Dispatch #28: Flashbacks, Revision, and Life
Answering your writing questions
A long time ago I had a column at The Millions called Asked the Writing Teacher. Somewhere along the line I abandoned it for reasons I can’t recall.
I’ve decided to resurrect that column here, or at least try it once, starting with these three questions. If you have your own advice to these queries, please leave a comment. Let’s discuss!
And if you have a question, drop me a line.
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The first question comes from my friend Julia, who also happens to have been my student at Oberlin when I taught there for one semester in—what was it?—2007? She asks:
How do you incorporate flashbacks? I’m tempted to do a Wayne’s World style “do do do.”
First, I love that Julia alluded to this Wayne’s World sound effect because I always use it in my classes when talking about flashbacks!
(I’ll pause here for you to try it. It’s fun.)
Okay, down to business.
To start, I must ask: Is this a flashback or is it a section of exposition?
A flashback is a jump to the past that is a clear and delineated scene. I define scene as a completion of an action in a specific time and place.
A section of exposition, by contrast, may have many mini-scenes, or scene-lets, or scenic writing, but generally it covers a lot more time and isn’t a single, discrete scene.
A traditional single-scene flashback, in my mind, works better when it’s set apart from the present narrative. It can be its own chapter, or happen after a space break. Sometimes you might need to massage the transition to the past with a line like: “Ice chips always made Cleo think of the hospital after the accident. It had been a sunny day in July when she found herself…” (Forgive the hackery, this isn’t my fiction but a free newsletter). After this phrase, you can move fully into the flashback. The flashback wouldn’t be braided into a present scene but set apart; that way, you’re not interrupting one timeframe to get to the other and vice versa.
You will see, however, that I used “ice chips” as a way to connect the present to the past. Not all flashbacks require this bridge, but it can be useful. My former Ashland University MFA student Maggie Thomas wrote a wonderful critical essay about flashback technique that I think she needs to publish. Something she observed in her close reading was how authors often use an object or moment to trigger a character into the flashback. In fictional Cleo’s case, it’s ice chips, but it could be anything that is emotionally evocative for the character: a puddle of dirty water, perhaps, or a can of soda, or a nice ass, or some turn of phrase. Something vivid, specific, and concrete.
This technique works because it underlines the cause and effect feeling, that emphasis on consequence, that makes narrative so pleasing. But, if you lean on it too heavily, it’ll feel overly-engineered, too Wayne’s World-y, too cheesy.
So, if that technique isn’t working, or if you’re using it too often and want to mix it up, you can, instead, dive into the past without reason or trigger, and let the reader intuit why it’s being brought up. That method would begin with something like: “Five years ago, Cleo woke up in a hospital bed. It was July, the sun like a fireball, and she couldn’t feel her feet.” Not an ice chip in sight. Just go.
It’s important to consider why the flashback needs to go here versus earlier or later in the narrative. Why does the reader need to know about this—and why right now? How does it inform the present, and how does it change our understanding of the present? And is this the best spot to pause the present plot? (You may just want to write the flashback and then choose placement later…)
Flashbacks that come too early are annoying, because we’re just getting settled in the present plot and it’s too early to care about some big past event. And flashbacks that come too late are superfluous because by then we’ve already filled the character dossier and simply lust for forward momentum with the present problem. (Of course, there are always exceptions. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, for instance, ends the book with a flashback and it is devastating.)
A short flashback can be tucked within a present section, but that typically works when the present section is expository, rather than an active scene. I say that because students will sometimes plop a flashback into an exciting scene and I’m like: DO NOT INTERRUPT THIS JUICY ACTION WITH SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO. Keep that in mind when you’re leaving the present moment. Consider where your reader’s interest will be.
If the flashback is not a discreet scene, and instead is more of the aforementioned expository section made up of many mini-scenes and general background information, you can more easily tuck it into a scene. Again, it only works if the present scene is less exciting. If the present scene is super compelling, the reader will be frustrated by the shift in focus. But if the main character is doing something fairly mundane, this present action provides a terrific anchor for 1) exposition and 2) consciousness. In fact, I’d argue that this is what the genre of literary fiction excels at. In literary fiction revelation is plot, and that happens internally.
Writers like Jonathan Franzen are so good at this. He will have a character crossing the street and use that mundane action as the scenic vessel to hold a shit ton of fascinating character background and feelings. Nothing happens and everything happens! How does he do it?!
I will remind you that even with a mundane action scene, you can’t shift away from it for exposition and never return to the present. Don’t lose your scene! Make sure to come back to it at the end of the exposition to remind the reader where and when we are.
In the book Now Write! there’s a good exercise by Cai Emmons called Braiding Time. In it, you place your character in a scene, doing some ongoing action like cleaning up, brushing their teeth, etc. In the first paragraph, establish the present, then have the character mentally swing into the future, to something they’re hoping for, or dreading, or expecting to happen. Next paragraph, bring it back to the present, and then move to something from the past they’re thinking about. For the third paragraph, move to the present again, and have the character think of the future and then the past, and back to the present, all in one paragraph. It’s a terrific exercise for interiority and creating character via nimble, scene-shuffling consciousness. Try it!
