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September 25, 2018

The last time I addressed flashbacks (as in backstory) in detail was in 2011, around the time I first started this web site on writing advice. I bring it back up (though I’ve mentioned it within the subject matter of other articles) because of a book I just read.

I’m going to take parts of the original 2011 article and integrate them into my latest thoughts.


First off, what are flashbacks? Flashbacks are a way of jumping to the past to bring relevant information into the present. They’re great tools for giving the reader background on why things are happening in the present. They set the scene, justify why certain things happen, and give relevant what, where, when, why, and how information. Examples are prologues, or, when a character recalls something from their past.

I just finished another book that relied heavily on flashbacks, which bogged down the story. Not only that, but some of these flashbacks severely violated point of view. In other words, they weren’t told by any of the current point of view characters. The way they integrated into the story, none of the characters could possibly know the actions, yet they did.


There’s nothing wrong with a flashback. Backstory (another word for it) is a great way to give the reader relevant information. However, it’s best to do it in small doses, and in a way that doesn’t bring the action to a screeching halt.


Prologues are the epitome of backstory. They’re background, something that’s taken place in the past to set up the present story. Some grand poohbahs in the publishing world have decided that most people don’t read prologues. I have my doubts about that, especially given the popularity of certain genres where the prologue is standard fare.

On the other hand, why not just make the prologue chapter one, with a caveat? Title it Chapter One – Subtitle – Such-and-such a date in the past?

Then have Chapter Two – Subtitle – Present day, then drop the subtitles?

Problem solved.

Your backstory is now part of the timeline, in sequence, so there’s no issue. You aren’t halfway through the story, have to jerk the reader out of the present, and take them into the past.


It’s okay to have the character reminisce, or recall something relevant to the story. The key is to maintain story momentum.

How to do that?

Keep the flashbacks short!

That means you – Mister, Miss, or Missus long-on-the-blabber story telling! Cut to the chase and get to the point. Give the reader the down and dirty in a few paragraphs. Don’t bring the action to a screeching halt by inserting half, or a full chapter or three to explain why your character hated their mother. Geez, sneak it in with a little bit here and there as you go along.

Small doses keeps the action flowing.


First, the story I just read was about half flashback. There was a little action, then a LOT of flashback. Like I said above, especially toward the end of the story, the author violated point of view when the flashbacks shifted to characters that weren’t even in the story.

In another story, the prologue was fifty-seven pages.

In my own case, I used to write prologues to every story. I’ve since changed them to chapter 1 with a sub-title. I never had many flashbacks within the stories, just small snippets, especially after reading so many bad flashbacks in other books!


Don’t torture your readers with unnecessary drivel. Let them use their own imaginations. A lot of the time, those flashbacks end up being irrelevant, anyway. Sounds cruel, but from my own reading experience, I never saw that much justification in a lot of them. Motivation? Meh.

On the other hand, why is the bad guy bad? That’s a good reason for a flashback, right?

Well…maybe an asshole is just an asshole. Ever thought of that?

How about replacing the why of the bad guy being bad with more action from the good guy chasing the bad guy? Then give a condensed version of why the bad guy is bad. That should be a lot more fun.

Happy writing!



September 19, 2018

There are many ways to jar your reader.

What do I mean by jarring your reader?

First off, I think of the tired old joke I like to tell my grandson when we get into the car. Whenever we open a door, we get a warning on the dashboard “Door Ajar.” So, I tell him, the door has turned into a jar. When we close the door, I tell him the door turned back into a door again. Hey, it’s a grandpa thing.

Now, back to the gist of this. Jarring the reader is when you jerk them out of the story. In other words, you have them absorbed into your world. Then, you perform some blunder and it spoils the mood. In other words, it jars them out of your world and has them scratching their head with the internal thought: “What’s that?”

Whether it’s a minor or major blunder depends on your literary outlook.

I get accused of it occasionally when I read at my writer’s group.


Let’s look at how one can jar the reader. I’ll start with what inspired me to write this article. As often happens, it was prompted by a book I just read.


