The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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Because of how much time traveling it does, the narration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a bunch of useful examples of how to use control and contain your flashbacks. 

THE CHALLENGE: 
Back when I started writing, I had that standard fantasy-writer habit of delivering flashbacks by skipping a line and italicizing the text. As I developed as a writer, I came to hate doing that, and so I often just launched myself into flashbacks in the narration. 

But that confuses readers. Often. They lose track. They have to read again–it disrupts everything! 

So how do you do this the right way? 

THE STORY: 
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a sci-fi staple. If you haven’t read it, please do. 

One of the striking things about this story is how it manages to be simultaneously highly evocative and emotive, and highly precise. This is a rare combination–most writers really do lean one way or the other. It offers a great chance to experience sentences that are short but feel as full as long sentences. 

Also, the narration is always in control–gracefully delivering flash backs even right in the narration. Here’s an example (which I suppose I should warn you, is horrific):


It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But Since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true. 

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. 

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. 


Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. 

She didShe did. She did. 

Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? 

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lessson. Teach her a lesson. 

Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at the front of the classroom, hands behind her back, where we could all see her, her red face and dripping nose. Her hair dull blond, her eyelashes so light them seemed not there, the lost eyelashes of someone who’s been in a fire. Burned eyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink, like a newborn mouse. None of us wanted to look like that, ever. For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her. 

Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby. 

We meant it, which is the bad part. 

I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then. 

That was last week. This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain. —PG93


THE SOLUTION: 
There are two ways that Atwood seems to help us keep up with this flashback, which might have been alarmingly confusing, because both settings are the same, and the characters are the same. Both of them are really quite simple–it’s astounding how often seemingly complex problems can have simple technical solutions, in writing. 

First, we’re warned of the flashback in the setup. We’re told that Janine told the same story two weeks in a row. This is an important context clue that foreshadows our eventual transition into flashback. 

And the last is to simply include the marker of “last week” as–more or less–a set of brackets. We begin the flashback with [last week] and end with [that was last week]. This method derives its power from it’s clarity and precision, it’s simplicity. 

It’s the closing bracket that I usually fail to include, because it feels like repeating information the reader already has. But it isn’t–it’s informing the reader that the flashback has ended. Another mistake I’ve often made in my embedded flashbacks is that I burry that first marker of time, organizing the sentence as “Janine burst into tears, last week.” Sometimes even with another phrase on the end, like “Janine burst into tears, last week, when we said this.”

I’m sure this is some self-conscious reflex on my part, trying to hide the mechanics of my writing. But it just creates needless confusion and weakens the usefulness of the tool. 

FINALLY: 
So it’s important to remember how simple writing can be, on a technical level. I keep saying it, and forgetting it, invariably. 

For embedded flashbacks to work, it helps to offer context clues and foreshadowing, but it also includes simple markers for the beginning and end. 

Thanks for reading!

How do you handle flashbacks in your writing? Do you have a key flashback passage you turn to for guidance? What else strikes you about this passage or this book? Let me know.

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Although I have yet to finish it, Dhalgren has already left some kind of mark on me. After reading Delany’s About Writing, I decided to give it a go, to take a look at the experiment he was attempting, quite intentionally, to write a character’s experience of the world on a finite moment-to-moment level. I’ve decided to call it “Sensory Action” and that’s what we’re going to look at today. 

THE CHALLENGE:
One of the big thing that’s been getting me, in writing novels, is pacing. After spending so long focusing on short fiction, it’s hard to know exactly how to fill 90,000 words without writing mostly fluff or without speeding through some insanely complex plot. 

How do people do it? 

Delany offers some answers for this, as you might expect. 

THE STORY: 
While it does not always work for me, Dhalgren is an interesting experiment in really evoking a character’s experience. At times it gets really really deep into introspection or just how something feels physically, and of course that makes everything take a lot more time. But that also means that large sections of the novel are intensely cohesive and that allows Delany to go really deep into introspection. 

I recommend Dhalgren to anyone interested in an experiment along these lines. Even just 300 pages in, it’s been well worth the effort so far.

And the moment I just experienced was crushingly good–so much that I could hardly pick up the book for days. This is a thing that happens to me when I read something that blows me away–but I usually have to get to the end first. 

ANYWAY. To look at sensory action, I want to start with 3 short excerpts, the first two of which worked really well for me and last of which gave me a lot of trouble. 

Pg11: Metal steps led up to the pedestrian walkway. But since there was no traffic, he sauntered across two empty lanes–a metal grid sunk in the blacktop gleamed where tires had polished it–to amble the broken white line, sandaled foot one side, bare foot the other. Girders wheeled by him, left and right. Beyond, the city squatted on weak, inverted images of its fires. 

He gazed across the wale of night water, all wind-runneled and sniffed for burning. A gust parted the hair at the back of his neck; smoke was moving off the water. 

“Hey you!” 

He looked up at the surprising flashlight. “Huh. . .?” At the walkway rail, another and another punctured the dark. 

Pg141: From where he sat, he could see into the kitchen: Other candles burned on the counter. Beside a paper bag of garbage, its lip neatly turned down, stood two open Campbell’s cans. He took another spoonful. Mrs Richards has mixed, he decided, two or even three kinds; he could recognize no specific flavor. 

Under the tablecloth edge, his other hand had moved to his knee–the edge of his little finger scraped the table leg. First with two fingers, then with three, then with his thumb, then with his foreknuckle, he explored the circular lathing, the upper block, the under -rim, the wing bolts, the joints and rounded excrescences of glue, the hairline cracks where piece was joined to piece–and ate more soup. 

Pg7 (In a dark cave, searching for something): He had to climb a long time. One face, fifteen feet high, stopped him for a while. He went to the side and clambered up the more uneven outcroppings. He found a thick ridge that, he realized as he pulled himself up it, was a root. He wondered what it was a root to, and gained the ledge. 

Something went Eeek! softly, six inches from his nose, and scurried off among old leaves. 

He swallowed, and the prickles tidaling along his shoulders subsided. He pulled himself the rest of the way, and stood: 

It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow. 

One end looped a plume of ferns. 

He reached for it; his body blocked the light from the brazier below: glimmer ceased. 

He felt another apprehension than that of the unexpected seen before, or accidentally revealed behind. He searched himself for some physical sign that would make it real: quickening breath, slowing heart. But what he apprehended was insubstantial as a disjunction of the soul. He picked the chain up; one end chuckled and flickered down the stone. He turned with it to catch the orange glimmer. 

Prisms. 

Some of them, anyway. 

Others were round. 

He ran the chain across his hand. Some of the round ones were transparent. Where they crossed the spaces between his fingers, the light distorted. He lifted the chain to gaze through one of the lenses. But it was opaque. Tilting it, he saw pass, dim and inches distant in the circle, his own eye, quivering in the quivering glass. 


THE SOLUTION: 
The three excerpts above offer a good sense of how Delany is writing action in this story. From the first two examples, the key lines for me are   

A) “A gust parted the hair at the back of his neck; smoke was moving off the water”

The first line blows me away every time I revisit it. It’s simple, really, in form. But in function, it’s genius. First, note how deeply chronological the action is: first the wind comes in from behind, blows the hair on his neck, and then, as it passes him, it (implicitly) blows smoke off the water (we can see this same kind of chronology in the appearance of the flashlights at the end of this excerpt, another moment i really like). And if that wasn’t enough, the parting of his hair actually evokes the movement of the smoke; we can feel smoke parting around rocks on the shore.  


On a purely grammatical level, past experience tells me that the use of “moving” has something to do with that. If overused it can be obnoxious, but present particles like this in light touches can have a fairly cinematic effect (this is something Dennis Miller was known for). But that’s only part of what’s going on here. Don’t underestimate the importance of that semi-colon. 

and B) “First with two fingers, then with three, then with his thumb, then with his foreknuckle, he explored the circular lathing, the upper block, the under -rim, the wing bolts, the joints and rounded excrescences of glue, the hairline cracks where piece was joined to piece–and mate more soup.”

Notice that this example is actually less chronological than the last. It gives us some semblance of chronology, listing his body parts in chronological order and then what he explores in chronological order. But delivered in a parallel format, which is not only wonderful grammatically and visually, but also totally sensible. Imagine how frustrating the moment might get if he had said something along the lines of “first with two fingers he explored the circular lathing, then with three the upper block, then with his thumb, the under -rim. . .” etcetera. Maybe he had originally written it this way, given what he has said about the experiment in About Writing, but it’s a smart change here. Still, he maintains what chronology he can.

Another thing to note is that this sentence seems to evoke itself even more than the other example. It has this winding feeling, in part caused by the grammar of the sentence, the short phrases separated by commas, but also by the imagery, the way we seem to be winding up his hand and the way we are exploring the parts of the table. The specificity of the nouns really helps with this–he tells us every part of the table, and even though I don’t know what each of those pieces necessarily looks like, I have a good sense of what he’s doing, that his hand is moving, that it’s feeling around a table leg. We’re giving that as startup context. We’re signaled by the new information at the end of the previous sentence, which mentions the table leg. 

So one of the key takeaways from this one is that setting up context can be super important. Telegraph what you’re going to do, then do it. That boosts the evocation and makes the complex (if parallel) bit of action a little easier to process. 

Finally, let’s turn to the excerpt from page 7, with a key passage. It’s hard to pick out a single troublesome line in this moment, but this is probably where it starts: 

C) “It lay in a crack that slanted into roofless shadow.”

This part sets up a pretty confusing moment because we have no idea what “it” is–Delany hasn’t given us context for this moment, and he’s put the “it” at the start of a sentence, forcing us over the verb and the rest of the sentence, and in fact several more sentences (in which we see “it” looped around something and him reaching for it) before we learn what “it” is–a chain. 

And yet, somehow paradoxically, this final mentioning of the chain seems to weaken the passage even further. 

With the other passages, we gradually experience the world along with the character. Here, we get thrown into a rolling bit of pronoun confusion, only to have it rather rapidly resolved. One thing you might notice about this first chapter is that it’s paced much quicker than the other scenes. In slowing down, maybe this scene could have been fleshed out chronologically, starting with him noticing a glimmer, finding a charm, discovering that “it” is a chain and the other charms. 

FINALLY: 
These are perhaps just initial impressions; I haven’t yet finished the novel, although 300 pages of this style is pretty significant. But it seems like it’s really important, when evoking action, to try to really think through chronology and the order in which the character would experience the sensations. 

Further than that, it seems like context clues and grammar can also play a really large role in sensations. 

Do you notice anything I’m missing? What’s your take away? I’ll likely be doing a few blog posts on this book, since it’s taking me such a long time to read, so is there a particular Dhalgren-related topic you’d like to see? Let me know.