Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Less is More

This month I received a comment from one of my amazing editors saying that she loved how I could say so much in so few words. She was referring to alterations she suggested to strengthen the story, but it made me think. My style is to say more with less. That's me.

I'm not one for books with lengthy descriptions or long, drawn-out explanations. I don't want to insult my readers by spelling everything out for them. So I try to say more with less. Honestly, I learned this writing short fiction because I was constantly having to tell full stories within small word counts. I guess that carried over into my novel writing. 

I admit that books with lengthy paragraphs of narration scare me. I shy away from them and prefer more white space on the page. Maybe that too contributes to my "less is more" attitude.

What about you? Do you prefer when authors can say a lot in fewer words or do like more lengthy descriptions?

61 comments:

  1. I'm with you. Long, drawn out bits slooooooow a story down and I find myself skipping them when I read. As a writer, I try to keep this in mind. But like everything good, it can be hard. :)

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    1. Yes, I skip these too. I review a lot of books and those long passages slow me down.

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  3. Typos, trying again-

    Kelly, this is one area where we won't be on the same page. As you might guess from my lengthy replies, brevity is not my best thing.

    Now don't get me wrong, I don't want to bore people anymore than you do, but I do feel we take the term "Less is More" to extremes in the war of "What the story needs" vs. "What readers can read and comprehend" and for me, those worlds don't always line up easily.

    Many of the "short stories" I've written are too long for most magazines, but they're as compact as I get without vagueness that just frustrates my beta-readers more, as opposed to noticing, "Hey! This is short" in a positive way.

    That's part of why I never found short stories a good teaching tool. I wish that weren't true for me because I'd be a more versatile writer if I weren't limited to book-length stories, but it's also why I'm so jealous of writers who can write-

    -Picture books that DON'T feel incomplete and STILL leave room for the illustrator (NOT as easy as it sounds...)

    -Easy Readers (That are NOT EASY to write, at all) and don't sound patronizing, just to keep word counts low, and vocabulary simple, while still not feeling bland and lifeless.

    -Chapter books that are novel-ish, but simplicity is still God, and while I prefer the freedom (Length, Vocabulary. and Complexity) of actual novels, this might be the most achievable for my current skill. Still, I had to buy a word book, and let me tell you, it's as humbling as it proves to be enlightening.

    So, for me at least, the "Less is More" mantra doesn't always work.

    Kelly, how do you know what's "Less is More" vs. "This is just not clear enough, no matter how low the word count is"...?

    I know every kid is different, but having been a teacher yourself and raising your daughter, how do you gauge in some way what's REALLY "too much" for the reader versus what some random adult thinks is "too much?"

    I don't think that's always obvious or "Elementary" to discern. Especially for those of us who are not teachers or aren't parents yet.

    Rant over,
    Take Care All

    Taurean

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    1. Taurean, you have to have a clear view of what you're trying to get across and then find the best way to convey it. I often find that I can convey it better with fewer words. That's not always the case, but when it is, I run with it.

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    2. Do you do this in the first draft, or is it something you work on in edits?

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    3. Beth, it's mostly in edits. I like to just get the first draft down as quickly as I can because the story comes out better that way. Then I'll go back and tighten up my wording.

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    4. Well, knowing what my core vision is has never been my problem, Kelly. As you know from working with me on my last MG novel when we were in the same critique group. It's showing the reader that vision (Through their own filters, of course) that's giving me grief.

      I may know for example I want to the reader to feel and see the MC's anguish at a certain plot point, but actually doing it in a unfairly vague (However short I get told to make it) is not as straightforward as some craft books lead you to believe.

      I still think I'm less wordy than some of the "classics" of my genre I get compared with.

      But it does get disconcerting when some teachers who are teaching the grades my target audience are saying my sentence structure and vocabulary is too burdening on readers under 13, yet some who say I'm right on point or at least not so advanced kids will throw my book out a window
      because I "fry their brains" with too much complexity. That said, I did have to retool sentences for easier reading.

      Sometimes writers focus so much on tightening, we think ANY sentence over seven syllables is PUNISHING for kids under 13 to read. I'm kidding, but it can feel like that sometimes.

      As much as I want the reader to bring his or her imagination into it, the less your story adheres to real life, you can't always get around some description, if not three-page monologues, and I admit I'm a sucker for a good character monologue, if the story or specific scene demands it, and we're not writing a magazine story or book for kids under 8.

      I knew going in my chances of appeasing the kids who have a hard time with reading on the technical level was not high.

      But I didn't think it would become such an increasing concern that writers for non-YA readers get innovated with. Sometimes to hazardous extremes, creatively speaking, I mean.

      Kelly, even if you personally don't go through this, do you at least get in some way what I'm talking about?

      I can't be the only non-teacher/non-parent writer who struggles here, right?

      While I want the widest possible audience for my work, if I can't maintain the level of quality to avoid inadvertent condescending, just to sound "age-approriate" than why should I have to be held to the standard of "If kids with learning issues can't read your books without getting overwhelmed, the readers at grade level or above will feel the angst I did trying to read Pride and Prejudice at 11?"

      Sometimes books aimed at those struggling readers unmeaningly "talk down" to readers. Just to avoid overwhelming them technically. Sometimes as writers(or parents and/or teachers) we forget that just because lots of kids can't read on grade level yet, it doesn't mean their dreams, emotions, interests and goals are "delayed" like their reading skills.

      The writers I know who excel at reaching those readers never let their reading challenges solely define the books they write. Unless that's part of the plot, and even then, the writer never makes their readers feel "dumb" because of this specific problem.

      I try to picture my audience as kids who don't have dyslexia or other learning challenges, not to say anything negative about those who do, but if I can't write to you, why should I get "lectured" when I can't and never said I could in the first place.

      But more often than not when I consult my new "Word Book" the grade-friendly alternatives are just too vague. Or they don't sound natural in past tense narrative, and most of my books are in past tense, regardless of POV, and I'm not ready to tackle present tense yet.

      Sorry for going on and on again, but I hope my "long paragraphs" don't bore you, I just can't say what I want in ten syllable bites, which is why Twitter is my nemesis, at the moment.

      Take care,
      Taurean

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    5. I do understand what you're saying, and yes, when you write fantasy you definitely need to have more description at times. That's definitely true. And I think that sentences should be varied in length, especially to reflect the pacing of the book.

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  4. I sometimes like lengthy descriptions dependung on the writer

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    1. Yes, some writers are very good with lengthy descriptions or whatever they do. ;)

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  5. I was just thinking the same this morning! I was plowing through two short stories and it was apparent they weren't too short. I like 'Less is More,' too, unless it's monologue (and not narrative description). I can offer more patience for monologues.

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    1. Yes, there are times when description is needed. Absolutely. But in some situations less is the way to go.

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  6. It's a balancing act. There needs to be enough description to immerse the reader, but not so much that it drags the story down. I'm with you, I tend to like leaner stories better. As a reader, it lets me fill in the blanks the way I want to.

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    1. Yes, I love to picture things when I read, and when an author bogs me down with too much description it takes my imagination out of the story.

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  7. I agree and tend to scan through long descriptive scenes unless they're revealing something important about a character. When I'm revising a manuscript, I usually have to cut a lot because it's too much. Give the reader credit for understanding. :)

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  8. I tend to be a less is more writer. Though for me I think it came from my screenwriting studies. I usually have to go through and "add" in description because my natural inclination is to write too lean which is great for a screenplay but not so great for novels. LOL

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    1. I wonder if the fact that my novels play in my head as movies has anything to do with my less is more writing style? :)

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    2. Really? I think the "Movie in my head" thing caused me more problems than they solved. Because I used to emulate (Albeit unwittingly) movie stuff in my writing, that just caused more groaning than gravitas, if you follow me.

      The way I'd compose scenes and whatnot may make sense in a movie, but in a book, looks like convoluted esoteric babble, and like I have no idea what POV is. Well, I still don't have POV "mastered" but I think having favorite books whose writers have better understanding (If not mastery) over POV can mix tense without being "lectured" by the readers who love their work, versus my poor use of tense mixing means I get the "Read like a writer" lecture for the trillionth time....Sigh.

