Sunday, July 27, 2014

Flashing Back to Go Forward

By Chris Mathews

One of the most important but overused tools in the writer’s pouch is the flashback. Although flashbacks dig up the past, they should always move the storyline forward. Too often, they do not really advance the plot or the characterization.

Another challenge with using flashbacks is integrating them into the story. Too often they stick out, sidetracking the reader and giving her an instant case of ADHD. Given the challenges of this technique, I believe flashbacks can still be used to good effect.

In my short story, “Funerals in Small Southern Towns,” a beloved mother, Mary Elizabeth Jardin, has suddenly died. Driving the story are the family conflicts that take place over the three days leading up to the funeral between the Stuckeys, Mrs. Jardin’s inlaws, and the Jardin children, notably Ashby Jardin, Mary Elizabeth’s son.

Charlotte, Mary Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, is married to Roy Stuckey.  They live in a nearby town and Ashby lives three hours away.  In the opening passage of the story, I set up the difference in the backgrounds of the Stuckeys and Mrs. Jardin. Only Mary Elizabeth's social skills have enabled the two families with differing backgrounds to coexist.

Although an omniscient narrator tells the story, Ashby’s point-of-view is primary. The reader hears his inner thoughts, mostly in flashbacks.  Here is a flashback of Ashby’s that takes place during the phone call from his sister Charlotte informing him of his mother’s death.

“Ash, I have some bad news,” Charlotte began.
“Mom…didn’t make it.” Charlotte’s voice sounded unnaturally deep.
“What are you saying?”
Ashby’s relationship with his mother had not always been good … Close in age, Ashby and his younger brother Jackson fought constantly. One particularly contentious fight took place in the basement one school night when Jackson would not relinquish the telephone so Ashby could call his girlfriend. Mary Elizabeth unfortunately interceded just as Ashby had thrown a punch at Jackson. When times got tense between her and Ashby, she was not above reminding him that he had once broken his mother’s noseAll Ashby could think of at this moment was her broken nose, even though she had long since forgiven him.
“She didn’t make it out of anesthesia,” Charlotte continued, “her heart stopped.”
“Oh, my God!” Ashby let loose a torrent of sobs and wailings.

I deliberately chose to interrupt the conversation to show Ashby’s first thoughts about her death to build suspense and to provide some background about their relationship, emphasizing Ashby’s sense of guilt surrounding his mother. The flashback carries the story forward by putting Ashby’s reaction to his mother’s death on hold while it develops Ashby’s sometimes complex past relationship with his mother.  The attempt was to allow the past to enrich the story in an unobtrusive way. I believe the flashback works.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


By Jodie Cain Smith

I’m aggravated. Something isn’t right. In fact, this is all wrong.

I should be typing away at my desk, surrounded by all the objects that motivate me: Notebooks stacked four high full of ideas for future writing days, words of inspiration pinned to bulletin boards, the most brilliant phrases ever thought or spoken scribbled on scratch paper resting beneath paperweights.

But I am not at my desk in my writing space; the space I didn’t realize was sacred until today. I am on my couch, squeezed out of my office by a visit from my in-laws. The young woman traveling with my mother-in-law needed space to sleep. In my 1,500 square foot apartment with only one guest room, the only available space was my office. I thought I would be fine with her suitcase, air mattress, pillow, and blankets filling the open spaces of my writing space. I was wrong.

My space has been invaded, blighted, bruised. I want to burst through the door and promise my space that soon she will be healed. I will purge the stranger from her carpeted floor and plush armchair with matching ottoman, remove the shrapnel of shoes, tank tops, cell phone chargers, empty water bottles, and dirty socks. I will gently wipe the makeup particles from her wooden desk. But instead, I sit on my couch, do nothing to protect my writing space, and wait for the invasion to end.

My personal violation is not the young woman’s fault. The stranger in my house doesn’t know what it’s like to create, to write. She doesn’t understand the intimate relationship I have with my writing space. In her mind, the room is just an office, a place where work is done and mail is sorted and bills are paid. She doesn’t know that hidden in that space are my darkest secrets, my vulnerabilities, and my wildest fantasies. She doesn’t know that of everywhere on Earth, I am my truest self in my writing space. Risks are taken, worlds are explored, and lives are created in my writing space. And in that space, I decide if anything I create will be allowed to escape beyond the walls of my office and take the greatest risk of all – be read by someone other than me.

As any good daughter-in-law does, I opened my home and my life to people other than myself. The in-laws and anyone they bring with them is part of the “I do” package. I just never considered that they would land in my sacred space. And until now, I didn’t realize that it would bother me this deeply.

