Red Line – The Backstory

Common advice to writers who are submitting to agents includes emphasis on the importance of having another novel in progress to distract you from your inbox. There’s a joke that will serve as a metaphor, and it goes something like this:

“Do you know why farmers and ranchers wear hats with the curled brim? It’s because they spend all their time with their heads stuffed into their mailboxes looking for those welfare checks.”

After finishing Pilot Error and polishing it into what I thought at the time was submission quality, I began sending out packages via snail mail to all the literary agents on my list. Taking the advice to heart, I refused to even think about the fact that at any given moment, an agent might be reading it. I’d planned from the beginning to write a series, so why not get started?

At 7:11 in the evening of Wednesday, April 13, 2005, I opened a new Word document and began writing the first scene. I’d already spent a few weeks in preparation and had many pages of notes on the basic storyline and the characters, including significant backstory events for the major supporting characters.

The protagonist’s backstory, of course, was contained in the 102,000 words of Pilot Error, and I knew that the writing of Red Line would require careful attention to a story element I hadn’t faced with the first novel. As opposed to a true sequel, such as the second and third novels in The Lord of the Rings, a second-in-series novel has to be a stand-alone story. I’d have to assume that some readers wouldn’t have read Pilot Error.

It’s hard enough to handle backstory effectively in a true stand-alone novel with a one-time protagonist. The author has to pay close attention to the following three questions: 1) What does the reader need to know from the period prior to page one? 2) When does the reader need to know it? 3) What is the best technique for inserting this particular event from backstory into current story time?

Writers talk of inserting backstory in info-bits rather than info-dumps, and the most common reason is to avoid the inevitable effect on pacing. Current story time screeches to a halt to accommodate the backstory. My post titled “Looking Back” in the “Wings On My Words” logbook addresses this problem and the various ways I think it can be dealt with effectively.

For Red Line, I had to blend in the protagonist’s key backstory elements from the first novel along with that of the new supporting characters, all of whom enter the stage with significant events from their own pasts that define who they are and dictate to a large degree what they are going to say and do in any given situation. Combining these backstory elements with the requirement to walk a tightrope between including too much or too little from the previous novel became a significant time-hog in conceptualizing how the second story would flow from the first and yet be independent of it.

With about 56,000 words written, I put Red Line on the shelf when my unsuccessful effort to obtain an agent for Pilot Error convinced me that I had more work to do. Now that it’s published, along with Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer’s desk and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit, the time has come to dust off Red Line and reacquaint myself with the story so far in order to pick up where I left off.

This logbook will continue with tales from the writing of Red Line, scheduled for publication in the Fall of 2012. Please visit again soon and be on the lookout for the next episode.

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