The Info Dump: My Best Friend, and My Story’s Worst Enemy

In my opinion, beginnings are the hardest things to write. Sure, maybe I can make a first sentence that seems catchy – at least to me – but then I have to write another. And another. And I have to set up all the little things that snowball into that one big thing that becomes a story.

Of course, when an idea pops into my head, it’s usually that middle, snowballed story. So I have to backtrack and figure out how the story becomes a story. And from that, one of two things happens:

1) I don’t think my backstory through enough, so my characters’ reasonings are insubstantial, nonsensical and unbelievable; or

2) I try to pack in the action to make people interested – then relate in a long backstory right at the beginning all the relevant information that will come into play later in the story.

This second thing is, of course, the info dump. We want to make sure everyone knows what we’re talking about, so we tell them absolutely everything. And it’s a tendency particularly among fantasy writers. Because we often set our story in a different world, we have to make sure that our readers understand its rules in addition to all the little plot details.

As a writer, when I info dump, it’s usually there not because, deep down, I think that readers need to know that information right away. It’s because I need to get all those thoughts in order, and figure out how my world works. I need the info dump for myself as both a basis for understanding, and a way to move the story forward. If I waffle along for a couple of pages, I usually think that I can move on to something exciting without ruining the pacing. Oh, if only it really worked that way.

So how do we introduce a world without writing an info dump?

1) Switch points of view: J. K. Rowling used this to great effect in her first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. “The Boy Who Lived” follows the day of Vernon Dursley as he goes about his life. As he meets all these wizards on the streets of London, we get to see from the eyes of an outsider, rather than being told how to see like an insider.

2) Make your main character an outsider, too: Whenever the main character learns something, the readrs do, too. If your main has never been to a big city before, then he’ll have to learn all the rules of the city before he gets arrested or kicked out. Right now, people are getting kind of irritated by the whole outsider thing, because practically every fantasy book is about some naive boy or girl who goes from being an insignificant nothing to the savior of the universe. So maybe don’t make your character too much of an outsider.

3) Be strategic: This is what I like to call the Suzanne Collins approach. That lady explains a whole lot in The Hunger Games, but it works because she explains it all piece by piece. Katniss doesn’t tell us all about the opening ceremony before she’s even picked in the Reaping. So we get info dumps, but they’re little. They’re not too much to take in.

4) Avoid that lengthy, but oh-so-useful prologue: This might be a pet peeve of mine. It’s very easy to give a ‘short history’ of a world or even a universe in order to set up what comes next. A character’s back story is one thing to set up in a prologue. The entire history of the world is quite another. To me, at least, it often feels rushed, forced and rather artificial.

5) Incorporate myths or folktales: Folktales and myths are ways of explaining strange phenomena of the world, or imparting some wisdom about good and bad behaviors. They’re often entertaining to read because of their whimsical style, and since they’re designed to tell something about the world (physically, spiritually, morally etc), they fulfill the role of informant without seeming forced. As long as you can legitimate including the tale in the first place…

So, there are a few ways to avoid that info dump. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but can be avoided with a bit of thought.

In what other ways can you avoid that dreaded info dump? Comments always appreciated.

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Muses and Musings

Yesterday, I found out that my favorite band of modern times has parted ways with their lead singer.

Their press release was muddled, uninformative, and came right in the middle of their American tour. Needless to say, their fanbase was upset and confused.

Symphonic Metal band Nightwish has had its share of problems regarding singers, breakups and bad press. They sacked their first singer in 2005 with an open letter that led to a well-deserved (in my opinion) storm of bad PR. Their parting of ways with their second singer was handled a little more delicately, but a careful look at the circumstances makes it clear that things didn’t end amicably here, either.

I’ve never been much for muses, but the music of this band always inspired me. The melodies and lyrics carried extra stories in them just waiting to be tapped into and released. Sometimes I would listen to just one song for days and days while writing a story to match its pace and theme.

The discovery of this news left me depressed. I love their work so much that I want to be able to love the people involved just as unequivocally. I just want to listen to good music, and write to it when the mood strikes!

But I’ve found that now the music has a little bit of a taint. It will probably go away in time. But I’m disappointed in my muses, as far as they can be called such. It’s unrealistic to expect that they be more than human, but as I revered their music for so long, I guess I wanted to revere them too. It’s like watching two good friends get divorced. You want to think that neither of them did anything wrong – but you know that both of them contributed to the current state of affairs.

I will continue to use this music as an inspiration, and to follow the journey of my favourite musical artists. I know I should separate their lives from their work, but that’s easier said than done. What do you guys do when an idol disappoints you? Have you had this kind of experience?

Maybe This Time…

I try to participate in Nanowrimo every year.

By that I mean, I get at least one hour down the pike before giving up. Sometimes I get a couple thousand words in. And a few times I’ve gone all-in, and finished that novel with hours to spare.

