Notes from the Underwear

How do you feel about info-dumps? The term itself is clearly pejorative. How can a dump ever be good? But how do you help the reader understand what’s going on if you’re not allowed to pause the action while you explain what’s going on?

I’ve become active in a couple of Facebook groups for writers of fantasy. One of the participants was sort of ranting about how she hates info-dumps. She feels information should be parceled out a bit at a time, dusted lightly into the scene as if it were a sprinkling of powdered sugar. (That’s my image, not hers.)

I suggested that if a dramatic scene has been set down on the page, if the stakes are clear, it’s okay to pause the action for as much as a full page in order to fill in any back-story that’s really necessary. Parceling out information a bit at a time is actually rude, because you’re asking the reader to construct a coherent understanding in their head by connecting the dots. And finding the right places for those dots? Not easy. But she stuck to her guns, by golly.

So I wandered over to Amazon and had a look for her books. Nope. She hasn’t published a single novel. This is a red flag. Opinions, as the saying goes, are like assholes. Everybody has one. What’s worse, the legions of the clueless — by which I mean aspiring unpublished authors — have no clear way to determine what advice is good and what advice they should ignore.

I asked her politely if she would be willing to share a few chapters of her work so I could understand better how she deals with parceling out information. And then, crickets. The idea that she should demonstrate the validity of the idea she was espousing was apparently just too radical.

My advice is, buy a stack of how-to-write books published by major publishing houses. Then, read the books. No, a blog about writing is not an adequate substitute; blogs are like assholes. (No, wait. Do I mean that?) Most of the things I say to aspiring authors are based as much on what I’ve read in how-to-write books as on my own experience.

In another discussion, a writer said he’s worried about his second and third chapters being too slow-paced. The same aspiring pundit rushed to assure him that a more relaxed chapter was okay after an exciting chapter. I, on the other hand, suggested to him that if he’s sensing a problem with those chapters, he’s probably right. I suggested he brainstorm some ways to make those chapters more dramatic.

Writing a novel is hard. There are so many, many ways to do it wrong! Last night I revised the opening chapter of The Leafstone Shield. It’s much better now than in the published version. At some point I’m going to have to issue a revised edition, but that probably won’t happen for a couple of years. I have a fair amount of experience as a writer of fiction, and I still screw up. I get things wrong, and then I dream up reasons to tell myself it’s really okay.

Rule Number One for writers of fiction: Your book is not as good as you think it is. It’s just not. But this is not a reason for despair; it just means you need to roll up your sleeves, dig in, and make it better.

Most aspiring authors don’t want to do that. When you point out problems, they get defensive. They want to be told that their work is wonderful, that it only needs a few little tweaks and it will be ready for the New York Times best seller list.

Yesterday I read the opening two chapters of a fantasy novel that an unpublished author is working on. There was a lot of not terribly original world-building, but there was no plot. Also no fully dramatized scenes, just scraps in which not much happens. Those two chapters need to be thrown out. The writer needs to start over. But I’ll bet you $5 she won’t want to do that. She’ll come up with reasons why the material needs only a few minor tweaks.

And here’s a delightful (?) bit, a post from a person in one of the fantasy writers’ groups: “I have no idea where my story falls on the charts of what genre of fantasy it is. Is there someone who would be willing to read my first chapter (I can’t remember exactly but somewhere between 4,000&5,000 words) and book outline in exchange for me beta reading up to 10,000 words for them? Someone who is knowledgeable about fantasy genres and would be able to tell me what genre it fits into.”

The rock-crushing problem with this is that the writer has not researched her own genre enough to know how her story fits within the genre — and yet she thinks her primary problem is market positioning of the existing manuscript.

Am I too old and cynical? Sure. If you’re not cynical by the time you’re 35, you’re just not paying attention. And I passed the 35 mile mark half a lifetime ago.

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