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It's the Fat that Gives it Flavor

by Cynthia Scott 13 days ago in how to
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What Readers Want from Stories and Why

It's the Fat that Gives it Flavor
Photo by Mike Tinnion on Unsplash

In the thirty odd years I've been writing, I've gotten two great pieces of advice in my life. One came from a professor at San Francisco State University: "If it still makes you cry, then it's not ready." What he meant was that writing may be an emotional act, but it also requires a certain detachment that allows objectivity. Or, to put it another way, you're going to have to "kill your darlings" eventually. It was strong advice that I've taken with me since.

The second advice came from an unlikely and unexpected source. She wasn't a writer, budding or experienced, but she had keen insight into what she considered good writing.

For one year, I worked at a store in Berkeley that sold and rented audiobooks to subscribers. It was appropriately called Talking Book World. When I started working there, I had just ended my first semester in college and had signed up for a summer class. Seventeen years after I had graduated from high school, working one dead-end job after the next and struggling to finish a novel that was driving me nuts, I decided I was ready for college. If I was going to go crazy I might as well do it among like-minded people. At the very least, I could pursue a degree in English lit and a better job. But in the meantime I still had to work.

My hours at Talking Book World were part-time and the pay was barely minimum wage, but it was better than most that I've had in the past. I had the run of the store to myself and I could listen to any of the audiobooks I wanted on the boombox behind the counter. I have a fond memory of listening to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier one Sunday afternoon when a storm broke. Torrential rain fell beyond the tall plate glass windows in heavy sheets. The main avenue downtown was eerily empty. It was the perfect atmosphere for du Maurier's creepy thriller.

It was easy to see why customers were enthusiastic audiobook lovers. Being read to is the perfect comfort food. For the store's customers it certainly made the daily slog in Bay Area traffic less boring. But for one customer they were more than that.

I was on my usual weekend shift when she––let's call her Darlene––came in. She was one of the store's premiere subscribers. She'd never dropped by during the weekend shifts while I worked there, though I recognized her immediately. I had met her the year before during my first day of training when she picked up a few books to rent. My manager informed me confidentially that she was a nurse in the children's cancer ward at the local hospital. Listening to audiobooks kept her from going insane.

Darlene wore a sweater over hospital scrubs and soft-soled sneakers. She was short and middle-aged, but had a commanding demeanor. I imagine she wasn't the type to take crap from arrogant doctors. She had at once seemed intimidating but yet approachable.

She approached the counter with a bag of ten audiobooks to return and ten more to rent. I wondered how she found the time to read them all. While I checked out the books she rented, we fell into an easy conversation. We talked about the fiction she loved reading––mostly escapist fare, James Lee Burke's crime fiction and, if the fancy struck her or if nothing else was available, Judith Krantz romance novels. Considering how much of an emotional drain her work was, I thought her choice of crime fiction was interesting.

She had no tolerance for abridged audiobooks. The store had its share of those. She mentioned there was one particular book she was interested in, but decided against checking it out because it was abridged. She said this, not so much as a complaint, but an observation, or perhaps as a suggestion that the store should stock more unabridged audiobooks. Since my main responsibility was to encourage buyers to become rental subscribers, I wanted to practice my powers of persuasion, such as they were, on her. Instead we debated on the merits of abridgments.

I thought it didn't matter. As long as the heart of the story was still there, what difference did it make if a few filler scenes were cut out?

"It's like cutting the fat off a piece a meat. You get a leaner story," I said.

She had an entirely different take, however: "Yeah, but here's the thing," she said, "it's the fat that gives it flavor."

I started to counter, but was struck speechless. Having written a novel that had reached, at one point, over 100,000 words, I was consciously aware of my own struggles with economy and precision. But Darlene was a reader not a writer, and she knew what she wanted from stories. She wanted the spaces in between the plot, the fat that gave it authenticity, and built a world she could recognize as her own.

Isn't that what we all want?

She was right. The spaces in between the plot give an authenticity, meaning, and emotion to stories that draw in readers. Darlene wasn't looking for escapism, but a way back into reality, a way to make sense of the world she faced every morning she woke up, put on her scrubs, and drove to work to care for those young children whose lives and deaths had touched her and become a meaningful part of her life.

Really, isn't that what all readers want?

I nodded in agreement and thanked her.

Though I never saw Darlene again, her unwitting advice stayed with me. When I revise my stories I try to remind myself: Spare some of the fat. It's their flavor that makes the stories real.

This essay was originally published in my Substack newsletter, The Portal, where I post essays, articles, short stories, and novel excerpts from my SF eries, The Book of Dreams.

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Cynthia Scott

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Comments (26)

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  • Blake O'Connor3 days ago

    I always write from the heart. Maybe that’s why I’m a bad writer.

  • K. C. Wexlar7 days ago

    Great post! This is always the balance I struggle with - great metaphor

  • Lahori Lady8 days ago

    This made so much sense!! Wow thank you for sharing this wisdom. And I heartily agree <3

  • fatima dalani9 days ago

    Excellent Keep up the good work

  • AMK10 days ago

    I love this advice. It's an anchor for any writer to always remember, its the little things that matter and ultimately sticks with the readers.

  • Kendall Defoe10 days ago

    This was spot on. Kill all the darlings you can...but keep it tasty! 🤔

  • Emeka Nwankwoala11 days ago

    Really, writing of books is an emotionally act and reading of books is to educate human. Excellent story.

  • Thavien Yliaster11 days ago

    This!!! That!!! That's What We've been talking about in the comments of our recent stories for the past Vocal Media challenges! When You work to make something good, then have to cut things out: it could be phrasing, a scene, or something that's not even pivotal to the story but makes for great world building and the fascination of the reader. So many times have writers written stories for competitions only to feel that they've done a disservice to their stories by "cutting out the fat." I have literally used the phrase "I'm afraid that trimming it down so much has removed its original flavor." It get the need for a maximum word limit in the competitions. Keep it short and sweet so that it's manageable for the judge(s) to read. Yet, people just don't want plot or too much filler. They want a world that exists and breathes on its own. A plot cannot exist without its world. Heck even reviews of the show House of the Dragon complain that most of the show revolved around the royal family and that they never got to see the people that the royal family ruled over. If that's not a sign to give a bit of fatful flavor to the story telling, I don't know what is. Then again, I'm also easily persuaded at times, so a lot of times I really don't know.

  • Lea Springer11 days ago

    Great advice! I tend to write "lean" like I was forced to do when writing university English essays in an effort to conform to the "clear, concise and elegant" standard. As a result, I tend toward writing, "just the facts, ma'am". Thanks for sharing this gem of advice. The trick will be to add "favorable fat".

  • Patrick Kayes12 days ago

    I've found recently in revising some of my short stories, that I get too caught up in making something "clean". And now, writing my novel, I feel much less pressure to try to be precise. This article eased my nerves, great read!

  • #KristinaWrites12 days ago

    Wow, this is a great story line. It is all too true also. Please read this story by me and let me know your thoughts: https://vocal.media/psyche/alex-and-maggie

  • HK Snyder12 days ago

    As important as it is to ‘kill your darlings’, Darlene is right; the fat between the lean cuts of plotline are so important too. That’s why Tolkien’s work, while seeming drawn-out with all his descriptions of hills and roads and woods, is so special in its own way. It helps you escape, because it feels so real. Thanks for a great read!

  • Jennifer David13 days ago

    A delicate balance. Love it.

  • Wonderful story and best writing advice I have read since King, _On Writing_ and better written. I really like the fat/flavour quote and will see how it works with a short story I am self editing for an imminent deadline. As to objectivity I disagree. While it is important and necessary to view a WIP as an outsider I consider my best works to be the ones that can still make me tearful. My view is that emotional investment (and emotional intelligence) is as a important as being able to take an objective view or reader POV. Great read and thanks for sharing. Made my morning

  • Wonderful insight. I think it’s both, the fat needs trimmed but not too much. :)

  • Bob's Blob13 days ago

    Really enjoyed reading this. I'll definitely be keeping this advice in mind.

  • Call Me Les13 days ago

    Excellent advice told well. I enjoyed the anecdote and will take this with me as I edit my latest novel!

  • Blake S13 days ago

    Great advice! I always have trouble with the details. I'll add them naturally, but then have to go back and change a prior section to match, thus adding more details. It's an endless cycle.

  • Savannah Sveta13 days ago

    I love this. I always struggle with ending up with too much in my writing...always straining to stay under the word limit. It always pains me to start cutting things out. I've been trying to get better at it, which I know I do need to do, but at the same time... this is very validating! Thank you for writing and sharing. :)

  • Madoka Mori13 days ago

    Brilliant topic, and wonderfully written!

  • Lindsay Rae13 days ago

    Such a great reminder for writers! Don't edit the heart out of your work. <3

  • L.C. Schäfer13 days ago

    Good advice here, I'll definitely keep this in mind.

  • C. H. Richard13 days ago

    Enjoyed this article. Both pieces of advice are so true. ❤️

  • Keila Aartila13 days ago

    This is great advice! Thank you for sharing it. :)

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