The Backstory

I read some interesting comments on “The Other Side” blog and a couple of friends asked me related questions in the last few days. This looks like a good time to share some more of my creation process.

The Other Side link takes you to the blog of a Young Adult paranormal author by the name of Janice Hardy. In that particular entry, she discusses the backstory problems that arise when the author has to work on sequels. It can get very confusing, quickly.

A similar and related problem is how to keep track of a lot of characters and multiple plots and sub-plots in larger novels. I’ve run into this on several occasions.

I’ve found a system that seems to work for me and perhaps it will prove useful for others as well.

I usually know ahead of time if the idea that’s bubbling out of my head is worthy of a novel or a shorter treatment. If it’s just a short story or essay, then I get right to work and burn out the full, first draft as quickly as possible. This usually takes just one or two sittings. Where things get interesting, is when I realize it is going to evolve into a longer tale.

As soon as I realize that the story is going to have more than four characters and be more than a few thousand words, I create two documents and put them in a new folder. The new folder will have a name like, “MyNewStory”. From then on, all graphics, documents, audio files, trailers, reviews, etc. are saved in this folder. That way, a year later, I can find anything related to “MyNewStory”.

The two documents will get names like “AnthonyStevesn_MyNewStory_draft.doc” and “AnthonyStevens_MyNewStory_notes.doc”. Most of the publishers I deal with want the author’s name in the file as part of the submission process.

I start with the notes file and write a synopsis of the story I want to tell. It will have the major plot as well as sub-plots. Don’t worry. This is a dynamic document and will probably change as the full story is written.

Under the synopsis, I create a list of characters. Each name is followed by a physical description and general personality comments. Minor characters will get something like “Angel – buxom blonde with an attitude.” While major characters may have a dozen lines going into great detail.

Now, we all know that once an author sits down to actually write the story, the characters will take over and re-direct the tale in places we hadn’t planned. That is fine. When you finish writing a new chapter or section that surprises you, enjoy it and then make a one or two line addition to the synopsis in your note file.

The author will also find that as the tale progresses, they’ll need to add a character or two. Once more, go ahead and drop them in the tale, but be sure to add them to the character list in the note file as well.

Another thing to consider is that the character list need not be restricted to people. Objects can have major roles in your story. A sailing ship, an airship, a special building or a particular tree may play a pivotal role in the tale.  If you have pictures of similar items or people that you find inspirational in the tale, then add them to the note file. Keep in mind that the note file will not be for publication. It is only for you and maybe your editor.

When the time comes to send the first draft to my editor, I usually send both files. The understanding is that the notes file may help answer some of their questions and they can point out where I need to fill plot gaps or correct logic errors in the plotline.

If the novel is going to be part of a series, I use the same note file and just add the new characters and another synopsis, below the first one. Over time, this will be the repository that helps me align my waterfowl.

This system may or may not work for others, but it works for me. The well-respected author, Charles Stross uses a totally different system and he goes into great detail on this blog entry on Writing Tools.

As usual, comments, kudos or thrown tomatoes are welcomed. How about sharing something about how you create larger tales?

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