Writing from the Peak, PPW Blog

Obnoxious is Obnoxious – Email Marketing for Authors

by: Jennifer Lovett

So, there’s this narrative going around that marketers are telling authors to do email marketing and do it in a way that makes you besties with your list. Let me disavow you of that notion right now. Do NOT make besties with your email list. That list is for your reader to get to know you, not the other way around.

I feel email marketing is the new “buy my book” on Twitter thing that was going around a few years ago. Someone somewhere said, “All authors should be on Twitter,” but that “someone” didn’t teach authors how to do Twitter and thus, authors became obnoxious tweeting their buy links out every five seconds. Email has become the latest thing. And obnoxious is obnoxious no matter the platform.

Email marketing is a chance for you to develop a brand for yourself over time. It’s a long-term strategy, not a hard sell strategy. I do recommend it for authors, but I recommend it at a level you are comfortable at. Email once a month and make it fun for you and the reader. If you can’t do this, then just collect emails until you are ready. If you are chatty and have fun things to say, email once a week. Do not email more than that. Open rates plummet.

The more you can make the email sound like one from a friend, the better your open rates will be. Because I want you to use email successfully, I created a checklist for you:

Why do authors need an email list?

  • Email usage is up. Nielsen and Pew Research both report an increase in email usage. 71% of email users admit to looking at them first thing in the morning
  • Email is seen more often by the recipient than any social media post. Social media is saturated scrolling and your followers may or may not ever see your post. If you run a business profile, those followers definitely won’t see it without paying for ads.
  • Open rates. Organic reach on a Facebook Page is 3-5% (it can get as high as 10-12 with good engagement). Twitter is about the same. Instagram is slightly higher. Open rates on email are in the 25-30% range.
  • You own the list. Forever. Your social media followers don’t give you their address and the platform owns the list. If they go under or out of style, remember Google+ or MySpace, you lose that list. Forever.

How do you build the list?

  • Pick an email service provider. Free ones up to a certain number of subscribers include MailerLite, Mailchimp, SendinBlue, or Drip.
  • Create a freebie or magnet. This should be something the reader wants: free book or novella, scenes, maps, case studies, recipes from a series. Get creative.
  • Build your landing page. This is where readers will sign up for your list. Not too cluttered and to the point. Make it fun.
  • Use the double Opt-in. This keeps you out of ANTI-SPAM law trouble.
  • Create an automated email trail. This is a series of introductory emails for the reader – to you, the stories, the setting, the character, releases, appearances, events. ONE email with a place to buy your books is good. No more.
  • Segment your list. This will tell you who actually opens your emails. This will matter when you start having to pay for subscribers.
  • Split test. Test subject lines, photos, contents, anything to increase open rates. Test only one component at time or you’ll receive skewed results.
  • Avoid spammy words. FREE, BUY, OPEN NOW, PROMISE, OBLIGATION. Google for more. These will get your emails kicked to spam.

What should I email?

Anything beneficial to the reader. Email is for the reader not you. Keep that in mind always. Don’t try to become their best friend. If they want a relationship with you, they’ll let you know. Otherwise, email should provide them with insight into your books. It also helps them get to know you, because readers enjoy buying books from people they know or think they do.

  • Progress reports on the current work in progress.
  • Book launch announcements.
  • Events and appearances.
  • New blog posts.
  • Research.
  • Photos of your last trip and what you learned (keep the size small so you don’t clog up their email box).
  • Positive reviews your book received.
  • Interviews with research subjects or other authors.
  • List of your favorites (books, authors, movies, plays, music).
  • Promotions and/or giveaways.
  • Deleted scenes (also good for a freebie).
  • Milestone news (anniversaries, birthdays).
  • Backstory (you know, all that stuff you wanted to put in your book but your agent made you take it all out).
  • Quotes and questions.
  • Photo – one SMALL photo. You don’t want to make the email size too big.
  • Call to action (buy the book, attend the event, respond to a question, meet the author). Use Calls to Action sparingly so the reader doesn’t feel spammed.
  • Use a P.S. because they are the highest read section. You can let them know what to expect in the next edition or something fun about your character. The best ones are a Call to Action that get them to click on your website or social media.

Subject lines.

I get questions about subject lines quite often. There are several schools of thought. Marketing Guru Neil Patel recommends one-word subject lines or anything that resembles a note from a friend.

Think about how you use subject lines and apply them. Don’t use spammy words because they’ll likely end up in spam. Try using emojis (increases open rates 45%) and the word “video” – those are getting high open rates.

Alchemy Worx analyzed 25 billion emails and found the subject lines with the best open rates included jokes, congratulations, the words: you, revision, forecast, snapshot, token, voluntary, deduction and free. Here are some other ideas:

What…?
Do you….
Don’t open this email!
Check out my new ….
Pairs nicely with
As you wish
Day at the beach?
Avoid these people
Where do I get ….
Stop wasting …
How to survive ….
Hey I forgot …
Good news! ….
Are you coming?
Vanilla or Chocolate?
Seriously, what?

Jennifer Lovett is the founder of Writer Nation, a podcast and Facebook group dedicated to helping writers market their work. With 17 years communications experience, she regularly writes on social media, internet marketing and face-to-face publicity.
She currently lives in South Korea and travels around Asia for fun.
You can find her on her WebsiteFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest: @jennylovett

I Want to Write a Book Someday

By: Margena Holmes

We’ve all heard that phrase before, either from someone we’ve just met (once they find out we’re writers), or someone we know well and they want advice on how to start writing. What do you tell them?

Is it easy?

Most people think that writing is easy. You just sit down and write, right? Well, yes and no. What are you going to write about? When people tell me they want to write a book, most of the time they have no clue what they want to write about. I’m pretty sure they think being an author is some kind of glamorous life where lots of money is to be made, and we get inspiration every day. Well, news flash—it doesn’t always work out that way. I wish it did!

What makes your story unique?

Be Unique

That is the hard part—thinking about something to write, and writing it in a different way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, every topic has pretty much been written about before so what makes YOUR story unique?

Write, write, and write some more!

People (mostly teens with their parents) have come up to my table at comic cons and say they want to be a writer, and what should they do? Heck, if I had all the answers, I’d be making millions! What I DO know and can tell them is to read, read, read, and then write, write, write. Write about your day, write about a scene you might have witnessed. Practice your craft as much as you can. These kids are usually sincere about wanting to be a writer, and I will help them in any way I can.

What about the ones who say they want to be a writer and when you ask them what they want to write about, they give you a blank stare, or tell you, “Oh, I don’t know yet”? I’ll tell them the same thing as I tell anyone else—read and write and practice. I can always tell if they are serious by what happens next. If they get excited over the advice and start asking more questions, they genuinely want to write. If they say, “Oh, I don’t think I need to read, I just want to write something.” Welp, they’re enamored by the thought of it but don’t want to put in the work.

Writing is a process

And it is work. You have to think of what to write, outline it (unless you’re a pantser), write it, rewrite it, then either have a critique partner or beta reader read it, make more changes, THEN it’s ready for the editor. You’ll probably want to read books about the craft of writing, attend some writers conferences (which isn’t work to me because I love to learn), and read some more.

I’m still waiting for the ones who’ve said they want to write a book (and have asked for my advice) to write their book. How many people have told you they want to write a book? What do YOU tell them?


Margena Holmes

Margena Adams Holmes was born in Bellflower, CA sometime in the 1960s. She has always had a love for both reading and writing, writing her first song/poem in 1st grade. Margena is a big supporter of indie authors and will read anything that draws her into the story. She is an observer of life, and many everyday things could (and do!) end up in her writings. Her publications are available through her author page. Contact Margena via email: jedi_anegram@hotmail.com.

Character Profiling — Are You Missing the Spark?

By: K.J. Scrim

Do your characters seem to be missing that spark? Are they feeling flat as the paper they are being written on? Maybe you need to do an in depth profile of that character. You already did one? You might consider refreshing it.

Get into your character’s mind

Character profiling (also referred to as character traits) will transform a fuzzy idea of a person into a full-fledged living and breathing individual. Put yourself into the mind and body of your character and ask some questions that range from the generalities – the traits – (full name, birthday, place of birth, hair color, body type and more), to in-depth – the profile – (strangest talent, dark secrets, favorite poem, do they sleep in the buff?)

