How to Work With Character Backstory

One of the questions I find myself discussing all the time is the issue of character backstory. When do we add it? How much do we add? How much is too much? Too little? Are flashbacks okay?

character backstory
Weave in character backstory in a way that engages readers.

How Much Character Backstory to Use

The bare minimum of backstory that you should include in your novel or picture book or memoir is this: enough to get readers plugged into the character. Maybe that amounts to ZERO backstory, if you start right away with some kind of conflict or action.

Aim for minimum viable product (from the business world), the leanest version of your character who can possibly fly. Maybe we learn one or two things about the character via telling, as is sometimes what happens at the beginning of a picture book. Maybe we don’t get any backstory at all and concentrate on present action. Maybe we get a piece of context (it’s the first day of school, the character just moved to a new place, they’re off to a practice to impress a college scout), and the rest is filled in over time.

What you categorically want to avoid is a big block of character backstory or flashback right away. My advice is always this: if you find yourself leaving the present moment to fill in backstory (even short backstory, like, “we’ve been best friends since kindergarten”), you may not be starting in the right place.

The key questions you want to answer with any backstory you include are: “What makes this character tick, and why should I care about them?”

When to Use Character Backstory

Your first few chapters or scenes should be action-heavy (with some nice introductory conflict) to get agents, publishers, and readers into your story. Once you feel that is established, you can start weaving in backstory or flashback starting in the second or third chapters. Why is the character’s situation XYZ? What is the significance of their objective and motivation? Which characters do we need to know more about in order to understand the present conflict?

BUT! Remember to keep up the balance of action and information, a crucial idea in keeping your pacing lean and mean and compelling. Whenever you give us a scene or paragraph of backstory, surround it with action, scene, and dialogue on either side.

Readers only perceive a story to be backstory-heavy and slow-moving when there aren’t injections of action and conflict to give the dense information a much-needed “lift.”

How to Fill in the Rest

Another thing to consider when you wonder how much character backstory to use, where, and when, is that you don’t have to use absolutely everything that you’ve developed. You may have done your homework and discovered where your character went to middle school and who their first crush was and how they like to relax after a long day. Some of this could wind up in your story, but some of it is for your edification only.

Sometimes, you will find that you need more depth. In that case, whole flashbacks of scenes and memories that not only flesh out your protagonist but the other characters in the story will become useful. But make sure these pull a lot of weight and deliver a lot of insight. The fewer and tighter your flashbacks, the better.

On the whole, it’s perfectly okay to leave elements on the “cutting room floor” as you prioritize action and conflict over heavy character backstory, especially at the beginning of your story.

Your opening pages are crucial for agent, publisher, and reader engagement. Hire me as your book editor for a Submission Package Edit, and I will give you insight into your query, synopsis, and first pages.

Picture Books That Show Character Change

One of the biggest challenges I encounter in my editorial practice is picture books that show character change in a clumsy or overbearing way. Picture books, more than any other category of kidlit, are about character change, a moral, or a lesson. A strong takeaway is expected because we want our young readers to be eating a little bit of medicine (the moral) with their syrup (the story). Like those cookbooks for moms who want to sneak veggies into brownies. But how do we do this effectively, without turning readers (and agents and publishers) off with too much lecturing? It’s all about character!

picture books that show character change, picture book moral
Your character CAN learn something in your story, but the best picture books that show character change are subtle and character-driven, instead of moralizing.

Picture Books That Show Character Change

As you may know from other posts about picture book lessons and writing child characters, I am not a big fan of morals delivered in a didactic way. I’m not alone. Agents and publishers cite moralizing as one of the main reasons they pass on a picture book project.

So how do we write picture books that show character change without explicitly stating the lesson? It’s a rather simple answer: let the character have some realizations and then act upon them. At the same time, do not explain what the character is learning.

Bad: “And Kim realized that sharing IS caring!”

Better: A scene of Kim sharing with her friends and finding satisfaction in it, but without this satisfaction being explicitly explained.

Better: Kim encouraging a younger sibling to share, but also without explicit explanation. (Kids love to play the teacher role, so showing a child passing on their new knowledge to someone else is a great solution!)

