Watch out, that writer’s taking an info-dump!

This is another entry in my ongoing series identifying common problems in self-published novels.

As a writer, you’ve got a terrific idea for an alien planet, a fantasy world or a dystopian future. You’ve worked out all the details, and you just know that no other writer has come up with something this creative or unique ever. (Hat tip: This is probably not the case, sorry.) You’re itching to write that novel (or more likely, series) and share your wonderful vision with hordes of grateful readers.

So what do you do to best communicate all the intricate, well-thought-out details of your incredible fictional world? You introduce a character who is new to the world so that character has to learn everything about it right from the start. Perhaps it’s a visitor from another planet or an explorer from another realm. Perhaps it’s a newly awakened coma patient or a time traveler from the past who discovers a radically changed future. Sure, this technique is a cliche, but good writers can get away with using cliches. Ursula K. Le Guin, for instance, often uses the premise of a visitor from another planet to explore her worlds. But she is a terrific writer, and she knows how to world-build in a way that captivates the reader’s interest.

Do you?

A common problem I see with more immature writers of science fiction and fantasy is the tendency to dump information all over the reader in the first few pages or chapters. It’s bad to do this in huge chunks of exposition, worse to do it in dialogue, with one character explaining to the new arrival exactly why everything is the way it is. Not only is this boring to read, but it’s hard for readers to get a real sense of the world when we’re told about it via giant chunks of information, rather than shown the world over time. Each new detail about the world should build on the previous so that we gradually feel that we really know this world. I guess that’s why it’s called world-building.

As a writer, it can be difficult to know when you’re info-dumping. After all, you’re a writer and you’re writing! Look how much you’re writing. Lots and lots of writing. That should be a tip-off right there. Are your characters making painfully long speeches in order to explain something? Are expositional paragraphs stretching down entire pages? If you’re unsure, let someone else evaluate it. Readers know info-dumping when we see it. Our eyes glaze over.

Another way to realize when you’re info-dumping is to outline the action taking place in the scene. If nothing important or exciting is actually happening right now, even though there are lots of words on the page, then it’s surely an info-dump. This is the key to why info-dumps are such a turnoff for readers–they bring the action to a full stop.

To avoid info-dumping, instead show us the world as your protagonist experiences it, in small increments, as needed to advance the story. Let the protagonist discover the world and figure it out as she goes along. If further explanation is needed, keep it simple and short. Trust the reader to work things out for herself. It’s more fun for us that way.

I can assure you, since most info-dumps occur within the first chapter or two of the book, many readers won’t tolerate them. They’ll put the book down and move on to something more interesting. If you want readers to actually finish reading your book, you must be ruthless about excising the info-dump.

TV Tropes has a good article on info-dumping and why it’s so painful to read.

A note to writers: Maybe you aren’t ready…

One benefit of traditional publishing, which is lost when writers choose to self-publish, is that publishers can tell writers that their books just aren’t ready for publication.

Publishers don’t usually say this in so many words. Often the message comes in the form of a standard rejection letter or, even worse, silence. But the message is there, all the same: “Your book isn’t ready yet.”

Certainly, this can be a tough message to hear. No one wants to put so much effort into making something only to be told that they have to work still more. Still, that is the difficult truth that all writers have to accept. Perhaps writing talent is a gene that you are born with; I’m willing to buy that. But writing is also a craft, one that gets better only with diligent effort and regular practice.

Look at it this way. If you were just learning to cook, you wouldn’t expect to turn out a gourmet three-course meal worthy of serving in a fine restaurant right away. If you take up playing the piano, you don’t imagine you’re going to be performing in Carnegie Hall after only a few lessons. Good writers work at it, and their first efforts generally aren’t worthy of publication. This isn’t to say that they won’t be publishable someday, just that they need to work more.

Time to get personal now. When I was younger, I wrote a novel. It’s now languishing on floppy disks in my safety deposit box, not so much because I ever want to go back to working on it, but more as an artifact that I can look at and say, “Yes, I did that.” However, when I was finished, I knew in my heart it wasn’t ready for publication. I had what I thought was a unique premise, characters, a plot, a beginning, middle and end. My manuscript had no grammar or spelling errors. But I was honest with myself and knew it wasn’t good enough.

I could have continued working on it, and I am reasonably sure that if I did, eventually that novel or some other one would have been ready. It might have taken years, though, and to be honest, I just didn’t want to put in that kind of work. I didn’t have the drive to tell stories that would keep me going. Instead, I worked on my writing in many other ways, and every time I practiced, I got better at it.

Are you willing to be that honest with yourself? Or even better, are you willing to hear that truth from someone else: a member of a critique group, a mentor or a reviewer like me? Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, it can hurt, but this is what you chose for yourself when you chose to be a writer.

Because I don’t think you want to put your writing out there for the public to judge, even though you can, if it isn’t absolutely ready. A critique group, a mentor, a professional reviewer will likely give you another chance. The public probably won’t.

You’re not alone in this. Every writer, even the best ones, goes through a period of not being ready for publication. Here’s how they get to ready: they are honest with themselves about the quality of their work, they listen to feedback and use that criticism to make their work better and, most importantly, they persist. They keep writing until they get good enough.

So, before you self-publish that novel, ask yourself: Is it ready?

Read: Ira Glass’s advice for beginners (Zen Pencils version)

For writers who want to self-publish…

I’ve been reading a lot of self-published books lately for a freelance gig reviewing independently published books. I am not opposed to self-publishing. I think it’s terrific that technology is allowing more writers to get their work out there and have the opportunity to be read.

BUT… (you knew that was coming, right?)

