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 July, 2006


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Advanced Techniques:  Flashbacks

by Sandy Tritt


Flashbacks interrupt the current action of the story to show a scene from the past. As such, we must always weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. Are the benefits we receive (a glimpse into a character’s past) worth leaving our characters dangling in time while we go into the past? If so, don’t hesitate to use a flashback. If not, continue with your story line and find other ways, such as exposition, discussion, etc. to entwine the past with the present.

If you choose to use a flashback, you must tip the reader that you are leaving the present. This can be done with a transition statement such as, “John remembered the day his father died.” Then, use past perfect (“had”) two or three times to complete the clue that we are entering real time in the past. And you are in the past. Act out your scene with action and dialogue, and when you are finished, clue the reader that you are returning to the present by using past perfect once or twice, and, if necessary, another transition sentence (“But that was then and this was now, and John had to let the past stay in the past.”). Here is an example:

Danny remembered more about his mother’s death than he’d ever told anyone. The day she had died, she had called each of her sons to her bedside individually.

“Pour me a cup of fresh water, please,” she said, her voice thick with the Polish accent that decorated her words when she was tired or sick.
Danny filled the cup, careful not to splash it on the bedside table.
“Now, hand me my lipstick.”
“Be good,” she finally whispered, her voice raspy.
He went to the door, started out, then stopped and turned around. His mother tapped several tiny white pills from the lipstick case and shoved them into her mouth. She had gulped water, then dumped more pills into her palm and swallowed them. Three more times, she had repeated the process.
Even now, Danny felt responsible for her death. He looked at his father and swallowed hard . . .

Note that once we entered the flashback, we stopped using past perfect (“had”) and just acted out the story. Otherwise, the “hads” weigh down the prose and suck the action out of the words.

(c) copyright 2002 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved, except for those listed here. November be reproduced for educational purposes (such as for writer's workshops), as long as this copyright notice and the url: http://tritt.wirefire.com are distributed with the pages. For use in conferences or other uses not mentioned here, please contact Sandy Tritt at tritt@wvadventures.net for permission and additional resources at no or limited charge.

   Keep writing!

Sandy Tritt

Inspiration for Writers tritt@wvadventures.net

Critiquing Special

  • Limited time special, one cent per word.  Just mention Publishing New Writers  Newsletter (July, 2006).

    Critiques by Sandy Tritt

  • Unlike most editors, I consider my role to be a mentor or a coach. Instead of just telling you what is wrong, I explain how to correct the problem, and I work with you to teach you how to write effective prose. More than 50% of my business is repeat business, and I relish establishing long-term relationships with other writers.

  • Treat you with respect and compassion. All criticism will be of the "constructive" sort. My purpose is to improve your writing, not to destroy your confidence.

  • Mark your manuscript, correcting grammatical and spelling errors and suggesting alternative wording where appropriate, line-by-line.

  • Highlight areas that are especially well-written, so you will know where your strengths are.

  • Where appropriate, offer suggestions for plot development, character development or other areas that could be strengthened.

  • Return a two-to-four page written analysis of your work. This will include evaluation of: plot, setting, characterization, dialogue, special effects (flash forwards, flashbacks, etc.), voice, point of view and any other areas particular to your work.

  • If appropriate, recommend reading or resources to strengthen your areas of weakness.

  • Answer any questions you  have via email.

  • Provide my telephone number for a personal follow-up, if you desire.

For Sandy's success stories, see http://tritt.wirefire.com/Manuscript_Critique.html

Write Sandy at tritt@wvadventures.net













Interview with David Davidar, Publisher - Penguin Canada

Interview by Sharif Khan

Mr. David Davidar began his career in journalism and is founder of Penguin Books India. Currently, he is Publisher of Penguin Canada and also is author of the novel, “The House of Blue Mangoes.”

How did you first get started in the publishing business?

Twenty years ago I was working in Bombay and there was a colleague I knew who had done a publishing course at Harvard. And she said, “Why don’t you go there and check it out?” So I came to the States, and I did the course, and at the course was Peter Mayer, Chairman of Penguin world-wide. He said, “Look you’re from India ?” (I said “yeah”). He said he was thinking of starting a company in India and asked me, “Would you like to run it?”

