Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Source of the Expository Lump Part 2

 Last week we discussed two urban fantasy PNR writers, Amber Benson and Kathryn Leigh Scott, both from the acting profession, and both possessing a writing "voice" that is enchanting at least to me.

We'll have to discuss "voice" in detail at some point, but it is a quality composed of the mastery-levels of a plethora of skills we are exploring in these Tuesday posts on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com.  Learning them one at a time, then practicing them by orchestrating all the skills, adding one at a time with each practice piece, will develop your unique "Voice."

Here's a post from Blake Snyder's blog from a screenwriter, Anne Lower, who is "making it" using the Beat Sheet Snyder outlined, but who has found her "voice" over and above those craft skills.


the % symbols in that link arise because of the dashes used in the title.  Don't use dashes in URLs or blog titles!

The link is http://www.blakesnyder.com/2011/07/01/voice---a-writer's-journey/ 

You will note that this writer mentions both a long journey of skills acquisition, and a period of working hard without her "voice."  Part of the process of finding your Voice is working without your own voice, imitating others' voices. 

But you can't stop there.  You must then re-engage your own personal voice.

Those who've read my posts on Tarot for writers may remember the 5 of Pentacles, the Dark Night Of The Soul concept. 


That's the process Anne Lower describes in her post on Voice. 

"Voice" is a great analog for this combination skills-set because a singer must "train" the "voice" to be strong.  Voice is made up of muscles, vocal cords, that must be exercised to become strong enough to produce the exacting tones with enough volume to fill an opera hall.

Likewise a writer must practice exercises that aren't actually stories in order to strengthen that part of the mind that synthesizes "Voice."  It has to do with combining all the components of a story just like a musical chord, each note in the right volume relative to the other notes in the chord, the chord then juxtaposed to other chords in the right duration and relative loudness to create a composition that is pleasing. 

Eliminating the expository lump is one of those practice exercises like a pianist's scales that is no fun to do and not any fun at all to watch someone else do -- the result is not immediately entertaining either.

So why is it that beginning writers, and even those currently being published in Mass Market produce a "novel" that is laced with expository lumps?  What happens inside that writer's mind as they are worldbuilding and story-plotting?

An Expository Lump is a series of facts about the world in which the story occurs or about the characters.  It is what the writer knows that seems interesting and exciting to the writer, and the writer desperately wants the reader to understand it all BEFORE reading the story.  The writer feels "you need to know this in order to understand what happens next and get a kick out of the event."

Very often with beginning writers, those facts in the Lump are the real reason the writer wants to write the story, or wants you to read and understand it emotionally. 

Now let's switch to a Culinary Analogy -- salad.

What's a Chef's Salad?  It's a special concoction of ingredients which blend nicely as a meal in itself or prelude to a meal.

Think of a reader who wants desperately to write her own story for all to enjoy.  Now she's going to make a story of her very own.  Making a novel is just like making a salad for a dinner party. 

She has been to the store (i.e. read a lot of books, done some hard living) and now she arrives home with a couple of grocery bags filled to the brim with lovely ingredients for her salad. 

She has a head of lettuce (a world she's built), gorgeous colored green, yellow, orange, red bell peppers (characters with seeds inside), a fabulous ripe Tomato (villain?) and a great Cucumber (hero?),  lovely red onions, green onions, and carefully chosen virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, fresh basil and other fresh herbs etc with which to make the dressing (theme) that will bring the whole composition together. 

She's planning a dinner party (i.e. writing a book, maybe a series, for others to enjoy).  Oh, it's going to be wonderful and garner her great praise and admiration because she's chosen her ingredients with such knowledge and careful research.

With great pride and a broad smile, she plonks the two grocery bags on the linen draped table among the sparkling wine glasses, cloth napkins, polished sterling silver flatware, exquisite china (the publisher is the table setting, the presentation of the work of art, and those who come to dine are the readers.)

And there the two brown grocery bags sit in the middle of this exquisite setting (the publisher provides top drawer artwork for the cover, perfect printing, vast publicity budget), and the dinner guests arrive.

The dinner guests are all dressed up formally, hungry in anticipation of a great meal.  They swirl into the dining room and stop dead in their tracks staring at the brown grocery bags amidst the sparkling table setting.

Where did those grocery bags come from?

They came from the same place that many Great Writers have found their material -- Life.

But they aren't a meal.  They aren't a salad.  They aren't what the hungry people came for.

The new writer looks at her bags of magnificent ingredients and at the dinner guests and has no clue WHY they are dismayed and gathering their coats to leave.

Her writing is as good as anybody else's!  She has done all her research and globe-trotting for experience.  She's garnered the wisdom of the ages and the very best -- in fact better than most writers' -- ingredients.

Why don't they want to read her story, to eat her meal? 

This is the plight of many self-publishing writers.  They have truly great stuff, in fact better than most of what the big publishers spew out, fare not unlike what you might find at a typical McDonald's. 

But new writers have no clue why they can't gather an audience, why their dinner guests leave talking about McDonald's and settle on Chinese.

What is it they teach in Culinary school that makes the difference between a chef, a cook, or a great shopper?

They teach sharpening knives, good chopping blocks, fine-chopping -- these onions very fine, those in rings.  They teach the use of blenders to make dressing out of ingredients, how much of this, how little of that.  They teach the patience to put in the hard work in the hot kitchen.  They make you apprentice and clean up other people's messes, scrub vegetables for others to chop with finesse.  They make your hands strong, your ability to stand long hours and  heave heavy things reliable, and gradually you absorb the art of combining ingredients. 

Fresh ground pepper lightly sprinkled on top makes the dinner guests cling to the table.  A box of peppercorns does not, no matter if the peppercorns are of higher quality than the ground pepper.

