Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory


Creating the Continuous Dream and Backstory

As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of writers is to create what John Gardner called the continuous dream—that is, a story the reader can immerse herself in and live in the world of your fiction. The more you do this, the more your reader finds the story both credible and compelling. Similarly, you need to avoid breaking the dream—that is, momentarily pulling your reader out of the story to wonder something like would Joe really do that? Or worse, abandoning your piece altogether because it didn’t grab him. To keep the continuous dream going, you want to create characters which are both fully realized (i.e. act like real people) and powerfully transmit your message. One way to support that is to write a backstory.

What is backstory?

Backstory is the writer’s exploration of a character’s motives, history, goals, dreams, nightmares and generally, how the character fits into your fictional world. The character is usually your main protagonist but can be others.

Backstory differs from the story you’re writing in that its intent is to inform you, not the reader. It helps you make decisions about where to take your narrative and so may never appear in the actual story.

An example

In my novel, The Honest One, my main character (David) is a hard-driving, ambitious young man who does whatever it takes to succeed. He steals an idea from a colleague to garner senior management’s attention.

At one point, I wasn’t sure where to go next for David to be a fully realized character. The following is a very abbreviated version of what I wrote as I was working through.

Who is David?

He knows he should not steal but does it anyway.

How interesting. Why?

Because he wants to succeed at any cost.

Why is he so driven?

His father Gord tells the truth all the time and has been sidelined and ostracized at work as a result. David knows that truth doesn’t lead to success.

But this, coupled with the ambition, creates an unsympathetic character. Do I want to make David more sympathetic? But then the whole point of the character is lost. I want the reader to be routing for him while recognizing the deviousness. How do I square this circle?

I think the reader would continue reading if David was a compelling character—that is, you can’t stop reading even though he is somewhat unsavory. How do I do that? Would it be enough to see his inner guilt? Or that he has other positive and sympathetic traits? Or something else. But what?

Would it work to have a personal life which isn’t so driven? Does he compartmentalize work and personal life so he can do things at work he could not justify in his non-work life?

As I said, this is an extremely condensed version of what I wrote. In the full version, I would have come up with some possible solutions to my questions and then written some experimental scenes to see if could achieve the effect I wanted. In any case, I hope the example above illustrates that you can use writing about the character to help you work out where you want to go even if the backstory itself never makes it into the novel.

Next post: how to do a backstory.

I Blank when I Try to Write


I Blank when I Try to Write

It happens to all of us. We finally have managed to get our bums in chairs, have two hours when the kids are at soccer practice, and the dishwasher is running. Okay, ready to go! And blank. Blank screen. Blank mind.

As the minutes tick by and nothing happens, the frustration mounts. Come on!

If this happens frequently, you might have writer’s block, but often it is just that you need to trick yourself into starting.

Trick yourself—do a mise en place

Mise en place. In cooking, chefs often will have all the ingredients weighed out, the pots ready, and the utensils assembled before they start to create. You can do the same thing. Tell yourself that you’re not going to write, you’re just getting ready to write. You can:

  • Open and name a new file. If I was going to write, which I am not, what would the file name be? If you start obsessing, just use the date.
  • Set up the formatting. Of the writing you are not going to do, should it be double spaced or single? Indented? Paging.
  • Make a few notes of thoughts to include in the piece. Just a couple of things that you want to remember to include if you were going to write. Which you are not. But might want to describe that street scene from last week. Jot down a few points to evoke it.
  • Any character names you particularly like for this piece? Which you are not going to write. But Anna’s a nice name. Dark hair, I think. Sort of plump—so she can always be fretting about dieting.
  • If you were going to write, which of course you are not, what might the opening sentence be?

And usually by this time, you are well into the writing. I know this shouldn’t work—after all, you’re tricking yourself. Don’t you think you’d pick it up? Well, I may be slower than most, but honestly, it works.

