Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Info Dumping

In my weekly writers’ group we regularly mention information dumps, perhaps because so many authors are guilty of that fault. All of us in the group notice them and see the info-dump as a technique to be avoided.

For anyone who doesn't know what an info-dump is, here's a good description from Bruce Sterling's version of The Turkey City Lexicon, originally published in Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply Their Craft, edited by Robin Wilson (St. Martin's Press 1996), ISBN 0-312-14032-1:
Info-dump: Large chunk of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. Info-dumps can be covert, as in fake newspaper or “Encyclopedia Galactica” articles, or overt, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures. Info-dumps are also known as “expository lumps." The use of brief, deft, inoffensive info-dumps is known as "kuttnering," after Henry Kuttner. When information is worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure, this is known as “heinleining." [After Robert Heinlein]

Wikipedia has an entertaining article on Exposition (plot device), with amusing references and examples of infodumps. As explained in the article,

Exposition is a literary technique by which information is conveyed about events that have occurred prior to the beginning of a novel, play, movie or other work of fiction. This information can be presented through dialogue, description, news reports, flashback, or even directly through narrative. Because exposition generally does not advance plot and may impede present-time action, it is usually best kept in short and succinct form, though in some genres, such as the mystery, exposition is central to the story structure itself. . . .When the presentation of exposition becomes awkward or wordy, it is sometimes referred to by the pejorative expressions plot dump and info dump.

The problem is, how do you avoid an info-dump when there’s a lot of information you want the reader to know?

The best way to convey information to your readers is to integrate it into the story as seamlessly as possible. This takes skill and can be time-consuming--but it can be done. A good article about handling info dumps is "The Artful Infodump," by Charles Coleman Finlay.

Over at the Rth Dimension website, Rich Hamper has a bunch of suggestions for avoiding info dumps. His list includes an explanation of each term, but here I'm just going to name them:
deductive introspection; introspective reminiscing; flashbacks; "stranger in a strange land"; the briefing; "the bard"; media blurbs; strategic character; "the Dr. Watson"; and strategic debate. For his definitions, click on the link above.

At our next meeting my weekly writers' group is going to discuss info-dumps. Each of us will bring in an example of an info-dump to share with the others. There are some sharp minds and fine writers in that group, so it ought to be a good session. I'll let you know what we come up with.

P.S. You can find another version of the Turkey City Lexicon here; edited by Lewis Shriner, it's shorter than the Bruce Sterling version mentioned above. Oh, and thanks to Ariane Little for tipping me off to the Finlay and Sterling links.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Poetry, Schmoetry?

A couple of postings on House of Sternberg piqued my interest the other day, as often happens when I read Stewart's blog. (The Cult of Sternberg flourishes!) Stewart wrote a two-part posting titled "Poetry...Let's Talk." It was engendered by indignant comments on his remarks in a prior posting, in which he criticized contemporary poetry, likening it to prose that simply has the lines broken in the middle. In response to the angry mob, in "Part I" Stewart decided to develop meaningful observations about poetry through dialogue and analysis. He continued his discussion in "Part II."

I was going to skip reading those posts--the mere word "poetry" is enough to deflect my attention to other things. I've never been drawn to poetry per se. In college I was an English major and, in that capacity, had to read and analyze a lot of poetry. I've never read poetry for entertainment . . . even now, reading poetry feels like an "assignment." Hence, I avoid it.

However, driven by my compulsive side as well as my desire to honor another writer's oeuvre, I went ahead and read the poetry postings. They started me thinking about poetry.

I realized that despite my lack of interest in poetry, ironically I have written poems from time to time--mostly following periods of upheaval or tragedy. Considering my own impulse, plus the continuing drive many people feel to write poetry, as well as the popularity of songs, I've realized that humans have a fundamental need for poetry.

(Song lyrics are poems, as strange as that seems for some of them...I recall a hit song from my high school years, "Wild Thing" by The Troggs, which seemed to consist of the only four lines, reiterated endlessly: Wild thing / Wild thing / You make my heart sing / You make everything groovy. . . . n.b.: I just checked on Wikipedia and found I am wrong--there actually are several more verses, but all that stays in my memory are the lines I quoted.)

There are poems I like, all of them traditional verse. My favorite poem is Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold (which I first read in high school). Wistful, melancholy, existentialist, and lovely, especially the last lines:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

(To read the entire poem, which has three verses, see

The words in William Blake's poem The Tiger always fascinated me with their rhythm and flow, but I never really understood what it meant. I'm pretty sure it's one of the poems I had to analyze in college years ago, but the analysis is gone from memory; only the words remain. The words are mesmerizing, however, especially the first and last verse, which are the same:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


Another fragment of verse that has stayed in my memory is by Byron. On searching for the lines to quote them here, I was surprised to discover they are not from a stand-alone poem--rather, they're excerpted from the ending of Byron's long poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society where none intrudes,

By the deep Sea, and music in its roar . . . .

-- Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto iv. Stanza 178.


I won't try to answer Stewart's question ("What is poetry? or at least what is it today?"). As a non-fan of most poetry, I'm not qualified to pass judgment on that. All I can say is, I know it when I hear it, and I know what I like. Most poetry I've liked is in a traditional style; it need not rhyme, but it must have a noticeable rhythm, and beautiful language that captures strong emotions and/or memorable moments.

After all this, I've realized that perhaps I should try reading some poetry from time to time. Maybe it's something I needed to grow into, and maybe I'm finally ready for it . . . .

Saturday, February 17, 2007

It's Carnival time!

The greater New Orleans area is in the thick of the Carnival season. The first Carnival parades ran a couple of weekends ago--the ultra-satiric (and raunchy) Krewe du Vieux in the French Quarter, as well as others in the suburbs--with bigger parades last weekend. Now we're into the real frenzy of festivity. Mardi Gras is next Tuesday--February 20--so this weekend is a huge pre-Fat Tuesday celebration. The most famous parades will roll on Saturday (Endymion), Sunday (Bacchus), Monday (Orpheus) and Tuesday (Rex and Zulu). In addition to the superkrewes, there are numerous other parades every night and, on Saturday, Sunday and Fat Tuesday, during the day.

If your idea of Mardi Gras comes from the Girls Gone Wild shows or other coverage that emphasizes only the lewd, rethink your concept. Most of the Carnival celebrations are family-oriented. Yes, if you go into to the French Quarter, or Canal Street, the nearby "main street" of New Orleans, you'll see all those sights you've seen on TV that make your eyes pop and your hair stand on end.

But go into other parts of the city, further away from the French Quarter, and you'll see lots of families, with children of every age...and the suburban carnival celebrations are even more family-oriented. To quote from a San Francisco Chronicle article by Craig Guillot, a native New Orleanian, "Despite the legions of naughty videos, rumors and the fact that the New Orleans' tourism board does little to deny the image, Mardi Gras is far from the adults-only free-for-all that it's portrayed to be. The reality is that -- outside of the French Quarter -- families far outnumber flashers and drunks, and the only breasts one is likely to see are those of fried chickens."

This year it looks like we're going to have pleasant weather for Mardi Gras. It's been downright cold for this area the last couple of weeks--temps in the 30s at night (to New Orleanians that's COLD). It's warmed up today (in the 60s, which I love) and there's a touch of spring warmth in the air. The prediction for Fat Tuesday is a high of 70, with cloudy skies but no rain on the parades. Ought to be a great day.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Recommended Romance Writers

Stewart Sternberg has asked for advice on romance novels. He bought one to get an idea of what young women (ages 20-30) like to read nowadays, and couldn't finish it. Not wanting to believe that all romances are like the one he tried, he asked his blog audience for suggestions. I was eager to contribute. Although my age is years past his target range, I've read so many romances I figured surely I could suggest some he'd be able to enjoy. The comment became so long I realized it would be better to post it on my own blog rather than in Stewart's, so here it is:

I've been reading romance novels for a long time, but can't speak authoritatively on what women in the 20-30 age range like now. I can, however, list some romance novels I've liked that were popular, and thus I presume some of their audience is in your target range.

First, in defense of Janet Evanovich, the novel you tried to read is one of her early works, which has been out of print for years, perhaps deservedly. Because Evanovich is a Very Big Seller now, it was brought back into print along with several others of her early books. They are disappointing, and I agree with your evaluation. What has earned Evanovich her fame, fortune, and guaranteed spot in the NYT bestsellers list is the Stephanie Plum romantic mystery series, which are light, very funny, and fast-paced. These started with ONE FOR THE MONEY in 1994, followed by TWO FOR THE DOUGH (1996), and one every year since, with the most recent releases being TWELVE SHARP and PLUM LOVIN' (2006). I've read them all except PLUM LOVIN'.

I like the Stephanie Plum series for its humor and action; Stephanie is a lovable, sometimes loopy, heroine who is followed by disasters she barely manages to escape. She works for her cousin Vinnie as a bond enforcement agent, which creates a lot of the hilarity of the books by constantly putting her into weird situations. Evanovich has a talent for creating memorable comic characters, not just Stephanie but many of the secondary characters, such as Stephanie's sidekick Lula, a former ho' who nows works as a clerk in Vinnie's office; Stephanie's crazy grandmother, Grandma Mazur, who's a hoot; and many of the people Stephanie has to try to capture in her job. She also has two hunky men in her life, Morelli, a cop, and Ranger, another bond enforcement agent. Both are sexy but tough guys (no Fabios there!). I think you'd enjoy the Plum books a lot more than Evanovich's early romances. Also, the romance part of the novels is fairly minimal, because they are classed in the mystery genre rather than the romance genre. Try ONE FOR THE MONEY and see how you like it. Or, start later in the series--I recall being impressed that No. 9, TO THE NINES, was as funny as the first. (The scene with Lula and the pork chops slays me.)

