How to Handle Backstory, A Story Success Clinic with Amy Johnson
How to Handle Backstory, A Story Success Clinic with Amy Johnson – How To Write the Future podcast, episode 71
“So here instead of telling and this is kind of an advanced tool to be a deep point of view is that we don’t want to say she felt or she thought, but we could just show by saying: there was, and that’s one way to do it. There was is not the most elegant term but this keeps us in her point of view because we don’t go around thinking, I’m thinking, I’m feeling it, right? We just think and we just feel.”
In “Episode 71. How to Handle Backstory, A Story Success Clinic with Amy Johnson” host Beth Barany, creativity coach, teacher, and science fiction and fantasy novelist, talks with writer Amy Johnson through a critique of the opening of her story and suggests possible edits to enrich the readers’ experience. Beth also invites listeners to come onto the podcast as a guest with your questions about your own work.
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About the How To Write the Future podcast
The *How To Write The Future* podcast is for science fiction and fantasy writers who want to write positive futures and successfully bring those stories out into the marketplace. Hosted by Beth Barany, science fiction novelist and creativity coach for writers. We cover tips for fiction writers. This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.
This podcast is for you if you have questions like:
– How do I create a believable world for my science fiction story?
– How do figure what’s not working if my story feels flat?
– How do I make my story more interesting and alive?
This podcast is for readers too if you’re at all curious about the future of humanity.
Transcript for Episode 71 – How to Handle Backstory, A Story Success Clinic with Amy Johnson
Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of How to Write the Future podcast. I’m your host Beth Barany, a novelist and writing teacher, and this is a podcast for people who want to create positive and optimistic futures because I believe that what we vision we help make so. So our visioning happens on the page as writers.
Today I have a special guest for me. We’re doing a Story Success Clinic and in a moment, I’m going to introduce, my guest.
And just want to invite you if you’re interested in having a page of your work critiqued and we get to talk about topics that science fiction and fantasy writers face, go ahead and sign up for a Story Success Clinic.
Introducing my guest, writer Amy Johnson
So, with me here today is Amy Johnson. Amy, please tell us a little bit about yourself and then I will say a little bit about how I met you. So yeah, welcome.
Thank you. Thanks for having me. I’ve been on the path of writing for only two years.
Before that, I was a psychiatrist, which of course is all about people’s stories and things that might come in handy with writing, and I was also very interested in field biology as a young person. So I wanted to somehow combine what I know about ecology, field biology, and people with writing to help illustrate a better future than what we have now.
This piece of writing is set in a, in a field biology station that I actually attended in the 70s, and it was a great time, a wonderful experience. And I wanted to start writing about, like, what would have happened if I’d chosen that path instead of going into medicine? So that’s how I came up with the idea.
Wow, that is so cool. So, for a little bit of context. Amy and I met through this fabulous course that we took last year called Thrutopia that was run by Manda Scott, who has a fabulous podcast called Accidental Gods. And through Manda’s group and the Thrutopian classes, there grew an offshoot of writers, and we call ourselves Thrutopian Writers and Earth Writers, I believe is the other name. And so now we’re an active group of writers who meet on Zoom on a regular basis and we help each other. So, that’s how Amy and I met. And then, Amy, you came to my work because of my World Building workbook, which is a free workbook that people can sign up for at howtowritethefuture.com.
And you sent me in a question, which I just thought was so wonderful and sparked a conversation, which led to you signing up for the Story Success Clinic.
So I’m going to read your question and then you can tell me if you want to change anything or add anything. So you’re telling me that your biggest challenge as a future worldbuilder is how to describe a better world without being preachy or didactic. And then another one, another challenge that you’re having is: how to evoke feeling through and for characters. Is that right? Is there anything that you would like to add to that?
Well, those are still questions in my mind, so that those would be good ones.
Excellent, excellent. So we’re going to focus on, definitely, the first one, which is how to describe a better world without being preachy or didactic. And then the second one, which we’ll address is how to evoke feeling through and for characters.
Great. So what I’m going to do is, for those of you listening, we’re going to be working on Amy’s document and I’ll be reading it. I’ll read a segment of it, probably about 500 words, and then together we’re going to talk about it, and I’m going to give Amy critique on those two things, and possibly some other things that pop out.
