Editing is a wonderful thing, even when you find icky stuff, or, a few thoughts on exposition

I am now about two chapters into the second draft edit of Princess of Fire. That’s around 13,000 words corrected for gross deficiencies, inconsistencies and obvious grammatical crimes, which, for me, is the main purpose of the second draft. In all, those 13,000 words represent about ten percent of the whole book. A fair piece of work for a couple of days.

But I have already turned up one major problem. Somehow, without intending to, I basically turned Chapter Two into one of the most blatant info-dumps in the history of sci-fi– and, brothers and sisters, that is saying something.

I distinctly remember feeling uneasy about the chapter when I wrote it, but under the principle of getting the first draft down without regard to its quality, I wrote the damn thing and moved on. Now, revisiting it, I can see it’s a blatantly clumsy attempt to tie up loose-ends from Princess of Shadows. Worse, for the most part it’s Kathy rehashing the past six months in her head, double-clumsy. It’s the sort of thing you read, and then afterwards, mentally, it’s as if you’ve been eating chalk.

The problem of conveying information to the reader, exposition, is a thorny one. Novelists have it a little easier than screenwriters, but it’s still an issue. There is nothing sillier, or more deadly to the story, than two characters sitting around telling each other what they already know– the dreaded “As you know, Bob” approach. This is generally considered the mark of an amateur, but I have seen published novels by big-name authors doing variations on this (one certain sci-fi author, not to be named, basically has his characters sitting around agreeing with one another– three or four books of that sort of thing and I was ready to drive nails into my head with a ball-peen hammer. I no longer read this author, out of self-preservation).

Having a character who’s a stranger to things is one solution to this problem. In the first Divine Lotus book I got away with a lot of direct exposition because Kathy was new to the Jauthur universe and had to have a lot of things explained to her. Peter Weir used this technique rather artfully in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World by the presence of Stephen Maturin, ship’s physician, who keeps having to have nautical terms explained to him (and thus, the audience).

Another technique is “incluing”, which undertakes to weave the needed information into the narrative in bits and pieces and by techniques other than stopping the whole story in its tracks. I favor this approach, as it seems far more artful– but, obviously, I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

And then there is the idea that it is okay to leave a certain amount of information to the imagination of the reader. Readers can and will fill in many gaps, and doing so will invest them more deeply in the story. You just have to make sure the gaps you’re leaving open don’t involve really critical information, for example, the gender of your protagonist (unless, of course, their gender has no bearing on the story. If so, have at it). However, many writers, and not just newbies, don’t seem to trust their readers at all– which says more about the writers than the readers.

As for Princess of Fire, I’ve already have an idea of where I can shift some of the information, and there’s probably more that’s actually non-essential and which I can leave out. What remains will, I hope, constitute a legitimate flashback. I should be able to straighten this out without too much difficulty.

But in the meantime…chalk. Bleech.


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