Last, I am going to ask you this: What if the flashback is the most important aspect of the story? What if the flashback is the story, more than the present narrative? In Time’s Mouth (coming out August 1, 2023, thanks!) the first dozen drafts started with a young couple who had escaped from a cult/commune. When their baby starts acting weird, the mother of the couple is terrified. Within that opening chapter, I braided in a lot about their upbringing. It wasn’t working. My editor was like, “This book starts too late. I don’t care about this couple because I can’t get a strong scenic handle on where they came from.”
Damn! He was right!
Now the book starts before the couple was even born. The present story begins with the establishment of this cult and moves forward from there. When the reader gets to the young terrified mother they understand why she feels that way and it’s more dramatic and moving.
The next question comes from Tess Malone, who recently finished a first draft of a novel and wrote about it for her fun newsletter Procrastibaking.
Do you have any tips about how to even begin the revision process on like a rudimentary level? Do you print things? Organize scenes on notecards? Just dive in? Any insight would be appreciated!
Congratulations, Tess, on finishing a first draft! That is an enormous accomplishment. Anyone who writes a draft of a novel should bask in the achievement. Celebrate! Buy yourself a cute pair of shoes. Go out for, or cook, a big feast. Jump into a body of water yelling I DID IT! It takes so much stamina and creativity to make a book where before there was nothing. So revel in it!
There are countless ways to revise and what works for one person won’t work for another. Here are some ideas, in list form because I don’t know how else to organize this info (again, apologies for the hackery!). Take or leave as you see fit:
-Give yourself a least a month off, then print out your manuscript and read it. I like to get my manuscript printed and bound and read it like it’s someone else’s book. This helps me feel like it’s a real novel versus some fake book doc on my computer. It also alienates me from the work just enough to provide a new perspective. (Hot tip: for even more distance, change the font.) As you read, mark up the page, or if it’s so drafty that such marks would cover every sentence, read with a notebook by your side. As you go along, take notes on what you want to change. These notes might say something like, “Start chapter 2 later” or “Do I really need the two coworkers or can they be collapsed into one character?” or “Search and replace the word goofy.” You might stop every chapter or few chapters to review your notes, and see if there are any commonalities or ideas for revision.
-As I read, I also like to put hearts and checkmarks next to stuff I like, just as I do for my friends and students. It’s a good reminder that your book is worthy of revision, that there is some great material there.
-When you’re done reading, type up your notes. You can even pretend you’re writing a critique letter to a friend or classmate. Start with the stuff that’s working and then outline the main stuff that’s bothering you and how you propose to fix it. In effect, you’re laying out a plan of revision, telling yourself what you want to focus on.
-While you’re doing this, hopefully you have a couple friends (or a teacher/editor) reading it, too. I advise against having too many readers as a flood of feedback can be confusing. Once you get their feedback, compare it to yours, and integrate it into a single plan. You can’t please everyone but you can consider earnestly every critique.
-Revision is daunting when you think of a book as having some integral issue that’s a reflection of your own lack of talent. Honestly, it’s why I cry when my writing is going badly. Because it means I suck! When I take a deep breath and look at the manuscript from a craft perspective, I can calm down. There is a solution to nearly everything. The goal is to diagnose the manuscript before you start working. You’ll have breakthroughs as you revise, of course, but beforehand it’s helpful to articulate the draft issues and come up with specific craft-based solutions. If it’s boring here—would collapsing the timeline help? I don’t understand the character here—would a scene with her dad help clarify? I feel rushed here—can some summary help slow this scene down? Solve the issues via specific technical fixes.
-Revise with specific goals in mind. An early draft might be rewriting the super drafty scenes or cutting the character who disappeared a hundred pages in and wasn’t missed. But after that, when it feels cleaner, you might focus on something specific for each revision round. Don’t tackle anything else but that one thing: a particular plot problem, perhaps, or how the exposition is woven in. With Time’s Mouth, the book had clear sections, so I didn’t worry about the entire draft until I had revised each part individually. Diagnosing and solving the problems of an 80-page section is far easier than diagnosing and solving a 400-page problem. And even then, I would go in and work on one element of the section before tackling the next element.
-I like to retype a manuscript from scratch, unless there are sections that basically work as-is, and in those cases I cut and paste. I retype because it allows for the draft to be its own separate world, its own separate book. It keeps me open to change. It keeps me from retyping shoddy sentences. It can also trick me into that inspiration-soaked first draft brain.
