Fiction Writing Is Not a Roll Call

A common mistake many new writers make is to inundate the reader with unnecessary information or too much information all at once. In writing circles it’s called infodump. It might manifest as a roll call of characters, lengthy biographical history as each one is introduced, overly detailed scene setting or world building. It happens because writers want their readers to understand the context of unfolding events. While the writer’s intentions are good, it bogs down the pace of the story and it doesn’t leave the reader with questions that need to be answered by reading on.

Imagine reading this paragraph:

Jennifer Dunne was a 28 year old woman whose mother had just died, but since they never had a very close relationship, Jennifer was not able to cry at her funeral. Her elderly father was her only source of comfort growing up and she followed in his footsteps by becoming an engineer and going to work in his company. Jennifer has two best friends, Des and Joni, who she has known since grade school and they are as close as sisters would be. They all live in Doylestown, the county seat of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which is an hour north of Philadelphia. (Are you bored yet?)

My first draft of Three Empty Frames wasn’t quite that bad, but I did an awful lot of infodumping on my first try at novel writing. The thing is… all that information eventually got included in the story but in small doses as the information became relevant to the plot.

One of my chief methods of incorporating detail into the story, especially the biographical history of the characters, is through dialogue. In the fictional world as in the real world, when people talk, they tell one another about themselves. When boy meets girl or girl meets girl or whatever, it is only natural for the pair to begin to share personal information. Even then, it wouldn’t be natural for the character to tell his entire life story, but just a few memories can reveal a great deal about the person and what makes them tick. The same is true with their conversational style and delivery. The way they talk will give the reader clues as to their personality without having to describe it intimate detail:

Jen was smart and loyal but guarded, keeping all but her close friends at arms’ length. Her sense of humor was sarcastic and as a result, she often offended people unintentionally. (Readers will figure this out on their own as they see how Jen relates to others; they don’t need it spelled out for them.)

The same is true of your setting. The location doesn’t need to be described in meticulous detail as the story opens. However, in just a few words, the scene can be set:

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ~ 1984; George Orwell.

Just from that opening line, we know the weather and time of year but we also know something’s up because our clocks don’t strike thirteen. It’s only later on that we discover the full extent of Orwell’s dystopian vision, yet, the season and time of day are described clearly. And establishing place and time is an important feature to include within the first few paragraphs of a story. It orients the reader, connecting them to the fictional world. Nevertheless, the details can be saved for later. This includes the size of the town or its population, its proximity to another metropolitan area, the main industry of the region (if that even matters) and its infrastructure: busy highways, high-rise apartments, public transportation versus narrow streets, quaint houses and mountain views. Just an aside —the bit about ‘clocks striking thirteen’ is one of those mysterious details that compels the reader to continue. We should all aspire to create such a hook at the start of the story!

Things can get tricky when your story has a big cast of characters. In order to distinguish one from another, you might feel obilgated to write a lengthy biography to fix each one in the reader’s mind. But really, if the character is not central to the plot, this is irrelevant filler material. For minor characters, a unique and memorable name might be enough to set them apart from the main players. Some minor characters don’t even need to be named. For example, Jen might just refer to ‘her boss’ rather than ‘Harry, a fifty year old chief engineer in her department who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and is well liked by all his employees’. Seriously, who cares? Unless Harry is going to have a larger role later on, there is no need to expound on his qualities as a boss. Additionally, if you do have a big cast of characters, don’t introduce all of them in Chapter One. Bring each one onto the stage as their appearances become integral to the plot. For example, your mystery story might have a detective investigate the crime, but if the story is built around the victims of the crime then the detective doesn’t need to show up until several chapters in. A late introduction doesn’t automatically diminish the minor character’s importance to the story. While the main characters should be introduced early, so that the reader can establish a relationship with them, the rest of the cast can enter as they become relevant.

The tendency to infodump is a difficult one to overcome. Nevertheless, with awareness and practice it can be managed and mastered.

Wishing you happy writing and productive editing.

Header image via Vector Images

Filling the Creative Reservoir

Life with all its stresses can be a drag on your creativity. And yes, we all know about the writers and artists who use their anger, pain, and frustration as source material for their work. But what if your crappy, exhausting job, bills, debt and student loans, managing your kids’ school activities and issues, and if you’re a part of the sandwich generation, taking care of aging parents, isn’t proving to be terribly inspiring? When you do find a spare minute to yourself and finally sit in front of the screen or the canvas, then nothing comes. All those daily anxieties push out the great ideas that used to wake you up in the middle of the night. Can you force yourself to be creative? Or is it hopeless?

Take a look at it this way: some of those ‘daily grind’ things we do involve being creative. Things like parenting, successfully carrying out the tasks of your employment, cultivating your relationships and cooking meals for your family. When we appreciate that we are being creative in our daily routine, we must then figure out how to cultivate creativity for our artistry. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking, ‘what if…?’ and letting your mind answer the question with all the possibilities.

