Tag Archives: science-fiction

Info dumps…and how to avoid them

I don’t usually pontificate about the writing process as I don’t feel qualified to do so, but as a sci-fi writer, avoiding info dumps is a daily hazard, so I thought I’d share.

But what is an info dump?

As the name suggests, info dumps are big lumps of explanatory text that refer to either the background of the story or the past of the characters.

When info dumps refer to the background of the story, they can include copious descriptions of the political, historical, biological, philosophical or cultural underpinings of the ‘world’. In contemporary stories, much of this world building can be taken for granted. We all know what a light switch is, or a four wheel drive [car], or a computer, so we can reference these known parts of the world without having to explain them. In science fiction and fantasy, however, everything in the world is new, so there is very little common ground between what the reader already knows and what exists in the make-believe world. As such, information about the world is a necessary part of the story. The question is…how much?

Something similar applies to background information about the characters. We need them to be well-rounded, three dimensional people, but real people have pasts. They don’t just appear in the world, ready made and raring to go. They have baggage, and that baggage has made them who they are at the start of the story. Yet as with the world building, how much do readers need to know, and how should they find out? Constant flashbacks can become very boring, very quickly.

Nevertheless, there is one person who absolutely must know every single detail, no matter how small, and that person is the writer. We need to know everything because events do not happen in a vacuum and characters need reasons to do what they do. Actually, that’s wrong; the world and the characters are not separate. They create each other. They constrain each other. They exist as a whole that is constantly in flux.

Let me give you an example. If you create a world that has only half the gravity of Earth, then the people of the world are not going ‘walk’ the way humans do. In fact, they may not walk at all because they will have evolved to suit their environment. In the same way, a world ravaged by war is not going to be all pretty and bucolic. There may be pockets of beauty but the environment will reflect what humans/aliens have done to it.

So…if we agree that information is necessary, how do we avoid presenting it as an info dump? I mean, sure, there will be some people who are so into the lore that they will enjoy the info dumps and look for more. But…you do know how few of them there are…right?

One of the saddest things I discovered during my thirteen year apprenticeship as a writer was that very little of my beloved research needed to be in the final story. Sadder still, I learned that even that little had to be presented in teeny tiny portions, around the edges of the action, or snuck in as an emotional flavouring to the motivation. Not because readers could not ‘understand’, but because they would be viewing the story from the outside.

I’ve use the words ‘viewing’ and ‘outside’ deliberately because that is exactly what happens when someone starts reading a work of science fiction or fantasy. They step into the world with brand new eyes, like travellers to a foreign country where nothing is like it is back home.

These intrepid travellers want to be there, they want to experience that newness, they want to immerse themselves in the world through the experiences of the main characters, but most of them want it to be an emotional journey, not an intellectual one. And that means no info dumps!

But how do you create a brand new world, a realistic world if you’re never allowed to talk about it?

This gets down to the how, and the how will be slightly different for every writer. Some writers, such as Martha Wells, ease readers into the newness very gently. I’m thinking of the Books of the Raksura here. The first book, although obviously not of this earth, is not all that alien either, and the main character comes across as almost human. But the world and the characters become more alien as the 7 book series continues. I enjoyed the entire series, but I think I enjoyed the later books more, precisely because they were more alien.

Another familiar strategy is to present a new world through the eyes of a human who ‘translates’ the strangeness for the reader. C.J.Cherryh accomplished this to perfection with her Foreigner series. Yet as much as I loved this series, I will always believe that Cyteen was/is her greatest work, despite the fact that it’s damned hard to read. I also have a great fondness for her Chanur series. The first one I ever read was Cuckoo’s Egg.

And then there are the stories that drop you in at the deep end and expect you to keep your head above water until you learn how to swim. Ahem. In these kinds of stories, the background of both the world and the characters is doled out a little at a time. Only just enough to explain the ‘moment’, if that. The idea is that the reader gets a feel for the world via the context.

To work, this particular type of storytelling has to provide the reader with just enough of the familiar to carry them over until the alien ‘bits’ start to coalesce. If the strategy works, the reader experiences a shift in perspective and starts to see the world as the characters see it. Deep immersion. When it doesn’t work, the reader gives up in disgust.

I suspect that all science fiction writers create one throw-’em-in-the-deep-end story because we get sick of the same old, same old and want to show that we can do better. Then we realise that readers would much prefer to read about people. Ahem.

But the all or nothing technique is an extreme way of avoiding info dumps. A similar effect can be achieved by:

  1. asking whether a particular detail is something the reader needs to know or something only the author needs to keep in mind,
  2. asking what the reader needs to know at this very moment,
  3. asking which part of an explanation fits the timing and mood of the story.

Because I love my research, no. 1 is a constant bug bear and my editing usually consists of ‘killing my darlings’. 🙂 No. 2 I find fairly easy because it’s how I teach. When people are confronted with the new, unnecessary, peripheral details just get in the way of understanding.

No. 3 however is something I still struggle with. When I start a scene, I usually have some idea of what I want the scene to accomplish, but that initial idea is rarely very good. Often it’s not until I’ve written the scene that I realise what the real point should have been. This is particularly true for characters as motivation is rarely cut and dried. In the following short excerpt, I wanted to show why Kaati thought it could get away with impersonating one of the Healers’ acolytes, despite knowing very little about the Healers or their acolytes:

‘Kaati had no desire to impersonate a Healer, but it was determined to steal one of the small starrock beads worn by their acolytes. In an eyrie teeming with Healers, acolytes were almost as ubiquitous as drudges, and far less visible…

if stories of Messenger being true

The sudden doubt made Kaati’s hearts pound, but it refused to countenance failure. Even if the Messenger had exaggerated the antics of its fellow acolyte, it would have had no reason to actually lie. Besides, it made sense for acolytes to play pranks on the Healers. Younglings always got up to mischief of some sort…

The soft skin around Kaati’s eyes crinkled in amusement as it remembered dropping a live taptoh into the Second’s gruel. The big Teller had not noticed until a small, many-legged lump crawled from the bowl.

The taptoh incident had been punished, of course, but the punishment had been remarkably mild, and it was not till much later that Kaati realised why. Stealth and cunning were the tools of the Tellers’ trade, so pulling off a prank like that would have been seen as a rite of passage, at least for some. The Second was dead, and its own journey had taken a sharp turn from the familiar, but some things never changed. Younglings were always the same, whether they were apprentice Tellers or acolytes to the Healers. They played pranks and avoided chores where possible.

So long as it wore an acolyte’s bead and looked busy, none of the Healers would give it a second glance…

Apart from the references to characters who appear earlier in the story, there’s actually a lot of background in these few paragraphs. There’s what Kaati wants to accomplish, there’s an acknowledgement that it doesn’t really know what the Healers and acolytes are like, there’s a snippet from its past, a hint that things have changed for the worse, and an intimation that it’s basing a heck of a lot on guess work. Yet I think each bit of information moves the story along in some way rather than bogging it down. One hopes

Vokhtah saga falls into the category of ‘extreme’ storytelling, but it does illustrate how much background you can sneak in while the reader isn’t looking. 😀

Whilst I enjoy reading most genres [except horror], I don’t know much about the techniques used to write them so I’d love to hear how other writers handle the dread info dump.

cheers
Meeks


A different kind of storytelling

I’ve always loved animation but never thought I’d be good enough to tell an animated story. Seems I was wrong. 🙂

Oh, and as an aside, I discovered that embedding Vimeo videos is a whole lot easier with Guttenberg than Classic. I’m starting to think that Classic is for words and Guttenberg is for graphics. Hmm…

Meeks

p.s. I’ve turned comments off.


The Irishman special FX

I haven’t seen The Irishman, but the video detailing how it was made has me absolutely enthralled. Watch, and see for yourself:

Cool tech, right? But it’s not just the tech that has me jiggling up and down in my chair. It’s the fact that another piece of Innerscape is becoming a reality! -dance-

If you read book 1 of the Innerscape trilogy, you may remember the scene, early in the story, in which Miira finally gets to see the ‘avatar’ she will use once she has been inducted into Innerscape. That avatar is based on her 29 year old self. In other words, her avatar has to be ‘de-aged’.

To make the story work, the Innerscape AI had to be sophisticated enough to create avatars so real looking that none of the Residents can tell the difference. That was one of the key pieces of tech in the story, and now I know that it’s possible, actually possible.

I cannot tell you how good that feels.

cheers

Meeks


Books on my mind

Not so long ago, I wrote a post about sleep, and the effect blue light from digital devices may have on it. To counteract that effect, I went back to reading print books at night. I’ve read eight books since then, all from my home ‘library’:

This is a photo of my actual lounge room. The only thing I’ve changed is the view from the window. Each shelf contains a double row of books, and there are two more shelves on the other side of the fireplace. There is also a long shelf that stretches across the top of each window. A lot of books. 🙂

I spent over an hour just looking through my books, searching for old favourites to re-read. Now they’re piled up on my bedside table. -rubs hands with glee-

This is Amazon’s picture of the first seven books I read:

They are part of the Death Gate Cycle written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The first volume in the series – Dragon Wing – was published in 1990, and I would have read it soon after it was published.

The Death Gate Cycle is fantasy of a quality similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I loved it when I first read it, and I loved it the second time around. If you love fantasy and haven’t read this series, what are you waiting for? lol

The eighth book takes me back to my sci-fi roots – Door into Summer, by Robert Heinlein:

The cover of my paperback is very different to the ones shown on Amazon, but that’s hardly surprising as it was printed in 1957! [No! I was just a toddler back then. I bought the paperback from a second hand book shop, sometime in the 70’s]

Unlike some of Heinlein’s later works, such as Stranger in a Strange Land [1961], The Door into Summer is a simple story about a man, his cat, time travel and a bit of revenge thrown in for good measure. What makes the book so memorable is that it’s almost prophetic when it comes to technology.

Heinlein was a trained engineer and, sometime before 1957 [when the book was published], he ‘invented’ driverless cars, Auto CAD, domestic robots far more sophisticated than the Roomba, synthetic bacon, and a heap of other ‘gadgets’ that left me speechless. The only thing he got wrong was the era. The story begins in 1970 and jumps forward 30 years to 2000. We’re only now starting to enjoy some of the gadgets he invented in the mid 1950’s.

Sadly, getting the timing right is something even the best science fiction writer can’t manage because inspired guesswork can only go so far. 1984 anyone? The future never turns out the way we think it will. Probably a good thing. 🙂

To keep track of all the print books I intend to re-read, I’ve created a new category for the blog. It’s simply called ‘Books’. Within Books there are two sub-categories:

  • Golden Oldies
  • Awesome Indies

I won’t review the Golden Oldies as they are famous already, but I will discuss what it is that I like about them, especially when it comes to the development of science fiction. I will review the Awesome Indie titles though. They are every bit as good as my beloved Golden Oldies. Indie books I’ve reviewed in the past will be moved to this new category as well.

So, do you ever take a walk through your reading history? Are there any books in there that have withstood the test of time? Care to share?

cheers

Meeks

 

 


I’ve found a new, favourite composer!

Musical tastes vary, I know, and mine may not match yours, but if it does…hi new friend! 🙂

Today I want to introduce you to my new favourite composer. His name is Peter Milinkovic, he hails from Serbia, and his company is called Talekeeper Music. What could be more perfect?