Once you have answered these questions delve even further. When faced with a life or death situation, how will they react? Take care that the reaction belongs to the character and not to you. Ask yourself why the character is behaving the way they are. What life experience would result in them running away rather than drawing a sword and fighting to the death? Was it from past experience they know not to fight an ogre three times their size, or were they kidnapped and tortured by an adult who left an ogre-sized shadow in your character’s memory?

Make an environment

Don’t forget they are more than just consciousness on a page. For them to truly fill their lungs they need air to breathe, an environment that fills their senses. If they were to close their eyes how would the room feel to them? Do they lose their sense of balance with closed eyes? What do they smell, taste, feel on their skin? Dig deep into them. Go beyond the five senses and explore their intuition, those gut feelings. An ache deep in a person’s belly can reveal the depth of their emotions. How does their body fit into the space they stand? The further you climb into a character’s mind and body the deeper they will breathe.

Interview your character

Take the time to develop your top characters to the point that you can imagine them sitting down with you for a chat. Write out a list of questions to ask them as if you are getting to know someone for the first time. A few examples after you are done with the basics:

  • If you are outside, what are you most likely to do?
  • What was the last lie you told?
  • What is your favorite animal?
  • What is your most treasured thing?
  • Have you ever caught a butterfly? What was it like?
  • What are you most afraid of?

Understand every nuance, innuendo, and attribute of your main players. Give them a background, a scope, and a point of view. With extensive knowledge of your characters they will rise off the paper and fill your reader’s imagination. 


KJ Scrim, head shot

Managing Editor, Kathie “KJ” Scrim, is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her inspiration for blogging, flash fiction, short stories, and the long haul of novel writing comes from her many life experiences. When she’s not writing you can find her somewhere in Colorado walking, hiking, or rock climbing at the local gym. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@kjscrim), and her blog.

Margaret Mizushima is the 2019-2020 RMFW’s Writer of the Year!

Margaret Mizushima

With heartfelt gratitude to the membership of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Margaret Mizushima is thrilled to announce that she was elected their 2019-2020 Writer of the Year. Margaret is the author of the award winning, internationally published Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries (from Crooked Lane Books). In addition to RMFW, she’s a member of Colorado Author’s League, Sisters in Crime, Pikes Peak Writers, Northern Colorado Writers, Women Writing the West, and she serves on the board for the Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Margaret can be found on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and on her website at www.margaretmizushima.com.


Darby Karchut

Sweet Success is coordinated by, Darby Karchut who is an award-winning author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter.

If you have a Sweet Success Story to share, please contact Darcy at: SweetSuccess@pikespeakwriters.com

My Journey to Publication

By: Jason Henry Evans

For the last couple of months, I can’t really say I’ve been in my writing hole. It’s probably closer to the truth to say I’ve been in my Project Management hole. But I’m out now, and I want to talk about my experience. See, I am self-publishing my debut novel. I came to this conclusion after a minor incident with a small publisher. Sitting there last fall, trying to figure out how everything had fallen through, I realized a couple of things that I wanted to share with you.

Don't be afraid of what you don't know.
  1. No one was going to care more about my story than me. Nobody. So if I didn’t advocate for my story, who would?
  2. Just because my story didn’t fit into a genre slot didn’t mean there wasn’t an audience out there for me. I just had to find them.
  3. Whether I was traditionally or independently published, I was going to have to do the marketing myself.
  4. Learning the skills an independent publisher has to know would always make me a better consumer further down the road.

So why did it take me so long?

Fear.

Now don’t get me wrong. Fear can be a positive motivator. Most of us have had that experience at work where project X needs to be done by a certain time or we’re all fired. So everyone bucks up and gets it done. I have personally had that hard conversation with a boss because I was slacking and didn’t realize it. So I redoubled my efforts and learned I was capable of more. So in that sense, fear can be good.

Not my fear.

I was afraid of what I didn’t know. I was afraid of the work that might be involved. I was afraid I was going to fail.

Let’s take formatting as an example.

I write in MS Word. I have since I was in middle school. (When I was in 8th grade it was called Jr. High. But I digress.) So, when I decided to self-publish I knew formatting was going to be an issue. Reason number one was because I couldn’t afford what some people wanted to charge (up to $500 and more). Reason number two was all the horror stories people told me about trying to format in word. (I call them the Scrivener-Vellum Syndicate. But I tease!)

