Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Booky Noise III: I'm having a flashback!

I love the idea of time travel.

One of my favorite old TV shows was Time Tunnel, that cheesy series from the Sixties where James Darren would fling himself into a swirling vortex and be transported back to solve crimes.


One of my very favorite movies was "The Time Machine" with Victorian hero Rod Taylor traveling to the future to save sweet thing Weena from the Worlocks.

And my favorite cartoon? You guessed it. Mr. Peabody and his dim bulb boy assistant Sherman who used the Way Back machine to travel back in time.

Time travel is way cool. I'd give anything to go back to Fin de siecle Paris or maybe ahead to the someday when we can hop JetBlue to Mars.

But time travel in novels? I don't like it, man. I don't like it when a writer plays loose with my linear sensibilities. In short, as much as I loved the Sixties, I am not a big fan of the flashback. Acid or otherwise.

Now, flashbacks in novels aren't always bad. Sometimes, they serve a very true and useful purpose. But they are not easy to work into your story and even the most seasoned writers can stumble when they leave the linear line and move backwards.

Believe me, I know. Kelly and I are just tonight finishing the final rewrite of our new book. And here I was, reading along in chapter 48 and I hit a patch of writing that made me come to a screaming halt. Note: I said chapter 48. At this very late point in the book -- nay, in ANY book -- the story should be roaring along to its inevitable climax, pulling the eager reader in its wake. But what did we do? In a key scene, we had inserted a flashback for our heroine. It was short, only a half page or so, but when I read it cold today, it stopped me like a brick wall. I didn't WANT to go back and hear this stuff. I wanted only to keep going on the trajectory that had been established.

Flashbacks, as I said, are useful. Even necessary. But every writer must bear in mind that no matter how well they are written, no matter how experienced the author, they are a brake. They bring your forward motion to a stop. So think twice before you use your Way Back machines.

Here are some general rules for using flashbacks:

1. No matter how well written, they stop the story, so use sparingly. They have to be related to the PRESENT action of your story.
2. Don't rely on flashbacks to fill in your backstory. There are many other more effective ways of giving your readers needed background info.
3. Never EVER put a flashback in the middle of a scene of great emotion or action.
4. Like, never use flashbacks in your climax. Do you even need to ask why?
5. When you do use a flashback, keep it very short. Then get back to the story as fast as you can.

Now, let's move on to today's Booky Noise Workshop. And I will pose the question: Can flashbacks work in an opening?

Today' s entry for our consideration comes from Gregory. He acknowledges that his flashback opening might be tricky, but he would like your feedback:


The first time I died, I was too young to fully appreciate it.

There was no tunnel of bright light. No chorus of angels. No movie of my life playing as I rose up, freed from corporeal form.

It began with a warning: “You better get down from there. You’re not Superman, you know.”

At seven years old, Chrissy had already perfected the hands-on-hips posture of authority. My other friends didn’t give her a second glance. A dozen sets of eyes followed my rapid ascent up the oak tree.

“Do it,” Donnie said, flashing a wicked grin. “I double-dog dare you.”

“I d-d-don’t think he-he-he’ll make it.” Sanjay’s treacherous tongue glowed fruit-punch red.

Eighteen years later, I still can’t smell Hi-C without getting nauseous. Funny how the mind works.

It took one more boost to reach a clearing between the canopy of leaves.

“My mom said to wait 20 minutes before going in the pool.” Timmy, the birthday boy, pointed to an egg timer.

My altitude provided a direct view into the second-story windows of the McDade house. There was Timmy’s bedroom, with a pile of unwrapped gifts left on his bed. Adult voices mingled with cheers for a televised football game.

I shimmied onto an overhanging branch, which bowed under my weight.

The task at hand was tricky: clear the patio railing, carry the concrete deck, miss the diving board, and dry my sneakers before mom picked me up at three.

A breeze excited the decorative helium balloons, swaying my thin perch.

“I’m gonna tell,” Chrissy said.

“You’d better not, Prissy,” I shot back.

“If you come down, I’ll give you one of my new Transformers,” Timmy said.

Donnie chimed in, “If he jumps, I’ll give him two.”

Before Timmy could raise the stakes, the egg timer buzzed. Like any good performer, I took the cue and pushed off the branch — launching into space.

No problem clearing the patio and pool deck, but my trajectory was off the mark. Instead of splashing into the deep end, I fell towards the steel ladder.

Arms flailing, I tried to air-brake. Missed the ladder, but unexpectedly landed on a floating boogie board.

On impact, the foam board shot out from under my feet and I tumbled backwards. A glimpse of sky, then black.

Weeks later, Timmy visited me in the hospital. He said it sounded like a cherry bomb when my head hit the diving board. Evidently, I sank before you could say: “Marco Polo.”

To me, it was all dark. No thoughts, no feelings. Don’t even remember swallowing water.

It took numerous reports to piece together what happened next. Timmy turned out to be the least reliable source, as he was primarily concerned with how this would affect his Nintendo privileges. He took one look at me, curled in the fetal position at the bottom of his pool, and promptly hid behind his parents’ BBQ.

Chrissy took her hands away from her mouth long enough to scream, “Call Nine-One-One! Call Nine-One-One!”

Nobody else moved. Donnie wet his pants.

The little bastard never did cough up those Transformers.

17 Comments:

Blogger Jude Hardin said...

The first time I died, I was too young to fully appreciate it.(I love this sentence, as if dying is something to be appreciated)

There was no tunnel of bright light. No chorus of angels. No movie of my life playing as I rose up, freed from corporeal form.

It began with a warning: “You better get down from there. You’re not Superman, you know.”

At seven years old, Chrissy had already perfected the hands-on-hips posture of authority. My other friends didn’t give her a second glance. A dozen sets of eyes followed my rapid ascent up the oak tree.

“Do it,” Donnie said, flashing a wicked grin. “I double-dog dare you.”

“I d-d-don’t think he-he-he’ll make it.” Sanjay’s treacherous tongue glowed fruit-punch red.

Note: If he’s concentrating on climbing the tree, how does he know about the dozen sets of eyes, the wicked grin, and especially the color of someone’s tongue? POV problem.

Eighteen years later, I still can’t smell Hi-C without getting nauseous(nauseated). Funny how the mind works.

It took one more boost to reach a clearing between the canopy of leaves.

“My mom said to wait 20 minutes before going in the pool.” Timmy, the birthday boy, pointed to an egg timer. (This is hilarious. The guy’s going to jump out of a tree, and Timmy’s worried about his mom’s rules about timing)

My altitude provided a direct view into the second-story windows of the McDade house. There was Timmy’s bedroom, with a pile of unwrapped gifts left on his bed. Adult voices mingled with cheers for a televised football game. (Are we in a part of the country where it’s still warm enough to swim during football season? Might want to change this to baseball. And, I’m finding it hard to believe that every one of these parents is negligent enough to leave a group of seven year-olds alone at the pool).

I shimmied onto an overhanging branch, which bowed under my weight.(The overhanging branch I shimmied onto bowed under my weight)

The task at hand was tricky: clear the patio railing, carry the concrete deck, miss the diving board, and dry my sneakers before mom picked me up at three.(I’m missing any emotion from this character. He should be scared shitless at this point)

A breeze excited the decorative helium balloons, swaying my thin perch. (“A breeze excited the decorative helium balloons, and caused my thin perch to sway.” Or something. As is, it sounds like the balloons were causing the branch to sway)

“I’m gonna tell,” Chrissy said.

“You’d better not, Prissy,” I shot back.

“If you come down, I’ll give you one of my new Transformers,” Timmy said.

Donnie chimed in, “If he jumps, I’ll give him two.”

Before Timmy could raise the stakes, the egg timer buzzed. Like any good performer, I took the cue and pushed off the branch — launching into space. (What is the character feeling here? Give us some emotions)

No problem clearing the patio and pool deck, but my trajectory was off the mark. Instead of splashing into the deep end, I fell towards(toward) the steel ladder.

Arms flailing, I tried to air-brake. Missed the ladder, but unexpectedly landed on a floating boogie board.(Did boogie boards exist eighteen years ago? This does give the hint that we might be in a tropical climate, though)

On impact, the foam board shot out from under my feet and I tumbled backwards. A glimpse of sky, then black.

Weeks later, Timmy visited me in the hospital. He said it sounded like a cherry bomb when my head hit the diving board. Evidently, I sank before you could say(Don’t need a colon here, just a comma. Better yet, put Marco Polo in italics) “Marco Polo.”

To me, it was all dark. No thoughts, no feelings.(I thought he rose up, free from the corporeal form. Isn’t that a feeling?) Don’t even remember swallowing water.

It took numerous reports to piece together what happened next. Timmy turned out to be the least reliable source, as he was primarily concerned with how this would affect his Nintendo privileges. He took one look at me, curled in the fetal position at the bottom of his pool, and promptly hid behind his parents’ BBQ.(This paragraph needs to come sooner. The shift in time is confusing)

Chrissy took her hands away from her mouth long enough to scream, “Call Nine-One-One! Call Nine-One-One!”

Nobody else moved. Donnie wet his pants.(How did your character come by this knowledge? I doubt Donnie would have admitted it)

The little bastard never did cough up those Transformers.(Love this last line!)

For the most part, this was well-written. I don’t mind that you started with a flashback, Greg. I want to know more about this character, and that’s what any good opening should do. Tighten it up a bit, fix some of the logistics, give us some emotions from your MC, and I think you’ll have a winner.

11:15 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

BTW, Kris, I thought your observations about flashbacks in general were right on. And I loved the old show Time Tunnel too!

Greg: I cheated. I went to your site and read more of your novel. I would recommend that you consider ditching this prologue section and starting with chapter one. The writing is very good, and I don't think you need the prologue. Best of luck!

12:13 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Hah! That's a great story. I love the last line about the transformers. It made me laugh out loud!

I got momentarily lost when I read, "It took one more boost to reach a clearing between the canopy of leaves." I had to go back and try to figure out where I was. (My eyes are also shutting at the moment, so this might be my own sleepiness talking.)

Visually, I'm seeing the other kids as level with the protagonist, but they must be at the foot of the tree? And a clearing is on land, for me, not in the middle of a tree. I wonder if some work on the visual perspective might help?

"Carry the concrete deck" puts a funny visual image in my mind, LOL. I like how you varied the verbs, though.

Also, "eighteen years later" takes us back to the 'now.' Will it be tighter if you stay in the flashback, rather than include that line? Once in; once out--not back and forth.

I loved how Donnie wet his pants. Great showing!

I like this story! I can't comment on how it works as a flashback, because I'm not even clear on the genre, where you're going, or when the 'now' is. Your first line is loaded nicely, and I do want to keep reading to find out where we're going.

This is just me, and a question more than a statement. I try to put myself in a customer's shoes, and think of the first pages as a sales pitch. (I read cover, back, and then first page ... if it passes those three points, then I buy the book.)

In that vein, I expect the first page to match the tone, voice, and theme of the novel. Even better if it makes a story promise, and gives me an idea of what it's going to be like to read this book.

That's a whole lot to ask for in a first page, so feel free to disagree. I'm just not getting much of the above in this, because I expect we'll be going into the 'now,' and that will be a different story. If this is the male equivalent of women's fiction, then the opening could possibly work. If not ...

1:28 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I actually think this works. The reason it works is because he so clearly set it up and once in, it's very compelling. I do have a couple thoughts though. One's minor. This sentence:

He took one look at me, curled in the fetal position at the bottom of his pool, and promptly hid behind his parents’ BBQ.

Your comma is killing you, man. I thought his friend was curled in the fetal position at the bottom of the pool.

There's a novel by William Goldman that is structured exactly this way (and I forget what it is, but if I remember, I'll pop back and mention it). Goldman is a real pro and he does something really interesting that you might want to check. His first sentence has this kind of odd structure to it, then he immediately jumps into a flashback. When the flashback ends, he more or less repeats that first memorable sentence.

I think you're going to have to do something similar. You've got a good solid first line, and I think you're going to need to echo it to keep the story structure coherent, or readers might get confused about what's happening when, and the time to lose your readers is NOT at the very beginning. But this is quite compelling, made me flinch (having both sons and a swimming pool, though no diving board, thank god).

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

7:52 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I'm pretty sure the book I'm thinking of by William Goldman is "The Color of Light."

7:57 AM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi Gregory,
As an opening it certainly draws the reader in and I like the overall tone though I think you can prune it quite a bit without losing impact. It appeals to me and I would certainly read more.

But

There is no hint as to the nature of the book and it's genre (which doesn't matter as long as the opening is relevant).

With that wonderful opening line I am going to expect this character to die at least once or twice more in the book.

I would expect the other named characters to appear and be expanded on later as well otherwise why do we need to know so much about them that we can start to visualise them as individuals.

There has to be some notable event involving some of these characters in the storyline that links back to this or I will be left wondering why it appeared at all.

If it is just background then I don't think you should use it.

I think the observations on flashbacks in general are spot on but also feel the best place for one is at the beginning - if there has to be one at all. The writing is effective and good enough (with minor tweaking) but does the storyline really need it?

Thanks for sharing this, I'm learning a lot here.

Good luck.
Ps.
I really loved the closing line
The little bastard never did cough up those Transformers.

2:14 PM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

Thanks for the feedback thus far and Mark's recommendation of the William Goldman book.

To answer the questions about the genre: my opening is from a mystery where the main character is a young police officer (Zero Katz) who believes he has nine lives like his namesake.

I used Stuart Wood's "Swimming To Catalina" as rough model for flashbacks framing the narrative.

The prologue actually goes on for another 2 pages, with Near-Death #1 (childhood drowning) transitioning into Near-Death #3 (shot in the chest):

"This new death is already different. Sharp, searing pain radiated from my shoulder. As a bonus, I can barely inhale. Given the choice, I would’ve welcomed the inky blackness of Timmy’s pool...

"I allow my mind to wander back. Still no chorus of angels, still no tunnel of bright light...

"I’m back in time ten days ago. Back when I knew everything. Before realizing that virtually everything I thought I knew was wrong."

From there I use traditional past tense to recount the days leading up to Katz getting shot (with another flashback for near-death #2 - childhood heart condition).

I close the time loop around page 300, leaving the last 100 pages as the 'third act' where post-surgery Katz goes about solving the mystery.

The framing technique may be too ambitious (Stuart Woods gets more leeway than an unpublished novelist trying to find an agent). I may wind up restructuring so my first chapter uses the traditional crime narrative, but the main character's near-deaths are a central theme as he regularly puts himself in dangerous positions (like BASE jumping).

If anyone would like to check out the full opening like Jude, my first 100 pages are posted at: www.gregoryhuffstutter.com under the 'Katz Cradle' page.

Thanks again and keep the comments coming!

3:01 PM  
Blogger Allison Brennan said...

I think it works. I love the opening line, and the author's voice is strong.

I love flashbacks. I used them when warranted. I agree with your five points, PJ, to a degree, but I do think there are times when flashbacks work so much better than other techniques to share backstory. I think it depends on the book.

I started both THE HUNT and THE KILL with a short prologue of a past event that changed my heroine's life. I felt strongly that the reader needed to be in their mind at the time of the event in order to fully connect with the character.

THE HUNT is full of flashbacks. But I agree--they need to relate to the story. I think I was successful in that.

But not all books need flashbacks. For example, in my next book I have only one flashback, it's at the beginning of the chapter, and it is a crucial scene because of characterization (and it foreshadows as well).

