In my continuing quest to rid my manuscript of unnecessary flashbacks, I’ve come across a useful distinction. Most writers who’ve gone the workshop route—never mind an MFA program—have probably heard this already. I’ve probably heard it, too, somewhere along the line. But for whatever reason, I’ve gained a new appreciation.
“Backstory” versus “full blown flashback scene”
There’s nothing new here. We all write this way instinctively, dispensing background material that’s necessary to informing the present story in deft segues between scenes. I think what I’ve realized more fully is that most of the past can—and should—be handled this way, and it should be short and sweet.
Now, I’m not blowing up every flashback in the book, but I am killing any that aren’t absolutely essential to understanding/appreciating in greater depth the storyline and the characters involved. I’ve had to delete a few very nice flashback scenes, touching scenes with good writing. While I liked—in some cases REALLY liked them—they were taking the story off on tangents (albeit pleasant ones) that ultimately just slowed it down.
Slowing down a story is risky business. Readers want to know what’s going to happen, what comes next? Detours, I’ve learned the hard way, are dangerous.
Just a little something to think about on a Monday morning.
Eve Fisher began writing in elementary school, and her mystery stories have appeared regularly in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for the last 15 years. She has published a novel through Guideposts’ Christian Fiction Series, Mystery and the Minister’s Wife: The Best Is Yet to Be. Eve is a retired assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University, and still gives the occasional lecture. The two professions, she says, work together quite nicely.
“So many of us historians are also mystery fans/writers, etc.,” she says, “because history is all about solving mysteries, very cold case mysteries, with limited evidence, almost no eye-witnesses, and a whole lot of deduction.”
Eve currently lives in a small town in South Dakota with her husband. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the writing life.
1. Best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Probably what I read of Anne LaMott—Allow yourself to write shitty first drafts, i.e., just keep writing. You can always edit later.
2. Favorite three authors?
Oh, there’s no such thing. I read OBSESSIVELY:
Modern authors: Maeve Binchy, Tim Winton (Australian guy, really good), and Susan Howatch; also Patrick O’Brien
Mysteries: Agatha Christie (no brainer there), Tony Hillerman, Margaret Frazer, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, M. C. Beaton
Comedy: James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley (all American, all 1920s); also E. F. Benson, Nancy Mitford, and Angela Thirkell (all Brits)
Non-fiction History: Barbara Tuchman, Jonathan Spence, Shelby Foote, Liza Picard
Non-fiction Other: Michio Kaku, Thoreau, Peter Matthieson
Asian Literature: Lady Murasaki Shikibu (I have three translations of her “Tale of Genji”), and her sisters
Victorian Literature: Charlotte Yonge, Charles Dickens, Mrs. Henry Wood; also Coventry Patmore, John Keble, the Brownings
3. Briefly describe your journey to publication. How were you first published and how has that led to where you are now?
I got published the first time with pay when I wrote, and sent in cold, a story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine called “Grown-ups are All Alike.” Amazingly, they picked it up out of the slush pile and published it. Since then, I send them my stories first, and they’ve published 19 so far. If they pass on it (and they do, more often than I care to admit) I send it to other publications. Thanks to AHMM, I also got a “gun for hire” job writing a novel in the “Mystery and the Minister’s Wife” for Guideposts. Thanks to AHMM, other editors look longer at my work. My website is: http://evefishermysteries.wikispaces.com/
4. Advice for those now on the road to publication?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Repeat. Remember, you have to have something written in order to get published. (Some people ask me who they can send an idea to – !!!!) Polish a lot, but don’t go crazy about it. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Repeat.
Also, never send your story/poem/play in to any contest or publication that asks you for money. It’s a scam. They already know who they’re going to publish, and what you’re doing is paying their salary for them. Save your money and buy more books, paper, better software. Go ahead and send your story/poem/play to the magazine/theater you want to see it in. They just might buy it. That’s what I did.
5. Do you write every day?
Yes. Come hell or high water. And I try to always carry a notepad around (especially on vacation) so I can jot down notes.
6. What are you writing now?
Working on (as usual) three stories at the same time. All mysteries, one set on a cruise, one in 1940s Vienna, and one in my fictional small SD town of Laskin. When I get stuck on one, I move on to another. And I participate in a mystery writer’s blog, Sleuthsayers — http://www.sleuthsayers.org/ — every two weeks. It’s a crazy life, but it keeps me off the streets.
As promised, here are some of the best takeaways from the “character motivation” workshop I attended at the Writers in Progress studio last weekend. It was an invaluable experience. Prompted to push beneath the surface when it comes to character goals, I had a break through moment of clarity concerning my major character. At long last, I figured out what this guy is really after. The dots were already there, sprinkled throughout the manuscript. I just needed to connect them and pull the resulting strand to the surface.
I’ve already begun my rewrite. And the difference that truly, deeply understanding this character and what he wants is transforming this story, bringing it to a whole new level, more deeply felt, clearer and with a much more satisfying ending.
I’m counting my blessings right now.
Of course every story is unique and so are our break through moments. So in general here are some broad tips from the workshop that I think will work for anyone writing for fiction:
We want to give a shout out here to Elizabeth, the winner of our coveted candy cane pen prize for sharing some of the worst lines we’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
We’re also gearing up for our 6-month anniversary at Write Despite on July 1. Thanks to all of you who are following us. Please spread the word. Over the next six months, we’d like to feature more guest posts and short Q&A conversations with writers. Let us know if you’d like to take part.