So, to stretch my analogy out to a thin crust, the salad ingredients are expository lumps.  Because they are ingredients, in wrappers in a brown shopping bag, they aren't dinner yet.

The reader/ dinner guest expects the writer/chef to chop fine, mix thoroughly, dress perfectly, and create something unique from the same-old-same-old ingredients. 

It's the writer's job to stand at the sink and wash, core, chop, proportion, food-processor the carrots, just so but not too much.  The dinner guests don't come to work, they come to dine elegantly.  You sweat; they laugh. 

If you present your story to your reader still in the shopping bag, they won't appreciate it no matter how good the story is.  They're hungry, not ambitious. 

This is what is meant when Hollywood says they want "the same, but different" -- "the same" part is the ingredients, the same old bell peppers and lettuce, and the "but different" part is the chopping, proportioning, creating a chef's salad. 

And it is in the creative proportioning and combining spices into dressing that is the work of the writer. 

A writer isn't the farmer that grows the stuff, or the retailer who brings it to town from across the world, or the maker of the crystal and china on the table.  The writer is the chef in the kitchen making up new recipes to present the same old ingredients in new and unique ways, or at request in the same-old-same-old ways (Waldorf Salad is Waldorf Salad and when you want that, you don't want chopped egg and dill pickles).

The reason many readers have been disappointed in "self-published" books is not because they're "self-published" but because someone planning to self-publish may chintz on the chopping.  Someone who has chintzed on the chopping will not be hired (sell their novel) to work at McDonald's (big publishing.) 

But people buy self-published books because they want something different -- it's just it's got to be 'the same' too. 

The writer's job is to chop ideas up into bite-size pieces and toss the salad good to mix up all the chopped ingredients in appetizing proportions.  New writers, like kids learning their way around a kitchen, just don't have the knack of chopping fine enough, tossing two more minutes, or adding that last dash of oregano to the dressing.

"Is this small enough, Mommy?"  Ask your readers if your Big Ideas are Small Enough Now.

And remember, if you're fighting expository lumps, you're only learning to make the salad.  Entree and Dessert are even more work, and you don't have a meal until you've got all the parts chosen to go with the correct Wine Of Life.  Your "Voice as a Writer" is that whole, balanced, meal.  All the parts and components from nutrition to flavor and texture, combined in artistic proportions unique to you, create your Voice. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Hmm. I can think of two counter-examples with expository lumps... 1984, by George Orwell, and some of the Honor Harrington novels (though I think I've seen less of that in the later novels). Though, I seem to remember those expository lumps were in the middle of the story, rather than the beginning - I guess that would mean the soup course is too chunky? ;)

    On the other hand, seeing it in visual form at the beginning of Dune (1984) did seem quite peculiar... then again, the majority of the pacing of that movie in general seemed mishandled. I suppose I should note that I haven't read the book - I've only seen that version of the move. Still, though, I could tell there was depth there, and that it could probably be pretty epic, but with the pacing, it seemed both too slow and like there were parts missing.

  2. Miriam:

    Well, 1984 wasn't Orwell's very first novel. And it wasn't published in 1984, or after the takeover of publishing by the bean counters.

    And yes, when absolutely out of great technical solutions, some writers will just drop an expository lump in the middle of a novel. And sometimes, if the editor doesn't have a solution either, it'll get into print because the contract has been signed and a publication date assigned, and it's just gotta-go-into-production.

    Film and TV is that way too. Elegance of story bows to financials and scheduling.

    DUNE likewise was not a first novel, and the film was made by fans of the novel who were enchanted by the visuals and the worldbuilding (which was terrific).

    But the reason DUNE the film didn't hit it as big as producers wanted was just exactly that effect -- the exposition was too weighty.

    The lesson from that is to conceptualize your stories in such a way that the intended audience already knows most of the background and you can just suggest (Japanese Brush Painting technique) and let the imagination fill in the rest.

    Always ask, when contemplating cutting exposition, whether it's something the reader feels they want to know, or if it's something you want the reader to know. What will happen if they misunderstand? What happens if they invent their own background and it's different from yours? Do you really need to force-feed these facts in the middle of pure FUN?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. I love your salad and cooking analogy. However, as I've mentioned before, I also love a good expository lump, provided it's done well. For me, reading a long explanation of the world's social structure or the biology of the monster IS fun. The parts of Heinlein's novels I like to read over and over are the scenes where the characters lecture each other. (The heart of STARSHIP TROOPERS is found in the flashbacks to the high school citizenship class, and the movie eliminated these almost completely in favor of boring battle scenes.) Wish I had the talent to get away with that!

  4. Margaret:

    Very possibly it's the content not the delivery method that you love about Heinlein's expository lumps disguised as dialog.

    He was the first to admit that "writing craft" was not his strong suit. Likewhise, Hal Clement admitted (aloud to me)that he felt his characterization skills were lacking compared to others writing at the time.

    And that's the key. Standards of writing craft were lower in science fiction at that time.

    Today, after the very literary "New Wave" movement and Gordon R. Dickson and other literary trained writers (Ursula LeGuinn comes to mind), we have much higher entry-bar standards.

    In this blog series I'm presenting highly skilled Romance writers, and new aspiring writers, with the mental steps to take to achieve the results that some (very talented) writers seem to be born knowing.

    I have to do a big presentation on "poetic justice" for November building on some of the subjects I will be covering between now and then.

    On #scifichat Friday Aug 26th, someone innocently asked me how you can apply stagecraft's "scene blocking" techniques to text stories. I gave them the couple of posts I'd done on that, but realized I hadn't actually covered scene structure in depth.

    Oddly, it just occurred to me that the technique is based on poetic justice!

    So I hope I can make this connection make sense eventually.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg