Let’s Talk Backstory and Flashbacks

I read A LOT. Probably five times as much as I write. Every day I spend at least an hour hanging out with my dog while I read. And I read at bedtime, too. But I’m not a pure reader, I’m a writer who reads.

And what I mean by that is that when I read a book, I not only see the story the author chose to put on the page, I see the story they could’ve written.

With really good authors, this generally doesn’t happen. I think I’ve read 50 JD Robb novels at this point and there was only one that made me wish she’d chosen to tell the story in a different way. For the rest of those books, I’m just along for the ride.

For pure readers, it’s always like that. The story is locked in cement. It is what it is and can’t be changed or fixed or improved.

If a pure reader reads a book they don’t like, they say it was boring. It wasn’t interesting enough. They didn’t like the ending. They were never able to get into the story. It’s too bad X happened.

They don’t see any of that as authorial choice. It’s just the story.

But underlying any of those types of reader comments is generally some sort of craft issue that could actually be fixed.

So I’m going to talk about one today that I ran into with the book I just finished reading. (A trade pub title from 2006.) And that’s the issue of backstory, flashbacks, and where to begin the novel.

This book I just read was 600 pages long. At page 180 I actually stopped reading it and swore I wouldn’t go back, but the characters were just interesting enough that I finally did. (I will not be reading the other three books in the series, though.)

So what made me stop reading?

In that first 180 pages, the story started probably six different times.

We had two prologues, one that was a straight info-dump, one that was a storyteller info dump. Then we had Character A. Then we had completely unrelated Character B who never actually shows up again even though it seems like this could be partially his story. (It’s actually Characters C and D who are in the background of Character B’s scenes who are a large part of the rest of the novel.)

Then we jumped ahead twenty years and had Character A again. And Character C. And Character E who never really needed any scenes at all. And then we jumped some more years and had more random, unrelated scenes.

Then the first part of the novel ended and the second part started. Literally, Part 2. And there was some whole introduction following a bird who flies all kinds of places which again read like the beginning of a novel not Part 2 150 pages into the novel.

That was about where I quit. Because I had nothing to hold onto. There was no story thread that connected everything that had happened in the first 150 pages. They were vignettes.

It turns out the author did have a story they wanted to tell. And that story was contained in the other 450 pages of the novel, pages that actually did hang together fairly well.

As I read those 450 pages I realized that what that first 150 pages represented was the backstory of the characters.

The author needed this information to write their novel, but instead of knowing this information and then doling it out during the main story as little snippets or flashbacks, the author had instead provided the reader with everything in straight chronological order.

So instead of a scene with two lines added to it that references that this character met that character when he saved their life, we got a chapter that showed them meeting and then the next chapter was a different character five years later.

When an author takes that approach they have to be damned good. Because for every break they insert in the story flow they have to be so compelling a writer that readers are willing to keep going. Each of those little vignettes needed to read like its own compelling short story.

But they didn’t. (And I checked reviews, there were a lot of DNFs on this book.)

Now, you might be thinking, but that backstory matters. It needs to be there.

And I’d agree. Backstory is what adds depth and layer to the present story. My reaction to X event is driven by my past. Someone else could experience X event and have the complete opposite reaction because of the life they’ve lived. So backstory matters a great deal.

But it doesn’t have to be on the page before the moment it matters. If it’s important enough, you can include a whole flashback scene at that moment. But until it then it’s just “oh great, I get to hear about that time you did something cool or stupid in college, please, tell me more.”

And usually you don’t even need a full flashback scene. A deft writer can drop backstory in a sentence or two at a time so the current story keeps flowing smoothly.

For example, this book had a whole convoluted history involving multiple races that was provided as an info dump in the prologue. It could have easily been dribbled out as part of the story when each race was introduced. And then we’d care. “Oh, it matters that this person is not like these people because of X, Y, and Z history between these peoples. Interesting.”

So it’s not that you shouldn’t include those details in your novel. It’s that you have to wait to include them until the reader wants them. Your primary goal at the beginning of your novel has to be to draw the reader into your story and make it so they want to continue. Just one more page, just one more chapter, what’s next. And you have to keep doing that for the entire length of the novel.

(As an aside, I’ve mentioned her books before and they’re fresh on my mind because I just read all of them, but someone who I think handles multiple points of view across an epic tale very well is Michelle West. Start with The Hidden City if you’re going to start reading her now, but then look up a reading order because you need to hop to a different series after book 3 in that series if you want to stay chronological.)

More Amazon A+ Content Thoughts

I just went through the process of updating some of my A+ content on Amazon so thought I’d share a few additional thoughts.

One, someone pointed out that on mobile the A+ content shows up above the blurb. So if you think you have a really powerful blurb and that’s what sells your books, you may not want to use it. Or may only want to use it on your print titles which may be more likely to be purchased by desktop users.

Two, I found out the hard way that you have to list all versions of the book separate for the content to show up on the product page. So I’d listed my ebook ASINs when I set up my content and had to go back and edit the ads to include my print ASINs.

Three, you can only put the content on books published via Amazon. For example, I have a couple of print books that I only publish through IngramSpark because I want them to have spine text and for those ones I couldn’t add A+ content.

Four, Amazon will automatically copy your U.S. content to the UK, DE, IN, CA, and AU stores for you. All you then have to do is go to each of those stores and click the “show auto-created content” button to show those ads. They’ll be in draft format so you have to go through and submit them for approval, but at least you won’t have to recreate them.