I procrastinated until the end of the school year (I’m a substitute teacher). When I finally did get to formatting my novel for print and e-book, it took a day and a half. Around 15 hours. That was it. Did I make some mistakes? Yes. But after installing Kindle Add-in for Microsoft Word and watching a couple of hours of Youtube videos on formatting in Word, I figured it out.

A New Skill Set

I figured it out. It was challenging, frustrating and deflating at times. But not only do both versions of my debut novel, The Gallowglass, look good, but I now have a skill set. I understand how to format in MS Word. I know how to use Styles and how to take out tab indents (go to replace and type in ^t, then replace it with nothing). I know how to format a table of contents and create Styles of my own. I will use these skills when I publish my second novel and the process will get a little easier.

If you’ve been hesitant about finishing your book. If you’ve felt bad because you don’t have the skills to self-publish and don’t have the money to pay professionals along the way. Don’t be discouraged. There are some things you can learn to do yourself. Just be patient with yourself and realize it’s not going to be perfect. (Even traditionally published books have typos!) Remember, suffering leads to endurance, which leads to character, which leads to hope. Your book will be awesome and your second one will be even better.


Jason Henry Evans

You can like Jason’s Facebook Author Page.
Or, you can follow him on Twitter @evans_writer
If you’d like to read his personal blog or sign up on his mailing list, go to www.jasonhenryevans.com

Jason’s debut novel, The Gallowglass, releases July 10th. Find out more information here.

Write Brain

By: Robin Laborde

Image may contain: text

A special two-part Write Brain:
The New Zebulon 
Amy Armstrong, Presenter
and
250 Words That Will Make or Break You
Natalie Mae, Presenter

2020 Zebulon

The August Write Brain began with an update about the 2020 Zebulon Contest, including TWO double-sided pages of information about what has changed during the contest’s year-long hiatus. A few of the more notable changes:

  • Contest entries will be accepted through Submittable rather than a custom-built portal.
  • The short story category is back! 
  • No more query round, but a synopsis is still required. (Darn.)
  • The Zebulon will offer monetary prizes only in 2020, rather than discounts on conference registration.

See the Zebulon Rules for the latest information and deadlines.

250 Words to Beef Up

After the break, YA author Natalie Mae shared tips for beefing up your first paragraph. In an unexpected but super helpful twist, she began her presentation by sharing an early version of the first paragraph of her novel Duplicitous and comparing it to the published version. The exercise clearly demonstrated the improvements she made, including that oh-so-important delicious first line. For even more insight into Natalie’s journey to publication, visit her website.


Robin Laborde

Robin Laborde is not sure exactly how long she has been a member of Pikes Peak Writers but she enjoys it very much. She worked as a technical writer for over ten years and has had nonfiction articles published in newspapers and magazines. She is currently writing a speculative fiction novel and working part-time at the East Library in Colorado Springs.

Sitting Alone in the Darkness

By: Jason Henry Evans

Three weeks ago I fulfilled a lifetime dream of publishing my first novel. I decided to self-publish my first novel for a variety of reasons. However, if I’m honest with myself, it simply was the right time. See, I have been very fortunate in the writing game. I have met men and women who have published 5, 10, even 40 novels. They’ve had short stories in a dozen anthologies. Many of these people have given me sage pieces of advice. They have held my hand, gently told me when my story was bad, and inspired me to go forward. But there comes a time when you have to do it on your own. Whether your self-publishing a novel or you have a contract with a big four publisher there comes a time when you have to be alone. You have to put the words on the paper and be honest with yourself about the story you’re trying to tell.

That can be a dark place. But it was in that dark place, all alone, that I realized I couldn’t depend on anybody but myself. That was when I decided to self-publish a manuscript I put aside a year earlier. At that point, it wasn’t about fame, or financial success. It was about reaching the next level in my writing.

A Giving Community

One of the short comings of the writing community here in Colorado is that everyone is so giving. You reach out and people will genuinely help you as much as they can. The writers here—regardless of their levels of success—are so warm. But for me, it became a crutch. I could always ask for and get a pep talk or a piece of good advice. But I wasn’t doing the work. That all changed ten months ago.

