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Dear Mr Joss Whedon, 

I should begin by categorically stating that as far as I’m concerned, you’re a genius. I love, admire, and, okay, envy, the enormity of your vision, the depth of your worlds, and the intimacy of your characterisation. So it was a relief for me to discover that even the Great Whedon’s first drafts sometimes leave something to be desired. Specifically, I’ve recently watched the original Pilot episode of “Dollhouse”, which is an extra in the boxed set of the first series (the UK one anyway). I know that you know it didn’t really work, so you’ll be relieved to hear that I don’t intend to write a critique of the episode here. What I found most useful in the episode were the writerly lessons it reminded me of, so I thought I’d share them with you (I’m sure you’re thrilled).

1.
Backstory – or “mythology” of the story (to use a Whedon term). The key thing when sharing the backstory with an audience is to drip-feed it throughout the book, sharing a little here, a bit more there and slowly building a picture, as opposed to downloading it into the first few chapters in vast, weighty chunks that detract from the action, story and pace.

2.
Story – when it comes to the story itself, which is to say, the core plot, be mindful of overcomplicating matters up front. The plot and sub-plots can be as multitudinous as you like (within reason), but don’t frontload them. As with the Backstory, introduce the elements with care, in a way that won’t overwhelm the reader with information they’ll struggle to absorb and engage with all in one go. In fact, as far as story goes, it’s always useful to be mindful of whether you’re complicating it unnecessarily. Ask yourself if there’s a neater way of handing certain aspects, or whether you need them at all.

3.
Characters – depending on the sort of book you’re writing, you may have a large cast, which is fine, but meeting them shouldn’t feel to a reader like being shoved as a stranger into a party where everyone present wants to rush over and introduce themselves and share their life stories all at once. Imagine! There would be no way you could engage in any meaningful way with a single person.

4.
All three of the above together = too much information in one go – the most committed fan will find their attention wandering. The key is to balance the drip-feed of introducing the story, characters and backstory, and to employ a variety of action, dialogue and exposition to get them across. Which brings me to ...

5.
Dialogue – tricky one this, since dialogue is a great way to share information with a reader without employing the hellish exposition info-dump, and is a useful tool in controlling pacing and revealing character at the same time. However, too much dialogue can slow the pace right down; better to intersperse it with action and exposition, otherwise it can feel to the reader like walking into the middle of a conversation that they’re not allowed to be a party to.

6.
Too much, too soon – really this is the cumulative effect of all of the above. It’s info-overload; the reader is being asked to work way too hard to engage with the book. Think wading through a swimming pool filled with jelly instead of slipping into a warm Jacuzzi! The experience should be the latter every time (even if the Jacuzzi isn’t terribly warm and has spiky things on the bottom), otherwise the reader simply won’t care enough to carry on!

So anyway, thanks Mr Whedon (doffs cap, bows, kisses feet and other forms of obeisance). That’s me and my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Even when your game’s off there’s so much to learn from you. Also, it’s so good to know you have off-days like the rest of us; it makes you seem, you know, a little more human. By the way, if it helps restore some sort of balance, I wrote a long piece extolling your genius here.

Kind Regards,

Me

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
readthisandweep
Jul. 20th, 2012 08:51 am (UTC)
Funny - no sooner had I posted my latest, I clicked on 'friends' & here you are.

Other than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I don't know Joss Whedon's work at all. (I do know he once described God as a bully! Lol! Works for me!)

It's always great to find a well-respected writer we can co-opt as a sort of private mentor. Someone whose work we admire & from whom we can glean inspiration & learn.

I feel this way about Alice Hoffman. (I wouldn't dream of claiming common cause with Mrs Woolf - she is Muse & I am content to walk in her shadow's shadow twice removed.)

Even AH's earlier books, the first two of which I confess I wasn't crazy about, (thank goodness I persevered!) taught me something. The later ones have played like a soundtrack - here a glimmer, there a moment of inspiration. Her 'rules' are there on the pages.

All of the points you make - well you know I agree with you. Regardless of the genre or style, certain rules apply across the board.

Right - I'm off - I have 'stuff' to do & it's almost ten of the clock. Writing time!

jennygordon
Jul. 20th, 2012 12:01 pm (UTC)
Love the quote about God being a bully - I couldn't agree more!

