How long should a flashback be?; assessing reprint requests
Published: February 8, 2011
Q: Is there a preferred length for flashbacks?
A: Flashbacks come in all lengths, from many pages to a handful of lines. When you’re deciding how much space to devote to a scene from the past, consider its importance. A flashback that reveals something unexpected may need more space than one that simply illustrates a reality about the character’s past. Many failed flashbacks suffer from too much detail or too wide a scope. So, always make sure you include only what’s necessary.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the flashback of Daisy’s drunken episode the day before her wedding spans about a page. Fitzgerald focuses on the meaningful details: the letter (presumably from her true love, Gatsby) clutched in one hand that she gives up only when she “saw that it was coming to pieces like snow,” the string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars she insists should be given back to Tom because “Daisy’s change’ her mine,” and the spirits of ammonia and ice on the forehead ministered by her bridesmaid to help her out of this episode. The scene reveals something important about Daisy’s marriage to Tom and what that might mean for Gatsby, who is hoping to reconnect with her.
In Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, a brief flashback illustrates Corrigan’s childhood understanding of his parents’ relationship and his own youthful perception of his father:
Our mother found us one afternoon, dressed in his gray suits, the sleeves rolled up and the trousers held in place with elastic bands. We were marching around in his oversize brogues when she came and froze in the doorway, the room so quiet we could hear the radiator tick.
“Well,” she said, as she knelt to the ground in front of us. Her face spread out in a grin that seemed to pain her. “Come here.” She kissed us both on the cheek, tapped our bottoms. “Now run along.” We slipped out of our father’s old clothes, left them puddled on the floor.
Later that night we heard the clang of the coat hangers as she hung and rehung the suits.
In approximately one hundred and twenty words, McCann brings this moment to life with precise details: the grey suits, the trousers held in place with elastic bands, the clang of the coat hangers later that night. The mother’s reaction—a pained grin, a tender gesture sending the boys on their way—is also quite revealing. It doesn’t take a lot to make a moment vivid and meaningful, but it does take careful attention to detail.
Q: An editor sent me an e-mail saying he read an article I recently published in another magazine. He wants to republish the piece and pay me some money and asked me to send a digital copy and my social security number. I’m leery because he contacted me, but could this be legit?
A: You’re right to be hesitant to hand over your social security number to someone you don’t know. Con artists are creative in the ways they appeal to ego and desire in order to make an easy score. Still, some publications do require social security numbers for writers on their payroll, even if it’s just a one-time shot. While reprints aren’t common in magazines and journals, they do happen. And anthologies often republish essays, articles or stories that have already been published. So, this could go either way.
The fact that the request for personal information came in the first correspondence would be a red flag to me, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a shady request. Research the publication or press with which the editor claims affiliation. Is it respected? How long has it been around? (You’ll want to do this to determine if you want them to republish your article anyway.) Don’t simply go by the quality of the website. Many people engaged in fraud know how to make a site look slick and professional. Find the site through an Internet search or by typing the URL in to the browser yourself. If you simply click a link in the e-mail sent to you, you may end up thinking you’re safe in Kansas when, in fact, you’re dazzled but quite vulnerable in Oz. Make sure there’s a genuine connection between the person sending you the e-mail and the publication or press. You should be able to find this editor’s name and contact information on the website. If not, a quick call can confirm this.
If everything seems on the up and up, it may be a genuine request. Still, I’d at least have a phone conversation—one that you initiate by calling the number of the press or publication—before coughing up all the requested materials. All that being said, listen to your instincts. If things still don’t feel right to you or if the deal seems too good to be true, skip it.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to email@example.com. All of Brandi's other Q&A columns are available to registered users.