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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Immaturity in Writing

In January, I started reading slush for Masque Books, a digital imprint of Prime Books. And so far it’s been a fascinating peek behind the publishing curtain.

I’ve seen my fair share of crazy fonts and strange formatting, but not nearly as much as I expected to based on the horror stories of the slush pile that get bandied about. What’s surprised me the most is the overall care that’s gone into the submissions. This doesn’t mean they’ve knocked my socks off, but rather that the average submission is much higher in quality than I expected—they’ve been literate, proofread if not perfect, and largely followed the submission guidelines.

That kind of attention to detail is encouraging to see, which is why it’s so heartbreaking to get to the actual story and know within two paragraphs, sometimes sooner, that it’s a no-go. And more often than not, the culprit is immature writing.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s a catch-all phrase that I use when I see a manuscript that has either sentence-level issues or a lack of sophistication with elements of craft (or both).

Sentence-Level Issues

This can be as simple as a poor grasp of grammar—improper punctuation, run-on sentences, etc. A mistake or two won’t make or break a submission. But they can add up, and when the errors are egregious, it’s that much harder to take a story seriously.

There are also more subtle signs of sentence-level issues. Things like wordiness, filtering, awkward phrasing. I’ve trained myself to write tight, to weed out inefficiencies in my text, to catch mistakes and edit out the awkwardness. When I see project where these kinds of things aren’t addressed, it makes me wonder just how far along the writer is in their journey. Is this their first project and they haven’t quite figured everything out? Or have they just not taken the time to refine their writing to make it the best it can be? I usually go with the former interpretation, and have to hope they won’t give up when they get their rejection, that they’ll keep writing, keep striving until they get their stories out into the world.

Bottom line, every word in your story subconsciously signals your ability as a storyteller to a reader. Sentence-level issues are the one thing you as a writer can control in a highly capricious business, so there’s no excuse not to learn them. And if you haven’t learned them, when I read your submission I assume that you are too immature a writer to competently tell me a story I’m interested in.

Elements of Craft Lack Sophistication

This is even more subjective, but in some ways more detrimental to a submission. Say an author has great descriptive powers, but cannot orchestrate an action scene to save their life. Or the voice of the protagonist is largely spot on, but infodumps and unrealistic dialogue grounds a story before it even gets started. Essentially, there is some aspect (or aspects) of the writer’s craft that screams inexperience, by virtue of it being poorly handled or weaker relative to other aspects of the work.

This isn’t always a fatal flaw—after all, a good editor will work with a writer to improve all aspects of a story. But the problems with craft must be surmountable. For example, a story where every paragraph tells the reader what to think instead of showing them or a clumsy inner monologue that sidelines action in every scene are too insidious to tackle. Other things like a lack of specificity or an overabundance of specificity could be fixable, but the story would have to be worth the effort.

This is where beta readers and critique partners and groups come in, because writers can be blind to their shortcomings.

Bottom line, you cannot afford to ignore the weaker parts of your craft and hope the rest will be strong enough to carry your story. If I see a big imbalance in your abilities as a writer or if the way you handle certain aspects of craft show your inexperience or lack of awareness of what’s acceptable, then I’m going to assume you haven’t matured as a writer and that your story isn’t ready for publication.

Harsh? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. I’ve only recommended two stories since I’ve started slushing, and those were both with big reservations.

So at the end of the day, remember: Writing stories is hard. Rejecting stories is easy.

It’s all too easy to find a reason to reject a story. You’re goal as a writer is to minimize those reasons for “easy” rejections (following guidelines, fine-tuning your prose, making strides with your craft). You want to make it difficult for me to say no. You want me to keep hoping if I turn the page, it will be worth it.

I want it to be worth it. And you can prove that to me by maturing as a writer. It won’t happen overnight. But if you keep writing, keep working, keep striving, you’ll get there. We all will. One day. 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) {}

Placeholder

I didn’t blog this Wednesday. Partly because nothing happened to inspire a post this week. Partly because I didn’t have a backup post ready to go. Partly because I’ve been super busy working on my WIPs, which are usually way more fun to write than blog posts.

I’m posting now, and if you think this is a placeholder for future content, well, you’re probably right. But I’m still going to talk about placeholders and how I use them when drafting stories.

No, not potholders…

I am not one of those writers who knows everything about their world and their characters when they sit down to write. I know enough about my character to get started, of course, know enough of the situation they’re in, but that’s about it. The rest comes about as I write that discovery first draft.

So inevitably as I write, I will come across other characters, with names and occupations, places and things, and need to make them come to life on the page. If I know what the object or person is, what to call it, how to describe it, great. I can keep writing.

If I don’t, then I have a decision to make: Should I derail my story progress to figure out more about what this person/place/thing is? Or should I just leave a note and come back to it at a later date?

When I first started writing, I almost always stopped dead, wracking my brains until just the perfect phrase or the right name or what-have-you came about. And only then could I move on. Now I’m less precious about the process, thanks to a healthy use of, you guessed it, placeholders.

Names are particularly tough for me, as they are so evocative of the person behind them. So unless I have one in mind, I usually leave names blank and use __ throughout my manuscript until I finally decide on one. When there’s lots of __ running rampant through my story, sometimes I’ll use [boy] or [girl] or [woman] to keep things straight.

Often as I’m drafting, the story action will move to a new location that I didn’t expect and I’ll need to think about what the new place looks like, how my characters will interact with this new setting etc. But if I’m not ready to do those things, if I already have a burning desire to write the next conversation or the next scene, I’ll just insert something like [more here] or [descript] and keep writing.

I do, however, tend to write linearly, so I don’t often use placeholders for full-blown scenes – unless I already know they are going to be a pain to write. And usually I don’t know that until I try to write one and muck it up.

How do you use placeholders when drafting?
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Resource Roundup Part 1 – Finding the Right Word

For the first installment of the Resource Roundup series, I’ll be talking about resources and tools (primarily online or computer-based) that will help you find just the word or phrase you need. Other topics will be forthcoming. As this series progresses, I’ll be capturing everything that’s covered on a Resource page that will be available on the sidebar.

We all know the right word in the right place can be transcendental, but getting to that right word can be a hard slog. “A ha!” moments aside, what we want to say often eludes us. In some cases, we are only searching for a synonym; others, we aren’t quite sure what we want to say, but know what we have come up with isn’t right. Still others, we are searching for a conciseness in language that eliminates the ramble. Or the telling detail that lets everything in a story fall into place. This is where art and creativity come into play, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stack the deck in your favor.

Dictionaries on Drugs

WordWeb – The freeware version of this package is amazing (http://wordweb.info/free/), and I use it almost every time I open Microsoft Word. It provides extensive definitions for words, including some slang and phrases. What makes it so great is that you can see synonyms and related words alongside the definitions. It works offline, and for those of you who are mouse averse, you can customize hot keys. If you stump it, or are looking for greater detail, you have the option to look up terms on Wikipedia or Wiktionary through the same interface. There’s a Pro version as well, but in the two years I’ve been using this program, I’ve been pleased with its current level functionality.

Visual Thesaurus – I probably don’t use this as often as I should, but as the name implies, it provides a visual mapping of a word and its related concepts. You can travel from node to node, activating new terms as you go. In addition to providing definitions, the software also lets you sort items by parts of speech. I tend to use the program the most at either the beginning of a project, when I’m still trying to get a better understanding of the story landscape, or towards the end of a project, where I take what I think is the theme or the recurring tropes in a piece and plug them into the program and see if there are other words and concepts I can work into my story to add continuity – you know, that whole “unity of effect” thing. There’s a couple different subscription options, but if you’re not a bone fide visual thinker, you can probably get away with using the free sample feature on the website (http://www.visualthesaurus.com/).

Reverse Dictionary – This is a website (http://www.onelook.com/reverse-dictionary.shtml) I stumbled upon a couple of years ago, and it’s great for the times when you aren’t sure what word or concept you want. Maybe you can only come up with a placeholder word that only hints at what you really want to say. This is when I pull up the Reverse Dictionary. It can generate a word if you know the definition (horseshoer = farrier), provide synonyms, or examples of word. This process can generate a lot of noise (the more words you enter, the more variables it has to consider), but sometimes it’s so right on, it’s scary.

What’s in a Name?

I have a tough time assigning my characters names. The sheer number of names out there can be paralyzing. The right name is evocative, symbolic, and/or indicative of a certain time or place. And since the names of characters appear over and over again in a story, you’d better get them right.

BabyNames.com – No big surprise here, but a baby name website is tremendously useful when trying to identify just the right name for your characters. What I like about BabyNames.com is that you can search names by number of syllables. Often I’ll find I want a name that starts with a T, for example, but has three syllables. The advanced search feature at BabyNames.com lets you input these and other criteria to help narrow things down. What’s also nice about their interface is you can mouse over the names in your results list and get a popup window telling you the meaning and origin of the name. In other baby name databases you usually have to click on the name, then go to that name’s page for such info, then click the back button, which is tedious and time-consuming.

Behind the Name – This is another name website (http://www.behindthename.com/) that I use frequently. I usually double-check my findings from BabyNames.com with Behind the Name, particularly origins. Behind the Name also does a better job, in my opinion, with alternate spellings of names. The descriptions of names are more comprehensive than BabyNames.com and they appear to have a bigger set of mythological, religious, and historical names, which may be of interest depending on the project you are working on.


Colloquialisms and Clichés

Now if you know anything about writing, this subtitle should make you a bit nervous. We all know we should avoid clichés in our writing and cut out what’s hackneyed and trite. But sometimes in the quest for verisimilitude in our writing – the appearance of truth – these things can creep back in because that’s how our characters think and speak. So the following tools may be of use if you are trying to accurately capture slang, phrases, and clichés in thought or dialogue. Similarly, if you are trying to avoid such things, these tools may be useful in ferreting them out.

Cliché Finder – You can search this database (http://www.westegg.com/cliche/) and find clichés that include your search term. For example, how many clichés include “moon”?

  • once in a blue moon
  • over the moon
  • by the light of the moon
  • he thinks she hung the moon
  • moon over a boyfriend
  • man in the moon
  • the dark side of the moon
  • the moon is made of green cheese
  • the cow jumped over the moon

The most subversive clichés are the ones you don’t notice anymore. And this tool is great for a quick check of your work.

Phrase Finder  – I first came across this on the Getting Past the Gatekeeper website and it was covered earlier this week by another blog as well. As someone who tends to mix their metaphors and can never remember how the phrase goes because there are just too many of them, this tool (http://www.phrases.org.uk/) is very helpful. Many of the phrases are similar to those found in the Cliché Finder, but here, the makers have included the etymology and background for each phrase for all the word nerds out there.

Urban Dictionary – I use this tool (http://www.urbandictionary.com/) more often to ensure I understand what’s being said on certain message boards, on reality shows, and by Cartman on South Park than to find words to use in my WIPs. But that said, Urban Dictionary is a great place to find current and ever-evolving slang words and phrases, which can be a good way to illustrate your character’s background or verbal ticks in contemporary stories.

Practice Makes Perfect

Because language acquisition and retention is an ongoing process – use it or lose it, if you will – I am constantly finding ways to build up my vocabulary and language awareness (in addition to reading widely, of course).

Word a Day Emails – I have signed up to receive word-a-day emails from A.Word.A.Day, Merriam-Webster, and Visual Thesaurus. If you are feeling daring, Urban Dictionary has this service as well. These are a great way to learn (or relearn) a new word each day, without having to study the dictionary for hours. First thing in the morning, these emails are waiting in my inbox, and I read through them along with everything else that has accumulated in the night. It’s just a taste to keep the synapses firing. A.Word.A.Day usually has a theme for the words each week; Visual Thesaurus often showcases words relevant to the date in history; and Merriam-Webster just randomly selects words from their dictionary pages.

Schott’s Vocab – This is a blog on the New York Times website (http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/) primarily focused on the use of language in the global news media and occasionally advertising. Often Schott is deconstructing the terminology used by journalists and politicians to describe political and economic conditions. While I am not always interested in the political terms he explicates, it is fascinating to see how these terms originate, who uses them, and for what purposes. It’s easy to forget when you are writing fiction that language is political. When you name something, you are exerting power over it. When a political faction appropriates one term over another, you may want to ask yourself why. And this is what makes Schott’s blog so interesting.

Television – Now before you roll your eyes, think about it. You can’t write ALL the time. It’s ok to veg out in front of the TV sometimes; just keep your eyes and more importantly your ears open. Language is a living thing, and sometimes that’s most obvious in the dialogue on current TV shows.

When you notice the dialogue is really bad, ask yourself why that is and figure out how you would fix it. But when the dialogue is smart, witty, and also entertaining, start paying attention. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and other Whedonesque offerings) or the Gilmore Girls. Both shows had a unique take on language, a distinctive cadence, and different base of referents they drew from. 30 Rock is another show airing currently that has coined a number of pop culture phrases in between the jokes (The Language of 30 Rock and 30 Rock Glossary). What’s great about language is that it can be stretched to accommodate new meanings all the time, regardless of the medium. So take note.

Now I turn it over to you. What are your go-to resources for finding just the right word? What tools have I missed?
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