Slashing Your Way Through Backstory?


Part 2: Motivation

If Jack the Ripper had a writer’s tool box instead of a medicine bag he could have written more tales of horror, blood and mutilation instead of being the instigator of terror to just a half dozen women. (The number of victims is unclear.) And if Jack the Ripper had written stories of his illegal misbehaving we might at least have an accurate account of who he was and why he hated immoral women. Well, all women. (This was a guy who collected wombs in jars) But what Jack the Ripper does, even though he’s been dead for a very long time, is teach us that life isn’t always neat and tidy and that the enigma of a character, whether real or fictional, has lasting effects on the mind. It burrows deep into the subconscious and it makes us ask the question, why? Why did he commit those atrocities? I want to know.

Why? That three letter word is the reason we tend to keep reading about someone as horrible as Jack. We as readers and writers want to know what drives a character into doing what they did. Okay. There are many theories about Jack’s motive. We will never really know why he did what he did. Conspiracy or not, the man evaded being caught. That’s why we’re fascinated by him. What a character. So let’s (pardon the pun) dissect the questions that popped into my head.

I ask myself what drove Jack the Ripper. What or who pushed him over the edge?

1)      His mother:

  • Was his mother a whore? (In actual fact she was.) What kind of life did she bring him into?

2)      Was he browbeaten by a wife perhaps?

  • Did people mock him for not wearing the pants?

3)      Did he kill because he wasn’t able to fulfill his duty as a man?

  • Did a prostitute laugh at him? Embarrass him. Did many?

Those questions are all related backstory. The history of your character gives you the reasons for the motive. Would a reader believe in a character, sympathize or empathize with someone as sinister as Jack if he had the sweet life every boy dreamed of? If he had the most beautiful wife who gave him bountiful sex or a loving mother who taught him that God will sort out the sinners. We don’t know the real backstory of Jack the Ripper but it is essential for you as a writer to know your character’s backstory, every little sordid detail. You don’t necessarily have to write everything in the story, but you definitely have to know it.

Here are some more questions:

4)      Was he just a misunderstood gynecologist?

5)      Assuming he was a surgeon or a medical man of some sort why did he want to dissect a cadaver whilst it was still warm?

6)      Or, he didn’t make it into medical school because he had spent his fortune on Mollies.

This also relates to backstory, even if it is in the present. He has made choices in his past that have led him to the moment of slicing and dicing and the taking out of … it’s just too gross.

7)      So he cut the women’s throats:

  • Was it to silence them?
  • Was it because he wanted them to die slowly?

8)      He mutilated their faces(which got progressively worse):

  • Was it because he knew them?
  • Was it because he was feeling guilty?
  •  Was it because he was playing out a fantasy he would like to do to someone else who he was obsessing over or couldn’t live without?

9)      The dissection of what makes a woman different to a man?

  • Did he have womb envy?
  • Was it the final act of male domination?

Animals kill differently than humans. Their tools include claws, teeth, speed and strength to get the job done. A psycho has his method and tools of the trade too. For Jack the Ripper, he had a scalpel. The method of killing is important to further character development. He was not sloppy. He had ample opportunity and plenty of time. Remember, he slit their throats, cut up their faces, then did all those things that make every woman want to cross her legs. For him it was close and personal. So method is important. He was a methodical man, he took his time. That says a lot about a character. Modus Operandi gives an insight into the dark side of any killer.

10)   Could the reason for killing the women of the night simply be because he was less likely to get caught? He needed the darkness and of course no respectable woman in 1888 would be seen out at night on the streets of London by herself. How improper indeed.

  • Did he have a day job?
  • If he was married, did he have to wait for his wife to fall asleep?

Let’s not forget that scenery, the place, time and era are all just as important. Location, location, location. Ask yourself, could Jack the Ripper in today’s technological era get away with the crimes? There are so many more eyes in the world, , cameras, mobile phones, people preoccupied with seeing if they can witness something a little out of the ordinary. Could he have done it in the day time and if he had chosen respectable women would he have been able to get away with it? If Jack’s victims were mothers of two and church goers, would the police have made a more aggressive effort to find him faster?

There are a hell of a lot more questions I could ask, but that would mean a 10,000 word essay on the matter and I hate essays.

It’s a lot of fun getting to know what your character’s motives are. The reason I chose Jack was because he never got caught and therefore nothing is really known about him, but boy, we would love to know, right. That’s the power of mystery. We want to know. Take that into consideration with any character your write about. They don’t have to be scary or monsters. They can be everyday people. The only thing is you have to make us think there’s more to this person and to want to get to the bottom of it, to want to find out what makes this person someone of interest.

I did have another question but unfortunately it has sparked an idea that I don’t quite want to share. It was one of those questions that would make you think outside the box. But the unique take on the Ripper was too much to pass up.

I’ll keep you posted.

Rip into writing

Dissect every character and have fun doing it

E. J. McLaughlin


A Necessary Evil Continued …


Part 2: The Mythical Creature

In a previous post, I may have suggested that good workshoppers were mythical creatures, but in reality they’re not. My workshoppers are sometimes beastly, (don’t worry, they’ve workshopped this piece too and they know I love them unconditionally … mostly) but hey, they do exist. I’ve snared me a few good ones. Through trial and error, after error, I learnt how to be selective. The process may have taken me a while but my storytelling has improved, so has my writing but best of all I’m more confident. You need confidence just as much as you need your sanity in the writing industry.

So let’s get back to the serious business of what to look for in a good workshopper. Warning! This post may be just a little more on the serious side and that’s because finding good workshoppers isn’t something to joke about.

The first sign of a good workshopper is:

Jason Voorhees runs away from them. When they slice and dice their red ink across the page, they have purpose, questions lurking at the back of their minds and they’re not afraid to bring them to the forefront. They will discuss why they’ve made the page bleed; why they went for the jugular and severed the artery. They don’t do it to change the story. They have serious questions as to whether or not there’s something needing to be fixed, expanded or looked at from a different perspective, and no psycho punk-slasher will ever get in their way of making a good story great. Run Jason. Run.

How I love to hate them.

They find a problem. They offer solutions but at the end of the day they let you fix ’em. Most of us would like others to fix things for us, but it’s your story isn’t it? Because getting someone else to do the fixing can sometimes change more than just the story. And when they do offer solutions or strategies, they do it through discussions. Seeing if it actually works or gels with the writer can be fun. It may even give the other writers in the workshopping group an idea or help them solve a problem they’re having with their own manuscript.

You wouldn’t believe how many times I leave a workshop group and I think, gee my head hurts, but that’s when I know I’ve had a good workshop.

Workshoppers who know when to be delicate or when to be tough are definitely keepers. No point rushing in head first when someone is in the middle of some serious family invading life trauma causing the victim to have a complete and utter meltdown. A nervous beginner who has just joined the group should be introduced to good workshopping slowly, which leads to the next point.

Great workshoppers will explain their questions or concerns about the manuscript to help the writer understand where they’re coming from. If someone doesn’t understand, (and it doesn’t have to be the writer) then they will explain it again. I love watching other writers having a ding or ping moment. Their eyes light up and you just know they’ve learned something that will enhance their craft. (The difference between a ding and ping moment is: a ding moment happens instantaneously and the ping moment takes a little while to get through.)

I seriously need to do something about my brain. I’m having far too many ping moments and not enough dings lately.

They are not genre-ists.

Let’s see, in my two workshopping crews, I have a couple of Science Fiction writers, an Academic writer who is also tackling some serious autobiographical inkblotting, a Young Adult fiction writer, an Action-Adventure writer, an Urban Fantasy writer, a Children’s writer, a poet, a script writer and me. I’m the one who slings horror and dark comedy at them. But it’s not just the story they talk about. Any question arising in the world of writing from how do we…, to what about this…, is thoroughly discussed or passionately debated but it’s never argumentative. Who cares what genre is waiting to be read. A good story is a good story regardless of a label.

Editing is for the later drafts, unless you ask for it. No point doing all those insidious punctuation and grammar changes in the first or second drafts when the story might change, or voice might change or tense might change. Yeah I know I sound like a stalker’s heavy breathing, but that’s just how I see things. Editing is for the almost completed, the almost finished. Good workshoppers will of course pick up really obvious problems like the sentence with too many ideas in it! (Here’s the lowdown. I hadn’t actually put that bold sentence in. It was a suggestion by a smarty pants workshopper. But hey! It works to prove a point. I had mentioned that I love them mostly, right.) The smaller problems will always emerge and be dealt with later. There’s no point putting bait out to trap a lion if he’s already eaten. Or overwhelming the poor workshopper with too many ideas in one sentence … I wish I had an evil chuckle.

