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Archive for March, 2010

You all remember Basil Exposition in Austin Powers—the stuffy intelligence chief played by Michael York whose sole purpose was to provide background information for the plot, i.e., exposition. I thought about ol’ Basil today as I was reading one of my favorite suspense writers because it seemed that he’d wandered into the book while I wasn’t looking. The amount of information the author had started cranking out was enough to choke a goat.

Exposition is a real pain in the ass for most writers. You usually need to explain some things that aren’t going to come up in the action, but you need to do it in a way that keeps the plot moving, or you run the risk of putting your readers to sleep.

The usual way to get the exposition in is via dialogue. The hero or heroine has a conversation with someone into which some of the more important info nuggets are tucked. Ideally, you do this a bit at a time, probably out of chronological order, so that the reader can begin to build a mental map of what’s going on. But if a fact is really important, you’re going to have to find a way to build it in more prominently while simultaneously hiding it so that the reader can have a pleasurable head-smack moment when the final plot twist is revealed. And if the connections are going to be particularly intricate, you may have to have one of those Big Reveal scenes in which all the characters gather to piece things together (if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, the villain may well be one of these characters so that she/he can grab a knife and a handy hostage at the end).

But what happens if you’ve got a lot of historical background to include (like Linda Fairstein or Dan Brown) or if you’ve got scientific information that has to be understood (like Kathy Reichs or Tess Gerritsen)? You can’t really drop those factual nuggets into casual dialog, particularly if they involve a lot of detail. Enter Basil (or Brenda) Exposition, a character or characters whose sole purpose is to explain the technical underpinning of the plot. The problem comes in working Basil or Brenda into the story because if their only purpose is to provide technical information they tend to stand out like very sore thumbs.

One way is to put the exposition scenes in an action setting. Maybe Basil is gassing on about the chemical properties of blood while the characters are careening across the countryside to a murder scene, or maybe Brenda gives you the fine points of the medieval theory of cosmology while the hero searches through the library, frantically looking for a clue.

But whatever you do to them, what they’ll do to you is bring your plot to a screeching halt while they fill in the blanks. If the information is interesting enough, readers will probably tolerate it. If it isn’t, you run the risk of having the reader throw the book into the return stack. Fairstein sometimes makes them villains, which, considering the amount of gab they’ve made us sit through, isn’t a bad idea. Other writers make Brenda/Basil a murder victim. I can definitely sympathize. I’m sure many of us have wished that once they’d delivered their important information, we could just kill those suckers off.

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The Rewriter

I’m a big believer in critique groups, as I’ve said many times and in many posts. Most of us have trouble looking at our writing objectively. Critique partners can give you an outsider’s take on what you’re doing (or not doing). So nothing I say here should be taken as an attack on critiquing in general. Just a comment on what is probably the most annoying thing a critiquer can do—unnecessary rewriting.

If you’ve been part of a critique group, you’ve probably encountered the chronic rewriter. You get your pages back and they look like they’re bleeding. The rewriter has gone in and changed every paragraph, redoing your tight, concise sentences so that they sprawl across the page or changing your baroque regency prose into something that sounds like Mickey Spillane. And the really annoying thing is that her rewriting hasn’t made the pages any better. She’s just made them totally different.

Now all of us are guilty of the occasional clumsy sentence (some of us more than one). But if a critiquer finds herself rewriting paragraph after paragraph, and she can’t really explain what’s wrong with the prose in the first place, chances are she’s falling into the “make it sound like me” trap. I used to teach a course in copyediting and this was one of the most common problems beginning students had. They couldn’t exactly understand what was wrong with a manuscript, so they’d start rewriting until they’d turned it into something that sounded like them rather than like the original writer. That didn’t necessarily make the MS any better, and it didn’t get the students many points from me.

My rule of thumb was to tell them to try to explain exactly what was wrong with the original. Sometimes they could: the writer had problems with grammar, or overly long sentences, or inflated vocabulary. But sometimes there didn’t seem to be anything specifically wrong. It just didn’t “sound right” to them.

The problem is, the writer’s prose may not “sound right” to me just because it sounds different from mine. It doesn’t sound like it would if I wrote it. But that doesn’t make it wrong or bad, just different. Copyeditors have to learn how to change things, but they also have to learn how to leave things alone. Otherwise, they’ll have a lot of pissed-off clients on their hands.

Let me interject here to point out that some things do, in fact, need to be changed. If the writer has grammatical problems, for example, or problems with punctuation, you probably need to point them out and perhaps suggest a revision (although I’ve also had people take sentences that were correct and make them into something that wasn’t). However, grammar and punctuation are different from style.

Now maybe you, as a critiquer, don’t like a particular writer’s style much. But I’d suggest dealing with that problem by using comments (“Your style seems a little stilted here” or “Why does he suddenly sound so much more formal than he did on the previous page”) rather than by rewriting whole paragraphs. The writer probably needs to know that some readers aren’t reacting well to the way a particular passage sounds. Then she can decide what she wants to do about it—rewrite it (in her own style), cut it, or leave it alone.

On the other hand, if you rewrite a manuscript to make it sound like it would if you wrote it, you’ll probably only annoy the writer and make her less likely to listen to anything else you have to say—believe me, I’ve been there! One perky critiquer even cautioned me not to get too downhearted when I saw what she’d done to my pages—she suggested I read through all her rewritten paragraphs so that I could learn how to do things better. I managed not to write her a scathing response, but it was a near thing.

So here’s the point: Allow the writer her style. What you might do if you were writing her book may well have no bearing on what she’s done. And who knows, maybe her version is as good as yours would be if you were working in her genre.

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