General Writing

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

Categories: Editing & Rewriting, General Writing, storytelling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Saying Good-Bye

         We all have those years we want to put behind us, and this year is one of those for me.

It began with a series of deaths starting with my sister-in-law; my husband’s brother (who was married to the sister-in-law mentioned above); to the death of a colleague reporter I worked with years ago and ended with the cancer death of a woman who did a lot for Special Olympics.

She left behind a husband and two adult daughters – one has Down Syndrome. I remember this mother opening up her home to serve supper for the special education students before they went to the high school prom. My youngest autistic son so enjoyed this. I recall that night and Andrew’s excitement, exclaiming how beautiful the girls looked in their Cinderella gowns.

However, the good-byes do not end there. Another shoe dropped. My writing partner and wonderful and dear friend is moving far away. We have done so much together, not only writing but also other things together. I will miss her so much, such as going to Spaghetti Works and her ordering peppers and mushrooms to add to her spaghetti sauce.

Life brings changes and writing does the same, such as learning how to write a fiction novel by attending a writers critique group. I also learned a lot from writing conferences, editing and promotional techniques as well as what a writer’s life really involves.

After attending my first conference, I was shocked to find out when an author receives an “advance” from a publishing house if that book does not sell out that “advanced” money, the author must return the sum for those not sold. Is that not sad?

I thought once your book was out there you were on easy street. You are not. In my mind, I pictured authors sitting at their desks typing out their stories and sipping their cups of coffees. I also never thought they had to promote their own work. I believed someone else did that and in some cases that still can happen. However, in today’s world, most authors can say bye, bye to that one.

Several years ago my first book, Seasons of the Soul, was released. I had a book signing at the local library. I envisioned lines around the library waiting for them to buy my book. I had a good book signing, but it sure did not measure up to what I had predicted.

I also had several book signings at Barnes and Noble, and the customer service representative was anxious to have me return time after time. She let me stay as long as I wanted. However, those days are gone because when my historical romance, Lockets and Lanterns, was released in 2010 she actually asked me to leave after a few hours. Why the difference? The e-book revolution took its toll on Barnes and Noble’s profits. Thus again, life serves up a lot of good-byes.

I will miss my dear friend. She, though, needs to go where God leads her family, and we still will converse by phone, e-mail, write anthologies together and attend conferences. However, it will never be the same. So enjoy your time with others for nothing lasts forever and let go and let God do the rest. He will sustain you (if you believe in Him) through these good-byes.

Remember I may say good-bye to this post, but another, God willing, will appear next month. And, as always, I will end with a God bless.

Categories: General Writing, The Writer & Author, Writer Myths | Tags: , , ,

Stages of Writing a Book: Post #4 (Critique Groups)

In today’s video, Janet Syas Nitsick and I discuss critique groups.  If you go to critique groups, you want to make any changes they suggest (that you agree with) before you send your book off to an editor or beta reader.  (Beta readers can work as a critique partner.)

One huge benefit to a critique group is that you have other writers looking at your work.  

I do believe it’s important to have beta readers who read your book through the eyes of a reader.  It’s also important to have other authors look at it because authors will be looking for storytelling elements and grammatical issues readers might miss.  So really, you need both writers and readers giving you input in order to make your story the best it can be, but above all else, this is your story so take everyone’s input with a grain of salt.  If they’re saying one thing, and you feel like doing something else, my advice is to go with your gut and do what you feel is best for the story.

Where do you find critique groups?

You can find critique groups by doing an Internet search of writer groups in your area.  I suggest doing a search for your state and look up writing or critique groups.  Of course, you don’t have to keep your focus to critique groups in your area.  You can find some online.  There are plenty of places writers get together on the Internet to share and critique each other’s work.  A basic Internet search should lead you to these as well.

Another way you can find them is through word of mouth.  By coming in contact with someone in person or through a social media site (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc), you might hear about a critique group.  This is yet another reason why social media is more than just selling books.  It’s a way to connect with people and find resources of what is out there.

What makes for a good critique group?

Honesty is a key element.  You want someone who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth about your work.  You need to hear the truth, even if it stings, and it’s way better to get stung before the book is published than afterwards.

Another key element is comfort.  You want the group to be a positive experience.  It’s hard to get in front of others with your work and expose it to the world.  But it’ll be a lot easier if you are in a supportive and caring environment.  You want to feel safe.  Listen to your gut.  If your gut is telling you you’re in the wrong group, get out.

What makes for a bad critique group?

If you’re feeling rushed or don’t have time to get sufficient input into what is troubling you about your story, this is a possible red flag.  Now, it is important to make sure everyone in the group has a chance to share their work.  This is why I like smaller groups instead of bigger ones.  But you shouldn’t feel like you’re in a race to finish reading your excerpt.

If the other writers aren’t valuing your input, this is another possible red flag.  Granted, they don’t have to accept your feedback.  No one has to do their story the way you think it should be done.  But if they’re arguing with your opinion multiple times, this isn’t a good thing.  Why waste your time giving your input if they’re not going to take it?  You have better things to do with your time.

If someone is treating you poorly, get out of the group.  If you feel like you’re being talked down to or someone makes a snide comment, you don’t need to put up with this.  They should respect you and your time.

How much feedback do you listen to?

Part of this depends on how many people are telling you the same thing.  You might not agree with what they’re saying, and that’s fine.  But if you are hearing the same critique from a few people, at least take the time to think over whether or not it’s worth heeding.  It’s possible they might see something lacking in your story you don’t.  As writers, we can be blind to how a new reader will look at our work.

Another factor to consider is what genre the writer writes in.  If a science fiction author is telling a romance author their story is too emotional (esp. lovey dovey) and needs more action, take into account that science fiction as a genre is more action oriented than romance is.  As a romance writer, I get tired of all the battle scenes in a science fiction book, but I understand battle scenes is something the science fiction reader wants.  So I wouldn’t advise the science fiction writer to tone it down on the battles.  However, if another science fiction writer were to say, “This has way too many battle scenes.  There is no real plot,” then my advice would be for the science fiction writer to carefully consider the feedback.

This isn’t to say you can’t learn something valuable from someone outside your genre.  You can.  Just be aware of the lens that author is looking at your story through.

Multiple formats are great.

Some writers like going to multiple groups to get additional feedback on their story.  Some don’t.  There is no right or wrong on this one.  You do what you’re most comfortable with.   Some people like one group and Janet does several, but she an extrovert and I’m an introvert.  This is one area where you have to do what fits best for your personality.

One thing I do think is useful, however, is for people critiquing your work to be able to read it if you are in person reading it.  I don’t think people catch as much by hearing it as they do by hearing it and reading it at the same time.

The best critique groups are smaller because you can gain more feedback.  Otherwise, you can feel you are rushing through something.

Final thought: Whether or not you go to a critique group is up to you.  In my opinion, critique groups are optional.  (Janet might have a different opinion on this than I do.)  To me, the crucial thing is having a good editing team that includes at least one writer and one reader.  It’s not the number of people you have looking over your story; it’s the quality of the people looking at your story that matters.  I have four people on my editing team (two beta readers and two editors who also write), and for me, that is enough.

So do what is most comfortable for you.  There is no right or wrong way to go about this as long as you’re taking every step you can to polish up your book before it’s published.

Categories: General Writing | Tags:

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