrations. There was a way to work around the problem and accomplish what I needed, but it seemed to involve something like growing spider legs and walking across the ceiling. 

Sometimes frustrations soak into our pours to nudge us into asking for help or an opinion. Maybe there is a secret lever, knob, button in the trapped corner, that when pressed opens the door of escape, the better path, or the perfect answer, but we can't see it because our back is against the wall.

Of course, these corners appear in many areas of our lives, not just our stories. But these same real-life situations are important because they affect our writing by touching our heart.

Here are some tips to help you:

1. Pray - Ask God. 

This had to be number one on the list. For my recent problem, I decided to remain standing in my painted corner. God allows these opportunities to give us strength. A sandpaper situation to smooth yet another ragged area of life. Sometimes we become so engulfed in the problem, we are blind to a solution and forget to ask God for help. 

Yep, right behind me, poking me in the back, sat a secret knob in the wall waiting for me to twist and push open. The solution didn't provide an easier way. It provided a way that would enable everyone involved to accomplish their task. Fancy that. God engineered the best solution, not me. 

2. Fresh Cup of Coffee Solution - Ask someone else.   

Which would you rather have: a reheated in the microwave cup of yesterday's coffee/tea or a fresh-brewed cup? 

There are thousands of ideas, situations, experiences from your life all stored in your head. Many would make great stories. But as you write and pull from these situations do you find them somewhat lacking in fresh appeal? Wouldn't it be nice to bring a fresh take, one that would intrigue readers and add a sparkle to your memories? 

Ask someone else who experienced a similar situation. Just as our characters have different POV's, so also do our neighbors, family, and friends. Here is an example: I happened upon one of those contest TV shows. Backstage, one of the contestants became frustrated with his partner. He said, "Her eyes are going like ping pong balls in her head." Ooo I thought. Now there is a fresh take on searching aimlessly for an answer.

You might be surprised who you could ask for an idea, confirmation of a plot, scene, character, subplot, conflict, etc. Get away from your screen and notes to listen to conversations. Summer is a great time to learn from neighbors. watch a movie, or go for a walk. Listen to the words and sounds around you for fresh takes. 

Simon from the singing duo Simon and Garfunkel told an interviewer his ideas for songs came from walking the city streets. Many of his rhythms and sounds repeat what he heard on those walks and the messages reflect what he saw. 

Also, have you noticed the best quotable lines from written works have great rhythm?  

Make a fresh pot of ideas, add flavors from others, heat up the brew or serve some iced. 

3. The Look in the Mirror Solution - Ask yourself

You had a great idea for the outfit you were going to wear today . . . until you saw yourself wearing the clothes in the mirror. Five or six changes later, you found the perfect choice.

For both plotter or pantsers our ideas can seem wonderful and flow across the page. At some point, we look back and realize the idea didn't exactly work. It needed tweaking, or in some cases trashing.  

Maybe you need to wash the idea. Get rid of wordiness, scrub out excessive backstory, use a new setting/add a new character/delete a character.

Iron out the idea wrinkles. Something doesn't flow, doesn't fit the situation, time/season doesn't work, the male character sounds girly/the female sounds masculine, the child too old/the adult too young, the MC should be changed to a secondary character, the POV should be someone else's, etc.

Now try on the cleansed idea, conflict, plot, dialogue, issue. Does it look better?

Sometimes the obvious stares us right in the face and we can't see it. A can't see the tree for the forest moment. 

Hopefully this has helped you see a direction: 

Ask God. 

Ask Someone else. 

Ask yourself.

Today, I open the door for you. Is there something you are struggling with that we can offer help? A friend recently asked me to help her determine a lie for the hero to believe. Maybe we can brainstorm yours. Do you need a fresh idea, tweak, sparkle, word of encouragement? Or perhaps you have a prayer request. 

We love to hear from you.

photos above courtesy of

This blog post is by Mary Vee

Mary has moved to Michigan with her husband, closer to her three college kids. She misses the mountains of Montana, but loves seeing family more often. She writes contemporary and romance Christian fiction with a focus on the homeless population and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories on her ministry blog, God Loves Kids.

Visit Mary at her website and her ministry blog to families: God Loves Kids. Or chat on Facebook or Twitter


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Great post, Mary! It is so applicable to our lives and our writing. I always pray about those things, but it is always nice to run it by a friend too!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks, Sherrinda:)

Sometimes crawling out of my own space is like the bear waking from hibernation, rubbing eyes and saying, what did I miss?