There are many ways to jar the reader out of the story. A biggie is, of course, bad writing.

Of course, anything that takes the reader out of the story could be considered bad writing, yet let’s talk strictly about the writing itself, and not other factors.

A big example, which I found in the latest book I read was my favorite pet peeve, point of view.

I just read a book that had no point of view at all. It wasn’t even omniscient. It was a complete free-for-all. What jarred me out of the story was that the writer shifted points of view from one sentence to the next. In other words one character said something and then in the next sentence within the same paragraph, another character said something, with no differentiation between the two characters.

Folks, THAT made me stop reading. I had to re-read the two-sentence paragraph two…maybe three times and try and figure out what was going on. After several reads I finally figured out through implied speech that the second sentence was a different character!

Next, from the same book, the writer shifted scenes without scene breaks. Even though there were scene breaks within the very long chapters, he only randomly used them. Instead, he quite often just shifted scenes at random with NO transition. I was reading along and BAM! New scene, with no rhyme or reason.

The POV and the abrupt scene changes jerked me out of the story so many times, it ruined the immersion and flow. Each time, it took a while to get back into the story and I never really recovered because it happened again a few pages later.

That’s an example of bad writing jarring the reader out of a story.


Say, you’re talking about guns in a thriller or mystery. The character puts a silencer on a revolver.

Ding ding ding ding!

Anyone with gun knowledge is going to scream fowl. This technical error is going to jar them right out of the story. While things might have been humming right along until that point, an obvious error like that is going to spoil things.

Same thing for an error like location, time, language, whatever. Anyone with basic knowledge of these things is going to be jarred out of the story.

You need to do your research! Poor research will jar the reader and spoil the illusion.


I’m currently reading a fantasy to the group. In this case, it’s my world, so I can pretty much build it any way I want. At the same time, I not only have to play by my own established rules, but there are still borders I can’t cross, things I just can’t do.

When I throw in some term or phrase that doesn’t fit, it jars the reader out of the world. My writer’s group is pretty good about calling bull when I toss in something that is just too much of a stretch. It’s purely unintentional most of the time, but once in a while, it’s deliberate. When it’s deliberate, I have to justify it. If I can’t see a good reason for it, I have to change it.

If it doesn’t fit, it jars the reader out of the story. It spoils the mood.


Your story is creating a world and drawing the reader into that world. When you flub something, it jars the reader and jerks them out of the illusion. It’s critical you eliminate these points so you don’t spoil that illusion of reality for your reader.

Happy writing!


September 12, 2018

We’re back with another set of similar sounding words with entirely different meanings.

Our illustrious former Henderson Writer’s Group el-presidente, Linda Webber, used to present grammar lessons each week on the back of our meeting agendas. The gist of them were the improper use of words.

As a reminder, I’ll add the standard intro below before I get into the word list.


I once wrote a screenplay with my bud, Doug Lubahn, a famous musician. During our correspondence, I once told him I was waiting with “baited” breath instead of “bated” breath. He’s never let me live that one down.

The proper use of words is something a lot of (especially) new writers don’t always get. So, for your reading pleasure, below is a list of words and how to use them properly.

The list is not near complete, so that’s why this is called Grammar Lesson Five.

Once again, my many thanks to Linda Webber, who went through the trouble to compile these words all in one place for me to steal and present to you here at Fred Central.

These are common words that are often used out of context. They can be a quandary for a writer, and a quick trip to a dictionary, or on line can solve them, but I’ve cut to the chase.


Elicit                           To draw out a reply or reaction

I’ll elicit a response from him when the time comes.

Illicit                            Not allowed by the law or rules

Their illicit activities would get them thrown in jail sooner or later.

Ensure                        To make sure that something will happen

Are you ready to ensure the trap will spring when the time comes?

Insure                         To provide compensation if a person dies or property is damaged

We can insure the car only for its resale value.

Envelop                      To cover or surround

She let the blanket envelop her.

Envelope                    A paper container for a letter

He licked the envelope and sealed it before mailing.

