Every Single One Of My Titles

When I Think “Faster Food,” I Think Robot Cooks, Not SHRIMP DUMPLING CANNON

Yes, this is an advertisement. Usually, I’m no fan of advertisements.

However, this one is hilarious and creative… and it made me laugh.

Laughter is precious.

“So I’m Writing An Infodump…” “NO.” “But…” “HELL NO!”

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Oh, he’s infodumping in public. He must be SO EMBARRASSED! Poor thing.

You’ve only just read the title, seen the image, read the caption, and you already know: I’m going to tell you (you writers out there) not to infodump on your readers. If you’re a reader, I’m going to tell you how you feel when you hit an infodump: ‘fine, fine, get on with the story already fer chrissakes.’

Before I go farther, let me tell you what prompted this post. From time to time, I poke through one of the ebook sellers’ websites and preview some of the novels and shorts that my fellow self-published writers come up with. The first one I looked at this afternoon started with a fat infodump in movie-intro style. It was labeled “Prologue,” which was a lie. It wasn’t a prologue. It was an infodump sketching out the author’s worldbuilding so that you, dear reader, wouldn’t have to bother your pretty little head with figuring out the background. And, possibly, so the author wouldn’t have to bother his pretty little head figuring out how to establish the important features of his world through things like dialogue and brief exposition and events.

Now that we’re past the digression: if you’re a contrary or exception-minded sort like me, you’ve taken issue with my hostility against the infodump, and have come up with a number of reasons that an infodump might be perfectly fine in a story. At least a little one. And it’s true, a little infodumping is less offensive than a lot of infodumping. The most inoffensive thing about the example I encountered today was that it was relatively short, less than two pages. Not too big to skip forward to the beginning of the first chapter, which is where the story should have begun. It should have begun with chapter one because that’s where it was interesting in a way the infodump ‘prologue’ definitely failed to be.

Which brings me to my major objection to the usage of the infodump: they’re boring. The worst of them (and the one I read was one of these) read like a transcript from a high school history class with the most uninspired and unhappy teacher you ever had the misfortune of having. Nobody wants to read that crap. I bet the writer didn’t even want to read that crap once it was written. He probably had trouble staying awake during editing.

There are ways to handle the infodump that aren’t terrible, and those are the ways you should use as a writer — because they’re not actually infodumps as I’m defining them here. They’re the ways you want to read as a reader. They’re not encyclopedic, they’re worked in with some sort of action. The characters are doing and thinking and saying things as the infodump develops. You still don’t want to overdo it. Even handled this way, if they’re prolonged the reader begins to wish for less information and more story-meat. But when done well, the reader is still enjoying what’s going on. If you’re the one doing the writing, doing it this way moves it from the realm of the infodump (EWWWW!) and into the realm of exposition (well, fine — so long as it stays interesting).

Technically, exposition and infodumping are the same thing. Exposition simply means ‘showing,’ which might be a bit confusing in light of the old and hoary advice, “show, don’t tell.” Exposition is a point at which the writer tells the reader something informative instead of showing or demonstrating it by other means. I think of the infodump as a distinct category of its own: Infodumping is the kind of exposition you do NOT want to write. It’s the kind that really sucks.

All exposition should be used sparingly. You should think about how and why you use it rather than conveying your information another way. And if you find yourself in the infodump neighborhood of exposition, do yourself a favor:

FIND ANOTHER WAY.

Snow, Coastal Virginia Style

Drug Test Welfare Recipients? WHY DO WE NOT DRUG TEST POLITICIANS?

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So, 12 states drug test welfare applicants for some or all programs; 10 more are contemplating enacting similar drug testing regimes. Tennessee is the latest ‘success story’ in this drive to ensure that welfare recipients aren’t getting help to eat or live while high: over a six-month period, they administered 16,000 drug tests of which 37 were positive.