Five, if you do edit a U.S. ad the foreign copies will revert back to draft. This includes adding new books to the listing. So when I added my print books to my A+ content in the U.S. that put all of my foreign ads back to draft. (Good times.)

But, yeah, overall I like it. I’m sure readers that scroll for rank and reviews aren’t as happy, but that’s a very small subset of most readers and probably mostly author-types that do that I’d think.

Random Self vs. Trade Publishing Thoughts

I think I mentioned that earlier this year I had discovered Michelle West’s epic fantasy books, which span three different series but are all one large interconnected story. I devoured them. Sixteen books, most around 800 pages or so. I finished the last one in July. They were meaty and complex and had characters I liked without having any main characters I hated.

(I find that sometimes authors make choices about characters to “keep it interesting” that push me right out of a series. These books aren’t light and fluffy by any means, but they somehow manage to include brutal parts of the world without being brutal themselves.)

Anyway. After finding and loving those books I was then surprised to see that she basically had to part ways with her publisher on the remaining books in the story (a new series, but the continuation of the whole big arc) because the books were just going to be too long. And perhaps too numerous.

Good epic fantasy (not just alternate world fantasy, but actual epic fantasy) is so hard to find that it was really sad news for me as a reader. So when she mentioned that she was starting up a Patreon to let her write that final series, I decided I’d support it. (You can find it here: https://www.patreon.com/mswest)

For me as a writer it’s been worth my money so far because she’s been posting really interesting discussions about her writing process. And it also gives me good mental fodder when thinking about trade vs. self-publishing.

I hope she won’t mind my quoting from today’s post, because I think this is an important thing to understand for anyone considering the trade publishing path.

“The Patreon has been enormously freeing. It’s been — I don’t think I can put into words just how much of a difference it’s made to the writing. I’m not terrified, at the moment, of writing these books. I’m not afraid of allowing the story to breathe and grow from the roots that have existed since┬áBroken Crown.”

From what I understand of what she’s discussed, she was finding herself constrained by the requirements of her trade publisher. They wanted the books to be under a certain word count. And they’d bought four books when the series was likely going to be six and if I had to guess may ultimately be eight to ten books.

And so the author was feeling like she couldn’t write the story she wanted. She couldn’t include certain characters or plot lines. She was trying to tell a full, living, breathing story with one hand tied behind her back because of publisher requirements and it was interfering with her process.

(To be fair to the publisher and her editor, it sounds like over the years they’ve really worked hard to let this series continue and be what it needed to be. But they just hit a point where that couldn’t happen anymore.)

I think this issue she raises is probably the biggest trade-off that authors need to recognize if they want to be trade published.

As a self-publisher I can faff around all I want and the only one I’m harming is myself. So I can write a book or not write a book, or write a book that’s three times longer than I planned or half the length I planned, and it doesn’t matter.

But if you go the trade publishing route, you need to meet the expectations of your publisher. That includes length of book, length of series, timing, etc. And if X does well, you better be prepared to provide more of X. If Y doesn’t do well, you better be prepared to start writing Z instead, assuming they give you another chance and don’t just show you the door.

Which can make self-publishing sound really appealing, right? Freedom! Creative control! Telling YOUR story!

But there’s the discoverability issue for new authors who self-publish. I know that if I hadn’t discovered this author’s works through her trade published series I wouldn’t be supporting her Patreon right now. (I also know if I hadn’t been able to read those books in a mass market paperback size that I would’ve never started the series either.)

The reality is that if some unknown writer said, “Hey I want to write an epic fantasy series, give me money to let me do that,” I’d laugh and say, “No.” I’d have no guarantee that they could write one nor that they could do so in any sort of timely manner. And I’d definitely have no reason to believe that it would be good if they did manage to write it.

Which means for a brand new author with no trade publishing track record to write a series like this one on the self-publishing side they basically have to self-fund and go all in and write the first story arc at least before they can expect any sort of traction. That’s a good million words probably.

Too many readers have been burned by unfinished series at this point for an epic fantasy book one to really take off, IMO. (I could be wrong on that, I mean I have started other epic fantasy series that were unfinished even though Melanie Rawn never finished what at the time I thought was the best epic fantasy series I’d ever read, but that was also long before some other unfinished or not-yet-finished series that have really put out readers.)

Writing a million words up front is a hard ask. And most self-publishers won’t hold back the books until the series arc is done. Which means they’ll put out Book 1 to crickets. Or friends and family sales.

And then…Do you keep writing 300K-word novels? Or do you write shorter novels that you can write faster? To get traction. To make money. To justify how you spend your free time to everyone who thinks you just publish a novel and start printing money.

Honestly, as someone who loves character-driven epic fantasy it worries me. Because if publishers AND self-publishers both focus too much on the short-term bottom-line profit, the trend is going to be toward more simple or constrained stories. Which means I as a reader am not going to get those great, sprawling, complex, intriguing fantasies I love so much.

Or I’m only going to get them from already-established authors. (Which I am grateful for and will read.)

I don’t know the answers on this one. I suspect if I myself were writing an epic fantasy series I’d try trade pub with it, even knowing how hard a sell it would be. But that’s also because I don’t think self-publishing print costs can compete with trade publishing print costs and I think print is still a strong part of that particular market.

Anyway. Just my random thoughts for the day.