The Art of Layering in Our Fragmentary World

Infodumps are evil. Readers hit them, and their eyes glaze over. We’re lucky if they skip over them and keep going. Unlucky if they decide then and there to set the story or book aside.
We writers know infodumps are bad even if we can’t always avoid them in actual practice. Most advice tells us to break up the details and pepper them in the best we can.
Which is a helpful, but I’d argue an incompletesuggestion.
I’ve talked before about my writing process, and how my stories often begin as a skeletal first draft of dialogue and action, then I have to layer in everything else. In this case, layer refers to the iterative passes where I add in setting detail, character blocking, internal thoughts, and other expository “flesh” to the story.
Picture Source

Today I want to focus on the layering in of specific types of information: Description and Backstory.
But first, a digression (because it’s my blog and I can do what I want). Readers have a choice in how they spend their time. Books are in competition with video games, TV and movies, the black hole that is the internet, on top of demands of work and family. This isn’t new. With advances in technology and changes in how people spend their free time, people’s attention spans become increasingly fragmentary.
I have to wonder if this is related to readers’ intolerance with infodumps. They don’t have the patience to wade through them when in the back of their mind, they’re wondering why they’re wasting their time on a boring book when they could be doing X, Y, or Z…
In other words, you need to make your book worth the opportunity cost of other activities.
And that means conveying information in an entertaining way (however defined) all the time. So. Back to layering in details. We’re told to break them up and add them in as necessary, but it should go further than that. Here’s what I strive to do with my words, but your mileage may vary.
Description
Lush description can be wonderful, but so often, such passages have no movement, no underlying action, no impetus forward. It’s a hard balance to strike: having enough detail the reader can visualize your world, but not so much it slows down pacing.
Don’t explain/describe everything at once—Readers can tolerate a certain amount of uncertainty and that can even be a driving motivation to keep them reading. Just be careful to not have too much uncertainty because then curiosity will morph into frustration (and frustration means no more reading).
Readers are on a need-to-know basis—Some grounding details are necessary, but don’t overwhelm or bore them with things that aren’t quite important yet. Granted, there are things you’ll want to sow in to foreshadow or set up subsequent scenes, but you want to strive for natural inclusion, else those details will draw attention to themselves.
Rely on archetypes—Think of these as writerly shorthand. Use them when you want to get across a basic concept: Tree, house, cow, [insert your own noun here]. Most readers will have a mental image of these concepts in their brain. The key is to prime the reader by relying on that mental image, then gradually introducing details that confirm or disrupt that image as you move from a universal concept to a more specific one.
Think telling details—These are details that are evocative and appropriate and important for describing something accurately or setting the tone or establishing voice. But don’t waste words (and your reader’s time) on the obvious. Let the archetype do the heavy lifting, and include telling details as necessary. And sometimes, a tree is just a tree.
Backstory
Also something you’re better off peppering in as needed, this one is particularly insidious for writers because they spend so much time trying to figure out who their characters are and how they came to be that way, that it’s hard for them to decide what is and is not relevant for the reader.
So how do you determine what’s relevant? When the information:
Is key to understanding a character’s reaction/state-of-mind/worldview—This helps the reader identify where a character is coming from and may help to explain why they react in the way they do in the story. A character who has a history of abuse will probably react differently than a character who doesn’t, for example. Think of this type of information as an extension of character development. But extension is an important distinction—character development should be grounded in the story itself, the backstory just provides occasional context. 
Disrupts a character or reader’s assumptions for dramatic effect—Remember telling details? Backstory can function in the same manner, either confirming or clarifying character, or disrupting expectations for a dramatic twist. Look at the way JK Rowling handles Snape’s character in the Harry Potter series for how the judicious application of backstory can be used to increase tension, conflict, drama, and, interestingly, catharsis.
Obviously the worst thing a writer can do is bring a story to a screeching halt in order to convey whatever details are needed. But almost always the reader doesn’t need as much as the author thinks they do to understand what is going on. (This is where trusted readers are worth their weight in gold.)
Character archetypes can also come in handy here (hooker with the heart of gold, sad sack detective, fresh faced apprentice on hero’s journey, etc.) to help the reader tap into unconscious understanding of character—just don’t forget to round them out so they become more than just a caricature as you move from universal archetypes to specific characters only you can create.

***
So remember, less is almost always more, unless it confuses the reader. Strive for clarity above all, and to a lesser extent, Donald Maas’s microtension—those unexpected but revealing details that describe your story world or provide a provocative hint at your character’s past. Such details create curiosity in your reader and serve as minihooks to help your story compete in a media-rich and fragmentary world.