Numbers like that fuel criticisms that these drug test regimes for welfare do little more than cost states more money than they save — although, I’d note, that the companies selling drug test kits and administering drug tests make a tidy profit. In fact, in Florida, Governor Rick Scott co-founded the company that administered the tests, had a financial interest in it, and ‘fixed’ his conflict of interest by MOVING HIS SHARES INTO A TRUST OWNED BY HIS WIFE. So maybe there *is* a financial benefit to this testing — if your friendly neighborhood governor is funneling the testing profits your way at the expense of the state.

That aside — and it’s not inconsiderable — there’s another issue.

Enough people are worried enough that some poor person might be using drugs on the public dime that they want drug testing to stop it from happening, even if it costs more than it saves. If that wasn’t the case, this idea wouldn’t be spreading — but it is spreading. A lot of people want this.

84% of companies require drug testing of applicants and/or employees. This is pitched as a public safety concern; this is often valid. Sure, I don’t want someone high operating a bulldozer. I don’t want someone drunk doing it either, but we don’t breathalyze employees when they show up to work, do we? In fact, at work, we expect employees to have supervisors. Companies expect that too, and they pay supervisors to supervise because they want employees working, and working safely — not goofing off. I’d expect a supervisor to be paying enough attention to tell if his or her subordinate working the bulldozer is drunk or high (and why are these two separate concepts? Alcohol is a drug. Someone who is drunk is high on the drug ethyl alcohol. But that’s a whole different post).

But let’s say it’s about public safety. Safety is also the reason members of the military are drug tested. Again, valid. Nobody wants a person on drugs handling the cruise missiles. Again, however, supervisors are a more immediate and effective method of identifying a chemically impaired person before they get their hands on a warhead.

Now, what is more important to our safety than our laws and government? Why exactly do we not drug test politicians who apply for a political position by running for office, and why do we not regularly and randomly drug test each and every politician, local, state, and federal?

These are the people who write our laws. They define how our entire society works. They shape commerce from the local to the international level. They define our foreign policy. They decide how our police operate, what rights we have, how those rights are defined, and what abrogates our rights. They decide who gets drug tested for safety…

…oh. There’s our answer. Politicians are not drug tested because they don’t want to be drug tested.

Now, what do we tell a job applicant to the local fast food joint who refuses to be drug tested? We assume he’s a drug addict and tell him he’s not getting a job.

Why don’t WE do that with our politicians?

If we’re going to test folks for drugs, let’s test the ones whose conduct affects every citizen in the country, and a number of noncitizens and foreign nationals as well. That sounds like a grassroots effort that would be worth our while.

Thirteen Word Story: Eat The World

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NEVER GAIN WEIGHT: NANOSCULPTORS DESTROY FAT

The third world starved like never before.

Commas, Man.

We’re all writers or readers here, so we all know where I’m going with this.  You’ve no doubt run across passages while reading where a comma has been tragically omitted or inserted where it had no place being or not being.

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Here’s a shining example of a piece of text that really could have used three commas and some accessories, like an “and” or an “or” between the pregnant and the children.  Sure, it’s just a sign, not literature.  But it gets the point across, and I really don’t want to go citing passage like this from a fellow author without giving him or her a heads up quietly first to allow revision. Because let’s face it, critics can be cruel in reviews at times.  I really don’t want to go out of my way to provide ammunition in public.  Or in private — let reviewers find their own ammunition.  They definitely will, and the majority of them can spot a massive punctuation error very well without aid, thankyouverymuch.

Just for the heck of it, and because what I had to say today didn’t take much saying, I’m going to leave a couple more examples of various errors — actual and contrived — here for your viewing pleasure.  Enjoy!

Poor kids!

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I find the Oxford comma is the best choice in most situations.

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Of course, there is fertile ground for error beyond the comma.

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George Carlin verbally illustrates the consequences of screwing up a comma.

CAUTION: if “George Carlin” wasn’t warning enough, THIS VIDEO CONTAINS NOT SAFE FOR WORK LANGUAGE.

     And finally, here’s a link to “25 Unfortunate Sentences That Could Really Use A Comma” at Hypervocal — and, thankfully, it is NOT a slideshow.