They will let you have a small hissy fit; freak out, cry, throw a tantrum, have a moment of self-doubt and then they will politely tell you to pull your head in and act like a professional writer. Just to let you know, I haven’t had a hissy fit or thrown a tantrum but I have had a freak out or two and plenty of self-doubting moments; so have the others, so I don’t feel so bad. Come to think of it, I haven’t cried yet, but I’ve come close, but that was for reasons other than writing.

As soon as a page is set out in front of them, they stick their friendships in the closet with their other skeletons. They are professionals offering advice. Friendship has nothing to do with it nor does it have a place at the workshop table. Sounds harsh, but it’s never personal.

They know that you are not what you write.

Bless them.

They entice you or may challenge you to experiment. And I’m not talking about drugs, but the effects are just as euphoric—after the fear and frustration has gone.

No topic is taboo. If you’re writing to express a political stance, if you write about someone getting hurt or raped, a character on a rampage while their veins are filled with drugs, about a man beating on his wife or a mother killing her child, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the quality of the writing, storytelling technique and structure. In other words, it’s all about the craft of writing, not the content.

If you find these wonderful workshoppers, you’ll know that you’re in good company. There is one more aspect that I haven’t mentioned yet. How could I have forgotten the most important character trait of a good workshopper? (It’s called Mother’s Disposition or Lack There Of. While trying to write this post, I’ve made lunch, saved the floor from my elderly cat who can’t seem to find the open door and the children are still hungry, having already eaten a sandwich, an apple, a kiwi fruit, a glass of chocolate milk, the list goes on.)

So what is the most important aspect a workshopper can have?

They never tell you what you can’t write. They want you to be unique, yourself.

During your writing career, you will meet a lot of people who will make you feel insecure. Get rid of these people and don’t give up on the dream. Most of all, you must find people who complement your writing. I don’t mean they like everything you write. I’m talking about finding other writers whose strengths are your weaknesses. If you aren’t any good at punctuation, find someone who is. If that person has trouble with structure and that happens to be your core strength then it could be a match made in writing heaven. It’s just something to think about. Everyone has individual needs. Find those who can help you strive to become the writer you desperately want to be. It’s all about give and take, not take and break.

It’s humbling to know that the people I surround myself with are a lot like me but very different at the same time. Without their support, who knows what would’ve happened to me as a writer. I know for one thing this blog would never have happened.

Until we meet again.

Write with confidence

Write with gusto

Write because you love it

E.J. McLaughlin

A Necessary Evil



Part One: EEEK!

Let me tell you a little story about the not so delicate procedure of finding the ideal workshoppers. It has taken me five years, some of it brutal, some of it not so bad, to find the right kind of writers, people I feel confident in showing my work to.

Now I’ve had my fair share of horror stories regarding workshoppers: I don’t do horror, this is how I would write the story, Grandmas can’t be nasty … oh how I could rave on all day about what I didn’t need, but if I keep writing about the negative, I’ll be pulling out my hair with a pair of tweezers and stabbing out my eyes with my red pen. I have no fear about those horrible history moments anymore because they thickened my skin to the hide of a rhino? No delicate handling necessary.

Yes, I was a mess after each workshop. I almost (almost) quit being a writer, but I took two tablespoons of cement, hardened up and now use those not so nice—evil—days as motivation to continue. As far as writers go, if you’re serious then you need to make sure you have a good group of people around you. I have written this so other writers can hopefully weed out the bad before their roots take hold and destroy the beauty of the full bloomed story just dying to be written.

So who makes the naughty list when it comes to workshoppers?

Somehow, after workshopping, you believe that the workshopper is related to Jason Voorhees because they have hacked your printed pages, made them bleed with red ink and have totally missed the plot because they can’t justify why they have made all those changes—changes that have distorted the voice, tone, atmosphere, style, character, plot … should I go on?

At what point didn’t they understand that it’s just a draft, and it’s your story?

They love your work so much that they wouldn’t change a single word. The character rocks. The story is awesome even though you’ve accidently changed the name and sex of your character midway through the manuscript. At some point we’ve all done this. My habit is changing hair color. Thank the Lord of Writing for eagle-eyed workshoppers.

Couldn’t you just slap ’em?

They claim to be writing professionals yet they don’t do genres. It’s all about the story, the characters not what genre the story is written in. Every story, short or long, follows the basic principles of structure. (Maybe I’ve been sticking my head in pig’s doodee all these years believing that all genres were created/treated equally.) This type of workshopper needs to get together with their kind and leave the rest of us alone. Actually, they need stabbing a few times.

Where’s Freddy when you need him?

Look out! Duck! Hide! They tell you, it’s not the story, it’s you. If a workshopper attacks you on a personal level, has a dig, RUN AWAY screaming I AM NOT WHAT I WRITE. Trust me on that. Run away as fast as you can and never look back. I am no more a monster than the zombie sitting next to me. I am flesh and bone just like you. I have feelings too you know.

If I were anything like the monsters I write about, I would’ve been inclined to squish their heads until their brains oozed out of the cracks. I wouldn’t want to eat their brains so I would let them dry out on the shag pile. Why would I want to eat the brains of a … can’t get too catty now. While I put Mrs. Angry Writer back in her cage, here’s a couple more reasons not to associate with workshoppers like these:

Let’s spend hours on mine, mine, mine …

Being a professional, you’ve workshopped someone else’s manuscript. You’ve answered every question to the best of your ability, but when it’s your turn to have your manuscript worked on they get one or two pages in and tell you that they simply can’t do anymore. They don’t want to workshop anymore.

Well fry them in hell oil.

Have you ever had someone say, “Can you make it a little less scary,” or “Can you leave the blood out?” “Does the zombie, when shot in the foot, have to keep moving?” Well that’s like asking you to leave the science out of science fiction or the fantastical out of fantasy. What are these workshoppers on?


There is one type of workshopper that everyone needs to avoid—the bloodhound of negativity. Personally I would rather have Bigfoot stalking me than have to listen to the wah-wah-wahs of the negative patrol. That’s right. They pick everything that’s wrong with the story. EVERYTHING. They pride themselves on finding every little insidious blot. And when they find something that’s monumentally huge they stick to the point like a fly drowning in honey. They think they have earned the right to rub the mistake in your face and just when you think they’ve finished they tell everyone at the most inconvenient time to make you look like an idiot. And wait there’s more. Sorry no steak knives. The inkslingers (the black plague has nothing on these guys) are on the attack. They just won’t let up until they see they have broken you to the point of never wanting to look at the story ever again.

Even if the work is a first draft, there is praise to be given. (Finishing a first draft is a cause for celebration.) There is always room for the positive. Reveling in someone’s mistake is just plain nasty. You have to learn from your own mistakes and from the mistakes of others. I do it all the time. But I don’t rub it in their faces. I’m grateful to those who can teach me while we learn together, grow together and become serious writers who know how to have fun once in a while.

Now that we know that the above workshoppers are about as healthy as a cup of coffee laced with arsenic there’s one thing and only one thing you can do:

Stand up for yourself. Set a workshop charter. Tell them exactly what you want and need from the group. If they go off the beaten track, remind them what you want. Grow together as a workshopping crew. If they don’t like it, leave. If they don’t want to grow, to be professional, dump them. (We tend to dump boyfriends and girlfriends for far less.)

Workshoppers are a very important tool in a writer’s arsenal. When you have keen eyes focused on your work, it helps bring out the best in you and your writing. Someone once said that writing is a solitary profession. Yes, I sometimes write on my own. But I’m never alone. My workshop crew are not just there when we meet once a fortnight. We can call, text, email, we even visit one another to discuss, help or offer our shoulder to cry on. If you look hard enough you’ll find the right murder of crows to help you grow into the writer you need to be.

Phew! I got through the negative aspects of workshoppers without the slightest hint of a migraine or panic attack. Those tablespoons of cement have really worked well. My spine isn’t so brittle anymore. So get out there, if you seek, you shall find.

So what are good workshoppers? For one thing they are not mythical creatures hiding in the woods. They do exist.

To be continued …

Until the next time.

Write with passion.
Write with imagination.
Have faith in who you are as a writer.
Even if you haven’t found your niche yet.

E. J. McLaughlin