Snip, Snip Can Destroy Some Good Hair

You know how when you go to the hairdresser and you tell them you just want a bit cut off, and then the stylist goes wild and chops off five inches?

This can happen to your manuscript. By you.

See, we're not supposed to flood the beginning of our manuscript with backstory. I learned that tough lesson with my first completed manuscript. So what did I do on my second?

Cut out all backstory, jumped right into the action and finaled in a contest. But I didn't sell because the loss of backstory, the loss of me sitting and thinking and writing all about my characters' pasts, changed something in the story. It messed with my characterization. I ended up with a barebones chapter that left contest judges (as well as the editor) scratching their heads over my characters' goals and motivations.

Now I'm revamping that story and trying to think about who my characters really are. I'm a pantser so character charts, interviews, etc. tend to make me feel crazy. But I'm real good at daydreaming, and so that's how I get to know them.

How do you figure out who your characters are? What tricks do you use to create well-rounded people? Have you ever taken advice and jumped to the opposite extreme (like I did)?


Wow! Need to read my post today on similar dilemnas and editing concerns!

My stories start out with a jump into action and dialogue. Backstory is worked in as I go. I assume each character and let them lead me where they want to go. I don't diagram, etc. Just write!

Congrats on getting to finals with your story! Next time you'll be #1!
Jody Hedlund said…
Congrats on finaling! What contest was it? Tell us more please!

I definitely think we need to start with action, but if we have our character's motivations and goals well developed in our heads, then hopefully that will come through as we write and breathe life into even the first pages of our action.
Unknown said…
I am happy to have read this post today. I think this is possibly a big issue with my book. (Too much Back Story at the Beginning) I don't want to cut out the information, but I don't know how to work it in later.

I'm going to have to think about this quite a bit......
Unknown said…
Yup I'm doing major changes right now and trying to find the proper balance between too much and not enough.
I know my characters because they stalk me day and night. :)
Jessica Nelson said…
I'll be heading over. :-) See, you worked in your backstory. I didn't even take time to think of mine and maybe I worked some in, but it was so bare that I think maybe it was tough for readers to connect to the characters?
Jessica Nelson said…
Great advice Jody! Mine weren't developed but like you said, if they are, it will come out in the story hopefully at the right places.
It was RWA's Gotcha and it was over a year ago.
My only final, btw. LOL!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Marybeth,
It was hard for me to cut backstory from my manuscript, but you know what? You probably already have that info sprinkled throughout your story and there's really no need to have it twice.
Jessica Nelson said…
Me too Karen. Sigh. I feel you.
At least your characters stalk and bug you. Mine are hiding and I have to go find them. Grrr...
MeganRebekah said…
Backstory is a necessary evil. As the writer we need to know absolutely everything about our characters. Then we need to figure out how much of what we know needs to be shared with the reader. Then we need to figure out where and how it's shared.
It's a complicated business I tell ya! :)
Kristen Painter said…
I just write and the characters come to me. Often means I have to go back and revise, but that's my process.
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL It is but you summed it up pretty well. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
Thank goodness for revisions, Kristen. LOL That's what I'm trying to now too, since I just wrote at the time.
Like the hair analogy!

Learning my characters--I make a really random list about them and fill it in as it comes to me. Many things on the list will never be mentioned in the MS, but I'll know them and it helps shape who they are...some example: favorite way to decorate, biggest pet peeve, most painful memory, comfort food, ever been to the hospital...told you it was random. :D
Happy Friday,
~ Wendy
Warren Baldwin said…
Doesn't part of this evaluation of how much to include/omit depend on the evaluator? How can you tailor your manuscript to the taste of one editor in the hopes he/she will like it, when another editor might have liked it the way it was?
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Wendy,
A random list sounds pretty cool. That could definitely help a writer get to know their characters.
Thanks for stopping by! I hope you have a nice Friday too. :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Warren,
It's true that editors are subjective, but in this case I felt that the editor had a valid point. For my genre, romance, there needs to be more internal narrative and backstory. Now, some other genres can have a more sparse approach.
But you are right. What one editor loves another could hate. :-) We have to go with our gut, in the end.
Terri Tiffany said…
I have been doing some snipping in the first chapter but moving it around elsewhere too. With women's fiction-- I think I can get away with a little more but not where it is boring and doesn't move anything. I am losing wordcount though as I go!
Angie Ledbetter said…
Gotta start with action to hook the reader. Characterization wasn't hard for my current WIP, since they're all based on real live folks close to me. :)
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Terri,
I do think with women's fiction there's more of a need for introspection. You might gain wordcount later in the story! :-)
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL Angie.
You'll need to put a little note in the front saying no one was harmed in the writing of your novel. Snort!
Katie Salidas said…
I'm a pantser too! I daydream about my characters and imagine how they interact with eachother. Actually one of my characters is a historian/writer, so he basically gave me his history as I made him up. lOl.
Hi Jess -

Pantser all the way! As I edit, re-write sections, and ask myself how I would react in a similar situation, my characters take shape. Of course, not all of them cooperate and decide to do things that make me groan.

Isn't it funny how most writers make the same mistake of too much backstory in the first 60 pages? I did the same thing.

Susan :)
Cindy R. Wilson said…
I do it a lot like you, I develop my characters in my head. I spend lots of time with them when I'm not writing and test out their actions in different situations.
Danyelle L. said…
Even though might be work to fix, kudos for recognizing the problem in the first place.