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Being Clever versus Being a Good Storyteller

Over the weekend I went to a reading for a local speculative fiction author. In the course of his talk, he said something that resonated with me.
That with his first book series, he was trying very hard to be Clever and write Very Important Stories. But now, a few books later, he’s focused on good storytelling, no matter the milieu he’s working in (I’m paraphrasing here).
I found this to be an interesting distinction he made, and it echoed some of my internal (but not quite fully formed) thoughts about my own work and what I need to be focusing on if I want a career in this field.
Case in point: One of my short stories that I have been submitting since early 2012 has been shortlisted or bumped to the second round at SIX pro or semipro markets. But it still hasn’t found a home, and I have to ask myself why. I’ve settled on the fact that it is my “cleverest” story, given its subject matter. It asks a lot of the reader at the beginning, but it also rewards you once you get to the end. (Yeah, that kind of story.)
The first couple of times it was shortlisted, I chose to be encouraged, thinking I just haven’t found the right market. But after six (six!) times being a bridesmaid, well, I think it’s time to reevaluate things.
Perhaps I’m a little too in love with my cleverness, and as a result, I’ve forgotten the number one reason for writing a story for publication…. Readers.
I’m not saying cleverness is a bad thing. Instead it’s a matter of emphasis.
Putting story and the reader experience first does not mean you can’t also be clever. In fact, being clever in that context can be an amazing thing.
But the flip side? When being clever is your primary goal, sometimes to the exclusion of all else? That’s where you tend to lose people. (A semi-related aspect of this is when beautiful writing overwhelms a story to its detriment—see the recent article Literary Talent versus Story Talent.)
I think this is a particular problem in SF/F because Ideas!and Science! are often an integral part of the story. A nifty idea can make up for a lot of sins in craft, character development, and plot. Almost to the point where that nifty idea becomes a crutch.
My story has a nifty idea, and it also commits a few sins of good storytelling. And that combination has netted me a whole lot of close-but-no-cigars. So where do I go from here? I’ve got to figure out a way to present my nifty idea within the context of good storytelling.
That can be a hard gulf to bridge for any writer, beginning or seasoned. But letting the story rest and getting some new eyes on it will go a long way. At least I’m hoping so.
Warning signs your “cleverness” is getting in the way of your story:
  • Focusing on your “nifty idea” to the detriment of other story elements.
  • Reader feedback saying they didn’t understand aspects of your story.
  • Infodumps that are necessary to explain things to unenlightened readers.
  • Telling yourself the above is okay because you’re writing for a select/smart/in-the-know audience which consists of you and maybe five other people.
Have you ever been guilty of letting your ideas take over your story?

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Feedback, But When?

Feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Well, at least mine! How else will you know if your intentions match up with the reception of your work? Today, I’ll talk about the different stages of a project where it might be appropriate to solicit feedback.
In-Progress Feedback
In one of my writing groups, the work I share is almost always a work-in-progress. It’s literate, but it’s usually a snippet from a novel or a short story that still needs some fleshing out. In this case, I’m actively looking to my other group members for assistance in how to flesh the story out, what I’ve overlooked, and ultimately whether I’m on the right track or not. Just realize not every writing group is geared to workshopping this kind of early stage writing. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Critical thinkers, other writers.
Developmental Feedback
I’d call this feedback on anything that’s been drafted and fleshed out, but hasn’t fully cured in a version you are confident in submitting somewhere. In other words, you’ve gotten to the end, but the ride is still a bit bumpy (not in a good way). Here, I’m looking for macro-level adjustments (micro is good too) that I can make so the story can gel into a finalized draft. At this stage, I want people who understand the big picture but also the aspects of craft that will help me realize it all on the page. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Other writers, particularly those writing in your genre.
Polished Feedback
This is feedback on a polished draft that you think is the best it can be. You know, all those checklists when you’re trying to decide if you’re ready to submit or not? If your answer is yes, it’s still a good idea to get another person (or persons!) to take a look. You might burn a few weeks only to get your readers’ blessing to send it out, but it’s better to know you are sending out your best work than being surprised by some issue that was overlooked at other stages. And when you only have one shot with agents, you want everything to be as good as it can be. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Readers of your genre, other writers.
Public Reception
So let’s say your story/novel/what-have-you got published. Yay! At this stage, there’s still a couple metrics you can use to see how your work is received and ways to use its reception and apply it to your next story. Obviously things like sales figures are important. But so are reviews. I’m not talking about the reviews your mom/critique partner/best friend wrote. I’m talking about the reviews written by strangers who have no personal investment in you or your story.
Seth Godin says the worst feedback is indifference. Some stories and novels get published, and just as quickly vanish into the ether. Now some of this can be attributed to poor marketing and positioning, and sometimes a story just doesn’t have the impact it should. And sometimes, you are lucky enough to get reviews that help you to understand what worked and what didn’t in your story. Elizabeth Spann Craig talks about this in Handling Reviews from Mystery Writing is Murder. Give yourself time for the sting to wear off, but even bad reviews can be instructive (so long as it’s not coming from someone with an ax to grind).
One of my published stories was not received in the manner I had hoped for, and I learned a lot from seeing those reviews of my work. It forced me to analyze my assumptions in writing that particular story as well as my assumptions in who the story’s audience was, and so on. Despite the short-term disappointment in that story’s reception, that was a hugely valuable experience, and one that will shape my work to come.
***
So obviously, you need feedback, and at what point you solicit it and from whom will be dependent on your writerly network and your own needs and comfort level with the critique process.
Personally, I try to get feedback at each stage of a project, if possible. In my goal to write faster, I’ve found that In-Progress Feedback is extremely helpful for heading off mistakes in a story that would need significant retooling if they were found much later in the process. However, for that to be successful, I think you need to be:
1)     very used to critique and,
2)     very clear in your own head with what you’re trying to achieve with your work.
Especially because rogue comments can easily affect the trajectory of a story and your confidence in it at the early stage of a project. It should also be said that if you’re sharing early work, you are sharing it with writers who:
1)     you trust
2)     understand that it’s an early draft, and
3)     can provide constructive criticism (not all critiquers are alike in this)
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I’ve found this work for me.

