Category Archives: Back-story

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!



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Further thoughts on back story

What is the function of back story?

Were you paying attention last time?

Many might say that it explains the character, that it’s essential to enable the reader to understand why a character is behaving as he is (motivation). Yes absolutely true. But don’t forget, and this is the crucial bit, it  has to be woven seamlessly into the plot in a way that feels as if it’s almost invisible. The reader imbibes back story as they discover character, notice how they react, behave and through the carefully placed memories that motivate or foreshadow key moments.

And here’s my further thought — could it be said that back story isn’t to provide answers — but to provide questions?

There lies the essence of the good hook — right?

Have a great day.


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‘Trying to write a story without structure is like trying to invent an airplane without wings’

Yeah it’s a long title and one I plucked out of a book on writing, to be precise Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brookes. *recommended*

He says that no matter how you get there — be it with lot of plotting or through what arises organically through drafting, and whether you know it and think about it as you write or have  natural instinct for what works, structure is essential. Without it the house falls down or the plane doesn’t fly. And even if the architecture is lavish, akin to great writing, beautiful narrative, without structure you have no story. Right? I’ve said that before.

Like a natural law of the universe.

So let’s see writers if he has something new to say …

If the structure isn’t right, he claims, then you fill find it impossible to sell your work — yeah that’s what he says. He says that while experimental structures are interesting, keep the for the lit class not the novel or screenplay you’re trying to sell!

What he talks about is the adaptation of the three-act structure we see in plays — but it’s what we call the 4-part model, and for those who have worked with me professionally you’re recognise this more like the story arc I provide for those struggling with the plot.

Brookes talks about how every story in the world needs to adhere to this structure or it is doomed to fail and this is what I say about the story arc. It’s the same thing essentially but he visualises it as four boxes — these contain the scenes and what happens  to the hero in each box is the result of evolution in a sense, growing — anticipation — foreplay — sex — climax :to use his more crude analogy.

But what he says that I think is important is that what happens in box 1 in the set-up when we meet the character is developed in box 2 and box 2 needs box 1 and box 3 needs box 2 etc. So it is like a child growing. But what does this mean in real terms?

Box 1: Set-up — establishes everything that will follow. It introduces the protagonist and its single mission is to lay the premise, to foreground the key conflict of the story. And only hint at the antagonism in the plot (what do I keep saying? Don’t burden the set-up with too much back story! Lay the foundations!)

The function of Box 1 is: to set-up the plot by creating stakes, back-story and character empathy, while foreshadowing the oncoming conflict.

While you will most likely have the first inciting incident, this is what will foreground the big major plot point. Brookes warns that establishing the conflict too early does not allow time to establish the back-story. I see this when I critique and while I love it when we start right in the action and this is a device that’s fine, you still need to back-track in places as you will see to explain it and sometimes this device, unless handled with skill does not work as well as it should.

The more we understand and empathise with the hero the more we root and invest our time wanting to go with them on the journey, so you need to set-up, but you also don’t need to overdo the back-story so it’s a balance.

Box 1 ends with the reader now engaged and understanding the hero and takes us to the edge of the threshold, the stakes are now raised to the point of no return. So now we have the first major plot point (not to be confused with the first inciting incident which may coincide or may be part of the set-up) — now the story truly begins.

Got all this?

Have I hooked you? This is what Box 1 does (akin to the first 25% of the story) — have a look at how this can be applied to your own writing or the books you’re reading.

And I will resume with the next part tomorrow!

I will get it next week! Second edition!

I will get it next week! Second edition!


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What an editor does …

I love getting up close and personal to other people’s writing — but what I love the most is seeing how suggestions and comments are put into practice and when the final version comes back it is so much better. I feel then that my role is justified.

New writers often ask  what to expect from an editor. Do they change your work? What if you don’t agree? Can you keep it your way?

In simple terms, an editor doesn’t just change your work and write a whole other story the way they’d do it! If they do — sack them! They do offer constructive and useful comments. I would change grammar errors where there is a hard and fast rule ,and I would remove run-on or words I feel are redundant but ONLY in track changes so the author can reverse the change if they disagree. And occasionally, if I think it’s the best way to show it, I will change a sentence to demonstrate  a point — see how this sharpens it, for example — a more hands on approach if I think the writer needs that and more often for a critique than a copy-edit. I tend to favour making suggestions — this is overwritten, consider sharpening — and I might suggest what could be better but leave it to them.

By marking your MS and highlighting the weaknesses it really is the best and fastest way to identify weaknesses in style, plot, narrative etc. I had read a great many books on writing but just reading that you need to show not tell and even with examples you can not always see how that applies to your own writing. So you have to let an editor into that personal creative space.

There are various tell-tale signs of the new writer, and we all do this  when we start to write — head hopping mid scene (often because the writer hasn’t even thought about it), telling rather than showing, overwriting using ‘awkward’ or ‘clunky’ phrasing, adding too much back-story and lifting the reader out of the story, overly long descriptive passages that slow the story, too many adverbs especially after dialogue (it’s telling), telling what’s already shown and use of other forms of repetition to drum home a point (tell the reader only once) and using as any different words for said as they can find!

Now these will all be ironed out as you learn and get feedback and new writers who invest in a professional critique will most certainly find this is a short cut to identifying key weaknesses so by the time they start sending work out it’s good.

If it’s good enough to be accepted or publication another editor will be appointed and you need to trust their judgement.

In my opinion there is no room for divas! Luckily for me this is incredibly rare and by this point the writers know the importance of the editorial process and have long since shed their tiara and  learned to take constructive criticism. They will already know that a good editor or critiquer  is worth their weight in gold. Because, and this is very  much my philosophy,  a critique, a copy-edit, even a proof read is a teaching aid and if you get a good editor you will learn. It’s still you writing it — but an editor makes it stronger — and we all need that guidance. At the end of the day it’s about making your writing as good as it can be. And this should be the goal of the writer and the editor and it has to be the goal of the publisher as he needs to sell the book!

So can you argue with the editor? Insist on not changing things? Of course you can — it’s only one opinion but it has to be remembered it’s a professional and experienced opinion (or it should be if you pay for it) and so you need to think carefully about the advice. But if you did something a certain way for good reason and make a good argument an editor will listen to you and wants you to be happy too.

As someone who has straddled both sides of the proverbial fence, even when I wasn’t so sure there was something wrong with something my editor had questioned —  I looked at it very closely and nearly always made some kind of change to remove any trace of ambiguity. I trusted her and she did make great suggestions.

Don’t be a diva!

Have a great weekend all — out shopping for a new tiara!



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When Characters are Teachers …

How do you see your role as a writer?

I think it’s fair to say I see mine as trying to make sense of the world and by doing so offering another perspective. I think that’s why I am so in love with character narrators with really strong voices. I get to act, to be someone else and as a result, while I have my own views of the world, oddly my characters actually teach me theirs.

Of course I start with my views and there may be some facet of human nature, some flaw of personality, even some unfathomable (to me anyway) behaviour I want to explore in a story. So I start out with a character, take Lydia in While No One Was Watching, my African-American psychic. Where did she  come from? In part she came from Molly another character in another novel that I still plan to rework, but how I really met her was in the  original short story where I saw a room, a reporter and a woman sitting holding a child’s locket. What I saw of her first were her big black hands and the silver chain dripping through her fingers. I saw her lean forward in the chair and I heard her say, “It belonged to a little girl. She disappeared the day Kennedy was shot and was never found.” And from that came the short story that got some amazing comments from the tutors on an Arvon course and later morphed into the novel. But what could this psychic, who in that short story I didn’t quite trust, have to teach me?

Well I tell you she taught me all sorts about what it might be like to grow up in Texas; she was sixteen when Kennedy was assassinated. She taught me there is a little town called Hamilton Park that has a large African-American community. She taught me what it was like growing up with the legacy that there was a time when black people couldn’t ride the bus with white people — or if they did, they had to ride at the back. Seems ridiculous and appalling now but it really wasn’t so long ago now, was it?

Now in the short story I had her papa as the first black magician in Texas as I wanted it to be something he was very proud of and a work ethic he tried to instil in his children. But also it allowed me to use one of my favourite lines, that sadly had to be taken out as you’ll see. Because the short story was an exploration of voice and unreliable narration, the reader wasn’t meant to know if  Lydia could be trusted, and there was a comparison with what her papa did. Now this was still used in earlier drafts of the novel where he was still a magician. I liked the whole sleight of hand thing and in fact that still applies to a little girl disappearing while no one was watching. So it had more levels than just a career I chose for him. But our astute cynical reporter, who sees asking a psychic to find a missing child as a desperate last resort, is even more cynical when he knows what job her papa did.

The reporter looks at Lydia and he says, “So your papa was a magician — is that so?”

And she says, “Is so. And real proud he was too.”

And the reporter leans back and nods and he says, “So he  made ’em disappear and you find ’em, right?”

I liked the whole idea of that, but since the character and her dead papa were explored in so much more depth in the novel, an editor at one of the big agents who worked with me for a while asked me, if her papa was so opposed to what she did, ‘necromancing’ and claims talking to the dead is against God, then — would he be a magician?