So are you ready, Amy?
All right, And for some setting, so the title of your work is Deep Lake Station. And it takes place in the future, right? What year is the story taking place?
I think roughly 15 years into the future.
Great. So we’re talking 20-35? Something like that?
Something like that. I haven’t quite got that down yet with all the details.
Yeah. Cool. Great. Well, I will do my best to read the first 500 words. And I am not a professional voiceover actor, so bear with me, everyone. I will do my best.
All right. Oh, and how do I pronounce your protagonist’s name?
Is it Keesha?
Keezia. Great, thank you. All right.
Deep Lake Station.
It was a gray dawn thunderstorm, with the sky crashing and sparking, and now the steady sound of raindrops rolling down millions of thirsty leaves. It was a comfort, promising new growth for all living beings on the mountain.Kezia Wells had spent many childhood summers in this cabin and loved listening to the song of drips drubbing the metal roof nestled in her blue down sleeping bag. She imagined mosses releasing their flagellated spores, which would swim through rivers of droplets to find a mate. Fungi were the most fascinating to her, with their colorful, fruiting bodies springing up from nowhere to release spores and mixed genes. The wheres and whys of it were what Kezia wanted to, and had led her to a career as a field mycologist. Why do some prefer rotting wood and others need a south-facing deep leaf mold? How do they signal that it’s time to send up their delicious fruit? How do they know when there’s just enough rain?
Her parents had been mycologists too, studying tree and mycelial communication before the Hyperion fire in Washington, where they were trapped in their cabin and perished. The thought of their last moments in a wall of smoke was too much, and Kezia again wanted to scream, why? She was alone in the world now, except for her family of scientists, and of course, the living, breathing forest around her. At 30, she had become known for her work with mycelial communication and had an adopted family of colleagues. Occasionally, she met someone who was a more romantic interest. But, so far, she had not been able to get past the fear of losing someone she loved. At least, she had her friends in the community of plant nerds. Like a beacon in her heart, this sense of belonging had led her back to the motherly embrace of Deep Lake Biological Field Station, atop the ancient Blue Ridge.
It felt like home.
So I’m going to actually stop here because it’s a nice organic stopping place. So that’s two paragraphs.
And I want to start with something that I really appreciate about your opening, which is that we are in a very clear setting.
I know exactly or pretty clearly where I am and I have some visuals of the Grey Dawn’s thunderstorm crashing and sparking. I have the auditory.
You do very well with your auditory. You’ve got crashing, steady sound of raindrops.
You’ve got this great picture, rolling down millions of thirsty leaves. That’s beautiful.
And right away we also have some emotion around comfort.
And your mention of mosses and spores and mushrooms is all very evocative. I know exactly where I am.
And then you also tell us that she’s atop the ancient Blue Ridge, which I’m assuming is the Blue Ridge Mountains. Is that right?
So I think you have a lot of details for setting that is just so kinesthetic, earthy, physical.
And you’re using sound and you’re using sight.
You have the allusion to smell.
You have rotting wood, delicious fruit.
So now you’re also using smell and taste, the other main senses. And then you have this beautiful, nestled in her blue down sleeping bag, which is like this whole body feeling.
So I want to say that these are really lovely and great elements to have for setting.
And then, the biggest question I have as I read this is what is the story?
I’m not really sure. We get her mental, her fascination “Fungi were the most fascinating to her.”
We get that, but I don’t really know why I’m reading.
And that is a story expectation.
Readers want to know – we know where we are. You’ve done a great job with setting.
We have a little bit about Kezia. We know about her past.
We know in the second paragraph that she’s here for, we don’t know exactly what, to work. She’s here to work, we think.
I wish we could be in the present of the morning a little bit more.
Because you tell us it’s a gray dawn thunderstorm.
And then I want to hear more about the present moment versus the past.
Because we have about her many childhood summers.
But then you bring us back into the present, and actually, I would probably, so yeah -.
Here’s where I’m going to get kind of granular. And this is how I edit sometimes. It’s like the words on the page are the only thing we have to clue us in, you know, to what’s going on.
This puts us what’s called the past in the past. Kezia’s past as a child. And I’m assuming loved listening to the song of drips drumming on the metal roof is also from the past.
