NVDT #78 – But Before All This Happened, I Was Like, Nefertiri, You Know, In Like a Previous Life


Prompt – What’s your best technique for working around backstory dumps?

Well, flashbacks, dialogue, direct narration, recollection, summary, and exposition. Not in that order.  And it really doesn’t matter. A cliché photo gaze isn’t a gagathon if it’s handled with finesse, the way Helen Simonson does, or woven into the character’s behaviors like Jennifer Egan. Finesse.

However – I waited a day for this one on purpose.

In John Dufresne’s wonderful book The Lie That Tells a Truth he writes about starting in the present of the story. Right now. Not when it started, because scene setting is also backstory, but right now, where the action is. Example –  

Susie and Jill ground to halt in the gravel parking lot. Susie killed the lights on her Wrangler. Jill shuddered, Susie lit a cigarette. “This might not have been the best idea,” Jill said. … oops… Who the fuck cares? Needlepoint meeting? It was a dark and stormy night? What’s the point?

Okay –

“Bitch!” A half empty beer bottle smashed into the chipped linoleum table-top, inches from Susie’s hand. Jill screamed. The jukebox continued to throb out a loud, melancholy country ballad while the man who’d broken the bottle waved the jagged glass hanging from the bottle’s neck in Susie’s face.

Okay, two sentences in and now we have a story. And AFTER the action, here’s the drop.

The cop wore his boredom like it was part of his uniform, as if a woman shooting a man inside Cap’n Ben’s early on Thursday night was business as usual. He licked the end of his pencil, set the tip on a blank page in his open notepad. “Now then, ‘zactly the hell were you ladies doin’ out here again?”

“I had a bad feeling about this when we pulled in,” Jill whimpered.

“Shut up, Jill.” Susie squared up to the cop. “Look. It so happens Jimmy Du-pree run off with Jill’s Amex and a sixteen-year-old from the Coutershine swim team. We been out lookin’ for ‘em. Somebody told us he was trollin’ hereabouts for some oxy to maybe help make her panties fall off.”

“That’d be the swim girl’s panties, not your friend there?”

“Who the hell do you think?”

“Mmm,” the cop scribbled on the pad. “So… you two didn’t call us, you just had to come out an find Jimmy yourselves? This was when, again?”

“Eight, eight-fifteen. We, me an Jill, we was set up at a table. He seen us before we seen him an he knew why we was there, so he walked up, broke a Modelo Dark bottle on the table, made a helluva fuckin’ mess that did, got beer all over both of us. An then him knowin’ I was the one was to give him some shit he stuck the broke end of the damn bottle in my face.” She pushed her palm right up on her face for emphasis.

“An you shot him for that, didja?”

“Goddam right I did.”

“Well, good for you,” the cop chuckled quietly. “He ain’t gonna die on account of it, anyways. Maybe he’ll come away smart enough to at least leave teenage peach be.” He folded his notebook, stuffed it back in his shirt pocket.

“An maybe smart enough to stop stealin’ credit cards from a friend of a woman carries a Glock in her purse.”

“Honey,” the cop looked Susie in the eye, “now you know better’n that. Man’s a pussy an trouble magnet, has been his whole life. Your friend here’s not Jimmy’s first, won’t be his last.” He spit tobacco on the gravel, hitched up his equipment belt, laughing silently again. “That is, lessen that swim girl’s momma gets a holta him ‘fore he’s full on mo-bile.”

The point – anything before the event is extraneous. We know all we need to know about both characters without pages of build up (backstory) and Jill crying at Susie’s kitchen table about Jimmy the perv lothario and us ‘splainin’ everything. As readers we know all that, don’t we? From their behavior and the cop interview, which is part of the action, not a sidebar, or a preface or a flashback.

Flannery O’Connor said: “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.” By extension, readers don’t need all of it, either. Start some shit, drop it in gear, get on down the road.

FYI – Storyform is a made up word from Dramatica and has been adopted as trendspeak. They make up a lot of shit over at Dramatica for people who have never studied rhetoric or the classic canons of argument and want to write topical, trendy argument disguised as fiction or sermon specific non-fiction. The difference between backstory and background is purely semantic as they are interchangeable synonyms in major dictionaries.

From the OED  

backstory – noun: backstory; plural noun: backstories; noun: back-story; plural noun: back-stories

a history or background, especially one created for a fictional character in a motion picture or television program.

“a brief prologue detailing our hero’s backstory”

a literary device providing a history or background context, especially for a character or situation in a literary work, film, or dramatic series.