      Anyway, I'm better now, but if you ask me to just flip open a book at random and tell you what tense or POV we're in, unless it's 1st person, present or past tense, I won't be much help.

      I get 2nd person POV mixed up with 3rd person omniscient. While I'm TRYING to better discern the differences of various POV and tenses, much of my storytelling is feeling my way through, another reason why writing query letters and synopses are so infuriating to me, it's the only way people who read the actual book (versus my often hit-and-miss query letter) never doubt I told a complete story, however flawed (depending where I am in Revision Land) yet if you had to go by the query alone, you often took away the feeling I'm too vague or detailed for my own good.

      All that said, I'm hanging in there, some days are just more trying than others.

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    3. Taurean, I feel like the movie-playing-in-my-head method makes me focus on dialogue and action more than description and internal monologue. That also tightens your writing. Do I ever have to go back and add to it? Of course. But it sort of helps you get the necessary information on screen and go from there.

      I prefer 1st person POV in either past or present tense. I'm not a fan of 3rd person omniscient or second person. Second can work for PBs, like If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, but any higher in age level and I'll pass. It's way too confusing for me. You are not alone there at all. :)

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    4. Oh, I didn't mean I often in write in omniscient or 2nd person

      I meant I have a hard time READING the difference between 2nd POV and omniscience 3rd if you challenged me to randomly open a book and discern the POV or tense, outside 1st person, present or past tense, I wouldn't be much help.

      I was speaking to reading the difference between tenses, that's what happens when I let movies overindulgence my writing.

      Just because you don't write in 2nd Person or with an omniscient narrator, it's still good to know what they read like, just so you can better catch unintended POV, or tense shifts.


      That said, many solid books are written with omniscient narrator (Despereaux and A Series of Unfortunate events ring any bells, Kelly) there are even parts of HP that are omniscient(But how HP avoids the "confusing" POV/tense shift lectures I get, I don't know...)

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    5. Taurean, I knew what you meant. I was talking about reading them, too. While I did enjoy A Series of Unfortunate events, which to me seems like 2nd person most of the time because he talks directly to the reader, I couldn't write like that. It's just not my thing. Good for LS, though. :) I think any POV can work if done well.

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    6. Okay, I know I can talk all over the place.

      I didn't read much of L.S.'s books (I can only handle so much melancholy outside real life), but I have read Despereaux and I loved it, yet I know I can't write omniscient like some writers can. We can certainly love reading what we can't write ourselves, but sometimes wish we could.



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    7. Of definitely! I read a lot of things I don't write. I find it's sometimes easier to read for enjoyment that way.

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  9. So there is hope for me. I started out with short fiction, too! :)

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  10. I feel half a page of solid description / narrative is enough. After that it needs to get broken up with some white space or my eyes just start skipping all on their own. I probably miss some really good stuff by doing this, but short attention spans will wander.

    I am not a very chatty person by nature, so when I write I am more interested in getting to the point than in waxing lyrical for paragraphs on end.

    ~ Lindie

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    1. I'm a to-the-point kind of person too so I know exactly what you mean.

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  11. In this we are sisters-in-writing, Kelly. My writing is sometime too sparse, though. I have yet to have an editor or CP not ask for "more here" and "more there." I've heard so much about the trauma of being asked to delete favorite passages or sentences, but have rarely experienced it. I get a lot of "expand."
    I also prefer to read economical/terse fiction.

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    1. Yes, I don't end up deleting much in edits either. I'm usually adding like you. :)

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  12. I agree that a strength in writing is to write less and say more. That said, if someone can write in a lyrical style I am a sucker for that gorgeous turn of phrase. It depends on the writer, the type of novel and so forth. I find, when I teach creative writing, that most people do overwrite.
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City


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    1. I hear you. My students would overwrite when I taught creative writing, too.

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  13. I was always taught to say less with more, and to show not tell. So what Kelly what you're saying is good, solid advice.

    I'm not a fan of long descriptive paragraphs either. Give me dialogue any day.

