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The Dreaded Data Dump

Only bears, rats and seagulls like dumps…

Supporting the overarching principle of not accidentally pulling readers out of our story, today’s blog is about data dumps. This was another lesson from summer workshop, but also a principle I learned while writing my memoir. Sometimes in fiction and memoir it’s hard to figure out how to give readers background story or provide context as to what’s going on without pulling them out of an active scene. If we spend too long in explanation, which interrupts action, it’s called a data dump, or information overload.

Once in a while we might need a little background to illuminate why a character is behaving the way she is. Or maybe we’re writing science fiction and using otherworldly terms which require orienting the reader or cluing him in. One device is to use an active flashback scene, but many times background story or explanation isn’t enough to merit a separate scene. And we can’t cheat and do it clumsily in dialog, either, because characters would never sit around telling each other what they already know.

It’s so easy for our eyes to slide past information-packed paragraphs written in a neutral, journalistic tone. After a point, we start wondering when we’ll get back to the main story, back to the conflicts and problems and emotions. So how do we approach explanatory narrative?

Explanatory material should:

  • Be super-lean, as short as possible
  • Not feel intrusive
  • Weave into the narrative rather than interrupt it
  • Create an emotional or visceral response if possible
  • Occur during a natural pause or down-time in the narrative, not during high action or fast-moving dialog
  • Never sound contrived
  • Be written in the voice of the story’s narrator

Like active scenes, information should be told in a narrative voice, from your narrator’s point of view. Don’t switch to “documentary mode” in fiction, especially when you’re in-scene, or even between scenes. And one of the easiest ways to lose a reader is to interrupt active dialog with explanation. A common mistake is to have a character refer to something new in dialog and then spend a paragraph or two informing the reader about the background or why he said it. No! That is classic author intrusion. Characters don’t have time to think about that stuff while talking to each other.

An exception is purposefully using a device like separate chapters or scenes that temporarily distance the reader from the story line, such as snippets from newspaper articles or letters. It’s usually done in a different voice during the entire section, and it has to be done effectively. I’ve read good historical fiction with sections that use a wider-angle “camera” that pulls back from the individual characters for a time and gives an overview of what’s happening historically. It can’t last too long, and ultimately it has to circle back around and apply directly to the characters the reader cares about.

The bottom line is, data dumps interrupt the story, and anything that interrupts risks losing the reader. Readers identify with characters, not with information. The best way to give information is to weave it artfully into the narrative so the reader doesn’t notice it.

Point of View

The second big topic we covered during writers’ workshop was point of view, a favorite agenda of David Coe’s. Everyone who has ever taken a writing course is probably aware of the basics of point of view: Your narrator can either speak in first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, or the always-irritating second person.

These days first person and third person limited are the points of view of choice for fiction. Third person omniscient (the narrator can be inside any character’s head at any given time) has gone out of style. Readers want to know which character to identify with, and an omniscient point of view makes them feel more distant and less connected. Writers can shift points of view in novels, but not mid-scene. We can only change after strong scene breaks or chapter breaks, and right out of the gate we have to make the point of view change clear to the reader.

In July’s workshop, though, we explored deeper into point of view, recognizing that we have to be careful only to include what our narrator/character could observe or know. Sometimes we think of storytelling the way it’s done in TV shows or movies, where multiple cameras record multiple points of view. Viewers don’t just observe the scene from the shoulder of the protagonist. Movies and TV are more omniscient in their storytelling than fiction, at least in observation. As a result of that influence, fiction writers can stumble into point of view violations without even realizing it.

For example, in a movie the camera can pull a tight close-up on the protagonist, sweating pores, messy hair and all. We get an immediate visual, by direct observation. But in fiction a first person or a third person limited character/narrator cannot describe himself using the same tools and methods we use to describe others. The writer can’t say, “I looked weary” or “his face went white” because the character can’t see his own face or countenance. (By the way, mirrors are a bad device to do that with.) The point of view character also cannot know what other characters are feeling or thinking. She can only assume, in the same way in real life we try to interpret others’ feelings by observing their mannerisms or facial expressions.

