Deaf and Blind

Yes, I’m doing a series of craft and “stupid things writers do to themselves” posts. Partly because as I am packing and getting ready to go to World Con I’m not reading as many field blogs as I should. Partly because for the last week I’ve been running into people who are – I think – doing things I once did. (Or tried to do, like the idiot high expectations game that wouldn’t allow me to write at all.)

I’ve often say that I’ve made every possible mistake in learning to write, and actually came up with one or two that should be impossible, and I swear that’s true. But this one is one that SHOULD be impossible, particularly for people who’ve read a lot, but that I’ve seen practically every one of my fledgelings make – particularly those that fall into the category “So sharp you cut yourself, uh?” And yeah, I managed to make it too, though I have no explanation for that.

Imagine you are reading a story that starts like this Myol strapped the deolins to the kzart and said “It’s a fine day to parralt.”

If you’re me, you’re probably going to read another two or three sentences, right? I mean, that first sentence doesn’t exactly give you anything, but it might make your eyebrows go up and you go “Well, now…”

But what if the other three sentences or four, or the first three pages are exactly the same? Oh, wait, someone named Kyar will join Myol, and they discuss the coming parralt at length, but in the end you still have no clue what this parralt has. For that matter you don’t know if Myol and Kyar are boys, girls, yes, or fish. You have no clue if the deolins are lasers, swords, horses or ribbons. And you truly have no idea what a kzart is and if animated or not.

At this point, if this is a writer you know and who has delivered for you in the past, you MIGHT keep reading. Particularly if you know this writer is known for high fantasy, say. Or science fiction. BUT even with a writer you know, by page three you’re working way too hard for the story to be enjoyable.

Why you say?

Well, sweet child’ o’ mine, because I know in your head Myol is a young warrior, who is strapping his (specialized) sabers to his tribal belt and saying “It’s a fine day to carry a complex message that could mean war or peace to my mother’s tribe.” BUT YOUR POOR READER WAS DROPPED HEAD FIRST INTO A WORLD WHERE HE’S CAREFULLY KEPT DEAF AND BLIND.

And if at this point you’re feeling very smug and going “Well, I don’t use weird names for things, so I don’t have that problem, let me enlighten you, sonny (or daughtry 🙂 ) It is not only possible but quite easy to make the exact same mistake without using made up words. (And for your information, no, I don’t recommend made up words. Ever. Don’t call a rabbit a schmerp, don’t call a saber a deolin and don’t call yourself Sherley Unless that’s your name or pen name.)

Take a story submitted by someone who should know better to my writers’ group about ten years ago. It went something like this:

Nyopar came running up the verdant hill and at the top looked at the city below.

And it went on. For FIVE pages. At the end of the five pages, you didn’t know if Nyopar was male, female, yes or cabbage. You had no clue if he/she/it had the normal humanoid body shape. And you had no clue if this city was a medieval keep or a splendorous future dome city. To give the writer her due, we DID know the hill was green, that Nyopar could run, and that there was a city presumably (though not for sure) of his/her/its kind there.

We read it because we had to, and by the time on page six we found out that Nyopar was male, that the city was a keep, and that we were dealing with high fantasy, most of us had already tried to make up surroundings for the poor … turns out guy, so that most of us got whiplash being wrenched into the place the writer wanted us.

I know, I know, you’re thinking “Golly, that sounds like it would be hard to do.” Yes, it does. Guess what, it’s not. In me, and in the writers I’ve mentored, it tends to be the mistake of people who’ve created their world SO vividly and who can see everything SO clearly that they never realize what they’re doing to the reader. It also tends to be one of the last “beginner mistakes.” By this I mean, your structure, plot, character, etc. are all already well above average. You’re just playing silly buggers with the reader. Once you stop doing that, you’ll probably be “there” writing level wise – a professional who can spin a tale everyone wants to read.

Most of the time I wasn’t QUITE as bad as that, I’ll confess, but I also didn’t remember I had readers. (And as a consequence, I didn’t, most of the time.) I just threw things at the page in the order that seemed logical to me, and left the poor reader to lope behind or not as he or she could.

