Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Upstaged by Backstory: Are You Writing the Wrong Novel?

By David Mack, @DavidAlanMack

Part of the How They Do Series

JH: You don't always know where a story is going to go, and what you set out to write isn't always what you end up with. Please help me welcome David Mack to the lecture hall today, to share his thoughts on the backstory that became the novel.

David Mack is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure, including the Star Trek Destiny and Cold Equations trilogies. His writing credits span several media, including television (for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), film, short fiction, magazines, and comic books. He resides in New York City.

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Take it away David...

Sometimes writer’s block is a story’s way of telling its author that he or she is going in the wrong direction.

I learned this lesson the hard way several years ago, when I first began developing the story for what I hoped would be a new series of original novels that combined a near-future science-fiction setting with a dark-fantasy magic system. I had a clear mental picture of my core characters, a roguish band of Robin Hood types inspired by the Leverage model, and I had some fun ideas in mind for how to merge ultra-tech and sorcery.

Soon after I started plotting the first book, the project stalled and refused to be restarted.

Despite all of the clever world-building and action set pieces with which I had populated my new contemporary fantasy series, my desire to fully flesh out the villain’s history and motivations led me to continue to expand his backstory, which was going to have its roots many decades earlier during World War II in Europe. I felt certain that this was the right origin story for my story’s principal bad guy; nothing I considered as an alternative seemed to work nearly as well.

Before long, however, I discovered that the World War II backstory was taking up far more of my novel’s narrative space than I had intended. I resisted the temptation to embrace the writing of a historical fantasy novel because I feared the amount of research needed to craft such a work with any degree of verisimilitude. So I kept trying to rein in the backstory, to find some way to streamline it or to cut all but its most essential segments.

Then I discovered that all of it felt essential to me. In some cases, the backstory felt more vital and exciting than the near-future A-plot I intended it to support. That was when I experienced a dispiriting epiphany: I was writing the wrong novel.

Throwing away everything I had been working on for nearly a year was one of the most difficult choices I have ever made as a writer. What if I was wrong? What if I had merely deluded myself into thinking that the backstory was somehow more workable? What if it proved just as intractable during development as its predecessor?

I put aside those doubts and trusted my instincts. As soon as I began researching the major events of World War II in Europe, looking for moments around which I could build my new story, the new narrative revealed itself to me in a flood of inspiration. I had more ideas than I knew how to use. I no longer struggled to find enough material to build a compelling narrative; my new challenge became deciding which cool ideas had to be set aside to make room for better ones.

Even after I stripped away everything that I considered nonessential to my core story, I still had too much to fit into a single book. My agent helped me cut nearly half of the scenes from my first outline, and I condensed others to improve the story’s pacing. That still was not enough, though. The first draft of the manuscript weighed in at roughly 200,000 words. Thanks to sage advice from my agent, my editor, and my beta readers, I was able to trim the final draft down to approximately 160,000 words — still the longest single novel I’ve ever written.

I sometimes reflect upon the original project that refused to take shape, and to how much it frustrated me at the time. Now I feel grateful. Had that flawed book not pushed me away, I probably would not have discovered the one that became The Midnight Front, the first volume in my new Dark Arts series from Tor.

So the next time you feel as if your muse is resisting your creative direction, stop and consider the possibility that she just might be trying to help you find a better one.

Have your novel ever been upstaged by backstory?

About The Midnight Front

From New York Times bestselling author David Mack comes a visionary World War II-era adventure. The Midnight Front is the epic first novel in the Dark Arts series.

On the eve of World War Two, Nazi sorcerers come gunning for Cade but kill his family instead. His one path of vengeance is to become an apprentice of The Midnight Front―the Allies’ top-secret magickal warfare program―and become a sorcerer himself.

Unsure who will kill him first―his allies, his enemies, or the demons he has to use to wield magick―Cade fights his way through occupied Europe and enemy lines. But he learns too late the true price of revenge will be more terrible than just the loss of his soul―and there’s no task harder than doing good with a power born of ultimate evil.

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  1. This has happened to me more than once. I write romance. With one story, I had a couple in mind but they were boring. I asked myself, what if she ditched him for the inappropriate guy instead, even if only in her dreams? I let my imagination run with it, and that was when I knew I had my story for my book Heart Throbs. Another time, same thing. Happy couple with lots of kids. Boring. No story. Something had to go wrong. I hated to have to do it, but I killed off the wife so I could have the husband embark on a new romance with a very different type of woman. That became the basis for my book Spare Me the Drama.

    In my case, what I thought was the story was, in fact, just the run-up to it. Never heard of the reverse before. But hey, we're writers and anything is possible!

  2. great post. Going to share with others!

  3. I have something similar happening to me now. I planned write a series. The readers would meet most of the main characters at work in the first book through the eyes of a new hire. Each character would have their own story in subsequent books along the same theme. But a side character, the boyfriend, was far more interesting than the main character in book 2. No matter how I tried, the story is mostly about the boyfriend. The hard part for me is, he's complex way beyond my beginner writing skills (which makes him more mysterious), so I can only write about him through his girlfriend's eyes. Help.

  4. I can so relate to having the story stall out, and no measure of hammering and chiseling can make it "work". It wasn't backstory holding me back, though. I write mystery, and I finally did a what-if with the characters. What if character B is killed instead of Character A? Voila! Once I killed the "right" character, the story started falling into place.

  5. I have to admit I am having this problem with the story I have finished the first draft of. Yet, to tell the story that lies in the backstory, I feel I must tell the story I started with, which puts me in a deviant situation. I believe there's a way out of this mess but I'm having a hard time figuring it out.