If there’s anything I dislike more than a sentence tragically destroyed by an error of grammar, it’s a slideshow on the internet.

Who Do You Write?

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The old saw goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  If you write, the odds are you’ve flattered one, or more likely several, other writers.  As writers, we all begin as readers.  We dig around in the gigantic atmosphere of literature that surrounds us, plucking this and that out of the air, finding what we like and what we don’t.

And when we start to write our own stories, we begin by imitating.  Oh, we don’t necessarily set out to copy author X’s novel Y — though I’ve seen that happen.  Once upon a time I watched a former friend grind out over two hundred handwritten pages of a clone of The Hobbit with the serial numbers barely even filed off.  Instead of a ring, it was a necklace (I think), but it still had to be dumped into a volcano.  The hobbits were called something different, and they were silly practical jokers.  Gandalf had a different name and a different colored robe, but he still puffed his pipe sagely and set the plot in motion.

That’s way too much imitation.  And it might be a waste of time — but that depends.

Depends upon what, you ask?  It depends upon the writer.  My former friend was convinced that he was writing a totally original story, through the exercise of some incredible acrobatics of denial.  I remember pointing out the parallels, and I remember him coming up with some convoluted excuse for why he really wasn’t imitating anyone else.  He was full of shit, of course, but he couldn’t see it.

Imitation is bad if you’re fooling yourself about it.

Now, take the same situation, and imagine a beginning writer who has decided to write a knockoff of The Hobbit as a writing exercise.  This imaginary writer isn’t too sure of himself and doesn’t think he has what it takes to come up with a decent plot for a novel.  But he still wants to practice and grow in his craft.  So he sets off to imitate, knowing he’s imitating.  He’s building on something earlier, and as he goes, he’s seeing what he can add to it.  With that attitude, by the time he gets to the end, he may be confident enough to write a new ending, add subplots, diverge, venture into new territory.

Look, I woudn’t want to do that.  But I can see that, with honest self-appraisal and a consciousness of what you’re doing, such an exercise could have value.  Looking back at my writing, I notice that the farther back I look, the more likely I am to be able to identify influences on my style and tone.  One story smacks of Heinlein, another has a stretch that’s dry like Asimov in the middle of the Foundation trilogy, another was probably written after I’d read some Steinbeck.  That’s not to compare myself to them, but it is to say that those writers and others rubbed off on me.  I admire their work.  I enjoyed reading their work.  And in the beginning, before my own voice as a writer really began to develop, I was prone to imitating the way they wrote — even without realizing.

Imitation is something that happens, deliberate or not, when you are developing a skill, any skill, not just writing.  There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself.  But as Rowling suggests above, if you’re making a big deal out of trying to appropriate the style or stories of someone else, you’re probably just wasting your time.  You’re better served working on letting your own voice develop its own unique richness and depth.

The End Of Climate Change — 100 Word Story

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The atmosphere’s warming trend slowed suddenly, tapering to a halt in only twenty years. Ocean temperatures shifted their immense inertia to follow suit. The icecaps began to regain weight. The composition of the upper atmosphere changed subtly, and excess carbon precipitated in tiny flecks, staining rains faint gray.

Climate change deniers crowed victoriously. Look how our god provides for us with a repaired environment!

When the aliens arrived demanding slave levies and mountains of resource tribute or else they’d turn off the weather control they’d been exerting from beyond Mars for thirty years — oh, how the deniers wailed and wilted!

Flayed — A New Short Story Available For Preorder Now!

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Cover art by Erik Elliott

Flayed is available for preorder right now, and will be released to your ereader on March 1st. You can find it from the following:

Amazon: Available now!

Barnes & Noble: Available now!

iTunes iBookstore: Available now!

Kobo: Coming soon!

Smashwords: Available now!

And of course, you can click on my name at any of those sources and be directed to my other 60+ titles if you’d like more to read.

The blurb:

A short story, about 3500 words.
Donte is a veteran and a colonist on a struggling new world under a hot young flare star. For most of the colonists, the struggle is in coaxing crops out of the alien soil and avoiding the radiation of the flares. But for Donte, he must also deal with the lingering trauma of war — and a body that feels skinned alive without the armor he once wore in the army.

