theory & mechanics


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.


The Dulcet Tones of Genre Convention

I’ve been squirreling away blogpost seeds for ages, and it occurred to me that there’s no point in hoarding them if I never use them.

So! Today was prompted by an io9 article from, oh, July 15th, 2013. Ahem.

In this io9 article entitled ‘What does it mean when people say your story’s “tone” is wrong?’, there’s a fairly good breakdown of what tone even is. The definition it settles on is something along the lines of the mix of emotion, atmosphere, genre convention, authorial voice and style that creates the experiential landscape of the prose. More or less. The author, Anders, relates the idea of tone to music (logically enough), and how the whole of a musical piece and the resultant emotional impact is dependent on the sum of its mechanical parts. That’s a fairly good definition of tone, as far as trying to define something so subjective as to how a particular piece of art might feel to an audience.

To put it even more simply: Tone is the gestalt of how a writer conveys events and experiences.

Tone is also a tool, which is what I think the io9 article touches on but doesn’t necessarily drive home. It’s not something that just sort of happens as a result of style/voice/etc. and it’s something you can manipulate. In conveying ideas while aiming for a specific tone, a writer can influence a reader towards emotion, towards expectation, and play with different kinds of tension, among other things. Most writer’s tools are also fractal-like, where each component part is made up of different, other tools, which are made up of others, which are made up of others and so on from deciding who your main character has to be to tell the story you want all the way down to the actual, physical arrangement of words on a page. Even just coloring text or blacking out a page can have an effect on the tone, like in House of Leaves or the Series of Unfortunate events, respectively. Tone is no exception, and I consider it one of the more abstract tools a writer can utilize, which means there’s an infinite fractal contained inside.

So. If tone is a megatool and each subtool consists of a set of choices in how to present ideas, then ultimately tone becomes a matter of tiny choices. And following the idea of choice, even a short list off possible choices reads like the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch, where every iteration has a new item to consider. For example, amongst our weaponry (with respect to tone), there’s the choice of diction and the choice of structure and the choice what to describe (out of all the possibilities) and the choice of whose opinion the narrative is reinforcing and the choice of when to reveal twists and the choice of when to increase tension and the choice of how long or short sentences are and and and…

If ‘possible choices that impact the tone of a story’ were turtles, it’s turtles all the way down.

So, sometimes a writer just hasn’t considered enough turtles, simply through lack of practical experience, and the tone of a work will reflect that. The tone could be ‘wrong’, as in the io9 article above, or it could simply be bland. A just-the-facts-ma’am mechanical tone that is otherwise absolutely correct with respect to the basic choices of grammar, syntax, and idea conveyance can make an otherwise exciting story very boring. Boring is the kiss of death. It’s this complete lack of tone, rather than a work having the wrong tone, that I consider the reason why most people’s work ends up being passed over, be it fanfiction or a self-published work trying to stand out from the crowd or a manuscript angling to be traditionally published out on query.

And, even better, sometimes in trying to tackle a change in tone a writer (like me) will discover that there are way, way too many turtles. I actually consider ‘too many turtles’ a type of writer’s block that, when confronted with the sheer gonzo number of choices to be made when working with tone, where literally every word can be deliberately placed to provide a certain effect, a writer can get blocked by something between ‘analysis paralysis’, ‘choice overload’, and ‘tyranny of small decisions’, where there are simply too many decisions to make, too many options for each decision, and each of decision influences the whole on a chaos theory level where even a tiny change might propagate to fundamentally alter the entire final product. Yikes.

Insert genre.

The io9 article linked above points out that genres all have their own distinct tone, whether it’s dark or light or sexy or suspenseful or epic or something else entirely, and that reading in your preferred genre is the best way to absorb the tone. I agree, and in spades, because what a writer learns from absorbing the tone of a particular genre is all the myriad different genre conventions that form that genre. Genre convention makes certain choices in structure and how for you, which feeds into tone. With that, genre becomes a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox, because its conventions break your turtles into manageable hordes.

