Friday, April 29, 2011

Effective Ways to Add Backstory

As writers we all know the importance of Backstory. If done properly backstory can  enrich the story, but an overload of it can detract from the main plot. Backstory is like adding salt to a dish. Too much of it and the dish gets spoilt: the excess salt suppresses all other flavours, and  too little of salt can do the opposite: no flavour is heightened, the feeling one is left with is that the dish lacked the most vital ingredient. 

Why  do we use backstory? Because the reader needs to know significant/important  things about our character. Why has the character turned bitter, lost his/her will to live, why is he/she over suspicious, why do they have health problems, or don’t trust anyone? 

I love adding backstory. I have realized there are many ways to add backstory. I have adopted few of them in my WIP. Here they are:

Via Dialogues. The backstory can make its introduction in the course of conversations. Readers seldom get bored with conversations.

Through short and succinct past visits which can be achieved through what I call- objects that trigger memory prompts. The character chances upon an object from his or her past and it triggers a stream of memory or backstory  associated with it.

Through the via via route. A character chances upon a person or object that acts as a trigger for  more memories. I would call this  Memory Association, associating one thing with another.

Reminicising and nostalgia is another way of adding backstory. This can be achieved by going over past events in a character’s head.

Flashback. This often over used technique should be used sparingly as it requires active use of the passive voice which can slow down the pace of a story.

Using nature, seasons and weather as stimulus. A rainy day can trigger memories of another rainy day, a tree or the chirping of birds can be a backdrop for more backstory.

Taking the Anniversary route. Most people remember the dates when certain incidents  happened in their lives. These events or incidents’ anniversaries can be triggers for backstory associated with them.

I sometimes struggle with adding backstory. Either I add too much, or too little. I am trying to find a balance that will  keep the reader interest alive and at the same time not weigh the story down.

How do you all add backstory? How much do you think is too much? How much do you think a reader needs to know? What do you do to consciously avoid an excess of backstory? Please share your  views and techniques with us. We  can learn and improve from your method.

Picture Credit and Copyright Melissa Crytzer Fry

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Our MC’s Mental and Emotional Quotient Decoded

When we create our Protagonists, I am sure we all pay attention to every aspect of their personality and life. The literary journey they undertake  is planned and plotted in detail.

We have a clear picture or a visual image of our Main Character’s physical appearance. While working on my current WIP, I pondered over  my MC’s (a young girl)  Mental and Emotional Quotient to get a clearer picture of her personality.

 Here are a few guidelines that help us  in creating the Emotional Quotient of our MC’s :

  1. Is our MC an introvert, extrovert or  an ambivert. Do these traits become her asset or work to her disadvantage? Is our MC a loner,  or, a people’s person? 
  1. Do our MC’s have  concrete goals in their lives, or are they drifters, floating aimlessly wherever life takes them? 
  1. Is our MC prone to emotional mood swings, or is he/she an emotionally balanced and stable person. Do these emotional see-saws affect her relationship  with people and make her commit  mistakes? 
  1. Is he or she prone to anxiety/worries/stress, or are they confident of  their abilities to get out of tight spots and tricky situations? 
  1. Is the MC’s mentality that of  a spendthrift, a  stingy person, secretive, or a hoarder? 
  1. How is the MC’s behaviour towards  people: disdainful, respectful, tolerant. Is he/she the type who just cannot be bothered about people, as they feel most people are just  a waste of their time. 
  1. Is the MC a snob, who considers most of humanity  below her/his dignity, or is the MC a humble kind, eager to please. 
  1. Is the MC aggressive or assertive? By assertive I always stress that we stand up for ourselves, voice our anger over injustice and indignities. Aggression is resorting to Bullying Tactics. 
  1. Is the MC someone who forgives easily  or are they the kind who hold grudges  and need to settle scores. 
  1. Is the MC the type who takes herself/himself  and life seriously, or are they the chilled out type; the happy go lucky. 
  1. Is the MC the God fearing type, or an atheist? Does this trait affect her behaviour and influence her judgements and reactions to situations? 
  1. Is the MC a dominating type, or submissive, or in between? 
  1.  Does the MC belong to the species who are quick to jump to conclusions, or does he or she believe in giving  people a benefit of doubt? Is the MC judgemental? 
  1. Is  our MC a selfless human, or do they believe in  plain self-interest over everything else? Is the MC a people user? 
  1. Is our MC a Snob, or is he/ she a modest  person? 
 What kind of an MC have you created? How do you work on the Mental and Emotional Quotient of your MC’s. Any pointers that you all would like to share with us?

