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Why and How to Limit Flashbacks in Your Fiction

Craft of Writing, Writing

What Are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are breaks in the current story that are written in order to give the reader background information, something from the past, usually for what’s about to happen. Flashbacks are a legitimate storytelling tool — don’t let anyone tell you they’re not.

But like many tools in fiction writing (like adverbs, speech tags, etc), their use should be limited. The more background information you can insert into your stories without using flashbacks, the more skilled you are as a writer.

For me, I don’t consider a sentence or two to be a flashback. A flashback generally is a full blown scene, anywhere from a couple paragraph to pages. A flashback is turning your car around and driving back to the place, versus a quick glance in the sideview mirror.

Why Should You Limit Flashbacks?

The biggest reason to limit your use of flashbacks is because flashbacks pull your reader out of the story you’re telling.

Think about watching a movie with someone. Say it’s the second movie in a series. Would you find it distracting if your friend paused the movie every third scene to explain something from the first movie that he thinks would be good for you to know for this movie? It would probably get annoying after about half an hour. And, what might be worse, is you might be more interested in the stories your friend is telling you, rather than the story you’re watching.

When you use flashbacks, you’re essentially hitting the pause button on the story you’re trying to tell and you’re asking the reader to invest in a *different* story for a little while. Be sparse with this sort of request of your reader. Because the more often they’re distracted from the story you’re telling, the more likely they are not to feel invested enough to return to it.

How Do You Limit Your Use of Flashbacks?

When thinking about flashbacks, there are three things you should consider particularly.

Is it necessary?

Does the reader actually need information that you’re conveying in the flashback? Sometimes flashback scenes are ways for the author to convey things that the reader will already have inferred. Sometimes flashback scenes are included simply because the author wrote it and feels like it should be in there.

Think about what your key pieces of information being conveyed are. And then think about whether your reader actually needs them.

Must it be conveyed at this place in the story and in this way?

When I’m editing, it’s not uncommon for me to see a three or four page flashback where there’s only a single piece of information that’s important. That piece of information could have simply been dropped into the current story line in a sentence or two rather than yanking the reader into a flashback. Again, assess what the key pieces of information you’re trying to convey are and think about where else in the story you might weave them in, instead.

Sometimes, the flashback is important but the placement isn’t ideal. Consider your entire story; is there a better place for this flashback?

Is it?

Are you starting a new scene and rehashing everything that happened since the last scene?

If you’re telling the reader about everything that happened since the previous scene, there’s no reason not to start it from the the end of the previous scene, rather than some time later, then flashing back to what happened in the interval. This bouncing around in time can be confusing for your reader and it’s unnecessary. If you’ve decided that what’s happened between the previous scene and this scene is important enough to be on the page, then it doesn’t make any sense for it to be a flashback rather than simply part of the current story line.

The exception is if the actions between the scenes can be done in a sentence or two (which isn’t, by our definition here, a flashback anyway).

As a note before I sign off: one type of writing where you should especially avoid flashbacks is short stories. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough space in the story to support flashbacks. It ends up being a waste of precious words when you already have a limit as you do for a short story. Of course, it can be done, but as a general rule, it shouldn’t, unless you know you can do it very, very well.

How about you? Do you struggle with too many flashbacks or not knowing whether to include one or not? Comment below!

 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

Do You Only Make Your Target Word Count During NaNoWriMo?

Craft of Writing, Writing

Motivation and Procrastination

Some writers have the drive to write even when they’re not at the computer (or the notepad). For some, they’ll ignore most of the rest of their life in order to get their words done. I’m not really like that. When I’m not writing, I forget that I like to write. This is especially problematic for me when I’m in editorial mode for clients, because it’s more challenging to get back into creative mode, which causes me to forget for even longer that I like writing.

My Struggle with BICHOK

As an editor, I advise my writerly clients to get their Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. You’ve probably heard that or something similar, if you frequent any sort of writer groups, whether in real life or on Facebook or some other social platform.

As a writer, I struggle with this myself. For some reason, I put off writing, as if it’s a chore like doing the dishes (which I also put off! lol). It’s really not until I’m in my chair and actually in the midst of belting out words that I realize how much I missed it and wonder why I waited so long to get back into the chair. And you’d think that when I make this revelation that the next time I have a plan to sit down to write, I’ll remember it and be excited. But no, I still think it’s doing the dishes. *sigh*

My Most Productive Writing Time Period

I was lucky enough to be able to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at Seton Hill University. During this program, students have a required page count that they are responsible to write each month. This number is decided on in conjunction with the student’s mentor for the semester, so it’s not arbitrary and the student has input in the decision. The common amount is 30 pages per month. There is also a critique group of, usually, two other students to whom a student sends these pages as well. So, at the least, you have three people every month who are waiting for your words.

As you might imagine, the years I was in that program were the most productive of my writing life.

If You’re Like Me…

…you do much better when you know someone is waiting for your work. I think this is a common issue for writers. It’s easy to push our writing off in favor of doing something with the kids, binge watching a few more episodes of Supernatural, reading the new Stephen King book, playing Halo, doing game night with friends, or even *gasp* doing the dishes. Sometimes it seems like we’ll do anything else aside from writing. Even when we know how much we like to do it.

But when there’s someone who’s looking over your shoulder, watching your progress…

Well, that changes everything.

A Tool to Help — AAMP

AAMP is the Author Accountability Mastermind Program. It’s designed to help you by giving you someone else to be accountable to. Essentially, you have your own personal cheerleading drill sergeant. 🙂

Why I created AAMP

At the beginning of the year, I joined the Single Malt Mastermind, which is helmed by Matthew Kimberley, who’s a fantastic sales and marketing instructor in the entrepreneurial space. While I was somewhat skeptical as to whether it would be useful for me, I was happily surprised. Having someone who watched what I was doing, even if he wasn’t directly involved at all, helped in making me much more productive. Knowing I had to write that email at the end of every week helped me keep my head in the game.

How does AAMP work?

AAMP is modeled on Matthew’s program, but structured a little differently and tailored for writers. There are two versions. A semi-automated version and a more personalized version. Whichever version you choose, you will receive an e-mail each Friday with writing tips, tricks, and/or advice. Then, depending on whether you’re a RockStar or a MegaStar, you’ll fill out a survey or reply to the e-mail directly.

RockStars will know that I’m reviewing the survey responses and I send out e-mails randomly to members for encouragement, help, or just to touch base. RockStars won’t get a personal response every week, but may get one any week.

Megastars have a slightly different path. They don’t fill out a survey. Instead, they reply directly to the e-mail and answer three questions. In the early part of the next week, I sent MegaStars — all MegaStars — a personal response.

Whichever version of AAMP you choose, I’m there, keeping tabs, checking in, and cheering you on!

When you can get access to AAMP

AAMP officially launches on August 1. That’s right. Just one week from tomorrow! There will be membership bonuses and a discount for everyone who signs up on Opening Day!

Want to make sure you’re in the loop?

2 Amazing Books Teach You How to Self-Edit Your Story

Craft of Writing

What I’m Listening To: “That’s Amore!” by Dean Martin — I’m feeling old school today 😉

Something Cool: I just signed up for TSA Pre-Check. I’ll let you know how it goes when I travel on it for the first time! Pre-publication edit: I was approved for this in 3 days! I’m not sure what that says for my dangerousness. o.O

~~

I hate doing revisions.

That might seem a pretty bold statement for someone who edits for a living.

When I was in my MFA program at Seton Hill University, the thing I always dreaded was doing my own revisions. I loved helping my fellow students improve their work. But my own stuff? Hated it.

Because I dislike it so much, I spent a lot of time reading different ways to approach self-editing. Now, a thing I’ve learned about myself recently is that, for myself, I can work the hell out of a system. Seriously, I can take a system (a self-editing system or really any other) and make it work for whatever situation I need it for. I just can’t make one up from scratch. So I took bits and pieces from a bunch of different places and worked them together, which ended up with me Frankensteining my own system.

And I think that’s the way most writers need to do it. Figure out the bits that work for you and work the hell out of them.

There have been two books, among many, that have stood out as the most helpful for me.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

I first discovered this one during my grad program. It was one of the recommended books listed in the Writing Popular Fiction handbook. It’s also the one that I consistently encourage the authors who work with me to get. It is an invaluable resource.

Pros

  • It explains, in detail, why things work or don’t work and why they’re the gold standard (or not).
  • It’s been around for a very long time and both the authors know their stuff.
  • It’s easy to find information between the Table of Contents and the detailed Index.

Cons

  • It’s a little bit dry by today’s standards.

Even with the dryness, this is still my #1 go-to for self-editing help.

This book was really the one that explained so much to me about why good writing is good writing. It has dedicated chapters on voice, internal monologue, show and tell (because that’s something we’re all familiar with!), dialogue mechanics and lots of other stuff. There’s so much good info packed between these covers!

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

This is a book in the Write Great Fiction series put out by Writer’s Digest Books. This one is an easier read, because it’s broken up into smaller bits with sidebars and other visual breaks that make it feel easier on the eye. And the information here is just as valuable as SEFW. There’s a bit of overlap between the two books, of course, but this also covers its own ground as well.

Pros

  • It’s an easy read with a lot of visually interesting asides.
  • It’s written in the first person, in a very conversational style, so it’s as if the author is speaking directly to you.
  • It’s a great book to read even before you get to self-editing, like while you’re working on your first draft.

Cons

  • None really.

One of the cool things about this book is that it covers a lot of general writing topics that writers struggle with, such as middles (you know, that part of the book where you want to throw your manuscript into the fire?), point of view, exposition, as well as the standards like show and tell.

I found that the first third or so of the book is very useful before you even write your first draft. There are sections on characters, theme, descriptions, dialogue, etc. This part of the book covers most aspects of what you need to know to get things pretty clean on that initial draft, which, of course, makes the revisions easier!

Both books summarize their chapters and provide exercises to practice what you’ve learned. And both books should be on your shelf! 🙂

Do you own Self Editing for Fiction Writers or Revision & Self-Editing? What do you think of them?


 

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

So You’ve Finished the First Novel of Your Series! Now What?

Craft of Writing, Publishing, Writing

 

I was at Dragon*Con over Labor Day weekend and was on a couple panels. While on an editors’ panel there was a question from the audience about whether someone should mention in a query letter that the novel being submitted is the first of a trilogy (or series) and the next two books are already written.

Now, you’ll get lots of advice on this question, either way. Yes, mention it and no, don’t. That’s not  my topic.

The interesting thing that one of the panelists brought up had to do with whether to write a trilogy or series as an unpublished author. The gist wasn’t to discourage the planning of a series, but to point out that, financially and creatively, it doesn’t make sense to start the second book of your series before the first book is sold. The panelist said, “Finish your book, polish it, sent it out, then start on something new.”

I hadn’t really thought of it in such bald terms, but I agree with this sentiment. The first book I wrote has a sequel, but I haven’t started writing it (much to my little sister’s chagrin). I didn’t really think about why, except that I needed to concentrate on getting the first book sold.

From a strictly numerical odds standpoint, it makes no sense to start on the second book. If you fail to sell the first, then complete the second, you have two complete books (yay!), but only one salable book. If you had started on a brand new book (even if it’s for another series), then you have two completed books and two books you can send out to agents.

For so many of us, the ideas lend themselves to trilogies or series. And once we’re ensconced in a world, it is hard to let it go, but if you’re an unpublished author with your first book complete, consider moving on to an entirely different project as you shop that first book around. If you sell that book, great! You can switch over to the series at any time. If you don’t sell the first book, when you get the other book done, you have something else to shop around. Two completed books, two salable projects.

Work smarter, not harder. 🙂

On Reading in One’s Genre…

Craft of Writing, Reading, Writing

A writer should read within his/her genre, absolutely. The obvious reasons are because you learn what’s been selling in your genre, what others have done, etc. You can consciously study others’ work. However, what is not as obvious is that reading deeply in your genre also allows you to subconsciously learn the mechanisms of that genre. You absorb how to write it. As an example, when I was young, I read voraciously in the horror genre (back, yknow, when there was one :p). I mean I would probably read thirty books in a year, just in horror. Some of it was awful, some of it was amazing. As a writer now, I don’t write horror, per se, but some of my stories do contain horrific elements. Those are the easiest bits to write for me. Those scenes tend to need the least revision and editing. And I firmly believe that it’s because of how deeply I read in that genre.

As an editor, I know right away when an author hasn’t read much in the genre she is trying to write in. Why? Because the settings are stock, the characters tend to be stereotypical and the plot is often predictable. And it’s because they don’t know what went before them. They don’t know the tropes of their genre, therefore that cannot avoid or otherwise set the tropes on their ears. You can’t play with something if you don’t know it exists.

Every genre has its rules, its reader expectations and its tropes and, as writers, we have to be educated in those items. In the same way that one cannot *effectively* break the rules of grammar unless one is very familiar with those rules, the effectiveness of writing within a genre is going to be tied directly to knowledge of that genre.

Do you read in your genre? Classics? Current stories? Why or why not?

Back to School!

Craft of Writing, MFA, SHU, Writing

 

So you might recall that in June 2008, I received my Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. In July 2009, we found out that SHU got approval to confer a Master of Fine Arts degree, which is the terminal degree in creative fields. This is desirable for those who want to teach at the university level (and for those who like a lot of initials after their names. I won’t disclose which I am 😉 ). Alum were given the option to come back for half the necessary hours and receive a MFA, so a slew of us have descended on that lovely campus and probably scared all the new students silly.

The program has changed a bit since I graduated. The main difference is the inclusion of online classes. (This is what kept me so busy the first half of the year.) There are a total of five classes: three genre reading classes, a teaching popular fiction class and a writing popular fiction class. The genre readings are fun, for the most part. Choice of genre class is left up to the student. So far, I’ve taken a horror class and a mystery classics class. Both of those genres figure a lot into my writing. I’ve also taken the teaching class, which was very, very challenging. I’d forgotten how time consuming and mentally intensive reading academic non-fiction is! I learned a lot from that class though and I’m glad I took it. Because I was doing so much reading last term, I’ll be reviewing the readings and notes from the teaching class. Expect some posts on that before the year is out!

I have one more genre reading class (it’s going to be YA/middle grade) and the writing about popular fiction class, which I believe is going to be taught by Nicole Peeler, who’s new faculty at SHU. I’m taking the writing pop fic class this term and the reading in January.

This term, I’m back on with the writing component! Last semester, since I took three reading-intensive classes, I opted to wait to take a writing section. As a result of all that reading, I got no writing done at all during the term! My own fault, but I’m really glad I’m getting back to it. For the writing term this semester, I’m going to be working on a middle grade paranormal called Keepers of the Key. It’s about a set of twin girls who discover they’re the guardians of Pandora’s box. I’m very excited about it. I did a rough and dirty draft for NaNoWriMo last year, but it needs LOTS of love, so that’s my project for this writing term. The title will most likely change, since it applied to the original concept (which was a short story) but no longer does. I suck at titles. Maybe I should suggest that as a class: Titling for Dummies. Anyway, that’s an entirely different post.

The other component to the SHU MFA are the residencies. We all descend on the SHU campus for five days of brain-leakingly (yeah, I went there) intensive modules and critique sessions. We meet with our mentor and critique partners for the term (I’ve got two rocking partners!). We make merry and go on very little sleep. This residency was a blast, but exhausting, for a number of reasons. Alcohol may or may not have been involved. But that is, also, another post, which will probably come tomorrow-ish.

I’m going to be reviving my What I’ve Learned posts, which include stuff from the program as well as stuff I pick up along the way which helps with writing, rewriting, revising, proofing, submitting and the overall publishing process. So look for those in the near future, as well!

Onward! To the keyboard!

Just Read: “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” by Douglas E. Winter

Craft of Writing, Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU, Writing

 

Are you a horror writer? Yes? Have you read Doug Winter’s essay, “Darkness Absolute” in On Writing Horror? If you haven’t, you should purchase that assemblage of essays collected and edited by Mort Castle and read Doug’s. It’s mandatory reading for horror writers. I don’t care that you didn’t know that. Get there, now.

“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” (125)

Although I expect some might find this controversial, I think it is dead-on. What makes horror horror is the fear factor. Without it, there is no horror. Interestingly, I think horror is most closely aligned with romance in this regard. Romance is also an emotion. Without love, there is no romance “genre.”

Winter goes on to point out that horror “can be found in all great literature” (125). This is also true. Certainly, the seminal works like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and the works of Poe are horror, without a doubt. But horror also shows up in “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad (horror of man’s descent into madness), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (horror of political and social anarchy) and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (horror of loss of self).

Winter also touches on the need for reality in horror. He argues that we need normality in horror in order to bring out the horrific elements. Again, I agree. In the same way that alternative music can only exist if it’s different than the music played on Top 40 stations, horror is only effective if it can be contrasted with what is “normal.”

Other topics in the essay include subversion, monsters, originality and characterization. It’s a must-read for horror writers, but non-horror writers can also gain a lot from the information here. I really recommend this highly!