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Back to the Future: How to Use Our Craft’s Own Backstory

By Kris Williams via Flickr CC

Please welcome back Barry Knister [1], one of our own here on Writer Unboxed. After a career in college teaching, Barry returned to fiction writing. His first novel, a gritty thriller titled The Dating Service had been published by Berkley. More recently, he has self-published a suspense series featuring journalist Brenda Contay. Godsend [2]the third book in the series was released last month, joining The Anything Goes Girl  and Deep North. Barry also published a novel for adult dog lovers, a work of magical realism titled Just Bill. The book will be re-released by BHC Press this spring. 

Barry served for four years as secretary of Detroit Working Writers. For two years, he was also the director of the Cranbrook Summer Writers Conference. More recently, he wrote “Let me get this straight,” a weekly column on language for the Naples (Florida) Daily News. He lives in Michigan with his wife Barbara, where they serve as staff for Skylar, an Aussie/Sheltie rescue. Barry wants to hear from you, and hopes you’ll contact him through Facebook [3] or his website [1].

Back to the Future: How to Use Our Craft’s Own Backstory

In the biopic Genius, Jude Law plays Thomas Wolfe to Colin Firth’s Maxwell Perkins. In one scene, it takes three workers to haul boxes of foolscap manuscript into editor Perkins’ office at Scribner’s. Perkins’ job is to machete his way through this scribbled jungle, and turn Wolfe’s undisciplined effusion into Of Time and the River.

Genius isn’t a very good movie, but the story of what Perkins did, for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as well as Thomas Wolfe is the stuff of legend in our time. These days, writers must be their own Maxwell Perkins, their own mentors and critics. They must rely on beta readers, other writers in groups, and professional “hired gun” freelance editors to help them identify and develop the potential in their work.

Light My Fire

And we now also rely on accelerants. Arsonists use accelerants like gasoline to set fires in buildings for which they want to cash in insurance policies. I use accelerants to light charcoal briquettes when I grill.

For readers of Writer Unboxed, the idea of accelerants can be applied to the many aids for speeding up the pace of progress as writers. I’m talking about craft books, workshops, online courses, software, conferences, coaching, and probably half a dozen other strategies and “tools” that have come on the market since I started typing this post.

I am a firm believer in the whatever-works-is-good school of craft development, and I know craft aids are highly valued. Occasionally, I make use of such products, especially when I learn about them through an ethical source like Writer Unboxed. I count Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Browne among my most important resources. That goes as well for professional editors who have helped me with manuscripts.

That said, I think it’s worth noting that until recently—say, within the last three decades, a time marked by the rise of self-publishing—the process of learning how to write included almost no such aids. There were summer conferences, but otherwise those who got the writing virus looked to the only remedy available—good examples in the form of published stories and novels.

What Was Then Is Now

Is there any way to preserve this traditional, long-haul approach to mastering craft through reading major works, and the new methodologies of our time? I think there is, and I want to illustrate by way of K.M. Weiland’s annotated edition of Jane Eyre.

Weiland brings a great deal to the table. She is a bestselling author of both novels, and conventional craft books (Structuring Your Novel, Outlining Your Novel, Creating Character Arcs, etc.). But please note: a simple online search for “annotated novels” will give you more options.

When I read Weiland’s edition published by Writers Digest Press, the experience was eye-opening. First, Jane Eyre proved again to be a novel fully deserving of its status as a work in the canon of English literature—a classic. Charlotte Bronte reveals her story with a level of command and perception that can’t be lost on any reader who appreciates those attributes. Second, Weiland’s annotations demonstrated for me how a novel first published in 1847 could serve to illustrate, 170 years later, the structural and stylistic elements widely accepted for novels in our time.

Let me show what I mean.

More often than not, backstory (what used to be called antecedent action) is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla crowded menacingly in the corner of the novelist’s study. As Lisa Cron makes clear in “Story First, Plot Second,” her [4]Author in Progress essay [4], “All novels start in medias res [in the middle of things]…. Thus, the first page of your novel opens with the second half of your story….”

Everyone reading this will know what Cron means: like ourselves and everyone we know, all fictional characters have a past. As your novel’s protagonist and lesser characters charge, march or stroll forward, their comet’s tail past is never separate from them. But woe be to the writer who fails to learn how to gracefully convey what has gone before.

And Jane Eyre? Weiland’s first annotation (this and all others track conveniently in the margins next to the novel) examines how Charlotte Bronte sets the hook with her first paragraph:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

“By opening in medias res,” Weiland says, “[Bronte] cuts through the nonessentials to get to the heart of the story. Her use of ‘that day’ at the end of the opening sentence tells readers that the story is opening at a very specific, and presumably important, moment.” It is important: it’s the day the novel’s protagonist will rebel against tyranny in the house where she is the ward of a domineering woman whose own children are monsters.

In the paragraphs that follow, we see the coldly superior Mrs. Reed’s own children (fourteen-year-old John is especially easy to dislike). We learn Jane is kept separate from them, until she can learn to “acquire a more sociable and childlike disposition, a more attractive and spritely manner—something lighter, franker, more natural, as it were….”

As Weiland notes, we are quickly seeing Jane Eyre’s loveless daily world. When Jane shows courage by rebelling, she is locked all night in the sinister “red room,” the bedroom where the master of the household died. Jane experiences such tormented fear of ghosts in this room that Mr. Lloyd, the local apothecary is called in to examine her. He begins the interview by taking a dip of snuff, and when he questions Jane, Bronte uses the moment to deliver backstory. Mr. Lloyd scoffs at Jane’s fear of the dead master’s ghost:

“Nonsense! And is it that makes you so miserable? Are you afraid now in daylight?”

“No: but night will come again before long: and besides, –I am unhappy—very unhappy for other things.”

“What other things? Can you tell me some of them?”

The novel is narrated in the first person by Jane as an adult, looking back on her early years. She’s ten at the beginning, and now reflects on how young children can feel, but not analyze their feelings.

“Fearful, however, of losing this first and only opportunity of relieving my grief by imparting it, I, after a disturbed pause, contrived to frame a meagre, though, as far as it went, true response.

‘For one thing, I have no father or mother, brothers or sister.”

‘You have a kind aunt and cousins.’

Again I paused; then bunglingly enounced—

‘But John Reed knocked me down, and my aunt shut me up in the red-room.’

Mr. Lloyd a second time produced his snuff-box.

‘Don’t you think Gateshead Hall a very beautiful house?’ asked he. ‘Are you not very thankful to have such a fine place to live at?’

‘It is not my house, sir; and Abbot [a lady’s maid hostile to Jane] says I have less right to be here than a servant.’

‘Pooh! You can’t be silly enough to wish to leave such a splendid place?’

‘If I had anywhere else to go, I should be glad to leave it; but I can never get away from Gateshead till I am a woman.’

‘Perhaps you may—who knows? Have you any relations besides Mrs. Reed?

‘I think not, sir.”

We are learning about Jane’s backstory in the most natural way as the local equivalent of a doctor questions her. Weiland’s analysis of Bronte’s deft hand at revealing backstory illustrates Weiland’s approach to annotation:

“It’s kind of like that game you play with your three-year-old when you’re trying to get him to eat his lunch: ‘Here comes the airplane! Yum, yum, open up for the airplane.’ * * * That’s exactly what Bronte is doing here. She’s distracting readers with an airplane-shaped spoon so she can slip them a little spinach on the sly. In this case, the spinach is crucial but boring information about Jane’s circumstances at Gateshead Hall and her relationships with the rest of her extended family.”

But That’s Not All, Folks

Reading both the novel and the running commentary is obviously slower, but the point is to learn how the book works, not to get lost in the story. In and of itself, this slower pace also turns out to lead the reader to personal insights s/he might not otherwise have. In the scene above, I came to more clearly see that, even at ten, Jane’s perceptive view of what matters most in life—human connections and love–contrasts sharply with one adult’s simple-minded emphasis on comfort and status.

The slowed pace of reading also led me to notice how Bronte makes brilliant use of telling details. Example: Mr. Lloyd’s use of snuff, powdered tobacco inhaled through the nose. The first time Lloyd takes snuff, it’s a beat that separates lines of dialogue. But when Mr. Lloyd takes the second pinch of snuff, we know something more is going on: this time, he’s motivated by a sense of unease and confusion at learning of what’s been done to a small girl by her wealthy, socially prominent guardian. Today, Mr. Lloyd’s unease might take the form of fiddling with a button or piece of jewelry, or rolling ball bearings in the palm of his hand like Captain Queeg.

Are annotated editions of novels for you? I’m convinced it’s worth a try. Discussions of character arcs and plot trajectories are fine, but communing with a great novel to see how it works is a process that I still think is irreplaceable. Especially when you commune along with the accelerant of a skilled reader’s annotation and commentary.

Your turn: Are annotated novels for you? What other tips can you offer for learning how books work?