Picture Credit and Copyright Melissa Crytzer Fry

Friday, April 22, 2011

An Amazing Literary Device : the MacGuffin

While researching for literary devices for a project, I came across something called a MacGuffin, its also called McGuffin or maguffin. I have to admit that I had not heard of this term before. MacGuffin is supposed to be an element of plot that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.  It’s frequently used in films, television and literature. The main or defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are, atleast in the beginning of the story willing to do anything or sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.       
The article further went on to say that the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be vague, ambiguous, undefined, generic, sometimes left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples of a MacGuffin are money, victory, glory, to gain prestige, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, a feeling of one upmanship, jealousy, it can also be something entirely unexplained.

The MacGuffin is  said to be common in movies, especially thrillers. They are also more often than not, the central focus of the movies in the first act, the MacGuffin declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out in the second act. It may return or come into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is eventually forgotten by the end of the movie. Multiple  MacGuffins in a story are referred to as plot coupons.

Few examples of  the use of the literary device MacGuffin in  films are the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane, the rabbit’s foot in Mission:Impossible III, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and Ronin and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar.  Its believed that in crook stories the MacGuffin is  almost always the necklace and in spy stories its almost  always the papers.

In television examples of MacGuffin are the Rambaldi device in Alias, the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek:The Next generation episode “A Matter of Perspective.” 

Opinions are divided about the MacGuffin, according to Alfred Hitchcock a “MacGuffin is the object around which the plot revolves, but, the  audience  really don’t care as  to what  specifically the object is, it can be anything.”  George Lucas has a different opinion, “he believes that the Macguffin should be powerful and that the audience should care about it as much the fighting heroes and villains on screen.” Two contrary opinions to add to the chaos.

Taking a magnifying glass, I analyzed my own story. I  think I can detect a MacGuffin,  but, I am not very sure about it, as I am completely clueless about this literary device.

Have you ever added a MacGuffin to your story? If yes, how did you do that? Would you be interested in adding one in future? If you have any MacGuffin tips we all would love to learn from it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are our Characters Based on Real People?

“Are your characters based on real people?” a close friend asked me this interesting question. Though I denied it at that time, her question got me thinking. The characters we create are purely fictitious and a part of our make believe world, but if we are honest,  can we say with conviction that they have no connection  with our real life or real people.

As writers we draw inspiration from diverse sources: newspaper articles, movies, T.V serials, and  incidents that happen in society. The inspiration for our characters too is derived from real life. People we encounter or interact with, even the ones we just hear about  but have never met, subtly influence our character sketches. Maybe we do not add our assorted aunts and uncles into our books, but bits and pieces of them worm their way into our characters: an aunt’s attitude, an uncle’s way of talking  or laughing, a cousin’s physique, even a grandparent’s  behaviour echoes in the behaviour of the old people we create.

My friend’s question made me search my books and stories for real life inspiration. I was surprised at what it revealed. One of the characters in my current WIP, a snob who looks down  her powdered nose at everything is based on one of my aunts ( I am not telling who it is). As a child I was fascinated both by her beauty and snobbishness.  It was then natural that the object of my childhood awe crawled her way into my book. Thank god, none of my aunts read, else there would be a war in the family if the person recognizes herself in the story. Or worse still if she demands a percentage of the royalty when the book gets published. The great grandmother in the same WIP is also based on a great aunt whose jolly nature had me in splits throughout childhood.

A character in another book is based on my school teacher who had this habit of throwing pieces of chalk at inattentive students. My bench mate  in school,  thanks to my constant chatter  was hit several times with chalk. Just imagine if this teacher had the habit of throwing the duster (shudder).

We are surrounded by people all the time, this rich source of inspiration is there for us to freely tap into. As long as we don’t reveal who the character is based on, we can safely get inspiration for our characters from real life people. So, don’t you think we should all love our aunts and uncles and probably send them cards and flowers, as they are doing us a huge favour by inspiring us to create unique and quirky characters.

Now tell me honestly, have any of your real life influences crept into your character sketches albeit in a tiny, unsuspecting way. I promise not to sneak. My lips will be sealed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Passing Some Bloggerly Love to my Friends

From the past few months I have been hoarding plenty of bloggerly love I  have received from my blogging friends. Its high time I spread and pass the love to my friends.

