Avoiding the Dreaded Info-Dump with guest blogger Kendra Leigh CastleI’ll never forget the day I found out I had a problem. I’d just received my scores from the very first contest I’d ever entered, and sat eagerly parsing the comments for direction on my beloved WIP. It was the standard three chapter contest, and I knew, just knew, that I had a great opening. Even if chapter two had always seemed a little…bloated. Didn’t matter, right? Chapter two was necessarily chock full o’ crunchy goodness, and probably the judges would love it best of all. I mean, who wouldn’t love the entire tale of how my spunky heroine had come to own her romance-centric bookshop, complete with amusing flashback? Yeah, yeah, so the wounded werewolf hero was staggering toward her doorstep even as she did her detailed reminiscing. So what?
I will now summarize for you the general opinion of those three wonderful, insightful judges: “This is a great story. It’s probably going to sell. But you really need to do something about the glacial pace of chapter two. Do you really need to tell us quite so much?”
As I thought about it, the revelations came quickly: the 420-page failed manuscript living in a box in my closet, the fact that anyone with eyes and a pulse would be able to ace a complete biographical quiz on my heroine after her very first chapter…yeah, it all came together at that moment.
Hi, my name is Kendra, and I’m an info-dumper. Well, recovering info-dumper, if you want to be specific. Because even pantsers like me have a method to our madness, and I’ve learned to recognize certain signs that mean I’m doing my usual and stuffing too much backstory into one of my first three chapters. The things that tell me, “Uh, Kendra, you’re going to want to stop, go back about four pages, and start using the delete key now. Because unless I’m mistaken, no one will ever need to know the name of the dog your heroine had when she was four.” Among the warning signs:
1. I’ve gone more then two pages with almost no/no dialogue
2. Something cool is about to happen, and yet my character is thinking. And thinking. And thinking…
3. It’s early in the story, and I’m focusing on the past instead of moving the action forward in the present
4. All the pertinent parts of my character’s life story have emerged in the space of one or two chapters
I know I’m not alone. As writers, we love our characters, and we love their stories. Their whole stories, from start to finish, all of what made them who our hero or heroine is going to fall madly in love with. The difficult part, for me at least, was realizing that quite a bit of that backstory is only pertinent or interesting for me. It adds nothing to the book itself, and slows the pace rather than spicing things up. It was a hard lesson, leading me to educate myself (with no small amount of agony) in the art of “killing my darlings.” I must have cut five pages of fat out of that much-maligned chapter. Surprisingly, though, once I did, I found I had a tighter chapter with a snappy pace, and that there was even a cathartic aspect to editing down my own work. The amusing flashback and lengthy rumination on the past? Gone, baby, gone. And no one, save me, would ever miss them, which was most telling of all.
That said, and in the interest of helping other closet info-dumpers like myself (oh, the secret shame!), I have a few tips that have helped me write the kind of story I want to read, instead of the kind of story wherein I suddenly hit a wall of words and start skimming to get back to the action. Everyone has their own process, of course, but I’ve found that these things help me:
1. Write that backstory before you even start. Probably a good idea anyway, but like I said, I’m a pantser and am often guilty of, um, bad planning behavior. Write the whole thing, everything you want to know and can come up with about your characters. You want to talk about your hero breaking his wrist when he was twelve? Go for it. But do it in a separate file, or in a notebook, not right in your story. And if you suddenly think of some new twist to that character after you’ve begun writing in earnest? Avoid the temptation to wedge it into your current chapter and add it to that original file to use later. Let it settle. It may fit in better somewhere else.
2. Take a good hard look at what you do and don’t need in that voluminous backstory. What will reveal character and motivation? And what, though you might love it, is just extra? Make a list. Cross stuff out. Yes, it might hurt. Do it anyway.
3. Make a solemn promise to yourself to dole out the backstory in small amounts, no matter how great the urge to do otherwise (some small voice inside of me still screams, “No! They have to get to know him/her NOW!”).
4. Formulate a plan of action, and stick to it. This is a rub for pantser like me, who is sloppy about whatever sort of list I might make, but I haven’t found a better way around it. Divvy the backstory up into layers: what needs to be known up front, what can be revealed later, and best, things that can be hinted at and then revealed for maximum impact at a later time. This part can include paper and a marker, which makes me happy. I mentioned I’m messy, right?
Writing a chapter, or even a whole manuscript (like the one in my closet) that needs to go on a diet is no big deal if you’re willing to accept that diagnosis, then come up with strategies for circumventing counterproductive impulses and avoiding those dreaded pockets of info-dump. It’s amazing what we writers can do with willpower and the digital hatchet of the delete key. As for me, I’m eternally grateful to those three anonymous judges for both their encouragement and their criticism. I took their advice and trimmed my backstory, much as I loved what I had to lose. The end result? First a wonderful agent, and not long after, a book deal for me and the romance-loving heroine who thinks she’s helping a wounded dog and ends up with…well, quite a bit more than she bargained for.
Call of the Highland Moon comes out May 1st from Sourcebooks Casablanca, and if you like sexy Scottish werewolves and sharp, funny heroines, I hope you’ll take a peek.
Thanks for having me as a member of the Posse for today, I love it here. Now go forth and whip those backstories into shape! Happy writing!
Kendra also blogs twice a week at Sourcebooks Author Blog at: www.wickedlyromantic.blogspot.com