I don’t remember who told me this but it was good advice that I have always tried to remember and incorporate.
Never take too much control of your fantasy world to the point where you drown the reader in descriptions of the insignificant minutiae. Do not smother the reader with irrelevancies. Let them have freedom to imagine the less important things for themselves and they will have a more enjoyable time reading what you have written.
So many people say never do this and never do that when going about and giving advice to authors. But, except for extreme examples of stupidity (disjointed plots, rampant spelling errors, glaring contradictions, etc.), for every one of these “don’ts” which supposedly make stories unpublishable I can find examples of these “don’ts” being used in published works by both established and new authors all the time.
So how did these “don’ts” come to be “don’ts” then? Who knows. Maybe it is just another example of a lie being told often enough that it becomes truth.
Every novel has them; the often dreaded info dump. Long paragraphs of backstory crammed in either as uncomfortable, droning dialogue between characters or pages of omnipotent exposition on past events are supposedly frowned upon from the opinions I have been gathering. Yet, surprising, every novel that I have read in recent memory has contained them. For something so universally reviled, it sure does get included quite often as a tool an author to pass information on the reader.
I refer to this as the “And then …. Nothing happened” part of the story. For example, I am reading Theft of Swords right now and I swear that, literally, nothing of great importance has happened in quite some time. I just got done with a passage of the book where there was a long discussion about the various gods of the world just to get the reader informed about who they are. Interesting from a backstory component, but a little uncomfortable and seemingly out of place. That followed what amounted to a lot of travel to the location of a secret prison, which itself followed a lot of information on a monetary that was burned down.
Don’t get me wrong. So far the book is good even if I think some of the recent info dumping currently going on could have been broken up. But I hear it all the time from people who think they know so much about how to write that these sorts of methods for conveying backstory sink a story’s chances of being published. Obviously not!
I am told by people, other writers mostly, that I have too much info dumping in drafts they are critiquing. They tell me how such sequences are too long. They tell me how I must take them out or never be published. Then I show then passages from books where there are info dumps three times as long and make he obvious point that those books were published. I ask them how is their opinion valid in the face of evidence to the contrary. To that question I get a lot of convoluted answers, but never any that really answer the question.
People might complain about info dumps in stories, but the facts are that they exist. And they exist often. And the funniest thing is some of my fellow writers who are critiquing my current works are some of the worst offenders because I have been reading their drafts as well. One lady, for example, complained that a three paragraph sequence (3/4 of a page) putting some backstory forth was “too long” just as a “general rule of thumb”. Yet her most recent work has nearly 4,000 words, some fifteen pages, of backstory dumped in one instance!
I am sure that there are horrendous examples of the info dump that are unreadable. I know, even though I cannot think of them off the top of my head, they exist. I think most people that hate the dumping of backstory remember only the worst of the worst and then proclaim all as bad.
I do not fear using the info dump however. In my own writing I try to keep them small and within the flow of the story and not let the reader get drawn too far away from the here and now and what the characters are currently doing. Hopefully I am succeeding so that my own little info dumps don’t get lumped in with the worst of them.
If anyone asks me about my current main project, Under the Darkened Moon, I do not lie about it. I freely admit that I plan it to be the first of a series of stories set in the world of Arrnna. Even if I write something else in the meantime. However, even though the story is part of an epic fantasy saga I have purposefully tried to write the novel in a less than epic fashion. Hey, you have to get published first is the way I see it. Then you have to prove your story can sell second. Trying to sell an epic five, six or seven book series to a publisher without a track record is certainly a daunting task. Selling one book with the hook that there can be much more if the publisher desires is certainly more doable. So it is important for me to make sure that the story in Under the Darkened Moon wraps up completely by the end of it. I would hate to sell the first book of a saga and never be able to complete it because I never get to sell the second.
Some people that have been reviewing the drafts, giving it good reviews too, have pointed out that the book seems like it could be easily stretched into a two book set. Originally, to tell the truth, it was headed that way. The entire story was at first around 300,000 words (two books of approximately 150,000 words each). But really about half of that story was only of interest to me as the author. It really was not things the reader needed to know and it seemed to drag in parts. So I edited the book down to about 140,000 as of right now. Hey, I look at it like this; if I sell this book and get a chance to sell another, I can always go back and tell the story in those “lost” 150,000 words as a collection of short stories to supplement the novel.
I am about halfway through my current edit. I hope to have it done sometime around June. Whether or not it will get another polish or not is still up in the air.
Her Lovely Blood, the latest novel I have started, makes use of the hand of fate and meddling gods to move the story forward. These sorts of stories can be problematic in that many similar stories I have read with this sort of plot device tend to over rely on it. Every time the hero gets into trouble, some god or another intervenes to save him. If not every time, then somewhere around 90%.
I am consciously trying to make sure that while the gods do interfere from time to time, their interference is minor and not simply to get my heroine out of impossible situation after impossible situation. Oh, the number of stories I have read like that which have bored me to tears! The heroine herself will have to eventually succeed or fail because of her own abilities.
Too much meddling by all-powerful or even quasi all-powerful beings and you are left with a shell of a story. It may be wrapped up in the greatest prose ever, but the story will be predictable with the reader immediately trying to figure out what the gods will do to save the main character as soon as [insert death defying situation here] comes up.
Almost every novel I read seems to have segments where bulk has been added needlessly. Whether it is myriads of little details getting heaped on top of other, little details that will never be played out beyond their introduction, or sidetracks from the main story that seem to have little significance to what is going on an that painfully drag on, I used to think that these sorts of things were authors just babbling and trying to maintain a rigid, dictatorial grip over ever aspect of every leaf on every tree in “their story”.
But, in talking to authors it has lead me to realize that many times, not all however, these sorts of things are put in to appeal to publishers who demand a story be of a certain length or a certain concept within the book be further explored. One friend of mine, currently going through the process of getting his first book published, is adding nearly 30,000 words to his novel because the publisher demanded a longer book after accepting to publish said book. Last night he told me of the horror he was going through to stretch out his story. In some places he gripped about having to “over describe” scenes to the point where reading them nauseated him. He has also added an entire chapter early in the book to included some “action” where the publisher said the book was dragging. But now, with the addition of that chapter, he is finding all sorts of contradictions that need cleaned up elsewhere and changing other aspects of the story. He wants published so he is doing all this grudgingly.
To an extent, we all hope that anyone putting the time and effort in to publishing a book for us as authors knows what they are doing. Sometimes though, based on experience as a reader I do have to wonder. When it comes to a choice between publication or trash bin I think we all, with a few exceptions, choose publication. But in the back of my mind I do have to wonder how much of the things that I find distasteful about so many books I read were not by the author’s hand but rather from the publisher’s ardent insistence.
A Rube Goldberg Device is something that is unnecessarily complex in order to accomplish a fairly simple task. Thus, by it’s complex nature it is clumsy, unwieldy, often breaks and fails to perform the task it was designed to do. Stories, it seems to me, often turn into such monstrosities. Yes, even published stories which get the full backing of a publishing house and make money for an author.
In stories turned Rube Goldberg devices, things tend to just happen. The author gets from point A to point D through events B and C, but those events are clunky and often seem constructed to purposefully drive a story through, even if they tend to make little sense as to why they needed to be taken even after they were taken. Such stories heap unpredictability among improbabilities upon out of character reactions until the story reaches the author’s desired ending. Don’t get me wrong, unpredictability is good because predictability breeds boredom. However, too much unpredictability, and not enough logic, leads to frustration on the part of the reader. A reader can only stand so many “out of the blue” realizations that save a character from certain doom, or plot twists that send the story off in new directions. Too many and the reader becomes dizzy.
There is one example that is most prevalent in my mind of this sort of story telling gone awry; the television series “24”. Although I hear the series “Lost” was the same way, but I can honestly say because I never watched it. The first season of “24” was great. I and many of my friends loved it because there were twists and turns and looking at them in hind sight, once revealed, made sense. The writers struck just the right balance.
