While we are talking about the tin rules I thought I should also touch on the ‘information dump’ which is often a stumbling block for fiction writers. This is where the author feeds a bunch of information directly to the reader so they can understand what is happing in the story. It should be said that it is best avoided at all costs, but sometime you can’t, especially in the world of speculative fiction where you encounter non-human life forms or unusual worlds that need to be explained.
So what constitutes a good vs bad info sharing?
- “As you know, Bob, the Lexees feed off our laughter, so it is important to keep a straight face.” –BAD info dump
- “Is it true, Bob, that the Lexees feed off laughter?” “Yes, Bertha, so it is important not to crack so much as a smile when we are near them.” – Slightly better info dump
- ‘Bertha and Bob faced the Lexees. The twisted arms of the creatures madly spun in the air, making fart-like noises. Bertha couldn’t help herself, a small giggle slipped from her lips and instantly the Lexees fed on the sound; visibly getting larger. Bob shot Bertha a withering look and her smile faded.’ – Better (we are talking technique here, not necessarily the prose) no info dump.
This comes back to the old ‘show don’t tell’ rule, which many writers swear by. The problem is you can see it takes a lot more words to show something rather than simply stating it. Sometimes it might take pages to ‘show’ the information, and that can really slow the pace of your story.
So I won’t say don’t do the dump, but try to be clever in how you do it; have your character look at a map and describe where the action is taking place, find an old book that details lore or magic rules, have a plausibly ignorant person ask a question. Make sure you have an excuse to state the information, that way it is more believable and might not even stand out as an information dump to your reader.
Previously I’ve written about some of the ‘golden’ rules of writing. These are the ones that you should never break. There are also some ‘silver’ rules of writing, which can be broken, but best not to. Then we get to the ‘tin’ rules –those that can be broken, but only when you know when the rule should be applied, and then make the choice not to. Don’t underestimate tin, it has value, there is a reason why they recycle it and it is not just to avoid landfill!
Ing-ism is a tin rule.
Many new writers (me included) have a habit of using an excess of ing words, particularly in descriptive prose. As children it was encouraged, but as adults we need to exorcise ourselves of it (to an extent). Take these examples;
“… an old shutter dangling at a precarious angle…”
“Reaching in, Lee flicked out…”
Or the double-barrelled “…crouching in the doorway, he started smiling.”
In and of themselves they are not so bad, but if they are stacked one on top of the other they can read terribly! Let’s look at their ing-free versions:
“.. an old shutter dangled at a precarious angle…”
“Lee reached in and flicked out…”
“…crouched in the doorway, he smiled.”
You can see that the ing-free sentences are much tighter and easier to read. This is particularly useful if you are trying to write fast-paced prose or build tension. Ing words soften the writing and will subtly undermine your pacing and sometimes the tone.
Obviously ing is not a sin, some ing words will need to stay (I have a couple in the paragraph above), but I can almost guarantee you that not all the ing words in your most recent ‘first draft’ need to be there. Go back and see how many you can swap for their ing-free versions.
As I said, it is a ‘tin’ rule, you can ignore it, but make sure that you are consciously ignoring it and not just being lazy with your editing. Give it a try next time you edit, you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make to your work.
Imagine it is a beautiful, sunny day (a bit of a stretch for those of us in Melbourne) and you decide to go for a drive. You pack your picnic, a nice bottle of red and get in your zero emission cold-fusion car (let’s make this a big stretch of the imagination). Your goal is to have a nice day out in the country, but how you get there will be different for each of you.
Some will plan the entire trip using a map so they know exactly where they are going to be every step of the way. Some will look at a high-level map to get an idea of where they are going, and then just follow signs or explore anything that looks interesting along the way. Others will just get in the car and go, ready to follow any path that looks promising.
There is no ‘right’ way to go for a drive in the country (road rules aside) and writing a story is exactly the same. I have heard a number of writers debate the merits of detailed plans vs no plan vs some plan, and to me the whole thing is a moot point. When writing you should do what works for you. Explore the other methods, but if you find yourself being dragged back to your method of choice, that’s fine!
Obviously if you have a deadline, more planning is probably prudent, as ‘no plan’ will always lead to hundreds or thousands of words that take you in the wrong direction or simply just don’t get used. Back to the analogy, the person with no idea of where they are going has a much greater chance of getting lost, but they also might just discover something completely off the beaten track.
So plan if you want to plan, and don’t if you don’t. Whatever method you choose I promise you there is a well published, respected author who plans to a greater degree than you do, and an equally well published, respected author who plans less. At the end of the day, it is the final story that counts, no one cares about how you got there.
Last night, being Saturday, I did something really exciting… I sat up in bed reading a book on the pitfalls and dangers of investing. Interestingly enough the author brought up a really good point about assumptions. If you have a contract with someone to install temporary fencing, never assume they will also take it down; make sure it is written in the contract! Also, make sure the contractor has the same understanding of what ‘install’ means as what you do –or it can be a costly assumption indeed.
This got me thinking, how much can you assume when writing? I know a big one for me is vampire lore, which made it a little difficult to read a certain popular vampire book recently where every lore law was broken. But the rumour goes that lots of people enjoyed this same book. Is this general lack of knowledge because so many people did not sneak out as kids after mum and dad had gone to bed to watch the midnight horror movie like my sister and I did? Clearly the author never did. This tells me I would need to re-state the rules if I was ever to write a vampire story.
So when do you need to edit yourself on your assumptions, and when can you let them ride? I guess the safest thing you can do is work out from where you have drawn your assumptions. If it is something unique to your experience, like that seven months of air traffic control that you did, then you probably can’t assume it is common knowledge. On the other hand, if you have just picked it out of the zeitgeist of your memory and you can’t track it back to any one thing, then you can leave it in, unexplained.
It is important to note that no-one likes to be treated like an idiot, so you can’t explain everything, let the reader make some assumptions. And if they do end up missing something it usually won’t kill a story.
Of course this does not explore the whole issue of being able to identify when you are making an assumption in the first place. But it is an interesting thing to consider, especially if a twist or ending hinges on it, or if you are entering into a contract!
Many writers like to write their first draft by hand in a much loved notebook. Having always been a writer who types, I have never been able to relate the pen/pencil writers. Those I have spoken to said they like that it is too difficult to edit text as they write, so they don’t. As a result they have a much more free-flowing writing process, unhampered by the constant checking and changing that writing on a computer allows. Also they do their first very rigorous edit when transferring the story from their notebooks to the computer, giving them the opportunity to completely re-write sentences instead of being tempted to just move things around.
These seemed like valid reasons to me, so I decided to give it a go for last Sunday’s blog post. Having no pretty notebooks, I had to settle for a dog-eared pad. I started to write. I hated my first sentence and wanted to change it, but stuck to the ‘no edit’ mantra. I didn’t like the next sentence either and I realised that the whole blog was going in the wrong direction. At this point if I was on the computer I probably would have deleted the whole thing. On paper I pressed on.
Eventually I had a full post written (not that I had any idea of how long it was because there is no word-count on a pad). I disliked it very much, but went on with part two of the process; transcribing to the computer. Now while I rarely referred to what I handwrote, and what I typed bore little resemblance to the pad version, I will say the process of writing in one fluid sitting did help to focus my attention on what I really wanted to say. The typed blog came out quickly, and surprisingly required fewer edits than usual.
So would I write a novel this way? Not a chance! But I think I will plan my novels like this, as the free-flow writing was great. All I need to do now is find the perfect notepad…
I once read an interview with an author who had recently given up her day job to focus on writing full time. In it she said she was amazed that she didn’t seem to be writing any more words than when she worked in another job full time. This scared me a lot and put me off the idea of quitting work to write.
Now, taking WorldCon and other commitments out of the equation, I have been writing full time for three days (so can confidently call myself an expert). I can now see how it can feel like you write less, indeed I thought I had written very little until I actually accounted for all the words and saw there were a lot more than I had realised.
Sticking to the ‘write every day’ rule (which I think all of us have adopted since WorldCon) I have so far managed to write a full short story from start to finish and I planned out the next steps in five of my writing projects. These things alone would have taken weeks in my ‘old life’ so three days is quite a feat! And to think that it still feels like I’ve done very little just makes it that much better. Imagine what it will be like when I have a week where I feel like I have worked hard?!?
The thing is, writing full time does not mean sitting down and banging at the keyboard or scratching away on a pad from 9am – 5pm every day. It means giving yourself time to think about the plot problems and story development and then being able to write the solution as soon as you have the answer. It means writing every day, and once you hit the flow nothing breaks you out of it. But most of all, it means exploring everything you want to write, not just limiting yourself to the things you think you should finish first.
The difference between a book that sells a million copies and one that doesn’t sell out of its first print run can be so negligible as to be unpredictable. Sales do not necessarily reflect good writing or originality as much as they indicate a book being at the right place at the right time.
Right now a photo is circulating on all the news services of a man who has caught what essentially looks like a giant goldfish. Had the story come out half a week ago it would have been bumped by the New Zealand earthquake, a week later and maybe someone else would have caught a giant octopus, so it would be passé. It is all about timing. Only problem is, no one ever knows when the time is right for the story they have to tell.
This is the world in which publishers must operate every day. People supposedly didn’t want to read about magic when the Harry Potter books blasted away all previous book sales. There were probably hundreds of failed magic books before Harry that proved this, but Harry had the fortunate mix of an entertaining story coupled with finding the readers at the time when they were ready to read about magic.
So how do you land your own giant goldfish? I wish I knew. The publishers wish they knew too. To me this indicates that there is no point setting out to catch the giant goldfish, just do what you love and hope that others love it too. Besides, today it is a giant goldfish that everyone is talking about, but tomorrow it might be the alien chip found in Napoleon’s skull. We are an unpredictable species, I guess that’s why our stories are so entertaining.
Aussie Con 4: five days of discussions about speculative fiction. The panels, the lunches, the dinners, the bumping into people between panels, it is amazing! There is not only a lot to be learned at the sessions, but the chats you have with publishers, editors, writers and others between sessions can be invaluable.
The wonderful thing I have found with all the writers’ festivals/conventions that I have attended is how approachable writers and others in the business are. They can be very generous with their time and their advice; after all they were once unknowns and still remember what it was like. Something you also learn very quickly is that publishers WANT you to succeed, they are not the enemy. In fact they are actually really nice people.
And the beauty of a con for those who are not normally social bunnies or networking gurus is it is very easy to meet industry insiders. You can go to one session and watch someone give a great insight into writing and then find yourself sitting next to them at the next session. If so, strike up a conversation with them, they won’t bite!
In fact, even if the person next to you is simply another want-to-be author, talk to them. Finding like-minded writers can be hard in day to day life, and the more of them you can collect the better! No one understands the joy and pain of being a writer better than other writers, so you need to have a network.
So don’t be a shrinking violet at a convention. You are surrounded by friends and this is a great opportunity to plug into the writing community. So what are you waiting for? Aussie Con goes until Monday, so get on down to the Melbourne convention centre because you don’t want to miss this chance.
See you at the con!
Today is the first day of spring and was my last day of work. That is to say it was my last day of ‘office work’ where I go in and get paid by someone else to do stuff. Starting tomorrow I’m paying myself, so knowing me I’ll actually end up working longer hours.
So what better way to begin such a journey as attending Aussie Con 4 –the World science fiction convention being held here in Melbourne? I’ve got my highlighter ready to paint my program and I’m hoping a few of the events will have been moved since I last saw them listed so that I don’t have to borrow Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner to attend all the things I want to see.
I’m going to miss the people in my office, but I am so excited about what is ahead of me now. No more excuses, I have to write, and you can all hold me accountable. So as of hour 5 of my new found freedom I would say it has been a great move. I wouldn’t suggest all of you quit your jobs and follow my lead, but I would say that you should start your savings account so that one day you will have the option. I started mine a year ago. After all, these spontaneous life changes take some planning.
See you at the con!