Anyway, I, personally, love them if they're clear, relevant, and short.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

I didn't mind the flashback either, Gregg. Not a big fan of them, but since it came at the beginning, it didn't really seem like a flashback at all. I loved the opening line and the ending line! I only stumbled over a few bits in the middle, so thought I'd share those.

"It began with a warning: “You better get down from there. You’re not Superman, you know.”
A dozen sets of eyes followed my rapid ascent up the oak tree.
“Do it,” Donnie said, flashing a wicked grin. “I double-dog dare you.”
This sequence of events left me struggling to figure out visually how far up the tree he was. I think just switching the first "superman" sentence to the last position would do the trick.

"Eighteen years later, I still can’t smell Hi-C without getting nauseous. Funny how the mind works."
I love this concept, but again it left me struggling with how far up he actually was. If he could still smell the Hi-C, it couldn't have been far.

“My mom said to wait 20 minutes before going in the pool.” Timmy, the birthday boy, pointed to an egg timer."
Ummmm...didn't get this? Is this kid really telling him to wait 20 minutes to dive from a tree? Seemed kindof random.

"...carry the concrete deck"
Not familiar with this phrase. Did you mean "clear"?

"He took one look at me, curled in the fetal position at the bottom of his pool"
I have to agree with Mark that this sentence is awkward as I pictured the wrong kid curled up. By the way, I've never actually seen anyone passed out or injuried in a pool, but I would assume they would float with arms and legs sprawled, not curled up?

You did a great job making me want to know the other ways this guy dies! Good luck with it.
Shannon

5:45 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I'm in the backyard, standing by the pool watching this! I would definately read more. I think by saying "The first time I died" you make everyone wonder...so when was the second? And want to read on.
Treacherous tongue? Not sure his tongue was treacherous but i loved the "glowed fruit-punch red."
I wonder a bit how this kid is feeling? I'm getting couragous? Like when we were young and invincible? Or is he scared?
Either way its a good start and I'd read on to find out why he was too young to "fully appreciate it". Did he appreciate it later on?

10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does "booky noise" work and can anyone submit? Just curious; I love the phrase.
Jess

11:38 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Jess,

Just submit your opening (ONLY the beginning hook not the entire first chapter! Like maybe 3-5 paragraphs. I let Greg's go on longer so readers could get its true sense.)

Just post it here and I will retrieve it and repost it. All posts have to come to me via email first. FUTURE POSTERS: If you want your opening to be critiqued here, please include your personal email in the post. I need it in case I have to get ahold of you but I WILL NOT POST IT HERE.

11:49 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Thanks to you all for your feedback so far to Greg. It is helpful to him and instructive to us all. I will post mine later.

What Allison said, I agree. I don't dislike ALL flashbacks. We use them all the time in our books. Like Allison, we have used them frequently as first chapters or prologues...in the sense that we show a crime "on camera" that happened in the past and then follow up in the next chapter by moving forward in time, sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes years.

Example: In the book we just turned in, we are using a prologue for the first time. Normally, I'm not a big fan of prologues because nine times out of ten, what a writer labels as "prologue" is correctly chapter 1. (More on this in a future post). In our story, Louis Kincaid's lover Joe Frye has come to his Florida cottage to tell him a secret. Then she tells the story for 50 chapters. We have to set it up, even signpost it with dates, to make it work (like Mark did in his opening in first Booky Noise):

Prologue
Captiva Island Florida
1988

Chapter 1
Echo Bay Michigan
October, 1975

Epilogue
Captiva Island
1988

So this book is one GIANT flashback and it was a deliberate structural choice. The flashbacks that I question are ones that occur embedded in a present-time narrative and are allowed to go on too long. The reader will only stay with them so long before they get impatient.

One more point about flashbacks: I cited the rule "never use one in an action scene." Then I realized we broke that very rule in our new book. Joe and the other cops have cornered the bad guy and things are life-threatening. Here it is:

Mike eased away from her, using the trees as cover as he made his way closer to the stream. Joe was desperate to see something - anything - on the other side of the water.

