Archive for October, 2009

Flashbacks are scenes from the past that are inserted into a story to help readers understand what’s happening in the present, develop characters, or increase tension or conflict.  Flashbacks are also helpful in memoirs and creative nonfiction as they can summarize important past events without having to tell the full history of what happened.

Length and Placement

Flashbacks can range in length from a few sentences to a few pages, depending upon the needs of the story. Since they contain backstory, you might want to treat the scene as a prologue, or begin the first chapter with it to avoid interrupting the action occurring in the present time.

Inserting flashbacks after the story begins takes events out of a logical, chronological order and can be confusing for readers. It also may break the flow of the story’s action or mood, so be careful not to place a flashback in the middle of an intensely emotional or active scene.


Tense Changes

Developing a clear transition from the present to the past and back can be difficult. If the story is mainly in past tense (he said, they went, etc.) use past perfect (he had said, they had gone) to show the transition into the past. Since the past perfect tense can become repetitious, you may want to convert to simple past tense after you’ve established the flashback is taking place. When the flashback ends, you’ll also need to clearly indicate that the scene is switching back to the current time period; another sentence in past perfect as the flashback ends may work as a good transition.


Ways to Show Flashbacks

Besides using a prologue as a flashback, or starting the story with one, you can insert bits of the past into the dialog between characters, as part of a dream the character has or talks about, through the character’s memories inserted as part of the narrative, or presented as letters the characters reads in the present time. Sprinkling a little of the past throughout the story may be less disruptive than inserting an entire flashback scene.


Done well, flashbacks can add depth to the story and convey important details. As with any backstory, though, you’ll want to avoid turning them into information dumps. Be sure they are vital to some aspect of the story, and keep them close to the scene in the present that they are meant to clarify. If the flashback can be omitted and the story still makes sense, you should probably leave it out.


If you’d like more information about flashbacks, take a look at this excellent site: http://ezinearticles.com/?Writing-the-Flashback-in-Fiction&id=2615798



Do flashbacks taking place within a story annoy you? Do you prefer them as a prologue? How else can writers reveal something from the past?


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There are many techniques writers use to build suspense and keep readers turning the page to see what happens next. One is foreshadowing future events by planting clues throughout the story.

Foreshadowing can be done as you write your first draft, or you can use the layering method I mentioned in an earlier post and add hints during the revision process.

Foreshadowing should be related to important events, significant characters, or objects meaningful to the plot. An occasional red herring, which is a clue that is purposely misleading, can add interest, but the meaning behind each one should be satisfactorily explained within the context of what happens in the story.

Here are some ways you can drop hints about what’s to come:

1. Start the story with a scene related to the general theme or upcoming events, and end chapters in a way that suggests a new problem or conflict is ahead. Clues should indicate the possibility of something happening, yet be subtle enough that the reader is still surprised by what occurs.

2. Sometimes you can simply state what might happen as part of the dialogue between characters, or as an observation by the narrator. Readers won’t know for sure if things will turn out the way the character thinks, but it will plant the idea in their minds.

3. Begin with the ending, and let the narrator explain what and how things happened by telling the story. The reader knows how things turned out, but if it’s intriguing enough they’ll want to read on to find out the details behind it all.

4. Use names of people or places that might suggest something about the setting or the character’s potential role in the story. Example: In X-men movies, the characters’ names suggest what super powers they possess. (My favorites are Storm and Wolverine)

5. Have characters react to an object or statement in a way that hints there is something significant about it. An obvious example: In Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo Baggins kept looking at the ring, it implied that the ring was not just special to him, but important to the plot.

By leaving a trail of clues leading up to the climax, the author can make the resolution of a story more believable. No one likes an ending that comes out of the blue; there should be something the reader can look back at and see as a hint of what was coming.

Edit November 3, 2009: Agent Rachelle Gardner has an interesting post on foreshadowing on her blog today.

Edit June 7, 2012: Editor Lynn Price cautions writers to be subtle when using foreshadowing in her blog post today.

Edit October 17, 2012: Agent Rachelle Gardner talks about the difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing in a helpful blog post.


Can you think of other ways to foreshadow events in a story? What are some of your favorite or memorable examples of foreshadowing?

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Agents and editors have distinct preferences as to the type of stories they are willing to accept, so determining what category your story fits into will help you figure out where to submit it.

Commercial Fiction

This type of story appeals to a wide audience, has a distinct plot, and its characters actively pursue a goal or overcome a challenge. These stories are primarily read for entertainment. There are many categories of commercial fiction, classified by genre and sub-genres. Each genre has basic elements that readers expect to see in the stories. Some commercial fiction may appeal to more than one type of audience, and can be considered mainstream.

Literary Fiction

These stories focus more on internal conflict than external events, the plot is less obvious, and there is an emphasis on artistic prose rather than the more straightforward storytelling seen in commercial fiction. There is usually extensive development of the characters, with a slower pace, and less emphasis on what happens and more on the character’s reaction to what happens.

Here’s an interesting explanation by Agent Nathan Bransford on the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction:  http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary.html

Robert J. Sawyer, a science fiction author, also gives a clear explanation of these categories: http://www.sfwriter.com/2008/02/literary-vs-commercial-fiction.html

Edit December 11, 2009:  

Some books cross the line between commercial and literary fiction.  See my post on upmarket fiction for more information.


Do you have a preference for reading one type of story? Do stories you write tend to fit more in the literary or commercial category?

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Becoming an established writer is a difficult process. In addition to the external obstacles every writer faces along the way, there are mental roadblocks that some of us throw into our own path, making the journey even harder. Do any of these attitudes sound familiar to you?

1. We obsess over minor problems or issues to the point it’s hard to move on with our project.

2. We measure our worth as a writer by the number of stories, articles, or novels, we have published.

3. We set unreasonably high standards for ourselves, and feel like failures when we can’t meet them.

4. We let one incident, or a few rejections, tarnish our outlook on the future.

5. We take rejection or criticism of our writing as a personal affront.

6. We minimize our accomplishments by focusing on what we could have done better instead of what we have done well.

7. We become discouraged when we compare what we’ve done with how much someone else has achieved.

8. We insist our way is the right way instead of keeping our minds open to other possibilities.

9. We blame others for not recognizing our talent instead of working harder to improve our craft.

10. We expect to be treated fairly without recognizing that fairness is often subjective.


Looking at our situation objectively may help us overcome a negative attitude and act as a positive step towards success. And success is something we must define for ourselves.


What does success as a writer mean to you? Do you think it’s the amount of money you earn, the number of things you’ve had published, the fame you’ve acquired, or what? What stumbling blocks have you encountered along your writing journey?

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This morning on the way to the mailbox, I took so many pictures that my camera informed me my batteries were “exhausted.” There wasn’t anything special going on other than the beauty of the changing foliage, but that’s all it took for me to snap hundreds of pictures of my yard, dog, sky, leaves—anything that didn’t move faster than my camera lens.

While on the surface this doesn’t seem relevant to a writing blog, I want to illustrate the concept of perspective with a couple of pictures I took. Perspective is how the narrator of a scene views what is going on, what they see, and how they interpret it all.

Here are pictures of a tree in my back yard. The first one is how it looks from the chair I was sitting on, gazing over the railing. It shows the details of the tree, with little to distract anyone from the beauty of the changing leaves. Although some people might wonder why I chose it, or what point I was trying to make, they know immediately that my purpose has something to do with a tree.

 fall foliage


 reflected foliage

The second one shows the same tree reflected in the glass of the coffee table on my deck. Someone looking at it might think I was showing how dirty it is, or that the flower pot I took off of it a few days ago left a noticeable ring on the glass. Or perhaps I wanted to show off the mug my son gave me. The tree is there, dimly reflected but as beautiful as ever. Few people will focus on its beauty, however, because this picture isn’t from the best perspective for showcasing fall foliage.

Using the wrong perspective, or focusing on things that aren’t relevant, can leave the reader confused. As writers, we need to select the best perspective for our story. That may involve writing in third person instead of first, or vice versa. It may mean we need to switch to another viewpoint character in some chapters to give the reader a complete picture of what is going on. Sometimes it means digging down to a deeper level, layering in details about what the narrator thinks or feels so the reader is not left in doubt as to the purpose of the scene.


On August 23, 2009, I described the 3 most common viewpoints for a story. Check here, if interested.


Besides switching the point of view character, how can we give the reader a clearer perspective of what’s going on in our stories? In your opinion, do frequent changes in the point of view add richness, or do they interrupt the flow of the story?

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Many agents accept queries by email. While the basics are the same as if you were mailing the query, there are a few differences you’ll need to take into consideration. As always, you should check the agent’s guidelines before submitting as they may have specific instructions for what they want to see and how they want it sent.

Keep in mind that this is still a business letter even though it’s sent electronically instead of through the mail. If possible, use an email address that sounds professional, with your own name listed rather than your spouse’s or some cutesy user name.

Use a simple, readable black font, like Courier or Times New Roman, 12 point. Send the email as plain text to avoid problems with email clients that might be different from yours. Often emails contain odd symbols or gibberish when special formatting codes are included. (That frequently happens when cutting and pasting from a word processor into the email program.)

The Header:

To: Try to use the exact email address of the person you are contacting rather than the agency email.

Subject: Never leave the subject line blank or your email will probably end up in the Spam folder. Put Query: Title of Your Book

Body of the Email:

There is no need to put the agent’s contact information in the email. Simply start with the formal salutation, with the name of the agent you are contacting, such as Dear Ms. Benedict:

The letter can be single-spaced. Use block paragraphs (no indenting), and leave an extra space between each of them. Include 3 or 4 paragraphs introducing your book, giving your pitch, telling a little about the story, and summarizing your credentials. Don’t forget to thank the agent, and tell them you look forward to hearing from them.

In closing simply use Sincerely, followed by a comma, double space, then type your name and put your address and phone number under it.

Do not include the URL for a blog or website unless it deals specifically with your writing. For instance, if you have writing clips posted on your site you might want to include that information so the agent can look at them.

Do not include attachments unless the guidelines state that they are acceptable. Some agents delete unsolicited email with attachments in order to cut down on potential viruses.

 Edit March 18, 2010: 

Agent Nathan Bransford posted an example of email query format today on his blog. The only thing I noticed different from what I have said is that he didn’t double space between his closing and signature.


 Edit August 1, 2011:  Agent Rachelle Gardner has a helpful post on her blog today about emailing queries.


Do you prefer querying by email, or snail mail? How do you keep track of your email submissions?


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After your novel is finished, you’ll need to contact potential agents with a query letter. This letter should be honed to showcase your writing skills, highlight your story, and entice an agent to ask to see your manuscript.

Check the agency guidelines before submitting your query. You’ll often find specific instructions on what the agent wants, and you’ll increase your chance of having your work looked at if you follow those guidelines.

If there are no guidelines given, send your query with a self-addressed, stamped, #10 envelope for the agent’s reply. Don’t send the full manuscript or even a few chapters unless requested. Some sources say it’s ok to include the first few pages of your novel with your query, but limit it to no more than 5 pages. (If there is a prologue, it counts as the first page.)

A query letter is formatted like a standard business letter, and should be just as professional. Use plain white stationery or good quality paper (20-24 pound stock), and only use black ink. Either Courier or Times New Roman 12 point font is acceptable. Fancy fonts might look prettier, but they are not appropriate for a business letter.

There are a couple of acceptable formats for business letters, but to keep it simple, you’ll be fine if you use 1 inch margins all around, with block paragraphs starting flush with the left margin. Don’t indent, just put an extra space between paragraphs.

Your contact information, including your name, address, phone number, and email, should be flush against the left margin as the first section of your letter. Skip a line, then type the date.

Skip a line after the date, and type the name of the person you are querying, followed by the name of the agency, and the address.

Skip a line, then put your formal greeting, which should include the name of the specific person you are writing to. Use Mr. or Ms., last name, followed by a colon as this is a business letter. (Example, Dear Mr. Benedict: or Dear Ms. Benedict: )

After the greeting you’ll have 3 or 4 paragraphs introducing your book, giving your pitch, telling a little about the story, and summarizing your credentials. Don’t forget to thank the agent, and tell them you look forward to hearing from them.

In closing, simply use Sincerely, followed by a comma. Leave 3 or 4 spaces for your actual signature, then type your name.

Skip a line, and type Enclosure: (1) SASE (to show you’ve included an envelope for their reply). If you’re including additional material, indicate that also.

When you mail your query, you can fold it to fit in a #10 envelope, and you’ll also fold the SASE you’re enclosing. If this seems too awkward for you, use a 9½  X 12½  envelope instead of the #10. That will keep your query flat, and the SASE won’t have to be folded. It costs a little more to mail, but if you have extra pages included it might be advisable to use the bigger envelope.

Send your query through the regular first-class mail, and if you’re worried about whether or not they’ll get it, just purchase delivery confirmation from the post office. Never make an agent sign for your letter.

Agents follow different time frames for replying, so once your query is sent out it could be days or months before you hear from them. Be sure to keep a record of when and where you sent each query so you’ll know when to follow up, and so you avoid sending the same query to the same agent again.

Good luck!

See my related post dated October 20, 2009 for information on querying via email.

 Edit September 8, 2010:  Agent Nathan Bransford has some great advice on his blog today about how to deal with conflicting advice regarding query letters.


Do you have any tips about query letters to pass on? What’s the longest you’ve waited for a reply after you sent out a query?  

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