As I read the rest of the sentence, I thought, Oh, maybe we’re in the present of the story.
Do you know what I mean?
Is, is, is loved listening to the song of the drips drumming the metal roof is that her present time moment, or is that,
Yes. That’s the present?
So, there’s a few ways you could play with that, which is you could just tell us that that’s what she’s hearing so that we know that we could say something like, I hope you don’t mind if I edit your work.
Not at all. That’s fine.
Yeah, you could just say, she listened. now we, she listened to the song of drips drubbing the metal roof, and, and nestled in her blue down sleeping bag. so now we’re still in the present moment with her. And It’s very hypnotic, this opening. It’s very lovely.
And then you might want to, I would love to know this sense of homecoming right away, because she is in a place that she spent her childhood in, right?
You have the childhood summers in this cabin but you can still tell us in the present.
So, so one way to do this and this is just a first draft, everybody listening. First drafts are just like okay let’s see what it could be.
I might say something like Kiesa Wells was in the cabin … just playing here, something like: Kezia Wells was in the cabin of many childhood summers.
And then you can just tell us in the moment her experience of it like she loved being back here, something like that.
So what I’m doing is I’m not giving us backstory.
We’re imagining we’re in her head, in the moment, and we’re doing a little bit of what’s called telling. This is awkward.
I know it’s not perfect, but we’re telling the reader that she’s in a place that was her, that has very, very fond memories. so any questions so far?
No, I, I see what you’re saying.
Yeah. and now I want to know why she’s here. And was she coming here to work?
Yes. She’s coming there to work in her field of mycelial communication.
Was she hired? Did they call her?
Yes. Okay. And she’s done well in her career and she’s well known and they want her to come there and work in the lab.
Okay, but she’s also here to heal.
And that brings us to the goal, her goal of the story.
As we meet her here, is her only goal like, yes, I’m working, but I’m also here because I hope to find some healing for my grief. Or like, how would she, as we meet her in this moment, how would she express her goal for her life in this moment?
Well, I think she loves her work and she wants to continue that and she knows this place. So when she gets the offer to work there, she wants to go and work, but clearly, she’s very traumatized and doesn’t know where she’s going and what she wants to do next.
And I think in the context of her healing is going to be a more healing community as well that I want to illustrate like how people could live together, you know, kind of equitably and, but just a better system and also work the land and, you know, simple life, more ecologically simple life.
Yeah. And where does she come from? Was she most recently in a city? Was she most recently in kind of a competitive environment?
Yeah, I was going to, I think I was going to have her in a university setting, out west in Washington State. And, being tired of that and, and all the intrigue and drama.
Nice. So, like, the politics of being in a university and, yeah, great. Okay.
So the bones I would start with, and then we can add in some more detail, is something like this. Like, “At least here, she could work and feel, maybe not safe is the right word, and, and relax into her community of colleagues, or you could say of, let’s just say colleagues right now.
So this is generic. I am going to say a little bit more specifically, but here now we maybe work in peace. I don’t know if like her work previously was constantly having to be interrupted by, I don’t know, publish, publish, publish, you know, the pressures.
Publish or perish,
Yeah. Right, right.
So we’re hinting, this sentence isn’t perfect yet, but we’re hinting at her goal now. Like, ah, at least here I can relax. So now she is a, a field mycologist, right?
So I would use that, as a field mycologist. the pressure to publish and perish. And here’s where you can kind of indicate some backstory. you could actually keep it in the moment like, that, the constant stress, of,
was she a professor?
Yeah, she’s like a, would be a junior professor or adjunct, I guess they would call.
So, you know, I could imagine someone thinking this, lying in her sleeping bag, nestled in her sleeping bag, and just, Grateful, you know, that she’s, she’s back in a place where she loves and she can no longer have to deal with the stress of that city life, the university life.
Before we get into the questions and issues, all this information, I just want to jump down to the talking about the mosses and the fungi, fungi.
These are wonderful questions, and I’m wondering, is it totally within her personality to be thinking about all of this while she’s lying in her sleeping bag?
Maybe not at that time of day, maybe later when she goes to the lab. Yeah. I think she’ll go and have breakfast and meet some people and then she’ll go up to the lab and then she can kind of spout off all her questions.
