Month: March 2014
Hold Backstory back for a reason
As I look back on my journey as a writer, I am always amazed at one thing; we all seem to come imprinted with how to write a bad book. Writing is like any other skill. We crawl before we walk, we walk before we run, we run before we can cross the finish line. Now, just the shear will it takes, the passion and drive to actually get the thing done is a major accomplishment. Most people who dream of being a writer, and surveys tell us there are LOTS, will never get that far. Why? Writing is hard. Yup, so if you have stars in your eyes, good you’ll need them. You’ll also need to be a little crazy and obsessiveness doesn’t hurt either. Writing is not fun-though there are moments of intense joy. But most of the time, life has a way of interrupting and if you heed the call despite all the distractions and negative self-talk, and get your first draft done, pat your self on the back!
But don’t submit that manuscript. Resist the challenge to think of your work as done. It’s only just begun. If you’re new to this thing called writing, craft will help fight your way out of the bad book. I recently took part in a national writing contest, and after results were posted, I was stunned to read how many new writers had submitted a first draft they barely edited or a NANOWRIMO project still being fleshed out from November. Let’s admit it. It’s exciting to finish a project, especially if this is your first novel-you might feel as if you’ve climbed a mountain, but I’m here to tell you, you’re only at Base Camp 1. The summit is still a long way off. So polish first, edit and re-edit till you can’t stand your story. If you can afford an editor, do it. Don’t have a writer’s group? You’re not serious.
I started writing novels at 16. Like most newbie’s learning and feeling my way, they were rambling and had no structure, (and were probably much more fun to write in my blissful ignorance). I loaded them first with Backstory. I had paragraph after paragraph of the protag’s physical description, and details of ball gowns and complex family trees because I thought it was my job to educate Reader. Throw as much in the opening that I could so no one would be in the dark-in short I stripped the story of any magic and took out a reason to turn the page. I agonized (for years) about what to show, what scene should be in, I wanted every little step the character took to be mapped out. I wanted a blow by blow and a play book for the Reader.
BACKSTORY = Anything in your character’s remote past or childhood. There are times when this is germane to the story, your job and your skill is to weave it in such a way Reader won’t feel drenched in sriracha sauce. Backstory is like a spice, too much, and we become bored. It needs to be dosed in just the right amount, like breadcrumbs or your writing will fail before it’s even out of the gate. But don’t add too little either, or we won’t know what the heck is going on. When you start your story, resist the urge to lay an infodump or tell everything that is in your head about the protag’s history. Do this experiment. It’s going to feel weird, you might even feel clammy and shaky, you won’t believe what I’m saying, but HOLD back. Writing coaches tell us that too much Backstory in the beginning is our way of “warming up” our story in our minds. Backstory when dumped at the beginning, pages and pages of it, is self-serving and adds no benefit, so that’s why we all crawl at the same pace when we learn to write. We think we need to hand the Reader a snapshot because poor Reader is incapable of putting pieces together. When in reality the opposite is true. Reader needs very little to go on. Imagination can do the job just fine.
Think of it like this; someone you’ve only spoken with on the phone. You may know her basic stats, blue eyes, red hair and voice, yet your mind will create a picture and when you meet, you will be shocked because she doesn’t look like what you pictured. When you unleash your story on the wold, if you’ve done backstory and character description right, Reader will form his/her own mental picture even though you’ve given them very little to go on. So don’t tell everything upfront. If you still feel you must, write away but cut off the first three chapters. Your writing will sail much more smoothly.
My writing improved markedly when I started trusting Reader. I didn’t need to show every step the character took to get from point A to point B. I knew Reader could fill in the blanks and that was what made the difference in my writing. Trust Reader and you’ll never go wrong. So keep the Backstory back where it belongs.
Tolstoy’s Love Affair With Film
If Tolstoy were alive today, he’d be astounded by the size of the book deals, movie options and tie-ins that would no doubt be thrown at his feet. He might also be shocked at our word counts and trends for tight, fast moving plots. But he was writing in another time. When people took weeks to move from dacha to country house to palace. I love long books. I love Tolstoy. I never found him long-winded. I read War and Peace when I was in college one summer for pleasure and couldn’t put it down. I was so in awe of his skill-the way he created wonderful feminine characters-that I wanted to go back in time during the Imperial Age of Russia and dance at those balls, sit in those drawing rooms, fanning my blushed cheeks, ears perked on the gossip that so inspired Tolstoy. For better or for worse, I wanted to walk in the shoes of the women he created. And many ways, I did. That was his genius.
