Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Info Dump

There are millions of people in the world who read Linda Fairstein's books and love them. Fairstein's main character is Alexandra Cooper, a prosecutor in NY, and she has two sidekicks who are policemen. I hadn't read any for a while so the library provided me with the most recent - "Bad Blood".
It begins with Cooper prosecuting a case against a guy who has killed his wife, probably using a hitman. Said hitman was never caught, so husband is on trial. I couldn't quite see how the evidence could ever prove him guilty, but ... I read on. And stopped around page 90.
Why? Two things (and they're both subjective, which goes to show that you will always have readers who just don't like the way you do things as a writer). One was I didn't find the sidekick's constant putdowns of Cooper funny. He calls her blondie, Coop, the princess and kid, all within about five pages. And likes to make cracks about her looks and makeup. OK, that's her problem, if she wants to put up with it (or the author wants to make her). But the thing that really made me put the book down was a severe case of "let's tell the reader a whole heap of information about New York's water supply system going back 300+ years and let's do it with about 10 pages of dialogue with some guy called Teddy". A couple of summary paragraphs would have done me, thanks, and then get on with the story.
Then I picked up another library choice, a writer I'd never heard of before - that's the joy of the library. The book was "Cold Granite" by Stuart Macbride. It's set in cold, miserable Aberdeen where it never stops raining, and has a main character called Logan McRae who's just back from a year off after being nearly stabbed to death by a killer. Yes, it's a serial killer story, but with lots of twists and turns (not all the deaths of the children are caused by the one person) and stuff-ups by the police. It's Macbride's first novel, and I'll be looking out now for the next one which was due out last year.
And I know lots about Aberdeen and its horrible weather now, and I don't think I noticed one info dump. Just a lot of characters being rained on and frozen!
It's a hard call when you're writing, especially when you are trying to evoke a world or a city or a village most of your readers will be unfamiliar with - how much is an info dump? How else can you provide information about the setting that's important to the story without going overboard?
We're told "show don't tell" so many times, and certainly dialogue is one way of getting across info for the reader, but even then, it can be overdone and obvious. Michael Connelly talks about "the telling detail" and how one truly evocative, short description can do the work of a paragraph. But a short summary can sometimes work too. It's knowing how to use it effectively and concisely. And keep the story moving at the same time.
It's another one of those things you start to see by simply reading with a writer's eye.
By the way,, where's my copy of "Reading Like a Writer"? Surely it's not still on that slow boat from China?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Book of the Week

I read two books on Sunday - and no writing, but I needed a short break after 3000 words on Saturday.
One book was a YA romance (I'm teaching Writing for YA this year) that I skimmed, then I picked up a book I'd bought last week. And read it almost in one sitting.
The blurb starts: "I buy one pig a month. I can't afford any more. I've no idea whether this is enough, but it keeps the Beast alive. He's grown so big. I'm going crazy with worry that someone will discover him." That and the first two pages were enough to convince me to buy it. And I wasn't sorry. It's not just that you don't find out what the Beast is until halfway through - that's only part of the suspense - or that right up to the end you have no idea how he is going to solve the growing problem. It's more the the author has created a flawed main character, a 17-year-old boy who's got a terrible family and has been in foster homes for years, and who is the kind of boy to whom bad things happen without him having any control over them. Then when things go wrong, he is always the first accused, and he fights back as best he can.
But the Beast is a whole different kind of problem. Enough of the commendations from me! It's called "Beast" by Ally Kennen (Marion Lloyd Books).
BTW, Marion Lloyd was one of the publishers who came out to the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2005, along with Sharyn November and David Fickling. A great bunch of publishers, who all said very interesting things about the books they wanted to publish.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Feedback and Research