But there are other, more subtle, point of view violations. One of mine was my protagonist Paul observing specifically what his girlfriend was looking at during dinner. Because Paul was sitting right next to her, shoulder to shoulder, he probably couldn’t see exactly where her eyes were resting, he could only maybe judge the general angle of her gaze and hazard a guess. Another issue was he wouldn’t be able to see what his own rear tires were kicking up while driving, only what was spraying up from the cars in front of him. So we writers need to inhabit the character whose point of view reigns in the scene. What could the character actually know? What would he see and experience?

Readers can sense when you’ve hit a point of view violation (“Wait… how could this character know that?”), and it brings them out of the story. We never want to do that. We want them so engaged in the story that they don’t want to put the book down!

Strengthening Dialog

I know, I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. But I’ve been writing! I finished my novel in March, then went through several heavy edits.

This past month I attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop again, and I took my fifth chapter to review. We learned many great things at the workshop, but today I’ll cover only one of them, revealed to us by our facilitator, David Coe, a published author. It’s about strengthening dialog by paying attention to dialog tags, the phrases attributing spoken words to specific characters.

Said Bookisms
This sounds like a strange term, but it refers to using something more pretentious than “he said” or “she asked” in dialog tags. For example: “she hollered.” Although hollered seems like a strong verb, editors consider this telling rather than showing. It’s a shortcut that bypasses action and description to convey how someone said something or who said it. Editors also consider said bookisms to be melodramatic. They’re a common amateur’s mistake and can yank a reader out of the story. So we writers have to avoid the temptation to use tags like exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded, queried, thundered, whispered and muttered. These words make it sound as if we have fallen in love with our thesaurus. Using “said” is much less disruptive to the narrative.

He Said, She Said
And now, in a bit of conflict with the lesson from the last paragraph, another mistake with dialog tags is using “he said” and “she said” too often or too close together. It can get choppy and repetitive. This was the main problem with my chapter reviewed this summer. Don’t hyperventilate, this principle doesn’t mean we have to avoid using “she said” as well, but monotony is always bad. There are other ways to attribute dialog that vary the rhythm and cadence of the writing. Whenever a character speaks, we have the opportunity to attribute the dialog to him/her by adding a little gesture or action within the same paragraph. Here’s a simple example of a repetitious dialog tag improved in this way (for context, the female character was trying to apply lipstick in the car):

Dialog snippet:

“I didn’t know the roads were so bad,” he said.
“They’re always bad!” she said, annoyed. “Now I have to start over.”

Changed to:

“I didn’t know the roads were so bad,” he said.
“They’re always bad!” She snapped her purse shut. “Now I have to start over.”

Now there’s action instead of yet another “she said.” Also, “annoyed” was telling instead of showing. With the change, there’s the implication that she’s annoyed, just by what she says and describing the way she closed her purse.

Dialog attribution becomes more important if there are three or more characters involved. But if only two people are talking, we certainly don’t need to keep writing “he said,” “she said.” The speaker should be clear from the natural exchange of comments and from new paragraphs.

This was a super-valuable exercise in strengthening dialog. Thanks to David and all our workshop members!

Character-Driven Writing

Following the character wherever he may go

Over and over again in the process of writing my novel, I’ve stumbled across things about my characters that were unexpected. This is what I love about “literary” or character-driven fiction. It means letting the characters take you a little off-track from your plot outline, because you might discover some really cool things.

A recent chapter I was writing felt unfinished, I only had one scene. So I decided to let the protagonist tell me where to go next. He’s a bit OCD, so if his cell phone tweeted to remind him about an appointment, he would surely get himself there on time. So off he goes to a dentist’s appointment. I wasn’t too sure about this at first, what on earth was I going to do with a routine dentist visit? But I followed the character there anyway just to see what happened. It became an opportunity to characterize him further as he sits in the waiting room. I got to play with his feelings of loneliness and isolation. And the stressful sounds of drilling and scraping once he’s in the dentist’s office provoke upsetting flashbacks from the past, nearly sending him into a panic. So I was handed some conflict and emotional content as well as a great foreshadowing opportunity, which helps build suspense. Something fascinating happened that I’d never planned. In a dentist’s chair.

These opportunities make characters deeper and more believable. I’ve certainly learned the importance of structuring the story line for a full-length book; I need to take readers on a purposeful journey. But I also have to let my characters pull me in directions I didn’t expect — there’s so much more there than I imagined. They become real people. This is the exciting part of writing: discovering characters in their fullness, peeling them layer by layer.

Published Again!

I’m excited to announce that my personal essay, “Silence,” has been published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. This essay is an excerpt from my full-length memoir, A Half-Painted House.

Many, many thanks to the editor, Johnathon Freedman, who said, “…normally I don’t take much creative non-fiction, but I really had to make an exception for ‘Silence,’ which is so vivid and so great I just had to take it.”

Figuring out Your Character’s Motivation

This past spring I attended the New York City Pitch Conference and pitched my memoir to four editors and agents. I successfully got the interest of one editor from St. Martin’s Press, and he requested the manuscript. He loved the writing, but said that memoir is hard to sell right now. It has to be either really unusual or really universal. I guess mine is somewhere in between. I may shelve it for a while until trends change. Or rewrite it as fiction.

Currently I’m eleven chapters into a new novel, tentatively titled Gunbarrel Hill. I took the first 20 pages to the Antioch Writer’s Workshop this month and had a great, week-long experience. I learned many things, but especially discovered I need to make sure my main character’s motivation is clear, from the beginning of the story. Motivation = what the protagonist wants/needs, and the stakes have to be fairly high if he doesn’t get it. Once I determined what that was (my protagonist wants connection with other people) and determined how it may change as the story moves on (he will probably decide he needs to give up some connections to live an authentic life), it will drive the character’s behavior and be the engine of the plot. It will also influence many of the metaphors! That was a real eye opener.


By the way, some other juicy nuggets I learned/got reacquainted with at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop (I want to write these all on my whiteboard, but I’d run out of room):

  • We write what we don’t know we know.
  • “All first drafts are shitty.” (Anne Lamott)
  • What sort of writer would I be if I wrote every day?
  • Time is limited, and dirty laundry and dust are patient.
  • Always begin a book in the middle of an active scene.
  • Accept what comes in the writing, whatever it is. Be willing to fail.
  • Use at least three senses to activate a scene.
  • Concrete images are alive and contain secrets. Abstract language isn’t live-giving.
  • Every scene in a book should have a purpose.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • “Art is transferring feeling from one heart to another.” Leo Tolstoy
  • Don’t write about characters, write with characters.
  • “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.” (Flannery O’Connor)
  • Don’t keep secrets from the reader that don’t need to be a mystery, but…
  • If there are secrets to be revealed, don’t tell the readers pieces until they have to know.
  • Characters should never tell each other what they should already know. (Don’t use dialog to inform the reader.)
  • Don’t explain why a character said something. Let the story arc fill that in.
  • Humility, consistency and authentic detail make a story narrator reliable and likeable.
  • Don’t read crap! Life is too short.
  • Everybody in publishing is scared right now.
  • “The moment of victory is far too short to live for that and nothing else.” Martina Navratilova
  • “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Samuel Goldwyn
  • “Words are always a gamble, words are splinters from cut glass. I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient.” Terry Tempest Williams


Writers trying to get published need a thick skin. There’s a lot of good competition out there, and different agents are looking for different things. You have to hope your query letter sparks interest and then put up with a lot of rejection. My opinion is that writers who seem gracious about rejections are just pretending. Deep down, it’s wounding. A book is a creation. It represents a lot of time, sweat and sacrifice.

So it’s so nice to get encouragement now and then.

While I’m busy sending out queries to agents, I decided to submit my first ten pages to one of Writer’s Digest‘s draft critique services. My reviewer/editor, Carolyn Walker, is a published journalist, columnist and author for more than twenty-five years and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She had only one suggestion for deleting a word. Other than that, she said, “You are a fine writer and this is an engaging, interesting story. I was lured right into it and you sustained my interest. In fact, I’d now like to read the rest of the book! You have particularly good descriptive abilities. You make great use of similes and action verbs – both forms of language that enliven the writing. I think you’re onto something very interesting and urge you to proceed.”

My cousin Stephanie Andersen, a published essayist and writing instructor at Reading Area Community College, volunteered to be a beta reader of my final draft. When I asked if she would write a short review, she had this to say: “This emotionally evocative memoir is one that will have you crying while you’re laughing over your own childhood, regretting your own mistakes, recognizing the strength in love, and nodding your head all the way through this young girl’s journey from a wrecked youth into a woman’s graceful forgiveness. Masterful weaving of the past into the present. Superbly crafted journey that brings us all back home. Bravo!”

Thank you, thank you to both Carolyn and Stephanie for your encouragement! It’s so good to balance out the rejections. I can take my latest draft out of the trash now and keep sending out queries!

Getting Past the Blank Page

One of the scariest things for most writers is that first blank page. I like to start with an actual sheet of paper because I can doodle. A blank screen is worse. The blinking cursor seems impatient, and the screensaver keeps reminding me I’ve been chewing my fingernail and typing nothing for ten minutes. The “delete” key is wimpy, anyway. There’s something satisfying about wadding up the first six or eight false starts and hitting the waste basket dead center.

Since I intended to write a memoir, I backed off from starting cold turkey on the writing and instead began listing strong memories from the past. I wrote them down as they came to me, not worrying about whether I would use them or where they should go in the story. My list was cryptic: “watching my mother put on makeup,” “picking up the goat in Mom’s hatchback,” and so forth. I listed emotional memories, tragic ones, funny ones. Each had the potential to become a scene in the manuscript.

I spent a few weeks on this list. I kept a notepad next to the bed, since ideas came to me late at night or when I first awoke. Once I had a few pages of memories, I started looking for themes and common topics. I grouped the memories by time periods and discovered a lot of them happened in clumps — when I was seven, fifteen, seventeen and my late thirties. The strongest topic was the relationship with my mother, which remained difficult until the end of her life. It also felt like unfinished business, which would make a suitable story backbone and a good reason to explore the past. I built a chronological “front story” consisting of the traumatic two weeks I spent in my mother’s small town after her cardiac arrest and leading up to her death and funeral. Two weeks is a perfect time period to cover in a full-length book. And this would give me a framework that would springboard the story into flashbacks, every other chapter. I still hadn’t fully explored story structure, but at least I started with a plan.

Memoirs aren’t diaries or journals, nor are they a series of short stories. They’re coherent life stories, told using all the tools available to fiction writers such as conflict, character development, dialog, transitions, metaphor, and climactic plot points. The story has to move forward. It must have scenes, action and self-examination. Memoir is a way of exploring your life in storytelling form and ultimately making sense of the past. So it had to hold together.

Although I had a bit of a plan, I don’t like outlines, as I’ve mentioned. I like things to happen while I’m writing. All the ideas aren’t there at the beginning; they form themselves in the process of putting words together. It’s like faith. You walk courageously forward in the dark, holding out your lamp, and new discoveries that weren’t on your original map come into focus in the pool of light. Writing illuminates the story like a swinging Coleman lantern.

Some items on the memory list wouldn’t take a whole chapter or even support a scene. I realized I had to be selective at some point. I couldn’t include everything. But I had to see it all first. So I began writing scenes based on my list of memories and I just let things happen. I let the writing and ideas audition for me. I would choose the best and cut out extraneous stuff later. I would add more where it was needed.

It took me a while to get some traction. The first draft of my manuscript took ten months and was scattered and out of order. I didn’t write a certain minimum number of words a day consistently, like some writers do. I lack that discipline. But when the muse began to move, I went along for the ride. Some months I wrote into the wee hours of the morning because I couldn’t stop. Other months I wrote nothing. I tried not to beat myself up during the dry spells. As the writing unfolded, there were some bright moments and some disasters. For inspiration along the way I read some good published memoirs. I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and tried to relax since, as she says, first drafts are supposed to be “shitty.” Crafting and polishing would make all the difference.