And he knew it. Oh, yes he knew it. To look at him, you’d never think the old curmudgeon could understand the girlish excitement of a first ball, feel the sharp, exquisite pangs of unrequited love or a forbidden passion so volatile it destroyed everyone in its wake. Over the years I’ve tried to lock Tolstoy down. I’ve read a lot about him. I’ve read his novels that were not so popular, his short stories and I’ve penned a paper or two in college. And I think this makes him so special-his observation skills and his love of women.
Tolstoy’s life is a complex, drama-ridden contradiction. He was a count by birth, a member of the aristocracy but chose to live in later life dressed as a peasant with bast shoes and simple Russian shirt. After years of turbulent marriage to Sonya Tolstaya, he abandoned his beloved characters and wrote didactic works of little artistic merit, and refused to discuss the novels that made him so famous.
War and Peace made him physically ill to read. He considered Anna Karenina his first real novel, though that came after. He seems to have suffered from a form of artistic shame akin to an actor being unable to watch himself on film. He lived over a 100 years ago. Yet, he’s as vital and relevant today as when his greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were first editions.
His books have been adapted with varying success. Not every one hits the mark.
In War and Peace, the story revolves around the ebullient Rostov family during the Napoleonic Wars and leads into the War of 1812 when Moscow was invaded by Bonapart’s Grand Armee. The story opens on a charming window of the main character, Natasha Rostova, about to attend her first ball. The character is loosely based on Tolstoy’s sister-in-law Tatyana. She’s at the age where she is not yet a woman, but still childish. Everything is new and she’s excited, and who wouldn’t be with Tolstoy at the helm we know we’re in good hands.
We see Natasha grow in her love for Prince Andrei, and a wordly widower who wants to marry her. Overnight, she is transformed from the girl who sings gypsy songs, with the shawl hanging off her shoulder to a woman deeply in love and desperate.
Audrey Hepburn played Natasha in the 1956 film with Henry Fonda. I’m not a huge fan, but she captured the quirkiness and youth of the character, in her Audrey Hepburn style and maybe that’s why she’s not my definitive Natasha Rostova.
Clemence Posey’s portrayal in the 2007 version-captured the closest essence of Natasha as I see her, hopeful, a little fragile and awkward in the beginning, reemerging a stronger, more sober woman, after the death of Prince Andrei. I admit to being shocked when Tolstoy killed off the Prince, and I never understood why he did that; I didn’t like the ending where Natasha and Pierre marry. It was my throw the book moment. 600 pages into a doomed romance and I felt a little cheated. But Tolstoy had other plans. I do understand that Tolstoy puts himself his novels. He’s Pierre through and through so perhaps it reflected author wish-fulfillment to marry these two chums in the end. Both of them were searching for something in their lives and it was a good way of creating surprise.
It was 1873 Anna Karenina first appeared as an installment serial in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy had turned his back on his loveable Natasha Rostova and dove into, “the first novel that I have attempted.”
He got the inspiration from attending the autopsy of a woman who committed suicide by walking in front of a train. That death was a touchstone that ignited his imagination. The woman became a temptress, locked in an unhappy marriage to a cold, older man who abandons her son for a Russian officer only to never have peace for her decision, and ultimately to take her own life.
The novel is considered the greatest ever written. I don’t doubt it. There are two main character arcs. Anna and Levin, another Tolstoy avatar. While Anna’s happiness rises at realizing her love for Vronsky, Levin’s happiness plunges because of unrequited love for Kitty who is also in love with Vronsky. The arcs are near mirror images that intersect and overlap. Anna has no choice, she seems driven to leave all for Vronsky and once their passion is ignited, Anna’s steep nose dive into tragedy begins, Levin by contrast, has won over Kitty’s heart and their happiness is soaring. It is interesting to note, the character of Kitty reminds me of an underdeveloped Natasha Rostova, in Levin, I see a bit of Pierre. The contrast also between the two characters is striking; Anna-dark, Kitty-fair, Anna-fallen woman, Kitty-loyal wife. Brilliant characterization. Cautionary tales for what happens when love is right, warning for love that has no place.
My favorite film adaption is the 1997 version with Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean. The novel is dark, it’s tragic. I don’t get that sense from the 2011 re-telling with Keira Knightly.
I’ve noticed that if I like the Vronsky, I will like the Anna actress, but if I don’t like the actor cast as Vronsky I won’t like Anna. I loved the pairing of Marceau and Bean. I thought it brought the right amount of chemistry together and stayed true to the novel’s vision.