Unknown said...

Such good tips, Mary!!

Unknown said...

Such practical advice! Gaining an outside perspective can be so essential to helping us peer into our stories through a new/fresh lens. Though, sometimes those external opinions or critiques can leave me with more questions than direction. Right now I'm wrestling to determine how much of and how soon to include my POV's backstory. An editor suggested I explain more of the backstory right away so that readers can understand the character's motivations/actions, but I was under the impression it was better to let readers gradually get to know the character throughout the story.

jeannetakenaka said...

Mary, what a great, practical, encouraging post. I needed this today. And you're right, prayer should come first. Sometimes I forget that. :)

And thanks for the reminder that the first idea may not be (probably won't be) the best idea. I may have to try on five or six before I get it right. Loved your word picture for that.

Each of your suggestions was great.

Jill Weatherholt said...

Thank you for this encouraging post, Mary. Prayer is always the road map I use for this journey. Like Crystal, I would like to pick your brain a little on backstory. I've tried very hard to keep backstory to a minimum, but then I'll read a book that has major backstory. It can be so confusing! :)

Julia M. Reffner said...

Mary, so well said today. Thank you! Getting a fresh word from someone else really helps. Lately I've been asking my CG to help me get unstuck from some plot tangles I have in my story. I do think I'll be moving on to a new story later this year, but it feels good to know I've taken the story farther than I thought I could. Right now I'm just looking to know that I keep improving.

Angie Dicken said...

Hi Ladies! Mary's not going to be around internet until this evening, so I would love to respond to these great comments on her behalf!

Angie Dicken said...

Thanks for stopping by, Melissa!

Crystal and Jill, That is such an interesting question. I have heard a formula from someone about how to have certain amount of backstory revealed in a number of sentences in the first section, then a paragraph in the next ten pages...and so on. Does anyone know that formula?
It sounds like the editor might have been giving you advice pertaining to your specific story. Have you considered a prologue? I am definitely still learning about this also, so if anyone wants to continue this conversation, I think it would be great! Thanks for initiating discussion, Crystal!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

I'm by no means an expert on backstory, but I'll share what I've heard at My Book Therapy. They say breadcrumbs only, particularly in the first 50 pages because you want to draw the reader into the character's present life. Frontloading the book with back story slows down the story and keeps the reader from connecting with the character.

Breadcrumbs might look like an internal thought or reaction. For example if something happened in a character's past and they responded in a certain way, they might respond to a similar situation the same way, even though it may not be appropriate in the current situation. Does that make sense?

MBT recommends when you share back story, not to "dump" it onto the page with paragraphs of it. When your reader cares about the character in the present, they'll be more interested in what happened to make the character who s/he is today.

They recommend sharing a character's dark moment at about the half way point of the story, and doing it in dialogue--much more powerful that way.

I know this isn't in depth, but I hope it helps. :)

Angie Dicken said...

I also love how Mary brought up prayer. When I truly submit to prayer first and foremost, my writing seems to flow so much better...or my story takes a much needed twist!

Angie Dicken said...

Jeanne! Thanks for this!! MBT is amazing! What a great explanation.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jeanne. Yes, that's how I had understood it based upon some "how to" books I've read.
The editor told me that the readers should know everything the POV character knows, and I couldn't reference it in dialog without first (or immediately afterwards) explaining it. Otherwise, it creates reader fatigue rather than suspense.
She threw me for a bit of a loop. But I'm so new at this that I might be getting myself confused by trying to merge together all the bits of advice I'm learning from different sources.

Pepper said...

Angie to the rescue!!
Great post, Mare. Like everyone else said, what an encouragement.
I need to remember to pray more! I use the 'help me, God' prayer a lot, but I need to go deeper :-)

And I LOVE the cup of coffee (or in my case, tea) Where would we be without our wonderful friends!

Jill Weatherholt said...

Thank you for taking the time to explain your understanding of backstory, Jeanne. I really appreciate it and it makes complete sense.
Thank you, Angie!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I am so blessed.
Somehow I think God used the message of this post to provide your answers...namely I had to ask others to provide answers.
My mom is ill, so I spent the afternoon helping her. Didn't have Internet.
BUT I did have friends, godly friends who gave outstanding advice.
I am so blessed.

Mary Vee Writer said...

I think we can have someone do a post on backstory here on the Alley. Stop back for some more in depth answers. :)