Today, I’m going to give you three ways to instantly improve your writing and sell more books. I’m blessed to have a broad base of experience/expertise which includes corporate consulting and branding. I also spent years in sales and can honestly say, Coffee is for closers.
What Do You DO?
Last year, I accepted a leviathan project to redo copy for a website and rebrand a struggling company. I first explained my plan and reasoning in a detailed SWOT analysis. The owner was on board and signed off. The existing copy was outdated, bloated, confusing, and failed to appreciate the vast changes in our millennial culture.
I hacked through, reduced as much as possible and reshaped until the site showcased a truly fabulous company. To my horror, the owner came back and wanted me to add a deluge of changes which included mass amounts of extraneous information, charts, etc. and all of this content grossly deviated from the agreed rebranding.
I politely declined and we parted ways.
***What’s funny is the owner never got around to changing the site from my version and was recently approached by a Richard Branson-type investor for potential partnership. Ironically, part of what piqued his interest was the site 😉 . Unlike the competition, the site I designed was visual, brief, and powerful, whereas the competition was like reading Wikipedia Articles from Hell.
This desire to cough up too much and “oversell” is common (namely because regular people believe writing is easy and fail to hire a pro). Business owners are passionate and so they want to tell EVERYTHING about their services, industry, product, whatever. Also, overselling is a mark of the insecure. Think “padded resume.”
Attention spans are shrinking. The average time spent on a website is roughly 3.5 minutes. I’d wager most people give a website 3.5 seconds to catch their attention and that 3.5 minutes only applies to those browsers who happen to stay.
We can apply these business lessons to our writing, because we writers also have something to sell.
Our job is far tougher because 1) discoverability is a nightmare 2) less than 8% of the literate population are devoted readers 3) the remaining 92% equate reading with homework and a chore. Thus, we have the task of convincing 92% of the population to spend time they don’t have engaged in an activity they believe they dislike…and spend money to do it.
The other 8%? Sure they like to read books, but why yours?
Omit Needless Words
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. ”~ Strunk and White
Trust the reader. If a character opens a door, we know he “reached out his hand” to do it. We assume he isn’t blessed with telekinetic powers unless we’re told otherwise.
Resist the Urge to Explain
This tenet applies in a lot of areas. We don’t need flashbacks or lengthy details of why a character thinks or acts a certain way. The more we leave to the imagination, the better. Hubby and I have fallen in love with a new mini-series Defiance. We ate through Season One and began Season Two.
Interestingly, Episode Zero was a compilation of all the flashbacks cut from Season One—the explaining how and what and why…and it was painful. I just wanted to hit stop and move onto the new episodes. The flashbacks added nothing and only wasted my time. The series was better without backstory being spoon fed to me.
I got it.
This over explaining happens a lot with characterization, but sci-fi and fantasy can be particularly vulnerable. I recently had a client who took four hours to explain all her world building. Most of this information was for her, not the reader. She didn’t have to explain how this world had humans and elves.
It just did.
Think about cartoons. Kids accept that a group of dogs can be public servants, talk and operate heavy equipment (Paw Patrol) or that a sponge with tighty-whities can work a burger grill at the bottom of the ocean (Spongebob Square Pants).
Belief is already suspended.
Value the Reader’s TIME
Get to the point quickly. The first sample pages of any book are our greatest selling tool. When I hear, “Oh, well the story really gets going by page 50″? My instincts tell me we probably need to cut 49 pages.
Remember earlier I mentioned that we’re artists, but we also have a product to sell. In fiction, we’re selling escape. So think of it this way. How are you helping your customer escape reality?
First, my dear (potential) reader, I need you to pack this list of gear, then sync this app on your smartphone. After that is downloaded, I’m going to text you coordinates for a geocache. Use the app to locate the cache, dig up the key, catch the L Train, wait for a guy with a blue hat and the code phrase is, “Duck, duck, goose.” He’ll then hail a cab and take you to a wonderful place you will enjoy.
Open a wardrobe and step through.
Which would you choose?
What are some ways you refine your work? Are you guilty of overwriting? I know I’m working super hard to lean down all my writing. It is NOT easy. Are there areas you could condense? Stage action or explaining that could be chipped away?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Back to School!
Upcoming Classes: NEW!!! Going Pro Series
Going Pro Craft, Going Pro SocialMedia/Branding, Going Pro Business, Going Pro All the Way! (ALL THREE).
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
I’m totally guilty of overwriting. I do it all the time, in my novels, in emails, in blog comments, in stories I tell out loud. I’m a very bad overwriter-teller, BUT, I’m very good at going back in there, after the fact, and trimming the crap out of my work. Over the years I’ve gotten better and better at it. I’m still not perfect (never will be) and end up adding stuff that just isn’t necessary, but I’m a hell of a lot better than I was a year ago, a month ago, a week ago. I’m learning every day!
Thanks to you, I just learned some more!!
Have a great day and thanks for your wisdom 🙂
I always put in too much backstory. I have friends who help me take it out, though.
I love when I’ve already done what you’ve posted. 😀 Though I can always keep working at it. One thing that is helping is by trying my hand at writing the screenplay of my book. It’s a great exercise on forcing me to show not tell. I started writing the screenplay for The Stone of Kings before the galley edits were done, and as I was reading the galleys, I kept saying to myself, “Oh, I could have shown that better!”
Over-writing is like talking down to your reader. When you include things that can be deduced from the plot, character, scene, etc. then adding those things can actually be an insult to your reader’s intelligence. If they can get it from the context, think hard about leaving it out.
Thank you! I just had a critique where the person said I needed to explain every single thing, every piece of subtext and foreshadowing, and even things that I actually did mention, but only once. I tend to assume the readers are smart. Most of my book is tongue in cheek, and she tried to make it all straight sci-fi. I have been going back through trying to “clear up and dumb down” things that apparently other people weren’t going to get… I’m stopping now. And I need more beta readers. Sigh.
Chronic over-writer here. I’ve been working hard to streamline my style after making the transition from freelance writer to fiction writer. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m no longer getting paid by word count. I recently re-read some of my earlier work and was so horrified I felt the need to do rewrites of some stories. It’s amazing how much I was able to cut. I guess that’s a sign that I’m improving.
Thanks for the push. I’ve been gripped with adverb fever lately, and it’s time to go back and prune.
Great advice for honing one’s craft. Thank you Kristen, I always learn something new from you.
Every time I read a story to my writing group, I’m told to cut it down at the beginning. I’m working on doing that with every book now. Great post!
I am not good at finding let alone removing the excess in my writing. My critique group however has blood on their hands for doing it for me! Thank goodness for their help!
Reblogged this on jmlibby and commented:
Kristen Lamb is awesome! Looooooove her!
Thanks for another great article, Kristen.
Overwriting is one of the main reasons I will put a book down. I get bored and feel patronised.
I try to keep my writing tight and lean, trusting the readers intelligence, imagination and curiosity. Sometimes I feel that it is too lean, that it needs that handful of padding. At those times I read James Ellroy, and then return to my manuscript and reduce it further.
Neat idea. Would love to get my flabby stories into shape!
But…But…my story is SPESHUL and readers NEED to know what color underwear my secondary character wore her first day in nursery school
My writing is lean. I get compliments all the time because I don’t waste pages describing surroundings. Readers rave about my style. But at the same time, I am told my books don’t sell well because they’re too short. “Readers,” they say, “want longer books. Otherwise we don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth.” This, despite me pricing accordingly for the shorter length.
I’m starting to think writers can never win. 🙁
One of the big problems with critique groups is that their environment encourages the use of excess description. Several times, I would find myself reading ten pages of lavish description where NOTHING was actually happening! We have to strike a balance between the 8% who are devoted readers and the 92% who will get book recommendations from their 8%’er friends. 😉
How to please both: Keep the story moving forward, at all times. 🙂
Reblogged this on Library of Erana and commented:
I am always so terrified of explaining too much that I “underwrite” assuming my readers can read between the lines and that it’s fun for them to fill in the gaps from their own personal life experience. I fear that I’m committing just as big of a crime as the Overwriter?
An agent once sent me a lovely two-page rejection of a fantasy novel I’d submitted to her, which included constructive feedback. Most of it was useful, but two of the things she suggested were reasons why the same novel was thrown out by a publisher further down the line. She’d told me to explain how Christianity had come to the world I’d created, and to tell the reader more about the system of magic.
In retrospect, I think these things were perfectly obvious in the first place and didn’t need more explaining. So if I were ever to try resurrecting this novel sometime in the future, I’d have to strip it back down to where it was in the first place.
I write because I love words. I adore the sound of words ringing in my ears and the feel of them rattling around my throat before rolling off my tongue. Why say it plainly when I can say it beautifully?
Because the reader wants a story. Sprinkle it with a few glorious honey sentences of gorgeous, literary writing and you’ll have other writers wanting to read it too.
So, yeah, I have the tendency to overwrite. In fact, I demonstrated it in this lengthy comment responding to your simple query.
Beautiful sentences are like icing on a cake. It’s still cake if there’s no icing, but at the end of the day, not many people are going to look at an iced cake and grab a knife to scrape the icing off with.
Assuming there’s less icing than cake, of course…
Reblogged this on Tina Bausinger: Mancub's Mom.
I underwrite in some areas and overwrite in others. I can catch most of the overwrites in revision, but I’m still learning how to flesh things out. But starting things off . . . I don’t know if I’ve succeeded or if I need to throw out the first 10 pages! Ugh.
Less is more…unless it comes from you. Keep shooting, we love it. And here’s reblogging to http://sweetyshinde.wordpress.com
Reblogged this on Impractical Dreamer and commented:
Kristen Lamb on how to keep it short, simple and direct. Precise and practical, as always.
Often as you are wonderful, today’s blog hit just plain amazing. What could say it better than: Open a wardrobe and step through.
Revising or editing for me is all a matter of simpler. Shorter. To the point. Lovely to have it affirmed!
Thank you for this timely post. Just recently I revised the opening of a novel to a more leisurely pace. I thought, “why not tell them a bit about the character?” Then I posted it on the UK peer review site youwriteon.com. They take up to 7,000 words of a WIP. Well, the next two readers lambasted that opening upside, downside and all around the town. They dragged my character to the well and drowned him. It was a grisly murder scene on the feedback page. So now I’m going to put it back to where the story starts on page 1. Lesson learned!
As a blogger of brief inspirational articles, your post has affirmed for me the style which I think adds “Punch!” to my work … an ordinary, everyday experience caught within a few words and surprise ending. It’s enough. I am enjoying your blog.
Reblogged this on Kentucky Mountain Girl News and commented:
KMGN: This is a wonderful article so I am sharing.
Great post. As a reader, I’ve noticed there has always been a difference in the amount of narration used in historicals and in contemporaries. As a writer, I know it’s a delicate balance. Show, not tell. It’s harder to do than one thinks.
Oh what a delicate balance, this one! I’m editing my first novel now, and it seems like every time I explain something, my editor tells me not to, and to trust the reader, but when I don’t, she asks me to explain! I’m still learning the ins and outs, clearly.
I admit, I’m bad about the “reached out his hand” business. Cutting the frilliness is getting easier for me, but the only tool I can use to put things in perspective now is time–lots of it. I’m rewriting a work I wrote four years ago and just feeling like I’ve made headway at last.
I might try editing while drunk to give me a new perspective–seems worth a laugh at least.
Thanks for the post!
I have the opposite problem–my writing is too lean. The reader had better be psychic, because no backstory here! So I’m having to do a “meat on the bones” draft where I slow down. I do tend to explain too much, so I’m trying to strike a balance.
Simplicity should be The Rule for writers. It’s not in the business world.
In business corporate language–over-speak/ over-write– is the rule. It’s like is used in other communities such as legal-speak and trade language. Corporations and CEO’s often do this. The psychology is they feel that a mastery of their special language reflects ability and professionalism by way of this communication style. They believe it demonstrates their business savvy and intelligence. The opposite is true. Clear communication is everything. This is why the AP guidelines have us write at the 6th grade level , I.E. written language anyone can understand. Sometimes, like in tax code and legislation, the wordage is intentionally complicated and vague. Why? To confuse the reader and obfuscate the facts for the purpose of manipulation. Lawyers are experts at reading and writing so that no one but them can understand it. For writers in the real world that’s a really bad idea. Always use the KISS principle– Keep-it-simple-stupid.
Corporations are learning the hard way about padding all the information more than a Freshman term paper. It won’t capture millennial clients. They are wasting what we never have enough of…TIME. Get to the point. I am AGING.
Oh this is so tricky especially when you are penning down a fiction…but all in the games…going with the glow and then it hits you to use your mind…you start galloping…I loved this post …I am following you….if you get time visit mine
Perfect timing, Kristen! Currently, I am working on completing my third novel in a series. I am blessed that nearly every day, I get a post on my blog, or an email or message on some form of social media somewhere from a reader asking me when my third book will be published – demand for more books from readers is always a powerful and awesome thing. My problem is that I just can’t seem to cut the fat from the book and hurry up and just PUBLISH THE DARN THING. I turned to a handful of Beta Readers to get some input on the story before the book is published and every reader had the same thing to say – the plot doesn’t seem to really start until chapter 5. I know this! I didn’t need ten beta readers to tell me that! I do this with every book I ever write. I write in five chapters of backstory explaining who does what when and why. The readers don’t care, they just want the results and the answers not the questions or the minute details. I seriously won’t delete a chapter because I am in love with on simple sentence. Can I use the sentence later in the book?- Sure I can, but it won’t be the same (but to only me, not others) Cutting the fat and getting down to the bones of the story is what’s really important and a lot of authors struggle with this.
I clearly remember my librarian in the fifth grade telling me, “you have to give a book a chance for the first five chapters, if you don’t love it by chapter five- then you never will.”
I don’t want to be an author that makes people yawn. You are right that we as authors add backstory only for ourselves and that we shouldn’t and cannot spoon-feed our readers with mindless character babble. A strong writer gives the important details of a plot only when they need to given. An even stronger writer allows the reader to take control.
Literary agents say it all the time “show me, don’t tell me.” Cutting the fat, deleting the endless details and pointless sentences is hard, as writers we cannot help but feel a connection with our words. Learning to let go of some of the story helps strengthen the plot and makes us stronger writers, getting familiar with CTRL A backspace is a pivotal part of making a good story.
Thanks for push!!
Excellent post! It bears repeating a trillion times, and something I’ve noticed in myself is that I can “know” a writing tenet through and through….but that I have to re-learn it every 6 months or so for it to really stick. And it looks like today is the 6 month mark for ‘remembering’ to be swift and deadly with my prose. Thank you!
Excellent article! Before I made it to your dangling carrot (freebie!) I already decided I needed to link this to my blog (when I get to my computer). Thankful I’ve had a good mentor that had the same mantra, but so many do not. This was a great post! Did that businessman come back around with a “thank you”?
No, we writers are the unsung heroes. But evil was smited and all the web has one less bloated website villain.
Ha ha! You need a cape!
I’m sorry “FineSharpie” for the link that attached to your reply! The “Reply” button appeared in my comment, but belonged to your post below me.
Just to be safe, here’s the link again, Kristen:
Thank you, very valuable information. I find that in dystopia or zombie books they spend far too much time telling me how everything came to be, hoping that their virus or their strain is somehow unique. I’ve read it all…just get to the good stuff!
Just posted with a link to this great article.
Sorry about this posting on your comment, FineSharpie. Clicked the wrong button!
