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Wednesday, December 13, 2017


The Case for Powerful Flashbacks

There seems to be a trend lately with storytelling in movies, television shows, and books to use flashbacks to deepen the plot. It's not a new literary device--that's for sure. But I remember going to conferences, when I first started seriously writing about 18 years ago, and speakers talked about using flashbacks at a minimum and only when absolutely necessary.

Now look at the popularity of the television show, This Is Us, and all the critical acclaim those writers are receiving--and it's well-deserved. The show is half flashbacks, at least. I am also reading a book, What Alice Forgot, about a woman who bumps her head and forgets 10 years of her life. But throughout the book, the author, Liane Moriarty, uses flashbacks that go even earlier than the 10 years she forgot to reveal what Alice's life was like as child and as a young adult. Trends come and go--multiple viewpoints were popular for a while as well as using present tense to tell a story--and I'm sure you can think of many more. I mean, that's a trend--it comes and goes, but I love this flashback one!

My writing group members recently had a discussion about revealing crucial information to the "present-day" plot in a flashback. During this discussion, I thought about this novel draft I had been writing and having trouble with--I had felt stuck and like it was the most terrible manuscript I had ever written--and then I thought, WAIT! I could start in the "present" and flashback, instead of trying to tell a linear story.

Would This Is Us be as popular if it wasn't for the elaborate and clever flashbacks?  No. Would I be out of my writing funk with this novel if it wasn't for the possibility of using a flashback? No. But here's the funny thing. When I googled some information about flashbacks for this post, I came upon this post on author Jennifer Scolluar's website , and one of the first lines is exactly what I was mentioning above. Her writing mentor, Sydney Smith, writes, "A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me!" Apparently, Sydney hadn't been at the same writing conferences as me back in the early 2000s, but I didn't make that up then about the authors who shun flashbacks.

Sydney goes on to say, "Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left." Right? The same is true for This is Us.

So all this thinking about and enjoying flashbacks made me draw a couple conclusions:

1. If you are going to use a flashback, you need a good reason--it is the best way to tell this story, to reveal character traits, to work in the crucial backstory.

2. The anti-flashback movement is similar to the anti-prologue movement or the anti-anthropomorphic advice for picture book writers. Somehow, a few people decided these were no good and got others to jump on the bandwagon. But if your story needs these literary devices and you can write them well, then go for it.

What about you use flashbacks in your fiction? Do you enjoy stories with flashbacks? 

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. She teaches a novel course for WOW! each month, which includes 4 critiques of your work-in-progress. To check out more about her, go to To check out her next class starting January 5, go to the WOW! classroom. 

typewriter photo above by alexkerhead on

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Are You Delivering?

While scrolling through my pile-up of emails last week, I screeched to a stop at a YA title. I don’t recall the writer, but this self-pubbed author had done the first right thing. She’d grabbed my attention immediately with an intriguing title. Yay!

In fact, she’d done several right things, from a marketing standpoint. She’d gotten her new and intriguing title out there in the right places, and, I noticed, she’d already garnered quite a few reviews.

Which is great from my standpoint. When I don’t know an author’s work, I’ll read a couple of reviews. And my favorite place to skim reviews is Goodreads. I feel like I get a fairly balanced bunch of reviews and the reviewers tend to be savvy readers. So when I saw a similar criticism showing up in several reviews, I passed on this YA novel.

The book had a great title, and it had a compelling blurb. But the book itself wasn’t what was promised in the title and the blurb. Time and time again, reviewers complained about expecting a story on a certain topic only to find that the book wasn’t really about this topic at all.

Unfortunately, this author had done one big wrong thing: she hadn’t delivered on what she’d promised.

It’s possible that the author made an innocent mistake; perhaps she didn’t really understand what her book was about. But it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that she pulled the old bait-and-switch on her target audience. And in doing so, her readers felt duped, and she hurt her marketing strategy. And that was a shame, because she managed to get her book into the hands of an impressive number of readers.

You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t happen very often so you don’t need to worry about your book not delivering. But take it from someone who’s received way more than one critique along those lines. It’s pretty common. In fact, I’m avoiding a revision right now because I know that it requires a major rewrite. I didn’t write a story about what I promised in the title and first chapter.

So how to make sure that you are delivering on what you’ve promised? First, make sure you know what your story or novel is about. If you can sum it up in one good sentence, then you’re off to a decent start.

Next, read your story with that sentence in mind. When or if the story veers too far off the rails from where it began, it’s probably time to stop and get things back on track.

And last, get feedback, either from your critique group, beta readers, or a professional editor. If you hear, “I thought this book/story was going to be about…” then prepare to take notes. You haven’t delivered on your promise.

And please, do this work before you put your book out there. Revisions may not be fun, but they can fix a whole lot of problems. On the other hand, if you’re facing a whole slew of bad reviews? There’s no easy fix when you don’t deliver the goods.

Cathy C. Hall is a kidlit author and humor writer and she will get to that rewrite right after she finishes revising her latest middle grade novel. (She does finish stuff, honest, and you can find out what if you check out Cathy here! Um, check out her blog. Her blog!)

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Monday, December 11, 2017


An emotional state

At a certain level, prose simply makes statements. There are times when all you need to know is that it is raining, but a hell of a lot more is going on. And there are other times when you've got to get into every raindrop.
- William H. Gass, from a 1991 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman

We just finished the persuasion chapter in my class, and studied the effectiveness of emotional appeals to motivate people to action. As writers, we aren't always trying to move readers to act, although some nonfiction does. But when I'm writing fiction, I am more likely to try to convey emotions.

By connecting to my emotions, I am more likely to connect to the emotions of others. How do I convey the feeling of a sunrise? How do I interpret the motion of leaves rustling in the breeze, or do I want to do that at all? I may ask myself if this is a scene I can describe literally, or compare to something else.

But when a scene or character goes deep, how does that look on the page? Which words are effective to convey the fear of a child who can't find her mother after school, or the anguish of the jilted bride at the alter? How do those emotions turn into words?

I've heard theories about paragraphs containing thought-action-dialog sequences in writing, and to be honest, even when I try to keep that in mind, it doesn't always work. For me, it's more of a feeling that drives my work, and when the emotion rises in me, I try to capture it. But I have to give myself time to try to understand what I am feeling. These scenes take longer to write because I need to let them build inside me before I make that connection.

The process isn't difficult. I like to sit quietly and let my brain process the emotion on its own before I can identify and translate it. I go deep inside myself and try to feel my way out, trying on words to express that emotion.

I have been known to use a thesaurus to capture a feeling, but usually that's not what leads me to the right word(s). Sometimes, while remaining quiet, I am able to hear the language of emotions in my head.

Reading poetry also works because language and meaning are condensed. I may go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop on those around me, or watch videos of author interviews and listen to the way that writer uses language to her advantage. Sometimes a book speaks to me, or I'll interpret my emotion with a random word that I heard on television that shouldn't work, but does.

Connecting emotions to words is not easy, but keep searching for the right words so your readers will become addicted to the emotional state you put them in.

Mary Horner's story Shirley and the Apricot Tree was recently published in Kansas City Voices. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

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Saturday, December 09, 2017


Holiday Writing Life: 5 Ways to Mine the Opportunities All Around You

This can be a tough time of the year. So many holidays, so much to do, and maybe just maybe you’d like to squeeze in time to write. One thing that can help is to spot the opportunities all around you.

Five minutes. You can do amazing things in only five minutes a day. Work on your novel for five minutes daily throughout the holidays. I did that this fall when I was completing a nonfiction job. The 4000 words I wrote in six week were not beautiful but they were 4000 more than I had before. Use your five minutes to increase your word count or do the pre-writing needed for a new project. Or you can compile a number of shorter pieces to finalize later on.

Activities. The holidays are full of activities and so are many magazines and newsletters. Do you have a recipe that was passed down from your grandmother? A decorating project you and your daughters do every Christmas? Or a family game that you play with your nieces and nephews? Maybe you’ve come up with a way to save money on buying gifts. You may not have time to market it right now but draft it while it is fresh in your mind.

Those sweet moments. Like Crystal Otto pointed out in her recent post, we are in the season of Advent. When you have one of those sweet, inspirational moments, write it down. You may very well have a devotional or a short essay on your hands. One of my writing buddies is a champion at turning these moments into prayers. Another uses them to craft poetry. Use what touches you to draft something poignant to share. 

Research. I am part of a family of readers ranging in age from 2 months to 80 years. The holidays are a great opportunity for me to do market research. What books do parents want for their kids? What books does my teen niece want to find under the tree? I can also check out my mother-in-law’s reader to see what she has recently downloaded from the library.

Drama Queens, Smoking Ovens and Other Little Disasters. Those moments that you’d just rather forget? The ones we here in Missouri call “interesting,” because our Moms would be super mad if we said what we really thought? They make great essays. Angela Mackintosh taught me that after I described one family encounter. Okay, first she apologized for laughing herself silly, but she was right. Griswold family moments form the basis for many essays.