Exercise                      Physical activity – to do physical activity

Exercise is the only way to keep in shape.

Exorcise                      To drive out an evil spirit

It was all the priest could do to exorcise the demon.

Fawn                          A young deer – light brown

The fawn was fawn colored. (Couldn’t resist that one!)

Faun                           A mythical being, part man, part goat

The faun guided Cyrill through the labyrinth.

Flaunt                         To display ostentatiously

She flaunted her assets to the male crowd.

Flout                           To disregard a rule

It’s dumb to flout safety.

Flounder                    To move clumsily – to have difficulty doing something

He floundered on the dance floor.

Founder                     To fail

You’re going to founder if you do it that way.

Appraise                     To assess

We’ll need to appraise the house before we can set a price.

Apprise                       To inform someone

You should apprise Joe of what just happened.

Assent                         Agreement, approval

She nodded her assent.

Ascent                         The action of rising or climbing up

They began their ascent of the mountain.

Aural                          Relating to the ears or hearing

It was a thunderous aural display of rock music.

Oral                            Relating to the mouth – spoken

She gave an oral presentation to the board.

Balmy                         Pleasantly warm

It was a balmy day up on the mountain.

Barmy                        Foolish, crazy

He had a barmy sense of right and wrong.

Bare                            Naked – to uncover

He was bare except for a loincloth.

Bear                            To carry, put up with (or the animal)

It was too much weight to bear.

Bated                          In great suspense

She waited with bated breath.

Baited                         With bait attached or inserted – lured

He baited the thieves with an unlocked car.

Titillate                       To arouse interest

She titillated him with a swerve of her hip.

Titivate                       To make more attractive

The cat titivated himself by licking his paws and preening in front of the female.

Tortuous                    Full of twists – complex

The book had a tortuous plot.

Torturous                   Full of pain and suffering

It was a torturous journey.

Wreath                       A ring-shaped arrangement of flowers

He placed a wreath on the gravestone.

Wreathe                     To surround or encircle

The fairies wreathed her before she had a chance to get away.

Yoke                           A wooden crosspiece for harnessing a pair of oxen

The yoke snapped, releasing the two beasts.

Yolk                            The yellow center of an egg

My egg had a double yolk.


Once again, thanks to Linda Webber for her hard work putting these original words together!

Happy writing!


September 5, 2018

Story writing contests are a great way to hone your chops, but can also be a double-edged sword. There are several, but a real popular one is NaNoWriMo. That stands for National Novel Writing Month. It takes place in November.


In my other passion, astronomy, we have what’s called the Messier Marathon. There’s a list of 110 celestial objects identified by a comet hunter back in the 1700’s. He did this to let people know they were “not comets.” They’re some of the brightest and easiest nebulae, star clusters and galaxies visible in the sky. They’re spread out over the entire sky, and to see them all in one night, it takes a small window around the end of March. You have to stay up all night, dawn to dusk, to catch them all. Hence, the name Messier Marathon. I personally could care less. I’ve seen every one of the objects, literally hundreds of times. Why waste a perfectly dark night on that, when I could be using it to look for stuff I haven’t seen? Besides, that turns my beautiful passion into an “ugly sport,” as I perceive it.

To me, writing contests are the same way. I have a beautiful muse. Why would I want to spoil it by turning it into an ugly sport?

On the other hand, let’s take the NaNoWriMo. For any starting writer, or for that matter, ANY writer, this “contest” could be a great motivator. It may not be for me, in particular, but for many of you, this could be just the thing. Let’s break it down.


National Novel Writing Month is a thirty day marathon where you’re tasked with writing 50,000 words toward either a complete novel, or the start of one. The only rule (based on my cursory scan) is that you complete the 50K words. Quality is not an issue. Completing the word count IS the issue.


The whole point is to see if you can meet a deadline. To see if you can stick with something. The sub-point is to motivate you to write.

These are worthy goals.

On the other hand, that’s also not always the way muses work.

However, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth just yet.

