Category Archives: Flashback

Self Editing: Eveything you need to know

I had planned a post at some point similar to this, but when I read the talented Sharon Zink’s page I decided to share it.

Sharon is an amazing writer and I have had her on my blog. She also does the same job as me in that she offers manuscript appraisals; the same level of detail.

So I decided to share this link because it really is a masterclass in writing and everything on here is exactly the kind of thing I say to clients all the time when I assess their manuscripts…

Take heed fellow scribes!

I am now about to write the homecoming chapter on Pelicans… this is exciting, it’s the final chapter when we reveal the last of the missing pieces… and it’s raining so I am loving the sounds of rain on the roof as I write! The morning goes pitter patter… ❤

Have a wonderful day everyone!


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Further thoughts on back story

What is the function of back story?

Were you paying attention last time?

Many might say that it explains the character, that it’s essential to enable the reader to understand why a character is behaving as he is (motivation). Yes absolutely true. But don’t forget, and this is the crucial bit, it  has to be woven seamlessly into the plot in a way that feels as if it’s almost invisible. The reader imbibes back story as they discover character, notice how they react, behave and through the carefully placed memories that motivate or foreshadow key moments.

And here’s my further thought — could it be said that back story isn’t to provide answers — but to provide questions?

There lies the essence of the good hook — right?

Have a great day.


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‘Trying to write a story without structure is like trying to invent an airplane without wings’

Yeah it’s a long title and one I plucked out of a book on writing, to be precise Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brookes. *recommended*

He says that no matter how you get there — be it with lot of plotting or through what arises organically through drafting, and whether you know it and think about it as you write or have  natural instinct for what works, structure is essential. Without it the house falls down or the plane doesn’t fly. And even if the architecture is lavish, akin to great writing, beautiful narrative, without structure you have no story. Right? I’ve said that before.

Like a natural law of the universe.

So let’s see writers if he has something new to say …

If the structure isn’t right, he claims, then you fill find it impossible to sell your work — yeah that’s what he says. He says that while experimental structures are interesting, keep the for the lit class not the novel or screenplay you’re trying to sell!

What he talks about is the adaptation of the three-act structure we see in plays — but it’s what we call the 4-part model, and for those who have worked with me professionally you’re recognise this more like the story arc I provide for those struggling with the plot.

Brookes talks about how every story in the world needs to adhere to this structure or it is doomed to fail and this is what I say about the story arc. It’s the same thing essentially but he visualises it as four boxes — these contain the scenes and what happens  to the hero in each box is the result of evolution in a sense, growing — anticipation — foreplay — sex — climax :to use his more crude analogy.

But what he says that I think is important is that what happens in box 1 in the set-up when we meet the character is developed in box 2 and box 2 needs box 1 and box 3 needs box 2 etc. So it is like a child growing. But what does this mean in real terms?

Box 1: Set-up — establishes everything that will follow. It introduces the protagonist and its single mission is to lay the premise, to foreground the key conflict of the story. And only hint at the antagonism in the plot (what do I keep saying? Don’t burden the set-up with too much back story! Lay the foundations!)

The function of Box 1 is: to set-up the plot by creating stakes, back-story and character empathy, while foreshadowing the oncoming conflict.

While you will most likely have the first inciting incident, this is what will foreground the big major plot point. Brookes warns that establishing the conflict too early does not allow time to establish the back-story. I see this when I critique and while I love it when we start right in the action and this is a device that’s fine, you still need to back-track in places as you will see to explain it and sometimes this device, unless handled with skill does not work as well as it should.

The more we understand and empathise with the hero the more we root and invest our time wanting to go with them on the journey, so you need to set-up, but you also don’t need to overdo the back-story so it’s a balance.

Box 1 ends with the reader now engaged and understanding the hero and takes us to the edge of the threshold, the stakes are now raised to the point of no return. So now we have the first major plot point (not to be confused with the first inciting incident which may coincide or may be part of the set-up) — now the story truly begins.

Got all this?

Have I hooked you? This is what Box 1 does (akin to the first 25% of the story) — have a look at how this can be applied to your own writing or the books you’re reading.

And I will resume with the next part tomorrow!

I will get it next week! Second edition!

I will get it next week! Second edition!


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Glowing in the Limelight

A little later than usual this morning as got up and got on — lots done early, mainly house cleaning!

But here I am. I’ve had a crazy few busy days since I came back but three big crits successfully delivered and can now just write today and look forward to my visit from Lee’s parents and my trip back to Essex tomorrow. I have other work lined up too so will get to that before Christmas but nice to relax a little and do what I love the most — WRITE!