 Kenda, Liz and Damyanti passed me the Stylish Blogger Award.
My Awardees are

  1. Anne R Allen @ Anne R Allen’s Blog
  2. Rachit @ Weakest Link
  3. Alka Gurha @ Freebird
  4. Aron White @ Mumbo Jumbo by Aron White
  5. Sogyel Tobgyel @ And There’s More to Life
  6. Lingchen Jurmey Dorji @ Ling’s World
  7. Kuenzang Thinley @ Kuenzang Thinley’s Blog
  8. Sheryl Gwyther
  9. Kim Koning @ Dragonfly Scrolls
  10. Cheryl Klarich @ Writing Remnants
  11. Tony  Benson @ Fireside Park
Shallee gave me the From Me  To You Blogging Award. I pass this onto


2.      Ellie Garrat
3.      Melissa Crytzer Fry @ What I Saw
5.      Alexia Chamberlynn

Kim  Koning passed me the Sunshine and Sisterhood Award. This award has traveled all the way from New Zealand. Both these awards I pass on  to my long time writing friends who should actually get the bravery award for putting up with me for more than a year and never failing to leave a comment.
I pass both the Sunshine and Sisterhood Award to:


4.      Elizabeth Mueller
9.      Rahma @ Guardian Cats

I love both receiving and passing the awards to  all my friends who I have connected with  big time. Enjoy the awards friends and pass them on to more lovely bloggers.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why do Writers have to be Market Savvy?

Once upon  a long time back, a writer’s work ended after the  manuscript was  submitted to a publishing house. After that, all  that the writer had to do was to work on rewrites the editor demanded, and go over the edits and the proofs and maybe do a book reading or two.

The scenario has done a complete volte face now. Today publishers are not just looking for perfect and polished manuscripts that require very little editing, they are also looking for writers who come with ready made platforms: blogs, websites, facebook like pages and twitter followers.

 This way the publishing houses with limited budgets to market each writer, do not have to spend a lot of money if writers arrive with marketing packages and are willing to plug all gaps to give their books a leg up and the much needed visibility.

In this scenario, it becomes important for writers to be a part of several forums: book clubs, writer’s guilds, facebook, twitter, other social networking sites and start their blogs and make connections with other writers and their readers.

Many writers  wait too late to join and build platforms. By then their books are out and have faded from memory. I realized the value of Facebook a year and half back, when a good friend of mine who never reads books, mentioned an author’s book launch. At my raised eyebrows, he sheepishly admitted  that he  had read about the book on Facebook as the  author and he had few common friends, and the common friends had shared the launch photos.

I was impressed. If genuine book haters (my friend is one of them)  become aware of book launches via facebook, then what about book lovers like us. Social networking sites, though a big time suck, can be a huge blessing for us if used effectively.

The ideal  time frame is to slowly start  making genuine connections with the writing fraternity: writers, publishers, editors and agents, and also the readers when the book contract is signed, maybe even before its signed. Practically everyone is on facebook and is net savvy, so making connections  is not that difficult. This way  people  are familiar with the writer’s  name even before the book  is released. The point to be noted is connection and not forcing oneself on  others. If the writer comes across as too pushy, there will be no denying the fact that people will shy away from such a person.

These connections help in spreading the word when books are launched, in the way of author interviews, giveaways, book reviews and guest posts. Waiting too long to take the plunge doesn’t take the writer far. Writing is time consuming, so it becomes all the more important for writers to do everything  they can to give their books visibility and spread the word around.

I was one of the late starters. My first lot of books have faded from public memory. I didn’t do much to market them, other than the mandatory newspaper interviews organized by my publisher.

My  advice to other writers would be to get Market Savvy. Are you all  big time social networkers? At what stage of your writing did you all start building a platform and making connections. What are you all doing to give your books visibility? Which sites have you joined? We would love to hear  your views.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Whose Job is it to Sell the Books?

When I googled  publishers in India last year, my search engine threw up many names, several names I had never heard of. As I waded through the  publishing houses: some new and few old, I was taken aback to see that  one publishing house had a form writers had to fill before submitting their manuscripts online. “What are the things you are going to do to publicize your book?” was the question. It was followed by a condition that the writer had to pick half the books that were printed.

 Assuming that the first print run was a 1000 to 3000 copies for a new author, that would make it  anything from 500  to 1500 copies that  writers had to sell on their own. That’s way too much  to give away free to family, friends and acquaintances, because no one will buy books from the writer, everyone would expect a free copy.

Many times I have seen writers trying to sell books on their own, I would always wonder why. As writers we can and should talk about our books, spread the word around, but carrying the books everywhere we go to dispose of the copies dumped on us by publishers somehow doesn’t feel right to me. In such cases we may as well sit at the street corner and sell our books. 
Selling books should be a joint effort,  with the publishing houses undertaking major portion of the work ( most publishing houses, with the exception of very small ones, have a wide network of distributors and retailers). Most writers have blogs and websites, so they are already in the marketing/building a platform game. Writers can chip in by attending events organised by the publishing houses, having book discussions  and interactive sessions with readers who attend the events  many large book shops conduct on  a monthly basis. Publishers can even give writers a list of libraries and book clubs in their towns, I am sure most writers would grab the opportunity to publicize and discuss their work.