Mm hmm. I like that. So for you and for others listening and watching these kind of details that take us out of the moment, really, we want to save them for when they’re using them. So like use in the I guess my note would be like use in the necessary moment that it makes sense in the story.
Yeah, I get what you’re saying. Yeah.
It’s great detail and it’s fun, nerdy, you know, stuff that’s about her work. And one of the reasons why people read is to go into a new world.
So you are introducing the reader if they don’t already know anything about fungi and, and moss and, and I know just the cursory amount, they get to learn about it and, and that’s very fun, very, very fun.
So I want to address this issue about her parents. Again, is this something that she would reflect on while she’s lying there, all cozy in her sleeping bag?
Would she think about her parents and be sad?
Oh, I think it might intrude into the moment at times. But yeah, I’m seeing what you’re saying. There’s a little too much there as far as detail in it. And it might be better to make it, you know, briefly, she thought about her parents, but, now, you know, now is not a good time to, to go there sort of thing.
I see. So she could be thinking about them, but then push the idea out of her head.
Okay, and let’s make it more emotional.
What is something she might actually be thinking as she’s lying there listening to the rain?
As an example, something like Mom and Dad, I wish you were here. Something that signifies her loss and her direct emotional thinking.
Yeah, it’s like the: The cabin would seem so empty without Mom and Dad.
Oh, that’s great.
Fussing around about the proper clothing or the mouse in the drawer or something like that.
Maybe some more details like getting ready for the day. Wearing… What were they wearing just inappropriately light clothing or something? Yeah.
Yeah. Wearing a bright coat and there were, you know, mice in the cabin and there were spiders, things like that.
What are the mice and the spiders have to do with her parents?
Nothing at this point, and then it’s something they might be talking about like, oh, there’s that.
So maybe they’re complaining. Right when people are gone. We miss even those things that used to irritate us. We miss like complaining about the mice…
In the sock drawer or something like that.
In the sock drawer. That’s cute.
So this brings us, it’s like she’s replaying that memory in her mind. The cabin seems so empty without Mom and Dad fussing about getting ready for the day, wearing only– I don’t know–, wearing only light bathrobes or did you say coats or what?
What to wear, like only wearing the right clothing for the rain or something like that. I don’t know. Oh, how about for the day, what to wear.
Fussing thing about getting ready for the day and what to wear like that was part of the first thing I can wear. How about be more specific like what to wear for the rain.
Or the constant rain I would imagine. Yeah. Is it because they’re really high in the mountains?
Yeah, they are.
And here we can actually get specific and tell readers where we are. And complaining about the mice. Okay. The cabin seems, yeah, let me read it out loud.
The cabin seems so empty without Mom and Dad fussing about getting ready for the day and what to wear for the constant rain so high in the Blue Ridge Mountains and complaining about the mice in the sock drawer again.
And then here you can add her own emotional response to the memory, like what is her body doing? Is she tearing up? Is she angry? Is she both, you know, and how can we show that through a physical experience in her body?
Yeah. She felt – she felt a physical pain in her throat, wanting to cry.
So does she cry, or can she not cry?
I don’t think she can cry yet. I think she’s kind of in the kind of numb phase of things.
So here instead of telling and this is kind of an advanced tool to be a deep point of view is that we don’t want to say she felt or she thought, but we could just show by saying: there was, and that’s one way to do it. There was is not the most elegant term but this keeps us in her point of view because we don’t go around thinking, I’m thinking, I’m feeling it, right?
We just think and we just feel.
So by, going direct to the pain. So there was a physical pain in her throat and she wanted to cry, but she couldn’t cry yet. And now we’re starting to get a sense of real loss. I don’t know about you, but that kind of makes me tear up. Yeah. And I’m like, like, oh, it was recent.
Without telling the reader, we get a sense that that some loss, and it’s implied we’re not even telling the readers yet that she lost her parents in a fire. It’s implied.
That’s better. Yeah, I like that. Yeah.
So, and then, now what, what does someone like her do when she gets to that emotion of the physical pain in her throat, wanting to cry, but you know, she couldn’t cry yet?