All of Joss Whedon's catalogue of work is intelligent and thoughtful; the man seems to have a bottomless well of ideas. He's one of a number of writers I sincerely admire and learn from.

I love Alice Hoffman too, though I haven't read all of her novels - she has such a distinctive voice.

Hope you have a productive writing day.
readthisandweep
Jul. 20th, 2012 01:42 pm (UTC)
With her first four books, there was a sense that Alice Hoffman was searching for her voice. By the time she wrote, Fortune's Daughter she had found it. From here until The Red Garden it was all up. I wasn't enamoured of TRG but with The Story Sisters all was forgiven.

I've just checked the website - The Dovekeepers is out in paperback! There goes the budget!
readthisandweep
Jul. 20th, 2012 01:49 pm (UTC)
Not available in the UK until the end of August but I pre-ordered, saved 40% & have a nice parcel surprise to look forward to!
jennygordon
Jul. 24th, 2012 10:19 am (UTC)
Always great to pre-order a book, then it's a lovely surprise when it turns up. 40% discount too - wow! Which reminds me, there's a book out in September that I must get on pre-order ...
jennygordon
Jul. 24th, 2012 10:17 am (UTC)
I've actually got around a dozen of her books on my shelf - collected years back when I was working in Waterstones and had a lovely staff discount. The first I read was 'Here on Earth', which I have as a publisher's proof (reps used to give them to booksellers to tempt us to buy in stock). I completely fell in love with her writing as a result.

All this Hoffman chat is tempting me to revisit some of my collection - there's some early ones among them (White Horses, Angel Landing, Second Nature), and also some of her more recent. The last one I read was 'The Story Sisters', which was wonderful.

I guess it's true of most, if not all writers, that our first few outings are a quest to find our voice. It's always interesting to see an established writer's journey.
edgyauthor
Jul. 20th, 2012 10:36 am (UTC)
Love all these lessons you learned! They're all things I've thought about in the past and completely agree with. (Especially #3. I tend to have a large cast of characters in my books, so I'm always extra-careful with how/when I introduce them. Heaven forbid I do it in an overwhelming way!) I remember watching the original pilot for Dollhouse a while back and thinking, "Wow, had this aired instead of the new pilot, I probably would've gotten confused!" I can easily see how you gleaned lessons from this by comparing the two!
jennygordon
Jul. 20th, 2012 12:05 pm (UTC)
I thought you might have seen the pilot too. It was so interesting watching it so soon after seeing the 'real' pilot and the rest of the first season. Oddly heartening too to know that the Mighty Joss sometimes gets it wrong - is it mean of me to say that?!

Like you, the lessons are all ones I know, but it was so helpful to have such clear examples of how not to do it alongside how to fix it. Plus, it never hurts to keep re-visiting the lessons and reminding myself ;O)
edgyauthor
Jul. 22nd, 2012 06:01 am (UTC)
Not mean at all! The greatness of some writers can be downright intimidating, so it's always a relief to see them make honest mistakes just like the rest of us! ;)
jennygordon
Jul. 24th, 2012 10:19 am (UTC)
Absolutely!
j_cheney
Jul. 20th, 2012 01:47 pm (UTC)
I've heard these complaints, too. Firefly had a much better story-to-infodump ratio. ;o)
jennygordon
Jul. 24th, 2012 10:22 am (UTC)
It's fascinating to see the progress of 'Dollhouse' from this first pilot episode, which was scrapped, to the 'real' pilot, which is so much better. You can almost see Joss (and the writing team) working through first draft issues to the polished final version.

Oh man, now I can feel a 'Firefly' rewatch coming on ...
j_cheney
Jul. 24th, 2012 12:14 pm (UTC)
Even ten years later....Firefly is always good...

I'll have to rent season 1 one of these days.
jennygordon
Jul. 25th, 2012 07:51 am (UTC)
Ten years! Wow, is it really ten years??!!
j_cheney
Jul. 25th, 2012 12:55 pm (UTC)
Yep ;o)
tracy_d74
Jul. 20th, 2012 10:56 pm (UTC)
Wise, valuable lessons!
jennygordon
Jul. 24th, 2012 10:22 am (UTC)
And so reassuring to see that it's experienced writers like Joss Whedon who sometimes get it wrong and have to learn the lessons again too!
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )