Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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Posts Tagged: Writers Digest

Image courtesy of NASA
Image courtesy of NASA

So we have spent a couple posts talking about “flashbacks” and I need to take a moment to expound on something. I was a naturally good editor. It’s how I got my start. But I would cut things out or change things because in my gut they didn’t work. And, I was pretty much always correct because I did have solid story instincts.

But I also have a passion for teaching. In my mind, it did NO good to cut something or change something for a writer (even if it made the story BETTER) if I had no way of articulating my instincts, of explaining WHY it didn’t work and HOW to do it better.

I, personally, found our “writing vocabulary” too broad. I mentioned the term antagonist last time. There was no such word as Big Boss Troublemaker until I coined it. I had to find a way of explaining the concept to a new writer who might not naturally be good at plotting. I had to be able to explain that there would be ONE antagonist responsible for creating the story problem, and this antagonist was not necessarily “bad.” I made up a term so the writer could keep that particular and necessary antagonist separate from all the other “types” of antagonists in the story.

For instance, in Finding Nemo, Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT, yet she has only several minutes of screen time. She is responsible for the entire story problem because had she wanted a kitten for her birthday, Nemo would never have been taken. Who is responsible for most of the tension and conflict is actually ALLY, Dori. Dori wears the “antagonist” hat most of the movie, but she is NOT the BBT.

I have found the same phenomena in this notion of “flashbacks”—ONE umbrella term to include every single instance of shifting back in time which we talked about last time. And, since many of the prestigious writing instructors will say flashbacks are a no-no, I sought (through this series) to be more specific with the term training wheel flashback.

 The training wheel flashback is the flashback editors will cut because they are pieces that obviously detract from the story. They are used to prop up weak writing and they are very easy for a skilled editor to spot. Think training wheels. You look at a bike and training wheels are pretty hard to miss. They stick out like, like, like….TRAINING WHEELS.

The training wheel flashback is the one that writing teachers will seek to take away because, if we rely on them, our writing will remain weak. Again, training wheels. If we leave those suckers on, we never learn to truly ride a bike.


Then, there is simply bending time which can be done any number of ways and I will add some other invented vocabulary words because I can 😀 . Again, to my knowledge, the term “bending time” did not exist in this context until Monday of this week. This (in my mind) is when a flashback is used properly as a literary device.

For me, it helps to have semantics distinguish the flashback that will be cut and the bending time that will work.  

Of course we can go back in time and we will talk about ways this is done well.  

But maybe I am not all that bright or maybe I have the ego of God a writer and feel it is okay for me to create completely new teaching terms for literature as we know it. It helps me keep them straight because if we use the same terms for everything? It just gives me a brain cramp and it makes it tough for me to teach how time-shifting is done well and explain to a newbie writer why, on Page 3, she really didn’t need to go back and explain why the bride chose to do the wedding in Mexico and not Napa.

Things to Remember About “Flashbacks”

So in the comments and even on Facebook, I have had people mention books or movies that were great and won awards that shifted backwards in time. I agree! Some of my favorite movies shift in time. It’s why I have spent a year studying time shifting to articulate how Pulp Fiction differs from the stuff I have cut over the years (and I have seen thousands of pieces of writing in all genres).

But what I want to point out is that these books or movies aren’t using training wheel flashbacks. The works that DID use training wheel flashbacks met with a slush pile or were rejected or were self-published and buried in bad reviews from confused readers.

If we are seeing a novel on the NYTBS list and it goes back in time? The author did it WELL. But what can happen is we see all these finished stories and popular stories and then use those successes as a basis for why “flashbacks” are fine. Unless you have worked as an editor, it is unlikely you’ve experienced the thousands of training wheel flashbacks that were AWFUL and derailed the story.


Another thing to remember about “bending time” in a movie versus a novel is in a movie, the experience is far more passive when we watch film. We see different actors so it is easier to keep up. In a book, when we only have black letters on a white page, this is much harder mental work for the audience. Again, it CAN be done. We simply need to be aware that the mediums are different and take that into account.

Also, and I will reiterate, anything CAN be done. My goal is not to hammer rules into your heads so you never break them. My goal is to hammer rules into your heads so that if and when you break them it is with intent and it is to support strong writing not prop up weak writing.

We must learn the rules to break the rules. Yes, Jimi Hendrix reinvented music as audiences knew it, but he kind of had to learn how to play the guitar first 😉 .

For the sake of brevity, today we are only going to look at a type of standalone flashback I am going to call the Easter Egg Flashback. In gaming, designers will insert a hidden video game feature or a surprise that will be unlocked by completing certain game tasks or techniques and that is called an Easter Egg. Thus, I am pilfering this idea and creating my own definition.

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In fiction, we see these when we encounter only one flashback or maybe just a few flashbacks. Easter Egg Flashbacks aren’t part of a true parallel timeline. They are short and sweet and intriguing. Usually, we have been in the story a while and the story will go back to another time and place and it will offer some kind of information we don’t yet understand but intrigues us. It isn’t until we complete the story that we unlock the Easter Egg Flashback.