Whether your holidays are perfect or chaotic, don’t berate yourself for not getting more writing done. Instead find five minutes to jot down whatever has moved you. Before toasting Auld Lang Syne, you’ll have either a number of short pieces ready to take to final or a considerable amount of progress on your longer project.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins January 8th, 2017.

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Friday, December 08, 2017


Friday Speak Out!: The Art of Novel Writing

by Tara Lynn Marta

Whenever anyone asks why I chose to be a writer, I answer: “I didn’t. Writing chose me.” A typical response from someone who lives a Bohemian existence. Yes, I said it, Bohemian. Now that I have your attention you’re probably mumbling “Get a real job!”

For now, my full-time job revolves around being a graduate student in a Creative Writing program, where I have recently completed my thesis – a novel.

Prior to graduate school I’d only written short stories, no more than ten pages each. So imagine my surprise when I learned that in order to graduate with an M.A. in Creative Writing, I would have to write a manuscript of 120 pages. Say what?

As a novice novel writer, I hadn’t a clue where to begin. My strategy for writing had always been to sit at my computer and begin emptying my mind. But flying by the seat of one’s pants does not work in grad school. Within two semesters I learned what it meant to have discipline as a writer, to engage in a daily diet of writing and rewriting.

My first task involved writing a summary of my book. Then, I carefully mapped out a biographical sketch of the protagonist so that I could become familiar with her. I kept a notebook containing information prevalent to the development of each main and minor character. Finally, I began drafting the story. Take one.

In the midst of writing I also read voraciously, familiarizing myself with myriad authors and their techniques, because, believe it or not, stories do not just come together. They’re carefully executed.

The number one rule when writing a novel: treat your characters as if they’re real. If you don’t care about them, your reader won’t, either. I came to know each of my characters on a personal level, and before long, I could not even sleep at night without interruptions from these imaginary beings.

Pay attention to the voices when they speak. No, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. Characters will haunt you until you listen and write down what they, not you, have to say. It’s called mind control, and they’re at the helm.

During my second draft, I took to my notebook and wrote a “cause and effect” for each chapter: the cause of whatever conflict the characters were going through, and the effect it had on them.

Four drafts and 175 pages later, I learned a great deal about novel writing. Each sentence must flow easily. Read your story aloud. If you stumble through a sentence, rewrite it. Each paragraph must transition easily to the next. Each chapter must be able to stand alone.

The main thing to remember when writing a novel is that you must never give up, no matter how tedious the process. Write, rewrite, and then rewrite again. But if per chance you wish to throw in your pen and leave the Bohemian lifestyle, you can always get a real job!

* * *
Tara Lynn Marta is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published by Aaduna, Inc., The Humor Times, PoetrySoup, The Gorge, and Heartache to Healing. She is also a book reviewer for At the Inkwell as well as a contributing blogger for the American Writers Museum.
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Thursday, December 07, 2017


I'm Bold. I'm Brilliant. I'm Beautiful.

           This past Sunday I was watching CBS Sunday Morning. A segment on Turkish baklava made me salivate (I'm determined to have some baklava if I go back to Istanbul). A story about a previously-unknown sailor (he saved 6 soldiers from the burning USS Arizona) inspired me. But it was a piece about a 2017 Sports Illustrated model (Ashley Graham) that made me think about what I do as a writer.

           Let me give you the gist. Ashley Graham is successful model. She's a size 14. Some sadists call her "plus size." Fashion people told her, "You'll never be a model," "You're too fat for the clothes," and "You'll never be on a magazine cover."

           They were wrong. They were so, so wrong.

           Instead of listening to the denigrating remarks and sabotaging herself, Ashley either got naked or in her granny panties and her bra, looked in the mirror and told herself three things:

You're bold.
You're brilliant.
You're beautiful.

          It made me think about the self-sabotage we do to ourselves as writers. What if we sent ourselves an affirming message every day? What if we silenced the negative comments we fill our own heads with? What if we stopped fixating on the criticism we get during feedback?

          What if? 

         Don't get me wrong. I love getting constructive feedback. Recently, I sent my NaNoWriMo from 2015 (a steaming turdpile) to a poet and blogging friend, Shay Simmons. She told me what every other writer friend had told me: One story line is interesting. The other one? Not so much... (which translates into "You can smell this manuscript from a thousand miles away... and it ain't a good aroma, neither.")

