Self (Publishing) Help: The Artless of the Flashback, and How to Tell if It’s Okay.

from flickr user jumpinjimmyjava

Flashback scenes are tempting.  They can solve a ton of problems.  You’re writing along and you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, and your character has no reason to feel the way she does about the way her boyfriend/boss/sister is confronting her.  So instead of slowing down and reacquainting with the character, a writer will decide that this would be a terrific opportunity for a flashback.

The flashback will inevitably be something high drama  like being in the back of a car with a drunk college boy and getting raped or watching a mother get run over by a car something.  There, thinks the writer, brushing her hands together, I’ve done it.  I’ve explained everything.

This speaks to a thing I notice in a lot of the writing I read for money, and a thing that really has no place in published fiction: writers think their readers are stupid.

It’s best to think of your reader as the smartest, sneakiest fox there is:  Someone who will get it no matter what you’re doing;  the jerk who always knows what’s going to happen in the first scene of the movie.

You need to write on your A-game.

Writing on your A-game means writing a lot of stuff that doesn’t get into the book.  It means recognizing that it takes a villiage, and the village ain’t cheap.

It also means that there’s a lot of other stuff to consider in terms of your self-promotion gene, your chutzpah, and your commitment to all the stuff that comes along with the writing life, both before and after you have a draft.  (Comments here are as helpful as the post).

I find flashbacks to be particularly vexing when the author has carefully peppered the exposition and rising action with all the pertinent details that they then proceed to bludgeon me with in the flashback.

Okay, but what if a flashback is the only way?

I doubt that is the case, but if it is, there are some tips at the end of this post.

Here are some things to do if you find yourself in a situation where you want to flash back.

1.  Do a free write with the character in whose point of view the flashback would occur.  Write in first person, and answer the question that spurs the flashback in your prose.  If you are stuck and can’t figure out why, start answering the mundane questions like what your character does for work, how she feels about her parents, whether she’s ever had an eating disorder.  Flash back with your character, outside of the context of the story.  Your character may show you the way, if you let her.

2.  Really look at your plot.  Plots generally have an arc structure:  roughly rising action, climax, then denoument.  Maybe you’ve got a dip in the rising action and you need to up the ante.  Maybe what you thought was the climax is really the inciting incident.  You have to open your mind about your story.  You have to be ready to let your characters foil your plans, however well-laid they are.  You have to be ready for your characters to do something you find to be deplorable or abhorrent, and still love them.

3.  Talk it out.  Call your favorite writing buddy or critique partner, and give them a synopsis.  They probably will not need to say anything.  Hearing yourself tell it out loud will likely do the trick.  If not, maybe your buddy can help by asking you pointed questions about what else you need to show your reader to earn the thing that makes you think you need a flash back.

4.  Do the flashback.  Let it in the draft, then keep writing.  When you’re revising, figure out how to chunk that flashback up and give whispers of it throughout the exposition and rising action, letting out one crucial detail at a time.  Giving it all up too early will be like feeding your reader sleeping pills.  You have to give your characters dimension along the way.

How to Tell if You Can Keep Your Flashback

1.  Your flashback gives information (i.e. specific details about an event in a character’s past) that is crucial to the story, and that it’s nor appropriate to give in any other way (when you character was a child they had a particular experience that they’ve repressed or something).

2.  Your flashback propels the plot.

3.  The flashback gives a bit of the story that isn’t or can’t be mentioned in any other context of the story.

4.  The flashback contains its own narrative arc (exposition, rising action, inciting incident, climax, denoument) that is 100% necessary to the rest of the story.

For each of these, I would caution that you or people who love you or are related to you should probably not try to make the assessment.  Ask for help from an editor or professor or casual, writing acquaintence.  Get yourself some beta readers (they are generally inexpensive, can provide stunning insight, and are typically pleased with an extremely small stipend or a copy of the book once it’s published, if it is).