This is used in all genres, but pretty common in thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.

For instance, I am writing a scientific thriller that incorporates voodoo. In Act One I shift back in time for a handful of pages. A main character (who is NOT my protagonist) is remembering when he was a boy trekking through the bayous of Louisiana with his father who was a missionary and a bible salesman.

On one of their journeys to bring supplies to a remote area, they run across a girl who was buried alive and clawed her way out of a shallow grave and is out of her mind and dangerous. She is screaming bible versus in Latin…backwards. Nature is also affected by this girl. Millions of coffin flies follow them as they carry this strange girl to a nearby Mambo (Voodoo Priestess) for help.

Then I go back to real time for the rest of the book.

This is the only time I ever shift from the present timeline. In isolation, this is an interesting scene. What does it have to do with a White Hat hacker (my main character)? Why would a Christian missionary seek help from a Mambo? Who are these people in the bayou? Was the girl affected by voodoo or something else?

It is only toward the end of the story that the reader finds out why that girl was so vital and understands the story problem was actually created by HER.

It is (hopefully) an Easter Egg that is unlocked. That only by unraveling the entire mystery do we finally know why it was essential to travel back in time to the swamps of Louisiana.

This was information that was essential to the story. In my mind, it wouldn’t work as a prologue. It also would have lost power if told in narrative or dialogue. But, why (I hope) it works is it is deep enough in the story that it doesn’t ruin the hook. Secondly, it is short. Thirdly, it is clearly set apart. I am not in the middle of a scene where the character has a goal and then WHAMMO…we shift backwards.

It also poses far more questions and answers none.

Easter Egg Flashbacks work great for adding mystery. The best example I can think of off-hand is Dean Koontz’s What The Night Knows. Throughout the story, we have small snippets of another time and place relayed through the Journal of Alton Turner Blackwood.

***Ya’ll get a twofer here, a flashback and a journal done well 😀 .

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But the journal flashbacks don’t explain anything, they add information, intrigue and mystery to the current timeline. The reader does not and cannot understand the significance of these entries until almost the end of the story where the Easter Eggs are “unlocked.”

Training wheel flashbacks would actually make the story clearer whereas the Easter Egg Flashbacks do exactly the opposite. They actually pose more questions, questions that must eventually be answered.

Remember the litmus test I gave last time about how to tell a good “flashback” from a needless training wheel? The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved). 

In stories by Dean Koontz, or John Stanford or Lee Child we might see snippets of the past. But using a blanket term flashback is inadequate. These authors are going back in time so yes *rolls eyes* it is technically a flashback. But WHY are they going back in time and what are they doing there?

They are hiding Easter Eggs.

There is some THING about the character or the plot or both that will eventually be unlocked once the story reaches fruition.

And THIS is why I laugh at people who think writing is easy. What we do is vastly complex and I hope y’all are enjoying the discussion and that it is becoming clearer why some “flashbacks” are awesome and others fizzle.

Also, when someone on-line says, “Kristen Lamb hates all flashbacks and says you should never use them under penalty of death,” y’all can say, “No, Kristen Lamb hates training wheel flashbacks.” Huge difference.

Next time, now that we have removed training wheels, we are going to discuss how to clip playing cards to the wheel of your bicycle so it sounds like a MOTORCYCLE (non-linear plotting) 😀 .

What are your thoughts? Questions? Does this new definition of an Easter Egg Flashback help? Can you now see the difference I am referring to, how the scenes form another time actually were being hidden in the prose waiting to be opened?


Before we go, y’all asked for it so here goes. I have two classes coming up. The class on log-lines Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line is $35 and as a BONUS, the first ten sign-ups get to be victims. IF YOU ARE QUERYING AN AGENT, YOU NEED A PITCH. I will pull apart and torture your log-line until it is agent-ready for FREE. 

Beyond the first ten folks? We will work out something super affordable as a bonus for being in the class so don’t fret. I’ll take good care of you. AND, it is two hours and on a Saturday (June 27th) and recorded so no excuses 😛 .

I am also running Hooking the Reader–Your First Five Pages.  Class is on June 30th so let’s make Tuesdays interesting. General Admission is $40 and Gold Level is $55 but with Gold Level, you get the class, the recording and I look at your first five and give detailed edit.

Our first five pages are essential for trying to attract an agent or even selling BOOKS. Readers give us a page…maybe five. Can we hook them enough to part with cold hard CASH? Also, I can generally tell all bad habits in 5 pages so probably can save you a ton in content edit.

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Remember, for MORE chances to win and better ODDS, also comment over at Dojo Diva. I am blogging for my home dojo and it will help the blog gain traction.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook

by Garda / Flickr

Image by Garda / Flickr

Happy Tuesday, my peeps! Today I am guest posting for Jane Friedman, contributing editor of Writer’s Digest Magazine, so I hope you will join me there. Here’s a taste…

Three Blunders that Can KILL Your Author Platform

The digital age author has more opportunities than any writer in the history of the written word. But with more opportunities comes more competition, and with more competition comes more work.

Mega-agent Donald Maass will tell you there are only two ways to sell books—a good book and word of mouth, and he is right. Books are not tubes of toothpaste, though many of them sell for less.

Each writer is unique, each product is unique, and thus our marketing approach must appreciate that or we are doomed to fail. Too many social media approaches are a formula to land a writer on a roof with a shotgun and a bottle of scotch. I am a writer first, so my social media approach appreciates that books are not car insurance, and writers are not tacos.

Yes, social media is a wonderful tool for building an author platform. But, unlike Starbucks, we cannot hire college students to create our product. We need to be on social media and still have time left over for the most important “marketing” task of all—writing awesome books.

I am going to point out three major social media time-wasters. If we can avoid these social media tar babies, we will have more time to write brilliant books…..

For the three blunders that can kill your platform, meet me at Jane’s and show her what amazing, awesome and strangely good-looking peeps I have….

I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in th biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left over to write more great books! I am here to change your approach, not your personality.

Welcome to the eighth installment of Twitter Tuesday. In the spirit of Twitter, this blog will be short and sweet and to the point. The tips offered here are all based off my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. If our goal is to build an author platform in the thousands to tens of thousands, then we will have to approach Twitter differently than a faceless corporation or even the regular person who does not possess a goal of becoming a brand. This blog will help you rule the Twitterverse without devolving into a spam bot

This Week’s Fail Whale–The Unbalanced Tweeter

I have a formula for social media, and it especially applies to Twitter. I call it my Law of Three.

1/3 Information + 1/3 Reciprocation + 1/3 Conversation = Balanced Platform.

If we get on Twitter and all we do is chit-chat about the weather, what we had for lunch, or whether we should get the grande or venti frappucino, it will be hard for others to find much value in our conversation. Yet, on the other hand, if all we do is tweet links, then we leave no opening for others to start a conversation. We sound like an on-line encyclopedia.

In the beginning, I had to put a sticky note on my computer to remind me of this Law of Three. It reminded me to make sure I balanced my Chatty Cathy side with good information to give a relationship with me value added. It also helped me be mindful that I wasn’t overselling my own blogs, books, workshops. The bright pink sticky flower kept me focused on serving others first.

Spend some time on Twitter and it will soon be clear who can be counted on to post good information. RT (retweet) for them and earn their loyalty by being supportive. In turn, your following will grow because now YOU can be counted on to supply valuable posts.

I have seen some people join Twitter, and, as a gimmick, all they do is post blogs or articles on a certain subject. Post after post about writing, Superman, video games, Star Wars, etc. Don’t get me wrong, that is a valuable service, but it isn’t likely to build a relationship. Relying on a tactic like this might get you a huge Twitter following, but you become as personal as an app on our phone. That’s not likely to help your author brand.

The strongest author platforms are built on friendships and reinforced with community “rebar.”


Twitter Tip–Use Twitter for Information Management to Save Time

I hear so many writers groan about Twitter. “Why do I care what somebody had for lunch?” At first glance, Twitter might appear to be only a vehicle for inane conversation. I am here to help you guys look closer.

How many of you like to read on-line articles or blogs?

How many of you like sifting through 20 bad articles or blogs that make no sense before you find something worthwhile?

How many of you prefer to go to links your friends recommend?

How many of you prefer to go to the links the “experts” recommend?

Most of us, when we make the decision to become a writer, don’t generally have vast amounts of free time. We have a day job or even small children who are actively pursuing death while we try to make our word count. Our life is a fine balance of writing before or after work. Or you might be me and struggling to pound out a chapter before the wee one wakes up and finds a way through the baby gate and into the fireplace where he can snack on Crayons, razor blades and toilet cleaner in private.

So let’s just say we are spread a tad thinly.

Twitter can help us use time more efficiently. Have a favorite author? Run a search on Twitter and find her. Pay attention to links she recommends. Follow Writers Digest Magazine (@WritersDigest) or even their contributing editor Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman). WD goes out of its way to regularly tweet great articles not only to help us with our craft, but to help us with the business side of things.  They regularly announce workshops to help us grow in our profession and even offer steep Twitter discounts. That alone should be worth being on Twitter.

After you follow them?

For starters, follow me. I have a nice button in the sidebar to make it easy for you. Then, I recommend you follow @BobMayer, @DonMaass, @JodyHedlund, @JamiGold, @TawnaFenske, @ChuckWendig, @agentsavant, @ThereseWalsh and @4KidLit. If you follow just this handful I mentioned, you will have more than enough material to feed your creative brain for a looooong time. These are just a small fraction of the awesome people I know on Twitter and, trust me I pay attention to EVERYTHING these guys post.

Using Twitter can help us work smarter, not harder. We still have best-selling books to write!

Tweet ya later!