‘Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.
Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …
Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.
MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each
- Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
- Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
- The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.
This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.
Manet, The Railway: 1873
Flashbacks are different.
First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.
Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.
Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:
- It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
- The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)
- Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
- Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.
Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:
- Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
- Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?
Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!