I found Milinkovic on Soundcloud which is an extraordinary website that showcases the work of new and not so new composers. The link below is for ‘Unbroken’, a track with a haunting melody and uplifting ‘pace’, very Kaati-ish :

The next one is called ‘Sun’ and the graphic is soooo Vokhtah! :

-dance-

I haz new writing music! Later all. 🙂

Meeks

 


Backstory, World building & Motivation

As a reader, one problem I’ve always had with plot driven stories is that the motivation behind pivotal events is often paper thin. The author wants Character X to do something or be somewhere because the rest of the plot depends on it. A flimsy excuse is offered, and the story moves on, usually without me. I’m fussy, no apologies.

Well, imagine my dismay when I found that I was in precisely the same situation with book two of Vokhtah. 😦

I’m a pantster by nature, meaning I don’t like to outline, but the second book of a series inevitably constrains how freely you can write because much of the world building and ‘rules’ have been set in concrete as part of book one. You can’t suddenly unwrite details that are no longer convenient.

And that’s the problem I’ve been tiptoeing around for weeks. I have a character who calls itself Death*. It appears in book one as the assistant to the Yellow. In book two, however, I need Death to be at the entrance to the Settlement when Kaati** arrives. The trouble is, for higher level Messengers*** like Death, gate duty would be seen as a dreadful punishment.  I’m talking maximum humiliation here.

So what could Death possibly do that would result in such a public punishment?

I already had some of Death’s back story and the world building from book one, but the ‘crime’ and its motivation eluded me. I tried to fudge it, but my subconscious wouldn’t let me. Every time I sat down to continue the story, I’d find myself going over that scene, again and again and again. Yet no matter how much I polished the words, it still felt like a bloody fudge so last night I spat the dummy and decided to delete the whole scene and start from scratch.

Oddly enough, I had a great night’s sleep, and this morning I started writing the outline, yes the outline, with a clear head. Two thousand words later, I finally have all the background and world building needed to explain Death’s motivation for being where it needs to be. Yes! 😀

I won’t spoil the story by giving it all away, but I will explain some of the world building that emerged. It revolves around the Guild of Healers and how their Council works. In a nutshell, the Council is made up of a total of seven Councillors who are the most powerful Healers in the Guild.

But Councillors are not chosen solely on merit. When a Councillor dies, or disappears [as happened with the leader of the Blue faction****], a replacement is usually chosen by a vote amongst the remaining six Councillors.

Now this is where things become interesting as the Councillors are divided into two dominant factions. Those in the Yellow faction believe that all Vokh abominations must be killed. Those in the Blue faction believe that not all abominations are dangerous. In fact, they believe that some abominations actually decrease the aggression of the Vokh and thus should be allowed to live and breed.

And finally there’s the Green. It has no faction of its own and its purpose is to break any deadlock between the two major factions. In the past, Councillors chosen as the Green tended to be strictly neutral. In book one, however, the current Green tends to side with the Yellows more often than the Blues. In book two, it continues to side with the Yellows until Death does something that really ticks it off.

If the Green lends its vote to the Blue faction it will cause a deadlock in the selection of the seventh Councillor – i.e. three Yellow faction members versus two Blues plus the Green.

In situations where the Council is deadlocked, the vote must be thrown open to the entire Guild. If that were to happen, the Yellows might still manage to get another Yellow voted onto the Council, but it would not be a certainty, and the delay could seriously disrupt the Yellow’s plans [the Yellow is the leader of the Yellow faction].

I can’t tell you what Death did, but it works perfectly with the Machiavellian politics of the Guild and its own, personal motivation. At this point I have no idea how much of this world building/back story will end up in the actual book, but at least I’ve stopped fighting my ‘muse’, and we’re both happy for the first time in weeks!

The sun is shining, the wind is mild and my Sunday is turning out to be a really good day. Hope you enjoy your weekend as well.

Cheers

Meeks

* Both Vokh and iVokh keep their personal names secret, and in public are known solely by rank or profession.