For the most basic of basic examples, convention for a book in the romance genre is that the conflict with be romantic in nature. If the writer’s genre of choice is romance, this gives a boundary and a framework, limiting the number of turtles they have to wrangle to ‘how to write a specifically romantic conflict’. The terms are set, and it’s a narrow enough area that it gives somewhere to grip in the attempt to gain mastery over the form. The end goal is defined (these idiots fall in love), the conflict is defined (these idiots have hang-ups that prevent them from falling in love), and the rest is nuance and detail and complication that makes each romance unique. Tone, here, will end up having elements of suspense, angst, and interpersonal tension. It will feel like a romance novel.

In this particular example, genre defines tone. Tone, however, can also turn around define genre conventions. If you want something to encourage a lot of tension and have a very action-oriented sort of tone, you can put a time limit on it (race-the-clock conventions in spy thrillers), or have the story build up to a do-or-die event (sports and heist stories), or have the stakes be astronomical (superhero and most fantasy). You can make decisions about what genre you want to utilize by examining what sort of tone would be ideal for your story, reading within a genre that has that tone, and stealing the conventions–or, more precisely, the techniques that those conventions are made of. There’s nothing that says a writer can’t make use of other people’s turtles to help create something entirely their own.

Meandering aside, I just want reiterate that tone and genre (and genre’s ever-so-useful genre conventions) are all tools to tailor a reader’s experience. I know I’m repeating myself, but this cannot be stated strongly enough. I think, too often, that there can be a sense that tone (and to some extent genre) is something that simply arises from the process of bringing a bookbaby into the world. Tone is a tool! If someone tells you your tone is wrong, or it’s bland and your writing is mechanical, ask yourself: what tone am I aiming for? Hopefully that’s a question that will give you ideas of what sort of turtles you want to be looking for.

Good luck with your tones, and happy turtle hunting!


Hitting the Sweet Spot 1

Writing, much to my dismay, is an ongoing process of figuring out what works, doing that for a while until everything breaks and then figuring it out all over again. I am always poking around writing advice blogs to read about other peoples’ processes, and whenever my current battle plan goes sideways I’ll try out some of what works for others. Recently I’ve been ruminating a lot on the idea of daily word counts. Having a daily word count is one of the methods that works more or less often for me, especially when I have a longer project, but I’m starting to realize that my approach to daily word counts is a little bit, shall we say, unconventional.

Most of the advice I’ve found makes your daily word count into a goal. You have a daily goal, that’s what you hit come hell or high water, and forcing yourself to meet your goal is the only reason the words come out some days.

Hilariously, this does not work as intended for me, because setting even a reasonable goal has the unfortunate side effect of making my brain fluctuate between three states: the ‘I have not hit the goal today, I have failed, I am a failure’ state, the ‘I’m going to not hit the goal out of spite, because I don’t take orders from arbitrary self-expectations’ state, and the ‘I will hit this goal if it kills me and it might’ state.

I do not do well with high daily word goals.

When I use a daily word count, it’s actually a minimum word count.  As far as I can tell, the reason for a daily word goal is really motivation. It functions as the butt-in-chair mechanism, and it will keep you at your work until you’ve hit your goal. That’s not a problem I have – once I start writing I’ll usually continue until I can’t, regardless of goal.

To that end, my minimum daily word count is actually only 100 words. It’s just high enough to sink me into writing mode after I’ve sat down, but it’s low enough that my brain decides that we are very certainly not done with writing. Something that low also lowers the inertia I need to overcome to start writing. It’s only a hundred words. I can do that in ten minutes. Ten minutes is easy and I have no reason not to.