When I saw “The Bobs”, I knew this was going to be a good one! Somehow, putting it in “corporate” terms made sense. I used to do a ton of Business writing, but now I balance that with creative writing. They are different, but the same in many ways, too. Thanks!
I LOVE “The Bobs”, LOL.
Reblogged this on M.T. Miles.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of myself. I think, emphasis on think, that I’ve beaten the overwriting bug, lol, but it took me a while. This article really brought home to me how hard I had to work to get over it, if indeed I have gotten over it. See, I’m overwriting here, too. 🙂
Thanks for this article, it was very helpful information and I intend to put it to good use.
Reblogged this on The Writings and Ramblings of BadKarma00 and commented:
This was a great article, and full of helpful information for a new, or existing author. If you write, I highly recommend you read it.
I would agree if we are talking website and blogs, but the trend I’ve noticed in writing novels that way is boring the pants off me. I just want more from a novel. Does that make sense? Great advice and food for thought.
I’ve noticed on several TV shows they re-play the scene after the commercial break as if you’ve forgotten it already. This is so annoying. I try to avoid that in my writing by not stating what has already been stated. Thanks for a wonderful post.
Omit needless words.
Resist the urge to explain.
Value the reader’s time.
(needless words omitted)
LOVE this! This is what I am constantly telling my clients. Thank you for sharing this; I’m going to direct my clients to this post so that they can hear it from someone else and perhaps believe me now. Ha!
Wow, what a super amazing and thrillingly awesome post.
Oh dear, I think I have a lot to learn.
But thanks to you, Kristen, I am learning a lot. You are an excellent teacher.
I know when I come to rewrite my WIP I’ve got to prune a lot of getting-from-A-to-B stuff. Yes, it’s a road story, but there’s a balance in there somewhere, and I know I haven’t hit it in the first draft!
Well said. In my first novel, I wrote all the back story, family history, history of several characters — great scenes that I loved. The inciting event of the plot happened in chapter four. But the first draft came in at 120,000 words, and it wasn’t a story that needed quite that much. Out went a lot of the back story, the inciting event moved to the beginning of chapter two, and it came down to 100,000 words. Then with losing the unnecessary words and tightening the prose, I reduced it to 90,000 words, and the story felt right. With that experience behind me, my second novel’s first draft came in at 60,000 words. I needed to add more — I’d skimmed over some important parts too lightly. So I added some necessary scenes and the story ended up at 70,000 words.
With a background in journalism and eight years editing fiction and non-fiction, I’ve learned to lose those extra words. Most long newspaper stories and cut it in half (or more) and become more readable and interesting. I can generally take a someone’s manuscript and reduce the word count by 10-15 percent without eliminating a single scene. But I still need someone to read my writing and point out those unnecessary words and scenes even after I’ve trimmed and pared as much as I think I can. It’s so much easier to spot padding in someone else’s writing.
Word to that. Even us editors need editors.
Yes. Yes. And yes. In my work I visit a lot of webpages, and definitely less is more. Short, precise, informative. Not a novel length description of the business model including every detail. The time for that is when the customer personally contacts you and asks for more (if even then).
As for fiction, especially my own stories, I’ll take note and from here on forward edit with a heavier hand.
I am guilty of overwriting on my blog. I know my posts may be too long but I just don’t feel like anything I say is unnecessary. But yeah, if only 8% of literate population reads (seriously???) and there is so much out there to read, I know this is something I need to work on.
Great post! Wonderful advice!
You can’t argue with Strunk & White. At least one shouldn’t. LOL This post reminds me again of my “fish cleaning” approach to self editing – cut off the head and tail of many sentences.
OMG This helps me so much, not only in my writing but also in my online retail business!!! I definitely overexplain because I assume people want all that information. But I now realize all that information can be tedious and overwhelming. What I should do for my products is keep it simple on the main page, then offer a link for more detailed information for those who want more information. Thanks!