-After you’ve written a couple of drafts, it’s helpful to articulate the deeper subjects of your work. Beyond what happens, what is the book about? Understanding what meanings you’ve made will clarify what choices and changes need to be made. It can also help guide you when you get feedback. When you understand the soul of your book, you can better ignore advice that isn’t central to that. I don’t do this too early, though, because deciding right away what your thematic intentions are can make the work didactic, and constrain it. At first, just explore.
-As Jane Smiley says, it’s not our job to judge our work, but to understand it.
-Matthew Salesses has a terrific selection of revision exercises in his book Craft in the Real World. I also like Peter Ho Davies’s The Art of Revision: The Last Word for a thoughtful treatise on what it means to revise and rewrite.
-Revision truly is an exciting, revelatory process if you think of it as being curious about your writing, about the characters and their world. What will you discover?
The last question comes from newsletter reader Sarah. She asks:
How do you keep your head and writing in sync and working when your house and kids are falling apart?
Lol. Oh boy. GOOD QUESTION. I mean, I’m not writing (fiction) currently. I have a novel coming out in August and it’s just too hard to balance that pre-publication world-facing self with the internal, ponderous, protective art-making self. And also, my kids are always sick and I don’t have enough childcare heading into summer. Since I know it’s going to be rocky going forward, I’m taking a break.
If life is truly falling apart, sheesh! Forget writing for a while! Sometimes it has to take a backseat—and that’s okay. It might just be the best thing we can do for ourselves and for the work: admit we don’t have the mental space/time/fortitude to write. It’s also important to remember that the breaks are limited; they do not continue into perpetuity.
But, let’s say you can write, but aren’t because of the usual day-to-day madness, which, let’s face it, will continue into perpetuity.
Not-writing is the easiest thing in the world, isn’t it? There is no simple solution but there may be some ways to get you working…
First, I suggest taking a class or finding a writing coach/teacher to give you deadlines and accountability. If you can’t afford that, or that seems like it would take away more time than you have, I suggest getting a writing buddy, or even just a buddy-buddy that you can send weekly updates to. Once a week, tell them your writing goals, and by the end of the week, send them either pages or a sentence or two describing what you accomplished. You want someone who will encourage you…but who will also make you feel really bad for slacking!
If you’re nervous and only have a little time: start small. I heard that Melissa Broder writes (or wrote The Pisces) three sentences at a time. Even that much, a small goal, can be accomplished, and sentences add up! Maybe in one session, three sentences become four, become five, and so on. Or maybe you only get the three. But three—it’s better than zero sentences.
The truth is, you have to prioritize writing in order to do it. Maybe that means waking up early to write. Or skipping television in the evening. Or not going out with friends. Demanding three hours every Saturday morning alone to do your pages, or two hours every Sunday night to go work at a coffee shop or bar.
(Sometimes leaving the nutty domestic space, going to the coffee shop or the library, is necessary to focus. I do it pretty regularly.)
You can also try a sprint. Work once or twice a week for a certain amount of weeks, writing just a little to get you going. Then, earmark a set of days will you write more than usual. You might consider signing up for Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer": for 12 days starting June 17, everyone who wants to writes 1000 words a day, and you can follow along with daily emails and cheerleading from Jami and other writers. 12 days makes 12,000 words, which is nothing to sneeze at!
See if you can take time to leave your hectic life. Go on a self-designed writing retreat. Get a cheap hotel room, find an AirBnB, or apply for a cabin at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, or see if you can stay in a friend’s empty apartment across town while they’re visiting their grandma. Get away! Again, this would be a sprint—you know you have limited time so you write your ass off before returning to regular life and all of its demands. (I know going away can be hard, but I do it once or twice a year and I have three young kids, so I feel it is possible for many of us!)
Other stuff I do:
-Make a schedule of when I will write and what exactly I will work on. For some reason writing down my plans makes it real. (For instance, I am writing this newsletter because my schedule reads SUBSTACK in all caps. I have to do it!)
-Make writing goals v. time goals: instead of “I’m going to write for an hour” I tell myself “I am going to get my character from the kitchen to the psychic’s.” This means I have a direction, a goal, and I am more productive.
-Turn off the internet! I either get rid of my phone (or remove social media and email apps for a bit). I have also, in the past, used the Freedom app to keep me offline.
-I have music mixes that I only listen to while writing. These songs put me in an emotive mood, and they train my brain to get into the writing spirit. They truly have a Pavlovian effect.
-Try reading some poetry or a favorite book before you start. Think of it as a ritual that helps you step away from the chaos and into the writing world.
-Sounds silly, and I’ve said it before, but: freshly painted nails and/or big glamorous writing rings make writing feel glamorous. Coffee is also an excellent motivator for me. As is a piece of dark chocolate. Whatever you can use trick yourself into working: use it!
Again, none of this matters if 1) your life is truly falling apart at the seams or 2) you really are not putting your writing first. You need to choose it. You need to tell everyone it matters to you, and tell yourself, then make the space and time for it.
You can do it. Go, go, go!
What do you advise, my dear wise ones?
Thanks so much for reading.