Once I’m writing, however, and I’ve breezed past my hundred words, how do I ever get anything done? I’m glad you asked, my friend, because the ‘goal’ part of my daily writing is an abstract goal. The thing that motivates me the most is having an event or task or endpoint within my writing piece. Sometimes I’ll simply shoot for the end of the piece, for one thing, but I also use the end of the chapter, or the end of the scene, or – if none of those are within how much I can reasonably write in a day, then my goal is to get to the next natural break-point in the narrative.

To be perfectly honest, I consider a daily world goal to be unsatisfyingly arbitrary and a little too vague. I’ve done Nation Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) for the last six or eight years and while I can do the 1667 words a day for a month, it’s hard to sustain that pace when the larger, more abstract goal of ‘finish the 50k in one month’ is removed. If I don’t have an abstract goal like’ finish the book before August’, or ‘post the story before May’, then I don’t have the sense of investment and urgency that leads me to get stubborn about reaching my goal. Even if the abstract goal is very short term, such as ‘finish this scene before Monday’, I find that a far more effective motivator than ‘write 2k on Saturday and 2k on Sunday’, even if they are functionally identical.

An important thing to reiterate, however, is that the combined ‘daily minimum word count and abstract goal’ package is all about motivation, so when I talk about how many words I write a day, it’s actually based on the metrics I’ve kept for the last two years and anecdata from the last ten or so. How many words I write in a day really doesn’t have anything to do with any daily goal I’ve set myself, it’s merely a description of my past performance with respect to writing.

Until 2014, my metrics mostly consisted of a handful of disparate sources: My Nanowrimo tracker, the Ares Accord that I and a couple my writer friends set up to help do consistent word wars, a few other scattered challenges and projects, and a general sense of how many words I can accomplish on a lunch break. I liked to try and keep metrics of when I’d write and how much, and the tracking got more complicated and more comprehensive over time.

At the beginning of last year, however, I joined ‘Get Your Words Out‘ in an attempt to find a community of like-interested writers to help keep me connected. Billed as a writing decathlon, GWYO allows you to set a yearlong goal and then calculates out how much you need to write per day to reach it. I didn’t reach my goal last year (and I’m not sure I will this year), but that really doesn’t matter. The most useful thing about the challenge for me was their very slick spreadsheet a level above what I have previously been able to produce for myself. Barring any other benefit, I ended up with a year’s worth of cold hard data and that is more than worth participating.

In 2014, I wrote 561 words per day, averaged across the entire year, including days I didn’t write. Counting only days I did write, my average is 1102, which I suppose implies that I wrote only about half of the days last year. I write between 700 words a day and 1400 words a day normally, and it varies wildly between those two points. My ‘very good days’ are about 2000 words, and those usually happen when I near the end of projects. My ‘bare minimum’ days are 300 words, and that’s when I’m squeezing writing in between ridiculous amounts of busy.

As for my writing pace, I am surprisingly consistent. I write about 300-400 words in half an hour, and 600-800 words in an hour. If I’m loose and limber and have enough momentum, I can bump up to 1000 words in an hour, but that’s about as fast as my brain goes to produce something that isn’t going to be rewritten in full. I’ve written this fast for as long as I can remember, since my very first ‘win’ at Nanowrimo when I was in college, to the five years at my first job, to every single word war I’ve done for Nanowrimo or any other challenge.

I have yet to reach a solid daily upper limit. Previously, my upper limits have been nearing 4000 words in a day before my brain fizzled, but I blew past that this last November and managed a couple of 6000 word days. Those days were awful and caused immediate burnout, however, so clearly large word count days are not sustainable for in the long term for me.

That’s the important part, actually. Writing a book is a marathon, even if you’re trying to go as fast as you can, and a sustainable word count is vastly more important than slamming out ten thousand word days if you’re utterly useless for the next week.

This brings me back around to daily word goals. A post over on Jennifer Ellis’s blog, entitled Minimum Daily Word Counts, gives a short rundown of the various word counts of famous authors. It’s full of excellent advice on how to increase your word counts and reach new heights of productivity. However, the post is very much rooted in the idea of pushing yourself to find your upper limit and – perhaps – lingering there.

If you don’t know what your limits are yet, then hell yes go get some great ideas on how to push yourself higher and faster.

However – riding along your upper limit is an awful idea, because one misstep and you fling yourself into either burnout or unsustainable territory. If you’re going to use a daily word goal (instead of a ludicrously low minimum and an abstract goal like me), then in my humble, humble opinion the optimal word count lies in a ‘sweet spot’. It’s a word count that you can blow past if you feel inspired while still being doable if your life throws shit at you, because your daily target goal is just that. Daily. It happens if you’ve got to mow the lawn and do chores and go grocery shopping. It happens if your day job was a royal pain in the ass and you just want a nightcap and an early bedtime. It happens if the sun is shining and the snow is gone and spring is dragging you out to the park for ultimate Frisbee. It happens around feeding and transporting children, taking the cat to the vet, and lunches with friends. Barring emergencies, this is a daily word goal that somehow fits into your life.

If I were to set an actual word count goal, in comparison to some of these famous writers over here, mine would be 800 words a day. That’s what I can hit consistently even when life happens, barring the depressive doldrums. (Last year was a bit awful in that for me.) It’s on the bottom edge of what I know I write on an average day plus a bit more, and it will only take me a couple of hours if I’m writing fiction. It’s doable, but it is an actual goal that requires me to stretch myself on off days and it’s not so high I can’t look at it as just the start to my writing for the day on the good ones.

The secret is that the goal you set for yourself should not be so intimidating as to scare you away with the threat of failure. You want the barrier to putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or butt in chair to be vanishingly low. The idea is that you’ll get there when you get there, and the point is to set a pace manageable for the long term so that when you do inevitably (and I do mean inevitably) miss days, you don’t lose your momentum. Even if you do have a deadline, the only way to ‘make up’ words on missed days is to take a page from Nanowrimo’s notebook and redistribute your needed words across all your remaining days, otherwise your target word count will snowball to something you can’t hit without burning out and starting will be that much harder.

I’m not sure I’ve read this very often in writing advice blogs (and I’d love links that do, if you have them!), but sitting your ass down and starting needs to be made as easy as humanly possible for you. Nothing else about writing is easy and if your brain is anything like mine, it will take any excuse not to do something that’s hard no matter how rewarding it may be.

So make sitting down easy. Trick your brain. Figure out what motivates you and how and why. Become a scientist and experiment with yourself, changing variables like location and medium until you find something that makes the act of sitting down something you can do without thinking too hard about it. Don’t let your writing become something that needs a superstitious ritual to start, where you’re afraid to change elements for fear you’ll never write again.

Find your preferences. Find your inspirations. Find your limits. Figure out your highest word count and your lowest and your average, and when you’re done figuring all of that out? Find your sweet spot.


Just add cheese…

I’ve been watching the Librarians, though I’m a couple episodes behind at the moment, and I can’t deny that it is one of those deeply silly shows where enjoying it is not so much a suspension of disbelief but an acceptance that you are watching something deliberately over-the-top, into the realm of farce. It’s intensely cheesy, and it’s only redemption is that – for all it’s faults – it has a great deal of heart.

The cheese, though, the over-the-topness and silliness, is one step shy of epic. Or one step beyond epic. In my own writing, attempting scifi and fantasy (especially) has been for me an exercise in learning to hear cheese. How far can you go before it’s just too ridiculous. Where is the line between awesome + funny and that blank stare where the reader/audience/whatever is trying to decide if this was serious or they’re supposed to laugh. And then – as if that wasn’t precise enough – where to take our humor so that they’re laughing with you and not at you.

I often err on the side of safety, so my forays into epic are few and far between and it becomes all the more important that I be able to hear the cheese. A lot of my old writing is a little cheesier than that I really like now, and going back to read it is a little bit like going back and looking at pictures of me as a kid. I didn’t even know how silly I was being, and it’s a little bit charming now, but also something I’m glad to have left behind.

Cheesy dialogue is the worst offender, but then dialogue is always a rough one to deal with.

But, yes – I’m still not sure where exactly the line is, at least not for me. How much can I attempt intensity, attempt ‘epic’ before it all falls apart as ‘trying too hard’?


So I’m Writing a Synopsis 2

I mentioned previously that I’m writing a loose synopsis for Station. This is, in part, because Genevieve has been writing a great many for her drive to become a writer for visual media (ie Comic Books). I have been helping her edit and stream line them for submission, and there is a lot of really good stuff that happens when you do a synopsis.

Because of the nature of writer-blogging, I’m going to cite my sources and over-explain everything, so buckle in.

The definition for synopsis I’m using is this:

An often beat-by-beat description of the plot of a novel or other creative work, describing the major arcs, themes, and events in a way where the short version is both enough to give you the gist of the whole story (including the ending) as well as make you want to hear the long version, properly told.

Which is sort of where my investigations into the whole synopsis thing have taken me, a bit rephrased. To that, I’m going to add that a synopsis follows the primary arcs and themes tailored to a specific genre. So, for example, a romance synopsis will follow the character arcs of the two leads and how they interact. Their motivations drive the events of the plot, and so their motivations are one of the most important things to put into a synopsis of ‘type: romance’.

By contrast, the story that I’m writing (Station), is part of the science fiction adventure genre. Its roots are very firmly in the soft sci-fi of the 80s and the pulp science fiction from before the 1950s. It’s is distinct from epics, space operas, and hard sci-fi in that it’s a much more contained, and deliberately episodic, story. Plus, my inclusion of time travel pops it up into more of the science-fantasy realm, which means I have to set up the world-consistence myself without depending on outside scientific knowledge. My story in particular is also very character driven (rather than political, disaster, or concept-driven), and has horror influences that will crop up whatever I do.

So, to sum up, my synopsis needs to emphasize the adventure elements as well as the character bits. The horror elements need to be mentioned, but should not take over the synopsis. If I can leave them as ‘Fridge Horror, all the better.

Great, good. Okay.

In practice, I’m finding out several things a synopsis is good for.

Thing 1: Plotholes! I’m finding them! I can spackle them over before I get there.

Thing 2: Structure! I can figure out where bits feel too slow and where they feel too fast, and can apportion more and less time to things based on importance. And, and this is sort of extra and doesn’t really apply to my synopsis in particular,  a synopsis will sort of give you an inkling what media your story would fit best in. Like, say, you have an idea for a sort of episodic/series book, or you have a trilogy, or you have a standalone, or you really have a story that need more pictures than words.

Thing 3: Themes! I really like to explore particular themes, and often I don’t know what those ARE until I’m several chapters in. This synopsis is helping me figure out what I need to explore specifically before I get there, which is always helpful.

Thing 4: Characterization! Knowing what my characters will and will not do will help prevent me from having to rewrite big chunks of the beginning once my characterization has solidified later in the book. (Since I write chronologically by choice.)

Thing 5: Actually, a lot of these things are about continuity, so the last one for today is Continuity! I always have to do a continuity pass or two, aligning everything with my concept of what’s actually happening once I reach the end of the book. It’s sort of like how a tv pilot always has weird things happen when looked at in context of the rest of the episodes, because the characterization isn’t set and the themes are still in fledgling form, and the starting point is still a little bit nebulous. A synopsis is helping me eliminate a lot of the heavy-lifting of my continuity pass before I get too much further, which is all to the good, imho.

and other Things, but those are the most important at the moment.

The bottom line is that I’m really glad I’ve been doing this, though it means a full rewrite for the whole thing, including a pretty dramatic restructure. Needs must, I suppose, but I recommend writing at least one synopsis to see if it might be useful for your writing style. If you’re traditionally publishing, you might have to learn how to write one anyways. 🙂