editor hat


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.


Philosophy of Editing

This particular post has a twofold purpose. First, to let you know where I am with my projects (!) and the second to sort of explain what sort of editor I am when I’m editing someone else’s work. Hopefully, the reason they’re mushed together in the same post will become evident rather quickly. ๐Ÿ™‚

My ongoing writing projects have only been lightly touched this past week, so they’re in a bit of a stasis. Still trying to fix the danged ending of Station (it’s just about giving me fits), and I’m working up an old short story to my current skill level. However, I haven’t had a lot of time to work on them because I had a freelance editing job to accomplish and I still haven’t quite figured out how to balance personal writing with professional editing. The edit went rather well and I have a couple of other opportunities to chase because of it, so hopefully I’ll figure out balance here rather quickly.

I’m also trying to figure out how to explain the type of editing I do so I can put it up here on my website under its own heading. Yanno. Just in case.

And with that segue, here’s my attempt:

I like to call myself a developmental editor. There are several different kinds of editing, and sometimes the definitions thereof are a little ambiguous and somewhat overlapping. See three different sources: Here, here, and here, for case in point. So, as in any chat about editing, I should probably clarify my terms before we get too much further.

I usually classify them into three major categories. Copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing.

Copyediting (and/or Proofreading, because some people make a distinction between the two) is about getting down the very last stage of polishing and is primarily concerned with the what of what is actually set down on the page. It’s the grammar. The syntax. It’s making sure everything is spelled correctly and hyphenated correctly and that you’re using the correct slang. It’s citing your sources (in nonfiction) and making sure that you’re consistent in your capitalization and you’ve eliminated as many typos as possible. This is the very last stage before your piece of work goes live. This is the type of edit that I always seek out before I send anything off for real because even at my most accurate, I start seeing what I meant to type and not what’s actually there.

Line editing is a bit looser and more concerned with the how of how something is written. This is going through your story line by line, paragraph by paragraph and looking for both logical consistency and flow. This is the place where word choices are first challenged, and all of those sentences with jarring parallel construction are pointed out. This is where I nudge people toward a consistent style, and try and suggest ways to develop atmosphere and tension within a scene and what they’re accomplishing with the words laid down as-is.

Developmental (or Substantial/Structural) editing is the most abstract of the categories, and it’s primarily concerned with the why of the piece. Why is this scene here? Why are you developing this theme? It addresses concerns such as building tension and releasing it early, or overwriting scenes that don’t need emphasis. Being a developmental editor is like being a rollercoaster designer; it’s all about making sure the story will guides the reader from the beginning to the end on a smooth path and contains only the terror and thrills you mean it to.

Classifications defined, I must say that developmental editing is what I enjoy the most, mostly because I get to I wade into the story, knee-deep, and sort of muck about. Some of my most favorite discussions with people have been wrangling about the construction of novels and movies, and over the past couple of years I’ve transitioned that love of discovering why I enjoy a thing into something useful by practicing on my writer-friends.

My philosophy of editing is very much about figuring out what story the writer wants to tell. I’m not sure how other editors approach manuscripts, but I’m of the opinion that the only way something can be ‘wrong’ when writing a book is if the author does not convey what they were trying to get across. I also firmly believe that a necessary part of editing a book is knowing why something isn’t working.

Partially, my desire to make sure my writers know what’s going is because I’m constitutionally incapable of accepting a ‘correction’ if I don’t know the reasoning behind it. I have editors I trust to know what’s up, but my process requires knowledge of all of the ‘whys’ and mechanical underpinnings of what my words are doing. Sometimes an editor can suggest something quite good and it just won’t fit with what I was trying to accomplish; if I modified my piece, then my goal would be that much further away. Not only that, but I don’t learn and grow as a writer unless I know why I’ve missed my mark so I can hit it first try next time around.

I assume that other writers have a similar growth process and a similar attitude towardย  grappling with the underpinnings of whatever piece they’re writing. Granted, sometimes that’s not true, but I default to explaining everything and modify based on author preference.

I need to wrap this up because I’ve spun off two other blogposts via digressions (not included) already, so I think my general conclusion is that, when I edit, I approach it with an attitude of figuring out what the writer’s goal was, and then helping them discover how they can accomplish that goal. I disagree with the idea that there should be some sort of conformance to a mold, even in genre writing, though I do think that there is power in using established conventions to convey meaning.

Developmental editing, for me, is all about finding patterns and making connections. Plus, feeling around inside the mechanical guts of a piece of writing has the fun and interesting side effect that sometimes I end up explaining to my authors what they were trying to accomplish by instinct in the first place.

Though I admit my investigations have been limited, I’ve not found a lot of information on how other editors (especially developmental editors) go about editing philosophically, so if anyone reading has any thoughts or resources, I’d love to compare notes. ๐Ÿ™‚

 

 


Happy 2014! 3

Ah, how things change. Seeing as how I posted last in September of a whole other year, I suppose it’s time for an update.

Currently working on a novel with the working title of ‘Station’. It is – and this is, for all intents, my elevator pitch – a story along the vein of the old west gunslinger novels, where our lone hero rolls into town and challenges the status quo. Except in space. My heroine is a cyborg left to stand sentinel over the time stream, and she visits times and places where something (or, more accurately) someone is changing the future. As per her programming, she is supposed to be the agent of fate, to stop whatever sea change that will take the future in a radically different direction. However, she is always left with choice, and sometimes she chooses to stand by – or even help, those she was sent to nullify.

So that’s the story, more or less. I would feel regret about dumping my vampire romance, but I have been beating my head against it for the last year and it was time to let the darned thing go. I’m optimistic, however, because I love adventure scifi to the tips of my toes, which is exactly what this new story is designed to be. It’s more in my wheelhouse, and to be honest, I think that was a big issue with Broken Bond; vampire romances aren’t really my thing and I was flailing a little in the dark with it. I might come back to it eventually (especially since my writer’s group and anyone who I’ve showed a sample chapter to loves my male lead), but for now, it’s best I let it lie.

Anyhow, in other news, I have a novella that I am in rewrites for (the ending needs a bit of a tweak), and several short stories that I need to get off my duff in post to Amazon. It was a surprisingly good year despite moving across country (oh, I’m in LA now as of March!) and sort of struggling through my New City Blues. My writing has picked back up thanks to the all-or-nothing ridiculousness of Nanowrimo, and I’ve got my roadmap for 2014 all sorted out.

Hilariously, and as sort of a footnote, I’m considering adding my skills as a developmental editor to my website. When I couldn’t write this year, I honed my editing skills, and have gotten good feedback on my developmental and structural editing. Namely, Genevieve (whose link I have plastered into my sidebar over there), has been trying to convince me to hang out my shingle in a more official sense. So, perhaps I shall share the love and open up my inbox to taking on a few more projects.

We shall see.

2014 is dead, long live 2015! ๐Ÿ™‚