I will keep this post short and sweet and leave you with the link from my interview in Glow Magazine!






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Style versus Voice in Writing

Today when I looked at the flashing cursor I reached for one of my many writing books for inspiration and flicked the pages imagining some invisible person said: STOP.

The book I picked up was: Larry Brooks  Story Engineering Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing. I STOPPED on page 221.

Two expressions  that jumped out at me were writing style and writing voice — both of these often get confused and I do discuss them separately when I critique work professionally. Even when I Googled it the two words are used interchangeably. I guess it’s down to pedantics.

I  see the Writing Style  as separate from Voice. 

Writing style, Brooks claims, in akin to the literary uniform that you — the writer– dons. It’s how you compose your narratives: long or short sentences. laden with similes and metaphors or simple sentences, poetic or more direct, descriptive or not — and so on.

I would also suggest that you could extend this to encompass how you build those sentences into creating your structures, hence how you move your plots: i.e. use  of flashbacks, exposition, where you switch narrators as you follow your story arc to its resolution and denouement.  So in other words what devices you use in your story telling to tell your story effectively. For the purposes of critique, I tend to talk about use of phrasing, clunky words, overuse of adverbs, dialogue, description, even formatting (if they do it wrong for dialogue for example) here, as well as how they use flashback, back story — all of these general overall points under the heading style, looking for the things they commonly get wrong or don’t do as well. 

I tend to look at structure more in my discussion of plot but in reality it’s all part of  overall style.

Voice on the other hand is how  the story is told and you might think that also includes the things talked about above. And again it’s down to pedantics, labels. But I prefer to discuss voice with viewpoint. It’s WHO YOU HEAR. In the modern age where we shift away from the more old-fashioned, more prone to ‘telling’  voice of the omniscient narrator, the focus is a lot more on character viewpoint narrators. While it is your voice strictly speaking talking for your characters — it’s their voice we  hear.  So again, voice is who  the reader hears. So it could be you as the omniscient all-seeing narrator but more than likely it’s a character or in multiple viewpoint novels a succession of characters (but no head-hopping mid scene — new character narrators for chapter or  if needed scene but clearly formatted!). And as I have said before, even in a third person where we imagine it’s let’s say the author telling the reader Flo’s story — she thought —  the closer you get to her, the more intimate the connection and in essence it’s not really the author we hear — it’s Flo. We hear her dialect, her way of rambling in her own head i.e.  it’s her jumbled thoughts we’re privy to, no one else’s!  People struggle with that claiming the third person who’s narrating is you the author watching her and listening to her thoughts and therefore you organising those thoughts and translating them for the reader.  So your voice not theirs? Again partly true but have a look at how closely a Stephen King third person character is to first person? How invisible is the third person so all we really hear is the character? So you wouldn’t have the character even in third person say how they’ve gone pale or look tired unless they’re seeing themselves.  That’s what I’m talking about!

So for the purposes of a critique I would look at how the character narrates, quirks, odd phrases, first or third person, tense, their body language even — and this is why I tend to discuss with viewpoint.

So in a nutshell I would say Voice is how the character speaks (through you) and style is the technical stuff in terms of what words you choose and how you structure that.

It might be a game of labels, but so long as the author takes on board what works in their own writing and is receptive to improving weaknesses and working on both their style and their voice then that’s what matters.

I’ve found the more I read and the more I experiment with voice and technique my own distinctive signature style of writing and the voices I use, develop. After all, we are all unique — aren’t we?

Or are we?

More musings on all things writerly tomorrow. Got any nagging questions? Anything you want me to discuss — just ask away! I like a challenge — to stretch my writing muscle!

Writing 1

Happy Thursday!


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Writing a Psychological Thriller …

I have been asked to run a workshop in Bath in November with this title so I thought I would talk a little about it here. But first, and it is related, this week I’ve been looking at various potential covers for my novel and been in discussion about how covers sell books, and what they say. I have talked about this before and I was also interested in the following link about covers.

I have been looking at lurking silhouetted figures but the one I want isn’t that!

The cover I really hope they go with is very bold and that’s what I think you want to grab your buyer’s attention but I hope it also says classy mystery/American/thriller and not just  commercial cop/crime thriller — which it’s not. We can fall into genre traps and while my novel is about a crime,  none other than the very public assassination of John F Kennedy, it’s not a conspiracy thriller per se. The main focus is really the missing child — so is that the real crime? Is the book just about solving that? Well, yes and no. It’s about a family; broken families, about love, loss, keeping your children safe and it’s set now but the key players are brought together by the events on the grassy knoll in 1963. So what I don’t want the cover to scream is gritty cop crime thriller when it’s not. Not do I want it to say literary mystery with an arty ambiguous cover. Because it’s not that either.

I’d call it a psychological thriller or mystery  but it’s more than that. I guess you could also say it has historical elements but more recent history but then 50 years is history although it’s set now but uses the past. In fact I use flashback as well as insights by the psychic to go back to 1960s Texas.

And I am thrilled to be asked to run a workshop because I feel I have learned from the greats in terms of the kind of books I read as a teenager. I loved Stephen King,  Dean Koontz and even the medical horror writers Robin Cook who wrote Coma. One of my favourites though was Mindbend where drug reps were taking doctors on cruises and implanting microchips into their brains. Says something about me perhaps! I have not revisited Robin Cook as a writer to look at his style, I’m sure there are things about it I won’t like now — but at the time I was addicted to these kinds of mind-bending thrillers. More recently I have enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep  to name a couple. I have read Sophie Hannah but not that excited about her. There are many many others.

So what exactly is a psychological thriller? 

Well any thriller needs a compelling mystery to solve so crime novels  are of course thrillers — but I like to think of psychological thrillers as tapping more into the thoughts of the characters and more importantly unnerving the reader’s own sense of immortality and vulnerability. It’s not just about finding a killer. Personally I like to put  what seem like ordinary people into situations that test them to the limit, and this can be more what’s going on in their own head than just external — psychological manipulation of the main characters by an impact character or in this case event. Like any thriller the main character is put into a situation that threatens ‘normality’ so  they can be  trapped in their own head , haunted by memories, have a ‘different’ way of seeing the world or thinking about the world or are driven by an uncontrollable compulsion or need. So it can be more internal than the classic crime thriller.

 There are cross overs and genre is just a way of saying what type of book this is and what to expect so gritty murder mystery crime thrillers need to use psychology and many of King’s novels are classified as horror but still use psychological manipulation, my favourite is the Dead Zone (if pushed to name one although I LOVE his Kennedy/time travel novel 11/22/63) and these are both more psychological than horror. But then what often scares us most, as humans is our own thoughts! Those that do really well are those that manage to tap into a universal sense of the human fear — what makes us uneasy? What scares us? What would happen if something about the world  we know changed? And that can be waking up and having to remember who we are every day to being trapped on an island where you go insane — or more frighteningly none of it’s real and you were insane the whole time.

I like to think While No One Was Watching is a psychological thriller but it’s not just that, it’s a mystery, it’s historical and it has a touch of the supernatural — in a loose sense. I use the devices of thrillers to hopefully (fingers crossed)  give it page turnability with twists and turns the reader doesn’t expect, so action is essential but there’s a great deal of the psychology of loss, do you know what your child is doing? Now that’s universal as a fear, right? And Kennedy and what happened to him, that also has universal appeal too, right? So by definition it’s commercial because it’s the kind of story that needs to be plot or action-driven, but at the same time it still taps into characters and, for me is very much about voice and the psyche. What happened to Eleanor Boone? Can finding the answer to that unearth some important questions about Kennedy? And my narrators have very distinct voices and ways of thinking as I hope you’ll see!

So I will have great fun exploring what it is about these kinds of books that hook a reader — what gives some more universal appeal than others and how can you keep your reader second guessing, surprised even …? What techniques are used? I might also draw some of this from films in the genre. Recently I saw  Premonition with Sandra Bullock and this had that quality I love — of having to really work and think about what really happened. It’s an oldish film now but I found it on late one night and got hooked.

But even if you don’t write, read, watch psychological thrillers, in essence what makes a good story, an unnerving conflict, a question you MUST know the answer to and so the techniques and structures writers use to achieve that — can be applied to any genre. And that’s what I also hope to look at in my workshop.

And it might also be interesting to look at how we can use fact and fiction side by side in our writing for authenticity.

Anyone want to recommend any great psychological thrillers — books and/or films?

If you live near Bath and want to come to the workshop it’s taking place on November 19th in the evening and I will send more details of how to book it etc soon. This is the website:

Right — still need to hone that short story of mine.

Also unusually I have a little lull while I wait for work to pop in my inbox so now is a good time if anyone wants to hire me for critiquing. Just saying! In three and a half years I have had three only occasions when my whiteboard was clear temporarily– although work is expected soon!