** Kaati is the young Apprentice from book one. Book two follows what happens to Kaati after parting company with the Blue/Messenger at Needlepoint gather.

*** Messengers are Healers who act as ‘enforcers’ for the will of the Guild of Healers. They are distinguished from ordinary Healers by their ability to inflict pain without suffering any of the empathic consequences that affect true Healers.

**** The leader of the Blue faction was known as the Blue. This powerful Healer left the safety of the Settlement to stop the guild from shooting itself in the foot. See book one, Voktah.


With humungous thanks – Kaati version 2

I asked for your help, and you gave it, making Kaati so much better than I could have hoped. Thank you, one and all!

And here’s the proof….ta dah!

If you click on the picture, it should open in a new window where you can see it at full size…I think. -fingers crossed-

Thank you again. You guys really are the best.

-enormous hugs-

Meeks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


May I introduce…Kaati

I’m almost afraid to say this but…the concept graphic is finished. I know I’ll tinker at the fine details, but the ideas floating around in my head since 2004 have finally coalesced into something ‘real’. For the first time in 15 years, I can say ‘this is what the iVokh look like’.

Sorry to make the image so big, but I wanted you to be able to see the details. More importantly, I want you to be able to tell me where I’ve missed something, or got the perspective wrong or the lighting or the biology or any one of a million things that I literally can’t see any more.

In short, I’m asking you all to be my beta testers. Not my kind, caring fan club but my critics, because I need fresh eyes, and you’re it. 🙂

-hugs-

Meeks


Did you know that…?

Okay, I’m sure you’re all sick of my love affair with odd bits of information so…I promise, this will be the last [for now]. 😀

Allow me to introduce you to the Harpy Eagle of Central America:

See that Harpy Eagle chick? See its talons? If you watch that amazing video you will learn that the feet of a fully grown Harpy Eagle are more powerful than the jaws of a Rottweiler. You will also learn that the back talon is used to stab the eagle’s prey:

https://www.reshareworthy.com/harpy-eagle/

Guess who’s going to have killing talons like the Harpy Eagle? Mwahahaha!

cheers

Meeks


Lots of hands but no feet

I’ve lost track of how many of these progress posts I’ve published, but here’s the next milestone in the creation of the iVokh:

That’s a screenshot of my desktop. It’s where I place the latest iteration of the image so I can see it without the distraction of the Corel Draw 8 work screen. Plus, I have to admit that seeing the image in a different context makes mistakes more ‘visible’ somehow. The same thing applies to writing; even a small visual change can force the brain to see what’s there instead of what should be there.

This next pic shows the Corel Draw work screen. If you look at the bottom left of the screen, you can see that the composite image is made up of 102 individual ‘objects’:

The tiny, shiny dots scattered across the image are ‘nodes’ on the objects. Nodes allow you to manipulate vectored images with great precision. For example, many images that appear to be one image are in fact many images, layered over each other to match up colours and lighting effects [as much as possible].

To keep all those objects in the right place and the correct order, I’ve used the Corel Draw ‘Group’ function to keep myself sane. This is the same image split into its component groups:

If I were a plotter instead of a pantster, I would have created a discrete ‘layer’ for each group. Layers are like transparent sheets of glass, stacked one on top of the other. Thus, you can work on an individual group without disturbing the groups in front of or behind it. Using layers would have made this simple little project [hah!] a hell of a lot easier to manage…

-sigh-

Unfortunately, I’m not a plotter and have to do everything the hard way…

Still, I am getting happier with the overall image every day. Not only am I having fun, I’m also setting the iVokh biology in stone, so to speak. Like the dictionary and mini-encyclopedia of ‘world facts’, I need to know exactly what the iVokh [and Vokh] look like so I don’t make stupid mistakes in books 2 and 3 of Vokhtah. Series are a pain like that. 🙂

cheers

Meeks

 

 


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