Do Flashbacks Make Your Butt Look Big? (aka, Baby Got Backstory…)

As you might remember from my beta reading experiment, my test readers wanted more character development in my novel. Specifically, several beta readers wanted more back story. Now my first reaction to this was skepticism.

"Oh no you DI’N’T,” I said, “I read about back-story on the internets and it’s like the evilest thing evar. It’ll bog your story down, make your readers fall asleep and make your butt look big. In fact, my critique partner added some back story to her WIP before she started querying agents and the next day she DIED.”

But then I realized that I didn’t actually know how much back story appears in your typical YA book. So, as I often do when I have questions about writing, I dug out Graceling and The Hunger Games for some analysis. They are my go-to books for several reasons:

1. So good! Not only did I love them, but they were well received by readers and critics, and both did well commercially.
2. They were published within the last five years (2008, to be exact).
3. They are in my genre (Young adult action-adventure in an alternate world).

I went through and underlined all the back story in the first few chapters. To make things more interesting, I classified back story into three types: exposition, summarized narrative, and detailed narrative.

Exposition is a simple statement of facts. For example, this passage from The Hunger Games.

When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city of the Capital. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts…

A summarized narrative is a story told in a compressed timeline. Like this passage, again from The Hunger Games:

"Hey, Catnip," says Gail.

My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I'd said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn't bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

A detailed narrative is back story told with the same detail and pacing as the rest of the story. Like this passage from Graceling.

Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Counsel, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time.

"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.

Prince Raffin had been offended. "You'd doubt my medicine. They won't wake."

"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded.

"I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, she held up her hand. "Enough. I won't kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else.”

So here's what the first three chapters for Graceling look like. Blue is everything in the present time. Exposition is red, summarized narrative is orange, and detailed backstory is yellow. Every unit on the x-axis is roughly a page, although they don’t match the page numbers exactly because I made this graph by counting lines and didn’t take into account page breaks at the end of chapters.

Here is a more detailed listing of the backstory sections. The story starts on page 3, and the main narrative describes Katsa on a mission to rescue a prisoner named Grandfather Tealiff.

p.3 Start of story – Katsa in the dungeons.

p.7 One paragraph summarizing how she had set off for the dungeons this morning. Narrative then spends 2 paragraphs in the present, and then there are several paragraphs of detailed flashback describing the planning session for this dungeon raid (this is the example quoted above).

p.9-11 Three pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katsa’s childhood, how she discovered her ability to kill, and her training.

p.17-19 Three pages of exposition on the history of the seven kingdoms and the kidnapping of Grandfather Tealiff.

p.27 One paragraph of exposition about why Katsa started the Council that organized this rescue.

p.28-32 Four pages of summarized narrative continuing the story of Katsa's childhood, starting from where the story left off on page 11. Tells of how she started to work for her uncle as a thug, and how the resulting guilt spurred her to form the Council.

So what does The Hunger Games look like? Same color scheme.

The story starts on page 3. These opening chapters begin with Katniss waking up and going hunting with Gale. Then the town gathers for the Hunger Games lottery, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the deadly Hunger Games.

p.3 Story starts – Katniss wakes up. After she sees their cat, one paragraph of summarized narrative about how they found the cat.

p.5 One sentence about how Katniss’s father died.

p.6 One paragraph of exposition about how Katniss learn to hold her tongue about the government. (First example quoted above.)

p.7 One paragraph summarized narrative about how Katniss got the nickname Catnip. (Second example quoted above.)

p.8 One paragraph exposition about how Katniss’ parents met.

p.9 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss met Gale.

p.13 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss had to take extra entries into the Hunger Games lottery in return for food rations from the government.

p.14 One paragraph exposition on how Gale feels about the Hunger Games and the government.

p.15 One sentence on Katniss’s early relationship with her mother.

p.18 One paragraph on the history of their country and the Hunger Games, delivered as the mayor's speech.

p.21 One paragraph detailed narrative about a hunting experience.

p.23 One sentence about Katniss’ father's death.

p.26-32 Six and a half pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katniss' backstory with Peeta, the male protagonist.

So what did I learn from this analysis? Well, I think the most can be learned just by getting a feel for how the narratives are structured. I can draw a few generalizations:

1. I shouldn't be so scared of backstory. Both Suzanne Collins and Kristen Cashore include at least one extended chunk of backstory early on in the book. I suspect that the rise of in media res beginnings make backstory even more important.

2. There's more than one way to do it. Kristin Cashore uses larger chunks of backstory, while Suzanne Collins sprinkles in a paragraph here and there, with the exception of one long flashback (There's another one several chapters later that I didn't include, which is a continuation of the Peeta flashback). As a reader, both styles worked for me, with the exception of the three-page exposition in Graceling on the history of the seven kingdoms, which I remember skipping.

3. In particular, I appreciate how a short summarized story can add color and flavor to the text. For example, the Catnip story quoted above. I like how Suzanne Collins sprinkled in little stories throughout, and I wonder if there is something about a present tense first-person narrative that makes it easier to include small, short, flashbacks. From a purely technical standpoint, you don't have to worry about all that past perfect verb conjugation.  And I wonder if being so present in someone's head gives you more permission to go on tangents.

4.  I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or not, but both authors broke their most extended flashback (Katsa's childhood and Katniss and Peeta's story) into two halves of roughly 4 pages each. Is there a natural upper bound for flashback length?

Of course, simply looking at how much backstory there is isn't enough. Backstory has to be done well. So here's the question I will pose for you, dear readers. What are the characteristics of skillfully incorporated back story?

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Ebook Publishing Tips from Joanna Penn

E-books have been causing some pretty dramatic changes in the publishing industry. Whether you're a beginning writer, a traditionally published author, or a grizzled veteran with a large out-of-print backlist, you need to know about this new medium if you want to make wise decisions about your career.

Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn recently released an online course on ebook publishing, and she was kind enough to give me a review copy. I'll first share some of my favorite tips and thoughts from her course, and then give a more general overview.

1. You know how writers groan about having to hook an agent within the first few pages? Now with the advent of e-books, the opening pages are even more important. This is because ebooks are sold by sampling. Sites like Amazon offer the first few pages as a free download, and many readers decide whether or not to purchase after they read those pages.

2. For some good marketing tips, download the free e-book marketing guide at Smashwords.

3. Also, if you're looking to hire someone to help you convert your e-book into different formats, check out the E-book conversion services directory.

4. Book review blogs are a great way to get the word out about your book. There's a good listing of them at the book blog search engine.

5. There's  a lot of talk about e-book pricing and the race to the bottom for fiction, but nonfiction books are often left out of the conversation. Joanna brings up the good point that people are often willing to pay more for nonfiction, especially if the information is useful in a practical way (and especially if it will help people make money). For example, Joanna straddles the fiction and nonfiction markets, selling her debut novel Pentecost at 99 cents while selling her epublishing course for $39.99.

6. Two of the major e-book retailers, Apple iBooks store and Barnes & Noble, currently require publishers to be US citizens with a tax number. If you're not a US citizen, you can get around this by publishing through Smashwords, which distributes your book to Apple, B&N and other retailers regardless of your citizenship. You can also sell directly from your website through a service like, which offers a shopping cart service for five dollars a month.

I was very impressed by this course. It's a comprehensive introduction to e-book publishing, starting with some background information and then going to a detailed walk-through of the publishing process. The course is comparable in quality to a Writer's Digest webinar, but at half the price and with roughly twice as much content. There's about two hours of video, and all the information is also written in a PDF file for quick reference.

The course is targeted to beginners and those fairly new to ebook publishing. If you're wondering whether you are at the right level to benefit, I've created a handy little quiz with a sampling of the topics covered.

1. What are the major e-book selling platforms, and which ones are most important to hit?
2. What are the pros and cons of different e-book pricing levels?
3. How do good ebook cover designs differ from good print cover designs?
4. How much does it cost to epublish? What parts should you do yourself, and what parts should you hire a professional for?
5. How do you deal with ebook piracy?

The course also includes two screen capture walk-through videos of the entire Amazon and Smashwords publishing process.

All in all, Ms Penn’s course is a thorough and comprehensive introduction to e-book publishing. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about diving in. You can learn more about the course
at her website. (Links to The Creative Penn are affiliate links).

Have you ever published anything electronically, or are you thinking about taking the leap?

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In Which I Wax Philosophical on Narrative Distance, POV, and Voice

Note: Congratulations to Hektor for winning the signed copy of Bamboo People. I will be contacting you for your information.

A while back, Douglas Morrison was kind enough to interview me on his blog . An excerpt is below, and you can see the entire interview here.

Talk about how the mind interprets Point of View and narrative distance.

We are social animals, so our brains are wired to interact with other people. We are equipped with many tools to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. Some of these tools include facial expressions, body language, our understanding of the situation, etc. As writers then, our job is to replicate these cues so the reader knows what the characters are thinking and feeling. It's an interesting way to look at the “show don't tell” rule -- you could frame it instead as saying that a writer should use natural emotion cues rather than just telling the reader that little Johnny is sad.

One particularly challenging social task is figuring out what someone else is thinking when it's different from what you are thinking. For example, if someone stole your friend’s lunch while he wasn't looking, you know that the lunch is no longer in his lunch box, but your friend doesn't. Somehow, your brain has to keep those two ideas separate. It seems very easy now, but actually, children have a hard time with this type of task. And as a writer, I sometimes have trouble with more subtle variations on this. For example, if I'm not careful, my main character will start reacting to situations in ways that are more characteristic of my personality than hers.

In a number of my literary agent interviews, each has pointed to an increasing importance of a strong narrative voice. Any thoughts on narrative voice as it pertains to your field of expertise?

Livia: I took an introductory linguistics class during my early years as a grad student, and one interesting thing we learned was how everyone has their own unique dialect. We usually think about dialects as something shared by people of a certain region, but each individual person also has his own way of speaking, his preferred phrases and grammatical structures. On top of that, add a worldview, a past, and how that affects the way you see the world. Put it all together, and you have a strong narrative voice. Piece of cake, right?

Your Memory For Construction Workers Is Worse Than You Think (Unless You Are One)

I recently read Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, an eye-opening novel about child soldiers in modern-day Burma. It tells the story of two boys from different ethnic groups: Chiko, a Burmese boy forced into the Army, and Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose family is driven from their home by Burmese soldiers. When chance events throw the two together, Chiko and Tu Reh get to know each other not as faceless enemies, but as people.

There's quite a bit of social psychology research on group identity, in-groups, and out-groups, but this story actually brought to mind some vision science experiments on a phenomenon called change blindness. The basic idea is that we notice a lot less than we think we do. For example, watch this video from psychologist Dan Simons.