Good point.  Excellent point in fact. Worth noting lovely writer friends when you make changes or adapt short stories. The editor was right — his job didn’t fit with my new discoveries about each character so I had to rethink it. And trust me it’s not just a case of saying — oh he can be a baker then or a shoe maker. No and so began another history lesson from Lydia Collins that I reckon she was dying to teach me, I was just too blind to see it before.

So how did Lydia teach me more history?

Well let me tell you. I went back and she showed me what it was like to live in Hamilton Park — and yes it is a real place. And I found out that it was a planned town, designated for the African-Americans. There’s a whole book about it as a matter of fact — link at the end to the book and here is another link that might be of interest:

We’ve all read about slavery and the Jim Crow era, are aware of the prejudices so I did want to move away from stereotypes and as a white person I also have to be really sensitive to this or someone will say — what right do you have to tell a story that’s not yours? And they might have a point. So great care taken. But I had a great teacher and what Lydia taught me was that first of all she had a very proud papa who was now not the first black magician in Texas but the first person in his family to own his own home — in Hamilton Park. She also showed me how many of these people got good jobs too many out at Love Field, the airport very significant to the Kennedy story. And so her papa came to do the same, working for Braniff Airlines. All the pieces were really falling into place. And while he was very proud, Lydia sat me down and she told me, “Debz, my papa was so proud ’bout the way he got through the ‘selection’, folks sayin’ good things ’bout him so he could get that mortgage. but what he never said was how roundin’ all them black folks up together and makin’ their own town was just the same as makin’ a pen for black sheep. Movin’ us to the edge of the town.”

Now what made it into the book, like the line above, evolved from what I read in real accounts. But it’s a whole part of history I knew nothing about and I am so glad that editor made that suggestion. But even happier Lydia taught me about this.

I by no means mean to cause offence to any African-Americans and I hope her voice is authentic and accepted because she is my favourite character, and yes I know you should love all your children equally, but she taught me so much and I hope she continues to as I would love to work with her again. I dare say she will wake me up some night who knows when or how long from now with another story to tell me! And I’ll be waiting.

So I guess what I’m saying is, you might, as the writer, set out with your own views and statements about the world you want to explore through your writing, but sometimes your characters — well they have whole other ideas.

So a good writer, has to also be a good listener.

And maybe my role isn’t just to force my own views onto my readers, but others’ views and really I guess it is to explore new perspectives, just some might not be mine! It’s like gaining sympathy for a character I started out hating! And there are lots of other characters all waiting in line and I guess it’s who shouts the loudest first that gets my attention.

Maybe all I really am is a vehicle for bringing characters like Lydia to you — so you better listen to her, right Lydia?

Yes, Sir. I’m comin’ soon.

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When it comes together …

🙂 🙂 🙂

Just a short post this morning to tell you about my writing yesterday. It’s hard not to have doubts about our own work and that’s how I was feeling about certain aspects of the plot and the voice in my new novel I Am Wolf. It’s strange we put such pressure on ourselves, but I am never satisfied until I am sure it’s as good as I can make it and probably then some.

Writing a novel is not as simple as writing a short story and then making it really long— (simplistic I know!) — it’s an art form in itself and one that takes a lot of work and many drafts to get right. When writers embark on their first novel it is often with naivety and in a way that’s a good thing — because if they knew when they started it might well take 5 years and 15 drafts before it’s possibly good enough to be accepted, would they have done it? (Admittedly this is not the case for all but for many and often it’s the 3rd or 4th novel that is finally picked up.) Now I would have kept on — but many wouldn’t. It’s something you have to do for the long haul. I hear people talking about ‘having a go’ at getting their first novel written for a novel competition and that’s really great but just bear in mind if the writer has not really been published before (in other words might not be quite at the right level yet) and if the draft they submit to the competition is a first draft — be mindful of that fact and don’t’ expect too much. But then again, there are exceptions to every rule and I can only talk from my own experience 🙂 And the last thing I’d want to do is put anyone off! I always have been a positive thinker — but you have to be realistic in your expectations as well of course!

So, anyway, where was I? Oh trying to make this a short post! Yeah the new novel. As I was finishing the switch to first person for all chapters and therefore editing again as I read, I kept having realisations and not just on one or two plot points I worried stretched credibility a little too far, but lots of things. In my search for depth and more sympathy for Amy my protagonist, I added some more back story that showed why she is like she is. And it seemed I had unknowingly added a number of leitmotifs that seemed as if I was foregrounding my new key revelation and yet when I wrote them it wasn’t invented yet! Am I making sense?

It’s this magic that happens somewhere as you write and yesterday those moments of clarification you really need for the big structural edit, were coming thick and fast! I have  lots of notes stapled together next to me and it’s only really near the end where the changes will come into full play.