There’s sort of this pushing away, right? There’s sort of some, some energy in her that is like, no, for whatever reason, right? It’s below a conscious level. And so what is the next logical thing that she does? Does she get up? Does she go to breakfast?
Yeah, she gets up and she gets busy. Yes.
And she’s kind of like, I thought maybe I could have described her looking in the mirror and running her hand through her mop of hair and put her clothes on go to the –
You don’t have to do that. I mean you could do you could jump I’m jumping to page two is the dinner bell.
Yeah, right Yeah, and so I would just jump right here into action like the dinner bell rings, right and you have her I’m just gonna read this for the reader for the listener: The station dinner bell was clanging and she stretched, putting on her sweats and old converse and walking towards the dining hall.
And then you give us some more details, but this is where I would jump to next. Okay,
that makes that’s good. I like that.
And just get get us into action. And then now we’re starting to be invested.
I want to read the rest of this paragraph because this starts to give us some background.
The pandemic had continued off and on for several years after millions died, so it was a relief to be able to enter the low-slung building and not worry about getting sick. Everyone here was vaccinated and tested weekly, as scientists will do. New people had to come with two negative tests before entering the station.
The building also caught the westerly breeze through both sets of windows.
I think you may be able to do this this early in the story because, it’s like, this is what’s top of mind for her. And I believe it. In a further rewrite, I might examine that a little bit more closely, like, Hmm, is this really the right place to explain this little piece of backstory, but it works if you believe that, okay, we know she’s a scientist, and she would be thinking about these things like we all have done.
So, I want to pause here and see if what we’ve done so far is helpful to you in addressing your two main concerns around making sure the background – the world is not too didactic and also adding emotion to the character.
Yeah, I think, Yeah, I did. I see I have way too much background in there. It’s stuff I want to talk about, but it’s not the time. so I like the action suggestions, like get her moving, get her into action, meet some people, get along with the story, and let things kind of hint and unfold as they will. Yeah.
Yeah. And I want to say that for you and anyone else like in your first drafts, it’s normal to like front load with all that backstory because it’s partly as the writer you want to know what it is you’re like oh this is important. We need to understand the background the setting that the reasons why and, and and it’s in revisions that that then you can make all the decisions about put things somewhere else.
Okay, that’s good.
And I want to say that, I really enjoyed your second character that you started to introduce. And, I feel like you are creating something really interesting.
I know later in the story, not much later, she goes into the dining room and she starts having conversations.
And that dialogue and having people interact with people is the great, a great way to start sharing what the world is because she’s new to the location and she gets to be our vehicle as the outsider to explain many things as like this is how we do things here kind of thing.
Okay, great, great, very, very helpful.
Oh, I’m so glad, Amy. I can’t wait to see what you do with this and how you develop it into a full story. And maybe come back again and we can do another pass on some new piece, and you can share also with us your progress and how the story evolves.
And, yeah, so thank you so much for being a guest with us today.
My pleasure and thank you. You’re so positive and I feel I feel very supportive. So appreciate it.
Oh, I’m so glad. And if people want to follow your progress, is there a way that they can stay in touch, or are you not yet ready to come out with your work, or how are you doing?
I’m not yet ready.
Okay, that’s totally fine.
I plan to start thinking about that soon, and I’ll let you know.
That sounds good.
All right. Well, thank you. Thanks.
Thank you, Beth.
You’re so welcome. All right. Take care. So good to see you.
If you listeners have a question for me about editing your science fiction and fantasy novel, let me know. I would love to answer it in a future episode.
Be a guest on the Story Success Clinic
Or come on the show and be a guest. We spend 30 minutes looking at your work or talking about your creative mindset.
I will absolutely look at a paragraph or two, and we could do some live edits and we can talk about world-building, and we could talk about how do we mix pacing with setting, with character development.
So 30-minute Story Success Clinic. Every session is recorded and gets aired as an episode of How To Write The Future podcast. You get more exposure for yourself as a writer. I get to help more writers. It is a win-win situation.
All right, everyone. That’s it for now.
So write long and prosper.
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ABOUT BETH BARANY
Beth Barany teaches science fiction and fantasy novelists how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, consultant, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.”
Learn more about Beth Barany at these sites:
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