Sunday, June 27, 2010

DIGGING DEEP AND WRITING BACKSTORY, WHILE KEEPING UP THE PACE

It' s my privilege to welcome Karin Harlow to our blog. I read about her on another blog and immediately fired off an email inviting her to visit with us. She graciously agreed. Welcome Karin!


Digging Deep and Writing Backstory, While Keeping Up the Pace
by Karin Harlow



First, I want to say, thank you, Ruby for the invitation to guest blog today! You asked me to write about deep POV and writing back story without info dumping.


I’m going to borrow a bit from a Magical Musings blog I did last month on character because one: it was one of my finer moments (and trust me, when it comes to craft, I am so not good at How Tos, but when it comes to characters, which is one of my strengths, and I’m all about playing got my strengths, I do really well conveying How To.) and two POV is character, so to understand POV, you must understand the character whose POV you are writing..


I’d like to say also, that for me personally, as a reader and a writer, story =character. Yes, there has to be a plot, but to me, a romance writer, character is what drives everything. Characters are emotional beings who make us care. Not because of a clever plot or an amazing setting. Give me characters I care about and you have me. Give me characters that are flat, boring or unoriginal, the book is hitting the wall.

I work very hard on developing passionate characters that I care about, here’s why:
Edie Ramer over at Magical Musings wrote about the heroine, Jax Cassidy, in my paranormal debut, ENEMY LOVER: Harlow’s character is really messed up…Harlow’s heroine isn’t just damaged, she’s been ripped apart and put back together with a few of the pieces misplaced. She’s a strong woman who’s been horribly wronged. We can see that in her thoughts. Though she’s not a traditional heroine, I’m rooting for her from the first page. Harlow writes in third person, very deep POV. So deep she’s hitting the ocean floor…Harlow is raw!

From The Romance Dish: It has been a long time since I have read a novel that includes the total realm of emotions. This book has it all – desperation, passion, humor, fear, anger, despair, love, lust, sadness, euphoria and oh so many more. I was pushed almost to the point of emotional overload, but in such a good way.

For characters to be viable and layered, the writer must pull at our emotions, as they are pulling at the character’s emotions.

When you begin your story, I think it’s very important to give a quick snapshot of who, what, where, and how. I’m a big less is more kind of girl; so long as the words are strong, and paint a clear picture. And the good news is, it’s easier to write than it seems.

Here’s the first paragraph in ENEMY LOVER, Angela (soon to be Jax Cassidy) Giacomelli’s POV:
Irony was one fickle, messed up bitch, Angela thought. A year and a half ago she was the fair-haired darling of Charm City. Baltimore’s hottest get-the-hell-out-of-my-way-I’m-going-to-the-top cop. Today, in the icy rain that bit at her skin like shotgun spray, two female deputies escorted her, hobbled and cuffed, clad in prison orange, from her courthouse holding cell into the sally port.
Iwas one fickle, messed up bitch, Angela thought. A year and a half ago she was What does this say about Angela? Who is she? What has happened to her? In those four opening sentences, we meet Angela and know that she was a cop, very recently on the top of her game, and that she took a great fall. We know she’s pissed off about it, and because she was a cop, we know she is no shrinking violet. In her POV about irony being a fickle messed up bitch, we know that Angela, despite the traumatic events that brought her to where she is at that moment, has a sense of humor, caustic as it is.. Emotionally we feel drawn to her. This intrigues us. We want to know what happened and why. It takes us to the next paragraph. This is an excellent way to weave in back story, during action while not slowing down the pace or info dumping.


How do you weave in back story without stopping the action?

I like to show, not tell, so here is a generic example of simple POV:


The rain had stopped. I hate the rain.


What do we know about the character? She hates the rain.
 What else do we know? Nothing.

Deeper POV with back story:

I stepped outside and turned my face up to the stubborn sun. It had been weeks since it shone. I was glad for it. The rain reminded me of Devon. He loved the rain, so did I. Once. Now. I hate it.

Now, we not only have action and back story but we have that all important element: Emotion. We are pulled in by this character’s loss. We know that someone named Devon who once meant a lot to her is gone. Either physically or emotionally or both. We have a peek into her heart. We know she has emotions. We feel empathy, because on one level or another we have all lost something or someone we loved.

So, how deep do you have to go to create characters we care about? Pretty damn deep. Think of it this way: What has it taken for you to become who you are? What has it taken to instill deep-rooted fears, phobias and angst? What in your past can lead to an instant meltdown or conversely, what makes you stand and fight? What profound events or persons in your past have shaped who you are today?

