How Much Backstory is Enough?

I’ve been thinking about backstory lately, and just how hard it is to judge the right balance.

I think part of the problem is that it can come down to a personal choice. Depending on the preferences of the reader or critiquer giving the feedback you can get either no comment, a request for more information, or a desperate plea to cut! Cut! All for the same piece of work.

One of the crit groups I was in had no other writers working on fantasy. That was good when it came to clarity and brevity, but the sort of atmospheric description that often makes a fantasy manuscript was pretty much taken as unnecessary padding by this group. It’s hard to stand in the face of such united feedback, even if it is dead wrong for your manuscript. I learned a lot from that group about putting in only what was necessary and cutting sections that described the same thing from different perspectives. But, based on that experience, I really started to think about the point of view of the person giving the feedback and making some real judgements about whether the suggested changes would take me in the direction I wanted to go.

The rule of thumb is to cut backstory to an absolute minimum in the beginning of the story. It’s a good maxim. I try hard to do this, but there are limits. Many of my worlds, particularly the fantasy ones, have lots of new concepts and terms that need to be explained from the beginning for the story to make sense. I’m caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. I’m still trying to puzzle that one out.

The other thing that makes me unsure about this is that many stories seem to launch straight into huge sections of backstory/reflection and work well and also find commercial success. In this case it is almost always supporting the establishment of character, rather than the world, but it’s still backstory.

I guess I fall into the same trap as any writer who has spent a long time building a world and getting excited by the concepts – I love to talk about it! And I tend to talk about it on the page. ‘Oh, I have to mention. . .’

But how much backstory is enough? How do you decide?

Two Spacecraft Crash into Moon Mountain!

Yes, really! But not by accident.

On December 17 2012, NASA’s twin GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory) spacecraft were steered into a mountain near the Moon’s north pole. Both were about the size of a washing machine with a mass of around 200 kg (440 lbs). The aim here was to squeeze one last bit of science out of the spacecraft and take a look at the Moon’s interior.

The crashes alone could not achieve that. The twin impacts created twin plumes, but another spacecraft had to be on hand to analyse what the nature of these implied for the Moon’s composition. In this case it was NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

In the case of the NASA team driving the LRO it was a mad scramble to get the spacecraft into position to observe the impacts. LRO’s team had only three weeks’ notice of the ultimate position of the two GRAIL’s resting places and had to make sure their baby was on hand to focus on the columns of ejecta.

LRO was about 160 km (100 mi) from the lunar surface when the two spacecraft made impact. Because the site was in shadow at the time of the impact the LRO had to wait until the plumes rose high enough to be in sunlight before making its observation. In this case, the LRO used the LAMP instrument (Lyman Alpha Mapping Project), which is an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph. The LAMP saw mercury and enhancements of atomic hydrogen in the plume.

The results are interesting because the presence of mercury was also noted from the LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) impact in October 2009, however that impact was at the bottom of the Moon’s Cabeus crater, which has not seen sunlight in an estimated billion years and is likely to be quite cold.

Now two craters around 4-6m in diameter dot the side of the unnamed mountain at an elevation of around 700m above the surrounding plain, around a third of the way up the 2,500m tall massif. Each has a faint, dark ejecta pattern. The dark ejecta is unusual since  impact craters on the Moon are usually bright. One theory is that the dark pattern is a result of the spacecraft remnants being mixed with the local materials.

If Elon Musk can get the price of space travel down by his claimed factor of 100, then maybe I can send my old washing machine up to the Moon for a scientifically relevant impact. Now that would be something.

Magic Systems

OK, this is geek time now. What are some of the choices in creating magic systems in fantasy?

For originality, Steven Erikson’s idea of the Warrens was really something different. I enjoyed his Malazan books of the fallen, but they eventually got a little bogged down in the storyline, or maybe the characters didn’t grab me as much as some of the earlier novels (Gardens of the Moon is a classic). The originality in the magic did not abate though.

As much as I liked David Gemmell, his magic was pretty straightforward and fairly familiar from the SFF spectrum.

