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?


Snail said...

As you know, Teddy, moves with the speed of a glacier but is cheap. whips along like a hurricane but is expensive.

I agonize over which one to use for what books.

(I think the first sentence might be an unintentional haiku---if you actually say amazon dot com.)

Sherryl said...

I'm stunned. Well done.
As to Amazon, they said the book order was lost, so refunded my $$, then reordered them for me and hit my credit card again.
Thing was, the books turned up two days later. Oops. I did let them know straight away but it was too late.
Now I have another lot coming.

Snail said...

I'll buy it off you, if you like.

(Word verification 'eoxgzpom'---the sound of the Barmy Army choking on their beer after winning a game against Australia.)