To let you know how LATE in my development this happened, I had already published three short stories (got lucky on those and had the necessary info) and I’d written eight novels. I’d also been two levels of finalist on the Writers Of The Future Contest. And then one day, blindingly, I realized “someone will read this, or at least that’s why I’m writing it. Why don’t I make it EASY for them to do so?”

In my case and in a lot of others it is tempting to say that Heinlein has a lot to answer for, but that is not true. Yes, Heinlein “Heinleined” the information in without vast infodumps. And yes, various how-to-writers have talked about this. And you want to be able to do this, because you’re that smart, that cool, that…

Okay. IF like me that’s where you got this, go and read the first ten pages of Heinlein books. Juveniles probably work best (I don’t know how careful he was in the later books) but Friday is a thing of beauty for this. Take a notebook with you. Note down every time he gives you information. Either do it now, or do it after you finish reading this. But do it.

Yes, Friday, for instance, starts with her coming out of a capsule and killing someone. BUT he gives you information EVERY STEP OF THE WAY about when and where it is, what she is, and what the world is like. Look, even her reaction – seemingly spontaneous – to killing someone tells you she’s a professional in a related line to contract killing.

However, I will note that even with Heinlein and Friday, and even though he DOES give clues before that, I got to the rape page convinced the main character was a male. And then I went “Whoa, Nelly.” and got whiplash when they call her Miss Friday. That is an example of leading the reader into error unwittingly – a specialized one. If you are writing someone of a different gender (I only started writing female characters around the time I figured this out. Up till then all my main characters were male. No, it had nothing to do with patriarchal oppression. I like male heads better, possibly because I’ve observed men more closely. Sue me.) You really need to hit the reader over the head with a clue bat. I had people NOT get it, even when I came outright and said “I was a young boy.” No, seriously. You need like three “clue bat wit’ nails in it moments in the first page. Then hope your reader paid attention.

However, listen to me, because I don’t have time to tell you this three times: if you’re not capable for either reason of craft or of plot to work all that in SUBTLY into the first three pages, then it’s best to give as much information to your reader as you can, BLUNTLY. Save the subtlety for another time, but tell them where they are, in whose head they are, what type of story this is, and what the problem is.

And don’t bridle on my saying you might not be able to do it, craft wise. Look, when Heinlein wrote Friday he’d written how many books? In some of them he was fairly blunt about positioning you in time and space and giving you the problem.

I still have times when I’m starting a novel or a short story and can’t figure out how to do it subtly or want to get you there as fast as possible. Sometimes I later go back and fix the opening, but sometimes I let it be. (Yes, I’ll give examples and when I wrote them below.)

For now, I want you to remember this, when you’re writing a first page of a story. Your reader was just dropped dumb, deaf and blind into the body of your character. (Even if this is not first person.) In sf/f he has no idea WHAT that character is, and even in Romance or Mystery, he’s clueless on gender, historical time period and location. That’s because he was just dropped head first, into your world.

If you want the reader to stay, give him clues as quickly and painlessly as you can manage. Yes, in books your reader will have a cover and cover copy, and maybe title. But, and this makes it more imperative in the new world of publishing, this is not always true in either short stories or ebooks. And at any rate you should never, ever ever – if going traditional – count on your publisher cluing your reader properly. Someday, at a con, buy me a drink and I’ll tell you how that can go DISASTROUSLY wrong.

In fact, if you KNOW you’ve mastered the craft almost to perfection, but your snippets or self-published ebooks are getting no bites at all and your friends find excuses (“but I really have to strap my deolins tonight!”) not to read your stuff, this is probably the mistake you’re making. Most laymen will not be able to tell you what the problem is, only that “I didn’t finish” or “I couldn’t get into it.” A pro can, but most of us try to avoid reading people’s manuscripts unless the people are close friends or are holding our cats hostage [Don’t get ideas. It would be the Ransom of Red Chief. Except with Euclid. He wouldn’t realize anyone was holding him anything. Most of the time he thinks he’s a teapot.)

So, pull out your stuff, and look it over. In the first paragraph – as those of us who were journalism trained know – you must tell us who, what, when and possibly why.

