Recap

by wjw on October 24, 2018

 I’ve begun work on Volume VII of the Praxis series, which so far does not have a title, and I’ve ran smack into the problem of information control.

Information control, as I tell the participants at Taos Toolbox, is crucial for the writer.  Too little information and the reader is bewildered.  Too much and the reader is buried, or bored, or possibly some other word beginning with b.

Get information control right, and you can build suspense.  Tell the reader enough so they can stop worrying about what’s happening, as I’ve said, so they can start worrying about what happens next!

My difficulties were made worse by the existence of six previous volumes of material.  How much recapitulation is necessary to bring the reader up to speed?  How much is too much?

And the characters!  I seem to have 1200 of them by now.  How many can I introduce before the reader’s mind gets blurry?  How many are necessary?  How long before all this stops being amusing?

One thing I absolutely wanted to avoid was writing a novel that begins with a 100-page infodump in which Brilliant Hero sits down to a conversation with Wise Superior about weapons, tactics, the opposition, the political situation, warship design, the odds of winning the next Army-Navy game, then delivers a crisp summary of all other major characters before Brilliant Hero sets out to win yet another glorious victory against overwhelming odds.

Yet how to avoid all that?  Information flow was, in fact, necessary.  An infodump of some kind was unavoidable.  We were right in the middle of a big story that had started in The Accidental War, and at a point at which characters had to make some major decisions, and these decisions had to be comprehensible to the reader.  And furthermore, I couldn’t count on readers remembering how Accidental War had ended, so I had to re-introduce several of those issues as well.

Resigning myself to writing an expository chapter, I determined to make it as brief and information-rich as possible, and just get the damn thing done.  I used every method of unloading information that I could think of— in dialogue or argument, in summary, and just laying it out on the page (which to my mind is perfectly acceptable, much preferable to as-you-know-Bob dialogue).  Even so, partway through and I realized I was getting bored.  As a reader, I felt I didn’t know these people, and I had created them.

What I decided was missing was voice, or— if you like— Attitude.  Fortunately my point-of-view character was Caroline Sula, who has attitude aplenty, and so for a while I enjoyed layering Sula’s caustic internal monologue over the proceedings.  But, having finished the chapter and gone on to the next, I still felt something was missing.  The chapter read well enough, and got the job done, but I wanted to open the book with something bigger.

Farther along in the story by now, I was writing a big emotional scene, and in the middle of it I realized that all the big emotions were in the wrong place.  I needed to put them right at the start!  Hook the readers with a big shattering emotional scene at the beginning, I thought, and they’d have more patience for the exposition that follows.

(Toolbox vets may remember the Nancy Kress Swimming Pool Theory, in which if you dive into the water with a sufficiently big splash, you can coast for a while under water before you need to start stroking again.)

So hey!  I’m writing by Nancy’s rules!  Now I’m busy rewriting, and I’m happy with how it’s turning out.

I saved my work from the threat of tedium, and I did it by thinking hard about what I was doing, and by doing experiments, and doing obsessive rewrites.  All of which you should be prepared to do, if you want to be good at this.

No, it isn’t easy.  Who told you that it was?

Class dismissed, and carry on.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

John Appel October 24, 2018 at 1:05 pm

It seems like this is a tactic well-suited to any story, not just one seven volumes deep into a sprawling series – just more necessary in such a case.

Filed away for later use!

Mark Stackpole October 24, 2018 at 1:26 pm

Slightly off topic: “Working on book VII…”
So can you share the titles and potential publication dates (I assume from Harper Collins) for V & VI ?

Minx October 24, 2018 at 1:48 pm

Book 7? Do you count Investments and Impersonations or do you have two mainline novels already finished?

pixlaw October 24, 2018 at 6:30 pm

As you know, Walter, the classic approach, in which a Brilliant Hero sits down to a conversation with Wise Superior [or even better, a former opponent who has been converted to the side of good through the sheer force of Brilliant Hero’s logic in prior books] about weapons, tactics, et cera, et cera, then delivers a crisp summary of all other major characters before Brilliant Hero sets out to win yet another glorious victory against overwhelming odds, is a method which still delivers. Look no further than the Baen online catalog for several current examples of same. Why bother fighting it? Just go with the lucrative flow, and save yourself all that extra time and struggle.

Just keep telling yourself ‘it’s not art, it’s commerce.’

wjw October 24, 2018 at 8:08 pm

Mark and Minx, books IV and V are “Impersonations” and “Investments,” and are already available.

wjw October 24, 2018 at 8:09 pm

pixlaw, as I tell my students, “Just because millionaire best-selling writers do it, is no reason that y9u should.”

JMW October 25, 2018 at 12:37 pm

“No, it isn’t easy. Who told you that it was?”

Asimov. To a lesser extent and in some measure indirectly, Heinlein.

Yes, I am currently sporting a mischievous grin. :)

Waldemar Müller October 26, 2018 at 8:24 am

interestingly, The Praxis books are those where I don’t need a recap. Even years after reading first 3 books (8 years ago) I still have no problem to associate a character name with the remembered story. And this is an author’s accomplishment. There are book son my kindle I forget as soon as I finish reading the last page. Often I download a kindle unlimited title only to realize I’ve read it and can’t remember a single thing happening later in the story.

wjw October 26, 2018 at 3:33 pm

Waldemar, I think that might be the best compliment I’ve ever received as an author.

Mark Stackpole October 26, 2018 at 6:49 pm

Thank you. I had “Impersonations” and “Investments” classified as novellas, rather than books 4 & 5. And now I see there is something called “The Stickpin” which I’ve missed. Gotta buy that ebook now.

wjw October 27, 2018 at 12:08 am

“Impersonations” is about the same length as most classic SF novels from the Fifties and Sixties. Now the average novel is double that!

“Investments” falls just short of the number of words necessary to classify it as a novel by SFWA standards. But it’s available as a separate volume, so I list it as one.

“The Stickpin” is a short-short, so I have it available as a bonus story to the paperback version of “Investments.”

Etaoin Shrdlu October 27, 2018 at 2:49 pm

@pixlaw you forgot that for each new book in the series, you must at least double the number of explosions from the previous book.

Don’t worry about the magazine storage and launch tube requirements for 180,000 missiles, they can use bulk cargo carriers the size of a Dyson sphere.

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