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?

Searching for Reality in an Artificial World

I have returned from my trip to Venice and Florence with a camera full of pictures and a belly full of gelato, just the way such trips ought to go. I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, and I didn’t get to update my blog – in fact, internet was so scarce on the ground that I couldn’t even write to tell my boyfriend I had landed.

I went to Venice to enjoy myself and see an old friend, but I also went there to gather inspiration. I’m working on a story about a city with canals instead of streets, gondolas instead of carts, doges instead of princes. I wanted to walk around Venice and soak up the atmosphere, see how this bizarre city works, and try to inject some of that magic into my writing.

But, to be honest, I don’t feel like I got to see the real Venice. I don’t even know whether there is a real Venice. It’s all mask shops and paper shops and glass shops punctuated by restaurants with overpriced tourist menus. Even when we tried to avoid the more tourist-populated areas and visited places like Cannaregio (where the Jewish Ghetto was built), we couldn’t escape the tourist-trap feeling.

The entire island was sinking under the weight of visitors. Every time I looked at the houses above the shops, or the little side areas that appeared to hold residents, I wondered: Can people actually live here?

I wouldn’t be able to do it.

The Venice I wanted is probably the Venice that everyone thinks of when they set out. Something darkly romantic, full of secrets exchanged in gondolas and hidden behind carnival masks. Whispers in the night. Secrets the day does not quite manage to conceal.

This is no more the real Venice than the city I saw. But I was hoping, in my travel, to find some kind of truth that I could work into my prose.

All I saw was a city so heavily gilded that no one could pass by without stopping. Full of light and sound and colour and shape – the city is full of the appearance of substance, but the meat of it eluded me completely.

So, after traversing the islands on foot for four days, we moved on to Florence.

Maybe living in Venice would give me a different perspective on it – but I wouldn’t really want to move there to find out. I will keep looking for my great metropolitan muse. In the meantime, there’s plenty of other stuff to write.

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.