Remember that your talents have already manifested themselves. If you’ve been creative in the past, you can be again. Reflect on those past achievements. While it’s true that creativity may come naturally to some, many successful artists and writers have simply nurtured their creativity over time. You see what I’m saying? They worked at it. The writer or artist who sits staring at the blank screen or canvas waiting for inspiration to strike is going to be waiting a long time. Inspiration comes not just from within but also from without. We must take the initiative to find it.

Read other authors in your genre. Read other authors outside of your genre, including non-fiction. Watch films, television programs, go to the theater. Go outside and move your body. And for Pete’s sake, turn off the podcasts and the news and refresh your mind with some quiet time. Listen to music. Go to the art museum, or even a small gallery and take time to study the paintings, photographs or sculptures. Spend time with your friends, especially those who also have creative pursuits. Join a book club – you might be able to find one through your local library or independent book store. Take an evening art class, even if it’s way below your skill level. You’ll always learn at least one new thing. Spend time with people who inspire you, rather than drain you. Granted, we can’t all hang out with our heroes but this is the time to read interviews, listen to lectures or read their biographies.

And since we began this discussion by acknowledging the scarcity of free time, I’m by no means advocating ALL of those suggestions. Just pick one that fits into your schedule. Above all, don’t get discouraged. If the creative reservoir seems dry, it might take a little time to fill it back up again. Start adding just one bucket full at a time.

Writing Ritually and Habitually

Some writers can write anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. Some of us need routine. And some of us have obsessive compulsive rituals we need to follow for any writing to happen. I am pretty adaptable in my habits but I do have preferences. This is my favorite way to write:

Place: I recently converted part of my finished basement into a writing space and art studio. Prior to that, I was sharing a desk with my husband in an alcove of our bedroom and using the kitchen counter for art projects. I’m sure you can imagine the mess I was making. In the basement studio —I call it my subterranean lair, because in my head I am a superhero— I have sliding glass doors and a large double window for natural light and lots of plants just outside for a view of nature as well. I have a long countertop area to use for drawing and an area for my computer and monitor at the other end. My easel stands in front of the window for my canvases. This setup keeps my on my feet for not just for art but for writing, too. Standing is my preferred posture; it’s better than sitting on your kiester all day. Trust me, I‘m a doctor— at least until August 31st! Besides that, it makes it easier to move around. If I’m working out a scene in my head, I might pace or dance around if I have music playing. And that is definitely a healthy habit to have!

Time: I seem to have all my best ideas in the wee hours of the night, and alas, so many of them are gone by morning. However, when something truly inspired wakes me up, I have a notebook and pen nearby so I can tiptoe to the bathroom and scribble it down. As for my lengthy writing sessions, I prefer to start first thing in the morning, write for at least an hour or two and break off for my exercise; I usually don’t write in the middle of the day. I also may write in the evenings, just before bed, but often that leaves me unable to turn my brain off for sleep. Not cool; I love sleep.

Music: I like to write with music on in the background, but it isn’t absolutely essential. Complete quiet is fine, too. When I do have music on, it is usually classical, jazz, or soft electronic music. The only time that changes is if I’m writing something ‘energetic’ like an argument, a comedic scene or a big revelation. In that case, I might put on dance music or loud rock. Under normal circumstances, though, I get too distracted with the lyrics. For drawing and painting, I choose my music based on the mood of the piece I want to create. Sometimes, it’s not even music but nature sounds that make the backdrop to my artwork.

Beverages: Early morning writing requires coffee, at least two cups. And by cups, I mean giant mugs. If I find myself writing in the afternoon, then I have tea. And after 5:00, well it’s happy hour, right? Seriously, though I don’t over-imbibe while I write. Occasionally, a whisky or a pint is a little lubrication for the creative mind, but too much of that and you end up with a mess on your hands and a whole lot of rewriting to do! (See this episode of Drinking Adventurously for more on that subject).

Goals: In paying attention to the habits of other successful writers like Stephen King, Lisa Scottoline, John Grisham, and Nora Roberts, the single habit they all share is setting writing goals. Perhaps it is as vague as ‘a page a day’ —if you are writing a page that is filled with dialogue, that might not be very many words, whereas a scene-setting narration with lots of description might have a high word count. Other goals may be specific to word count, chapter completion, character development or plot resolution. My goals are usually tied to plot resolutions. In other words, I write until I finish up a scene at an appropriate spot. It isn’t always the end of a chapter, but that is most often the way it ends up.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in writing these past four years, there is not a right way or a wrong way to write, as long as you keep writing! Tell me, fellow writers, what are your rituals?