*Yes, I AM keeping holiday hours. All the guys are home on vacation. DEAL.*
I’m writing this as a series. When it’s done I’ll compile it, clean it up and put it up for download in a few formats, for something like $3.99. Might throw it on Amazon, too, if it looks worth it. Needless to say if you want to hit the donate button instead, and make a note on the paypal field
that it’s for May You Write Interesting Books, I’ll send you a copy when cleaned/compiled. Oh, btw, I’ll also be taking suggestions for other seminars on writing. I’ve considered doing something like a “self directed workshop” with suggested exercises you can do on your own or with your writing group.
It’s Dead Jim
So, you finally finished you magnum opus, with a thousand elephants, flawless world building, characters that are so real and raw that it makes your throat close up with unshed tears every time you think about it. You have proofread it till the wax melts in your ears when you read the beginning paragraph. You give it to your first readers (you do have first readers, right? If not hit some random first readers on the head, drag them to your evil lair and subject them to your experiments. A piranha tank helps. They learn right fast when it’s becoming good first readers or being skeletonized. Just saying.) You wait with baited *1 breath (we really need to talk about your three earthworms everything morning habit) and…
And they all come back and tell you “I couldn’t get past the first fifty pages, I kept falling asleep.” Or worse, they don’t tell you anything. There’s been an epidemic of sudden hair hygiene among your first readers, and shampoo consumption is through the roof; everyone’s aunt Minnie felt very sociable, suddenly; they all suffered mysterious medical ailments involving sleeping sickness. Etc.
Now you’re sitting there, at the kitchen table, looking at all 1200 printed manuscript pages (yeah, this is autobiographical, deal) crying into your coffee and wondering if you’ll ever have what it takes to write with the big boys and girls and – this being science fiction – all the people who have to look in their pants every morning to figure out which one they are (notthatthereisanythingwrongwiththat, and let the one of you who is without oddness cast the first stone.)
Don’t worry about it. We’ve all been there. I’d be willing to bet you cash money that Shakespeare, at some point, knocked on Marlowe’s door and went “I read my first lines at the Mermaid last night and everyone fell asleep. Oh, no, what do I do now? Will I ever be a writer? I mean, one who doesn’t put audiences to sleep?” (To which Marlowe answered, “What you need is more boys and tobacco” but that’s besides the point.)
Sure you will. Let’s get you fixed up. First, stop crying into your coffee. It makes it taste terrible. Unless you’re drinking Folgers decaf, in which case anything might be an improvement. Now, dry your tears and listen up.
If you’re putting your audiences to sleep that quickly, you are starting that book wrong. Look, I’ve been there. I occasionally still am. This is bound to happen PARTICULARLY with well-researched/thought out books. When you have an entire world in your head, particularly if it’s truly an original world that you can’t figure out from having read a thousand like books, you feel like you need to level set the character first. To an extent this is true, of course. To another – oh, bother – you’re overthinking it.
The “oh bother” above is that I just realized this post will be at least two posts. Never mind. Carry on. Not your fault or your problem.
I’ve been where you are, and I’ve started books with fifty page infodumps. Nowadays when I do that one or the other of the critique coven will hit me hard on the nose with the 2×4 with the rusty nails.
If you’re tempted to do this, consider the following:
1- How much does your reader need to know on page one?
Okay, so your entire world runs on “magic” that is actually the effect of an alien symbion, who melds with a certain type of person, and who can be fed via blood sacrifice (the alien, not the person. Well, the person too, but my characters prefer their flesh cooked.) Over the years a religion, full of symbolism and ritual, with gods that are the equivalent of animal avatars has grown around this, and the entire social system revolves around it. Then there’s the history and the mad king and… (Stop laughing. That’s the pre-minoan fantasy. Shut up now.)
Does your reader need to know all this in the first chapter? It might seem to you like he does, because then you can tell the story without worrying about bringing the narrative to a stop to explain. But if you do it right, you won’t anyway. And if you start with the infodumpus, they’ll never get to the action. REMEMBER that they don’t HAVE to read your book. It’s supposed to be fun. (If you can get a school to assign your book, that’s all up, of course. Be as boring as you wish, then.)
All I needed to start that book was two of the main characters sacrificing a bull, the evocation of the supernatural “other” they both host, the reason they’re doing it (scrying.) The rest gets explained along the way, or rather, explains itself. Like, when the main character heals a dying prince with the help of his symbion.
Part of the psychological mechanism to make that transition involves:
2 – How much do you need to control what your reader sees? Oh, sure, you know, you have a picture in your head, and you want the reader to see the same picture, but is it NEEDED? Does it matter, if it involves nothing in the plot, if your character is a ravishing blonde or a plucky brunette? Yeah, most of us feel the need to make sure that AT LEAST our readers see our main character properly, but is it NEEDED?
My friend Becky (Rebecca Lickiss) in her excellent Eccentric Circles never describes the POV character. This doesn’t in any way detract from enjoyment of the book. Daphne de Maurier never NAMES the POV character of Rebecca – this is still one of my favorite books.
But if you feel a need to describe your character, do it. Just do it quickly then jump out of the way (I do so) but consider, seriously consider how much description do you need?
Do the readers need to know the kitchen floor is linoleum (unless you’re setting the scene in a particular time) or will “the yellow floor” do?
If you’re like me, you like to form a picture in the reader’s mind, but does that picture need to be the exact same as in yours?
In this beta readers (UNTRAINED ones – remember the piranhas) are often a bane, because they think their job is to find something wrong, and therefore keep coming across things “you never explained.” These are things no reader in their right mind would need explained or even notice are missing. The mind just fills out the details missing. BUT the beta reader looking for something to say in order to sound useful and intelligent will tell you things like “In the lifeboat bay, you never say what color the lifeboats are!” Or “You don’t say how the lifeboat opens” or even “you don’t explain why it’s cheap to have these, but they can’t be more sophisticated.” ALL of these were betas on DST when I was so young and stupid (conditions that often occur concurrently) that I TOOK them. The result was twenty pages of bloat per ten pages of the existing Darkship Thieves, and a book that could kill people with boredom. Before I sold it (thirteen years later!) I removed all that crap and went back to first version, then applied what I had learned since.
Be very careful on “do the readers need to know this?” or “Am I the boss of the readers?” Remember, your purpose is to entertain. If in their mind your deformed redheaded dwarf is a seven foot Adonis with black hair, perhaps they need that to stay with the book? Mention it once, but don’t insist every reader remember it. UNLESS it’s essential to the plot. (As is in the one case I’m thinking of.)
Okay. More tomorrow. For now, meditate on what your reader REALLY needs to know. And remember you’re not allowed to give quizzes. Also, stock up on piranhas.
*1 this word intentionally misspelled because the author finds it funny. Stay your criticism of the writer’s spelling. Feel free to let loose with your criticism of the author’s sense of humor. Be aware that you answer WILL be “thp.”