Then came season 2, and it was good, though not as good as the first. The sense was that the writers knew that the unpredictability was the draw of the show, so they tried to squeeze in more of it. But some of the twists, even in hindsight, seemed little more than an appeasing grasp at the philosophy that unpredictability for the sake of it was a good thing.
After season 2, things went downhill fast. Some of the following seasons were better than others, but they all suffered from the same flaw of being too much like a Rube Goldberg Device. Characters would have a sudden flash of insight to escape a hopeless situation. Others would mysteriously appear for no other reason than to push on to the next cliff hanger ending each week. Still others would change stripes without any inclination that they were going to despite lots of screen time spent delving into their characters and portraying them in a certain light. Essentially, there series was chaos out of which emerged the ending some many weeks later.
Stories that proceed like this actually bore me more than encourage me to read more. Eventually, too much chaos and it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief.
Ok, time to vent on a pet peeve of mine; people who claim that using the passive voice in writing is wrong. It is not wrong. In fact there is nothing grammatically wrong with writing in the passive voice. Yet I just had another encounter with another author, unpublished of course, who swears that the passive voice is grammatically incorrect.
What is the passive voice? Passive voice is when the object of an action becomes the subject of a sentence. For example, saying “Why was the paper written on by you?” is perfectly grammatically correct but is passive in its voice. The paper is being acted on and also where one expects the subject to be. One would expect the question to be asked, “Why did you write on the paper.”
The two sentences however have the same meaning. But the first is slightly more advanced, potentially leading to someone with a lower reading level being confused by it. That’s ok though. And here is why. Because repetitive, predictable sentence structure in prose is boring. I have read enough of it. And a lot of it exists in so called “Best Sellers” that numb my brain with robotic English.
I am here however to say that it is ok to throw in a couple passive sentences as long as they are not overly clumsy. Of course, writing too much in the passive voice can indeed be awkward. If half of your sentences are passive people are not going to like that. But if you judiciously make 3% or so (that’s just 3 out of every 100) sentences in the passive voice, it breaks up the inevitable monotony of your structure. By being smart about when you use the passive voice, a reader probably will not even recognize that you have pulled such a sentence out of your bag of tricks.
Most successful fiction authors seem to have their passive voice sentences down to a very low number. But they do not eliminate them. Remember all this next time someone tells you such a sentence is “wrong”.
A friend proofing my novel Under the Darkened Moon, asked me to describe my philosophy behind the book and the way I have it structured. He was uncertain what style the book was going for. I said it was fairly simple. The book was written to be read like one smokes a fine cigar. Obviously confused, I informed my friend that fine cigars change their flavor subtly from start to finish. Under the Darkened Moon does the same thing. It starts off as fantasy/mystery, the it morphs into fantasy/romance, then into fantasy/action and then climaxes as a hodgepodge of all three.
That sort of subtle change throughout the course of the story may not interest some people. But it interests me and that is why I wrote it that way.
Something I have noticed in a couple of the novels I have been reading lately is that there is a lot of, what I consider, overkill in certain passages. Especially when it comes to descriptions of things and events in the story.
These passages turn me off because they seem to drone on and on describing what seems to be mundane items or events in exorbitant detail. Even when the item or event is important to the story, I find myself flipping forward and scurrying past the repetitive words. Especially when I feel the author has already sufficiently described what is happening. Sometimes brevity is best I feel, and I certainly do not mind the occasional embellishment to add emphasis. But when it seems to happen over and over, I find myself and my mind starting to wander away from the story and having to refocus.
I am sure some people like this sort of writing. Apparently I am not one of them however. I just unnerves me that a good story gets sidetracked by an over use of over zealous descriptions. I wonder if they are just used in such an overkill fashion to add girth to a story.
I already have gone through my novel Under the Darkened Moon and ripped out huge swatches of these sorts of descriptions because they annoyed me so much. Maybe by doing so it makes the story too simplistic. But to me it makes the story better.