I'm not sure how I figure out who my characters are. They're just there, whip in hand, telling me what to type. I get to know them better as the story goes on, but I have no idea. Something I do for fun when I might be stuck or a character's yelling too loud, is have a character chat. On the Carpe Mousa blog, I just pick a character or a topic and let the character write about it. It's kind of like a short essay from their perspective. I'm a panster too, but this has helped me see things in some of my characters I hadn't known was there.
Hey, I just got a haircut last night - although, thankfully, my hair stylist did not go wild and it was a good experience;)

I usually get to know my characters as I am writing the story, they just tell me things about themselves. Sometimes, it's too much information and I have to cut it later. Or at other times it will conflict with something else that I wrote earlier. Sometimes though it's just perfect. Those are the best times.
Jennifer Shirk said…
I always know each character's GMC before I write, then they develop more as I write the actual story.

Weaving in backstory is so difficult. I struggle with it constantly.
Hah, just the thing I've been dealing with in my book! I've found that the key for me is to write the book, backstory and all jumbled throughout. Throw the book out the window. Write it again starting blank. Yeah, crazy I know. But then I know the whole story, including the characters, the plot, the backstories. All of it. Now I'm writing in the backstory, but it comes in little snippets at the beginning and gets filled in and fleshed out later - after the reader is comfortable. I'm a genius. I know. Either that or just plain crazy!
Pen Pen said…
It’s like 3:15 am here for me and I gotta sleep, so I’ll be back later today to read ur blog, but I couldn’t go to sleep without letting u know that I am officially tagging you! Go to my blog and read the post :You’re It! To find out what the heck I’m talking about! ☺
Jessica Nelson said…
Pen Pen,
I'm always up for a good game of tag! LOL

Hope you slept well.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Katie,
LOL about the historian. So you actually daydream interactions? Very cool.
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Susan,
It's hilarious how we all want to load up on backstory. I guess we writers are so enamored with these new character that we think the reader wants to know every detail of the characters' life? LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Cindy,
I haven't consciously tested out my characters' reactions, but that's a great idea!!!
Jessica Nelson said…
Hi Danyelle,
That seems like a good idea to write things from the character's perspective. It's not really plotting either, since you're just getting to know them better.
Jessica Nelson said…
Lucky you, Kate! I desperately need a haircute.
It happens that way for me too, that's why I have to find the right balance of backstory. I also right conflicting stuff. LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
Knowing GMC beforehand probably helps your writing go smoother, huh? That's a very good idea and something I'm trying to do before I start writing.
I thought you did a good job in your book with backstory.
Jessica Nelson said…
LoL Lady Glamis,
If you can do that, then it's amazing. You're right though, plus after writing it once you probably have a good idea of how the story goes and can streamline plot points, conflicts, etc.
Nancy J. Parra said…
Hi Jessica,

This is a great blog- funny but a friend of mine was telling me her editor said a good copy edit is like a good hair cut. :) It really makes the manuscript bounce and shine.

But yes, it takes practice to figure out the too much/too little/just right.

Tana said…
I must know these people. If I just imagine a character he/she often comes off as two dimensional. Lucky for me I logged many a summer when I was in High school and collage watching soaps. They're always my first victims and a nice mix of villans and Hero's.
Jessica Nelson said…
Thanks Nancy!

What a great way to put it about bouncing and shining! Smart friend. :-)

Yep, practice, practice, practice. All these manuscripts have to mean something. LOL
Jessica Nelson said…
LOL T. Anne,
I grew up watching All My Children. Great drama and great conflicts. :-) And twists too. They're addictive and a great example of how to get someone hooked to your story.
Pen Pen said…
I absolutely DID do that too, and it taught me a lesson!
I had a short story in my first college writing seminar about a murderer- It wasn't greusome or anything at all like that-I just wanted to kind of take a moment in time of a killer's life--I had 'Buffalo Bill' from "Silence of the Lambs' in my mind when I wrote the character. I made him awkward and physically a little disfigured. I also had lots of description in the short- as I said- I wanted it that way, and did the description on purpose.

After reading it, my professor said that there was too much description and that disfigured and awkward social outcasts aren't as scary as some guy who looks normal, but is really living 2 lives- like the BTK killer or something.
I was pretty upset about that, and I thought about it for a long time. I cut almost all of the description out of my next short story for him. He liked the story, but said that there was too much talking and no description. I realized that I had gone to the extreme with cutting that stuff out and even realized that him saying that a "normal" seeming bad guy is best was simply HIS opinion.
My description needs to be pulled in- I always ramble-just like I am now:), but you can take any character and work them into what they need to be!

With ur stuff--I understand ur problem! They all say, "no back story at the beginning", and being dipped into "in medias res" is a great way to go, but I think most of us get stuck when we're writing by focusing on "character" writing OR "plot" writing, and it's hard to balance the 2. I've found it helps for me to write the first draft however it comes out, and then go back and figure out whether I'm missing "characterization" or "plot" all thru the story :)
...I hope I made some sense--I'm a rambler :)
My characters do their thing and when I try to force them to do something, or shoehorn something in--when the author interferes - then that's when things go wonky.

I used to listen to "advice" when I first began writing seriously for publication - and you know, sometimes there is just too much "advice" and it can confuse more than help. Until I feel confident about where I'm going with a story or novel, no one sees it - in fact, every novel since Tender Graces that I am working on won't be seen until the ms is complete and gone through a couple of times.
Jessica Nelson said…
Penny, you made total sense and I'm so glad I'm not the only one who takes the advice of one person so far. LOl!
Jessica Nelson said…
I like that advice. Things can get confusing after awhile and I just want to rip the hair out of my head. Okay, not really, lol, but I like that you do that. I heard no one sees Nora Roberts' manuscripts either, except her editor.
It's a good way to get your voice down, and then be able to go back and refine the big stuff.

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