Info dumps and wilful ignorancePosted: February 6, 2013 Filed under: On writing | Tags: editing, writing, young adult 8 Comments
I just finished a young adult (YA) novel that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I considered writing a review, but thought that rather than naming and shaming it might be more beneficial to instead outline the two main reasons I didn’t like the book. As a writer, I’ve found I learn just as much from bad books as good ones. Maybe I can share my learning without inflicting the object of the lesson on you directly!
This particular book was originally self-published. After it had good sales, it had a quick copy edit done (I presume, as some of the Goodreads reviews mentioned typos and I didn’t see any) and was then published in traditional form. You could tell it hadn’t felt a structural editor’s deft hand, though, because many of my objections were all things a good editor could have fixed.
The book featured a supernatural race and a main character who didn’t know she was part of that race: all fairly standard for YA urban fantasy (hell, my book has them!). The author clearly wanted to establish early on the signs the character was different—but it was done awkwardly, by way of the narrator explaining things to the reader in a giant info dump. You’re probably familiar with the concept of “show, don’t tell”. This was all tell.
Also, none of the supernatural indicators were that striking. The race easily passed for human. So it wasn’t “by the way, I have a tail and cloven hooves”, it was “by the way, I don’t like seafood and the colour pink” (yes, I made those up). It made the main character look fussy and difficult, although it was clear to me as a reader what was going on.
The end result of all this was that it took me out of the story and made me notice the (poor) craft. As a writer, taking your reader out of the story is the number one thing you want to avoid.
Wilful ignorance as a plot device
The author clearly wanted to dole out information about the race and its society over the course of the first half of the book. I get that. A slow reveal, when handled well, can be like a strip tease, making you stick around to see just a little bit more…
Unfortunately, in this case, it wasn’t at all sexy. Because it resulted in the main character not asking obvious questions, which made her look stupid, callous or both.
Likewise, the supporting characters, who were meant to be inducting her into her race, kept her deliberately ignorant when it made no sense for them to. And then they had the nerve to scold her when she did the wrong thing out of that ignorance! In one example, one guy told the leading lady it wasn’t his place to explain something—only to explain that same thing a chapter or two later with no indication of why he’d changed his mind. I wanted to slap him upside the head. With a semitrailer.
It’s challenging to have a “discovery” storyline when the teachers know everything and the reader and main character don’t. Managing the reveal is tricky. I get it. But if the reader starts to get frustrated and feels like they are being deliberately kept in the dark, you’ve pulled them out of the story again.
Another example of wilful ignorance was when, at the end of the book, the main character abruptly decided to do something that seemed out of character (based on her previous actions), justified by some extremely flimsy logic. Presumably this was to set up the start of the sequel, but it bugged me enough that I doubt I’ll ever know…
I read an originally self-pubbed book (kind of) that had been published and I’m not afraid to say that I found it awful. The writer was young but that was no excuse for the glaring grammatical errors that should have been picked up before it was published. Also, the storyline seemed to gradually become wilder – it was inconsistent and continually added elements with very little grounds, so that towards the end of it I could barely force myself to keep reading. And yes, there were info dumps. I’d be interested to know which book you’re talking about here – may be the same one!
I DMed you. :p
I appreciate your gracefully handling of what would have had to be a poor review. I don’t write negative reviews myself.
There’s a huge difference between suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader enthralled in a good story, and attempts at forced suspension by a clumsy writer. No reader likes to be written down to. Thanks for pointing that out so clearly.
My other pet peeve these days is overwriting – authors that use twenty words to say what could have been edited down to ten. I sometimes feel like saying, read Steven King’s On Writing! Cut half the manuscript and you’ll have a good story!
Happy reading! May the next book you pick up be a gem beyond price,
I hope so. The next one has a pretty good reputation and is a NY Times bestseller, so I live in hope… 😉
You explained the book’s issues TOO well. I read this series over a year ago and I still knew exactly what you were talking about. The plot devices were so glaringly, frustratingly obvious, the writer might as well have given them names and made them secondary characters.
Ooooops! And here I was trying to be nice! :p
I read a popular YA book recently as “research” and found exactly the same thing. I made the mistake of buying the whole series. But it’s okay…because every time I have a “this is a pile of junk” moment when editing my own work, I pick up the sequel and read parts just to show myself that I’m not doing EVERYTHING wrong! I absolutely hate info dumping and agree it is a real skill to weave in just enough information to keep the reader in the picture without the dump.
I’ve just started a new manuscript and I’m struggling with it a little myself. I’ll fix it at the edit stage. :p