Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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Authorsplaining: an Insidious Invitation for Readers to Skim

By Laura Drake

Photograph of a lynx showing his fangs in a very wide-open mouth screaming into a microphone set up.

We’ve all read it. We’ve all written it. The overexplanation. Even published books are rife with it (though I’ll bet, not many bestsellers are.) Is it small? Subtle? Often. But enough of it sprinkled in your writing will invite skimming. And as Margie Lawson says, skimming is death to a novel. She’s not wrong. 

But it’s insidious. There are MANY forms of Authorsplaining, and they creep in when you’re not looking. Here are a few, and how to spot and banish them:

Overdescribing

It’s easy to get carried away with descriptions – you’re seeing it in your head and using pretty words to paint a picture. But if it’s something the reader has seen/knows, don’t go into great detail. You can never describe a sunset over the ocean better than your memory, and your reader has most likely witnessed one (or many.) See how that can invite skimming?

Take for example, a high school dance. You can just sketch in broad strokes the streamers hanging from the gym ceiling…after all, we’ve all been to one, so we don’t need a ton of detail on decorations – just enough to show us they tried to convert the gym to something magical. And that effort always fails, right? Show that. 

There are exceptions to this – mostly in Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Historical genres, where we’re not familiar with the item/scene you’re describing. But still, don’t be carried away, or your reader will lose interest. They didn’t pick up your regency to learn how many spokes make up a phaeton carriage wheel.

Circling back

This is something I see a lot. You say something, then move on, then come back and give more info, then circle back again to the same subject.  This really irritates a reader. They feel like you think they’re not smart enough to get it the first time.

If you find yourself doing this, I’ll bet it’s because you’ve found a better way to say it, the second time. If so, cut the first, or combine the best of both – it’ll be more powerful.

Example:

Sean looks over from where he’s heaving junk out of the closet. “Seriously? We have a houseful of stuff to get rid of, and you want to keep old newspaper clippings? Just trash them.”

Then, a few lines later:

“Do I have to beg you? Please, ditch the newspaper clippings.”

Can you see that the reader knows what he’s referring to, so you can just say, ‘ditch them.’ Or, better yet, just ‘Please.’ Trust that your reader will know what you’re talking about. 

Thoughts

Have you ever felt trapped in a character’s head, and you can’t wait to get out? Most of the time (unless you’re in Hannibal Lecter’s head) I think this is because you’re writing the mundane, everyday thoughts. We have way too many of those in our own heads—we don’t want to read about your character’s. 

I have one rule about this: only show thoughts the reader couldn’t guess! 

Showing then Telling

We could argue all day about show vs. tell, but that’s for another blog. What you never want to do (and I see often) is show AND tell. 

Example:

The author just described a snow-covered landscape outside.

A chill seeped through the glass. Becky rubbed her goose-bumped arms.

The author told, then showed. We know snow is cold. If she has goose bumps, we know it’s from a chill. 

Another:  She was steaming with frustration. He was always late.  “Why can’t you ever be on time?”

Authorsplaining is as irritating to read as it is to hear in real life. It seems hard to notice at first, but once you get used to spotting it, you can’t unsee it. 

Write on!

Your turn. Share examples of authorsplaining from something you're reading or your own WIP.

About Laura

Laura Drake is a hybrid author of Women's Fiction and Romance. Her debut, THE SWEET SPOT, won the 2014 Romance Writers of America® RITA® award. She’s since published 10 more romances and four Women’s Fiction. She is a founding member of Women’s Fiction Writers Association and Writers in the Storm blog.

Laura is a city girl who never grew out of her tomboy ways. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She's a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

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Sign up for my quarterly newsletter: https://lauradrakebooks.com/contact/

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The Power of Character Descriptions

by Lori Freeland

Enjoy delicious alcoholic drinks. Medieval people as a royalty persons in vintage clothing on dark background. Concept of comparison of eras, modernity.

“When writing characters, it's important to remember that they are not just tools to move the plot forward; they are living, breathing individuals with their own hopes, dreams, and fears.” 

- Stephen King

I’m a character-driven writer. But even if you’re more story driven, great characters are the beating heart of every memorable book. Living vicariously through wonderfully written, unique characters is the best part of reading—and often the best part of writing. 

Writing amazing character descriptions is an art. It’s bringing a thought alive using only words. It’s creating a movie experience in a reader’s head without actual sights, sounds, or smells. It’s turning imaginary people into living, breathing entities who your readers want to get to know and  bond with.  

Writers often skip over building multi-dimensional, relatable characters in favor of exciting action, witty dialogue, and complex story problems. Those elements are all important, and you want them, but it’s when readers can see, hear, smell, and feel your characters’ emotions that they become invested in their journeys. That’s when they root for them. Cry for them. Stick around till the end to see what happens to them.

And it’s not just physical attributes that make characters worth remembering. It’s how you describe their:

  • personalities
  • thoughts
  • choices
  • speech patterns/pet words/phrases
  • clothes/possessions/cars 
  • worldviews
  • reactions to obstacles/struggles 
  • treatment of others
  • relationships
  • backstories
  • and so much more 

The Meet and Greet

When readers first meet a character, they tend to make assumptions, like we do when we meet new people. If we don’t guide those assumptions the direction we want them to go, if we don’t paint an accurate picture on the page of who our characters are, readers will draw their own conclusions. 

Sometimes, that’s great. Other times, they’ll go the wrong direction, and it’s hard to correct. 

If you give no clue to the age, gender, or personality of your character, the reader could imagine a jaded middle-aged woman (who they instantly dislike) when you meant to write a shy, lonely twenty-year-old girl searching for the meaning of life (who you want them to root for). And by the time they reach your description ten pages in, you’ve lost them. 

The best time to give the most description is when we first meet a character. Show a little bit of physical description—maybe a trait that sticks out. What someone notices about themselves or others can be a huge clue to what’s important or not important to them. And add in some mannerisms or personality clues. Be careful not to throw in too much and interrupt the scene. It can be tricky to find that balance. 

After that first meeting—where you’ve pushed the reader the right direction—you can build that character out even more by sprinkling in additional descriptions each time we see them. 

Examples of character introductions from my young adult novel The Accidental Boyfriend: 

  • My flip-flops slap to a sudden stop when I see Dad standing next to Vi, who’s kicked off her heels and gotten cozy with our wing chair and an oversized mug of coffee. Sunlight streams through the wall of windows overlooking our pool, highlighting her lavender bob and brightening her fuchsia suit. Twenty years past her party-queen prime, she still somehow manages to rock both those colors. I’d kill to shop where she buys her confidence.
  • All I get is a short grunt from Dad as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual. 
  • A group of women swarm some guy, taking pictures, handing him things to sign. Close to my age, he reminds me of a younger Sam from Supernatural. A few inches shorter than Sam’s 6’4”, this guy’s still tall and lean in a pair of washed-out jeans. A fitted Eminem T-shirt puts the muscles in his chest and biceps on parade, and messy brown hair flops over his forehead in the front and grazes his collar in the back. Wearing charm like a million-dollar smile, he’s laughing with the crowd, but there’s a subtle stiffness in his spine that makes me think he’d rather be anywhere else. Just like me. 

Examples of memorable characters from popular books: 

  • Severus Snape (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

Snape is described as having greasy black hair, sallow skin, a hooked nose, and dark, intensely penetrating eyes. But what Rowling really creates is a mystery and an uncertainty about him that leaves us wondering what he’s really up to and whose side he’s on throughout the series. 

  • Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

Katniss has olive skin, long dark hair that’s usually braided, gray eyes, and a lean, wiry frame. But what Collins really creates is a strong female lead who’s tough, athletic, a skilled hunter, and someone who is resilient in an impossible situation.  

  • Tyrion Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)

Tyrion is a scarred and disfigured stocky dwarf with mismatched eyes, a broad, flat nose, sharp wit, and a love for wine and women. But what Martin really creates is a shrewd, intelligent man with a complex personality who can’t be stereotyped and constantly surprises us.  

  • Hazel Grace Lancaster (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green)

Hazel, pale and fragile with dark eyes and short, thinning hair, usually wears jeans, a T-shirt, and an oxygen mask. But what Green really creates is a teenage girl struggling with mortality who all of us can relate to.

Your Turn

Think about:

  • the reasons each of the characters above stuck with you long after you closed the book
  • what you like to know about a character when you first meet them

List what’s important for your readers to know about your character:

  • right away
  • at different points in the story

Keep in mind that you can always go back and “beef” up your descriptions when you’ve gotten to know your characters a little better and drafted more of the story. I often don’t have a solid idea about who I want them to be until I’m at least five chapters in.  

The Bottom Line

By making character descriptions a priority and widening them beyond physical attributes, you’ll deepen the story, immerse readers in an emotional journey, and give them multiple reasons to stick around. 

I’d love to read your character descriptions. Share them in the comments!

About Lori

Photo of Lori Freeland

Lori Freeland wrote her first story at age five. It wasn’t good, but it left her with the belief that everyone has a story to tell. An author, editor, and writing coach, she writes everything from articles to novels, has taught at conferences across the country, and helped many new writers find their voices. A mood reader, she loves happy endings, thrills and chills, unexpected twists, and anything a little weird—as long as it has a touch of romance. When she’s not curled up on the couch with her husband and her dog drinking too much coffee, you can find her messing with the lives of the imaginary people living inside her head.

lorifreeland.com (young adult & contemporary romance fiction) 

lafreeland.com (inspirational blog & resources for writers) 

Cover of the accidental boyfriend illustration shows a young woman in tshirt and jeans with a sweater tied around her waist, and holding a book, coming down an escalator. A young man in sweater over a white collar shirt and with his hands in his front jeans pockets waiting at the bottom of the escalator.

The Accidental Boyfriend was an Amazon #1 New Release, a ReaderViews Bronze Award Winner, and a Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize Finalist.

Jess is everything Gabe wants. Gabe is everything Jess doesn’t know she needs. After celebrity heartthrob Gabe unknowingly hijacks homeschooled Jess’s first kiss, he decides she could be the perfect decoy to throw off the paparazzi. If he can convince her to play his girlfriend of the week. Keeping the impossible promise he made his mom depends on it. Only Jess isn’t about to be anyone’s fangirl and wants nothing to with TV's hottest hairball or his Hollywood ego.

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Book Distribution 101 for Writers

by Lisa Norman

group of women reading books in front of boxes of books

There's a secret power in the traditional book world, a cohort of people who determine the success or failure of published books. And most authors don't even know they exist.

As a small indie publisher, I've been told that if I truly want to succeed, if I want to play with the big kids, I need to gain the favor of a book distributor. This starts not with a great book, but with a profit and loss statement and a marketing plan.

Authors generally don't consider distributors in their writing business, and many don't understand what these companies even do.

With the sudden collapse of Small Press Distribution (SPD), the title of distributor has been in the news. How could this company so many authors didn't even know existed disappear, taking author royalties with them?

What is a book distributor?

I was surprised to learn that Amazon and Ingram Spark are not distributors. These are wholesale fulfillment centers. Yes, they provide "book distribution" but this is not the same as being a distributor. In an industry where words matter, this tiny difference has a huge impact.

A book distributor is a centralized company that sells books from many different publishers. (Yes, even the Big 5 use distributors, although they generally have their own in-house and support other smaller publishers.) Each book can only be purchased from one distributor. This means that if a book is put on Amazon, it is put up BY the distributor, not by the publisher. All sales, barring special circumstances, must go through the distributor. The distributor gets the money and sends the publisher a portion of the profits.

Compare this to the way that indie authors and indie publishers work: putting their books up on Amazon, Ingram, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, etc. Every month, they receive sales reports from each of those vendors and the vendors send the profit to the publisher/author.

Depending on the distributor, the reports that the publishers receive may be an aggregate, which makes their reporting and royalty distribution to their authors much simpler, but also means that they don’t have as much raw data as indies do.

A distributor works with printers and warehouses books. They manage fulfillment and logistics. The logistics of the book industry are extensive, encompassing a global market of paper shortages, printing costs, resources, and retail spaces. Printed books are sold to bookstores as returnable commodities, with 10-20% loss being considered good. 50% loss is not uncommon. (By loss, we mean destroyed, pulped, thrown away.)

The Secret Sauce

But the key feature of a distributor is that they have an on-staff marketing department. That marketing department is made up of sales representatives with connections. Very special connections with book buyers.

Bookstores want the ease of working with a sales representative that they know. They want the very favorable terms they have negotiated with these distributors, knowing that books will be available when needed, and knowing that someone has researched the marketability of the books that they're offering.

Distributors receive a percentage of the profit from any book sale.

How distribution affects book sales

Distributors can't market every book the same. They have to pick and choose based on the sellability and the promise of a book.

Note that each publisher should only have a distribution relationship with one distributor. In order to be accepted by that distributor, the publisher’s catalog needs to be of a proven level. In other words, the distributors do have the ability to limit the types of books they work with, creating a situation where some marginalized voices can not be adequately represented through the distribution network. (I want to point out that there has been a lot of work done in this area recently and that work is ongoing.)

Publishers can't afford to market all books the same. They choose the ones they're going to invest most highly into, and those are the ones the distributors push.

Imagine you own a bookstore. An author comes in off the street and asks you to carry their book. That author generally isn't offering you 50-60% of the profit OR the ability to return the book if it doesn't sell. Now imagine your friendly distribution agent contacts you and tells you that a publisher is about to drop a lot of money on an advertising campaign for a book. Early sales predictions are off the chart. They'll send you a case of them, you pay for them if they sell, and you keep that healthy profit.

Who would you buy from?

Why I think authors need to understand distribution

I admit it, my approach to distribution is along the same lines as “know thy enemy.”

As a small indie publisher, I have chosen not to work with a distributor. If I *had* been working with one, SPD would probably have been the one I’d’ve been working with. So yay for missing out on that mess!

Indie authors and small publishers generally don’t have access to distributors. Even some traditional authors may not have been chosen by their publisher’s distributor as “the next hot thing.” So what can authors do to help book sellers connect with our books? Or should we go directly to readers?

With the closing of SPD, more and more small presses are experimenting with creating their own distribution networks. Perhaps indie authors will join them in innovation.

TikTok has been the darling of the industry, driving readers to ask for books, creating a demand that is even more powerful than what the distributors have built.

If we’re going to win at the marketing game, we need to understand how the industry works. Maybe simply so that we know how best to disrupt it.

Do you work with a publisher who uses a distributor? Were you affected by the closing of SPD? Have you encountered situations in the industry that may have been related to having or not having a distributor?

About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, LLC, an indie publishing firm.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? Sign up for her newsletter or check out her classroom where she teaches social media, organization, technical skills, and marketing for authors!

Top image from Depositphotos.

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