Have any great stories about overcoming the urge to flash back, or can you remember reading a story that made you feel like the reader thought you were stupid by telling you what she already showed you by throwing it all into a flashback, too?  Or in some other way?

If you wanna hang out and talk more about this kind of stuff, and do some writing, too, you should look into my workshops.

Self (Publishing) Help: Do You Need Beta Readers?

This is what it feels like to let someone else read work in progress. image courtesy http://www.publicdomainreview.org/images

 

A beta reader, as far as I can glean from the world wide web is a term that originated among fan fiction writers, on forums.

Fan fiction writers are people who write in the style of an author they admire, or continue story lines where the author left gaping chasms, or had the nerve to die.  These are typically fans of classics in a particular style (the victorians, for instance: George Eliot, The Brontës, et al) or contemporary commercial fiction (J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, so on).

My friend Robin Kaye, who is now a romance novelist (and not a shabby one, either), started out writing Jane Austen fan fiction.  Fan fiction writers are definitely a subculture, and one of which I am generally ignorant, so apologies in advance if I make any misrepresentations here.

My sense of things is that a beta reader is a developmental editor who works for free.  Another term for roughly the same thing: critique partner.

So the short answer is, yes.  You should get yourself a beta reader.  At least one.  More than one would be good.  And, as I mentioned before, you should not be related to or having sex with your beta readers.

Think of it this way: Getting the truth about your fiction (or any writing) from someone who loves you, or even strongly likes you, is as likely as an honest answer to, “Does this make me look fat?”

 Where would I get a beta reader?

If you’re already a part of a writing forum online, that’d be a great place to look.  Or a club or social organization that focuses on writing (like a poetry society or writers’ guild, these often exist by region or state), or a professional organization (like AWP or National Writers Union), or your Facebook page.

I will suggest Craigslist, but advise you to proceed with caution, and probably only if you live in a very large urban area.  Craigslist is mostly useless if you live in a small town unless you’re giving something away (like baby clothes or appliances).

On LinkedIn there are discussion forums for writers and editors.

The thing that has always bugged me about online forums is that the core group of people on a forum is often lonely and mean-spirited, and using the forum as a way to take out hatefulness on other people who they’ll probably never have to face.

OR, there’s such a long and massive history of in jokes and forum jargon and stories that it’s almost impossible to feel welcome. These lodge a stone of discomfort tight in my belly.  I have never found the forum model to be elevating.  But it works for some people.  And it’s out there.  So go do it.  Tell them I said hello.

There may also be writing courses or workshops in your community.  Check out your public or university library or any organizations and nonprofits devoted to writing, like Attic Institute in Portland, or  Mid Atlantic Arts on our fair East coast.

Please, please don’t be a dip and send these people email asking for a list of writers.  Go on their websites and look for opportunities to network with other writers, like taking a workshop or doing a residency.

There is a different way.

You could start a writers’ group.

Writers’ groups are awesome.  Not least because you can actually go to a coffee shop and look writerly with other people instead of by yourself (which is idiotic and pretentious).

The Pros

  • You actually get to look at other people. Watch other writers interact socially.  It can be revealing.  Writers are a cagey bunch.  We’re all full of self-deprecating jokes or wry comments.  And when we’re engaging on the topic of our work, unless we have piles and piles of practice at a workshop poker face, we’re defensive and possibly prickly.
  • It’s a give-and-take relationship.  It’s not some stranger giving you hours upon hours of their time for absolutely nothing.  You are as obliged as the other members of your group to provide thoughtful feedback.
  • And let’s be honest: it’s more likely that you’ll get quality critique if you’re working with a group of people who are serious enough about writing to be in a group.  On purpose, with meeting times and all the accompanying social anxieties.
  • A random beta reader that you scared up online is as likely to be a fan fiction troll as a person with something valuable to say about anything, least of all your pride, joy, and toil: your draft.