WHAT’S 50,000 WORDS?

A 50k word manuscript means different things, depending on genre.

For young adult, that could be a complete novel.

For romance…meh, maybe.

For most others, it might be considered a novella.

For literary fiction, it might be considered a descriptive paragraph (LOL!).

For epic fantasy, it might be considered a chapter (double LOL!).

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a bit of sarcasm.

50K words is more than likely not going to be a completed novel. Anecdotal evidence from past participants have shown me that many that have participated have busted that 50K word count and completed, or near completed their manuscript anyway. Some made the count, then slowed down to complete the rest.

Some stopped at 50K and stuck with what they had.


Since quality is not an issue, what’s the result, the prize?

A big whoop tee doo. You make the word count, you get a big free paperback proof copy of your book you can sell on Amazon. The problem is that it’s still got to be edited, quality checked, so on and so forth, which if I understand correctly, they DON’T pay for.

Speed is one thing. Fixing the verbal diarrhea is another. The thirty days you spend slamming out your 50K+ words usually results in twice as long, or more, trying to fix that mess. You can spend months ahead of time mapping it all out, if you’re an outliner, or if you’re a pantser (a seat-of-the-pants writer), are really good and can whip out great text under pressure, it might be less of a mess. In any case, before it ever sees that free Amazon copy, you’d better ensure it goes through the mill, just like any other manuscript you write at a normal pace before you commit it to print. No matter what, that’s going to take a lot longer than the original thirty days! Plus, for most, you won’t have actually completed said manuscript. You’ve just made a good stab at it. However, if you made the 50K goal, you can now slow down, take a breather, and finish the rest at a less breakneck pace.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what kind of deadline they give you to get the book in print once you’ve “won” the publishing prize. That could put more pressure on you.


Is this particular writing contest an exercise? Or, is it another attempt to get noticed in the publishing world? If finishing it results in a printed book, what are you going to do with it? Take it seriously and try to exploit it, or just take your sloppily thrown together writing exercise and move on to your serious work (if you don’t take the time to do it right)?

If you go serious with this frantic pace novel, be prepared for the same expenses and/or deals as you would with any other book. Editing, marketing, the whole gamut.

It may start out that way, but it isn’t just a writing contest if you follow through. Plus, even if you start and don’t meet the deadline, are you going to continue with it, or shut it down and go back to your “serious work?” I can’t see someone investing all that effort into something they’re going to toss once the contest is over. I have seen people do that. Sort of. Afterward, they’ve shelved the effort, gone back to their regular work, they maybe months or years later, dragged the ole’ NaNoWriMo from such and such a year out again and gave it another look.


Happy writing!


August 30, 2018

I recently ran across a thread on one forum I check once in a while. I don’t go there that much because the threads I follow don’t get that much traffic. When they do, it’s often subject matter I have no interest in. This time, the thread brought me back to a subject I’ve discussed here at Fred Central a few times in the past but thought it deserved a fresh look.

How real is real?

That’s not exactly how it was put but that’s the gist of it.

The participant wanted to know about using some scientific principle in a horror setting. The gist was if what he proposed was real enough to come off as believable.


We’re story tellers. What we do is exaggerated reality. Often, it’s pure fantasy. It’s often not even close to reality. So what if it’s not real, you say…I say?


There’s always someone that’s going to spoil the fun by bringing reality into the mix.

Say, you want your fifty foot tall spider to wreak havoc on the city. Now, the science nerd comes in and spoils the fun by telling you you’re a charlatan because you don’t know diddly about science. An arachnid cannot possibly be that large because of physics. Their body weight will not support such giant proportions given the body type, their structure…etc.

That’s science people! Haven’t you EVER read a book?


It all depends on your particular genre, what you’re attempting to accomplish, your audience, and who you’re trying to please. You have to know who you’re going to satisfy, including yourself.

None of this matters if you’re writing from a reality-based viewpoint, such as a love story, western, drama, literary, so on and so forth. Then again, there’s still things like locations, weaponry, anything physical that can be based on reality that needs to be researched. This all has to be considered.