Here’s one single paragraph in the first scene where we meet ENEMY LOVER hero and uber badass, Marcus Cross. He’s waiting for his mark to arrive so that he can eliminate him.

Marcus curbed a sneer. Since his change seven years ago as he lay dying in the hills of Afghanistan, his natural predatory senses had become so acute, so fine tuned, so accurate, his vision rivaled that of a hawk, his sense of smell was as keen as a wolf’s, and his reflexes and strength were that of a cobra. No living thing could stop him. He was a vampire of the highest order.

This one single paragraph is a loaded one-two punch. We know that before Marcus was changed, he was a badass. We know where he was changed and what he was changed into. We know he likes it, in that he revels in his power and sneers at mere mortals. He is arrogant in his knowledge that there is nothing that can bring him down. He is scary, and sexy. We also know after having met Jax (aka Angela) earlier in the story, that when these two collide, it’s going to be an epic event.

POV is character. Think of it this way: when it comes to delving deep into a character’s POV we have to remember that it’s their past that creates their present. As with us, it’s our past that gives us depth and dimension. If you begin a story with no past, you create a one-dimensional present, which is boring. POV is how your character views the events and emotions in his or her life at that moment. Their past defines that POV.

Take a minute to think about which characters you’ve read are the ones who stand out? Why? Is it the hero who comes home to find his fiancĂ© in bed with his best friend and who now because of that one incident distrusts all women? Or is it the hero whose distrust of women began earlier. Abandonment by his mother as a young child, abandonment by his own people because he wasn’t completely like them. Abandonment by a drunken father who drops dead in front of him when he’s only five. All of these issues reinforced as a teenager then again as a young man, so that when it comes to commitment of any kind he walks away. Why should he trust anyone when everyone in his life has abandoned him on one level or another?

Here’s where Marcus is mentally after he meets Jax for the first time while he’s conferring with his maker, Joseph Lazarus, who wants Marcus to eliminate a non enemy of the state to make a point. When we first meet Marcus, he’s arrogantly content to be what he is. Now in his deep POV, he begins to question the feelings he has pushed down since his human life and now into his immortal life. He also gives us still a little more of his back story without clogging up the pace. And despite what he is, an assassin, we empathize with him. A peek into Marcus’s soul:

Everything had become easier for him these last seven years. He was stronger and faster. He could see into the night, smell scents from long distances and even take the form of the victims he drained dry. He was the six-million-dollar man except he had no soul. He was the perfect killing machine. Isolated from humanity even while being in the thick of it.


So why did it bother him? Why now, when his human life had been unmarked by relationships?


Was it because he at least had hope then? The possibility, whereas now there was none? Not even when he found a woman who could affect him the way the one last night had?


Maybe he should stay where he stood and await the sun, then perhaps his soul would be at peace. As it was, it clamored for something he knew he could not find in his current life. What it was he didn’t know

When writing in your character’s deep POV, you have to dig into their past. To the events that shaped them, the things that angered them, made them love, made them hate and made them smile. As their storyteller, you have to be them, and convey their thoughts, actions and most importantly, their emotions to the page.

If as a child you almost drown, your reaction to water may be immediate. Recoiling in fear. A natural reaction to the fear of drowning. What event instilled this fear?

Same thing applies with deep character POV. Put your character in a scene where she has to jump into the deep end of a murky pool to save a kitten. You show her balking. You feed us her fear and you take us back to what initiated the fear. That’s digging into deep POV. And it’s giving us back story that doesn’t slow down the pace. If she dives into the water, despite her fear, to save the kitten, the scene shows character building. Conversely, if she chooses to walk away, we now have, hopefully, her guilt over allowing the kitten to drown because she was too weak to overcome her fear to deal with it.

And remember two people can experience the same exact trauma and act one of three different ways. One can curl up in a ball and wish the world away. One can come out fighting, and yet another, as many men do, simply walk away and drift as a lost soul until someone or something ignites the fire inside to fight.

POV is the author’s tool to telling a character’s story. And in POV, the author reveals back story. I’m not a huge fan of flashbacks, but I am a fan of dialogue as a tool to give back story. Whether it’s the character whom the back story belongs or other characters in the story talking about another character’s back story. Just remember when you use dialogue in this way, it must be relevant, and move the story forward. If it’s idle conversation, you need to find another way, the best way IMO, is through the character who experienced it.

Always remember that a story is a narrative of a characters’ journey. What is story without character? Boring. What is story with characters we don’t care about? Irritating. But what are stories that pull you so deep into the character’s life, thoughts and emotions that you are there with them and you care? Wonderfully fulfilling!