I took the challenge before Christmas and submitted a 250 word hook to Miss Snark, ready for her to tear my words to shreds. Amazingly, I got to Stage 2, submitting the first 750 words of my novel.
While she was accepting children's and YA novels, I went for broke and sent adult crime. I read a huge amount of crime fiction, and have always been in awe of the plotting skills of crime writers. I wrote one crime novel about 10 years ago but it wasn't very good and I realised it in time to avoid lots of postage costs and rejection letters.
So why am I writing a crime novel? For fun. Because I had a great idea for the story about three years ago that just would not let go. And for the challenge - the plotting challenge. It's all there but does it work? Do I give the solution away too soon? Do the main character's personal demons intrude on the crime/mystery element too much? Who knows? Only critical readers can tell me, and I'm not up to that yet. More rewriting to do.
Anyway, did Miss Snark like my 750 words? Kind of. She said too much of it was setup, but the characterisation was good. And I did receive a huge number of comments on the Comments trail. Enough people liked it to make me think I was doing OK.
We all know that doesn't mean it will eventually be publishable! But it helps.
What I did learn was how to edit and cut more ruthlessly. When you only have 750 words in which to get the story moving, show character, and hopefully get to a point where the reader will say 'I want more' ... that means cutting out backstory, explanations and info dumps, tightening dialogue and making every word count. Even doing this for the first two pages is a great lesson in how it can be done for the whole book.
Kristin Nelson's blog this week has a great post on points to watch out for in genre fiction - things that are taking your story nowhere, such as characters sitting around talking about what happened.
It's here at
What am I reading right now? I whizzed through another old Patricia Cornwell - I was re-reading them in order of publication, and I'm over it now.
So off to the library, and I came home with, among other things, a couple of true crime books - Australian true crime focusing on Melbourne gangland and undercover cops. I need to read these a bit at a time. They're somewhat overpowering otherwise. No wonder I love fiction so much - real crime that's happening around me, even if I don't directly experience it, is scary. Try one of these books and you'll see what I mean (the Underbelly series by two Age journalists is a good starting point).
On the other side of research, I have to thank the two ambulance officers (paramedics) who were having a quiet coffee break in Borders the other day and barely flinched when I approached them and asked if I could get some information from them. They gave me on-the-spot info about what happens when they attend a scene when someone has been stabbed and bashed (my character), what their procedures are, etc. It's called 'primary source' material, but it's important to get this stuff right. Thanks!
Now all I need is a detective in our police force for the next bit of research.

Friday, January 12, 2007

NY Resolutions

Every year I vow "No resolutions, just goals". What's the difference? Resolutions for me tend to be things that aren't to do with writing but more things like staying healthy, going to the gym, walking more ... and they don't last long, sad to say.
Goals are the things I write down and pursue. I've been doing this for years, and my writers' group also does goals together in February. Usually I have the same list all round - no point having two! I also keep most of my goals to myself (I share them with my group, because they understand what writer's goals are, whereas other people like my family might want to ship me off to the funny farm). I put things on my goals list that are steps towards publication - simple jobs such as sending out my work regularly. If you have ever sat down to send out query letters or manuscripts to publishers or magazines, you'll know how that will eat up a whole morning without even trying. It's part of the job, but often a part that I don't focus on as much as I should. That's because I'm usually writing in the spare hours!
But my big goal right now is to clean out my office. That's BIG. That's not a two-day job. It's a two-month project, at least, that will require a hard heart and a large rubbish/recycling bin. Not to mention some boxes for all those books that will be going to the charity shop.
It's not that I'm a hoarder (I am, a bit) but more that I tend to keep stuff in case I can use it in class for teaching. I'm not organised enough to tear articles out of magazines and file them, so I keep the whole magazine. I also firmly believe that if I had room for one more large bookcase in my house, I could get rid of the piles of books everywhere. Yes, I also know that if I stopped buying books, I'd begin to solve the problem, but there is just nowhere to fit another bookcase right now.
The whole project is so overwhelming that I decided to approach it the way I do other things - one little step at a time on a regular basis. Yesterday I did one shelf on my main bookcase, and managed to throw out one-third of what was there. Onward and upward!
I'm also keeping track of words written this month, which I don't normally do in a formal way. Maybe I'm mentally setting a benchmark for the other months of the year?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