Strictly coming from a science fiction/fantasy/horror/thriller format, things can be stretched. It’s in these genres in particular that things get trickier.


In fantasy, it’s your own world. You can base it completely on your own rules as long as you’re consistent. On the other hand, you need to be consistent. At the same time, if you base it on reality fantasy, you must consider medieval principles like real swordplay and other weapons of the era, armor bla bla bla. That can get cumbersome and affect how your character reacts as well as everything else about your world, like everyday life.

In science fiction, even though it may be your own world, to a point, the rules are (or can be) a bit stricter when it comes to the science. Fans of the genre will only let you stretch things so far before you lose them. If you come up with principles that defy physics and logic, it had better be a really entertaining story to grab them or the science geeks are going to crucify you. Of course, almost ALL science fiction stretches reality. The point is that it DOES stretch reality. Making it believable is the point. However, it is, after all, based on some form of reality, or suggested reality.

In horror, reality is often thrown out the window. When an author tries to make it more authentic to make it creepier, some science nerd will still scoff at it as absurd, which is to be expected. The key is to not delve too deep into the principles of the how and why. Be vague. Maye throw in a bit if this and that but not specifics. If you’re going to have that fifty foot spider, you need to have some logic behind it, at least enough to satisfy the majority of your readers. It will never satisfy the science nerds, but that’s a given. Suspended disbelief.

In thrillers, they’re a mix of real world with a bit of fantastical thrown in. Quite often, they may be all reality based, but historically or physically impossible only in what happens, not that they couldn’t happen. In some, the actual things happening are science fiction elements thrown in as well. This is especially where the writer has to grab onto the science elements and dance around reality versus fiction and be able to suspend disbelief.


Real will never be completely real. After all, this IS what we call fiction! On the other hand, to make it as fictionally real as we can is how to grab the reader and pull them in. By not having the unreal things become so ridiculous that we lose the readers, we can entertain.

Researching the scientific principles behind some McGuffin we want to use in our plot only goes so far. In the end, we still have to stretch reality. We have to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Be vague on the details before you get yourself in too deep and have the science nerds crying foul!

Happy writing!


August 22, 2018

Folks, as a writer and mentor, my “job” is always to encourage people, and to foster the writer in every one of you.

I hear plenty of negativity, mainly from the writer’s themselves. Stuff like “this is hard,” or “I can’t do this,” or the ever-popular “I just don’t get it.”

That’s fine, and it goes with the territory. Giving words of encouragement and showing how those statements are not true is what I do. Well…except this can be harder for some than others.

Then there are the perpetual whiners, but they’re going to whine about anything they do. There’s not much you can do about that except suck it up and keep encouraging them anyway. At least, that’s what I do. Maybe it’s because I have more patience than the average person.

However, when I’m amongst other writers, in a group that’s made for the sole purpose of encouraging other writers, and someone tells another writer, “You’re no writer…”

Folks…that pisses me off.

A writer’s group is a place to foster writers. It’s a place to encourage them to write, not to shuffle them off and basically tell them to give it up and find something else to do!


If this was explained to me correctly, a friend of mine who I meet regularly at my writer’s group, had asked someone to look at his work. This someone had critiqued it and told him “You’re just not a writer.”

I’ve talked before about negativity. Believe me, I’ve received some doozies from agents and publishers over the years, and even in the writer’s group form hell. Yet, in a good writer’s group, which is supposed to foster and encourage other writers, to hear crap like this is counterproductive.

Given, I wasn’t there, and didn’t get the context, this friend certainly took it, or heard it the wrong way.

When he told me that and described the way it was said, I got the distinct impression it was a huge blow. That’s not what this is all about. Then again, this had happened several months ago, yet he was still there after a long absence. In that regard, I guess whatever negativity came out of that incident didn’t work.


I’m only a fan of tough love if it’s tactful. If that was this person’s intent, it didn’t come off that way. I could tell that my friend was discouraged, but at least he wanted to get other opinions. He’s held on to that spark, and not given up yet.