You must not tell us TOO MUCH information, mind. We don’t need to know your character chipped her tooth at five, unless of course, that’s integral to the action later and you want to open with that for whatever reason (Write fiction for dentists much?) The first paragraph needs very little beyond “male female, yes, or cabbage?” “Age?” “General temporal location – past, present, future or alternate.” and “problem”.

The rest can trickle in over the next three pages, and you can work at making it sound natural. And keep the infodumps and/or clues no longer than a sentence at a time, if you can. Or at least do it with style.

Remember to emphasize and/or hang a flag (not literally! I mean do it in a way that calls attention to it!) on the most startling details. Which means if your name there on the page is Mary Hadalittlelamb and your main character is Mario, you’d best make d*mn double sure that people know his gender. And having him think he needs to shave might not do it. (Hey, us Mediterranean women of a certain age use all sorts of depilatory products. Else, we’d be like Helen of Troy at fifty: blousy, grey haired, with a little beard.) It also means if your character is a walking cabbage, you’d best make sure we know he has issues with his inner leaves and his leg-stalks aren’t doing so well. Because the default in our heads is the same thing as when you sign on at one of those blogs that have generic “male” or “female” shapes for icons. The reader sees one of those, usually in the author’s gender. Sometimes in their own gender (which the author controls even less.)

Yes, it takes effort and at first will take you a lot of revision, but believe it or not it will become second nature. I managed to do some of these more or less by accident when I was learning. The opening to Thirst, below, is one of these though the first page is mood setting, and the second gives you the info. Sort of. There’s info in the first paragraph, but not he one you’d expect. Then I spent years doing them on purpose. Now it more or less happens but only because you can get used to ANYTHING, just about and trained into anything so it becomes second nature.

See the examples below, then go and look at your first two pages of any story. The beats should be like this, at least for a short story: First paragraph – species, gender, general setting (past, future, present? For bonus points, city, country or wilderness.) Second paragraph – if not first. This is a “by” not a “not until” – problem facing character. This might not be the main problem of the story but it should be enough to keep the reader reading. Third paragraph, if not earlier, what type of story is this? First page, if it’s a short story, you should know what the main problem of the story will be, or at least have a clue. By page three your character should have a past, even if it’s just “I wasn’t born in space. I was born in Iowa. I only work in space.” (Yes, I love that line, and of course, looking at the reboot now, it was wrong. ) Born on the first page syndrome makes your character less human (or cabbagy, natch) and therefore less interesting.

For a novel, you have slightly longer to introduce the character’s past. You can for instance hint he had an unhappy childhood, but we don’t find out details till page 300. (Or in the musketeer mysteries case, book five, where I discovered why Athos was so tightly wound. If you read the series, look up the chess set scene with his father.) BUT we still must know up front if he’s vegetable, mineral or animal.

It helps to ask yourself questions, like – you’re in the character’s head. Now look down, what are you wearing? Look around. Where are you standing? And what is your problem?

Get that in, and your reader might still hate the story (or you) but he/she/it/cabbage won’t be deaf and blind.

Okay, here are some examples, now, so you know what I’m talking about.

Thirst, 1991. This one is imperfect. I had no clue what I was doing, so there is almost a page of “mood setting” where I make the reader work MUCH too hard for the info. It has some info, but not the obvious. It’s like dropping someone into a new world and telling them how great the food is, before they know if they have a mouth.

It opens like this: Sometimes I wake up in the evening and think them here, immaterial wisps of dream in the cold twilight air, and yet undeniably themselves: the Emperor and the boy he loved, etched by time into heroic figures without flaw.

The Emperor wears his purple, and the boy stands in one of those sweet, head-drooping postures immortalized in his countless statues.

It is not until the end of that page that, apparently tired of playing games, I decide to drop in all the info. It’s like I’ve been holding the ball above my head and refusing to play, and now unbend and go “oh, fine.”

Hylas is my name, or was my name, when I was a mortal among mortals, a living, breathing being in the sun’s embrace. A Greek name for a Roman boy born in the Suburra, raised in that maze of smelly, noisy streets that was the pulsing heart of Rome.

Ideal? No. But good enough to be my first sale.

Then Super Lamb Banana from 2003 (I need to file my short stories in a rational manner. I’m having trouble finding stuff.)