Last two – Backstory the noun was first seen in use in 1982. Prior to that ‘backstory’ was discussed by the various devices used for recollection and dramatic revelation in literature going back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Which is a great read. There’s also some great stuff on Writer’s Digest.

The Big Chief Tablet version is here –https://www.nownovel.com/blog/how-to-write-a-killer-backstory/

Curious what other hoppers use? Check it out here

NVDT #77 – Make It Easy On Yourself


Prompt- What software do you use for your writing? Bookkeeping? Artwork? Calendar?

Scrivener. Quicken. For Digital Graphics Paint Shop Pro (and half a dozen Ashampoo specialty). Outlook.

Scrivener because it works. Where else will you get a novel, screenplay or academic document scene by scene with scene/chapter drag-and-drop capability? No, Leroy gets shot here, and Matilda breaks up with him here. Shit. Matilda needs to become Gretchen. BAM. Global change. I had someone inform me I used the Grave Accent throughout a novel for the French name of a major character, when I should have used the Acute Accent. Morisé, you say? Fixed with two clicks and saved to the dictionary. With folders for graphics, characters, timelines, research – everything is in one environment. I even have folders for scenes and lines I liked, but cut. Because they might be useful somewhere, in something and they sure as hell aren’t coming back from the trash. Except in Scrivener which holds your trash till you dump it, which should be never until you paste it out into a random-scenes-and-shit doc.

There are hundreds of how-to videos for Scrivener. Spend 10 minutes and you can learn to export your book, formatted, with linked TOC, in any format you might need from ePub to PDF to DOCX to the “specific” Apple/Google/Kindle/Nook flavor of the month.

An entire novel, by scene, plus resources visual on the left. I could get rid of them for uncluttered work space, use the corkboard or the notes or the timeline. It also keeps a running word count if you need to hit markers.

Disclaimer. I am not a shill for Scrivener, but I am a huge fan. I was a product specialist for high end audio software(s) and my advice was always buy something stable that will work the way you do. The best software will take into account various presentations and workflows and make automatic the things that should be. Regardless of whether you like post-it notes or XL lists or index cards, or a graphic representation of your work, pick your visual and get after it in Scrivener. I still sketch in Word or whatever is at hand but dump it into Scriv if it’s going to end up over three pages or one scene. And it is cross-platform, including iOS.


Quicken talks to my bank, sorts reports by expense type, by vendor, by whatever. I have been a 1099 guy most of my adult life. You only have to get audited once to know that great notes are your biggest asset. “Well, hell. You aren’t even close to fraud. You just forgot to pay us enough.”


Paint Shop Pro because I started with them way back in the dark ages. Their new product is stellar and a hell of a lot less expensive than the other option. Plus, you get to own it, not rent it. It runs PS plugs. It has a Bob Ross brush set. What more do you want? I rarely create in the digital realm, but I scan and touch up and alter. I should mention I am primarily a pen and ink / black and white person when it comes to rolling my own. Somehow there’s more to Ansel Adams than most of the fade wash water time exposure HD photography I see. I want wallpaper I’ll let Fire TV go random.


Outlook because I’ve used it so long, I don’t know any better. And there’s no two-step BS between it and Windows or Apple either on desktop or iOS. No cloud BS. I plug my phone in, update my contacts and every device I use knows about it. Back it up once in while. Done.

Curious what other hoppers use? Check it out here

Gambits #12 – Deadly Umbrellas

Like the myriad of disgusting headlines my friend sends me or I discover in my own local news, I’m sharing another one I haven’t seen beaten to death (yet).  Not that it’s not out there by any means, but I haven’t seen it circulating in print or TV.

Here you go – Death by beach umbrella.

Many accidents and injuries involving errant beach umbrellas go unreported, but you should know that between 2008 and 2017 at least 31,000 were reported and required emergency medical treatment. Several deaths by beach umbrella have even been reported along with quite a few maimings, including loss of eyeballs, feet, appendages and abdominal parts.

What a fucking great setup. PI or Bounty Hunter Barbie on the beach with Hunky Ken. After the fashion observations and minute accessory descriptions, the wind kicks up.

“Damn!” She exclaimed, pissedoffedly. “I paid twenty dollars for that hat.”

“Hat?” Ken said, absently studying her perfect buns that sported a confectioners dusting of sand.

“Yes, my white straw sun hat with the blue and fuscia Kate Spade knock-off bandana. There it goes!” She pointed into the mess of tumbling, rollicking beach umbrellas, picnic baskets, beer coolers, plastic starfish and towels piling up against the pier and tourist gift shop.

“Isn’t Kate Spade like, dead?”

“That’s why the knock off is so valuable, moron.”