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Rough Crit

Criticism is hard to take sometimes. But if you are actively seeking it out, there’s no better way to improve and hone your craft in my opinion. It means you take your work seriously and want to grow as a writer.
It also means you are guaranteed a rough crit session from time to time. So here are some tips for how to survive an in-personcritique when it seems like your colleagues or fellow workshoppers are out to get you.

During the session:

1) Don’t get defensive

I repeat: Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive leads all too easily to getting angry, which can lead to things being said that cannot be unsaid.
If you find your hackles rising, find a way to channel that feeling into something productive. Me? I’m a notetaker. I write down all the bad things someone raises about my work during critique sessions. Even the things I don’t agree with. Something about the process of notetaking adds a crucial bit of separation between me and what’s being said, allowing me to compartmentalize the negative stuff and move on.

2) Don’t try to justify

We’ve all been in that situation where a writer says something like, “Well, what I was trying to do in that scene…” or “My intentions were…” et cetera. This often leads to a lengthy monologue where the writer explains why the story is the way it is, refuting every issue raised during the session along the way.
This is a waste of everyone’s time. If you try to justify what you wrote—preferring your words to a reader’s honest reactions—you’re basically saying your critiquers’ reactions to your story don’t matter. Which begs the question why you are soliciting critiques in the first place.

Note that this does not mean you can’t ask someone for clarification about why they felt the way they did about your work. You can. But be wary if you find yourself protesting too much.

 

3) Don’t take your bad crit out on others

I’ve been in roundtable critique sessions where a writer responds to a harsh crit by being harsh in turn out of spite—not raising legitimate issues with the work under consideration. Don’t be that person.
If you can’t be civil in the aftermath of a rough crit, excuse yourself, take a time out, do whatever it is you need to do to find balance. It may not seem that way when your critiquers are tearing apart your work, but they are trying to help you. Don’t do something that will jeopardize their future good will.

 

After the session:

1) Give yourself some time

If you aren’t ready to dive into the negative feedback, that’s okay. Read a book, work on another project, do whatever it is you need to do to be in the proper headspace for processing feedback.
Taos Toolbox had a very large critique component. I deliberately refrained from looking at what my colleagues had to say about my work until I got home. Why? Because I knew if I looked at the written feedback it would distract me from my main goal of the workshop: making real connections with fellow writers. I didn’t want my interactions tainted by the critiques—that’s the one who got too heavy-handed with their line edits or that’s the one who hated my MC—instead of getting to know them on a more personal level. It also gave me time for their suggestions to sink in, and when I got home, I was more open to making changes.

 

2) Understand who is giving you feedback

In other words, not all critiquers are created equal. Just because someone writes a lot or well doesn’t mean they automatically give good feedback. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t have a lot of publishing credentials doesn’t mean they won’t have any insights into your work.
Some things to ask yourself when weighing feedback:
How much experience does this person have with critiquing?
Do they write in my genre?
Do I like their style/storytelling abilities?
Are they a writerly type to avoid? – Inexperience, ignorance, and ego can all be problematic

 

3) Understand what you are getting feedback on

You’d think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Whatever you submit or send in, right? Here’s the thing. You know, consciously or unconsciously, what kinds of questions you have about your story. And whether you ask for specific feedback or not, the issues your critiquers raise can surprise you.
There’s nothing worse than expecting macro-level feedback and getting your story put through a line editing meat grinder. Or expecting help to polish a final draft, only to have your story premise dissected. That’s not to say those things can’t be helpful—usually they are. But if you aren’t expecting it, those kinds of crits can be devastating.
So double-check your critique expectations. If there’s a large deviation between the feedback you expected and what you actually got, ask yourself the following:
Did I specify my critique expectations? 
Sometimes it is as simple as saying your story is an early or a final draft—often that will cue the critiquer to respond accordingly. Other times, you may need a second opinion on a problematic element (say structure or characterization). You want to make sure you tell your critiquers that. It may not help—they could forget or get distracted by another aspect of your story, but at least you know you tried to get the right kind of feedback for your story.
Did I inadvertently trigger one of my critiquer’s hot-button issues? 
People will respond in unexpected ways to your work. If you hand an atheist a Christian romance, well, that could lead to a very interesting critique. People with different worldviews and life experiences are great to have in a writing group—but those very differences can lead to surprising results in practice as well.
It usually comes down to knowing the people you are exchanging work with. As someone who’s spent a lot of time reading and writing romance, I can be very critical of those scenes. One of my writing friends is an interior designer, and often her comments pick apart descriptions of interior spaces and architecture. Similarly, scientists get cranky when you fudge scientific details or resort to handwaving in speculative works.
So if a critiquer is overly sensitive to an aspect of your story, ask yourself why. Usually it is because they have firsthand knowledge or expertise on a particular subject. Instead of getting defensive, use their knowledge to strengthen your work.
***
I hope this post results in less stressful and more useful critique sessions. For more on this subject, check out 5 Ways to Get Good Revision Notes.
Happy writing!

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Feedback: It Gets Easier

This is a post I couldn’t write a few years ago. Back then, I had just started sharing my work with others. Although I desperately needed feedback, sometimes it hurt. Sometimes the criticisms made me doubt. And sometimes those criticisms made me change my stories, for better andworse.
But it doesn’t change the fact that feedback is a necessary evil in writing.
That first project? You know the one. The story that started them all, the one you’ll see through the bitter end, and the one you fear will end up in the bottom of the desk drawer. That one—your baby.
Feedback on that story is always the hardest. There’s no way around that, unless you have a Teflon-coated ego (and if you have one of those maybe you shouldn’t writing). You put so much of yourself into that first book, your dreams and hopes that you’ll buck the trend and get on the NY Times bestseller list. Any critical feedback will seem like an indictment against all that labor and love.
But if you’re writing for publication, you’ll get over that eventually. You’ll have to. Along with revising and revising some more until it’s time to start the feedback cycle all over again. It’ll go easier the second time around. After all, you already understand how it works. You have a stronger sense of your story’s strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll understand yourself better. Which means knowing when you are overreacting to a piece of criticism and knowing which suggestions you need to consider and which ones you need to ignore. This is a huge milestone, but it takes practice with the feedback cycle, and sometimes a strong understanding of the people reading your work.
It takes time to do this. But it’s time well spent, because you need to get all this out of your system in order to start on the next project, regardless of whether your baby sells.
With the next project, you’ve told yourself you’re not going to make the same mistakes as the first. And you won’t—you’ll just make different ones. And then the feedback circuit will give you time to fix them.
It’ll be even easier this time. You know why? Because you don’t have nearly the same emotional investment in this project as you did in the one before. I’m not saying you don’t care about this project—you most certainly do. But now you know that this project isn’t the be-all and end-all of your writing career. You have other stories in you. This new story proves it.
So feedback this time may still sting, but you’ll be better able to compartmentalize it and use it to fuel positive changes in your work. And this is hugely valuable when you’re faced with tough revision decisions like restructuring your novel, adding or subtracting characters, or simply gutting the story and starting all over again.
The hard work that maybe you weren’t strong enough to even consider with your baby. But now, when the hunger for getting published—getting out there—when you have enough confidence in your craft that it’s just a matter of the right story hitting at the right time? Yeah, that. That’s when the tough decisions get made.
(and if this sounds like a pep talk, it kinda is for me)
The takeaway is this:
The more you write, the more mistakes you get to learn from.
The more mistakes you learn from, the more viable stories you create.
The more viable stories, the easier it is to deal with feedback.
Why? Because you can be more objective about your work. Because you no longer have the one story to care about, you have other projects now. All that emotion, good and bad, gets distributed across them. The successes and failures of individual projects gets muted, which makes it easier to make objective decisions how to manage them.
It’s a good thing, I think. It’s just important stay engaged, move forward, and above all, keep writing.
 
In my experience, my objectivity is reduced the longer I spend working on something. Tunnel vision is inevitable—that’s why it’s so important to take a break from your projects every now and then to gain perspective. It’s also why you need other readers.
But at the very least, if you keep writing, the less likely you’ll fall into the trap you did when writing your baby.

*Time spent working on a project could be equated to length of project as well. For example, negative criticism on my shorter pieces doesn’t nearly affect me as much as for my novel-length stories. But your mileage may vary. var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}