Thursday, July 25, 2019

I digress!

PICTURED: The grail-quest can wait, let me tell you about this wonderful robe I'm wearing! Egyptian Silk!


Hey Writers,

When last we spoke, I mentioned the fact that I'd taken the plunge in some vainglorious attempt to better my skills, and set up camp in an Intermediate Novel Writing Course. We talked about feedback, how invaluable it can be, and we'd all agreed and moved on. Right?

The coolest thing about finding something like this writing course is that, though somewhat limited on time, it's kinda like workshopping your stuff. I got some amazing notes back on the first (and second) chapters of VIRTUAL MACHINES (huge thanks to both Jons, Matt, Kim, and everyone else who gave feedback), notes that have spurred another round of massive edits/revisions/additions/subtractions/reshapings of the 10 chapters currently completed. One note, in particular, called me a "very good writer", which was very nice bullshit, and highlighted that there was much detail, a lot of detail, some would say maybe too much detail...

Let us skip back 15-16 months; I had an idea, I had a starting point, I had an end goal, and I had a vague shape. Somewhere between the germination of the seed of ideas, and my typing of the first sentence, VM shifted from a far-flung cyberpunk thing to something I was infinitely more interested in. It became a near future "real world" thing based on mostly existing technology and my own theories about how that tech (and how we use it) might evolve. The next step was to pour through dry technical and theoretical articles and journals, thousands of pages about AI development, theoretical uses for Augmented Reality, Google Glass, Smartglass, and about a half dozen other AR displays in development, learning machines, the social psychology of social media, mental health effects, and even theories on human extinction. 

So with all this stuff crammed in the brain, I meticulously crafted this near-future setting driven by augmented reality that I would dump my characters into. I thought about HOW everything worked, the process, the utilities, how people would interact, and somewhere along the line, the balance between plot, character, and world-building was skewered. I was so fascinated by the ideas behind the tech and how it could evolve, that the narrative became this bloated thing. I imagined characters setting up new cell phones that required them to take 3D spherical pictures to place their AR avatar into the digital reality layered over our own. Riveting stuff, especially when your protagonist is trying to track down a former client he'd believed was dead 4 years previous and had just survived a devastating terror attack. My biggest concern was that maybe you, dear reader, wouldn't understand what was happening if I didn't do a damn thorough job of explaining it. I assumed that I had kindred spirits out there who would want to know how everything worked. I'd forgotten why I always chose Star Wars over Star Trek. I don't care how stuff works, I want a story! I'd committed one of my own cardinal sins. Digressive exposition! *shakes fist!*

How often have you read a novel wherein the author takes the exit ramp into Digression City to dump some extraneous bullshit into your lap? Drugstore and mainstream fiction pushers are famous for it. Hardcore sci-fi is famous for it. Pulp adventure is famous for it. It's only now, a year into my own WIP that I understand it. 

Take Dan Brown; he dumps every ounce of his funded research trips into his novels, and honestly, I don't give a shit about the Louvre being one of four museums located on the four compass points of Paris. I care about why Robert Langdon has been escorted there by police after being told his dear friend, Jaques Sauniere was killed. I don't care about what sort of plane he and Sophie fly to England, or what sort of Rolls Royce engines it has, or whether or not the Pilot's grandfather served in World War II. It's superfluous, it's extraneous information that does ZERO to move the plot forward. Brown had digressed to drone about French history and Paris geography, and it was an occurrence that happens more times than I can count in that particular book. 
Outside of the fact that I was genuinely riveted by Brown's rather clever mystery (two cryptexes is one cryptex too many though), I'd have chucked The DaVinci Code into the bin after chapter 3. I almost did with the Sir Teabing chapter. We'll get to that another time. 

Earnest Cline was brutal for this in Ready Player One as well; He diverged from plot constantly to explain every "oh so clever" pop-culture homage like an excited teenager. I recall an early paragraph spending far too much time explaining that a poster was designed to resemble the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide, and that was far from the worst offender. All of these "micro-digressions" pump the brakes HARD on narrative push (and visual gags like that DnD poster are best explored in a visual medium. cut it out), and for a story so fast-paced as RPO, that's a huge detriment.

Clive Cussler is another bastard for this too; his Dirk Pitt adventure novels play out like edutainment trips through high adventure. Digressions are plenty. Every time a new element is introduced, he has to explain it at the molecular level, whether it's the inner workings of an AK-47 or a 1967 Ford Mustang.

What did I feel The Davinci Code, Ready Player One, and Sahara all have in common? They worked better as movies. Movies have that show thing down pat; Characters can spew exposition or show off a world with a few establishing shots. Remember the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. Except for that bloody Leo Teabing chapter... but I'll get to that some other day.  

So then, where is the balance? It's rough establishing a world that's right next door to our own without providing context to the reader. It's tough to world build something alien when you can't digress a touch to explain something. There are ways, the "show, don't tell" rule chief among them. Even that can be tricky. Frank Herbert's Dune often times leaves first-time readers scratching their heads in bewilderment. He doesn't digress for a second, he never stops to explain the Gom Jabbar, or the Seeker, or what the hell a Kwizatz Haderach is. He DOES, however, have an awesome appendix. Maybe that's what I'll wind up doing. 

I'm a dynamite fisher-person. I just can't put the wormy on the hooky.

Until next time!
STP

1 comment:

Attrage said...

Thing with Dune is, Frank Herbert knew he didn’t need to spend a chapter explaining the concept of the Kwisatz Haderach because, by the end of the novel, you understand what it is.

To put it far more bluntly, Dan Brown is simply not as skilful a writer as Herbert. Yes, they are completely different writers working in completely different genres. My point is, it doesn’t matter what genre you write in, Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” applies – you only need to “tell” the reader the essentials – if you’re a skilled enough writer, you will “show” the rest, and what’s more, readers will understand the rest, *providing* those essentials are a) carefully chosen, and b) written well enough.