John Lennon thought he was going to be mugged.


And it shouldn’t happen here. He was at Liverpool docks where the tourists were as thick on the ground as muck in a back alley. He thought he’d be safer than near his rent-subsidized flat. But these days there was nowhere safe.

And then there’s last week, the opening of (in my defense) a novel. As you see, I’m still enamored of mood-setting paragraphs, but at least these days I tell you all the info by paragraph three. (Oh, you’re NOT going to count one line as a third paragraph are you? Fine, then. Paragraph four. Gee.)

The world celebrates great prison breaks. The French territories still commemorate the day in which the dreaded Bastille was burst open by the righteous fury of the peasantry and disgorged into the light of day the innocent, the aggrieved, the tortured and the oppressed.

They forget that every time a prison is opened, it also disgorges, amid the righteous and innocent, the con artists, the rapists, the murderers and the monsters.

Monsters like me.

My name is Lucius Dante Maximilian Keeva, Luce to my friends, though I killed the last one of those fourteen years ago.

Now go and read your own beginnings and figure out how hard you’re making the reader work to remove the ear plugs and blindfold!

*Crossposted at Mad Genius Club*

15 thoughts on “Deaf and Blind

  1. Just a comment on “schmerp”.

    In one of my story ideas, I decided to use the term schmerp for an pack animal that became the hunting partners (later pets) of my chief alien intelligent species.

    While “dog-like” in attitude and behavior, the schmerp closer in appearance to raptors (two legged dinos). [Grin]

    1. yes, of course. My son had dog-like fish critters in his mermaid world (No, the younger son. No, not written, he just made the figures out of clay when he was 11) If he’d written it, he might have called it dog-fish for a short story, because well… it saves explanations. But not for a novel.

      Of course, never underestimate people’s ability to name an animal “dog” or “wolf” or “tiger” because it vaguely resembles something in the homeland.

  2. You’re correct about default assumptions–I found out that no matter what clues you dropped about settings and characters in the beginning, if you didn’t reinforce them throughout the text, the reader would fall back to their defaults. And become extremely confused if you had your character suddenly putting on a fur hat when to them, it was obviously summer.

    1. They’re VERY hard to defeat. For instance, when I was young and stupid enough to write things set in Portugal, I got rejections scolding me for misspelling Spanish and some telling me I’d clearly never been out of the US because… the list existed only in the reader’s mind, where Portugal was USUALLY filed under “south America” and “tropical.” Heck, in real life I’ve seen it happen, where people tell me I have a Spanish accent because they ASSUME Portugal speaks Spanish. You’d have to hear me speak to know how outrageous that is, but TRUST me, it’s outrageous.

  3. A minor error: if you’re writing an sf or fantasy story, don’t throw in a puzzling local detail that could be mistaken for a Heinleined-in fantasy detail. In one of Robert Aickman’s best stories, I slammed to a stop the first time I read it when I reached the phrase “he scratched a Swann Vela.” He scratched a … what? After a good bit of research, I found out he meant “I struck a (British brand name) match.” I’m sure the character was smoking a few paragraphs later, but that phrase just brought the story to a stop for this American reader.

    1. “. . . don’t throw in a puzzling local detail that could be mistaken for a Heinleined-in fantasy detail”

      I once made a reference to a “still, small voice” and my crit partner told me to bring in the telepathy much earlier . . .

    2. BTW — this is one of the reasons that while I don’t oppose anyone writing tie-ins (people got to make a living) or fanfic, I do recommend not getting stuck in it forever. Because say I’m writing a Jane Austen fanfic. The moment I hit Lizzy and Darcy, I have the reader oriented as to which story he’s in. with at ouch to indicate if it’s historical, present or future, they’re completely at home. One story like that is fine. Do ten in a row, though, and you break the habit of clueing the reader in. Same with other fandom. You fall out of habit of “situating” the reader.

  4. Charles, your generation does this routinely to someone of MY generation who was NOT raised in the US. I’ve watched grown men and women grow misty eyed at Jeffty is Five, but for me it’s “what?” because Ellison relied on an accumulation of brand names and cultural references that meant NOTHING to me. Now, this was his choice and it’s CLEARLY very effective with his chosen audience. But for someone outside it, it’s a blank look and a puzzled head scratch.