I have been told by several that I am too wordy. I guess its a southern thing, lol. We do tend to talk a lot down here, esp me. However I have had my book finished for a couple of years and had it edited as well, by another author who does editing. I would love to get it critiqued just to see if if it is sell-able. Growing disheartened by rejections. Thanks for this blog it gives me a lot of great information.
Being wordy at first is fine. It’s what editing is for. I am GUILTY. Even with this blog, it is tough keeping it short. Some of my blogs have gotten pretty long, BUT they are a heck of a lot faster than reading a 400 pages book that says the same thing.
Another thing Lamb didn’t specify is that we, the “8%”, are the highly influential arbiters for the other 92%. Our rave review of “Book X” might motivate one of our “92%” friends to pick up “Book X” and read it. 😉
WHY is there such a thing as “Too Much Description”?
I’m a guilty over writer. I work hard to cut words and show more. And my critique groups help. I call them the great slashers. For the past year i finally got it and have cut thousands of unneeded words, sentences, and paragraphs from my four unpublished novels. Kristen your blog is so helpful.
Was struggling today, STRUGGLING, to fit some information into my story. I like how I tied it up with the problem my MC’ s family had, but now that I think about it, I’m not sure it’s something the reader has to know.
Gag. I feel another 2000 or so words are going to be chopped tomorrow. Gee, thanks Kristen. 😉
Okay, I’m going to put my writing on a diet. Thanks, Kristen, for the reminder.
Hello Kristen, I am new at this Blogging. I have has a go myself and found out I have much to learn, and will follow your comments from month to month. Also have purchased “Rise of the Machines “.
I am a young seventy year old retired pensioner, and just had my book published through Virtualbookworm.com Publishing “RECOLLECTIONS OF MY LIFE”. My first aim was to let my children and grandchildren know how I remembered my life, but now I am looking to sell it to the general public.
Website: – http://www.johnfindley.com.au
THANK YOU! I hope the book helps you! Great to meet you ((HUGS))
Like many, I too am guilty of overwriting. Luckily I have a critique friend who ruthlessly weeds the garden!
I don’t know why, but just when I think I’ve hit that torturous wall I read a post by you and start to feel slightly unstuck. My novel is done, being pitched to agents and my editor just told me it’s really good but I need to condense- meaning cut 18,000 words! WALL=me. Thank you for this post, it was simple and short but gave me what I needed.
Reblogged this on smtraphagen and commented:
For those working for tough individuals, the beginning of this post is a great read.
It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one who struggles with over-writing.
It’s important to me, when writing, to have a fully-fleshed out backstory. But I’ve only recently—and rather reluctantly; it’s hard to kill your darlings—decided that the reader doesn’t need 99% of that. I feel like Tolkien with his Silmarillion/albatross. Thank you for this blog.
In editing my latest WIP, I cut a total of 110K words down to 71K.
Soooooooooo much crap I didn’t need and the story is immeasurably stronger without it.
Loving this advice.
I’ve been working very hard on doing exactly that, getting rid of unnecessary words. I don’t know where they come from.
I just spent time editing out explaining and telling in my first chapter. Even though I know this advice, I still need to root it out.
That’s what editing is for. Creation is sloppy–spitting it out–going with the flow. Fix it after you switch perspective and engage the editor’s mind. I think of it as doing the left brain/right brain shuffle.
I’m an underwriter. I more often fail to communicate information that’s actually necessary.
I overwrite a lot in my first drafts, but that’s what editing is for! I find I need to overwrite at first so that I know all that is going on. Then when I condense it down, I know it still makes sense and will have enough information that the reader also knows what is happening.
One writer friend I knew told a group of us, “Spill your guts! Then clean it up.” So you’re on the right track. Once you’re finished the first draft, put it away for a bit before trying to edit. That way, you see the project with reader’s eyes and you’ll know what you can get rid of and what’s necessary to the story.
This article was really funny and very eye opening! I really like this. You definitely show people how to get straight to the point which is very needed!!! Thanks for sharing?