Words have power, and that’s not a trivial saying or something new.

When you choose tough love, you have to be careful how you use it.

Blunt and to the point is one thing, cutting someone off with absolutes is entirely different. Telling them they need more work is fine, but telling them they’ll never be is something final and terminal. Considering from who it came from, who I won’t name, it has some weight. No excuse.


When people look up to you, or ask for advice, there are plenty of ways to do it and let them find out on their own, whether they’ve got it or not. I know this person and he or she likes to write. To be told they’re not a writer is just plain wrong. That’s not tough love, that’s almost a crime.

Be careful with your words.

Happy writing!


August 15, 2018


          Every book has its plot twists and turns. If you’re an outliner, you map it out ahead of time. You figure out all your surprises well ahead of the game, so as you’re writing, at least to me, it would seem less exciting. The adventures would seem to me, less of an event.


            On the other hand, if you’re a pantser, or a seat-of-the-pants writer, the only thing you know is A and B. That means everything in-between is a total surprise. With that in mind, as you write, you encounter all kinds of surprises, discoveries, plot twists, as long as you never forget your ultimate goal, B.


            Can those plot twists affect the ultimate outcome, B?




            Should they?


            It all depends on what you were trying to accomplish in the first place.




            With any writer, you usually don’t just sit down and start writing. Or, you shouldn’t because more than likely, chaos is going to be the result. There has to be some kind of plan, some at least vague goal in mind.


            There, of course, has to be a starting and ending point.


            If you’re an outliner, of course, before you even sit down to start the writing process, you meticulously map it out from A to B, then depending on how detailed you are to begin with, follow that outline.


            You, as an outliner, don’t just sit down to write. You map it out first. You set your goal, maybe modify it, tweak it, then solidify it as you work through your outline.


            The only surprises you really may get are during the outline process.


            On the other hand, if you’re a pantser, before you sit down, you usually (I hope), have some sort of at least vague idea of where you want to start and end up. What’s the point of sitting down in the first place? It can’t just be to fill in a blank page, can it? Don’t you have some inkling of where you want to go, what you want to put all that effort into in the first place?


            Yup, an A and a B.


            You, as a pantser, have a goal as well, it’s just less defined, and certainly not outlined.




            Whether you outline or write on the fly, you have the end game in mind. So, you write accordingly. Surprise or plan, in either case, things are going to develop along the way you never thought of initially.


            Inspiration may (or may not) hit at the weirdest moments.




            Right at an intense scene, a slow movement area, or just anywhere, anytime, anyplace, the muse will hit you like an anvil falling on your head.


            That big twist that’ll have a huge impact on the story.


            That huge twist that’ll (hopefully) surprise everyone.




            Now that you’ve had that big aha moment, will it fit into the proceedings? Is it going to interrupt the story flow?


            If you’re an outliner, are you going to have to go back to the drawing board, and rework your masterpiece of perfection? Does that mean months of work, retooling, before you can continue writing? Or could it just mean minor tweaks?


            If you’re a pantser, does this mean tweaking B, changing it, or not even worrying about Be at all? At least as a pantser, you don’t have to go back to the drawing board because it’s all in your head!


            Now, if you’re a hybrid writer, a little bit outliner and a little bit pantser, you could be dealing with a mix, of course (don’t want to leave you out, either).




            I was humming along on my latest work and was eating breakfast the other morning (well, “other” is a relative term, it was several weeks ago, now), and a revelation hit me. I got an inspiration for a great plot twist and almost spit out my orange juice.


            I thought about it and how I could use it, and realized I wouldn’t have to do a thing different either to what I’d written so far, nor how it affected B.


            I was good to go, and it gave me chills.


            I hope my readers like it, don’t see through it, and it’s as much a surprise to them as it was to me when I thought of it.


            We’ll see.




            When you think of these aha moments, do whatever it takes to make them work. Don’t look at them as a pain, but at the same time, make sure they really work before you take the plunge.


            Happy writing!