I was then twenty-six years old, I’d never done a publishing company in my life, I had little or no idea, but when you’re twenty-six years old sometimes you’re foolishly confident about your abilities, so I said “yes.” I went to Delhi where the office was going to be and I had never been there before, starting from Cambridge , Massachusetts to Delhi – and there was nothing there. There were exactly 3 employees in the first year of operations and they invested ten thousand US dollars in the company in 1986. And that was it…Now Penguin India is Asia ’s largest English publishing company and has done over 10 million dollars in sales. It was quite an interesting experience and I had a ball! It kept growing and growing. It’s so fascinating…Now every multinational is in India . Penguin was the first.

What project are you particularly proud of as a publisher?

The fact of having created this company (Penguin India ). We publish 200 books a year in India in the English language now. We’ve started publishing in 4 or 5 languages other than English (the first time Penguin has published in any other languages) and will be 25 years old in five years. Its just been a win-win situation because when we started, it coincided with the boom in Indians becoming global superstars like Vikram Seth, Arundathi Roy, and Upamanyu Chaterji, etc., etc., etc…The whole lot…so it is the #1 company by a long stretch and so that is my greatest pride because I started out as an editor but am now trying to develop companies and just the fact of helping create Penguin India has been enormously satisfying.

Can you tell us about the BUSINESS of publishing? (I think for most people it’s a mystery veiled in secrecy and delusions of grandeur).

There is the myth that if you write a novel you’ll become rich, famous, attractive to women, or whatever the case may be, but I think that’s largely a myth. Very few books break out in a way such as God of Small Things and A Suitable Boy did because its only 1% who get to superstardom because they won a big prize or it’s an amazing book and enough readers caught on to the fact. But think of the odds…There are about 100,000 books published every year. How on earth are you going to get each of those books to a reader’s attention! Let’s say you walk into a bookstore, you face the first novel that appears and you have no idea what it’s about. There is so much competing for your attention. Most novels sell only about 400 or 500 copies. If it’s a good seller it will sell 5000 copies if it won an award and got great reviews. It is only superstars that sell more and superstars are very few and every one knows who they are. The question we need to ask is why are there so few superstars? Why isn’t every writer published famous? There isn’t enough attention available for these writers. So that TV time, radio time, bookstore sales, all mitigate against every writer getting in.

Two or three industries suffer from the same thing, movie and TV, and music being closest to the book industry. Think of the tens of thousands of artists who’ve produced CDs and nobody’s heard of them, and nobody will hear of them because that is the way the system works. So what happens say if you’ve written a book and you approach a publisher? Well normally you approach the publishing house through a literary agent because they are the top filter, and a top agent comes to me and says this is a wonderful book…I’ll say I’ll read it. But if you approach me directly you probably won’t get through many of the sieves…there are assistants, there are people in the mailroom, and there are book manuscripts at the back because of overflow…everyone thinks they can write a book!

Finding a good agent is becoming increasingly tough because they too are inundated with manuscripts as well. The agent comes to us generating interest in a book and we have special editors, one specializes in Canadian writers; she says okay or no, I like it or don’t like it. The book is brought to a meeting where she says she wants to pay this kind of money. You have a price on this book say $35 dollars, so the author will get a percentage royalty on every book sold. For a 10% royalty you will get $3.5 dollars on every copy sold. So what we will do, is advance the author, through his or her agent x amount of money, say $35,000 dollars because we expect to sell 5,000 or 6,000 hardback and 10,000 copies in paperback, so we figure its worth about $35,000. So it’s not an outright gift…it’s an advance against royalties. Then hopefully the book is published and lives up to expectations and earns out and the response is we’re happy, the author is happy, and the agent is happy…but in 90% of the cases it doesn’t earn out the advance and so you’re in trouble. Of the 100 books published in Canada , I expect 20 books to support the rest.

Where do you see the Canadian publishing industry heading? How does it compare with what’s happening in the Indian publishing industry?

Canada has certain problems and certain advantages like many markets in the world. I’ll deal with the problem first. It’s a small market. It’s 35 million of which 5 million are French speakers, so you can’t do much with that size of market. Whereas America is 200 million plus, UK is over 60 million, Australia is really small, about 20 million. So tens of thousands of books are jostling for attention in this country. Plus you have the major superstore Indigo Chapters which controls over 50% of market, so if they don’t support a book it’s dead in the water. And there is immense pressure on them as well because there are so many books pouring in. So these are the problems people have to deal with including the fact that there are lots of writers, agents, lots of publishing houses, everyone competing for that elusive customer. Fortunately, Canadians read quite a lot, but they don’t read enough to make everyone prosperous. It is probably very difficult for a writer to break out in a major way unless you are someone like Yan Martel, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Attwood, etc., these are people already established and are stars because they’ve built up over period of time. Beyond that, it’s very tough to break through.