The preview, about 30% or 1100 words:

     Donte Barnes pilots the tractor through long shadows as the blue sun lowers itself toward the horizon. His hands are gloved even though the day is hot; they itch incessantly. He grinds his teeth and resists the urge to scratch. Every day is an endless series of resistances like this one. Experience tells him that scratching will only make the pain worse, so he carries on, finishes plowing the row he was working on and pulls up to the farmhouse.

     The farm is a co-op, huge and sprawling and subdivided into thirty plots for thirty different crops. The homes of ambitiously-named First City, more of a village, stretch around it in a narrow ring. If you were to see it from the air—and Donte had, when he first arrived—you’d swear it was about to break.

     Jorgen Samuelssen ventures out onto the covered porch to meet Donte as he comes in from the tractor. Jobs normally rotate in the co-op, but Jorgen is always in the kitchen. Yes, cooking is what he does best, but he is also safest inside, out of the punishing deluge of ultraviolet Sapphire pours down upon Cradle. Jorgen is the only person other than Donte on the south side of First City who covers himself completely when he goes outside, and unlike Jorgen, Donte insists upon working outside—the unofficial uniform of the colony is tank top, shorts, and dark skin, the darker the better. Pale-skinned applicants like Jorgen are discouraged from immigrating, to minimize casualties from sunburn and skin cancer.

     But Cradle is not a popular destination, and Jorgen was the first qualified chef to apply, and it took only a little convincing for the colony managers to clear him to immigrate. Standing on the porch, Jorgen wears the same covering as a conservative Islamic woman might, but his head covering thrown back in the shelter of the porch.

     Donte wears the same covering, day and night, out and in; the sun is not why he goes covered. Covered, he itches; uncovered, the pain demands so much medication he might as well never leave his bed.

     “In for the day?” Jorgen asks, holding a bottle of local banana beer out to Donte.

     “No,” Donte says, but he takes the beer. “Got one more row left. But the itching…” he lets his voice trail off and takes a sip of the beer. It’s cool and light; the way they brew it hardly develops enough alcohol content to notice. It also doesn’t demand much more than bananas and water to make, two things the colony has in abundance.

     “Itching’s bad today?”

     “Driving me crazy.”

     “As long as it’s still driving and you haven’t got there yet,” Jorgen says, and opens his own beer. Donte looks over at him, frowning, but the other man is sipping his beer and doesn’t notice. He probably didn’t mean anything by it, Donte thinks. But I’m so damn tired of the crazy war vet stereotype.

      What makes it so annoying to Donte is that the stereotype almost fits. The itching does drive him crazy sometimes; there are days he doesn’t leave his house, but instead stays in and takes enough medication to reduce himself to a stupor. His Veterans Administration paperwork declares him disabled, but the frequent appearance therein of the word ‘psychosomatic’ follows him like a doom, a curse that barred him from the many colony worlds he’d have chosen over this one. Cradle is undermanned, desperate for people; five years out of the six it has existed, its population growth has lagged sorely behind projections. Few people want to go to a young planet circling a young star, to deal with heavy UV and vulcanism and flares. There are nicer worlds to break ground on. The very fact that Cradle was and is unpopular, however, had made them willing to take a chance on a crazy vet with phantom pain syndrome, yet no amputations.

     “No, I haven’t gotten there yet, Jorgen,” Donte says with a sigh, and drains half the remaining beer in a gulp. “You’re safe from me.”

     “You know I didn’t mean it like that, Donte,” Jorgen says. “In fact, I was hoping you’d talk about your troubles a bit. Talking about anything makes bearing it a little easier.”

     “What’s to talk about?” Donte says. “I damn near lived in my armor for two years in the war. And when I was wounded, they took it from me. When I developed this phantom pain thing, they wouldn’t give it back.” He dangles the beer bottle over the side of the porch rail by its neck, wondering if it would break if he dropped it on the hard earth.