I’m subscribed to the OLL blog and last year I was pretty active in my little writing group here in Copenhagen. During (and after) the Big Event, I kept hearing about these amazing people who had not only managed to write a novel in a month, but had managed to rework it, polish it, edit it, send it off to an agent or publisher, and sell it. Some of the people in my writing group were preparing to self-publish their work.

All this made me take a long, hard look at my previous novels. What I found was – lack.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 1: I seem to recall I started on this one rather late. A young man receives a very rare book from his dead grandfather, along with a note saying he has to protect it at all costs. In finding out what, exactly, the book is, why some people want to destroy it and others want to protect it, he ends up getting into all kinds of trouble.
What it lacked: Substance, really. While my main character did a lot of things, I don’t think I ever clearly explained why it was he had to do them, who was after his book, or what it was all about. It was an entertaining story but I’m not sure I’ll revisit it.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 2: It took me four years to complete a Nano challenge again. I’ll admit I was a little surprised, since I had no idea what I was doing and had absolutely no plan until November 1. My story centered around a vampire protagonist who was the main villain of a gothic novel – only she didn’t want to be the bad guy. The book followed her efforts to become self-aware and change the plot, with the help of some (and hindrance of other) secondary characters.
What it lacked: Although I enjoyed writing it as a humorous piece, I don’t think this will make it to a publishing house in its current incarnation, because it lacks originality. A vampire we can sympathize with? Been there, done that. Characters of a novel becoming self-aware? Likewise. It was fun to write a mock gothic novel, but the angle isn’t enough. I’ve got plans for changing this one, but not this Nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 3: Emboldened by my success the previous year, I decided to try re-writing the second novel I ever completed. When I was 16, I produced an irritating, plotless adventure that even I didn’t really understand. It focused on a young girl who had a singular magical ability, and forged an unlikely and disapproved of friendship with the nearby magician’s son. I then spent the next six years trying to figure out what to do with it. I always liked the characters, but needed something more substantial for them than the wandering adventure that I had. So I made her the subject of an early-teen marriage to an older man, had them placed in a powerful position at some foreign court, and put in some mystery. Oh, and then I killed her.
What it lacked: I liked the way the manuscript started. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do from there. The decision to add in a little murder came towards the end, and then I realized what I really wanted – my novel was supposed to start with the murder. That led to something entirely different that won’t resemble, in any way, the mess I began six years ago. This manuscript lacked certainty. It’s something I hope to bring back to its latest incarnation – and maybe I’ll finish it this time.

This year’s novel: After a little tribulation, I decided to go with what I described in my book blurb # 1. It’s not the most original premise of the ones I posted, but I picked it because it has strong characters. That means they won’t be waffling around while I’m trying to figure out where the plot goes next. I have a clear picture of them all in my mind, so I won’t have to force actions on them or think up a reason or two. The plot doesn’t really have an unsolved mystery, which I’d have to figure out before the end, and it doesn’t have complicated magic, science or world views.

I’ll be blogging daily during Nanowrimo, in an attempt to stick to my word count. I’ll probably vent some frustrations about writers block, the cafe where I’ll do most of my morning writing, balancing Nano and thesis, and so on. I know that there are fellow Nano’ers out there in the blogosphere; maybe we can all put together a support group of some kind.

Anyone interested in Nano support, let’s hear it. Problems in previous years, trends you’ve noticed, suggestions for some kind of group…

Nanowrimo Book Blurb #2

Earth of the near future isn’t as apocalyptic as some might have feared. Flooding has changed the face of the coastal cities – but most have been reclaimed or somehow preserved. Among them is Copenhagen, known for its canal architecture, its culinary movement and its tourism.

At the top of the tourism pyramid stands Henry Salt, the American owner of a hotel chain and one of the richest men on earth. At his right hand stands the controversial artist and misogynist Janus Van der Vindt, whose preservation of women as living statues has sparked debate around the world. Van der Vindt’s art is a mystery and a scientific impossibility, and many are eager to see it fail. So when his living statues begin to disappear from Salt’s hotel lobbies around the world, they’re eager to solve the mystery before anyone else catches wind of it.

Neither of them realizes that the journey will take them into the realms of the spiritual and the impossible. The answers lie not in the hands of normal thieves, but at the heart of the changing world, the nature of art and life, and the mind of Henry Salt’s brilliant daughter, whose fascination with the powerful men around her has a profound effect on their destiny.