We're Off and ... Writing

I always know when the holidays have truly kicked in because I am writing regularly again. Not just putting words on the page (I do a fair bit of that anyway) but holding the novel in my head, thinking about the characters and the plot, letting the back of my brain do some of the work too, and generally feeling like I am in the writing zone.
Other times of year, I'm either not able to write at all for a couple of weeks at a time (usually when I am marking student writing or workshopping it - it kind of sucks the urge to make your own words right out of you), or I work on shorter things that have a smaller focus.
I also read more in the holidays, and am able to think more about what I'm reading. Yes, I am still examining Lionel Shriver's sentence constructions!
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a very scary book, especially if you've had kids. The idea that you might give birth to someone who ends up murdering eight people is bad enough, but then to seriously consider how you might have contributed to that outcome ...
Here in Australia, "The West Wing" is into series 6, thanks to the ABC (taxpayers' channel) who got hold of it and are providing us with two episodes a week. We still haven't got up to the episodes I saw in Tucson in Sept 05! But last night's episode on Iran and nuclear plants was eerily echoed by the news broadcast straight afterwards. It's the one thing about watching the show so long after it was originally made - the news has caught up with the fiction.

Friday, January 05, 2007

That Fish

My friend Snail, who is the expert around my way on all things in the animal and insect world, may be able to tell me what this is.

I said puffer or toad fish. But I was guessing.

And the bit at the front (mouth end) is bait and hook. Said fish was safely released into the briny when hook had been removed.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Running Out of Books

Nothing worse than a holiday where you run out of books to read and (gasp!) there are no bookshops nearby. I was reduced to the bookshelf at the holiday house and am now convinced that what you will inevitably find on such shelves are all the books other people bought to read on holiday and, discovering they are terrible and not worth reading, leave them behind for the next desperate reader. It's not often I give up on a book but I will if the main character is unlikeable. Such was the case with "Before You Sleep" by Linn Ullman. While I'm not averse to a character who feels compelled to seduce men she sets eyes on at weddings and in supermarkets, I do want to feel at least some sympathy for her. This girl was awful. So mean-spirited and mealy-mouthed. So I didn't care what happened to her. Bang! The book went back to the shelf.
Then I discovered that I had another book in my suitcase that I had forgotten about! "We Need to Talk About Kevin" by Lionel Shriver. It had been on my pile, waiting to be read, for months. Now was the time! So far I am finding it very interesting and engaging, all the while taking note of her sentence constructions (sounds boring and anal but I'm sure other writers know what I mean).
Miss Snark did finally reach my entry for the Crapometer, and amazingly enough, I was asked for 750 words. So not only did I not get totally Snarked, but I have another chance at having my writing eviscerated by the inestimable MS. I think that blew all my other Xmas presents out of the water!
New Zealand was cool and changeable, and I managed to acquire a minimal tan, all the while feeling very un-PC, because having a tan now is considered foolhardy and silly, thanks to the hole in our ozone layer and the prevalence of skin cancer. I also managed to survive a boating accident, where a rock suddenly materialised in front of us too quickly to avoid. Boat suffered gouges in the hull (thank goodness we were aluminium, not fibreglass) and a bent propellor. We were able to head for home and reach it OK. I doubt I could have swum 6km back to the beach.
On the other hand, I did catch a few fish, including a glorious fish with spikes that one person said was a toad fish and another said was a puffer fish. Either way, it was fat and ugly. I also caught a schnapper, a cod, a pink maumau, a terakihi, a trevally and some leatherjackets, most of which went back in the water because they were too small. A veritable marine aquarium!
And best of all, I wrote. As most of my family now accept that I am a writer and I do get stuff published, they more or less left me to get on with it. Although the strange looks I received when I wasn't writing (but was gazing out to sea for long periods), and I explained that I was plotting ... well, I guess they all thought I should be typing!