     “And so you feel as if you’ve been skinned, all these years.”

     “All these years.” The two men finish their beers in silence.

     “One more row, Samuelssen,” Donte says. “Tell someone to open up the garage. I’ll bring the tractor in, in fifteen minutes.”

     Jorgen watches Donte’s draped and veiled form climb back up into the tractor’s seat, lifting his hem to avoid stepping on it.

     “You’ll have to tell me more than that one day,” he says to the sunset, once the tractor’s engine is running and he’s sure Donte won’t hear.

#

     The next afternoon brings a flare warning. The volatile Sapphire is ringed with monitor satellites orbiting close in, almost skimming the fusion fire. When early signs of a brewing flare erupt, the signal races to Cradle and the warning sirens sound; those who are outside have only minutes to find shelter. At the call of the sirens, Donte is close to one of the shelters in a field of rice near First Landing River. The door of the shack is standing open and he climbs down the steep steel staircase behind it, into the cool. There are only a few other people in it when he arrives. They trade hellos gingerly; everyone knows he goes covered but most of them still feel it’s strange. Donte does his best to ignore it (like the itching, it follows him everywhere) and pours himself a cup of water from the hand pump near the chemical toilets. He picks a spot far from the door and sits down on the concrete floor to wait. Most flares last only an hour or two.

      As with all flares, many people are caught farther from shelter than others. The ones still out when the flare hits don’t drop dead, they make it to shelter also; they’ve just had a dose of radiation, maybe a torso X-ray per minute’s worth. More people straggle in to the shelter Donte has found, a few of them carrying bits of metal or wood they’ve used to attempt to shield their genitals from the invisible shower of charged particles. Hope I didn’t catch a mutant out there, they say almost invariably, as common a cliché as how about that weather or hold my beer and watch this.

     One of the latecomers, covered and veiled like him, wanders over to Donte, begins to turn to sit, hesitates…

I Got Hoaxed While Writing About How Hard It Is For The Future To See The Past Accurately: Theory In Practice

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So, just a few days ago I was writing about a prime consideration for the science fiction writer: imagining how the future may see their past (our present) inaccurately. I mentioned the fact that time is a bit like distance in terms of what can be seen; whether we measure in years or meters, the more distance between you and what you’re viewing, the fewer details you see, and the fuzzier the image. I also mentioned that ‘fuzziness’ in terms of viewing the past — and an aspect to consider when writing about how your characters in the future view our present or the deeper past — means that things get lost. Like, I thought, this bizarre-yet-plausible video game and 8-track music tape driving game:

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…except, as Twitter friend @webmonkees was kind enough to point out, the game is a hoax. What makes my falling for it even more stinging than it already was, I had actually looked at the reference @webmonkees pointed out: a comedy site. Caught up in rapid research, I read only far enough to get the gist of what the ‘double-ender’ was supposed to be: a device for matching background music to themed games. Well, games tend to have background music. Marketing types love things that fit themes. And so, the package was credible enough that my ‘no way’ sense did not engage, and I did not click ‘about us‘ on the comedy page to discover that it was, in fact, a comedy page, and the ‘double-ender’ is a spoof product that never existed.

Which brings me to my subject today: in my earlier post, I missed something other than the hoax. I missed the role of the hoax in making the past fuzzy to us.

Hoaxes, along with assumptions and plain old errors, also cloud our vision of the past. Writing science fiction, it might be worth considering how a hoax or mistake could affect the future’s vision of us today. In fact, there could be fertile ground for inspiration here, and for social commentary. A future that believes that the 8-track ‘double-ender’ was real probably doesn’t offer much in the way of stories, but what about a future that believes, due to a clever montage photoshopped headlines, that aliens destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11? Or in the various ‘reptile humanoids hiding among us‘ theories, or that the moon landing being faked is fact rather than conspiracy fiction, or…

…the possibilities are endless. I wonder how many hoaxes, lies, and mistakes are already presented as fact in the history books we have today? And I’m not even counting arguments, soluble and insoluble, among historians over the ‘correct’ version of controversial events.

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