All you need is one other writer to begin, and as you meet and work together, you’ll accomplish some of the following: you’ll increase your network, you’ll open a gateway of potential for partnerships, you’ll get accountability, you’ll learn stuff about yourself and your writing, your writing and critique abilities will increase, your outlook will improve, you’ll have camaraderie, an outlet for writerly venting, or you’ll eat less cake.

Cake is like band-aids for boo-boos of the soul.

The Cons

I am of two minds on the value of beta readers and critique partners and writers’ groups.  My stronger mind on the topic feels like the value of the writers’ group–the social critique–far outweigh the potential downsides in terms of community building and potential growth.  But my devil’s advocate mind would like to make the following points:

  • It’s still better to pay a professional when it comes time to prepare the manuscript for submission to agents and publishers.  Professionals have a vested interest in your work, not in your friendship.
  • As with every social endeavor, on and off line, writing groups can turn ugly and cost you potentially copacetic relationships.
  • Groups require time and organization, and unless you’re lucky enough to know a bunch of obsessed, competent, organized humans, the brunt of the organization will fall on one person, every group needs that person, and she can be hard to find.
  • There’s always the possibility that the group will fizz out, after–of course–you’ve devoted considerable time and energy to getting started and offering critique.
  • The critique partner/writing group relationship is difficult to get right.  So resist the urge to become BFFs.  It will be strong, since when you show somebody the unedited draft, you’re inviting at least some bad news, and that is hard on the ego–and much easier to take from somebody you’d have a beer or a movie with.

For Writers and Wannabes and Bloggers, and a Serious Question.

This is a drawing by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allen Poe's story, "The Premature Burial." It is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

Yesterday I wrote that you have to read in order to be a great writer.

It’s true of blogging, too.  I decided about 2 months back that it was time to try to take this blog to the next level.

As I began to read about others’ ideas about blogging, things have more-or-less fallen into place.

Here are a few highlights of the things that have set the ball in motion for this blog, and for my future as a person who makes a living doing social media:

1. I finally focused.  Not hyperfocus or microfocus, but I figured out what I write about most often, watched my hits by varying post types, and paid attention to tweets & retweets & comments.

2.  I’ve got a schedule–sort of.  A loose one anyhow.  I (almost) always write for my blog first thing in the morning, and I post at least 5 days a week.  I don’t find this to be terribly difficult, but some folks would and do.  You do what works for you, okay?

3. I am a read like a crazy person–at least one blog post or resource a day.  It’s paying off.

Next?

1. Reorganize and purge my categories and labels.

2. Get some material in he hopper for weeks I have big projects.

3.  Post two reports for sale (hopefully by end of April): one on How to Start a writers’ group (post on the topic on Friday), and one on verb tenses.  Both inexpensive and well worth it.

4.  Figure out some kind of email subscription service (a la feedburner) and do a newsletter.

5.  Post a survey.  That’s next.   If you read here regularly, or if you’re in new blog love, please take eight seconds to click your answer or write one.  I don’t feel like I have to ask people to vote if they hate it, because haters like to hate.

Blogging Resources

279 Days to Overnight Success is an amazing resource.  And it’s free.  Read it.  That’s all.  Any type of blogger with any goals would benefit from the 12,000 words (which is not a huge time committment, either).

Stanford at Pushing Social writes a lot about how to use blogging to build your own business or brand.  I find some of his tips to be too sales-y for me, but he is not over-the-top.

Penelope’s advice about blogging which was the first place I went.  That was not–though I do love Penelope–100% all the best advice for me.  You really have to find what works for you, what’ll make you feel like doing your blog.  Now, I’d say about in the middle of my journey, I’m reaching a spot where I synthesize the voices I hear.  Pluck some advice from one, and other advice from another.

My Name Is Not Bob is Robert Lee Brewer’s blog.  RLB is an editor at Writer’s Digest which is a terrific publication.  He writes about other stuff, too, but his thoughts about social media for writers tend to be more about sharing than about bossing you around.  I dig that.

