For most of last year I worked on a structural edit of my novel Monkey See, based on some very detailed and insightful feedback from an agent (who I have not yet signed a contract with, so must remain nameless). Most of the feedback centred around back-story – or lack thereof.
What is back-story? It is anything that happens before the present moment in which a scene takes place. Back-story might go back a day, a week, or a hundred years or more, depending on the kind of book you’re writing.
Natasha Lester recently wrote a useful piece on back-story explaining that too much back-story is a common mistake for writers, slowing down the narrative and affecting the reader’s immersion. I made the opposite mistake: not enough back-story, which made some of my characters’ actions and decisions hard for a reader to understand.
For example, when the novel opens, one of my key characters, Danior, is a cocaine addict, and in the service of his habit, does some pretty lowdown stuff, like pawning his best friend Chacho’s ukulele, which is one of his most prized possessions. (Did I mention Chacho is a monkey? Yes, a ukulele-playing monkey. He is a dude).
It can be hard for a reader to empathise with a character betraying a friend, and hard to understand why the friend would put up with it, without knowing the bigger picture. That’s where back-story comes in. I knew that Danior and Chacho had survived a pandemic in which Danior had lost everyone he loved. But writing the back-story involved digging much deeper into this. How did Danior and Chacho meet? What was the nature of their connection? (clue: it involves freaky neurological experiments). What exactly was the plague? How was it transmitted? What important people did Danior lose to the plague? How did my characters survive, when so many died?
Answering these questions involved truckloads of research. I seem to remember having a notion that I don’t like research but I’ve realised this is only true if it involves using a microfiche. As long as I can worship at the altar of Wikipedia, I actually like research a lot. The image above is some of the fascinating things I looked up, a few of which strained my not-very-science-y brain.
But, research is only one part of building a back story. Next I had to work out which pieces of research were most relevant for character and plot development and for world building.
The hardest element of the structural edit was packing so much new information into my novel without slowing down the plot too much. The trick to this is to break your back-story into the smallest possible elements and scatter them through the novel as widely as you can, giving the reader only as much information as they need in any given scene. The information which is essential for them to know has to hide on the page, dropped casually into conversation or a scene’s exposition, so they don’t even notice it’s there. Let me tell you, this is easier said than done. After many attempts I still ended up with some big chunks of back-story which I couldn’t break down any further. I sent it back to the agent hoping they might have some ideas on this.
They sure did! Their idea was that I should make the back-story into an entire new book, which would be a prequel to the book I had written. Whoa! This came as something of a shock as there I was thinking I had a book which was almost ready to make its way into the world. And your first instinct when you have only just finished a book is, Please no, don’t make me write another book. After a stiff drink and a lie down, I reflected on some words I had just read in an interview with Sue Monk Kidd:
The job of the writer is to serve her work.
I knew that the best way to serve this work was to take the advice of the agents and give the back-story the space it needed: an entire book of its own. So that’s what I’m working on now. I’ll tell you about that process in my next instalment.