November 1, 2015

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s efforts for National Novel Writing Month here each year. Some years the day-one spew is more interesting than others; this year my approach to NaNoWriMo is somewhat different and so the product is different as well. What I’m doing is more like research than it is the actual story.

You know how you pick up some stories and you start reading and all of a sudden you’re “treated” to chapters of “how character X got to be here” junk? It’s all stuff that happens before the real story begins, but the writer doesn’t trust himself to show you the character organically so he feels compelled to go off on a huge tangent to explain who the main people are in the story. But it’s not part of the story, and if you can’t make a character’s behavior in the here and now make sense without first presenting a complete biography, then maybe it’s time to review that behavior.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a full backstory for characters, just remember that it’s for you as a writer, not for the reader. Write it, but don’t publish it.

Or, if the backstory is interesting, you can publish it on your Web site as a supplement to the core story. That can be fun for everyone. Just let people meet your characters in the story first.

Oh, by the way, this episode is all backstory. I’m writing it to answer to myself one simple question: “What’s the story with Bags’ pretty sword?” I wrote that in as an interesting detail all the way back in episode one, but I have no more idea what it signifies than you do. So I better figure that out. For the next couple of days I’m writing a story for me only, to hash through Bags and to try to find ways to make him interesting. After that I’ll do the same for Kat. Martin, maybe, maybe not. He lives so much in the moment that the past doesn’t seem to matter to him. He just is.

After that I’ll probably start gushing out versions of what TFNIWLNW would be like if I were to actually write it. The main thing I need now is a plot. Characters and setting will only get you so far. (Though there are plenty of big-name authors who coast on character and setting once people are hooked to their interminable series.)

Anyway, all that backstory I just said one should not publish? Here’s some of it now. One thing about writing backstory just for the sake of backstory: it’s almost all exposition. I’ll be getting into more character development later tonight, but this part is already pretty long to expect a blog audience to read.

I will say, what with it being a series of events, a lot does happen, even if I haven’t examined very much yet what the significance of those events is. At the very end of this bit I finally start getting some traction in that arena.

Anyway, here’s the first part of the first day:

The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write: Research

When Baxter Mongret was enjoying his fifth summer, his father went off to war and didn’t come back. When news of father’s death reached the modest cottage where Baxter had been born, all were pleased — but not surprised — to learn that he had died well. “Die young but well and leave plenty of offspring” might have been the family motto, were it not, “In Glory, Everything.”

Each generation of Mongrets saw a few of the men survive long enough to enrich his family with the spoils of war and the favors of grateful nobility, but Baxter’s father had so flawlessly embraced the family’s unspoken credo that he had died gloriously, slaying many enemies and saving the life of a bastard son of a minor prince, but expiring before any of the rewards of such heroism could be conferred upon him.

So it was that Baxter, his still-beautiful mother, one younger brother, and two sisters, found themselves living under the care of his uncle Traistin, one of his departed father’s older brothers.

The next few years were the best of his life. Baxter was set upon by his older cousins, beaten, taunted, and tormented in every way that the nefarious minds of children can invent. He fought them with fist, boot, tooth and words. He always lost. But sometimes he would pause, surrounded by the larger boys, and see Uncle Traistin watching, with a faint smile on his face, and he would give a nod of approval aimed at Baxter alone. Those moments made everything else worthwhile.

One by one the older boys were given over to the master at arms, to begin formal training, and were no longer allowed to tussle with the children. It was a grave and solemn graduation from child from youth, and later from youth to young man. Young men could serve warriors, and would eventually achieve that station themselves, somewhere around their twentieth birthdays. The only step that followed that one was ‘corpse’.

By the time Baxter, or ‘Bags’ as his unkind cousins had taken to calling him, turned seven there were no longer any cousins who could best him. He wasn’t the biggest, though he had the bones to suggest he would be. He wasn’t the most skilled; he moved with the awkwardness of a large puppy still trying to gain control of his skeleton. But he was strong, and he was fast, and more than anything else he was releltlessly untiring. Combined with a patience born of being overmatched, of enduring and waiting for the one chance to strike a blow that might turn the fight, he had the discipline of a mature warrior.

His younger brother William, or “Worm” now to most of his cousins, did not recieve the same attention. He was still too young to be involved in family politics, and as he got older he grew into awareness of his surroundings already knowing the cousins his age. Worm was small for his age, and while he shared his brother’s quickness, he was obvioulsy never going to be a great warrior. Luckily, you don’t need to be a great warrior to die bravely. It might even hasten the path to glory.

