From a reader’s point of view

by Amanda S. Green

Yeah, yeah, I know this is supposed to be a blog about writing, but this is something that hit me yesterday as I was trying to slog my way through a book and it just won’t let go. In a way, it is about writing. It’s just from a reader’s point of view. So, a little background.

I’ve spent much of the last month finishing a novel that was late. Add into that trying to keep up — and not real well unfortunately — with my duties for Naked Reader Press and, well, I’m now braindead. Or at least I feel that way. The book is turned in. I have a short story I need to write and another novel to finish. But I learned long ago that I need to give myself a couple of days to recharge before hitting the writing again.

One of the ways I do that is by reading. I know there are some writers who don’t read for fear of tainting their voice. Bollocks! Writers need to read. We need to read for research and we need to read just to see what is out there now. I read for entertainment, for research and to spot things I hope I am not doing in my books.

And this brings me to the book I’ve been slogging through the last few days. Yes, slogging. Usually I will stop reading a book if it doesn’t grab me pretty quickly. This one I kept at. For one thing, I like the author’s other works. Yes, this was in a different genre than what I usually read by the author. But I’m not so naive as to think just because someone writes mystery they can’t write sf/f or vice versa. If that were the case, I’d never have read Sarah’s Darkship Thieves after reading her Musketeers Mysteries.

There was another reason I kept reading. The premise of the story was enough to keep me at it. This was the first book in a series by the author and the premise was great. Unfortunately, the book itself never lived up to the premise and there is one main reason why. The entire book was nothing more than one huge info dump.

Now, before someone jumps in and says that first books in a series often are rife with info dumps because you have to establish the world and the characters, I realize that. It’s one of the things I had to deal with when writing Nocturnal Origins. No, what I am talking about is a book-length info dump interrupted briefly from time to time with a bit of plot. Add in a none-too-subtle sampling of the author’s politics and, well, I think you get the picture.

Info dumps are a necessary evil, especially in science fiction and especially if an author is concerned about keeping the techies out there satisfied with the science in the fiction. Some authors handle the issue quite well. Others handle it in ways that allow the reader to skip the several paragraphs or pages of dump to get back to the story. But, with these authors, the story is still the driving force of the novel. With this particular novel, I didn’t have that feeling with the author. Instead, I felt like the author was more worried with showing how well they understood the science and how well they could beat the reader over the head with their politics.

Action scenes that should have taken pages, perhaps even an entire chapter were reduced to a few paragraphs. Character motivation was obscured or left out completely in order to detail that character’s job or place in the community. This often took pages instead of just a paragraph or two. When two main supporting characters suffer a loss that should have devastated not only them but the main character as well, the supporting characters are turned into one-dimensional cut-outs and the main character simply shrugs it off. And then the author goes back to the info dumping.

I’m a fast reader. I know enough science to know when I’m being bs’d — which I was with this book — and I love strong characters and plot. What I don’t love is a book without a plot — and no, this wasn’t even trying for literary — and that has useless info dumps that are rife with bad science and worse politics.

So, to every writer out there — and this includes me — keep the story in the forefront. Remember to have believable characters and develop those characters. Let them grow. If you have to have info dumps, be careful with them. Don’t let them detract from the story. Don’t let them be longer than the plot. And, for the love of little green fishies, don’t make them the entire book. I can’t afford to replace my kindle by throwing it against the wall.

Now, did I finish the book? No. After more than two days trying to slog through it, I skipped to the page before the last chapter. That page ended on a cliffhanger. Cool. Maybe the author finally figured out action. I clicked over to the next page. Nope. Back to the info dump. Cliffhanger forgotten. Four pages later, still in info dump. An info dump that had nothing to do with the cliffhanger. Finally, almost six pages in (and these are page, not clicks), we were back to the plot. Only the cliffhanger has been forgotten. Characters are now back to paper cut-outs and, gag, a Mary Sue ending for the main character who should have been devastated by what happened in the previous chapter. No, the badness is forgotten and MC gets to move on to a new challenge and, one presumes, even more info dumping.

Can you tell I really, really didn’t like the book? Actually, it’s more than that. I’m angry because I wanted to like it and the author, an author who I really do enjoy reading in a different genre, let me down. It was as though someone else wrote the book and just tagged on the author’s name. Worse, showing how screwed up mainstream publishing is, this book was just the first in a series.  There are others out there and, judging from the previews, they are just as bad info dump wise as this one was.

