Monthly Archives: October 2015


Note to Self: Take Better Notes 1

Today, I’m pissed off at myself.

Not for anything dire, luckily, but I’m still mad enough that I think I can get a blog post out of it. *grins*

I’ve been participating in #1LineWednesday on Twitter. It’s… run? Prompted? Encouraged? By RWA’s Kiss of Death twitter (@RWAKissOfDeath), and it’s a lot of fun. I’ve found more awesome people to follow through #1LineWednesday than I have doing anything else on twitter.

Yesterday’s theme (for the 21st) was ‘Last Lines of Chapters’, which – okay fair enough. The only problem is that recently I’ve been writing short stories, so I didn’t have a lot of ‘last lines’ to choose from. So I went spelunking into my dropbox where I keep my projects and skimmed through a few of my oldest novels. Good news: some of them aren’t awful and could probably stand to be reworked and finished! Bad news: none of them are finished, and some of them need a great deal of work.

Of particular note is that I found one of my old NaNoWriMo novels and started to skim it to find chapter ending lines. Cue me being a little floored, but it’s actually good? About halfway through skimming, I just straight-up started reading (and editing in my head, but mostly reading). I mean, there are some parts that straight-up suck, especially because I had no idea how to manipulate the tension I was building, and the prose is way too dense and heavily overwritten, and I’ve improved by leaps and bounds since I wrote it, but – ??? ??? ???

The reason I never finished it is because I’m more of a slow-and-steady writer, so that NaNoWriMo’s mad scramble for for 50k-in-a-month is just a little on the ’causes intense project burnout’ side of things. Also, I think I was mid-other-project and doing nano that year to figure out if I could write villains that didn’t suck so ‘finished project’ was a priority. But! For whatever reason, I tidied up my 50k, dropped the project in a metaphorical drawer, and never looked back.

The thing really cheeses me is that I stopped at the end of the ‘second act’ and wrote a paragraphless wall of words to explain the ending. It’s one page long, uses some sort of shorthand that I don’t provide the key for, and that’s it.

What was I thinking?!

How on earth did past me expect future me to sort out this block of unmitigated nonsense?!

I went to bed angry last night because why, why did I do this to myself. I knew for a fact that it was the most ‘solid’ book I’d written up to that point. Why. Whyyyyy.

It’s worse than just ‘I don’t know how to finish my book’, though.

Friends.

Friends.

This is a Time Travelling Serial Killer novel. A woman tries to rescue her brother from the killer’s clutches while time deteriorates and the past and future become unstable. There are at least four timelines and because of the ‘type’ of time travel I picked, my MC experiences linear personal time while the alternative timelines are created and destroyed around her. It’s very important for me to know what happens, when, on which day, in which timeline, and how the main character (who is also travelling in time, because, you know, why make it easy) experiences each event and in what order.

I need like 10x more notes than I have. What the heck am I supposed to do with lines like, ‘Dragons don’t have pockets!’ and ‘Remove the shark-jumping bits!’?

I’m so mad.

Friends. Take better notes than I do.

Especially when you’re writing about time travelling serial killers and stop (whyyyyyyyyy) just before you get to the good part.


Oversell in Fiction

So. Oversell.

What is it, you ask, and why might I want to avoid it?

After a bit of judicious prodding, the internet spat back a few relevant definitions for oversell such as: “to be too eager or insistent in attempting to sell something” and “to make excessive claims”. For the most part, the word oversell is used in sales to describe ridiculous nonsense being claimed to try and sell a thing or the act of being super pushy and used-car-salesman-y. Or it’s used to warn interviewees away from making themselves sound too good to be true so that the interviewer’s bullshit meter starts to flash, or the new hire fails miserably because they promised all sorts of stuff they couldn’t do. I have no idea why, but for some reason, I yoinked the concept of oversell and applied it to writing fiction. (And if you find oversell by another name elsewhere with respect to writing, I’d love a link. :))

Oversell, how I use the term, is when you’re writing along (or editing along) and come across a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that pushes the idea you’re trying to convey to the point where it’s noticeable that you’re pushing. To use a movie analogy, oversell is the moment takes the movie past decently executed with purposeful cinematography and into the realm of obnoxious 3D fish flying from the screen to make you duck. Or that moment in Gravity where you go, “Oh, it’s a space womb,” or in the latter Matrix movies where you go, “Wow, crucifixion imagery and Messiah parallels. Thanks for that. Never would have caught that. Really.”

Oversell in fiction is similar. It’s explaining the joke, or stating outright the theme of your story as if your audience wouldn’t pick up on it otherwise. It’s that ‘extra’ little bit that makes the audience go ‘Alright already! We get it! Move on!’

Why you might want to avoid oversell:

There is no reason why you need to hand your audience/readers the answer. A sub-function of show-not-tell is the 2+2 principle.

The 2+2 principle is where you offer your readers all the pieces and let them put it together. The reader is the one who ultimately figures out that 2+2=4, and you never actually tell them that 4 is what you were aiming for.

This serves two purposes.

One, you’re not just handing them the conclusions you want them to reach. Not only are you exercising a narrative ‘tell’ by providing the conclusion, which leads to a flat narrative, your conclusion might not be the conclusions your reader would reach on their own, so then they feel like they’re being preached to. If you’ve ever read a review that called a book (or other piece of media) ‘preachy’, they’re talking, in part, about oversell.

The second purpose behind 2+2 is that, by handing them pieces and requiring your reader to reach a conclusion, your reader now must invest some small amount of effort and brainpower into their reading experience. As a result, you’ve set your reader up to get that tiny rush of satisfaction in the ‘click’ moment. Terry Pratchett’s books are absolutely boss at utilizing the 2+2 principle. Any book with a really brilliant ‘oh shit’ or ‘oh my god’ or reveal moment has succeeded in giving you all the pieces and then providing you with the opportunity to put them all together.

Oversell overrides 2+2. While you still may be showing the answer (in a show-not-tell sense), you’re also showing the answer, which is the opposite of what you want.

In a more practical sense, oversell is also just pointless extra words. You’ve already made your point, you don’t need to make it again. Half of presenting an idea or an argument or a piece of creative work is knowing when to cut and run.

Last – er – maybe it’s just me, but oversell (in the most egregious examples) is super annoying. I have a gut ‘don’t tell me what to do’ reaction. There is a sense, like I said above, of ‘I get it already! Just keep going! We don’t need to dwell!’ combined with a ‘well, I was on board before, but now you ruined it.’

I don’t get annoyed by small bits of oversell, though. Partially, that’s because I’m super guilty of oversell in my own work, and I mostly catch it during the editing phase. The part of it is that I see it all the time in published works. It’s where an author just goes notion too far before moving on. It’s common and, to be honest, most of the time it’s not glaringly obvious. When I’m being a Reader (rather than an Editor), oversell is one of those things that becomes a nuance. It disappears into the work, for the most part, same as weird names or other small decisions that don’t impact the story so much as the telling of it. A good story can make up for a multitude of tiny imperfections.

Plus! Sometimes oversell can be a trick in and of itself, like when explaining the joke is the joke (Link is Dr. Horrible. Slightly nsfw, heh.), but most of the time you’re undermining your own piece by not letting it stand on its own merits.

Last thing: don’t let a worry that you’re overselling stop you from writing. Oversell is an editing-level concern. Even if you’re a one-pass gut-level writer who never changes a single word you write (except typos), oversell is very easy to fix. 99% of the time you can simply cut out the line or the paragraph entirely and the work is not just unchanged, it’s stronger. Sometimes, too, you can’t tell where you’re trying too hard until you read the whole thing through after you’re done.

Above all, though, don’t be afraid to let your work stand on its own. Trust your words will lead the reader to the conclusion you want, and you’ll avoid a lot of oversell.