    The point I think is to know who your audience is. I don’t think Aickman had much penetration int he US, so to him it might have been perfectly acceptable to go for the British brand. Pratchett, note, would never do that, because he sells at least equally well in the US, and that was always his ambition.

    As for writing things set in Portugal, I usually not only can’t rely on brands (just as well. It’s been 25 years and I don’t remember them that well) but I need to beat people over the head with the JUSTIFICATIONS for the weird stuff, or people think I’m nuts and lose interest. Part of the reason I don’t write much set in Portugal. The other thing I’ve heard is that you should never (for traditional publishing at least) ever set anything in NYC unless you’ve lived there or are willing to research to the Nth degree. Because most editors know that. But you can safely set something in Denver or Peoria and fudge it. Look at Star Gate which has ghettos and skyscrapers in Colorado Springs (Snort. Giggle.) And no one cares, because the locals just shrug, and the rest of the people don’t KNOW.

  5. I hate hate HATE the whole genre of movies whose characters are “back in the Sixties when we were changing the world” ex-radicals. Every misty eyed detail makes me want to scream.
    About the way you speak, I’ve always been rather pleased with myself because the first time I heard you speak, I assumed you were Romanian. For reasons you could explain some time, that turned out to be a pretty good guess.

  6. FWIW, Dervish House on this year’s Hugo ballot was a slog for me to read for a lot of the same reasons – unpronounceable names, lots of local Turkish color that I had no frames of reference for, etc, that I guess you’re just supposed to pick up via osmosis or something. In the end I made it through, and it was ok, Not great, but had I not been trying to give it a fair shake before voting I’d never have made it past the first few pages. And if I hadn’t read some of his stuff previously and enjoyed it I probably would have stopped regardless.

  7. I love this post. You’ve put into words, very clearly, a concept I’ve had trouble trying to express. “Deaf and Blind” sums it up nicely. Thanks.

    I’ve also been guilty of withholding key information to give a plot twist more punch. Turns out that usually just annoys the reader. (I later fixed it and sold the story.)

  8. The problem with “infodumping” is that it brings the story to a screeching halt. The real trick is getting words and sentences to do multiple duty–providing essential information _and_ moving the story forward. And if you can’t do that balance, mostly, short infodumps for stage setting with the need to keep the story moving.

    I do remember that a common criticism I got from Kristine Kathryn Rusch back when she was editor of F&SF was that she never “got a sense of place” from my stories. (I didn’t understand that until I spoke with Dean Wesley Smith on the phone and he said it was too much “talking heads” and not enough scene setting.)

    1. Kris told me about the syndrome in this post when I still had the problem. She said it was “Blind cat syndrome” — it felt like I could only show what was RIGHT in front of the character’s eyes.

      The best example of action married to information is, again, Friday. EVERYONE should study those first five or six pages. The book itself is not my favorite (And the narrator in audible is SO bad I can’t stand to listen to it, either. Sort of smug snivelling, which I didn’t even know was possible.) BUT that opening is MASTERFUL at well… Heinleining, without stinting the information.

  9. Coming to this very late as I catch up with your entries, but I think you tripped up over a Heinleinian cultural reference in Friday

    Despite the pro forma sexy [blonde!] girl depicted on the cover which I disregarded as plot informative and sans the jacket text which I skip for authors I respect to preserve the unexplored purity of the story of which I am about to partake, I read the dedication — hm, all female given names — and realized that RAH was offering a nod to both Defoe’s classic character and its peculiarly American incarnation His Girl Friday. This is immediately reinforced when the POV narrator chooses the feminine gender to serve for the indefinite “police monitor”.

    Therefore, Heinlein’s being coy on purpose. For those alert to the “Gal Friday” cultural allusion, he’s playing fair and for those deliberately being fed a masculine, can-do, take-charge attitude he wants to provoke psychic whiplash when he writes “Miss Friday” [which occurs on page six of the HB, at the station pickup by Uncle Jim **before** the rape scene.

    But then RAH **was** The Grandmaster and such delicate tightrope acts should bee avoided by the novice.


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