Mostly I gave myself a lot of grace. There’s no such thing as getting it right the first time.

Writing a Full-Length Book: Story Structure

Other than an almost-but-not-quite-finished adventure I wrote when I was thirteen, I had never written a full-length book before this past year. That adolescent adventure story was about a young boy from Canada who owned sled dogs. I knew very little about Canada or sled dogs, and even less about boys. I wish I still had that manuscript. I’m curious to see if I had any sense of story structure back then.

In my next blog I’ll talk about how I got started with the writing itself, but here I wanted to address story structure. Story structure is basically the plot, but it’s a strategic approach to steering or mapping out the plot. A good novel or memoir has to have wonderful characters and terrific writing, but if the plot falls on its face, the reader will be disappointed.

I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories throughout college and my twenties, and two of the short stories were published. I also got a short, one-act play published. But plot is not as important in a shorter piece of writing. You’re dipping into a character’s life for a limited time, and in literary writing it’s more about what’s happening internally to characters. A full-length book was a different kind of project. It would take some planning. I’m not a natural planner. I hate outlines. For me the joy of writing is watching the story and characters unfold organically.

This project taught me that human beings have a built-in sense of story structure. We have it when we read a novel or watch a movie or when we share ghost stories around a campfire. We think of stories in three acts. There’s a beginning, with set-up of characters and conflict and a clarification of the stakes, a middle where conflict is fully engaged and the hero or heroine is stretched to the limit and has to make some decisions, and the ending, where the main character(s) has grown or changed and things are resolved one way or another. Preschoolers can set up a three-act story structure without even thinking about it. 1) There was a guy with a horse. 2) One day a bad guy tried to steal his horse. 3) The hero shot the bad guy and rode off into the sunset.

When I first began my book, I approached it like writing a short story. I knew all about conflict from high school English, and was aware of character development and good writing from my bachelor’s education and years of writing. Adverbs are bad, strong verbs are good, etc. But I wasn’t thinking about structure, I was thinking more about characters; after all, memoir is by nature character-driven. I began writing a bunch of memory vignettes and scenes and then later realized I wasn’t sure how to put them all together. This wasn’t a collection of short stories, it needed to be a cohesive, longer story. The main character needed a goal to pursue, heavy opposition to achieving that goal, and a way to meet the opposition and resolve things.

What I did find out was that unexpected themes can emerge as you write. This was the joyful part. I kept stumbling over one particular theme that finally became what my narrator was seeking in my book (and what I was seeking as a person). It helped define the stakes and made sense of the conflict. And, since it’s a memoir, these surprise themes helped make sense of my life story.

Naturally I read a lot of good memoirs over the past year (I’ll list some later), but I also began reading books on story structure. Structure is something that isn’t taught, at least in undergraduate writing programs. My cousin has an MFA in writing and tells me it isn’t covered there either. Larry Brooks wrote a book titled Story Engineering. In it he uses lots of technical terms like plot points and pivot points, and he is a staunch believer in outlining. He gives lots of good info. But I took one look at his multipage template outline and nearly passed out. It felt too much like a college theme paper project. Then I picked up another book, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. He devoted part of that book to NOPs (no-outline people) and explained that even those writers at some point have to exert structure on their stream-of-consciousness writing. But he took the sting out of writing to a detailed outline and addressed structure from a more strategic viewpoint, which was helpful for me.

So I kept writing and editing and rewriting. Eventually I split everything I’d written into scenes or chapters and wrote a quick blurb about each one on index cards. Then I laid them all out on the floor and moved stuff around and suddenly began to discern some natural structure. I saw where I needed stronger transitions. I also used this technique to balance the story and make sure all the climactic scenes didn’t happen at once. I was able to build tension at a reasonable pace, giving the reader some time to recover from the most intense scenes. I was able to take out scenes or paragraphs that weren’t necessary. It was a great exercise.

Bottom line: You can’t write a full-length book without at some point thinking about story structure.