Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Stuff That Has to Go

I'm following up on Bonnie's last post on words that detract from our writing, and I think we should vote some more stuff off the island. Now I'm sure we all know these need to go, but a little review never hurts. And sometimes, where there's a rule, there's an exception.

1. The information dump. I don't know about you, but I easily fall in love with my research. And while I may find it fascinating that bats always turn left when exiting a cave, or that elephants are the only animals that can't jump, unless these facts influence the direction of the story or give insight into a character, they have no place in my manuscript. There needs to be a reason for inclusion. For example, take author Elizabeth Peters' character Amelia Peabody, the turn of the century archaeologist-sleuth. Amelia often pontificates on Egyptian history, but that's who she is -an outspoken, well-educated woman proving herself in a man's world. In one scene, she went on for a very long paragraph, and since the author has a Ph.D. in Egyptology, the word 'gratuitous' came to mind and I skimmed it. In the last sentence of the paragraph, Amelia tells the readers that she knows they skimmed it and to go back and read because the information was important to the case. With all the earmarks of an information dump, here proved an exception to the rule. I loved how she used humor to make her point.

2. The backstory overload. This is closely related to the information dump, but more of this information is crucial to the story. Like watching your neighbor's 8mm home movies - you take for granted that he was born and moved through the stages of life to adulthood, but you're only interested in his story in the here and now, and perhaps a few things that would explain how he became a millionaire anime video game creator or a successful brain surgeon by the age of 25. Unfortunately, too often this information comes before we have gotten to know or care about him - or 50 pages into the story, which has been the line of demarcation given by publishers in recent years. (I hear this line is flexible and open to negotiation ??) Backstory lightly sprinkled to create tension and whet the readers' appetites is quite different. An exception would be if the backstory is the real story, as in The Princess Bride, or an immediate trip to the past is crucial to the story, as in The Time Traveler's Wife.

3. Stereotypes & its ugly twin, cliche. By stereotypes, I'm not referring to cultural differences or profiling. I'm talking about the one-faceted, predictable cardboard character who is manipulated by the writer for a purpose. He/she could be the inhabitant of a small rural town or a trailer park or an obese person, a trophy wife, soldier, Democrat, Republican, feminist or priest. The only way to avoid this trap is to know your characters to the bone and treat every one with respect. A cliche is 'anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse,' such as a plot, setting, character development, use of color, or a phrase (strong as an ox). Even a story device can be cliched. "On Star Trek, every time there came a problem that was too difficult to handle the writers would have someone travel back in time to solve it...Every hospital show has to have a young idealistic intern and an old, cranky administrator..." (see here ) Years ago at a conference, I learned that having my protagonist describe herself by looking in a mirror was cliched. I promptly rewrote my opening. I can't even think of a good exception to this rule, can you?

Good news - unique, fresh ideas and genuine writing get to stay on the island! They are hidden like jewels on a treasure hunt - so worth the time and effort to discover them.

Can you think of a stereotype or cliche in the making? What about phrases such as being 'kicked off the island?' Oops!


Latayne C Scott said...

Bonnie's post was so useful. It doesn't matter how long you've been writing, almost everyone needs to be reminded of those flabby words (and I can be the flabbiest!)

Debbie, this is practical information, and I really appreciate it. It's very difficult to write a novel about a culture or time unfamiliar to the reader without dealing with backstory and information-dump issues. But the best writers do it well, and I'm learning.

You advised against stereotyping. I guess I have the opposite problem. The editor for Latter-day Cipher, Andy-McGuire-may-his-name-be-blessed-forever, once admonished me that not every character in my story had to be peculiar.

I told him I'd work on it, but he'd obviously never met my extended family or he'd understand why I see the world that way.


Patti Hill said...

Guilty as charged! I loooove to write back story. BUT I hate frequent switches to back story when reading. It's like stubbing the same toe over and over.

I have a fat folder of back story written and cut. In the story I'm writing now, I must do more chopping.

The best use of back story I've read lately is Lisa Samson's The Passion of Mary-Margaret. If you haven't read this MUST!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wonderful list! I almost fell into the stereotype trap last night. I was drafting a scene that included a body shop worker - typical dirty appearance, etc. When I searched my brain for a name, the following came to mind...Hank, Chuck, Joe. And then I thought, why not name him John Paul? Who would expect the small-town grease monkey to be named after the former pope, right? :-)

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Latayne, I would LOVE to meet some of your extended family.

Patti, in the first draft I turned in for my first book, the protagonist monologued for pages and pages right after the first scene and a hasty rewrite was my first order of business. Yikes!

Sarah, great choice of name, and what a great nickname he could have there 'the Pope.'


Bonnie Grove said...

I'm not a backstory addict (editor often has to nudge specific elements out of me - I'm Johnny Tightlips), but it is easy for me to fall into the stereotype trap. The world rushes by and things that were once unique or even shocking are commonplace today. We have to ride the front wave of the human condition in order to be able to write about it in a fresh, compelling way.

One of the best things I've found for cutting edge insight into the human condition is reading the bible.
Shocking stuff in there.

Nicole said...

Yes, The Passion of Mary-Margaret was indeed a masterpiece. Truth.

The backstory issues depend a lot on POV. Omniscient is an unpopular POV, but it works well with the right writer and story.

Stereotyping is common. There are characters which some authors assume will "be" one way because of what they DO, rather than exploring HOW they are or even WHY.

Carla Gade said...

I like your list of no-no's. I'm a research junkie. It's so tempting to want to share every tid bit, but I'm learning to scatter it judiciously throughout the work.

I have a main character in my current wip who is a half-breed Indian guide in 1875. It's challenging for me to develop his character non-cliche. I keep thinking of Sully in Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, but this is not who my character is. Any ideas to keep him unique would be appreciated. I don't want to vote him out of the mountains.

Kathleen Popa said...

Carla, this is the kind of question I love, because I actually have an answer! Take a cue from Sarah, and give him a trait you'd never expect. Consider a hobby or an interest. I just did a little Googling, and discovered that:

--In 1953 George Cayley invented a manned glider.

--In 1861 Pierre Michaux invented a bicycle.

--In 1867 Christopher Scholes invented the first practical and modern typewriter.

Might your Indian guide be an erstwhile mechanical geek who has seen one of these wondrous inventions, and is hard at work trying to make one of his own?

I especially like the typewriter.

Carla Gade said...

Kathleen, thanks for the great suggestion! I'll have to put my thinking cap on, rather have him put his own on.

Samantha Bennett said...

Great post! When a friend offered to critique my first manuscript, her biggest suggestion was to rewrite stock characters. At first, I had no idea what she meant. But after some discussion, I discovered the stereotypes in my story. Why can't the surfer like studying?

Haha, I love the name John Paul for a mechanic. :)