On Bags’ seventh birthday, then, one year ahead of when most boys were sent for their arms training, Traistin stood to speak in the family mess hall, and solemnly announced that Baxter Mongret was ready to join the master at arms for formal training. There was much cheering, because Bags was popular among the adults and respected by the other children, but some of his cousins did not like it. Their own father was showing some interloper greater respect than he ever had shown for them.

“You better watch your back, Bags,” Clyde hissed across the table. “We’ll be using real weapons next time.”

Bags smiled. His life would once again become what he was accustomed to. He was going to be the target again, and he was going to learn how to fight all over again.

 

Only it didn’t work out that way. First, all their fights were carefully controlled by their tutors. Even when the tutor was an older brother of the cousin Bags was fighting, they kept things scrupulouosly fair, lest they dishonor themselves. Nobody was prepared to diminish himself in the eyes of the master at arms. Second, After the first few weeks while he accustomed himself to the new tools of violence, Bags started winning. He fought with joy and daring, without ever being reckless, and he was steadily matched against older and older opponents. The graying men who presided over the training too notice, and gave him personal attention with more sophisticated attacks and defenses. The masters hoped, quietly, to themselves, that Baxter would have many offspring before his inevitable fall. Out loud they told Traistin that Baxter was going to bring great glory to the family.

They were wrong about both those things.

 

When Bags’ mother got pregnant again, Bags thought nothing of it. Pregnancy was someting that happened to women. Other people seemed terribly upset about it, though, especially Uncle Traistin’s wife Greta. Greta had come from far away to marry Uncle Traistin, and she had never much liked Bags’ mother. She didn’t seem to like anyone, for that matter — she went out of her way to make it clear she was unhappy pretty much all the time. But for Bags’ mother there was a extra special sort of hatred that Bags did not understand, as much as he was aware of it at all.

Most of the other people around the place didn’t seem to care all that much. It all went with the Unspoken Credo. Leave many offspring. A bastard could die gloriously just as well as any other.

Things only got worse when word came that Uncle Traistin had been killed in battle, hundreds of miles away, along with his two eldest sons, fighting for some prince Bags had never heard of. The messenger had ridden through sleet and rain and winter’s muck to bring the news as quickly as possible, as if another day of not knowing would have mattered. His horse died right there in the courtyard, while Bags looked on sadly.

His uncle had died a violent death, but that’s what it meant to be a man in his world. From Bags’ point of view, Glorious Death was the sole reason battles even happened, and princes only existed so that men could die for them. Without princes, what would his family even do?

Traistin was the last of his generation, and his oldest surviving son was a mere seventeen, only now starting on the “many offspring” part of his destiny. Just married and to be honest rather stupid, he was ill-prepared to be head of the household. Which allowed Greta to take control, at least until more distant testicle-bearing relations could make their way to the compund. While she had the ear of her sons, she made two decisions. One, that not all her sons would die in battle. Two, there was no room under her roof for beggars and whores. By whom she meant Bags and his family. Mother and sons she turned out into the winter; Bags’ sisters she sold to a caravaner passing through.

 

It was only a few weeks before Greta was executed by the men of her family for bringing Dishonor on the name Mongret, but by then the damage was done. Penniless and starving in the snow, Bags’ mother died giving birth to a little boy, who died hours later while Bags held it, crying helplessly. “They turned their backs on us,” His mother panted while she bled into the snow, her doomed infant son wailing in her arms. “Listen how your tiny brother cries for vengeance.” She shuddered. “If you share his cries, Bax, you must remember one thing. One thing…” She coughed and took another shuddering breath, her face as pale as the snow around them. “They must die the death of cravens, or your vengeance will merely hasten them to glory.”

 

Bags couldn’t even bury his mother and brother. The ground was too hard and he had no tools, and no way to get them. As night fell he heard the furtive sounds of scavengers and predators, drawn to the scent of blood. He woke his younger brother who lay pulled into a ball, shaking in his cloak. Bags pulled him shivering to his feet. “Never forget this place,” he told Worm. “We must always remember.”

Worm nodded. “Always.”

“We have to go now.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“She will become part of the forest.” Wolf shit is part of the forest after all.

“Like a spirit?”