Info dump if you must. But always remember to entertain the reader in the process. Otherwise, we won’t be back to buy the next book in the series. Worse, it might make us think twice about buying books in other series we’ve enjoyed prior to the book that was an info dump.

(Just an after thought, before any ‘flies start worrying, no, this wasn’t a book from Baen. Nor was it by any author who writes for Baen.)

16 comments

  1. It’s bad enough when one has bought a book they don’t like. To get it from an author they regularly enjoy feels like a betrayal. I’ve got a couple of authors that I approach with trepidation, and often as not allow something else to catch my eye.

    I know I have a tendency to info dump the first chapter or few, so I’m trying to make a habit of getting it over with and then chopping off as much as is needed.

  2. Pam, that’s why this book was so disappointing. I haven’t seen this tendency in anything else the author has written. Maybe it’s because this is a different genre. Maybe it was simply because the author wanted to write the book this way. I don’t know and don’t really care. But it has left me with a bad enough taste in my mouth that I will think twice before buying anything else by them.

    As for info dumping in the first few chapters. Any of us who are writing first books in a series or setting our novel in a world that isn’t instantly identifiable as our own place and time have to do some of that. The key is in making the dump blend into the background and not drown out the plot and characters. We all have to remember that, by nature, info dumps aren’t extremely engaging. I try to spread the dumps out more now, scattering them through the book as needed instead of doing all the world building up front. Of course, I remember another author who I swear uses the first hundred pages of every book he ever wrote to build the world — and it is our world. All he does is change the names and places as necessary. After a cuople of books, it becomes boring.

  3. Honestly, I think due to craziness in market right now, that author was pushed into doing sf, and it’s not something she grew up reading. Also, she assumed techniques port. They do to an extent, but SF needs more worldbuilding than practically everything else. You’ll be okay using SF techniques in mystery or fantasy, or even romance. But porting the other way across doesn’t work. And mystery is FAR more tolerant of infodumping. This is a warning to the genre-crossers, actually…

    1. Sarah, I agree about the techniques porting from genre to genre. Some work and others don’t. However, the best I can tell about this particular author and this particular series, it is with a different publisher than the one the author has been with and, from what I can tell, author is still with the original publisher for more mysteries. So, who knows. All I know is it is one of the few books recently I’ve not been able to slog through from beginning to end.l

    1. Paul, since I wasn’t doing a “real” book review, I’d prefer not saying who and what. All I will say is that it wasn’t an author who has written for Baen.

  4. Well, there are info-dumps, and there are info-dumps …
    “… not a nasty dirty wet hole, nor a dry bare sandy hole …”
    There isn’t a shred of plot anywhere in those first several pages, not even any characters to think about developing. And yet, it’s brilliant. I, on the other hand, being decidedly less-brilliant than John Ronald, tend to start with character(s), and get around to the world when I think the reader has at least tentatively accepted their presence in his head.

    I do seem to keep bumping up against the other problem you mentioned though — the characters’ politics. Not mine, because so far I haven’t written any that agree with me. But some of the characters tend to be very adamant about things, and I find myself going back through “weeding out” the politcal rants.

    1. Steve, you’re right about there being info-dumps and then info-dumps. The problem was this book was little but an info-dump from start to end. Add in preaching politics — often based on bad science or a complete lack of understanding of human interactions — and I was very close to throwing my kindle against thew all. It’s okay to have politics in your work. It’s okay if your characters are adamant about what they believe — as long as it furthers the plot or character development. Where authors tend to lose me is when they use the book to hit me over the head with their politics.

      1. At RavenCon this past April, Toni moderated a (Baen-author-packed) panel on “Writing Combat”. Chuck Gannon put the view held by the majority of those on the panel very succinctly: “Combat is a verb. Once you fire the first round, any information that isn’t *demanded* by the action is superfluous.” Ringo wasn’t on that panel, though he was the GOH for the Con. In his “meet the author” chat, he expressed the exact opposite view. He said that he likes to pull the trigger on that first round, and then side-step and slip in an info-dump, knowing that you’ll sit through it waiting for the bullet to reach the target.

        1. I don’t mind a brief info dump in a battle scene. What I object to is having a smattering – and I’m being generous – amount of action in the middle of the info dump. For ex., this book had an attempted assassination take place fairly early on. If you clipped out and pasted together all the “action” and “reaction” by the characters, you might have a page and a half. That is in the middle of probably 10 pages of info dump, with the info dump taking front and center. Not the way I like my reading.

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