A lot of readers are turned off of self-published books and refuse to even consider reading them, and I think that’s only going to get worse. There are many reasons for this that I could get into, but the major one that’s been bugging me, that I see time and again in the books I review, is sloppiness.

Sloppy grammar, sloppy spelling, sloppy storytelling, sloppy characterization. It’s as if the writer is in such a rush to publish that s/he forgets to slow down and take care with this thing s/he is making.

Traditional publishing does provide one important thing that self-publishing does not: time. It takes time to get through all those gates the publishers are keeping. It takes time to prepare a book for publication. During that time, the writing can be polished, edited, corrected, cleaned up. It results in a better product.

Readers can be notoriously picky about little things like grammar and punctuation. Sometimes I think we readers are more particular about these things than many writers. You have to remember that we read primarily for enjoyment. A book riddled with errors does not make for an enjoyable read. A sloppily written book will not be worth the time readers have to put in, much less their money.

If you are a writer who intends to self-publish, and you want to make it big a la Hugh Howey or Andy Weir, you have to be more perfect than everyone else. I can direct some criticisms at Howey’s and Weir’s books, but at least they were free of egregious grammatical and spelling errors, which meant I enjoyed the experience of reading them.

The best advice I can give to writers who want to self publish is to reread your work many times and mercilessly eradicate all the errors you find. Better yet, invest in a thorough copy edit by a professional who really knows their stuff.

Above all, don’t be sloppy. If this is something you really feel you want to do, as a profession or even as a calling, then take your time and make your writing the best it can be.

In future posts, I’m going to be offering specific advice about the most common errors I’m seeing in the self-published manuscripts I’m reading. There are many ways to follow me (see the sidebar) if you’d like to improve your writing.

Rule number 1 for self-publishers: Proofread!

In the last few years, services like Kindle Direct Publishing and  Lulu have made it incredibly easy for writers to self-publish, which I think is mostly a good thing for writers and readers. Self-publishing enables writers to build and audience and demonstrate their talents, and it puts more voices out there than ever before. Some terrific writers have gotten their start through self-publishing, such as Hugh Howey (Wooland Andy Weir (The Martian: A Novel).

But self-published books have already acquired a tarnished reputation, and with good reason: They are all-too-often riddled with errors. Spelling mistakes, typos, punctuation misuse, grammar abuse, word confusion, incorrect names and facts–when a reader encounters too many of these in the first few pages of a book, she will stop reading, and with good reason. How can a writer expect readers to pay good money for an unprofessional product? It’s not enough to run a spell-checker. Writers who aspire to the professional level must show some respect for their craft and knowledge of the language that is their medium. They must proofread.

We’ve all seen errors in professionally published books as well, especially e-books, but the amount and types of errors aren’t nearly so egregious. Professional publishing assures the reader that someone has read the book beside the writer and has probably caught most of the major goofs. Self-published writers have to give readers a very good reason to dip their toes in the sea of dreck and seek out their books. They have to be even better than their professionally published competitors.

The bare minimum self-published writers can do is hire a professional proofreader or copyeditor to give their books a thorough vetting. If your book is riddled with errors, your ideas simply won’t shine through.

Is writing torture? Should it be?

I remember when writing used to be something I did solely for fun, when I would write just to play around with words. I created collage poems out of words and pictures cut from magazines. I tried to make up my own acrostics and crosswords. I wrote stories as a form of play — playing with an idea, a structure, something that someone else had written.

I think one reason I don’t write as much as I used to or would like to is because somewhere along the way, I lost that sense of having fun with it. Is it because I’ve grown up? Is it because I think I shouldn’t do anything anymore unless it’s productive or results in a paycheck, because that’s we are taught to think that adults do. Adults don’t play; we work.

Or is it because I’ve been told over and over again that to be a writer, one must be tortured, obsessed, possessed? Writing is something you do because you have to, not because you want to. Above all, it is not fun.

Probably it’s a combination of all of the above. One thing I do know — I miss writing just for fun. I want that back in my life.

After reading this — Elizabeth Gilbert Versus Philip Roth: Is Writing Torture? in The New Yorker — I have to declare that I completely respect Elizabeth Gilbert’s point of view. She has not lost her sense of fun or play. She can’t believe she actually gets to write as a job.

Doesn’t that seem preferable to the old “tortured artist” routine?

Also worth reading: Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on writing.

 

The writer’s job…

The writer’s job is to entertain, but there is more. Writers can educate, enlighten, even corrupt. This is why books are often seen as dangerous.

Writers are observers. They want to figure out what makes us human. Why do we behave the way we do toward one another? What is our purpose here? Is there any meaning to all this? Are we in control of our destiny or at the mercy of fate, the environment, heredity or dumb luck?

Writers are always looking. They are constantly:

  • looking back — to understand who we are by understanding where we came from
  • looking around — at contemporary society, culture, institutions, values and beliefs
  • looking inward — revealing interior thoughts and psychology, trying to figure out what makes us tick
  • looking beyond — turning our fears into monsters; realizing our fantasies by making the impossible possible; traveling to the furthest reaches of space, other dimensions and parallel worlds
  • looking forward — extrapolating on the problems of today and following them through to their ultimate ends

A writer’s trick…

I once heard a writer say in an interview that he always goes to a coffeeshop to write. This is because at home there are too many distractions. There are chores to be done, books to be read, snacks to be eaten and so on. But at the coffeeshop, while there are distractions, they aren’t intended for him. If he isn’t there to write, he has no reason to be there. So he might as well write. It sounds like a good trick, one I should try. All writers seem to have the problem of how to force themselves to sit down and just write.