I love it when it happens this way and I can’t wait to get cracking.

Of course to return to my first point about lots of drafts and lots of work — I would never have got to this point had I not gone through the many other drafts. Like I said — the long haul.

And don’t you just love it. Bring it on.

My aim now is to have a version ready for submission in September before the first novel is out.


It's coming ...

It’s coming … #JFK50 #WhileNoOneWasWatching

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To flash or not to flash … ?

I will keep the post short this morning as I have to get a copy-edit in the post which means forfeiting some of my own writing (but it’s the way it has to be some days) — but that said I plan to devote all of Friday to writing 🙂

I picked a topic by randomly flicking through one of my many writing books this morning to see where it landed. In fact I did it twice. The first talked about using action and reaction in dialogue so you don’t end up with ‘talking heads.’ I say this to my lovely clients a lot — build a scene with forward movement so the actions and body language as characters interact, provides subtext, develops character and moves story.

But then I landed on flashback — something I have talked about before but relevant because of a recent conversation in Novel Group that meet today again as it happens. Our crime writer immediately condemns all flashback — outright. The rest of us disagree. Many teachers of writing condemn the use of flashback echoing the words of Sinclair Lewis the American novelist who when asked about flashback simply said, “Don’t.”

But a great many successful writers do use flashback effectively and I have to confess that I enjoy using the device. But it has to be handled with care.

Ask yourself first and foremost is it absolutely needed? Could the information be imparted in another way because what you really don’t want is to pause the action and leave the reader wondering what happened to the story. And try not to jump into flashback as soon as you start. So if you have a scene in the present and then the rest of the novel is the flashback then consider making that opening scene a prologue instead and setting the rest of the book  in the past.

You might choose an opening chapter set now and then a flashback chapter (I have seen this done very well) but make sure this is executed with care the use of past and present if used in this alternating way carry equal weight and don’t move the reader through too many heads.

I always suggest you try not to linger too long in a flashback, although I have read and written longer ones but so long as they are absolutely needed for story and really take the reader back there without stunting the flow of the story then it’s okay — but it is a skill that needs developing.

And also look carefully at how you flash in and out of the scene using carefully crafted triggers that are very immediate  Someone calls a name and next thing he’s back in the past only now it’s his dad calling him. And avoid too many past perfect tenses — like he had … I would say you might use one in the transition like ‘he’d been playing with matches that day, he must’ve only been seven years old’ … and now go into the past or present tense. So you might continue … ‘so there he was, standing outside his mom’s house, the match book pressed between his fingers and in his head he could hear that little voice saying, “Go on Tommy. Do it Boy.” And next thing he was striking that match the way he’d seen his mom do a hundred times. And it burned his fingers too. But that’s not all burned now, is it? He didn’t mean to drop the match.’

And then something from the present will pull him out, maybe someone talking and calling his name and first of all perhaps the memory continues for a while …

“Tommy — did you hear me?”

And all he kept thinking was what had he done and where was baby Frank, where was his mom, where was the dog? Still in the house as those big old flames started licking up the sides …’

“Tommy — you okay?”

And then he’d seen someone at the window, might’ve been his mom and …

“Tommy, I’ve been calling you.”

He looked at Clara. “You okay? You look like you just seen a ghost.”

“Maybe I did Clara. Maybe I did.”


Now this was written totally off the cuff but see what I mean. What I hope is the flashback becomes part of the present scene and shows just enough and has written all over it ‘to be continued.’ That way you drip feed the memory in as needed.

Have you considered using the back flash? Instead of lifting the reader out of the story and putting them in a flashback you use dialogue to show the same thing in short bursts — these act as narrative hooks. So something like —

“You remember the day of the fire?” Clara said looking over at where his mom’s house once stood.


“You remember how it started?”


“Must’ve been terrible what happened to your mom, and baby Frank.”

But he couldn’t look at her. No he could not. Of course he remembered but no way he was going to tell her how at just seven years old he learned how to play with matches.

See how this imparts the same information. In fact I tend to use a combination of techniques. And like I always say — there are many ways to tell the same story.

So when we talked at Novel Group about flashbacks I think the advice given to and now vehemently followed by our crime writer was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t always work in his style of police procedural writing, but even then I think flashback has its place. But what I will agree with, and maybe what Sinclair Lewis should’ve been saying is not just ‘don’t’ but –– if you don’t know how to do it — don’t.

But I think as one of the many devices that make our writing sharper — yes of course, but learn how to use it.

So to finish with the question I posed ‘to flash or not to flash?’  I think a little flashing once in a while is a good thing.

But be careful where you do it. He he … (snigger into hand).

Have a great day.

Should I flash at this point?..

Should I flash at this point?

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