Brains getting in the way

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Patricia C. Wrede

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Dec 5, 2000, 3:00:00 AM12/5/00
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In article <bv3q2to4m290eq85e...@4ax.com>, Joshua P. Hill
<XXjos...@mindspring.com> writes:

>On 5 Dec 2000 01:07:45 GMT, wo...@thark.barsoom (William Clifford)
>wrote:
>
>>I'm working on chapter three of a story that I intend to be a kind of
>>cross between Greg Egan and Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the moment I feel
>>like the brains are getting in the way of the action. Or rather, it's
>>taking too long to set the scene. It's that okay? Should just be
>>patient and ride out the descriptive exposition and hope that future
>>action scenes will make up for it? I want the set pieces to all be in
>>place here. As I think of it, I remember ERB seemed to be fairly patient,
>>about setting this stuff up so perhaps I shouldn't worry so much. On
>>the other hand I would like this to have a lot more energy than it
>>currently has. I should start reading _Outlaws of the Marsh_ again.
>>The Chinese have known how to make high energy kung fu stories for a
>>*long* time (I can't wait for _Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon_). I
>>don't know. It just seems bad to start off so slowly. Any advice?

Sorry; this hasn't come through on my server yet. It'll probably get here in a
few more hours, but I'm going to be gone this evening.

As far as the specific question you are asking -- what should I do in this
particular book? -- nobody can give you an answer without seeing the book. And
this may be part of your problem: It may not be obvious until you have
finished the book which bits of the opening need to be kept and which bits need
to be junked and which bits need to be expanded or tweaked just a bit. It is
also possible that you are overreacting to the authorial exposure problem:
writing something almost always takes a lot longer than reading it, so things
that seem "too slow" to the author (because it took a week to write those three
pages) read at a reasonable or even fast pace to a reader (because it only
takes five minutes to read those three pages).

You may, of course, be reacting to a genuine problem in this particular story.
If so, bear in mind that it is a problem of *THIS PARTICULAR* story. Slapping
a "strong hook" opening on a story that isn't suited to a strong hook is going
to be counter-productive, even if strong hooks are in demand. Opening with
action or dialog bothers some readers as much as it attracts others. OTOH, one
of the extremely common flaws of new-writer SF/F stories that I have seen is a
tendency to want to put all the background/setting exposition on the first
page, when it is neither necessary nor desireable that it all be there. (One
of the other common flaws is a tendencey to want to leave out all exposition of
any sort whatsoever, even when it is both necessary and desireable that there
be some.)

If you are quite sure that the story opening is bogging down, and that you have
enough information to identify why this is happening, and that this is not
right for this particular story, then you can worry about what to do about it.
(Note that nobody here can tell you any of those things without seeing the
story, so you'll have to figure them all out yourself.)

What to do if the story really *is* bogging down and "too slow" in opening may
not be at all intuitively obvious. The usual reaction, when someone feels that
the pacing is "slow," is to cut stuff -- fewer words read faster, right? Well,
no -- fewer words only read faster if they're the right words saying the right
stuff. Sometimes, what is needed to pick up the pacing is *more* words.
Possibly the reason the exposition is all crammed in the beginning is that the
story is opening too late -- you've actually started with Chapter 3, and you're
trying to provide two chapters-worth of set-up and fill-in, when what you
really need is to back up and write those chapters. Possibly the story opens
in the right place, but you're in too much of a hurry to get to the action, and
so you're providing expository lumps that are indigestible but short, when it
would work better to do the setup as three or four scenes that are long but
smooth and quick-reading. Possibly you have been so concerned with keeping the
opening short that you have condensed your exposition into sentences with the
density of a neutron star, and the exposition would be fine and fascinating if
you just unpacked it a little.

Or possibly you're underestimating how much the reader can draw from context,
and thus providing more exposition than you need, and you really should just
cut some stuff. The thing is, you can't just assume that this is
for-certain-sure the only possible solution to the problem.

The first and most important step is diagnosis: *why* does this feel slow, why
does it seem wrong for this story, why is what I am doing not working? Once
you know that, *then* you can worry about specific techniques and tips to fix
it (if what needs to be done isn't already obvious from the diagnosis). I
haven't got time to make suggestions for fixing *all* of the above
possibilities; if this doesn't help, try asking again, only a little more
specifically.

Patricia C. Wrede

William Clifford

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Dec 6, 2000, 9:05:10 PM12/6/00
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On Tue, 05 Dec 2000 12:00:25 -0500,
Joshua P. Hill <XXjos...@mindspring.com> wrote:
>On 5 Dec 2000 01:07:45 GMT, wo...@thark.barsoom (William Clifford)
>wrote:
>
>>I'm working on chapter three of a story that I intend to be a kind of
>>cross between Greg Egan and Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the moment I feel
>>like the brains are getting in the way of the action. Or rather, it's
>>taking too long to set the scene. It's that okay? Should just be
>>patient and ride out the descriptive exposition and hope that future
>>action scenes will make up for it?
[snip]
>I think it's important to keep in mind that modern audiences are less
>tolerant of leisurely beginnings and extended expositions than ERB's
>were. So without knowing precisely what your situation is, and knowing
>as always that Patricia will step in with advice that's much better
>than mine, I'll hazard a guess that you shouldn't count on the
>reader's patience.
>
>Anyway, I'm not really sure on the basis of what you said whether
>you're focusing on basic scene setting or informative exposition here,
>but here are a few tricks which may or may not be applicable:
>
>--Establish interest by establishing a dilmena, then back off into
>exposition:

I did this sort of. Chapter one does establish the basic situation and
the essential dilemma of the story. Chapter two is almost entirely
scene setting and exposition. Chapter three gets off to a slow start
but that's where the action starts. Chapters one and two are on my
webpage.

http://wobh.home.mindspring.com/fictions/flare

But before anyone reads this maybe I should do an experiment and make
an alternate chapter two that cuts out all the expository paragraphs.
That still leaves a lot of scene setting stuff. Which may be
interesting but I think it could be boring without some kind of break
and might not make sense.

Or read it anyway. I found a bunch of little errors that I'm going to
fix soon when I put chapter three out. Also does it make any sense to
anyone not familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels?

I appreciate any input anyone has for this story at this early stage
of things.

--
William Clifford
wo...@yahoo.com
http://wobh.home.mindspring.com
Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.

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