On the positive side, because of the way Canada has been encouraging immigration for the last 30 years, you have the whole world sitting here, and so Canada’s stories are quite fresh; whereas writing about one’s experiences living in Mississauga that’s where a lot of these books get bogged down because if your domestic experience is not interesting, how will you make your book interesting? Your life is interesting to friends, family, and about a 100 people who know you. That is were most first novels fail because they are so autobiographical, instead of trying to sell a story. Why would people want to read a book unless they’re interested in your life?

The interesting thing here is you have people from Somalia , Kosovo , Taiwan , India , and they’re all writing books about their own experiences and that’s what makes it interesting. So I think Canada has a great future about the stories its writers are starting to tell. And it is a very good domestic market for its size because per capita people read a lot more here than other countries.

I was once asked at the Canada Book Expo, where I was giving a presentation, what advice can I give aspiring writers. My reply is they should always take risks. There’s no point in writing a small, safe, book…it just disappears. Take risk! What do you have to lose? Stretch yourself, write a big, huge, ambitious book! And those are the books that always leave a mark because there’s so few around.

The Indian publishing scene in 20 years will be the second or third largest in the world overtaking Canada and Australia ; I’m talking about English language publishing. I’ve heard there are about 300 million Indians using some form of English, so they’ve already taken over the US and UK, but for the publishing industry you need to use English as first language or frequently because otherwise you’re not going to go to the bookstore to buy a book. You might go to a street fair, but you’re not my market. That’s going to take a while.

I think today there are 7 to 8 million Indians who use English effortlessly, so that’s about the size of New Zealand, but because you have next generation teenagers and young people learning English at the speed of light, they are going to join the market in another 5 to 10 years; this generation will continue to be the market, and there’s going to be bit of the previous generation also in the market, so from about 7 to 8 million India will go to 30 to 40 million in the space of 15 to 20 years which means it’s just going to explode. It’s already the fastest growing market in the world and it’s a huge market. Penguin India is fortunate, we came in the beginning so we got in on the ground floor; all we need is to reap the benefits of our earlier labor because this market is growing, while the Canadian market is pretty much static. However, it is growing through some immigration. That is why Canada needs to look out for itself constantly and build its strengths to the world if it’s going to keep its economy and lifestyle going.

(continued in next column)


A “born free” perspective on the language question


by Tinashe Mushakavanhu (Zimbabwe)

I am part of the new generation of African writers who do not have to choose the language to use in their craft. I am not ashamed to say that I am English and I was born English. Writing in my native Shona chokes my creative inspiration.

Growing up in post-colonial Zimbabwe, I was exposed more to English traditions and norms than to Shona. It was English, English, English all the time, every where. It was not a matter of choice for my parents either but it was just the way life was going. The education system was transmitted in English. Zimbabwe had just gained her independence from the yoke of colonialism and her children were so eager to embrace everything they had been denied by the English, especially their mannerisms and their language.

In the early eighties I was dosed with English films and cartoons as there were more English programmes on TV and sadly its still the case today. At home, we were encouraged to converse more in English than in Shona. Shona was a middle-class disgrace, hence it was more common to hear us young children mixing both Shona and English, creating a hybrid language commonly referred to as ChiShonglish.

My mother particularly gave me the love for English literature. She used to read to us, my young siblings and me, English bedtime stories that I remember to this day. I don’t ever remember listening to a Shona bedtime story. They were all in English and I enjoyed them.

I can confess that I know Shona as much to converse with other people. If I have to read a Shona novel, I sleep before finishing its second page.  I cannot go deeper for I will get lost in the mazy and complicated structures of the Shona language. And at school my other worst subject besides mathematics was Shona. I had to struggle with it. Passing it was mere luck.

Many years later I have begun to see myself as a writer in English. Ngugi wa’Thiongo would probably wave his book, Decolonizing the Mind, in my face. But do I have to be decolonized from my own upbringing to have a language especially when I was born within the backyard of one dominant language?

The problem of us young African writers using so-called foreign languages as our medium of creative expression has been discussed exhaustively over the past decades. It should also be taken into account that by the time an individual has assimilated sufficient English to be able to convey his innermost feelings, he would have made it more or less his own.

