Tag Archives: techniques

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


Red Tea and Sweet Bread

I did no work for this post whatsoever. The Offspring made the sweet bread rolls, and I can’t even tell you where the cup-and-saucer came from as the mark is so small and smudged I couldn’t make out even a single letter. But it is pretty. 🙂

The bread rolls turned out to be delicious, and vaguely reminiscent of croissants. Not as fluffy and flaky, of course, but the kind of flavour that you could eat with either jam or something more savoury. Definitely a hit.

The Offspring found the recipe for the bread rolls on Youtube and followed the instructions on the video. There are a lot of breadmaking videos so here’s a selection of good ones:

All three videos use plain [all purpose] flour, egg, butter, yeast, salt and sugar, but the techniques are slightly different. Oh, and the buns won’t rise quite so well if you make the gap between each ball too wide – i.e. they need to be close enough to support each other as they rise.

And now for the red tea. I couldn’t get the same ‘pink’ tea as before, so this time I tried Twinings ‘Cranberry & Pomegranate’. The flavour is great but it’s the smell that blows me away. I think they add hibiscus to the tea because the aroma is strong, distinctive and fruity/flowery.

-blush- Apologies, I sound like some wine buff waffling on about the ‘bouquet’ but honestly, the smell is divine, and that’s coming from someone who loves coffee!

If you’ve had a special treat lately, I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

cheers
Meeks



#Corel X8 vector graphics vs photos

In my last post about the new Innerscape cover, I vented about the trouble I was having getting the silver effect I wanted. Your suggestions were brilliant so I thought I’d do a quick update of my progress. The pic below is a test graphic to illustrate the difference between the two methods and how they might look in the finished product:

The silver ‘wire’ was created using Corel X8’s fountain fill. It is clearly silver, even when I reduce the size down, i.e. it scales well. Unfortunately it is absolutely uniform, something a real ‘wire’ would never be.

By contrast, the gold ‘wire’ is a photo taken of a thin needle shape covered in foil. The foil was silver, but the lighting created this decidedly golden effect [evening, overhead light and table lamp, both with bulbs of ‘warm white’]. I only know this with the wisdom of hindsight. 😦 If you look closely at the column on the right, you will see that when I increase the size of the gold wire, it becomes more and more pixelated, i.e. it doesn’t scale well. [Clicking on the image should display a larger version]

Finally, I created two, identical slices of the circuit board. Both were made by creating the individual components and ‘grouping’ them together. The silver, vectored one is shown below:

Although each of the tubular components comes from the one, basic shape, I fiddled with the fountain fill to a) make the image more realistic, and b) to reduce the uniformity. The golden slice is also made up of individual components, but essentially I just cut them out and stuck them together. I really like the way the image turned out, and I like the golden colour, but it’s not what I was after.

Which will I use?

This question is not as either/or as it looks. In designing the covers for the Innerscape print version, I wanted each one to:

  • have a unifying ‘theme’
  • be different
  • tell a subtle visual ‘story’

Thus, as book 1 is about Miira leaving the real world and entering a virtual one, I want her facing towards the stark, artificial image of the circuit board. That’s why the image has to be instantly recognizable as part of a computer. Books 2 and 3, however, will show a gradual blurring of the lines between real and virtual, with the changing circuit board being the unifying ‘theme’ that binds each image of the series.

At least, that’s the idea. Whether I can actually pull off this ambitious idea is moot. To make it work I’ll have to create two, completely different images of the circuit board – one with the silver wires and one with the gold. As each small wire will be made up of at least 3 components, it’s going to be a huge job. Not impossible, but it will test my patience as the original circuit board image has very few wires that are exactly the same.

To be honest I think I’m crazy to even think about doing this, and yet…how often do you get to create your first print book? Sitting here, calmly typing about my options, I know I’d hate myself if I gave this project anything less than my best, and fudging the graphics would definitely be a cop out. So…I’m going to be a busy girl. 🙂

cheers

Meeks


New genetic modification techniques – Australia

The following is a quote from an email I received today regarding the approval of new GM tech in Australia:

Next week Dr Michael Antoniou, Reader in Molecular Genetics at King’s College London School of Life Sciences will be visiting Melbourne. He is here to discuss his concerns with a range of new genetic engineering techniques that the Federal Government is currently proposing not to regulate.
If the Government deregulates these techniques anyone from amateur biohackers – to industry – would be free to use them to genetically modify plants, animals and microbes. And they could enter our food chain and our environment with no safety testing and no labelling. The results could be catastrophic.

The key phrase is ‘proposing not to regulate‘, closely followed by ‘no safety testing‘ and ‘no labelling‘.

Genetic modification is here to stay and we have to accept that, but we do not have to accept a wild, wild west style free-for-all. Surely an ethical approach is not too much to ask from our government, even the Liberals?

The ‘GM 2.0: What the Government isn’t telling you’ forum is being held next Monday:
6.30 (for a 7pm start) – 9pm, Monday 20th March
William Angliss Institute: Rm. A337, Building A, 555 La Trobe St., Melbourne

Please email Louise Sales <louise.sale@foe.org.au> for a ticket if you can attend [they’re free].

If not, please get people talking about this issue. Isn’t it time our opinions were heard? Corporations may stand to make a lot of money out of this, but you and I will be the bunnies who have to live with it.

cheers

Meeks


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