Have a good half-way through the week day! So much to look forward to!




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To flash or not to flash … ?

I will keep the post short this morning as I have to get a copy-edit in the post which means forfeiting some of my own writing (but it’s the way it has to be some days) — but that said I plan to devote all of Friday to writing 🙂

I picked a topic by randomly flicking through one of my many writing books this morning to see where it landed. In fact I did it twice. The first talked about using action and reaction in dialogue so you don’t end up with ‘talking heads.’ I say this to my lovely clients a lot — build a scene with forward movement so the actions and body language as characters interact, provides subtext, develops character and moves story.

But then I landed on flashback — something I have talked about before but relevant because of a recent conversation in Novel Group that meet today again as it happens. Our crime writer immediately condemns all flashback — outright. The rest of us disagree. Many teachers of writing condemn the use of flashback echoing the words of Sinclair Lewis the American novelist who when asked about flashback simply said, “Don’t.”

But a great many successful writers do use flashback effectively and I have to confess that I enjoy using the device. But it has to be handled with care.

Ask yourself first and foremost is it absolutely needed? Could the information be imparted in another way because what you really don’t want is to pause the action and leave the reader wondering what happened to the story. And try not to jump into flashback as soon as you start. So if you have a scene in the present and then the rest of the novel is the flashback then consider making that opening scene a prologue instead and setting the rest of the book  in the past.

You might choose an opening chapter set now and then a flashback chapter (I have seen this done very well) but make sure this is executed with care the use of past and present if used in this alternating way carry equal weight and don’t move the reader through too many heads.

I always suggest you try not to linger too long in a flashback, although I have read and written longer ones but so long as they are absolutely needed for story and really take the reader back there without stunting the flow of the story then it’s okay — but it is a skill that needs developing.

And also look carefully at how you flash in and out of the scene using carefully crafted triggers that are very immediate  Someone calls a name and next thing he’s back in the past only now it’s his dad calling him. And avoid too many past perfect tenses — like he had … I would say you might use one in the transition like ‘he’d been playing with matches that day, he must’ve only been seven years old’ … and now go into the past or present tense. So you might continue … ‘so there he was, standing outside his mom’s house, the match book pressed between his fingers and in his head he could hear that little voice saying, “Go on Tommy. Do it Boy.” And next thing he was striking that match the way he’d seen his mom do a hundred times. And it burned his fingers too. But that’s not all burned now, is it? He didn’t mean to drop the match.’

And then something from the present will pull him out, maybe someone talking and calling his name and first of all perhaps the memory continues for a while …

“Tommy — did you hear me?”

And all he kept thinking was what had he done and where was baby Frank, where was his mom, where was the dog? Still in the house as those big old flames started licking up the sides …’

“Tommy — you okay?”

And then he’d seen someone at the window, might’ve been his mom and …

“Tommy, I’ve been calling you.”

He looked at Clara. “You okay? You look like you just seen a ghost.”

“Maybe I did Clara. Maybe I did.”


Now this was written totally off the cuff but see what I mean. What I hope is the flashback becomes part of the present scene and shows just enough and has written all over it ‘to be continued.’ That way you drip feed the memory in as needed.

Have you considered using the back flash? Instead of lifting the reader out of the story and putting them in a flashback you use dialogue to show the same thing in short bursts — these act as narrative hooks. So something like —

“You remember the day of the fire?” Clara said looking over at where his mom’s house once stood.


“You remember how it started?”


“Must’ve been terrible what happened to your mom, and baby Frank.”

But he couldn’t look at her. No he could not. Of course he remembered but no way he was going to tell her how at just seven years old he learned how to play with matches.

See how this imparts the same information. In fact I tend to use a combination of techniques. And like I always say — there are many ways to tell the same story.

So when we talked at Novel Group about flashbacks I think the advice given to and now vehemently followed by our crime writer was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t always work in his style of police procedural writing, but even then I think flashback has its place. But what I will agree with, and maybe what Sinclair Lewis should’ve been saying is not just ‘don’t’ but –– if you don’t know how to do it — don’t.

But I think as one of the many devices that make our writing sharper — yes of course, but learn how to use it.

So to finish with the question I posed ‘to flash or not to flash?’  I think a little flashing once in a while is a good thing.

But be careful where you do it. He he … (snigger into hand).

Have a great day.

Should I flash at this point?..

Should I flash at this point?

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