Yes, my room will return to its former glory soon. All evidence of the occupier will be removed. The room will be cleaned, and I will retreat to my space to create another world from the inner workings of my mind. If only I could create a world where screaming, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” wouldn’t result in a rift between my mother-in-law and myself that no amount of carefully thought out words could fix. If only…

Sunday, July 13, 2014


By Bonnie Stanard

Years ago when I first moved to a duplex in Uccle, Belgium, my French landlady, who spoke no English, ordered her dog around. It returned to the house or followed her or got into her car on cue. I was embarrassed that the dog understood commands I didn’t.

In the four years I lived there, my French never improved enough to understand slang or contemporary idiom. As a consequence, I wasn’t perturbed by the incomprehensible curses of a driver who thought I had taken his parking spot. Sounds are innocent until attached to meaning. Therein lies their potential for power.

Recent news reports belie the adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Donald Sterling had the misfortune of being secretly recorded saying something as hurtful as it was politically incorrect. (Whether or not the recording was an invasion of his privacy hasn’t been an issue.) His quote raged in the media for days and got him fined and banned by the NBA.

Juan Williams lost his PBS job for saying he became nervous “if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.”

Towson University art professor Allen Zaruba was fired for saying in class that he was “a nigger on the corporate plantation." His unfortunate word choice landed him out of the job he was bemoaning, a part-time faculty member without tenure.

Colorado congressman Doug Lamborn made media headlines and apologized for saying “…I don’t even want to have to be associated with him [the President]. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem…”

Simple words aren’t so simple. Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is campaigning to ban the word bossy. The word purportedly is a put-down to young girls and discourages them from taking on leadership roles.

MSNBC’s Morning Joe panel recently discussed slut slamming. The word slut never had so much attention. As an aside, our thesaurus is decidedly sexist. It has a host of terms for a female sensualist, most of them derogatory, while the male synonyms are not only fewer in number but less disparaging (if at all disparaging).

The government is getting involved in cleaning up the English language. The terms citizen and brown bag are no longer used in official documents or discussions by Seattle city workers. They are to use the terms lunch-and-learn or sack lunch instead of brown bag. The word citizen is avoided because many people who live in Seattle are residents, not citizens.

The New York Post reported in March 2012 that the city’s Department of Education avoids references to words like dinosaur, birthday, and Halloween on city-issued tests. Dinosaur suggests evolution, possibly offensive to fundamentalists. Birthdays are not celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Halloween intimates paganism.

The internet is rife with warnings about politically incorrect words. Lists include Swine flu, oriental, founding fathers, black sheep, and senior citizen. There are even dictionaries to tell you which words will get you into trouble.

I can think of nothing so fragile and powerful as words. Our culture, delineated by the media and government, is exerting its control by banning the use of controversial words. Whether this is a step forward or back is a debate that is ongoing. Few people will deny that some words are demeaning. Unfortunately, when politics enters the picture, the choice of unacceptable words becomes subject to influence by strident organizations. I personally find the politically correct policemen as threatening as offensive language.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


By Mike Long

Anyone reading this is either published or hopes to be, and therefore is or will be interested in getting reviews on the completed work… or will be wishing the reviews had never been written.

Here's how it frequently goes: you finish your novel, do some sort of launch, get it on Kindle, then wait for the reviews. And wait. The first eight or so will be from family and friends plus a few authors who know how important these things are. And they are important. Not only do prospective buyers actually read them, some professional reviewers/bloggers won't even consider your work until you have ten reviews with an average four-star rating. All you need to suppress your average is your Uncle Joe (who thinks a one-star is good, and a five-star is bad), or an idiot who didn't like your subject/genre (and who knows nothing about the writing craft), or, Heaven forbid, several intelligent people who recognize your writing as awful (and don't know you well enough to fib or simply pass on the review).

Let's assume your writing is excellent. If you've gotten it past your SCWW peers, it probably is, so what's the problem? Well, Uncle Joe, of course; with him you can explain the rating system, slowly and distinctly, and hope he gets around to that retraction/correction. I still have one of those one-star ratings; he said he couldn't wait for the sequel. I haven't given him a copy. I also have a two-star zinger from a 'professional' reviewer who wrote that she couldn't finish the novel because of the violence. In my online rebuttal I pointed out that she was part of a paid service, wherein she'd read the synopsis explaining it was a WAR BOOK, and that she had then asked to review it. Her response was that she was just getting started, and that I was mean-spirited and made her cry, and deserved whatever I got.

My advice is simply never respond to a poor rating. Never. After my first free Kindle promotion, some troll blistered my first novel. Knowing he'd paid nothing for it, I responded (for all to see) "So sorry you didn't like it; give me an address and I'll refund the entire $2.99." Cute, right? WRONG. His response (for all to see): "Oh no. You can't buy a retraction. I stand by my rating."