I have seen atleast in India, that when these events are organized by publishers it carries more weight, than when a writer does it all by himself/herself. At events arranged by the writers, only family members and close friends turn up. Very few people, unless we have a personal connection with the people  in authority,  will  go out of the way to plug  our books.

Do you think its right for publishers to demand that the onus of selling books should fall on  a writer’s weary shoulders. Writing a book is a demanding job, getting it published more demanding, and on top of that expecting writers to take responsibility for selling them is asking for too much. It’s  like asking a sick man to donate blood. Would you  take  the responsibility of selling  half your books? To what extent would you go to help your publisher? Please share your views.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Some Writing Prompts to Trigger Creativity

I came across few of these writing prompts in a book. I tweaked and modified most of them to suit our  current needs: keeping our WIP in mind. I am sharing them with you all, in the hope that it will help us out of tight spots and knots in plots.

  1. Select an ordinary domestic item  such as a teapot, a mug, a jeweled brush, a broom and write an article on it. For eg: the jeweled brush can belong to a princess, the broom can be a witch’s who has lost her magic powers. This prompt  creates wacky short stories.

  1. Write a conversation between your protagonist and antagonist. This prompt can pinpoint  the weaknesses and strengths of  both the protagonist and antagonist and will assist when its time to bring them face to face.

  1. Interview your protagonist at different ages: 7,11,15,19, 23, we can even reach their old age. I am sure this prompt will be fun and will help us with our protagonist’s goals. What kind of a person has our MC become in old age, have they achieved everything that they set out to do? How did they achieve everything? Are they happy, or bitter?

  1. Try Time Warps. Imagine you or your protagonist coming back from the future and confronting your present self, or, the present day world. We can also send the protagonist into an alternate universe. This writing prompt can also be tried for the antagonist.

  1. Take some unusual  pictures and  write about it from the Point of  View of one of the characters in your WIP. This will make us see things from that person’s perspective and give us a peep into that character’s mental makeup.

  1. Stare into the fire, clouds, rain, tree, a table, or, even a house and see what pictures start to form. The setting sun or the sunrise are wonderful prompts. Write the scenes that you see  from the point of view of your protagonist. What feelings do these  scenes evoke? What is the protagonist’s emotional state when he/she encounters the above scenes?

I seldom try Writing Prompts (I may have just tried few). But these have motivated me to give them a go. What about you all? Do you do writing prompts, or, are you like me and generally give them a  miss? Any favourite prompts you want to share?

Picture Credit and Copyright Melissa Crytzer Fry

Friday, April 1, 2011

How to Add Character Details in a Story?

For me it’s a personal  favourite to add  the physical details of my characters in  my stories. When I read Little Women, I was surprised. The author had not given  that many  character/physical details about the four sisters. We  readers just knew that the sisters had different traits and personalities.

If it were left to me, I would have given several details about each of the four sister’s physical attributes. This becomes tricky when there are many characters introduced in a book. The reader  can get really bored with too many details. But,  if few details were to creep into the story in different ways, I am sure the readers would not mind.

 I could not stop smiling when I read my student’s stories.  It reminded me of my own writing when I started out. Every detail of the characters was shoved into the first paragraph: the tall, dark, thin man with a handle bar moustache, dressed in a black pant and blue shirt, his black hair thinning at the sides, grinned, revealing  crooked teeth. Once upon  a long time  back I could be accused of that.  This kind of writing overwhelms the poor reader. Only  few of my students had paid attention to my advice, which I will share with you.

Keep other people’s descriptions as a trigger to reveal something about the character.

The lady’s thick, silky  and lustrous hair  was much like mine, before pregnancy and ill health played havoc with it. Now it was reduced to wisps which was  like  a threadbare carpet through which my scalp was seen.

Let the descriptions come at the most unexpected moments.

There was a knock on the door. The room was lit momentarily when flashes of  lightening cleaved the sky. He walked towards the door, his body stooped like a comma, his arthritic limbs made every step a torture.

The details can crop up during conversations.

“I am not going,” she said, playing with a lock of her long and curly hair. “Don’t force me,” her thick lips quivered.

Add a teeny weeny character detail when we are describing something important.

Scratching the big mole on his chin, out of which sprouted few long hairs, he  watched the two teams  battling it out in the stadium. The crowd roared everytime  a boundary or a sixer was hit.

A detail can creep up while another character’s action is being described.

She watched him moving to the buffet table. It was his third trip to load his plate. If not for her chronic acidity, she too would have indulged in gluttony.

I am always looking around for ways to add details. How do you all add the details of a character’s physical appearance or other details? Do you like to read these details or do you prefer to be taken directly into the thick of  the action? What techniques do you use when you are adding details in your own stories? Please share with us.

Picture Credit and Copyright Melissa Crytzer Fry