Back Story – When do you use it? How much should you use? Is it necessary?

Here is an oldie but goodie that I thought I would re-post with some updates:


My blog this week expands on a concept that appeared as a tip in an earlier blog. That tip focused on removing writing that was unnecessary. When I completed my first book, I tried to make sure that all of my characters were fully developed. I created biographies for each of them using templates that I found on the Internet. These templates included sections for physical attributes, motivations, character traits, family background and other biographical details.

In my Frank Rozzani Detective Series, the main character has events in his back story that motivate who he is in the present time. These events pushed him into his career as a private detective and forced him to relocate. My first draft of the book had two full chapters devoted to Frank’s back story. I thought that readers would want all of this rich detail about his former life in Syracuse, NY along with his family history and the tragic events that brought him to the present day in the story. I incorporated this as a flashback. I was excited about it and sent it off to my editor.

When I received my editor’s comments, she slashed nearly all of the flashback chapters from the book. She said that it was all unnecessary and that I should be more stingy with the back story and spread it out throughout this book and the ones that would follow. It was a blow to my ego at first, but in hindsight, she was absolutely right.

After this eureka moment, I started looking at the way other writers used back story in their work. Some of them, like John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard use back story very sparingly and only reveal details when they are relevant to the current story. Others like Dean Koontz and, in some instances, Stephen King, use back story to develop their characters into living and breathing people full of complexity. I wanted to land somewhere in the middle and I think, with my first book, and to a greater degree, my second book, I have succeeded somewhat.

Have I mastered the use of back story? Absolutely not. I don’t think, as writers, we ever truly perfect any aspect of our writing. I thought, however, that I would post some tips that I use and that might help you as you look for balance in sharing character background information in your work.

flashback

1) Use the flash back technique sparingly: Unless you are writing a book about time travel, you can really confuse your reader by jumping back and forth in your book. If your reader starts to wonder where and when the story is taking place, you might lose them. If you must use flash back, consider doing it in short doses, such as in a character’s dream. If you have to devote a chapter to it, be certain that the details are relevant to the story.

conversation

2) Consider giving past information as part of a conversation: This technique might involve a character telling their story to another character as part of a conversation. You want to avoid long monologues by your main character. You should try to make the reveal of the back story more of an interactive scene between the characters.

background

3) Incorporate portions of background details as a summary: Many authors use this technique to indicate what has happened in the past. They will reveal details in the character’s background with single sentences.  Here is an example:

“As an attorney, John vigorously went after cigarette manufacturers. He wanted nothing more than to be victorious in cases against them while securing high punitive damages for his clients. This passion was fueled by the deaths of both of his parents from lung cancer.”

believe4) Make the back story believable and realistic: As an author, you should think out the main points of your main characters’  back story. Don’t invent events just to suit your story. The back story should be grounded in some type of reality. You can’t have your character defeat their enemy with a complex form of martial arts if studying the techniques do not make sense in the characters background. Maybe he or she was in special forces or spent time in Asia.

need-to-know-gif

5) Create a situation where the information needs to be known: In my first book, Frankly Speaking, the main character is single and is being pursued by a beautiful, successful woman. Despite her obvious hints, he resists her. When things finally come to a head, he reveals the details of his wife’s murder to her and explains his reluctance to get into a new relationship. This is a case where the reader was aware of some of the details, but other characters were not.

I hope that these tips about back story were helpful to you. I learn more about the different methods to reveal character background details as I read more and apply the techniques that I’ve learned to my own writing. Those things that motivate your characters might be the things that keep your readers interested, especially if you have multiple works that feature the same cast of characters.

 

Independent Publishing in the News

I thought I would start a Sunday feature this week where I point you to various independent publishing and independent author stories that are in the news. Simply click on the links provided and learn.

Fast-Growing Independent Publishers, 2016

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/69573-fast-growing-independent-publishers-2016.html

Why Fiction Authors Benefit from Indie Publishing

http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2016/why-fiction-authors-benefit-from-indie-publishing/

The New Indie and the Self-Publishing Revolution

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/pw-select/article/69603-the-new-indie-and-the-self-publishing-revolution.html

 

 

Amazon’s New Bookstore – Why? What? How?

There has been a lot of media coverage over Amazon’s opening of brick and mortar bookstores. If you’re expecting Barnes and Noble on steroids or Books a Billion, you might want to check out this article. I was expecting a possible venue that would feature indie authors. Silly me. With words like ‘heavily curated’ and ‘surplus stock’ you might want to check out this Forbes article for yourself. Check it out here.

