J. Michael Gonzalez

To Flashback or not to Flashback

Warning: this post has the potential to give away spoilers and to pull the curtain back on my creative process pretty far. If you don't like that, you should probably go back before it's too late! Also, it's kind of a long post without a really punchy conclusion, so take from it what you will. Caveat emptor, etc.

One of the big things I've been struggling with is the inclusion of flashbacks in the storyline for HMC 1 and 2. The original vision I had for these two books is two parallel storylines -- one told in the present (the main narrative), and a second story told in the past. The second storyline -- the one that takes place primarily in the past -- was essentially chroncling the collapse of the protagonist's relationship by forces largely beyind their control (and understanding, really) despite the love the main characters shared. The intent was to have those flashbacks inform some of the present action, giving insight into the motive force driving the character's decisions, feelings, or interactions.

Including those flashbacks was much more challenging than I had anticipated (for reasons which I'll detail at length below). The original organization I had (to help plan the writing and storyline) broke the story up into eight "chapters", with each "chapter" beginning with a flashback which related to some or all of the scenes comprising that chapter. It was a very logical structure, but (as I later realized) it was a very artificial structure which only made sense from a planning perspective, but not so much when I dug down into the actual details of the story.

My original plan had been to publish in the traditional manner -- write a query letter, send it to a number of publishing agents in small batches, then hope I'd get manuscript requests. To help me get my query letter into decent shape (since I've never written a query letter in my life), I shopped around a little bit and found Jane Friedman. She's a really excellent editor, very skilled at distilling the critical ideas out of a block of text or prose. She was super professional and very responsive -- overall, very pleastant to work with. (Unfortunately, the traditional publishing agents that I'd found through Publisher's Marketplace weren't biting -- but that's another discussion entirely).

Ms. Friedman suggested that flashbacks have to be really carefully orchestrated because of the risk of damaging the pacing or potentially adding to the page count unnecessarily (traditional publishers have very specific ideas about how long a book should be, especially for debut novels; I found a link to a good article which discusses ideal book lengths for maximizing your chances of being picked up by a traditional publishing agent or publisher). After giving it careful thought, I decided to remove most of the flashbacks I'd written. On one hand, it was a bummer to give up some of my artistic vision, but on another level it was a huge relief -- some of the flashbacks didn't really work all that well for me, and it freed me up to organize the scenes into chapters which much more closely aligned with the content (as opposed to some abstract organization that was helpful from a planning/implementtion perspective, but that wouldn't make any darned sense to the reader -- leaving "chapters" that sometimes spanned almost 70 pages in length).

It was an enormous amount of work, but I eventually managed to work the flashbacks that I thought really pertinent ot the story back into the text. As I mentioned above, I sent out my query letters, but didn't really receive many bites (though I did get a couple of encouraging notes from literary agents). At first I was bummed, but really -- it's hard to make a case that I'm a good risk from a business perspective at this point in my (hopeful) career: I have no writing credits, no literary degree, nothing in my CV that would suggest anything other than ambition. That and a dollar can get you a cup of coffee, as the saying goes. So I decided the first two books would be self-published, then I'd return to the more traditional publication model...maybe.

But this gave rise to a new consideration: freed from the constraints imposed by appeasing traditional publishers, my original "artistic vision" was suddenly back on the table. This gave rise to another question: if I do restore the original vision, how many (if any) flashbacks should I restore? The thought was both exciting and intimidating. What makes this such a daunting task are the many requirements that any given flashback must meet in order to properly advance/enhance the story: they have to communicate some aspect of the relationship between the main protagonists and communicate the relationship's decline; they have to have some kind of resonance with the following scenes (giving context to the characters' actions and feelings); they oughtn't be overlong; they need to fit into the containing narrative, linking with some sensory or emotional connection (which is much more difficult when I'm trying to find a home for the flashbacks in scenes that weren't originally written to contain them).

Then there's the question of how many flashbacks I should try and include. Just adding one back is a huge amount of work. One example of this method demonstrated by Kass Morgan in her Young Adult novel The 100 is a great example of how effective that mode of storytelling can be -- she did a really fantastic job of incorporating a parallel story told through flashbacks in virtually every dang scene! Looking at HMC, I have to say that there is just no damned way I can write flashbacks for 40+ scenes of Legacy if I want to publish this thing...well, ever, really!

I suspect I may be able to add back, perhaps 2 additional flashbacks -- 3 if I decide I really hate myself. So, at this point, I'm leaning forward to delaying the publication of HMC:Legacy to add these, but we'll have to see how it works out...