Re-Writes

I went back into my writing cave. I edited, did re-writes, and commissioned a cover artist. When that cover ended up being awful and the artist stopped returning my emails, I went out and bought another cover—a better one. My wife and some close friends already read my manuscript and they thought it was good.

Become an Author

So, I paid a copy editor, I sent it out to more beta-readers, and I learned how to format both a physical book and an ebook. Did I have help? Absolutely. But I was the one who had figure out the minutia of book formatting. I was the one who had to go over every line for typos and homonyms. You know what? The entire process was frightening. But I had to do it. I had to get to the next level. I had to become an author.

I write this not to praise myself. But to tell you, gentle reader, that you can do it too. But a large part of that process, I have discovered, is sitting and doing the work by yourself. It will be lonely. For me? It was scary, too. But isn’t that the point?

Finding the Magic

In that dark place where it’s just you and your story and you don’t know how to solve that plot problem, or format your table of contents, that’s where the magic is. That’s where your mettle is tested. That’s where you stop treading water and start swimming. But no one is going to write your story for you. Jeff Goins once said that “Art needs an audience.” Don’t deny your audience your art, no matter how scary or full of drudgery the process may be. Finish your art and accept the consequences.

If you do, I promise you, holding your book in your hands will make all your struggles worth it.


Jason Henry Evans

Jason Henry Evans says that life is funny. In 2004 I moved from Los Angeles to Denver, newly married with a desire to be a great teacher and husband. I dedicated myself to public education and realized my heart was not in it. So I moved on. At the same time I stumbled into a creative world of art and literature I now call home. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile.
You can catch up with Jason on his Facebook Author Page or on Twitter. You will also find up to date posts on his blog.

Writer’s Night

Pikes Peak Writers is known for our annual conference, but we also do tons of programming throughout the year, much of it free! 

Join Mytchel at the next Writer's Night!
Join Mytchel at the next Writer’s Night!

One of our free monthly events is Writer’s Night, where writers of all genres gather together to discuss writerly topics over food and drinks. Anyone is welcome to attend, whether they have a question to ask or they just want to hang back and listen.

Why Go to Writers Night?

At the last meeting, I asked the attendees for their top reasons to attend Writer’s Night, and here they are:

  1. Hearing from other writers inspires you to keep writing.
  2. It’s nice to be around like-minded people.
  3. Sense of community. Writing is such an isolated experience–sometimes you need to escape it.
  4. Helps fight impostor syndrome.
  5. Exposes you to diverse perspectives.
  6. Casual education. Learn from others while just hanging out!
  7. Bragging rights. Each session, we go around the room and allow people the chance to tell us about their accomplishments.
  8. Gets you out of the house.
  9. You don’t have to make dinner.
  10. Beer!

NEW Location!

We’ve got exciting news to share, too! Writer’s Night is getting a face-lift. It’s moving to Navajo Hogan in August. Plus, we’ve got a new host! Mytchel Chandler has taken over as Writer’s Night host, bringing a fresh perspective to the group.

The Next Writer’s Night is:

Monday, August 26 (every fourth Monday!)
6:30 to 8:30 PM
Navajo Hogan (private room)
2817 N. Nevada Ave.
Colorado Springs, CO 80907

We hope you’ll come check out Writer’s Night and all our other monthly programming! Look for it under “events” on our website or in the events on our Facebook page.


Mytchel Chandler

Mytchel Chandler, Secretary of PPW, has taken over Writer’s Night! Mytchel has written a time travel comic titled Chronic, and is finishing up his debut novel, a YA fantasy titled The Dark and Dangerous Days of Sin Shadow. In his spare time, Mytchel is an avid movie goer, comic collector, and cosplayer. Be sure to follow him @authormytchelchandler on Facebook and Instagram, and at www.mytchelchandler.com.

Blogging: Should you start & how to do it

By: Jennifer Lovett

Did you happen to attend a writer’s conference recently where you heard every author must have a blog? Or maybe you heard an agent won’t pick you up if you don’t have a blog. Or maybe you’d just like to join the community because believe it or not, blogging isn’t dead. New blogs still pop up all the time and become successful.

So, do you need a blog?

  • If you want to sell more books, no.
  • If you want to drive traffic to your website, not necessarily but it helps.
  • If you want to establish a daily or weekly writing habit that will also drive traffic, then yes.

But if you plan to start a blog, I want you to think about a few things.

  • It is a fantastic way to start and maintain a writing habit
  • It is a fantastic way to drive traffic to your website
  • It is time-consuming and requires some creative brainstorming for topics after a time
  • There are 31.7 million bloggers in the U.S. by 2020

Yes, there are a lot of blogs out there. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it work for you. Your fiction content is unique and more than likely, there won’t be too many other fiction writers out there clamoring away to write about your content. So that opens up a lot of post possibilities.

The best way to keep track of what you’re writing is to create a content calendar. It’s a device to help you plan out your blog strategy, which posts to write and when to post them. You’ll never be lost on what to blog again. Here’s mine, feel free to steal it.

To get you started, here is a list of topics you can blog about:

  1. Behind-the-scenes. Talk about how you get your ideas (because you know you’ll be asked), where you write, where you do your research
  2. Excerpts of your work. Do you have a really favorite scene? Share it.
  3. Character Interviews. These are always fun and can help you flesh out a character as well.
  4. Book chronicle. Journal your book. How you create your characters; how they respond to you on a given day; where you’re having writers block and why; how you resolved the issue
  5. Book covers. Talk about why you like one over the other.
  6. Research trips. Write about what you ate, where you stayed, what you discovered, where you discovered it.
  7. Location Scout. Write about your setting and its history
  8. Writers life. How you became a writer, stay motivated and started your career
  9. Supporters. Interviews with people who’ve helped you on your journey: librarians, researchers, biggest supporter, funny little guy you met on the train who was super excited to find out you’re a writer!
  10. Reviews. Connect something in your work to popular culture and become an expert on it. For example, Young Adult novelists could review episodes of Riverdale or Stranger Things. Mystery writers could review CSI or NCIS.

As you start blogging or want to punch up the blog you have, here are some best practices to help you:

  1. LONG form!
    1. Not 250 words. Not anymore. 1000 words. Why? Because Google likes search words and the more words you have, the more likely you’ll pop in a Google search. This maxes out between 1500-2000 words though.
    1. Will readers take the time to read all that? Yes. Statistics show people are reading just as much as ever, even with short attention spans, they are reading. They’re just doing it on their phones. (Source)
  2. Bullets, headers, lists.
    1. I know I just said readers will read up to 1500 words, but really that’s only true if you break up the text with these elements. It makes it an easier read for users who have the attention span of a gnat.
    1. Attention span has been reported at 8 seconds in the online word. But more than 30% of blog readers admit to liking lists and headers, and more than 40% admit to skimming. Breaking up the text will help your reader stay involved with the post. (Source)
  3. Video is still king.
    1. So what does that have to do with blogging? One of the best ways to up your search engine optimization is to create a quick 1-3 minute video that basically just tells the reader what’s in your blog. Pop that on the end of your blog and you should start to see an increase in traffic.
    1. In addition, 80% of blog readers report they remember more of what they read if it’s accompanied by a video. Win win! (Source)
  4. Images.
    1. Articles or blogs with images receive 94% more views. Even if you just use one, put it toward the top so you pull readers in right in the beginning.
    1. Find photos on Flickr, Google Images, Shutterstock and Pixabay. Most of these sites will have free or inexpensive photos you can use copyright-free. (Source)
  5. Launch with 20.
    1. Because content is how Google finds you, it’s better to have at least 20 posts before you officially launch your blog.
    1. Think about that … 20000 words. That will certainly help your search engine optimization.
  6. Be consistent.
    1. This one has been preached forever. Right now the going rate is at least every other week, but weekly is best.
    1. Never go for once a month. It simply isn’t enough content to drive traffic. (Source)

If you’re read to start, you’ll need a platform like Wix, Weebly, or Blogger – all of which have a pretty easy learning curve and free templates. I use WordPress because it has better integration with the Google search engine and an amazing SEO tool in the Yoast plugin which makes SEO super easy. You’ll also want to own your own domain (URL), so head over to GoDaddy, SquareSpace or HostGator and purchase the URL.

For slightly more information, check out this link.


Jennifer Lovett

Jennifer Lovett is the founder of Writer Nation, a podcast and Facebook group dedicated to helping writers market their work. With 17 years communications experience, she regularly writes on social media, internet marketing and face-to-face publicity.
She currently lives in South Korea and travels around Asia for fun.
You can find her on her WebsiteFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest: @jennylovett

Backstory Reverb

By: Deb McLeod

Recently the issue of backstory came up again with a client who is writing a YA in the aftermath of a pandemic. The horror is over and the story is about how they will live from here forward. About the society they will create and how they might do it differently this time. The writer, working on her first draft, was feeling the pressure of writing backstory and wanted to talk about whether it had a place in the novel or not. 

As I’ve said here before, there are writers who insist no backstory is the right amount. But I disagree. I think it depends upon the story, of course. But there’s more to that feeling of needing backstory that deserves to be looked at as part of the writing process. 

Thinking about my client’s story I wonder how backstory can not play a role in the front story. What happened during the pandemic to each of her characters is relevant to how they respond to the changed world. The complete loss of any kind of control in the face of a global disease, an invisible foe, has to change the people that lived it and the society they will create the next time. It will also reverberate for generations to come.

For example, I think about whether or not my mom living through the depression had an effect on me. Here’s a story that illustrates exactly what I’m talking about. During the depression, my mom was poor. She lived with her immigrant grandparents because her mother died at twenty-four and in those days men didn’t raise children, especially widowers who didn’t marry someone else right away. So my mother and my aunt moved in with their grandparents. 

My great-grandfather was injured at work in 1930. In those days, sans any kind of compensation, he was simply out of work. My great-grandmother cleaned the house of the factory owner and they had to accept subsistence from the government. They lost their house. The girls wore heavy, black, government shoes that were delivered by a big truck that stopped in front of their house to bring food and supplies. When the truck came my mother and her sister would hide. To be supported that way was shameful. 

Certainly in any story I would tell about my mother, that time in her life would reverberate, always. The backstory would have an effect on the front story. Formative experiences always do. 

But I have wondered what strings from my mother’s experience of living poor are threaded through my life and into my daughter’s. During my conversations with my writer-friend I thought about what my mom’s life event meant to the current story. 

One conclusion I came to was that both me and my daughter learned my mother’s extraordinary ability to “make do” which I believe is a direct result of the depression years she lived through. The women in our family make do to a fault. And I’m not just talking about groceries. It’s been more along the lines of accepting and getting along without, rather than fighting to get what we deserve. Does that make sense? 

And that bleeds over into other areas besides money or jobs. It’s an attitude I’ve been fighting since I realized how unhealthy that is and exactly what it says to the universe about getting my needs met. It’s sort of like neglect on a spiritual level. I believe I can trace it back to my mom’s experience with poverty and I can see it in my daughter, too. 

So how much of that backstory would make it into a novel about my story or my daughter’s story? Perhaps none. But isn’t the writer better informed if they’ve taken the time to explore those issues in their character’s lives and to write about how the backstory still reverberates? 

Perhaps the definitive answer for my friend’s novel is to write the backstory in the first draft exploration. Spend time wallowing in the Why of it all so she knows what influences her characters and their story. Perhaps she should look for the threads that still live in all of their lives, how the backstory changed the front story and what it says about the future stories. The individual reactions to that pandemic will reflect in each person differently, in each family differently and it will have a societal ‘flavor’ as well. Perhaps even different in different parts of the country. 

Here’s an illustration. One day during a dinner when both my mother and my mother-in-law were present, the subject of the depression came up. My mother-in-law, raised in Cape Cod in a wealthy family (think coming out balls and Sarah Lawrence college), lamented over the loss of their summer home on the beach during the depression. My mother’s lips pressed to white and she said nothing about the government shoes. Still steeped in shame. 

So thematically, I think all stories deserve a time playing with backstory. Then even if you don’t use the actual scenes you write in backstory, or use only some of it, you understand your characters and their world better and you might find themes that will serve as the bones that holds your story together.


Deb McLeod is an author and creative writing coach. She has been coaching writers for over ten years, and worked with fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction writers. She has also worked with poets and screen writers.