Check back later this week for a return to regular posting!
I have a newsflash, people: S. A. D. is real. (For those of you who don’t know, S. A. D. stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a mood disorder obviously named by scientists who thought they were hilarious.) And, more importantly, I think I have it.
I’m a Florida girl. I’ve lived in other places, sure, but when we get down to brass tacks I really enjoy the presence of sunshine in my life. Winters are pretty smooth sailing Down South, even in North Florida, where I’m from. January temperatures occasionally drop down into the teens at night, but usually warm up to sunny, bright, light-jacket weather in the afternoon. And by the time late February rolls around, cold weather is nothing more than a distant memory.
Well, folks, I live Up North now, where winter is a sadistic, soulless entity bent on crushing everyone’s hopes and dreams under an impenetrable layer of ice and snow. Darkness falls mere hours after the sun has risen (not that you’re likely to actually see the sun behind the dense grey clouds shrouding the world). Don’t even bother to look good: no one will be able to tell under the eighteen layers of clothing you’re wearing, and the snow will ruin those cute shoes. Ruin them dead.
I like the beginning of winter just fine. November’s still sort of autumnal, and December is full of holiday cheer and good will towards man. January? No. Just, no. The Winter Blues have officially set in, with an attendant host of fabulous and enjoyable symptoms.
Writing always came easy for me. When most kids my age were still struggling with mastering proper spelling, I was already scribbling away at elaborate fantasies inspired by the chapter books I checked out from the library. I wrote in my diary nearly every day, recounting adventures at school and cataloguing my dreams and aspirations (I wanted to be a vet and/or jockey, in case you were wondering). In high school, English was inarguably my best subject; I glowed with pride whenever my teacher read my essays aloud in class and jumped at the chance to complete creative writing assignments for extra credit.
But it wasn’t until I took an elective creative writing class in college that the idea of “being a writer” really took hold. The other students in the workshop were impressed with my writing; one girl said my style was “Fitzgeraldian” (considering F. Scott Fitzgerald was my favorite author at the time, this rated as high praise) and the professor said “the rhythm and pacing” of my prose was “exquisite.” (Other comments hinted that my prose tended to be purple and my plot lines were derivative. I chose to ignore those comments.)
And somewhere between one short story by Tobias Wolff and another by David Foster Wallace, an idea took hold: I could be a writer. I could put my innate talents to use and craft genius, wonderful, lucrative stories for a living. And so it began. I gleefully penned my first few short stories, and incubated the idea for my first novel. And then I wrote my first novel. My first novel! I had arrived!
I won’t lie: visions of sugarplums (or more accurately, six-figure book deals) danced in my head. But it wasn’t long before I realized the truth: that vision couldn’t have been more naive.
Mention the words “info dump” to any self-respecting writer and they’re bound to go a bit green around the gills. The two dreaded words refer to exposition in a story or novel that, rather than being doled out sparingly throughout the manuscript, happens all at once. The action is moving along, the characters are doing their thing, and then all of a sudden–BAM! The author drops a big dump-truck full of information on the unsuspecting reader.
As you have probably inferred from my description, info-dumping is not a good thing. Even if the information is crucial to the reader’s understanding of what’s happening in the book, exposition done poorly is usually bad news for a story. The most rip-roaringest of adventures will screech to a grinding halt when faced with an info-dump. The swooniest romance will suddenly feel dry and boring. Mysteries heave a last gasp and then die.
But the problem is, exposition is hard. An author, who is intimately familiar with her setting, her plot, and her characters (having, um, created the whole thing), must find a way to give her readers enough information to understand the story without smothering them under a pile of history, backstory, and unnecessary detail. She must avoid info-dumping at all costs. But, to make her job even harder, she must also avoid the opposite problem–not providing enough exposition in crucial points, leaving her readers confused and frustrated because they don’t know what’s going on.
Just before the holidays, I turned on the Fellowship of the Ring movie in a fit of nostalgia and passively watched as I cleaned the apartment. And somewhere between vacuuming at Rivendell and swiffering at Lothlorien, I realized something I’d never realized before: Sauron is a terrible villain.
I mean, once you get past the admittedly terrifying lidless-eye Panopticon thing, Sauron is pretty simplistic as a villain. He’s evil–that’s about it. Why did he secretly forge the One Ring in the first place? To rule all the other Rings of Power. Why would he want to rule the elves, the dwarves, and mankind? Duh–evil! Why did he send his Host against the army of the Alliance on the plains of Dagorlad? Evil! Why is he obsessed with getting the One Ring back from Frodo and taking over Middle-earth? Evil, evil, evil!
As a writer, you hear a lot of the same advice over and over again. And when it comes to villains and antagonistic forces, the advice is always the same: one-dimensional villains just don’t cut it. Your villain must be more than just evil–he or she must be as well-rounded and complex as your other characters. The villain must have a backstory that explains his actions and lends his motivations depth and flavor. Furthermore, the villain’s actions must arise from a place of logic; even if it is a flawed, unsound logic, his actions must be comprehensible, if not sympathetic, to the reader. The villain’s role is to challenge the hero to reach great heights. He must act as both a catalyst for heroism and a foil for the hero’s own complex motivations.