I have a signed copy of ENEMY LOVER up for grabs for a lucky commenter: All you have to do is ask me an industry related question to get your name in the drawing!

Harlow
http://www.karinharlow.com/

27 comments:

Wendy Marcus said...

Hi Ruby!
Saw your post on RWCList. Great blog you have here!

Hi Karin!
We first met, well kind of, over at Romance University. I asked you a question about deep POV and your answer helped to improve my understanding of the concept, and my writing as a result. I did a post about it on my blog and you were nice enough to come over for a visit. I hope your book is doing well.

My industry related question: Aside from blogging, what other things have you done to promote your book?

Thanks!

Jeffery W. Turner said...

Even though I write non-fiction I can really appreciate the "I hate rain" example. Adding something more than a factual statement can really add to the story you are telling.

Industry question: Did you ever consider self-publishing/POD by chance?

Deni Cary Phillips said...

Hi Karin. Thank you for sharing. Among the examples you provided, you used introspection/self-reflection to deepen POV. As you weave these passages into the tale, do you separate them from the passages where interaction with other characters occur -- or can the pace be maintained even when a dialogue or situation is happening simultaneously?

I am fascinated by thinking how to interweave this method into my own work.

Ruby Johnson said...

Thanks for being our guest! My industry question is this: How much prior preparation do you do on developing your characters? Character interview? Charts? Synopsis of each character?

Dawn Chartier said...

Hi Karin,

I wish I would have read this 23 chapters ago. I can so picture my Deep POV mistakes while reading your post. I know these thing, but sometimes you have to go over them several times to sink in. My first book was published due to a comment from an agent. She told me while she loved the story (everything about the story), she didn't love my characters liked she had hoped. I rewrote the book and became the characters. I didn't write about them, I was them. A few reviews stated I did it right that time. On my current WIP, I totally forgot what I had learned. Whaaaa....Thank you for this reminder.

Question: Will you be my critique partner? (big grin) just kidding...

Dawn Chartier
www.dawnchartier.com

Harlow said...

Hi, Wendy! I remember, and I appreciate you stopping by. Your question at Romance U helped me formulate part of this blog, so thank you!

What else have I done to promote ENEMY LOVER? Not a lot. I don't have the time or money. Luckily though, my publisher did a big push. The blog tour was grueling but very satisfying. I did little things like I had L.O.S.T. mugs made to give out as prizes and just to say thank you a lot of people (and I am fighting with the mug company, they look horrible! But I shall prevail!). The perennial fave, bookmarks. My bookmark guy is tops. If anyone wants a few email me at karinharlow@aol.com with your snail mail addy and I'll be happy to send.

I think publisher push is crucial to a book's success. I was fortunate that I got some.

Harlow said...

Hi, Jeffery, thank you for stopping by! In answer to your question, no. I knew what I wanted and was not going to deviate from it. That said, when I started, self pub was a nasty word, now? Not so nasty. I have several good friends who are going that route. I think it's a great way to get your name out there. POD, print on demand, not to be confused with self publishing, is a process many publishers are implementing. it's cheaper than printing a bunch of books that have to be warehoused.

Self publishing today has evolved. People self pub for many different reasons. I think it's great for certain things and not so great for others.

Harlow said...

Hi, Deni! Absolutely you can write the introspection during the action and with other characters on page. all of the above EL examples were intermittently inserted into a dialogue scene, with the exception of the opening scene.

Reading good books is a great way to learn how to do this. Seeing it, hearing it in your head, and then writing it with your voice and your characters is a great way to learn the process. And, it *is* a learning process. Like anything we do repetitively, it becomes habit and second nature. Writers write. They read too. It's much easier then you think. When you sit down to your keyboard, slowly inhale, then slowly exhale. As you are doing that get into your characters head, and then write from their eyes and heart.

Again this takes practice, but once you have it, it just happens, like a light switch going on.

Seriously. :)

Harlow said...

Hi, Ruby and thank you again for the invite! I do a very small, very basic GMC chart for my h/h and the bad guy. I need to know before I write one word what drives them and why. I spend a lot of think time on this. if it isn't right then I can't write. Well, I can, but then I eventually chuck it all. I don't do the interviews or synopsis on each character. However, to sell this series I did write a L.O.S.T. character outline, which I have not stuck to at all. :)

Harlow said...

Dawn, you do not want to see my rough drafts! I always go back and deepen POV, back story and well, everything. So don't feel so bad. That's what revisions and second drafts are for! :)

If my CP ever dumps me, I'll give you a call!

Edie Ramer said...

Karin, thanks for the shout out! This is a great post! Almost every article on writing advises against using backstory. But you're showing the past as it affects the characters now. That's what makes your way matter instead of being a backstory dump. Brilliant!

magolla said...

Awesome post, Karin! I love the paragraph about the kitten. Our characters are all about the choices they make, whether in the present or the past, the good and the bad, it makes them into who they are, i.e. their baggage. Baggage in real life is tedious and boring, but when a deft hand manipulates the character, then the magic happens.

Industry question: How many years did you seriously write before anyone showed interest in your writing?

Harlow said...

Thank you, Edie! I love the word brilliant.

As far as those articles telling writers what to do and not to do--stugots!

Harlow said...

Thanks for stopping by, Margaret! In answer to your question, seriously pursuing publication? 3 or 4 years. and it was hardcore balls to the walls working toward getting an agent. I have hundreds of rejections. I began submitting long before I had a handle on my voice and the craft of writing. The one thing I had from the beginning was the ability to tell a story. It took a lot of words, *millions* of words before my writing was anywhere near submittable or before I could get an agent to give me the time of day. But the one thing that I never wavered from was the belief in myself and that I would sell.

Elizabeth said...

I loved that each of your characters got to tell a side of there story and how they felt. I wonder why you decided to add Mr.black point of view in the beginning of the book,but wonder why he didn't come up again?

Harlow said...

Hi, Elizabeth. I take it you read ENEMY LOVER? I hope you enjoyed. Why Mr. Black only had a cameo POV was because that was all we needed from him. There was nowhere else in the story where his POV was more relevant than the POV's that were used. We'll see more of Mr. Black in subsequent books. And mark my words, he will have his own book, and then we'll have lot's of his POV.

Liz Lipperman said...

Dammit, Harlow! I have a deadline and now I have to start Enemy Lover!!

I have news for you, girl. You do craft lessons well.

Liz Lipperman said...

Dammit, Harlow! I have a deadline and now I have to start reading my copy of Enemy Lover.

I have news for you, girl, you do craft well.

Vicki said...

Harlow this is a fabulous post and just in time for my current wip. I've been worried about my hero not having enough dimension on the page and you've given me great information to go back and weave that in.

Enemy Lover sounds great!!!

Vicki said...

I forgot to add my question.

Although it might not all end up in your book, do you write your characters backstory before beginning your book or does it come organically as the story progresses?

Harlow said...

So sorry Liz to keep you from your deadline. Not!

Harlow said...

Hi, Vicki! Long time no see!! I don't write back story per se. I have a succinct GMC chart to begin my story and in my head I have a good idea of what my characters' back story is. I didn't know what Marcus's backs story was until the scene where Jax is in the war room being briefed on her mission. It just poured out. I am a very organic writer. While some writers have charts and synopsis and spreadsheets, I just need to know the driving GMC's to start, and as I write them, my characters reveal themselves to me.

I'm working on L.O.S.T. book two at the moment. I had no idea the h/h had a past until I started writing. It was a very pleasant surprise. I love reunion stories even if the h/h vehemently do not wish to be reunited.
:)

Vicki said...

Karin, how fun is that! I love when characters reveal something you had no idea had happened to them or that they felt a certain way about something. That's when I sit back; stare at the words and say,” Really?" :)

Can't wait to see you at Nationals!! It's been way too long.

Mary Marvella said...

Karin, you never cease to amaze me. I'd love to imply you said what I was thinking, but you are way ahead of me! Awesome way to remind us about the way our pasts effect our presents and our futures. And then there's the difference in people and the way they respond to the same things.

Ruby, you have a lovely place here and I'm glad you brought Karin to visit.

Linda Andrews said...

Wonderful post and excerpts, I can't wait to put some of your advice into practice. When is Enemy Lover out and where?

Caffey said...

Hi Karin! Yeah, congrats on ENEMY LOVER! Gosh that cover is awesome! I love a great cover with the books! I know a cover, you can't judge by it, but I do believe its part of the whole package in selling the books. With your cover for this book, do you get any input to the cover. Did this one come as agreeable to you and fitting for the story? Would there be anything you'd want to change? (hope this question was on track. I'm a reader and always wondered how it helped with promoting and selling the books from an authors point)

cathiecaffey (at) gmail.com

Harlow said...

Mary, thank you for stopping by!! I gad Ruby invited me too!

Hi, Linda, happy to hear you enjoyed the excerpts. :) ENEMY LOVER is out everywhere!

Hi, Caffey, I do love that cover! LOVE IT! My editor had the concept and ran it past me. I loved it. and i had no complaints when I saw it for the first time. I still don't. it is, imo, one of the best covers I have ever seen.

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