Use the moral you’ve come up with as a starting point. Then write three scenarios where the character can actively learn the lesson, enjoy the lesson, or pass their wisdom on. One of these will invariably be better than a straight explanation of the moral.

Unrealistic Character Change

One thing to keep in mind about picture books that show character change is that they should also be realistic. Even preschoolers know that people don’t change 180 degrees overnight.

Yes, we all hate bullies, and we all want kids to share, and we want our preschoolers to tell the truth. But you aren’t going to get anywhere near a realistic and nuanced character if: your bullies vow to never bully again; kids always share forever and ever from this day forward; and your character will never tell a lie in their whole lives, not even a little harmless one.

Honor your reader by not feeding them an overly idealized view of the world. This practice sets up false expectations. Kids are humans, too. They shouldn’t be held to these impossible adult standards for Victorian-era good behavior, not even in picture books.

Because that bully in the preschooler’s real classroom will, unfortunately, bully again. I’d much rather you strive to teach that transformation happens with little choices and in small steps, as that honors the real life process of behavioral change.

Want personalized advice on your picture book manuscript? Hire me as your picture book editor.

Unconventional Writing and Fiction Rules

Many writers wonder whether they can break fiction rules and engage in unconventional writing styles or choices and still get published. I’m of two minds here and would love to explore it further.

Want to break the fiction rules with unconventional writing? Learn them first!

Unconventional Writing

For each writing rule, there exists an example of a project that breaks it. Look no further than the beautiful Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri, which is a riff on storytelling itself, operating without a straightforward chronology.

So for the writer who asks, “Can I tell a story with a very loose, riffy chronology?” Or the writer who asks, “Can I write a 1,500-word picture book?” Or, “How about going into adult POV in middle grade?” My answer is, “Sure you can.”

But! And there’s always a but … it has to be done well. In my over a decade in publishing, I’ve realized that unconventional writing choices are made and break the fiction rules all the time, but in these scenarios, execution becomes all-important.

Fiction Rules

For the most part, fiction rules exist to help writers figure out how to tell stories in a way that invites readers in. Once you learn those rules, guess what? Then you can take a departure and indulge in some unconventional writing, should you desire that approach to storytelling.

However, the rules exist for a reason. Especially in children’s books. Some elements, like word count in picture books, are common sense considerations. Preschoolers don’t have big attention spans and often can’t read on their own. A 2,000-word picture book might strain the boundaries of what’s palatable to kids this age. Chapter books full of advanced vocabulary might scare off or alienate emerging readers. Middle grade with adult POVs that go in depth about divorce and other adult issues from an adult perspective might be better off as stories for adult readers who can more easily relate to these issues.

If you do choose to break fiction rules and guidelines in your desired category, be prepared to get some pushback. Make sure you’re making these storytelling choices for a compelling reason, rather than due to not being fully informed about the market. Make sure your unconventional writing is necessary, rather than a darling that might be better off dead.

Writing for the Agent or Publisher

I was talking to a client the other day and he remarked that he feels like he’s “writing for the agent,” rather than for the reader. And there’s truth in this, frustrating as it might be. A debut writer who needs to convince an agent or publisher that their work is worthwhile has a very high bar to clear.  It’s harder to be a debut writer than an already-published one because you have to do so much to prove yourself.

And some unconventional writing choices may be off-putting to agents and publishers, who often want to traffic in what they can sell to the biggest possible market. Stories that break established fiction rules might come across as too niche, and this might scare gatekeepers in the traditional publishing framework.

So what? Well, there’s always the option to pursue a smaller (and often more experimental or artistically motivated) publisher, or self-publish. Or forge forward and try to find a traditional home for the story.

It takes courage and determination to break the rules. Here’s to a little rebellion!

Is it a bold choice or a liability? Get a manuscript overview—including analysis of your market potential—when you hire me as your freelance editor.

Now Hiring Market Spies

Sorry to use this blog as my personal job board, but I have some very exciting stuff in the pipeline. Next, I’m hiring two assistants for yet another undisclosed project. cue mysterious music

Do you have your listening ears to the ground in terms of the book and entertainment markets? We want to hear from you!