But her head was tripping with the sounds of the water and Roland’s face standing over as he tied the hoist to her feet.

Stop. Stop thinking about that and move.

She fought to slow her hammering heart, the shotgun upright in her hands.

“Joe?”

It was Holt, his voice directionless in the trees and muffled by the sound of the water.

End of excerpt.
Joe is definitely having a flashback, but it is a quick sliver of memory and then we draw her -- and the reader -- sharply back to the present.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

Thanks to reader comments, I spent the weekend tweaking the opening. Hopefully this version clears up the confusing turns of phrase and POV issues. The help has been *much* appreciated.

----------

The first time I died, I was too young to fully appreciate it.

There was no tunnel of bright light. No chorus of angels. No movie of my life playing as I rose up, freed from corporeal form.

It began with the warning, “You better get down, you’re not Superman.” At seven years old, Chrissy had already perfected the hands-on-hips posture of authority.

From my perch in the backyard oak, I made crazy-eyes with my friends, who circled around the tree’s base a good twenty feet below.

“Do it,” Donnie said, flashing a wicked grin. “I double-dog dare you.”

“I d-d-don’t think he-he-he’ll make it.” Sanjay’s treacherous tongue glowed fruit-punch red.

The task at hand was tricky: clear the concrete deck, miss the diving board, and dry my sneakers before mom picked me up at three.

“My dad said to wait 20 minutes before going in the pool.” Timmy, the birthday boy, pointed to an egg timer.

My altitude provided a direct view into the second-story windows of the McDade house. There was Timmy’s bedroom, with a pile of unwrapped gifts left on his bed. Adult voices mingled with cheers for a televised football game.

“I’m gonna tell,” Chrissy said.

“You’d better not, Prissy,” I shot back.

An end-of-summer breeze swayed the surrounding branches. Being the focus of everyone’s attention heightened my adrenaline rush.

“If you come down, I’ll give you one of my new Transformers,” Timmy said.

Donnie chimed in, “If he jumps, I’ll give him two.”

Before Timmy could raise the stakes, the egg timer buzzed. Like any good performer, I took the cue and launched into space.

No problem clearing the pool deck, but my trajectory was off the mark.

Instead of splashing into the deep end, I fell towards the steel ladder.

Arms flailing, I tried to air-brake. Missed the ladder, but unexpectedly landed on a floating boogie board.

On impact, the foam board shot out from under my feet and I tumbled backwards. A glimpse of sky, then black.

Weeks later, Timmy visited me in the hospital. He said it sounded like a cherry bomb when my head hit the diving board.

To me, it was all dark. No thoughts, no feelings. Don’t even remember swallowing water.

It took numerous reports to piece together what happened next. Timmy turned out to be the least reliable source, as he was primarily concerned with how this would affect his Nintendo privileges. After watching my body sink to the bottom of his pool, he promptly hid behind his parents’ BBQ.

Chrissy took her hands away from her mouth long enough to scream, “Call Nine-One-One! Call Nine-One-One!”

Nobody else moved. Donnie wet his pants. The little bastard never did cough up those Transformers.

12:36 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Hi PJ,

I put an opening forward but didn't include my email address it's
andrewreidpath@eclipse.co.uk

If you decide to post the opening I'm not bothered whether you use my name or my alias, either is fine. If you feel some background to the plot would be useful let me know. Nobody actually dies in that opening scene and "Granny" survives loud and healthy to the end of the book, unless she antagonises me in the revision.:)

Thanks for your time, even if you don't use this one I'm learning a lot from those posted and that's a good thing.
Andrew

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Tattieheid said...

Works for me, especially given the nature of the storyline.

Thanks for sharing it and good luck with the book.

5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the first time on your blog and it has been instructional and inspiring. Well done. I look forward to your further postings.

Right now? Maybe I'll go and burn some rejection slips to get the fire going in the hearth.

4:44 PM  

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