Indie Authors – What is your toughest challenge? Part I of an ongoing series

As an author, there are significant challenges. Finding original ideas and turning them into something interesting is a significant challenge. If you are a traditionally published author, you have to not only find an idea that interests you, but it has to interest your publisher as something marketable and viable so that they can make money. You also have to please your agent so that they will push your work on a publisher.

As an independent author, coming up with ideas, in my opinion, is the smallest hurdle to be faced. Because we are independent, we are free to publish whatever interests us and then take that work directly to the readers. One thing that indie authors discover quickly through social media, there are niche reader markets for just about every genre you can think of. If you like to right paranormal zombie western romance erotica, there will be a group that will read it.

My own genre, private investigator mysteries, seems to appeal to readers of a certain ‘seasoned’ age. That’s fine with me. I will join that demographic in the next ten years or so and these retiring baby boomers have time to read and money to buy books.

I deviated from this genre for my terrorism thriller, Blood Orange, and found that, indeed, the demographics of the readers that favored this book changed. This is something that, as an independent author, I believe you can get away with by searching out the appropriate niche for your writing.

After landing on what genre you want to write in, there are many other challenges that the independent author faces. Becoming known is a significant challenge. When I first started out, I put my first book on Amazon and hoped for the best. My friends and family bought some and posted some reviews.

At this early stage, I got some help from a self-proclaimed expert promoter of independent authors. I did get some traction from some of the things that this person helped me with. Interviews and reviews appeared on various blogs. I was interviewed on a podcast, and slowly but surely, my exposure grew a bit.

I soon found that the techniques that this person was using to help me gain exposure were easily achievable on my own. I gradually started to take these things on and found that my reader base continued to grow steadily.

Getting good, constructive reviews on Amazon and other platforms is a great start. It can be a slow process, however, building up a collection of reviews. One technique that helps is offering your book for free over a weekend. During my first giveaway, I had over 1,000 copies of my first book downloaded and I saw the reviews begin to grow. With the reviews came additional readers.

I want to make this blog post the first in a series that deals with the challenges that we face as indie authors. What I need are your ideas and feedback regarding the challenges that you’ve faced. One thing I learned early on is that I am not competing with my fellow indie authors. We are all in this together and can learn from each other.

So, let’s help each other. Let’s share challenges and ideas so we can grow as a community.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

 

Am I a Real Author?

When I jumped into the indie author scene, it was a calculated risk. Like I do with a lot of decisions, I looked at the pros and cons.

Pros:

  • There are a number of platforms that are easy to publish your work on for little or no cost (Amazon, Nook, Smashwords, etc.).
  • The royalties for sales are pretty decent. If you price a book on Amazon over $2.99, for instance, you will get 70% of what you sell.
  • You can write at your own pace in whatever style you want.
  • You can directly interact with your readers through many vehicles (blogs, mailing, lists, social media, author signing events).
  • There is a fairly organized community of independent authors and you can learn from others and help others that are just getting started.
  • My writing would be judged directly by the readers and not some low-on-the-totem-pole publishing house employee looking for the flavor of the month.
  • Trend-setters like Hugh Howey and Mark Dawson are putting independent authors on the map ranking higher than some traditional best-selling authors.
  • You have creative control over everything! You can select your own cover, hire an editor (or not), title your book, and write in whatever genre you want to.

Cons:

  • Just like with the indie music world, there is a lot of variety out there. There is also good and bad. The key component that differentiates here is quality. Poor spelling, grammar, and formatting occurs at a much higher frequency in the work of indie authors.
  • Getting recognized is hard work. There is no publishing house promoting your book, issuing press releases, and setting up interviews. You are your own social media and blogger.
  • You have creative control over everything! There is no one to point out if the emperor is not wearing clothes. There are no focus groups to select your cover for you or advise you on a title or a genre to write in. You are it.

Obviously, the pros outweighed the cons for me. The main factor was my age. Becoming a novelist after age 50 is daunting enough without the rejection letters and constant queries to publishing houses that don’t want unproven ‘seasoned’ authors. I wanted to get my writing out there and let the readers tell me if it stunk or not. Of course, my first reader was my wife of 30 years. I knew that she would not ‘blow smoke’ if she didn’t like my writing. She liked the first book and that gave me the confidence to move to the next step.

I hired a very intelligent, long-time friend of mine to be my editor. When I say ‘hired’, that’s a bit of a stretch. She edited the book for free with the promise of whatever I could pay her as the book made profits. I knew that, as a friend, this wouldn’t just be a job for her, she would also tell me if the book had weak points, which it did, and be honest about it’s viability, which she was.

In the end, it all worked out. I am now four novels in, along with two non-fiction books, and I still have the same passion I did in the beginning. Am I ready to quit my day job? Not yet. Although, my earnings from writing have doubled each year since I started. Each book I release seems to outperform the previous one. I must be doing some things right.

The one piece that still is elusive is getting that recognition. I’m doing what I can, but it’s still a challenge. This year, I created a street team. I honestly didn’t think that anyone would be interested in promoting my books. I solicited interest from my mailing list and immediately got responses. Instead of the two or three I expected, I got 30 volunteers in the first several hours and cut off the street team membership at that number. They have been a loyal group trudging out to bookstores and libraries loyally with the promise of signed copies of my latest book. I owe them tremendously.

So, I may write more about this in the future. This has been somewhat cathartic. I would love to have this blog start off a discussion. What journey did you go through as an independent author? What has worked and what hasn’t? Let’s help each other.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

About Don Massenzio:

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian-American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series was released on April 24th, 2015 and is available on Amazon.com in both Kindle and Paperback formats.

Welcome to 2016 – Now Let’s Talk

2016

Last night, as I struggled to stay awake, I watched Carson Daly try to control four intoxicated guests in the foreground of Times Square as they waited for midnight and the ball to drop signifying 2016. As they waited, they recapped the “top” stories of 2015. Most of the stories mentioned were the typical celebrity fluff. NBC and Daly seemed to strategically skirt the tragic terrorist attacks in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. I can’t say that I was looking for hard news in this setting, but at least a moment of silence or some form of acknowledgment for the victims of these attacks might have been appropriate.

Now that I’m sounding like an old man complaining about the younger generation, my actual point is quite different. I spent the better part of 2015 researching and writing a book called Blood Orange. The book centers on a devastating terrorist attack on a highly-visible soft target in the United States.

The book’s original date of publication was set for November 13, 2015, the night of the Paris attack. I promoted the book heavily leading up to the publishing date spending a good deal of money on social media advertising.

When the attacks in Paris happened, I was out to dinner with my wife and two daughters. We were watching the coverage on my cell phone and wondering who was behind it. Not long after we began watching the coverage, I received a text from my editor. She asked me if I thought I should pull the book promotion based on what happened in Paris. It didn’t take me long to make that decision. While I was disappointed because I believe in the story the book tells, I didn’t want to be insensitive or appear to be taking advantage of a horrible event for personal gain.

Now that time has passed, and like we always do, Americans have put the tragic events in Paris and Bakersfield behind them, I want to move forward with promoting this book. Blood Orange is important to me in that it shows how vulnerable we are in the United States. We live in a wonderful country with a great deal of freedom. Terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, cripples us in two ways. First, there is the grief for the victims and the disgust of the act. Second, when behavior is changed because of terrorism, the terrorists score a victory.

I am glad I made the decision to pull the promotion for my book, but, at the same time, I am angry that these soulless, misguided individuals that carried out the attacks made me change my behavior.

With that in mind, please indulge me as I begin to heavily promote this book. Those who have read it have been extremely positive in their reactions. Can the story the book tells happen in the United States? Absolutely. Will my writing this book prevent it from happening? Probably not. The story is meant to entertain. It’s not meant to scare or anger its readers.

I’ll be using this space in the next few weeks to tell you about the book and give you some excerpts. My goal is to entice you to buy it, of course, but I also want to take this book out of the shadows and promote it like I originally intended.

If you’d like to read the reviews or get a preview of the book, you can check it out here on Amazon.com.

I am looking forward to 2016. At a time when people are setting (and breaking) resolutions, my sole resolution is to go for it this year. This is my third year of writing and publishing novels. I hope to continue and increase the success I have had thus far. I feel like this is a pivotal year. I hope you come along with me on the journey.

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.

About Don Massenzio:

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian-American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series was released on April 24th, 2015 and is available on Amazon.com in both Kindle and Paperback formats.

He has also published a well-received short story collection that is available on Amazon.com.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com