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  14. I agree. Readers are smart. We don't have to spell everything out for them. Besides, long drawn out descriptions don't help me see the story any better and I don't like books with block paragraphs. A short sentence could have the most impact on the reader.

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    1. I agree. Long paragraphs are not for me. I cringe when I get to a page with mostly long description. It gives me a reason to put the book down.

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    2. I have to ask-

      How do you know when something's just too vague? Is this something you can only learn from beta-reader feedback? Or can you train yourself to see it on some level?

      I often wonder what writers who don't have great agents like you do, and who can't afford freelance editors can do to improve their work. When you can only attain so much distance what can you do?

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    3. Taurean, I can recognize it to a certain extent but I fully admit to needing my CPs, agent, and editors to help me make sure everything is as clear as it should be. Great beta readers are a good and free way to check for making sure you aren't being too vague or using too much description.

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  15. This kind of depends on the book for me--some authors can pull off seriously engaging chunks of prose that I really enjoy, others I just skim past these parts. It might have something to do with the story, my mood, or if the information is necessary. For my own writing though, I definitely shoot for less is more (well, when possible)--though it can be a challenge!

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    1. It can be a challenge sometimes. You're definitely right.

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  16. Maybe it's our genre- YA readers are a quick study group and they're not going to wade through acres of wordy description. Or maybe it's us - we like it short and sweet?

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    1. I think the age group definitely has something to do with it. Attention spans can play into what readers want.

      But I do prefer short and sweet myself, so maybe it's both. ;)

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  17. I don't mind length as long as I feel it's relevant, which is entirely an opinion thing. My husband, for example, loves the long descriptions that come with epic fantasy.

    I also don't mind skimming through, or skipping a paragraph. Maybe I will enjoy it in a slower, future read, but the first time is for story. :-)

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    1. I skim. I admit to it. That's why I love dialogue in books. It's so easy to read and it tells you what you need to know.

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  18. I think that saying more with less is a real skill. When I first started writing, like many first-time writers I used to 'overwrite'. Now when editing I check that consecutive sentences aren't saying the same thing in a different way. (I've just re-read this and think I've done it here!) I do enjoy reading beautiful description, but not too much of it at once-just enough to set the scene.

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    1. Well said, Anita! I agree. Beautiful description has a place but shouldn't be overdone. I'm guilty of restating what I've already said, and that's something I always look for when I revise.

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  19. Kelly, I agree with you that less is more.

    My problem is deciding what to take out and what to leave in.

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    1. Sometimes you need someone else to help you figure that out.

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  20. If I had a motto....LESS IS MORE would be it! :)

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  21. Most of the time I prefer less is more- but at times I can enjoy a lot of description, It depends on the author. I think it is the way it is written. JK Rowling uses quite a bit of decription and I fall right into the story, but with some authors the description is too much. :)

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    1. I know exactly what you mean. Some authors can pull it off well.

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  22. I wrote flash fiction almost exclusively for about 2 or 3 years. Now that I'm writing longer pieces I find my word counts increasing in revisions as I add at least some descriptions in that wouldn't be possible in a small, flash story.

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    1. I find that happens to me too, Janel. We get used to writing only what's necessary and sometimes adding in some extra to enhance the story is a nice treat.

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  23. I believe it depends on the story the writer is writing, the characters, and if there is a message in the arch, then that plays a part as well in the way the writer spins her/his magic on the page.

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    1. Oh yes, sometimes description is totally needed for the story. I'm talking more about when writers use many words to say what can easily be said in a few more specific words.

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  24. I am catching up on posts. I like short and to the point, but for me that usually translates into tell instead of show. Granted you don't have to create a massive paragraph either. I think it comes down to if you have a gift of saying more with less while showing then less is better.

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    1. Michelle, a trick to making sure you aren't telling instead of showing and a great way to keep the "less is more" mindset is by using dialogue. Much fewer words and your showing instead of telling.

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  25. For me, the genre dictates it, and in my case, it does call for narrative that can get a bit blocky, visually speaking. I tend to write in paragraphs as a result.

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    1. There are some genres that do allow for longer descriptions, like high fantasy. It's to be expected.

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