I guess as fundamental distinctions go, one of the most basic is Innate Magic Vs Learned Magic. For example in the Earthsea books, or Wheel of Time series, the talent was there from birth, whereas in other books – I think one of the Lawrence Watt-Evans’s books comes to mind – it is a skill that can be learned, a bit like learning what needs to go into a science experiment in our world to make it work according to our physical laws.

I remember a great little scene (not sure what book this was from) – this skinny, white-bearded, yet very fit Mage, pounding away with his feet on some sort of platform to generate the energy for his spell. The idea here was a sort of conservation of energy, where the Mage had to first generate the energy with his own sweat before he did the spell. That was kind of neat. He also got to burn off lots of calories.

You can have a blend as well. In my fantasy novel The Calvanni, there are innate magic-users (Sorcerers) who are quite powerful, yet rare, while most others can be trained in other less powerful forms of magic (Druids, Priests and Priestesses). The premise was that the Sorcerers came to dominate their world and formed a magic-using nobility. The power in the upper classes – feared and hated by many – waned over time and the Druids took control, forcing a purge of the now ‘evil’ Sorcerers and monopolizing magic.

Another fundamental distinction is just how Powerful is Powerful? Is the pinnacle of magic the ability to obtain a vision, or perhaps influence a person’s thoughts – as in shamanism – or can an ‘Adept’ wipe out armies with the wave of a hand (Pug from Fiest comes to mind)?

I think some books take the ultimate power of the Mage way too far. I like it better when the magic-user is limited, and has to pay for the use of his power.

What magic systems from fantasy literature take your fancy?

Who Shrank the Shuttle?

If you see a picture of the X-37B unmanned spaceplane, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a slightly modified Space Shuttle. If you look closer you realise it’s a mini-version of a Shuttle, around 9m (29ft) in length and 5 tonnes (11,000 pounds), with a payload of your average pickup truck.

Here is a picture of it in its hanger [CREDIT: space.com].

 X-37B mini shuttle

Looks awesome. I like the V-shaped rear wings. Looking at this I’m thinking all that money spent in Shuttle development wasn’t as wasted as I thought.

Two have been built so far (reportedly), and one has been in orbit around Earth since December, although no one knows exactly what it’s doing up there.

The X-37B went into orbit on top of an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on December 11 2012. The current mission is designated Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3), as the third classified mission under the US Air Force’s X-37B program.

The little robotic vehicle is on the USAF’s books as USA-240.

The vehicle lands on a strip, just like its bigger (defunct) cousin, but even more impressively it does so autonomously. Pretty cool, huh? I thought maybe I could sneak into the back in a spacesuit for some spacewalking next time it goes up, but then realised I could never hope to pack enough oxy-mix – the little craft was up in orbit for 469 days for OTV-2. That’s a long time to hold your breath.

OTV-2 ended on a special strip at Vandenberg  on June 16 last year, although the jury is out as to whether OTV-3 will end there or back at the good old shuttle strip at Kennedy Space Centre.

Anyone heard anything about what the X-37B’s doing up there?

Who are you Writing for?

I’ve never really thought too much about audience while I was in the process of writing. I think about it plenty after I’ve finished the work – trying to decide what markets to send material to.

From a marketing point of view, I guess I usually go about the whole business upside down. If you were to design a product from a clinical standpoint you would look at the market first and see where the demand was, then go and build your widget to match that.

The only problem is I cannot create this way.

I usually get an idea for a story, or character,  or setting that starts the whole business of world creation, then the story gradually grows from that seed. I very much feel as though I am following a particular conception.

As I am writing I usually try to stay as true to that initial conception as I can. To bring to life what I have already see in my mind’s eye. Up until now I have never brought a potential reader or intended audience into this process.

But recently I went through an exercise of trying to summarise the themes I dealt with in each of my manuscripts to help me articulate what they were about in marketing pitches. A strange thing happened. I started to think about the sort of reader the work would appeal to. Now I find that if think about that person as I write it helps me to direct my energy.

Do you think about your ultimate readership when you are in the middle of creating your work? Do you deliberately target your stories for markets?