Copyblogger is more about the business of copywriting and web marketing. But they’ve got loads of free info on SEO and Keyword stuff that I’ve been meaning to get back to.

Brian A Klems is one of the bloggers and editors for Writer’s Digest.  Most of the time I dislike his posts, but this one is truly excellent, and a pretty solid distillation of all the best blogging advice.

Of course, Jane Friedman’s collection of voices and solid advice is an invaluable resource for any blogger, writer, social media afficionado, or 21st century human.

Resources for Writers, Novelists, Self-published, and Wannabes

A note here:  You can tell when these various folks have done their due diligence about blogging and are doing it well.  Reading at these sites–though they are not as universally well-blogged or well-designed as above, sometimes they didn’t have to because their readers came before their blogs–can be educational on the point of what looks most professional or badass.

Justine Musk writes about creativity and authorship and being a badass.  I really dig her.

My friend Jamie writes about being an editor.  She gives great tips about excellent stuff to read, writing pitfalls and grammar issues to avoid, and has a generally enjoyable voice & aesthetic.

These two gals are @duolit on twitter, and their website is all about self publishing.

Julianna Baggott’s blog is probably weighted heavily toward being more entertainment than advice, but she does have an advice to writers section that she updates whenever she posts on the topic.  Always, the posts are beautifully written.

The Rumpus is great.  I haven’t spent enough time there, but there’s a lot of entertaining, smart writing.  Entertaining, smart writing is good stuff to know about if you wanna be a writer.

Kristen Lamb’s blog is all about writing and authorship.  Her voice is also spunky and fun.  My favorite thing she’s doing right now is her series of posts called “Don’t Eat the Butt!”  It’s about bad–but prevalent–advice to writers and how to avoid being bogged down.

Cathy Day is a force of nature, and her blog is pretty great.  It’s more academic than anything I’ve listed above, but reading her blog is an experience that’s a little like taking her class or being engaged professionally by Cathy.  Cathy is one of the academic authors who “gets it” about social media.

I just love this one.  I found her yesterday, via 297 Days to Overnight Success, and she doesn’t offer writing or blogging advice specifically, but boy oh is her site a fun place to be.

Coming Attraction

Tomorrow is the Weeks to Geek post.  It’s going to be a little bit headier than you’re used to, but the whole component of the event that’s for librarians has gone–so far–unmentioned in the press & on this blog.  And well, I’ve always been a softy for the underdog.

Thanks, people, for making it real.

How To Be a Great Writer

public domain image from http://www.public-domain-image.com

First, a writer should live some life.

And I don’t mean the pansy, TV-watching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort.  The sort that almost all high school and college kids–and even some grown-ass people with children of their own–are guilty of living.

I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat.  Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________.  Then do that.  For at least a year.  Five years is better.

If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself.

A writer should try to live.  A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help.

I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler.

Ruth Fowler has lived.  I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience!

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant and/or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set.  These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers.  I do not think that is true.  The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way.

A specific educational failing

I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers.

I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college.  I get it.  It’s Hemingway.  He’s doing something clever (or at least was then).  But he also wrote the story as a 30+year old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of 17, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general.

Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households.

What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they encounter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up.  How is either pole desirable?

For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue.  For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life.  All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life.  Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories.

It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement.  According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence.

Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it.  Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil.  Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout.

I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way.

I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.

Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer.  It is NOT true that you “can do whatever you want.”

Also, you must read.  You must, you must, you must.

Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could–which is something all the writers I know have in common–being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp.

If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read.

If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now.  And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write.

Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen.

Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome.

The Silver Lining

I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours.  I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words.  I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen.  I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it.

At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible.  I am living my life–at least half time–as a writer.  More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that.

You, my blog readers, are making this possible.

And my fellow writers are telling me how.  And how not to.  For free.

So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past.  Because the two sources linked above  agree that the biggest ingredient of success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, is effort, energy, and dedication.

Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.

Tomorrow, a survey, a collection of resources, and a Weeks to Geek teaser.