         However, after I licked my wounds and ate lots of milk chocolate and mashed potatoes (not together, of course) refocused, I set that project aside to gather dust forever: you're welcome, world to perhaps someday reexamine it... and then I moved forward on a different WIP.

         Not getting a response from the markets I usually submit to means bad news. Chicken Soup for the Soul and Sasee only respond when they're interested in publishing something, so when months have passed and I've gotten no email, I momentarily start the self-doubt train. Maybe I should stop submitting to them altogether? Why waste my time sending pieces to them? What was I even thinking, sending them a submission? After all, they don't like my stuff anymore.

       What if I looked at myself in a mirror and told myself things that would help (not hinder) me? What if I filled my head with messages like:

I am a talented writer.
I am working on something that has loads of potential.
I can and do craft clever phrases.
I embrace revision and remember it is a process... Sometimes the product is a long time coming.
I write on a regular basis. If I miss a day here or there, I refuse to beat myself up over it.
I make readers laugh/cry/reflect.

         What if you looked in the mirror and built yourself up through self-affirming messages... What would you say?

         Sometimes-Self-Doubting minds want to know.

Sioux Roslawski is a self-doubter (sometimes) but a hopeful writer (most of the time). She teaches middle-schoolers full time and in her spare time dreams of someday having a book published. If you're curious about learning more about Sioux (are you really that brave?) you can check out her blog.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2017


Editing or Publishing?

Which is more difficult, editing or publishing?

Hmmmm....not sure how to choose between the two. That's like asking if someone wants cream or coffee. They go hand in hand, right?

Sometimes both processes can be overwhelming. Is the rejection of publishing more difficult than re-writing and re-organizing with editing? I think both processes can make us feel a bit broken. A bit off our game. As I was pondering this last evening, I read a lovely line from Ann Voskamp's Be the Gift :

You are the most loved, 
not when you're pretending 
to have it all together; 
you are actually the most loved 
when you feel broken and 
falling apart.

Isn't that great to see in print? Especially this time of year? Especially when you're writing and re-writing, editing and re-editing? Especially when you are querying and facing what seems like an ocean full of rejection with no life vest in sight?

Some solid advice whenever we feel we are falling apart, whether it be editing, publishing, surviving the holidays, muddling through parenthood is this:

1) STOP - take a deep breath and feel the love around you.

2) ASSESS - sit down (with a cup of coffee preferably) and look at the situation as objectively as possible. If you're a list maker, make a list of everything that needs to be done.

3) FOCUS - focus on the goal at hand. If you're editing, remember the reason you started writing and focus on the fact your book will be available for purchase someday. If you are querying for a publisher, remember each no gets you closer to a yes which brings you closer to the best seller list!

4) MOMENTUM - keep your momentum going by putting one foot in front of the other. Before long you'll be moving more quickly and the end goal will be within arm's reach.

5) CELEBRATE - this is the part where you look at where you were during step one and reward yourself and those around you for making it this far!

Here in the Otto house, we are in the first week of Advent and it's a busy time as a church organist, mother, wife, and friend. I often feel a bit frazzled and disconnected. It's been incredibly helpful to sit down each morning and walk through these steps. Some days, the list helps me move through the mountain of laundry without cussing under my breath. Some days, it's just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and celebrating at the end of the day by crawling under the covers and vowing I'll smile a bit more tomorrow. Other times, it's writing and re-writing the same sentence and eventually removing it completely only to put it back in the very next day.

What do you find most difficult right now? What advice would you give to others as far as moving forward? What did you learn from editing or publishing? Which did you enjoy more?

Please leave your thoughts and ideas - WE LOVE to hear from you!


Crystal is a council secretary and musician at her church, birth mother, babywearing cloth diapering mama (aka crunchy mama), business owner, active journaler, writer and blogger, Blog Tour Manager with WOW! Women on Writing, Publicist with Dream of Things Publishing, Press Corp teammate for the DairyGirl Network, Unicorn Mom Ambassador, as well as a dairy farmer. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, five young children (Carmen 10, Andre 9, Breccan 4, Delphine 2, and baby Eudora, two dogs, four little piggies, a handful of cats and kittens, and over 230 Holsteins.

You can find Crystal riding unicorns, taking the ordinary and giving it a little extra (making it extraordinary), blogging and reviewing books, baby carriers, cloth diapers, and all sorts of other stuff here, and at her personal blog - Crystal is dedicated to turning life's lemons into lemonade!

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