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.

 

Hugh Howey – Hero of the Indie Author

hugh howeyIf you are an independent author and you don’t know who Hugh Howey is, you should. He recently gave an interview to Digital Book World and he doesn’t back down on his opinions about independent publishing. I hope you enjoy this interview:

http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2016/dbw-interview-with-hugh-howey-author/

 

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

 

 

Reviews Are The Lifeblood of Authors

online-reviewers

As many authors will attest, reviews are one of the most important gifts that readers can bestow upon us. Yes, buying our books is a great thing, but giving us feedback about the books that you’ve read is much more important.

When I buy products on Amazon, because I can’t see or feel the product beforehand, I relay on reviews from other people that have purchased the product to guide me in my purchase. This is true of books.

Reviews also help authors get recognition from Amazon and other venues. They help with ranking and placement in ads.

Your reviews don’t have to be essay’s. You can simply select the number of stars as a rating and leave one or two words. Of course, the more constructive feedback you give, the better it is for the author. We always want to improve our product for future readers.

Recently, I did a sale on my new book, Blood OrangeThe response was great. I’m asking now, if you took advantage of the sale and you were one of the many people that downloaded it, please leave an honest review when you’re done. I have the same plea for my other work.

Your feedback is welcome and greatly appreciated.

Advance Reader Copies – Are They Worth it?

In January I released my 6th book. As I look back over the activities that I’ve used to promote my books it is like going from the Stone Age to the Industrial Revolution. I’m not quite to the point where I can just write. Actually, I’m pretty far from that. As I’ve built up a modest reader base, however, I’ve been able to employ some more advanced promotional techniques.

Issuing advance read copies is one of those techniques that I employed with my last two books. For the book, Frank IncensedI only issued a few. It was partly to get reaction from readers and secondarily to get reviews on launch day. I tried to give the readers enough time so that they could read the book and review it on Amazon, Goodreads, and any other outlet on the day the book was released.

I definitely saw some bump in sales and ranking due to this. For my latest book, Blood Orange, I was much more aggressive in seeking out advance readers. I issued 30 copies to the members of my street team (more on that in a subsequent post) and approximately another 80 copies to people that I sought out through my mailing list. That’s about a 15% hit rate. That resulted in about 15 reviews on Amazon the day that the book was released. Could this have been better? Of course. I was hoping for about 25-30 reviews. This book, however, had extenuating circumstances, but more on that later.

First, what is an advance reader and how does this group differ from beta readers?

Advance readers get the book when it is finished and ready to be published. It is the final edited copy. No changes will be made based on their feedback unless some big, ugly, hairy error is found.

Using advance readers is a coordinated effort. It takes a bit of organization, but you can use technology to help you. Free technology. The first thing I did was compile a list of those that volunteered to be advance readers. The best took I have found to do this is MailChimp. You can import a spreadsheet with your contact list. You can also, for a minimal monthly cost, add automation to the mix. This allowed me to send a reminder to my advance readers a week before the book was released, the day before, and the day after reminding them to review the book. All of this happened while I was happily Internet and eMail free on a cruise ship. The whole MailChimp process is a series of blog posts on its own. Look for that in the future.

There downsides to using advance readers. Of course. That’s why I’ve compiled another handy dandy pros and cons list so you can decide for yourself.

Pros

  • Releasing your book with reviews in place on day one helps your ranking on Amazon
  • You build further rapport with your readers and they enjoy being part of the process
  • Your book appears mature upon release. A lack of reviews makes readers nervous about spending money on your work
  • You get honest feedback from your readers that help you improve quality

Cons

  • Like with beta readers, you are forfeit sales to those that are advanced readers (or do you). I’ve had a number of advance readers purchase the book anyway
  • As with beta readers, you are putting your work at risk. This is true, but it’s at risk even after it’s released as an eBook on Amazon. Most readers tend to be honest.
  • You risk receiving bad reviews. Ouch. If that happens, It probably would have happened anyway, but by giving your book away, you probably increase the odds. You can combat this, of course, by picking your potential audience carefully. The worst review I ever received was my one and only two star review on Amazon. It was one simple word, boring. I was devastated, but when I dug a bit further, I found that the only other reviews this reader had done was for gardening books. And they were just as enlightening. My point is, if you write erotic romance, don’t send your advance reader copies to people who like Christian oriented books.

Advance readers can be useful. Even though the results were not what I hoped for on Blood OrangeI will be using this technique for my next book. The reason it wasn’t as successful for Blood Orangewas the timing. The book was set to release on November 13, 2015. I timed it to be ready for huge Black Friday promotions and planned a marketing blitz throughout the holiday season. If you remember what happened that night, Paris was attacked by ruthless terrorists. Part of the attack was near a sporting venue. My book centers on just that kind of attack. I immediately pulled back on promoting the book and didn’t bother my advance readers, or anyone else for that matter. I didn’t start actively promoting it until after the first of the year. It was a tough decision, but I still feel good about it and I still think the advance reader process is a good one.

Please, those of you who have different experiences with this or questions for me, please reach out through the comments.

The Pros and Cons of Beta Readers for Indie Authors

When I finished my first novel, the only people who read it before it was published were my wife and my editor. I was nervous in anticipation of their reactions, but the suggestions they gave me made the book that much better. Luckily my editor looked at the content and quality of the story along with the punctuation and grammar issues.

My second novel went to a couple of additional readers. I had heard of the concept of beta readers and my editor participated as a beta reader for various authors. A beta reader is someone who reads your book before the final edit. They look for things like the quality of the story, continuity (if your book is part of a series) and the overall appeal of the book.

At first, as I looked at the concept of beta readers, I was hesitant to give away free copies of my book. It was both a matter of trust and economics. As a fledgling indie author, every sale counted. The idea of giving books away, in my opinion, took profits directly from my pocket. Then I looked at this objectively. If these beta readers liked the book, even if they told two friends about my work, my sales could actually increase. Beyond that, I would be able to publish a better product. I know from my work in the Information Technology field, where details are extremely important, additional sets of eyes can help you catch things that you might have missed otherwise.

The group of beta readers that I used for this first attempt at this venture was a small group of trusted acquaintances including my editor’s sister, an English teacher, and a couple of other voracious readers. The benefits I received in return for this preview of the new book were immense. One reader spotted continuity and consistency errors between the first novel in the series and this one. The English teacher spotted some grammatical and punctuation things that my editor missed.

Overall, this was a huge benefit for me and for the quality of the book. Sales were not affected as this book outsold the first by a large margin upon release. For my subsequent novels, I expanded the universe of beta readers somewhat and also moved on to issuing advance reader copies. I’ll have more on that topic in a subsequent post.

I encourage all indie authors to use beta readers. It has helped me improve my product and has helped me further engage with readers. One of the aspects of the reputation of indie authors is a lack of quality. The use of editors and beta readers can help us overcome this stigma and improve the quality of what we produce.

When you are looking for beta readers, you can start with people who have been engaged with you during your writing process. I would avoid family members or fans. You don’t want a flood of positive feedback. You want realistic and constructive criticism that will help you improve and gain more readers and exposure in this highly competitive environment.

So, here are the pros and cons of beta readers as I see them. Your mileage may vary.

Pros

  • Improved quality of your work
  • Identification of significant flaws
  • Better continuity and consistency (if your book is part of a series)
  • More exposure through word of mouth
  • A better idea of how your book will be received

Cons

  • Identification of flaws could mean significant rework and delays in releasing your book
  • Compromising the security of your book. Dishonest beta readers could upload your book to unauthorized download sites. Piracy of eBooks is a huge problem.

It’s up to you whether you use beta readers. I have found benefits that I believe outweigh the downside.

As always, I would love to hear back from you. Tell me about your experiences with or as beta readers. Let’s help each other. Indie authors unite!

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.