No wonder most of us young writers coming out of Africa choose English. It is because we have a more articulate command of English than our own native languages and thus find it easier to communicate in English. Whether this is good for Africa’s future is a matter for debate, but it is quite certain that English is here to stay. We should only hope that it will eventually be a Zimbabwean English, fully reflective of our cultural peculiarities and natural speech habits as a Zimbabwean people, rather than just as an imitation of Anglo-Saxon English. Chenjerai Hove’s Bones and Shimmer Chinodya’s Harvest of Thorns were excellent literary attempts at localising English to express local experiences.

Am I to blame for taking to English as a duck takes to water? Instead of completely doing away with the colonial educational system, our black educators decided to maintain the old linguistic structures at independence. The language policy did not change. English retained its dominance and subsequently adopted as the official code of communication and learning. Shona and Ndebele assumed inferior positions. I went to school for 17 straight years and English has been my medium of learning. Even our mighty Shona is taught in English. Can I still be blamed for being Englished?

But can an African, writing in English, convey his authentic voice and spirit? Will his immersion in the English language simply not mean a further dose of the cultural bleaching? Will it not result in a species of schizoid culture, some kind of modern bastardy?

This conceptualization of the language question is not only myopic but also inappropriately chucked out of its colonial context. Such criticism misses the points as much as it is eloquent and learned, remember we’re in the new millennium and the only language that can universally address the feelings of our generation of Africans is English.

I was given the English language at birth, can I not be proud to be a Zimbabwean and African writer in English.


Should you have any comments or suggestions feel free to write to tinsmush@yahoo.com

 Interview, continued

 Who are your heroes?

I started out with heroes and along the way you lose the need to have heroes. I greatly admire my mentor, Peter Mayer, former Chairman of Penguin, Sunny Mehta, who runs Knopf…I greatly admire writers like Vikram Seth, Arundathi Roy, Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry…but at some point in your life you stop having heroes. You figure everyone does their best, some people have luck on their side, some people have some advantages, but everyone’s a hero.

What makes them heroes in your mind?

They are exceptionally talented, and they have arrived…You know, I was reading a poem by Rudyard Kipling which goes, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run, yours is the Earth and everything that's in it…” Which means you do your best every single moment you can, and if you happen to have the talent as well, then you get to a stage where you are slightly set apart from your peers because you have done things that it is not possible for them to do.

So for example, you have great artists, like the South African writer Coetzee; they’ve written novels that’s not possible for average novelists to write because of their level of skill and level of perception. Why do you read a novel today? You have so many sources to choose from. The reason I think you read a novel today is because the greatest novels give you more truth than non-fiction. Non-fiction is information, non-fiction is argument…The Economist will give you insights, but what fiction gives you is insights into the human condition, the great fiction, not the hundred thousand novels that are published every year. There are very few books like Disgrace or A Suitable Boy or 100 Years of Solitude, my personal favorites, which raise the bar. If you can’t do that, why bother? So that’s why they are my heroes.

In terms of publishing, Sunny and Peter have pushed the boundaries of the publishing business and tried to innovate. Anyone who pushes the boundaries needs to be admired. Whether you are a business person, an athlete, or whatever, you need to push the boundaries instead of merely existing. Pearson, the company that owns Penguin, its vision is you need to be “Brave, Imaginative, and Decent.” Which are interesting words that carry a lot of meaning, and is what I look for in people. There’s lots of people that don’t get opportunities, lots of people face much competition, maybe their home situation isn’t so great, maybe their work situation isn’t so great, so their kind of stuck…but I think people make their own destiny don’t they? Yeah, I admire people, but if you ask me whether I have heroes today – probably not.

Do you have a dream or vision that guides the course of your life?

The thing about vision is it needs to be renewed every day. Because at the end of the day, what does a person want to do? You have a set path which clarifies itself as you go along. You have a set path – this is what I do, this is what I’m good at, and how can I use this to influence events and people within my ambit? And I think narrowly defined within my job description, my vision for Penguin India was to give India a world-class publishing company. I think that vision has been achieved. My vision of Penguin Canada is to make it the best company of its size anywhere in the world.

You only have one chance, make the best of it!

Sharif Khan (http://www.herosoul.com; sharif@herosoul.com) is a freelance writer, motivational speaker, coach, and author of Psychology of the Hero Soul, an inspirational book on awakening the hero within and developing people’s leadership potential. He provides inspirational keynotes and leadership seminars and also helps organizations develop empowering content through his writing services. To contact Sharif directly, call (416) 417-1259

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Publishing New Writers,

July, 2006 (no. 707)


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