Anna appears carefree, unconcerned even until she meets Vronsky at the train. Terrific foreshadowing.
The sense of inescapable tragedy and destiny are only enhanced through this beautiful film. It’s as if she can see her own ruin in his eyes as he pursues her almost to stalking. She tries to resist but she’s torn. She has to walk the road to perdition. One doesn’t feel so much the pull of a great and tender love, rather two people playing out desperate roles that they cannot escape because society has no place for them.
Sean Bean’s manic portrayal of hopelessness and terror at what his lust has unleashed is powerful. Let’s face it, Vronsky is the bad guy here, he’s the one who sets the whole thing in motion.
Jacqueline Bissett and Christopher Reeve also captured this tragic nuance in the eighties mini-series, Anna Karenina. I thought Bissett’s portrayal of Anna’s descent into paranoia and dependency on laudanum poignant and spot on. I like these two together.
I think it’s important to remember that Anna was older, passed the first blush of the ball room yet her beauty was still potent and vivid. And we get that sense of how potent indeed, when Kitty realizes, with sinking heart that Anna is not dressed on lilac, but black that showed her beauty off to the best advantage.
Finally, my sentimental favorite is the ravishing and tragic Vivien Leigh who seemed to be channeling the very character of Anna herself.
Anna Akhmatova – The soul of a Writer
As writers we are always fearful of that knock on the door-that call, that demand from the outside world that takes us away from our work. It’s what you do with that time and that knock on the door or the fear of it to keep on working that counts.
For me, writing is not a choice. It’s a drive, and when I’m doing it, it’s often hell more times than I care to admit. How many of us can say we would give up our lives, freedom, or livelihood, comfort-if something came between us and our writing? Could you sacrifice?
I gave up television four years ago to concentrate on being a writer. It was my little sacrifice.
I’ve been thinking what it means to be a writer. As writers we are forced to make choices in order to have our alone time away from family, responsibilities and friends who often don’t get why we do what we do. To non-writers, they can’t imagine suffering, whether its foregoing something fun, or getting up in the wee hours for the chance to put words on white space. They don’t have the itch.
But what if some shadowy, scary government type knocked on your door in the middle of the night and told you to stop writing? That your son would be imprisoned. That your husband killed. That you could no longer publish. That you would starve to death. Now imagine, that those things have happened. Your son is sent away to a prison camp, and your husband is killed.
At dawn they came and took you away.
You were my dead: I walked behind.
In the dark room children cried,
the holy candle gasped for air.
You’re told STOP writing. But writing is what you do. It’s your life. It’s how you process and see the world, and others don’t just admire you, they look up to you.
I should like to call you all by name,
But they have lost the lists…
I have, woven fore them a great shroud
Out of the poor words I overheard them speak. Requiem
To keep writing. To tell what you see in only the way you can tell it.
Today I have so much to do:
kill memory once and for all,
turn my soul to stone,
learn to live again…
Would you? Could you keep writing?
Akhmatova did. She kept on writing. And it could have got her killed. And Comrade Stalin was watching. She would go everyday to stand in line in hopes of seeing her son in prison. People knew she was the famous Akhmatova-one of the greatest poets of Russia. They asked her to put in writing their collective experience and so Anna wrote.
this woman is utterly alone,
with husband dead, with son away
in jail. Pray for me. Pray. Requiem
She wrote late at night, with the fear of the knock on the door, she wrote quickly and memorized stanzas when she was creating one of her best known works, Requiem. She burned the words after they were committed to memory. She wasn’t bitter. She still loved her country. She never fled, like so many following the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
I am not one of those who left the land
to the mercy of its enemies.
Their flattery leaves me cold,
my songs are not for them to praise.
She stayed and suffered in a cold flat with barely enough heat to warm herself and nearly starved during the siege of Leningrad and…wrote. She would have said she was rich for her words. And her country took her into the deepest part of their heart. She’s been there ever since.
If you’d like to hear one of Akhmatova’s deeply moving poems, “You thought I was that type…” follow the link. You won’t regret it and next time your struggling to get the words down, remember Anna Andreevna and that knock on the door. Remember the privilege and the tradition and the dedication.
And I swear to you by the garden of the angels,
I swear by the miracle-working icon,
And by the fire and smoke of our nights:
I will never come back to you.
Akhmatova died the year I was born. Yet she speaks to me. Her words touch me as deeply as if she is whispering in my ear and I am ever thankful, grateful and in awe to call myself a writer.