So I am neck deep in untangling the final mess of my third book for its April 1 deadline (so very tempted to send a 1 page manuscript ending with “Rocks fall, everybody dies.” but I don’t think my editor would see the April Fools day humor in that), and I’ve been thinking about revelations. This book has me bringing out a lot of my big guns: world secrets, power players, secret histories, truths that could break up the primary relationships of the series, all that sort of good stuff! But revealing all of this to the reader in a way they can understand and care about has been something of a challenge.
The author is in a unique, omnipotent position when it comes to their work. They literally know everything. If they haven’t thought about it, then it doesn’t exist. If they made something one way and later change their minds, then the thing changes to suit whatever the author needs it to. It’s tempting to see this limitless power as limitless fun, but really it’s a constant liability. I have to think of literally everything, and not just what I care about, but stuff other people will notice is missing if I leave it out (like how my characters never seem to eat, which I mentioned in an earlier post and have taken steps to correct by adding 200% more food to book 3). But more important than crass details like daily caloric intake or the fact that no one poops in fantasy (don’t think about that one too hard) is the information you actually want your reader to know.
At a very simple level, books are the revelation of information over time. Stuff happens which causes other stuff to happen, and you keep reading to find out what. Revealing what happens next in a way that keeps the reader reading is the hallmark of good writing, and there are as many ways to do it as there are books. Great writers make it look so simple, but as with all things worth doing, it’s way harder than it looks. For example, in my first book I had these huge, deep world secrets that were SOO COOOL (to me), and I didn’t want to tip my hand too soon. I wanted the mystery to peek out of the background, tempting people to keep reading. So I dropped subtle hints, so subtle, in fact, that no one got them. My editor/agent/readers kept telling me to make the book bigger, deeper. I was indignant! I was deep! Didn’t they see all this amazing stuff I was doing in the background? Well, no. I saw it, because I knew it was there. If other people were going to see it, I was going to have to make the writing on the wall a little larger.
The first thing I tried was to make everything more obvious, but not too obvious. There is nothing I loathe more in a book that really blatant foreshadowing, or, as I call it, two by foreshadowing (on account of the way it beats you into submission). Now, this sort of obvious information revealing does indeed get the point across. It also makes readers roll their eyes. Even worse, however, really obvious hinting breaks tension. You start to wonder how the other characters aren’t getting this, and disbelief begins to set in. (Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing. People will buy magical cities floating in space, but have a character who is SO TOTALLY OBVIOUSLY the bad guy surrounded by supposedly smart people who steadfastly refuse to get the enormous clue and that suspension vanishes pretty quickly. ) But for all the dangers of over stating, understating gets you nowhere either. I played things too close to the vest and lost a lot of my tension. People simply didn’t see the things I’d put out there to build the mystery of why my main character could do some of the impossible things he does, thus making those impossible things confusing rather than cool. So I went through the novel scene by scene, and in every scene I asked myself “what do I want the reader to get out of this scene? Why is it here?” and then I went through the scene again bringing those bits of information to the front. This made my novel enormously better without adding anything other than clarity.
The next step I took to fix this not-getting of important information was to add a scene where two very big movers in the world (who previously had only had mysterious cameos) sit down and have a chat that reveals important information. This was a scene I spent a LOT of time on. Scenes like this, where people who know a lot talk about what they know, are very dangerous. It’s so easy to have a “As you know, Bob,” kind of moment. I ended up rewriting this scene a dozen times to get the right mix of overheard, casual, in character conversation and vital information. I think it’s the single most poured over 1000 words in the book other than the first 1000. But it was this scene, and the other work I did bringing out information in other scenes, that took my book from Okay to publishable.
Weeeeeell, there was some other stuff too, like pacing changes and general bad-writing cleanup and implementing all of Lindsay (my agent’s assistant) and Devi’s (my editor’s) wonderful suggestions, but a LOT of my triumph I owe squarely to making all that cool stuff in the book bold enough that people could actually see it.