 

Instead of posting jobs to Kidlit exclusively, I’ve started a Careers tab on the Good Story Company website. Please see this job posting for two positions there!

Now Hiring Research Assistant

I’m very excited to announce that I’m hiring a research assistant for an undisclosed project. cue mysterious music

This remote position is perfect for someone who has research experience and is interested in data, data architecture, and more, either in the corporate or start-up space. Maybe you want extra income as you work on your own writing, or need to work from home in this changing landscape.

About You

Ideally, your skills and attributes include:

  • Time management and dedication to deadlines
  • Ability to set, then meet or exceed expectations
  • Clear communication with me about timing and progress
  • The ability to follow instructions but largely work independently and take initiative
  • Reliability and trustworthiness, you will be privy to sensitive business information
  • Proactivity and love of learning—if you don’t know how to do something, you will seek out additional resources, learn what you need, and enjoy the process
  • Familiarity with the Google suite of productivity tools, especially spreadsheets,  as well as Dropbox and Slack
  • Commitment—I put a lot of energy and passion into my working relationships, and I’m only looking for people who could see being available for a minimum of two years, ideally more

Job Description

Projects will include:

  • Marketplace research
  • Amazon and Goodreads data retrieval
  • Thinking of, applying, and keeping track of keywords
  • Monitoring changes over time
  • Keeping an eye on publishing and entertainment trends
  • Making SPREADSHEETS! 🤩
  • Working closely with me and a few editorial assistants

This is not an editorial position, unfortunately, but I welcome applicants who are interested in the publishing business, as we will invariably end up discussing the industry and various client and project needs.

If you do not light up with stars in your eyes at the prospect of spreadsheets, this opportunity is not for you.

Starting pay is $12/hour with the opportunity to grow, and my needs will start at a firm commitment of 10 to 15 hours a week. You will be a 1099 contractor for tax purposes (responsible for withholding and reporting your own income taxes), rather than a W2 employee. Please understand that I am not in the position to offer employee benefits, like health insurance. This is an opportunity for US-based candidates only for legal reasons.

About Me

I’m Mary and I have been in the publishing business for over a decade. I started Kidlit in 2009, published my book Writing Irresistible Kidlit in 2012, founded Mary Kole Editorial in 2013, and Good Story Company in 2019.

At Mary Kole Editorial and Good Story Company, we believe in helping all writers unlock their potential. We’re also passionate about doing good. With the Good Story Grant, we give away an award of $3,000 to two writers to enable them to take their writing projects to the next level (one grant is reserved for a BIPOC writer). I can’t wait to see what kind of creativity the Good Story Grant facilitates in the future!

I’m a female founder working my way up in the business world and building a company that makes a difference. My team is a fun and motivated crew of writers, creatives, nerds (said with so much love!) and more. Our work, from the editorial team to the marketing team, is highly creative. But we’re successful, too, and only working to become more so!

More than anything, I want to inspire anyone I work with and give you the tools and firsthand experience of what it means to run an amazing independent business. My dream for you is that you stay with me for a long time, but then maybe go on to build something yourself, using what you’ve learned!

How to Apply

This position has been filled. Thank you for your interest!

How to Write a Manuscript That Succeeds

manuscript submission, novel success, manuscript success, successful manuscripts

How to Write a Manuscript That Succeeds

This is a survey of published authors that I did on here (mumbles) over a year ago. But now I finally have a beautiful infographic to share on how to write a manuscript that succeeds.

The key takeaway, I think, is that so many of you have written more than ten manuscripts on your journeys, and how many of you enlisted outside help in the form of writing groups, critiques, beta readers, and editors.

What I’m seeing here? A lot of encouragement and perseverance. While it’s true that approximately 20% ended up landing an agent or publishing their first manuscripts, between 38 and 43% of writers ended up breaking through on their 5th through 9th manuscript, or even their tenth+ manuscript! That’s the majority of responders to the survey.

These writers have also taken the time to leave some very important words of wisdom to those of you who are still struggling with how to write a manuscript that succeeds.

Please take this to heart: you may publish your current WIP, or you may not. But a large determining factor of success is perseverance and self-education. That’s why you’re already ahead of the curve! You’re sitting here, learning about the writing craft, and adding tools to your toolbox.

Now all you need to do is keep going. Trust that one day you will crack the code of how to write a manuscript that succeeds, like the published authors who responded to the survey did.

If you’d like personalized advice on your manuscript, and to put rocket boosters on your learning curve, hire me as your manuscript editor. Or take every writing class I’ve ever offered on demand with the Good Story Learning membership!

Welcome Ella Davis!

It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to post this on November 30th, which has been a significant day for our family. (It was on November 30th, three years ago, that our daughter, Nora Pepper, was born, only to pass away sixteen days later from a very rare disorder.)

This year, we have something—or someone—new to celebrate: Eleanor “Ella” Davis was born on Halloween, 2020! Happily, she is thriving, and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome her to the world.

“Eleanor” is a subtle nod to Nora, and “Davis” honors my stepfather, who suffered a debilitating stroke on November 1st, 2019. Even though she’s her own wonderful little lady, Ella has some fantastic guardian angels watching over her.

Ella joins older brothers Theo (4.5) and Finn (21 months). They are tolerating her so far. Ha!

My husband, Todd, and I, are so happy to be done building our family. Ella is the perfect ending to a long and somewhat tumultuous story. Or, rather, the beginning to our journey as a family of five.

2020 has been an incredibly long haul for so many people, and for so many reasons. But our 2020 has ended on a high note, and we find ourselves incredibly grateful for the support of our friends, family, my amazing team at Good Story Company, and all of you Kidlit readers out there who have followed my personal story over the last few years.

Photos by the amazing Abigail Niemann Photography.

Writer Marketing That Worked

The topic of writer marketing is an incredibly tough but very juicy one. For this post, I’m doing a call out: Writers and authors who are marketing their work, what has worked for you? I want “boots on the ground” experience from you writers out there about your own marketing efforts.

writer marketing
What’s working on the writer marketing front?

Looking for Writer Marketing Successes (Or Not)

What has worked for you? Email newsletters? Lead magnets? Bookmarks? Leave some examples of your personal marketing successes—and things you wouldn’t do again—in the comments, or take the survey, below

I’m looking for real life experiences as fodder for future posts on this very important topic. If you’d rather email me, you can reach out to:

mary@goodstorycompany.com

Wendelin Van Draanen Podcast and HOPE IN THE MAIL Giveaway!

I had the incredible pleasure of interviewing Wendelin Van Draanen for the Good Story Podcast. Her episode debuted today and I’d love for you to have a listen! It features all kinds of advice on writing and life.

As part of the interview, I’m giving away my copy of Wendelin’s latest, Hope in the Mail, published in January 2020.

To win your copy, all you have to do is share this episode of the Good Story Podcast somewhere on your social media, and supply the URL for your share. (All Facebook posts, Tweets, and Instagram posts, for example, have individual post addresses that you can copy and paste into the form below.)

Feel free to use this graphic if you want to blog or post about this episode:

To facilitate the giveaway process, I’m linking you to a Google Form to collect your entry, including your mailing address, since this is an ARC giveaway.  Once you’re ready, you can fill it out, below. Entries are due December 4th, 2020 at 11:59 p.m., CST!

Writing Character Thoughts

Today, I want to talk about character thoughts, or more specifically, Characterizing Thoughts. What are those, you ask? Well, there are eight types that I’d love to dive into.

character thoughts, writing character, characterizing thoughts
Not all character thoughts are created equal.

Character Thoughts vs. Characterizing Thoughts

Character thoughts can be anything your character thinks (and central to my idea of interiority), but Characterizing Thoughts? Those are thoughts that tell us something that contributes to the reader’s understanding of character.

In fact, I posit that there are Eight Core Types of Characterizing Thoughts!

    1. Thoughts that convey: Who the character is
      1. These are things like, “I don’t like to lose,” “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits”
    2. Thoughts that convey: Character change
      1. These are things like, “I can’t do this much longer,” “It’s time to let go, I think”
    3. Thoughts that convey: What the character cares about
      1. These are things like, “I’ve never had a home before and I think I like it,” “When you look me in the eyes, I feel seen”
    4. Thoughts that convey: What the character wants (objectives)
      1. These are things like, “I’m going to get that scholarship or die trying,” “There’s only one girl taking Tyler to prom”
    5. Thoughts that convey: Why XYZ matters to character (motivations)
      1. These are things like, “This dog has treated me better than any of you, so he’s coming with me,” “Winning this isn’t just a victory for the team, it’s a victory for anyone who’s ever heard ‘no’”
    6. Thoughts that convey: Context and story based information
      1. These are things like, “I’ve been sitting here for three weeks, looking for a text that isn’t coming,” “If Gemma doesn’t come home from work soon—and goodness knows she probably won’t—I’m in the clear”
    7. Thoughts that convey: Stakes and tension
      1. These are things like, “I hear him coming up the stairs and I can’t keep this sneeze back any longer,” “Without Christian, I am nothing”
    8. Thoughts that convey: Voice
      1. a. These are things like, “It’s beautiful day in this lousy neighborhood,” “You complete my soul, you gorgeous creature”

Why Are These Types of Character Thoughts So Important?

Because we can’t know this type of stuff about a character without being told. Like, if a character is walking around, ready to draw the line in a relationship with another character, that idea will probably start percolating in their thought process, and then they may give their enemy character an ultimatum in dialogue. But without this thought process first building up in interiority, the eventual confrontation won’t be nearly as powerful.

Same goes for tears. If you only show a character crying, without diving into the thoughts behind the tears, then readers won’t feel the emotion of the moment. Readers don’t cry just because a character is shown crying. Instead, readers I want the thought that touches off the tears—the insight or realization that pushes your character over the edge. That is what readers are going to be connecting to more than just the visual of the character crying.

But let’s take this a step further.

Layering Characterizing Thoughts

The examples I gave earlier, about the eight types of Characterizing Thoughts, were somewhat basic, to help illustrate each kind of thought a character could have and what they convey.

But the truth is, as human beings. we’re more complex than that. Our thoughts are multi-faceted and layered. So must your character’s thoughts be too.

That’s when we can start combining types of thoughts together:

For example: Take a look at this thought a character could have:

“Without Christian, I am nothing.”

This thought combines “What the character wants” with a sense of “stakes.” The character wants Christian and the character believes they will amount to nothing if they don’t get together with Christian.

Another example is:

“I’ve been sitting here for three weeks, looking for a text that isn’t coming.”

Lots to unpack here. We get a sense of what the character wants, again, which is a text from the object of their affection, their lost friend, or whoever isn’t texting. We get some context—it has been three weeks—a sense of the character and their worldview, in that they pessimistically believe the text won’t come, rather than optimistically hoping it will, and finally, even a sense of change, I’d argue. The next sentence may well be something like, “I can’t wait anymore” or similar. It implies that three weeks has been enough and now … the character will do something different.

A lot of similar layers in “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits.” This character declares who they are—a pacifist averse to fighting. They are probably at the end of their rope in a turbulent relationship. We also get stakes (one more fight equals quits), and also context: there has been a lot of fighting, and one more will break the proverbial camel’s back.

Even though I’ve nested all of these examples under one primary category, I hope you can see that they are rich with additional information for our reader-detectives to discover!

Digging Even Deeper With Character Thoughts

Another way to make a character’s thoughts more complex is to work in tension or conditional language into many of them. For example, if X, then Y. The action and the consequence. “If there’s another fight brewing, I’m calling it quits.” Well, when this character’s partner comes into the scene looking to pick a fight, readers will be primed to see what happens next. Will the character keep their word or will they cave?

The more layered and nuanced a thought is, the more you’re giving your reader to do and sink their teeth into. And layering multiple kinds of thoughts together, to reveal something new about your character is an excellent way to keep your reader engaged and an active part of the story.

And if you’re wondering how to properly format a character’s thoughts on the page, check out this article on formatting interiority.

This idea of character and digging deeply into this nuanced topic is at the cornerstone of what I teach as a developmental editor. Let me bring this level of nuance to your project personally.