New Serfdom — Second Draft

If The New Serfdom was a purely linear story, revision would be a cinch, more or less. But I seem to have created something that gets more complex and twisty, the longer I work with it. The linear part is there, with scenes in chronological order, but they’re embedded in trips back to the past. Gil’s life on the hold began when he and his father were snatched off the street by Charles Graves’ (the first baron) goons. Soon after that, his life and Nolan’s became inextricably tangled. He was ten years old and Nolan was 13.

What makes this revision more difficult than usual is that flashbacks can disrupt the flow of the story and wind up being infodumps. Readers don’t generally like them, and one of the frequent pieces of advice for writers is to avoid them altogether. So here I am, using flashbacks for the first time, and trying to figure out how to make them contribute to the story rather than detract from it.

The first step, since so much of the action in the novel is from Gil’s point of view, is to make every flashback one of Gil’s memories. The second is to have each flashback triggered by something in the present. The third, and this may be the most crucial point, is to use the earliest flashbacks to foreshadow something in the past that will come up later. The cumulative effect of the flashbacks is to help the reader understand Gil and Nolan, first as individuals, then as actors in a complex, evolving relationship.

The first excerpt on this page, Excerpts, is the prologue. The second one (December 8) is the opening of the novel. It’s a flashback, from Gil’s point of view, and its purpose is purely to build anticipation since there’s nothing leading up to it. The third is part of the first scene that takes place in real time. A load of prisoners/workers has just arrived at the hold, later than expected. This is the first time a scene relates to something in Gil’s past.

This may all sound glib, as if I know exactly what I’m doing. I don’t. There’s been a lot more rereading and beating my head against the wall (metaphorically) over the last two weeks, than actual writing. The idea that the flashbacks would foreshadow past events that we’ll learn about further down the line came to me very recently. Could I have learned all that from a book? Even assuming that there is a book on writing which discusses ways to use flashbacks, I doubt it. I would have been following someone else’s explanation of how to do it, and if that didn’t quite fit what I wanted to accomplish, I might have distorted the story to make it fit. The two-weeks struggle was about figuring out the best way to tell this particular story. It might not work, in the long run. But there’s no guarantee that following a set of instructions would work, either.


4 thoughts on “New Serfdom — Second Draft

  1. Are the flashbacks inexorably triggered by the sensory information in the immediate scenes? That may be a way to bring them more into the immediate storyline flow.

    1. I hadn’t really thought about it, but that’s a good point to consider as I develop the novel. I think it can be either sensory or just some action that reminds Gil of the past. The scene I excerpted does both. That’s probably ideal, but I doubt that it would be possible every time.

  2. You’re so right, Catana: it’s the segue INTO the FB that makes or mars it for readers. I’m currently rereading NICE WORK, a ’99 novel by UK author David Lodge because the guy has so much to teach me technically. Sometimes I’m half a page down before I realise he’s doing a FB, his segue in is that skilful.

    1. Segue. I’ll have to remember that as shorthand. I think what upsets people most often about flashbacks is that there’s no particular reason for their being just where they are. It’s as if the author suddenly realized that some background would come in handy and dropped it in.

      I looked up Lodge’s book on Amazon. It isn’t the kind of thing I’d usually read, but I put it on my wishlist. Another thing I wish is that Amazon would allow us to make notes about stuff we add to wishlist. So often, I have to look up a book just to remember what it was about, and then wonder why I wanted to read it. I’ll have to figure out some way to keep track. Maybe a page on my blog?

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