“Check that.” Hunky ex NATO superspy Ken tapped his temple saying “Be right back.” He dashed recklessly into the melee. Upon grabbing her fashion statement hat he stopped in his tracks and began blocking incoming beach debris with his forearms like Wonder Woman in a speedo. The wind abated as suddenly as it started.

“What’s wrong?” Bounty Hunter Barbie asked.

“This one has your name on it, Barb babe,” he shouted, then muttered “or is it babe Barb…?”

When she arrived, he pushed the upside-down umbrellas and coolers aside to give her a clear, yet disturbingly grim view.

“Jeez, Hunky Ken. It’s Benson Ekoreck, the witness protection skip I’ve been looking for.”

“With a beach umbrella stuck in his chest.” Ken reached to remove the umbrella.

“Stop!” Barbie screeched in that shrill voice she hated but just came out when she was upset or orgasmic. “That’s my umbrella!”

Well, of course it is. Was. Whatever. Anyway, there you go, a free plot device. Remember, you heard it here first. Evanovich owes me five-spot if she uses it.

Seriously – Umbrella deaths and bodily damage are a reality. So much so that several Democratic Senators, two from Virginia and one from New Jersey on a day with nothing better to do sent a letter to the Consumer Safety Commission demanding the effects of errant beach umbrellas be looked into.

“Beach umbrella safety is always lower on anybody’s list, until you get impaled by one,” Senator Menendez said.  

Well no shit, Sherlock.

Can’t help myself – If the fictional scene started above had gone on, it might have ended this way –

“That cop thinks you whipped up the windstorm with your hoo-ha somehow so you could get the Bail Bond on that dude refunded,” Hunky Ken said, disaffectedly brushing sand from his glistening bicep.

“He’s just a hairy scrotum in a cheap suit looking for an easy way out. I didn’t do it, so he can kiss my ass and go pound sand. Hey, what’s that on your shoulder?”

“Uh, souvenir?”

“Souvenir? You can’t just take things from a closed crime scene just because it started out as an Act of God, Hunky Ken.”

“Ohh… But the cops said to pick out what we wanted…” Hunky Ken stopped, looked glumly back at the pile of beach crap being picked through by once happy beach goers. “I guess I better take them back.”

“I guess. Wait. Them?”

“I got you one, too.” In a quick move based on years of training and reflex perfection, he whipped two beach towels off his shoulder, snapped them out in front of himself before handing one to Bounty Hunter Barbie.

“Oh my God!” She inhaled a big breath. “A Versace beach towel! You don’t see many of these.”

“Or these.” Hunky Ken held up an oversize Def Leppard towel. “This is major killer.”

Bounty Hunter Barbie rolled her eyes. “What’s so special about a Def Leppard towel?”

“It’s a collector’s item, babe, Barb, uh Barb — ”

“Never mind.” Barbie pouted, unaffected by his enthusiasm.

“No, really. Check it out, Babe, uh, Barb uh… In this picture?” Hunky Ken palmed up the silkscreened band photo on the towel for her. “The drummer dude still has both arms!”

NVDT Totally Random – Uh-Oh

Couple of weeks ago I picked up some inexpensive paperbacks at Half Price Books big headquarters store. I purchased the books as study in the shorter version “three acts” so prominently hawked by all the “how to write (insert genre)” people. One of the books was John D. MacDonald’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky, written in 1974, which killed two birds with one stone. It’s MacDonald storytelling, and being MacDonald the backdrop is a perfect rendering of the cultural era. A timeframe and the years following that I worked in my first return-to-writing project.

None of that was important. It’s called “the setup.” I could have gone directly to the point and filled all that in or left it.

No, this is not a discussion of style.

I opened The Dreadful Lemon Sky in the porcelain upholstered library. I read a few more pages at my desk. Last night I wanted to read more, but was too lazy to retrieve the physical copy of the book. Also, too lazy to two-step an epub into my Kindle. I found the book on my OneDrive and hit “open in another app” on the not-aging-so-gracefully iPad. Worked like a charm.

However. (Cue Twilight Zone theme)

I tapped the book to open it. BAM. It opened.

Not on the credits, publisher, the chapter list or dedication page.

It opened exactly where I left the physical copy open, face down on a shelf in the “library.”

Like the man said when the paint shaker machine shut off. “How do it know?”

I sure as hell don’t know. But I was kinda “all shook up.”

FYI – If you’d like some intellectual writing discussion and advice Google Rod Serling. Find his interview/class discussions with some college kids where he addresses topics and writing issues generally only available from expensive editors. Not only that, he talks the workarounds. From “art” to where ideas come from to soapboxes and unavoidable though unknown plagiarism to how none of us invented the wheel.