02/17/16
DontWakeTheReader

Lessons Learned: The Reader’s Lullabye

I want to start putting up little snippets of the things I’ve learned while writing. Stuff that will probably only appeal to new writers. I’d also like to play beach volleyball on Mars. Hopefully these “Lessons Learned” will come more often than my volleyball matches.

Writing should be efficient and quick. The reader needs to slip through your story as if she or he were on a waterslide. The problem, of course, is that sometimes you have approximately fifty seven things to present to the reader in each paragraph. (Well, fifty eight if you weave subliminal manifestos in your sentences like I do). These fifty seven or so things are complex thoughts. Things that could really be spread over an entire page. Two pages. Dammit, I need an entire novel to talk about these fifty seven damn things that I’m trying to tell you. Can we just Skype instead of you reading my book? Because I really don’t think I can get these ideas across in a tiny little novel.

But, as novelists, we must. We must. That is the job of a novelist.

Our job is not to tell a story. Anyone can tell a story.

Our job is not to dazzle with prose–that is the job of a poet. Or a politician.

Our job is to present the reader with an experience. Our job is the simple task of carrying a 200 pound reader on our back and flying them to a distant place. Our job is to put them into a dream state on that journey, except the dream is our dream, one that we have crafted with meticulous care. And the trick… the trick is to keep them from finding out they are dreaming.

How do we do this? Simple. By not letting them know we are there. There are a thousand ways a writer can intrude on his story, but the one I’m talking about today is boredom. We cannot bore the reader awake. We need to keep our readers so absorbed in the dream that they don’t have time to worry about that uncomfortable shoulder blade pressing against their butt-cheek.

But sometimes, especially in fantasy stories, we have to describe something. Setting is important in fantasy, and without it, you just have weird historical fiction.So how do we provide a description without waking up our little dreamer? With butchery, friends. With hard, pipe-hitting butchery and dismemberment.

Here’s a passage I wrote just now, in its original form (apologies for any grammar mistakes or typos):

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
Alturia.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foothills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”

So, at the start of that section, I have three paragraphs of description, and this set off all sorts of sirens and a woman’s computerized voice saying, “Warning. Warning. Warning. Warning…”

Muted sun. Pale walls. *yawn*  Hill. Towers. *snort. Smack lips*  Five rings. More sun. “What… what am I doing up here? Who the hell’s back am I on?”

Yeah, mission not accomplished. I don’t think the passages were horribly unwieldy, but I am paranoid about waking the reader. So, I made a subtle change to keep the dream unbroken:

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
Alturia.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foorhills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, were five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.

Not fancy. Not glamorous. But something that breaks up the infodump with dialog. I might still cut a little more of the description. But if I don’t, I think I can still save the dream. If the reader starts snorting and waking, then hopefully the dialog will server as a lullabye.

Okay. That’s the snippet for tonight. Sleep well, my readers. And pleasant dreams.