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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Avoiding the Dreaded Info-Dump with guest blogger Kendra Leigh Castle

I’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:

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At 6:18 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Excellent post, and your book sounds like so much fun!

I found my first draft was loaded with info-dumps,but like you said, they were there because I needed to know about the characters or situation. I trick myself into cutting by pasting everything cut into a "scrapes" folder. Then I can reassure myself that, hey, look, it's all still available if it needs to go back in...although it never does... :)

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Thanks, Gillian! Yeah, I do a lot of cut-and-pasting into separate files too. That makes me kind of a verbal pack rat, I guess, but it comes in handy sometimes. I hate to get rid of anything I've written, just in case!

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

This is a great post, Kendra. Thanks so much for being here today! IMO, the dreaded info dump is something all authors do at some point or another. When judging contests that is one of the things that can put me to sleep the fastest...and yet if there isn't enough info, then it's hard to feel connected to the characters. It's amazing how much you can learn about a character's backstory in ONE sentence. It doesn't have to be paragraphs or pages of backstory.

LOL, Kendra, on the bad guy coming or the vampire staggering forth and your character is standing/sitting there thinking and thinking and thinking...:)

Thanks again. I will be checking in later, after I take Mom to the store...

Also, don't forget to comment everyeone for another chance at winning the $20 Borders gift card at the end of March!

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

It is so easy to fall into this trap of info-dumping, Kendra. I did it in version one (of seven) of my latest proposal. You give some great ideas on how to recognize the problem AND how to fix it!

At 10:13 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Hi, Kendra :-)! Your list of four warning signs is excellent.

And Theresa's right--plenty of info can be packed into just one sentence. Our readers don't need to know as much about our characters as we do :-).

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Oh, thank YOU Theresa, it's great of you to have me! Yes, I do think there's an art to backstory, and one which, IMO, most of us only learn through trial and error. I'm sure there are writers naturally gifted at the balance. Sadly, I got passed over on that one!:-) I've had to feel my way and learn. I'm glad those judges slogged through my burgeoning backstory to be so constructive! Because man, looking back, it was looooong.

Thanks, Diane! I'm with you...I always have to make a few passes to cut as much as I need to. The last couple always hurt the worst!

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Hi Terry! Thanks! It was interesting (and made me cringe at my process a little) to actually come up with that list. Because, you know, obviously those are not rare occurrences as I'm chugging along:-) That's definitely the challenge, to pack as much meaning into as few words as possible. But it's doable, if we keep trying!

At 10:26 AM, Anonymous Imani said...

Thanks so much for this timely topic Kendra, you said exactly what I needed to hear.

When I first read your post I thought, "I'm not an info-dumper." When I got to your list of things to look for I gasped, "I'm an info dumper!" I'm going to spend the day trimming the fat off my current WIP.

Imani - a frequent lurker out of the closet

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

I loved the warning signs, reminded me of a certain first book of my own! I'm definitely going to follow your advice on creating a separate file for backstory. When the need arises, I will infodump to my heart's content there. Thanks for blogging for us today!

At 10:43 AM, Anonymous Marie Force said...

Hi Kendra,
Great post! Your comments reminded me of my painfully over-written first MS that topped out at 155,000 words. LOL! Once I realized what I had done and what had to be done, cutting it became almost as much of a high as writing it had been. I learned a lot from that experience, and as a fellow pantser, I will say I've become much more judicious about what gets included. Before every scene I ask myself, does what you are about to write move character X's story forward? If not, don't you DARE write that scene you're dying to write, missy!

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Hi, Kendra! Your book sounds super yummy!

I have the opposite tendency. My characters seem happy to exist in a vacuum. I can write the whole first draft and realize they have no last names and are naked orphans as far as wardrobes and families go.

So that's my challenge, and I've learned to add details and (gasp!) details from the past that round things out, otherwise I would be writing 200-page screenplays. But it sure doesn't happen in that first draft.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Imani, no's freeing to come out of the info-dumping closet, as long as you learn to stuff some of the clutter that comes with being one back into it!

Mo, thanks! Yeah, the extra file (or files, in my case) is a great fallback. Much more comfortable than deleting outright sometimes, and I do go back and use some things! Not often, I admit, but occasionally I'm glad I didn't just junk something.

Marie, thanks for coming over! Marie is one of my Sourcebooks sisters, everyone:-) I know what you mean about that first book. I just looooved writing it, and thought it was the most brilliant thing ever. But boy was it long. And overwritten. And I was in my heroine's head so much that a lot of the other characters were kinda cardboard-y (like the villain, d'oh!). I also remember making sure I had her two best friends' complete backstories in there too...ugh! But we both seem to have learned our lesson!

Hi Esri! I hope the book is widely regarded as "yummy" to read, because it certainly was to write, so thank you. And LOL about the naked nameless orphans. Thank God for first drafts!

At 12:34 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Kendra, that was a fantastic post. I'm a reformed info-dumper, too. I'm also a reformed pantser. I think the modest amount of pre-planning I do now helps me avoid the info-dump, and also helps me judge where/how to reveal dribs and drabs of the backstory.

Esri, LOL on your naked orphans!

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

I remember a great workshop on beginnings and the speaker said, "consider back story as in IV drip, not force feeding."

Another hint -- when you're meeting a stranger at a cocktail party, how much of your life do you divulge in the first few minutes?

I need to know all the back story for my characters. I need to write all the back story for my characters. But I don't need to put it all in the first 3 chapters of the book. I'm getting better at how many opening pages I cut, but I know a lot of what I'm writing is for me, and the reader doesn't need to know all of it, and certainly not all of it before page 12.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Aunty Cindy said...

Hi Kendra!
Another Sourcebooks sister dropping by to say GREAT post! Yes, count me as another reformed info-dumper. In fact, I believe I now tend to go a bit too far in the opposite direction. That happy medium is sometimes hard to recognize.

I've also been trying to change my pantser ways and become more of a plotter, but it has been a struggle. Let's see how well I do with selling on proposal rather than completing the entire manuscript. (shudders with fear)

And big waves to my Roser sisters Terry and Theresa!

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

"Write that backstory before you even start"

AKA get to know your characters well. I'm doing this for my current wip. The funny thing is how endless this can be. But when done, you'll know your character better than anyone else will ever want to. Which I'm hoping will lend itself to better storytelling in the end.

Wish me luck. I think those warning signs will come in handy.

At 1:16 PM, Blogger Marianne Harden said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Marianne: 60,000? That's a fair bit.

This is a fun experiment. I did a MS Word Tools/word count on the "cuts file" from my last completed novel. 10,738. It's still at first-draft stage, but that means I'll be adding stuff. It's unlikely I'll be cutting any more.

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Marianne Harden said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Katey Coffing, Ph.D. said...

Kendra, you can always make me LOL. Great post, and the warning signs were oh-so-useful.

I confess I've probably been more like Esri in this--especially in my first ms., in which something dramatic & life threatening happened right after the first love scene. A CP pointed out that a full chapter (and quite a bit of nonsexual action later), my characters were still in their b-day suits. I ended up having the characters react to that, but thank goodness she mentioned it! I'd totaly had my "writer blinders" on.

I never used to think much about my characters' backstory, but now I do, and my characters are SO much more real and human, even to blindered me. But yep, while it's good to sprinkle some backstory in, it's always best not to plop steaming piles of it anywhere. :) Thanks for the smart post.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Thanks, Norah! I'm trying to reform out of the pantsing thing too, but it's even harder than not info-dumping:-)

Terry, exactly! I love the IV drip metaphor...perfect.

Yay, Aunty Cindy rode in! It IS a hard balance to strike (and I actually cut too much backstory from my proposal this time, which my agent had me put back in, so I seem to have developed a certain amount of backstory paranoia), but you'll do just fine with the proposal, I bet. Nobody is going to deny the friendly bandita with the riding crop:-)

Patricia, much luck to you! I think as long as we're aware of how we dole out our backstories, we're ahead of the game. I was way worse when I wasn't thinking about it!

Marianne, the chopped out words might be akin to buried bodies in a way (in a non-freaky, non-"dude, you are SO going to jail" kind of way), but that 60,000-word file means you're doing something right! And the drool is pretty fun, if messy. Also, your definition of "crapola" has had me snickering for the past several minutes.

Esri, you and Marianne are gonna make me go word count my folders o' crapola. I'm all curious now.

At 5:16 PM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Hi Katey! You do a wonderful job with backstory, and never leave it in "steaming piles" anywhere in your writing, hee hee. Thanks for coming by!

At 6:13 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Imani, when I got my first contest results back I thought the same things--first off, no I'm not! and then after a couple of days went by it was Oh dear, yes I am! :)

Drooling, Marianne? Did I say droolng? You should have smacked me.:)

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Great post, Kendra. I think we all have or still do struggle with this. My editor says it's just part of pretty much every first draft.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger doglady said...

I am entirely too paranoid to do a word count on my "crap file!" I too received the dreaded "info dump" diagnosis in a couple of contests. Went through the same denial as my CP, Gillian, and then got smart like my other CP, Marianne, and cut the crap, put it into a file and moved on.

Kendra, speaking of files, I have definitely printed this post and put it into a file to refer to over and over again. I love the idea of writing the back story first. And your warning signs are perfect. This was a really great post as I am getting ready to dive into revisions of my novel!

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

Thanks, Trish and doglady (cute name!). I had to go through denial too, and then got belligerent and was all, "Fine, I'll cut a bunch of stuff out of it, and THEN the world will know that I didn't put anything unnecessary in there! THEN THEY'LL SEE!!"

Um, sadly, the grand revelation did not go as planned.

Good luck with the revisions! I'm glad I could help! (see Kendra beaming even though she just did an hour and of half of sweaty, wobbly yoga)

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Kendra Leigh Castle said...

P.S. I'm off to bed, but thanks again for inviting me, and for being so much fun!


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