***
So, this one’s a bit wordy. The idea has been floating around in my head for years – the living statues were first murder victims turned art, then art turned murder victims. Now they’re something else.
I feel like the last Nanowrimo book blurb was really based around this concept, of a normal storyline turned upside-down. The characters in it were people I tried to make interesting, but they were also tropes, easy to find once I’d picked out a setting.
This blurb is the other way around. I had the characters long before I had any kind of story for them. In fact, I don’t know what kind of story I have for them even now. After all, this is just for Nanowrimo. I haven’t made a big plan yet. But the characters were people I had fun playing around with. And when I moved to Copenhagen, I found a setting into which they fit.
First, you have Henry Salt. He’s a rich man, and a callous man. He likes to work and spend time with Janus Van der Vindt, his artist, primarily because Van der Vindt is controversial. Every time he makes a new piece of art, it’s in the papers. And if Salt commissions that art for his hotel, then his hotel is also in the papers. He doesn’t really care that Van der Vindt has been called a misogynist, a murderer, the antichrist, or a bad human being in general. He’s happy because it helps him make money.
Henry Salt’s most prized possession is his daughter, Medea. Though unattractive at 14, she’s a genius. She’s also attracted in an intellectual way to the 40-something Van der Vindt, who returns the attraction. The idea behind this relationship is not to portray pedophilia, but to make the reader feel slightly uncomfortable, as though their actions aren’t quite appropriate, but cannot be condemned with certainty. This is of course underlined by Van der Vindt’s disregard for other women.
One of the reasons that this book blurb was hard to write was because it’s not really a mystery, nor a fantasy, nor post-apocalyptic literature or action/adventure. I’d like it to have all of those – but not to be any one of them more than the others.
Anyway. That’s another Nanowrimo idea. I’d love to have time enough to write all these novels I’ve been thinking of over the years. Isn’t that how it is with all writers?

Ghost Writing and the Money Conundrum

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend about my ghost writing work: when I consider all the effort I’ve put into a piece, I feel like I haven’t been paid what I truly deserve.

I’m sure lots of writers feel this way. After all, only we know exactly how much we slave away on an effort. But there is a difference between writing an original work, and writing for someone else. There’s a difference in the theory of it, the practice of it, and the payment of it. But what are these differences, and how do they make me so frustrated?

The Theory:

Writers attach a lot of importance to ideas. We want original ideas that capture the imagination and leave our readers reeling. We want profound ideas that people will discuss over and over again with their friends and acquaintances. And when we get ideas, we both guard them and obsess over them. Thus, ghost writers, who use the ideas of someone else, get relegated to second class.

When I first investigated ghost writing as a way to make a living, other aspiring writers were rather disdainful of the notion. The word “hack” was mentioned more than once. In the craft, there’s this idea that a ghost writer is the equivalent of a second-class citizen, all because we write someone else’s ideas down and not our own.

Which brings us to the second difference:

The Practice

In practice, I get more ideas for stories than I can possibly use. I have strange dreams and intriguing conversations, hear bizarre tales, read fascinating news articles and come across thought-provoking art every single day. In this I am not an especially unique person. We all have experiences worth writing about, and every writer I’ve ever met has complained of having too many ideas and not enough time to put them all down.

Neil Gaiman, my favourite author, has often related a story in which somene has come up to him at a book signing or public function and said, “I’ve got a great idea that’s sure to be a bestseller. I’ll give it to you, you just jot it down, and we’ll split the profits 50/50.”

The problem is, as Neil so eloquently explains, that ideas are the easy part. Putting them into a cohesive narrative with an engaging voice in a manner that will draw in readers – that’s the problem. That’s the difficult bit. The hours and hours of writing, followed by more painful hours of re-reading and re-writing, destroying your piece and putting it back together again.

Ghost writers skip the idea part and go straight to the writing part. And we spend hours and hours writing, reading and re-writing something that someone else gets to claim as his. So shouldn’t we get some kind of compensation for that?

Exactly How Much Compensation?

This is where the ghost writing business gets tricky. In my mind, the question of money is intricately tied into the question of ownership. Let’s compare some examples:

I recently submitted my poem Snow White to the fairy-tale e-zine Enchanted Conversations. I was absolutely delighted when the owner, Kate, asked to post it as an honourable mention. Honourable mentions on that e-zine are unpaid, but that’s okay because my name will appear beneath something I am proud of, alongside other brilliant stories by talented authors. In other words, my payment is acknowledgement and publicity.

It is an oft-quoted piece of advice that writers should write for the joy of it and not for the money. Does the same thing apply to ghost writing?

For example, on http://www.odesk.com, a client offers to pay $5.00 per 1,000 words, or half of one penny per word. Now, were I to sell a 5,000 word short story for $25.00 to a magazine under my own name, I would probably be pretty excited. Not ecstatic, but excited. I would never, ever ghost write for so little. At the end of the day I’ve put in effort for something I can never acknowledge as mine – so don’t I deserve some kind of compensation for that?

Clients don’t seem to think so. The above offer is hardly abnormal. Another job on ODesk right now offers $20.00 for 10,000 words of erotic content. Yet another offers a whopping $200.00 to the lucky person who can write an entire novel from a provided outline. Am I the only one who thinks these prices are ridiculous?

With the kinds of prices offered on the e-market for freelance and ghost writing, I wouldn’t be able to support myself even if I made freelance writing a full-time job, and never had to go a day without something to work on. And considering that I’m selling my name as well as my hard work, I hardly think that’s fair.

What are ideas, hours, names and identities worth in the field of ghost writing? How much should a ghost writer charge for the sale of her name and the building of someone else’s portfolio? It’s a question I don’t have the answer to.

Maybe there are some other ghost writers out there with the magic formula. Thoughts and comments are encouraged.