Monthly Archives: February 2015

Jumping Back in Time: How to Write Flashbacks in Fiction

Flashbacks are scenes that occurred prior to the present story. They can have a powerful impact on the main story and can be a useful tool when writing. Not all stories move from points A to B to C. Some stories must take a look at a previous event to gain deeper insight into the characters, plot, etc. This is when flashbacks become handy.

Let me quickly differentiate between flashback-300x225exposition and a flashback. Information about the past can be given in one of three ways: (1) a character tells another character through spoken dialogue about something that occurred in the past, (2) exposition is used, where readers are told about a character’s past – in both (1) and (2) readers are told something – or (3) readers are shown a character’s past via flashbacks.

Are flashbacks necessary? No, and if a story can be told completely through the main story then that’s great. However, some moments in a character’s past may have had such an influence on the character that there is no other way to have readers understand the gravity of the situation unless shown it.

When using flashbacks, you must:

  • Have the flashback triggered by a present day event. More so, a flashback should come after a strong scene. There has to be a good reason as to why a flashback is being used. By connecting it to an important present day event the transition into the flashback isn’t jerky. There’ll be a natural flow to entering the flashback. One of the last things you want to do is jolt your readers out of the story. This leads into the next bullet point.
  • Orient to space and time. Make sure it’s clear that a flashback is occurring. It’s never a good thing for readers to be halfway through a flashback and not know if the scene is a flashback. Anytime readers are unsure of something, they pause, and chances are they are pulled out of the story. (Also, just as you made sure readers know they’ve entered a flashback, make sure they know when they’re returning to present time.)
  • Get your readers interested first. A story shouldn’t begin with a flashback. It should start with the present day plot, and then continue with that plot long enough to get and keep readers interested. Remember a flashback is a deviation from the main plot. It disrupts the plot no matter how well situated within the story, so use a flashback after the first two to three chapters and during an exciting part in the story, which will make readers want to keep reading to find out what’s happening in the present day action.

An example of a well-used flashback would be in “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, where she uses a flashback to provide crucial backstory on Katniss and Peeta. These two characters are vital to the plot, and how they met is extremely important. It shapes their actions between each other. The story wouldn’t unfold how it did if these two never met in the way they had.

In “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien flashbacks occur to provide a clearer understanding of current actions and increase intensity. J.R.R. Tolkien’s present day plot is so intricate that flashbacks are necessary for readers to comprehend why things are the way they are.

A different style of flashback would be in Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire.” The story begins with an interview taking place between the vampire and a reporter, but as the conversation continues the vampire begins speaking for longer and longer periods. Eventually the reporter’s voice virtually disappears and it’s only the vampire’s voice readers hear, as the vampire delves into his past. The vast majority of the novel is flashback with the vampire telling his life story.

What do you think of flashbacks?

(Photo courtesy of Muse Medicine.)

Quotes and Rejections: Surviving the World of Publishing

It’s safe to say writing is my passion. I like the act of writing, reading about writing, learning about writing, reading in general, both fiction and non-fiction, adult and young adult. Without writing my life would lack a vital component, but there are times when I don’t feel like writing or I feel like I’m not any good at it. Sometimes I’m tempted to throw down the pen and quit.

Writing isn’t easy. Shelling out an entire novel, revising, getting it critiqued, and revising a few more times is a long process. Then, having to write and revise the synopsis, blurb, and query letter all in the hopes of having an agent declare your book worthy of being published is another arduous step in the very long process of finding a place for your work among the shelves of other published novels.

Sometimes it all just feels futile, like you’re bashing your head repeatedly against a brick wall.

Long_and_Winding_Road_by_anonyms_one

When these moments of futility occur, I turn to quotes by published authors. It helps to know that I’m not alone in this process or feeling like I can’t find the right way to describe something…or that my work is a load of crap that should be burned.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite quotes:

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
– Lawrence Block

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
– E. L. Doctorow

“You can’t write a novel all at once, any more than you can swallow a whale in one gulp. You do have to break it up into smaller chunks. But those smaller chunks aren’t good old familiar short stories. Novels aren’t built out of short stories. They are built out of scenes.”
– Orson Scott Card

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
– Ernest Hemingway

“It’s like making a movie: All sorts of accidental things will happen after you’ve set up the cameras. So you get lucky. Something will happen at the edge of the set and perhaps you start to go with that; you get some footage of that. You come into it accidentally. You set the story in motion and as you’re watching this thing begin, all these opportunities will show up. So, in order to exploit one thing or another, you may have to do research. You may have to find out more about Chinese immigrants, or you may have to find out about Halley’s Comet, or whatever, where you didn’t realize that you were going to have Chinese or Halley’s Comet in the story. So you do research on that, and it implies more, and the deeper you get into the story, the more it implies, the more suggestions it makes on the plot. Toward the end, the ending becomes inevitable.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

“We writers are apt to forget that, as the gunsmoke fogs and the hero rides wildly to the rescue, although the background of this furious action is fixed indelibly in our own minds, it is not fixed in the mind of the reader. He won’t see or feel it unless you make him—bearing always in mind that you can’t stop the gunfight or the racing horse to do the job.”
– Gunnison Steele

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”
– Ray Bradbury

“Long patience and application saturated with your heart’s blood—you will either write or you will not—and the only way to find out whether you will or not is to try.”
– Jim Tully

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
– William Faulkner

“Don’t expect the puppets of your mind to become the people of your story. If they are not realities in your own mind, there is no mysterious alchemy in ink and paper that will turn wooden figures into flesh and blood.”
– Leslie Gordon Barnard

“Don’t be dismayed by the opinions of editors, or critics. They are only the traffic cops of the arts.”

– Gene Fowler

“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”
– Leigh Brackett

At times it may seem like published authors were immediately successful. Agents and publishing houses love advertising their wildly successful writers. However, most writers didn’t get an agent after they queried only five agents. They didn’t sell millions of copies of their debut novel. Most authors worked hard and diligently for years and received countless rejections before finding success.

Probably one of the best examples of this is J.K. Rowling. Though she got an agent quickly, she was rejected by almost every publishing house in the UK before her book sold. On top of that, she was told to get a day job because she wouldn’t make any money off of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

J.K. Rowling is now a billionaire and one of the most well-known authors in history.

Some other examples:

The “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series received over a hundred rejections. I don’t know about you, but I owned several of those books when I was younger, and the ones I owned were only a few of over a million copies that sold.

C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” spent years getting rejected before it sold. Not only is this series famous, several movies have been made of it.

Dan Brown was told his “The Da Vinci Code” was too badly written to be published. Millions of sold copies and a movie later, he’s doing just fine.

H.G. Wells was told his “The War of the Worlds” was “An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.’” It was published in 1898, is still in print, and was made into a movie both in 1953 and 2005.

The list goes on…

This isn’t so common nowadays with most literary agents preferring email query letters instead of paper, but authors will talk about how they received enough rejections to wallpaper a room or that they have drawers full of rejection letters. Yet, despite being told their work isn’t good enough to be published over and over again, they persisted, and enough they became published.

As Isaac Asimov says, “You must keep sending work out. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.”

Got any quotes on writing or rejection you turn to?

(Photo courtesy of Deviant Art.)

Authors Behaving Badly: How Negative Reviews Send Them Off the Rails

iStock_000010017317XLargeIt’s not uncommon to see or hear about movie stars, singers, or politicians responding badly to news broadcasted about themselves. You can’t stand in a grocery store line without noticing all the headlines splashed across the magazines at the end of the aisle, or you’re watching the news or listening to the radio and you hear about how someone went completely off the rails.

This happens to authors too. They read a bad review about their book or see a negative comment on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, etc. They get angry and lash out. Now, most of them regret their actions, at least they make a public apology. However, their actions linger. People remember.

In 2014, when the New York Times published their “100 Notable Books of 2014,” author Ayelet Waldman didn’t make the list. She fired off several Twitter messages, including one that stated “Fuck the fucking NY Times.” She later mentioned that “social media and impulse control issues” aren’t the best combination and expressed her regret, but her Twitter messages still remain.

It’s understandable to be angry and disappointed when you don’t get something you desperately want. It’s not a good idea to express that anger rashly. There’s a reason we all have that spouse, best friend, sibling, or pet to complain to.

Kiera Cass, author of “The Selection” trilogy got slammed when she and her agent called Goodreads reviewer Wendy Darling a “bitch” for writing a one star review and, in public messages, conspired to boost rankings of Cass’ books. You can see the review here and Cass and her agent’s response here.

Yes, negative reviews hurt. Authors spend a lot of time and effort on their novel. They put it out there for the public, all that hard work, and then they get a negative review. It stings. It sucks. They get angry because they’re hurt. However, name calling and conspiring isn’t the way to respond. The best response is no response, especially in an age where nothing is truly deleted from the internet.

Probably one of the most famous cases of authors behaving badly is Cassandra Clare. Before she published “The Mortal Instruments” series she was a fanfiction writer most known for her Draco Trilogy, a fanfic of the Harry Potter series. During that time, Clare (then Claire) was accused of plagiarism and consequently cyberbullying. She even dropped the “I” in her last name to distance herself from these accusations, such as threatening those who discussed her plagiarism and allegedly trying to get a girl expelled from her university. Here’s a great link showing a loose timeline of Cassandra Clare’s history of incidents.

So far, I’ve only shown examples of female authors. That’s partly due to there being more female authors out there, but male authors behave badly too. Two examples are M.R. Mathias, self-published author and owner of a small press and Stephen Leather, author of “The Basement,” and who seems to feel the need to respond to every negative review. Some of his responses aren’t bad, others are, as when he tells one reviewer “And while you might be the sort of person to be corrupted by a work of fiction, I think most readers are made of sterner stuff!” That’s probably not the best thing to say to someone.

Similar to Leather, some other authors believe they should respond to every negative review, not in an angry, rash manner, but to open a dialogue between reviewer and author. Here’s a link showing author Elle Lothlorien as an example. My thought on authors contacting reviewers, who’ve given their novel a negative review, to help them better understand the author’s intention is this: instead of having to explain your message after the fact, make it clear in your writing. That’s what reviewers are reading. If an author needs to go hold each reviewer’s hand and guide them to the intended message, then their novel wasn’t ready to be published.

Authors put their work out there to be read. Not everyone is going to like their work because there are all sorts of people in the world. When you put your work out there, you’ll get both good and bad reviews. Take both types of reviews in stride. Even better? Don’t make it personal. Though bad reviews may seem like an attack on the author, they usually aren’t. A review is an individual’s opinion. Going off the rail about a negative review, especially doing so in the public’s eye, only reflects badly on the author.

Rant and rave in private. Show a professional face to the public. It’ll save you a headache later on.

How do you feel negative reviews should be handled? Do you know of any authors who’ve behaved badly?

(Photo courtesy of Megan Bostic)

What Makes a Great Scene?

Novels are the combination of a number of scenes. A scene is where an incident occurs. Within a novel there are any number of scenes, but without scenes nothing happens in a piece of writing. Scenes move the story along. They get characters from point A to B to C. They are the showing aspect of novels.

Each scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each has a larger picture and a smaller one. Each has an action, event, and consequence.

Typically a scene is broken up by chapters, breaks within chapters, or two to four summary-like sentences between paragraphs.

Sometimes a scene is carried over between chapters, where the end of a chapter acts as an uptick, some revelation that ups the tension to keep readers interested. Regardless of whether a scene ends or not, the end of a chapter should have an uptick. Then, the first line or two of the next chapter should grab readers’ attention.

Ever read a book you couldn’t put down? One where you neglected to do other things, like working out or going to the grocery store? Maybe you stayed up a few extra hours to finish the book, and then were exhausted the next day at work.

Many times one of the reasons you couldn’t put the book down is because you were compelled to read the next chapter, and the next, and the next. The end of each chapter left you wanting more, needing more.

Let’s break a scene down:

Action (the process of doing something)

Actions have a desired goal/outcome. Characters act in a certain way in the hope of producing a specific result.

Action is not passive. It’s not just movement. It’s the character going after something he wants.

This stage of a scene is dramatic. It unfolds from one moment to the next. There’s conflict and increased tension. Often there is an aspect unknown to the protagonist building in this section, think of someone lurking in the shadows.

Action leads to an event. 

Event (the result)

This is the direct result of the action. This can be success, failure, setbacks, revelations, etc.

Was the goal accomplished? Did something get in the way and divert the protagonist’s attention?

The event changes the protagonist in some way. Without constant change, readers’ lose interest, so keep your protagonist on their toes, with occasional moments that shove them down into the dirt. Doing so will force them to arise anew.

An event leads to a consequence. 

Consequence (the effect of the result)

There can be a single or multiple consequences to an event. These consequences can be big or small, sometimes both. They can be intentional or unintentional. Some consequences will be immediate, while others are delayed.

Like events, consequences change the protagonist. Many times consequences are unforeseen and force the protagonist to adapt or die/get captured/some ominous thing. 

Summary

Every action leads to an event and every event leads to a consequence. A scene wouldn’t be complete without all three stages because all three stages are linked.

Each scene must follow the main plot of your novel on some level. After all, the big picture is the main plot.

What does your protagonist wish to accomplish overall?

Scenes are the stepping stones to your character getting what he wants (or at least striving to get the desired outcome). bridesmaids-on-airplane2

For a good scene, you need two to three great details that stick with readers after the scene is over. Without those details, the scene will fade into the background and become part of a generic catalogue of scenes within readers’ minds.

Think of your favorite books. Can you recall specific scenes within them? How vivid are they? Can you picture them in your head?

If so, those are great scenes. Study them. Figure out the different stages. Figure out why you remember them. Learn from them.

How do you go about writing scenes?

(Photo courtesy of pixgood.)