Bags nodded, though he had no idea how these things worked. But there were spirits in the woods, and they had to come from somewhere. “Yes,” he said. “And we have to remember this place, remember her, or her spirit will fade.”

Worm, solemn as ever, said, “I will always remember. Even when you forget, I will remember.”

“I won’t forget.”

“You forget everything. Everyone in our family forgets. They forget what people looked like as soon as they’re gone. They forget the happy times they had together. I think we have to forget or we’ll be sad all the time.”

“But not you?”

“Not me. I remember everything.”

“I won’t forget this,” Bags said. “Not this.”

“I won’t let you,” Worm said.

The creatures of the night were getting braver. “We have to go,” Bags said. He took Worm’s hand and led him out of the underbrush and onto the deserted, moon-lit road. “Which way?” he wondered aloud.

Worm pointed to their right. “That way,” he said. “Away from anyone who has ever even heard the name Mongret.”

1

5 thoughts on “November 1, 2015

  1. I have no problem with story-as-exposition. And many of my favorite stories are told in the order you need the information, rather than in chron order. In fact, an interesting conceit might be a nested story, where the digressions have digressions until you’ve pushed all the background onto the stack, then you pop off the denouments in reverse order. Can’t be a more time-fractured concept that Infinite Jest or Catch-22, and those are awesome. In any case, really enjoying both the story and backstory, and would have no problem if you cut away to this aside mid-story to provide motivation … what sucks is when it’s done poorly, not just that it’s done. I hope you continue to crank on this very readable story, and core dump it here. A long series of short stories with these characters, even without an overarching plot, would be just fine by me.

    • I have no problem with time-fractured stories; done well they can be very rewarding. If I were ever to make Jer’s Novel Writer 2.0, it would include tools to help writers create stories like that.

      Story-as-exposition is a different matter. It can also be done well, but if the sub-story is written as a long string of expository statements, then it quickly becomes tiresome. The above excerpt has almost no grounding detail, description, or dialog. Some of the characters may not be wearing clothes or even have faces. The physical place the scenes occur is apparently a featureless room. While the events are interesting, I made no effort to bring them to life.

      The backstories you enjoyed were almost certainly rich in details and sensory impressions, with dialog that reveals the motivations behind the words. Even in those cases, though, I think the author can often apply those same skills to the main story and will discover that the field trip into the past was nothing more than buying time to come up with the plot.

      I guess my main problem with backstories is that they aren’t taken seriously as stories in their own right – often (not always) they don’t follow a story line at all, but just give a character a series of obstacles and unfortunate incidents that lead up to the present, with a conclusion something like, “so anyway, Joe’s an asshole with mother issues, and now you know why.”

      Backstories that directly feed the current situation or are simply fun in their own right (“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) I will happily read all day long.

    • Well, I enjoyed this, and I second what Bug says. I take your point about bringing a featureless backstory to life, so…
      I dunno, I guess I enjoyed this because I’ve already been following Bags in the main story??
      I think we need to start pressing you on TFINWLNW. It needs to become Likely Written. Don’t leave me hangin bro. Also, you can follow in the esteemed footsteps of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by using ‘likely’ and ‘very likely.’ (Which was supposed to appeal to the non-scientific masses who don’t like percentages).
      Barely related tangent – you (and John?) have permanently scarred me with ‘as you know Bob.’ Whenever I run into that, I hear you in my brain. But I laugh, so it’s all good.

      • I’ve been enjoying dumping words about Bags’ past (18,000 words in he’s now a promising (and increasingly foul-mouthed) student at a military school, which turns out to be an excellent place to invent an excuse for action whenever I need it — which is most of the time), and when he graduates he’ll owe a few years of service to a mysterious magic-user guild of some sort, at which point I should be able to answer the question “where’d he get that fancy sword” after investing WAY more time on that question than I intended to. But it’s been fun.

        I may not give Kat the same level of detail, as I really want to get to some test plots for TFNIWLNW. The core question for her is a little more open-ended, but it comes down to “How did she become a rebel?” Which means I’ll probably have to figure out what she’s rebelling against, which will more directly feed the core story. I’m looking forward to it.

        I have an episode of the actual main story partially complete as well; when I need a break from Bags I’ll finish it up and give it wings.

      • Oh, and thanks for the very encouraging words!

        One of the things preventing me from coming up with a better name for the damn thing is that I don’t know what the story’s about. Makes titling it tricky.

Leave a Reply to Jerry Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *