Not only have I launched Veronica’s Nap on a blog and unilaterally declared it my “debut” novel, but – gasp – I’ve included flashback in its narrative.
In other words, I’ve incorporated pieces of the story’s past into the action that moves it forward. For example, this week’s installment shows Veronica napping in college and while pregnant. An earlier installment includes a scene from her days working in New York.
The penalty? An infinitesimal chance at best of having this book taken on by a publisher in today’s environment. And a pretty high likelihood that published peers will scoff at it for being grossly flawed, or worse yet, for being a glaring example of “showing off.”
Yes, showing off. As Jenna Blum — beloved writing teacher, infinitely generous mentor and NYT best-selling author — says in this post on her blog, flashbacks are “authorial conceit,” or an author’s way of flaunting “how well we know our characters and their lives.”
Oh, dear. Truth be told, if I’d had Jenna as a writing teacher or heard this from her three years ago, I would have cut out every flashback scene in Veronica’s Nap pronto and completely re-written the whole dang thing. Most of Jenna’s students go on to get their novels published. But I never took a class with her and no writing teacher, reader or mentor I’ve ever had has pointed out flashbacks as something to avoid.
Why, then, the disparaging language of “conceit” and “showing off?” (Which I suspect comes directly from creative writing programs.) Why not simply call flashbacks an unpopular, outdated style or a plain old innocent mistake?
Such language, I fear, can be dangerous. It implies conscious wrongdoing. Taboo. Sin.
This could limit fiction writers – especially newbies eager to publish – by preventing them from EVER using flashback, even artfully and with exquisite skill as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Julia Glass have all done. Or to systematically view writing that combines past and present as “bad,” regardless of nuances. Over time, books’ range of expression could shrink more than it already has.
As for the logic behind flashbacks’ bad rap, Jenna notes that they are “often confusing and irritating to readers, who dislike temporal confusion.” C. Patrick Schulze agrees that many readers don’t like them, and adds that they are “tricky things to master.”
I wonder, though: chicken, or egg?
Is the fact that flashbacks are tricky to master an excuse for not trying? (Which could then lead to an entire generation of writers who don’t know how to work them?)
And might readers perhaps get confused and irritated by flashbacks simply because they – we – have become conditioned by the present-moment action, action, action we get in movies and TV?
Finally, circling back to Veronica’s Nap…. I know that among its many flaws, it’s “plagued” (as one agent bluntly put it) with flashback. And I know this can slow down the reading experience. But given that none of the professional writers who read it noticed or felt it was enough of a problem to point out, I’m curious:
Has it irritated or confused YOU?
Made you want to put this “book” down?
Have you noticed whether other books you’ve read lately have included past events in an individual storyline, and if so, how?