Other ways to fill the blank space

If the first suggestion doesn’t work for you, you can also try:

  • Keep the fingers moving. Seriously, just type gibberish—sdfgdfgsdfgsdfg—over and over. The act of typing can sometimes kick-start the brain into writing. Or it does it to avoid the boredom—either way, you win.
  • Start your engines, gentlemen, please. I literally type “Okay, start your engines, please, gentlemen (yeah, yeah, I know, sexist). It is 10:15. I will write for 30 minutes until 10:45. No stopping. No games.” I sometimes set an alarm. Doesn’t have to be thirty minutes. It can be five. But no stopping and no diversions.
  • Write drivel. After all, we all do it which is why the blog is called From Drivel to Magic. But when we are getting SERIOUS, we can’t be driveling. But if you are stuck, just write about anything. The blue of the sky (clichés are acceptable when drivelling), the freshness of the breeze, the color of the African violet. But not pick up milk, renew that book, make the doctor’s appointment. Stay in the moment.

If you use these techniques as a way to let yourself loosen up, to open up to the lovely pieces which are waiting to be born, then the trickery is worth it.

Care and Feeding of Ideal Readers


Care and Feeding of Ideal Readers

Last post, I discussed how valuable I found getting feedback from an Ideal Reader (IR). But even if you think you’ve identified a likely candidate, you need to treat her with care.

Make sure the Ideal Reader knows what she is committing to

Most people are flattered that you ask them to read your work but they may not understand what they are agreeing to and you need to spell this out to avoid damaging your relationship and the quality of the feedback.

  • Tell him what kind of time commitment you are asking for. A novel takes a lot longer than a short story and it needs to fit into his schedule.
  • Agree on a deadline. Since your Ideal Reader (IR) is probably volunteering, it can be awkward to do but if you have to wait six months, it’s not going to do you much good. You can say something like, “I know you are crazy busy. Would it be too soon to discuss this in a month or so?”
  • Let them know that you will be sending them a set of questions you’d like answered. More on that below.

Help her give you what you need

As I have mentioned in other posts, the job of the writer is to create a continuous dream in which the reader can immerse herself. The more successfully it is done, the less the ordinary reader can identify the elements which make up the continuous dream feeling. So, unless your Ideal Reader is himself a writer, it is unlikely he can give feedback in a writerly way. The IR won’t say the frame of the story doesn’t work but rather I got sort of confused.

To help your IR, you can and should provide a set of questions to be read after the IR has finished your piece. The questions revolve around areas where you are unsure. Here are some examples:

Sample question

What you are looking for

Did it get boring at any point? If so where?

Does the action slow down

Did you want to know what happened to Jill or did it not matter at some point?

Credibility and persuasiveness of the character

Did you buy [name event of which you are unsure] would happen?

Believability of the plot


Dos and Don’ts

Remembering that the IR is doing you a favor and that you are friends:


  • thank them profusely, write a thank you note, or send a small gift
  • react to the feedback respectfully even if, or especially if, you don’t agree. See my post on feedback.



  • bombard them with in-progress or repeat readings. They read for enjoyment and repetition can kill that. Use your writing group for that.
  • assume you can go back to them again. Ask again if you have a new piece.
  • go back months later to ask about details of your work. They won’t remember.

You need to make the experience a pleasant one for your IR, first because you are friends but also because you want them to continue to enjoy reading your pieces and not view it as a chore they do only because you’re buds.

You Need an Ideal Reader


You Need an Ideal Reader

What is an Ideal Reader?

 The Ideal Reader represents the audience you want to reach with your finished piece of work with two important additions.

Addition One: the Ideal Reader (IR) likes you enough to read your stuff.

Addition Two: the IR is articulate enough to provide useful comments. If you’re writing for children, this might be tough (although not impossible—you could watch the children`s reactions as they hear the story).

An IR’s feedback can be more specific than your writing group’s because she knows if the situation, characters, plot, etc. work for the target audience. In addition, he’s coming to the work cold (unlike your reading group which has probably discussed it quite a bit) and so can pick up big issues and blind spots which might have been missed in the minutiae of writing.

Why you need one—an example

This suggestion may not sound much different from getting feedback from your writing group, so I’ll give you an example of where I profited from having one.

I was working on my novel, Scam!, about four Canadian actors who pretend to be an intact British acting family to get parts on an American sitcom.