I agree with Kate S on Jude Devereaux's A KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR--it was a favorite of mine for years. It's flawed as a novel in many ways, but has a central core fantasy that I think appeals to a lot of women. I must admit, however, that I haven't been able to finish any other Devereaux books I've started. (And, incidentally, despite Devereaux's having been one of the biggest-selling romance authors for years, she apparently doesn't have a website; I Googled her and got lots of references to her on other sites, but no site directly by/for her. Perhaps she's one of those cyber-phobic authors; I know a few who hate all things related to computers.)

Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER is one of my favorites. It's really more a historical novel/adventure story than a romance, although there is a strong romance at its core. I read the other books in the series, up through No. 4, but haven't tackled 5 & 6 yet (Gabaldon's books tend to be lo-o-o-ng). Although I liked the other books, OUTLANDER was the most satisfying to me. I consider Gabaldon a fine writer: excellent at character development, historical settings, and swashbuckling plots, as well as at describing realistic romantic relationships between men and women.

These are other historical romance writers whose work I love:
  • Loretta Chase (LORD OF SCOUNDRELS is one of my all-time favorites);
  • Laura Kinsale (FLOWERS FROM THE STORM is one of the finest historical romances ever written);
  • Jo Beverley (the ones I like best are from her Malloren series--MY LADY NOTORIOUS, TEMPTING FORTUNE, SOMETHING WICKED, SECRETS OF THE NIGHT, DEVILISH);
  • Mary Balogh (she had dozens of Regency romances published before she became a NYT bestseller with her Bedwyn series--the books whose titles start with SLIGHTLY...e.g., SLIGHTLY SCANDALOUS);
  • Mary Jo Putney (THUNDER AND ROSES of her Company of Rogues series is probably my favorite; it was reprinted in 2003 and may still be available);
  • Candice Proctor, who wrote wonderful atmospheric, character-driven historical romances (e.g., SEPTEMBER MOON) before switching to mysteries and a new pseudonym, C.S. Harris.
Of contemporary romance novelists, these are some I recommend:
  • Jennifer Crusie--light, rollicking, fast-paced (caution--like Evanovich, Crusie is so popular that her early work has been put back into print and, although well-written for their type, those books are not as satisfying or well-developed as her later, longer books, such as TELL ME LIES, CRAZY FOR YOU, WELCOME TO TEMPTATION, and subsequent work);
  • Susan Elizabeth Phillips--she's good at character development, many of her novels feature pro athletes as heroes (e.g., IT HAD TO BE YOU and HEAVEN, TEXAS are probably my favorites), and her books also have strong notes of humor;
  • Suzanne Brockmann--her Navy SEAL "Troubleshooters" series has put her on the bestseller lists, with exciting plots, strong characters, and headlong pacing (that series begins with THE UNSUNG HERO; the most recent title is INTO THE STORM, 10th in the series);
  • J.D. Robb, a pseudonym used by Nora Roberts for her IN DEATH series featuring police lieutenant Eve Dallas. Those novels are edgy, urban, futuristic, and fun. I also like a lot of Roberts' more traditional romance novels (e.g., MONTANA SKY, which has been made into a TV movie that will air on the Lifetime channel on Monday, February 5. It remains to be seen how well the book-to-film transition is, but the picture features John Corbett as the hero, and he's a hottie).
Of course, gotta put in that final caveat--I can't guarantee that women in the 20-30 age range like these books, but since all the above authors are bestsellers, it's a good bet that many of their fans are in that age range. There are a lot of hugely popular romance novelists whose work I've never read or that I've tried to read but didn't like.

I've reveled in the work of the authors listed above, however, and enjoyed most if not all they've written.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

P.O.V. Change

If you have read this blog in past, you'll notice a difference in it beginning today. Previously, the entries were written in third person. Beginning today, I will post in first person.


After activating the blog, Sphinx Ink--I--thought it would be entertaining and lend a humorous air to the blog to write entries in third person, in the vein of Miss Manners and Ms. Mentor.

It has been amusing, and sometimes challenging, to stay in third person. I've come to realize, however, that because a blog is a sort of diary, it's constricting to have to post only in third person. Some thoughts and musings are harder to convey when made in third person. The distancing and occasionally supercilious effect created by that persona was a bar to some things I wanted to express.

I considered creating a second blog, in which I could speak in first person, but discarded the idea because I don't find time to post on one blog as often as I'd like to, much less on two.

So I decided to make a sea change by switching point of view. And here I am...still Sphinx Ink, but speaking to you from the "I."