My first draft took on the feel of a heist movie. You know, where a group concocts a complicated and split-second timed plan to steal the crown jewels, the Hope diamond, whatever. With this type of plot, there is no movie unless they get to the actual heist. Similarly, in my story, there is no novel unless the actors get the sitcom parts. In both, the reader knows the intended end point, so the interest has to be built in how they get there. Therefore, I spent a lot of time creating roadblocks and close calls to maintain the tension which might otherwise come from the reader wondering how will this end?

I finished the novel and, although there was a little niggle that it wasn’t my usual style, I nevertheless thought it was done.

After reading it, my wonderful IR, Janet, thought that although the action moved, the characters didn’t grow (she said this more kindly than my depiction).

After a secret pout, my thinking went as: I think it’s okay. But I really respect Janet’s opinion. Maybe this is a novel where the characters regress rather than grow. If so, I don’t have to do anything. But I really respect Janet’s opinion.

I finally decided to devote a week to see if there was anything to her comments. And damned if there wasn’t! I realized that my characters were more acted upon (by the close calls and roadblocks, etc.) than acting. I was basically pushing the characters around to meet the needs of the plot.

The revamp provided a novel I was much more satisfied with.

Where do you find an Ideal Reader?

Can be almost anyone. Typically, they like to read and in the genre you are writing. That is, don’t ask a romance fanatic to read your scifi just because you are great friends. You try for someone who tends to the analytic. Otherwise, all you’ll get it is “Oh, it’s great.”

The next post covers an IR’s care and feeding.

(And no, you can’t have my fabulous IR’s coordinates. Get your own.)

I Have No Time to Write!


I Have No Time to Write!

Let’s face it—life is busy. There are always things to do. And another week goes by with no time to write.

Tracking my time

Many years ago, I decided to take up Steven Covey’s suggestion in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to track a week of my life using the table below. Here were my results:

Not important to life goals

Important to life goals

Not urgent






Okay, there was a slight flaw in the process since I found that things like showers, brushing teeth, grocery shopping, sleep, car maintenance, etc., while not important or urgent in the grand scheme of things, soon became both if I didn’t do them.

But it was an excellent reminder that because writing fell into the red box, I did very little of it.

And it also made it clear that I was never going to write regularly if I didn’t create some space for it.

Finding the time to write

You do really have to fight to make the space. It’s all very well to wait for the Muse to show up, but the way your life is going, you’ll be too busy to welcome her in.

So here are some suggestions on how to make the time.

  • Set a regular time to write. Whenever it’s the likeliest that you will have a block of quiet time. Instead of folding the laundry, make the commitment to put your bum in chair and write. Doesn’t have to be great swatches of time. Surely you can carve out two hours a week for your heart’s desire.
  • Protect that time. Don’t check your phone, don’t jump up to do that thing you’d forgotten. If friends want to see you during that period, just say, “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. What about next Tuesday?” Family is tougher to put off but tell them it’s your time or put up a DO NOT DISTURB sign or close the door or all of the above. They won’t like it but they’ll eventually get used to it.
  • Write in a separate space. Ideally, some place in your home which you can use primarily for writing, reading, reflecting. Doesn’t have to be big or elaborate. Just a chair with a nice view. The home office surprisingly doesn’t work for me. Too many of those urgent/not important things lying around to lure me away. If you have to, find a coffee shop to set up in.
  • Join a writing group. There is nothing like peer pressure to produce a piece. My writing group meets over lunch, so anyone who doesn’t submit a piece has to buy dessert. Evening group meetings—pate, wine, cheap caviar?
  • Do writing retreats. I know people who use writing retreats as the only time they write. Not ideal, but again, it is making space for what is important. Two writing teachers who do excellent retreats are Sue Reynolds of Inkslingers and Barbara Turner-Vesselago of Freefall.

Make yourself a priority

Move what you care about into the important/URGENT box. Do as Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, did and live in an infrequently cleaned place to write. I already have the dusty apartment thing down pat. I’m just waiting for the fame and fortune to kick in.