FLUFF – It gets in the way, not just of story, but of character, mood, pace, tension: the elements needed to make your storyworld real and enjoyable for reader.
Picking away the fluff whilst murmuring the mantras: brevity is best and succinctness is sexy is a good way to write. Reader’s reading brain – the bit that performs your words as it intakes, one by one; the bit that picks through any leftover fluff to find story – that bit – that bit of reader’s brain trusts that your words will paint the easiest pictures, relying on your words to give him an easy ride.
Picking away the fluff and getting to the point and nailing the point succinctly, will result in good writing. One such prolific author with over forty novels to her credit is Poppet; she’s got it down, knows how to nail it, knows that brevity is best and succinctness is sexy and the result is a plethora of outrageous stories with outrageous characters, outrageous narrative and that all adds up to damn fine writing.
Thank you so much, Johnny for hosting me. Today I’d like to share with you how I write, and the logic behind my writing style.
I’m a paranormal romance and horror author with a penchant for gritty, fast-paced, heart-hammering action. The thing is, readers have a lot of choice, they’ve been let loose in the bookstore with free downloads by the gazillions to choose from, so how do you get that reader to remember you? Honestly, my rule of thumb is I have a poor attention span. I get bored easily which is why I prefer movies which are packed full of action and intrigue. I take the liberty of assuming my readers are just as easily bored, and do my utmost to keep them entertained by moving from moment to moment without any lulls.
Your reader wants to be taken away from their problems, they want danger, a vicarious trip out of their life, and into the zone where they are pushed and pulled to their limits, emotionally. Why was 50 Shades of Grey so popular? Because, for the duration of that novel, the reader lived a completely different reality to laundry, what to make for dinner, did I flush the condom before mom used the bathroom, who vomited on the carpet, did I remember to buy milk… et al. Your role is to provide that kind of escape from the humdrum monotony of everyday existence.
It is crucial to hook your reader early. As a reader I hate forcing myself to read 3 chapters in the hope that sooner or later the author will get me to care about the characters. I want danger, I want exhilaration, I demand titillating action and a dose of deprecating humour, and I want it now!
Johnny calls my work ‘no fluff’. What is this fluff he speaks of? Fluff is excess wording and description. By removing all excess description you engage your reader’s senses and double the reading pace of your chapters. I want to give you examples here as we go, by using my latest novel as the guinea pig that you get to cut open and poke into the entrails (a method of ancient fortune-telling apparently). So what does the portent say…
The opening paragraph of my new book:
She looks up the trunk to the bough, her flimsy dress sticking to her body, outlining every inch of her.
“Arrabella, please come down. Kss-kss, come angel.”
The cat doesn’t move from the thick lower branch, mewling pitifully while her mistress gets rain-sting on her irises from staring up and coaxing.
This has been going on for half an hour and the patience of this woman impresses me. No anger, just encouragement. She has the disposition of a mother, and that is dangerously appealing to me right now.
The lady slumps in frustration, leaning heavily against the rough bark of the pine tree, drizzle veiling her with such enthusiasm her hair drips with it. Watching rivulets snake into her cleavage, I smirk, observing the damsel kicking off her shoes and climbing the tree with the ease of a tomboy.
That’s what I was waiting for. Now she can’t get down and hold the cat, she is perfectly prone, unable to escape.
See what I did? There is no `setting` explained. You don’t know where they are, you don’t know what color her dress is, you know nothing superfluous about these characters, but you know enough! The reader wants the action, they will draw in the blanks because that’s what imagination does. In only 161 words you know the danger, the situation, the climate, the atmosphere, the action. By introducing danger I have given my reader a reason to keep reading. The questions: ‘Who is he? What does he want? Why is he watching her? Why does he want her cornered?’ These questions begin on page one and shouldn’t cease. They give your reader emotional investment with your characters, and only emotional attachment will keep them reading and turning pages.
But don’t take my word for it. How do the rest of my chapters begin?
Sitting up, my heart hammering, I look around the unfamiliar place with alarm drumming my veins numb.
Where the hell am I?
The room is domed with rustic walls of glossy black, the only light coming from a fire so yellow it looks like an eye of brimstone in a charred face. The hearth and walls are so very smooth they appear lacquered, but uneven with the odd undulations you see in ice caverns when they’ve melted and refrozen.
Panic dances the highland fling across my neurons, bashing my heart so hard it feels like I’m about to have a seizure. I’m bloody shaking like a cobweb in a typhoon.
Get a grip. It can’t be him.
Slipping silently off the bed, the floor is gritty, crunching silt under my soles as I sneak to the wide arch leading out of the strange room. My legs wobble as dread robs me of strength; terror coming on strong.
Think Liah, think!
If I was kidnapped and drugged by Dias, I’d have not been left with an open door and freedom of movement. Expecting a swift delivery of volts, or a gun barrel shoved in my face, I peek around the lip of the wall into a dark deserted passage.
(Danger! Lots of danger! Your metaphors determine the atmosphere of each chapter – more on this later)
He sits up, standing so swiftly I’m immediately reminded of how towering he is. Bloody hell.
Taking a shaky step back, I stare up at the lunatic.
“Deliah, I know this all sounds utterly bonkers, but it’s only because we like bonking.” He has a little laugh at his lame wit before losing the smile. “It will only make sense once it comes into contact with your skin.”
I fucking knew it! I’m in hell!
Rapidly assessing my chance of escape, I glance at the exit, wondering if it’s possible to outrun people with twice the stride I have. This is crap!
I mean, I’d heard stories of Clootie roaming the highlands but the only thing I thought I needed to run from was Dias. Instead I end up kidnapped by old cloven hoof himself before I’ve even spent two nights in my hideaway.
Is he flirting with me? For real?
Arching my confrontation eyebrow, I interrogate the leery hulk, “So what was supposed to happen with the ash? I’ve had no epiphanies or visitations from the Holy Ghost since the grande gesture. All you did was make me dirty.”
Read between the lines. Can I go home now?
In an uncomfortable twist of attitude he wiggles an eyebrow at me, “Dirty you say?”
His smirk is so indulgent I have no doubt how much my proclamation has been twisted by his depraved mind. Pervert.
He moves back to examine my forehead, exhaling hot breath all over my eyes. Mommy’s little traitor uses the opportunity to stand on my boobs to nudge his chin with affection.
What did he feed her? Did he rub catnip all over his face to coax my kitty to the dark side?
(The characters are exposing their personalities, the danger is still present, there are questions that still need to be answered.)
Skipping ahead now so as not to bore you: These are all chapter openings…:
Footsteps pound hollowly from the passageway and the apprehension is enough to invert my heart.
Gripping an umbrella which I found on the coat stand, I’m ready to do my best fencing impression if Dias is the one who emerges from the dark cavity.
Ewan’s weapons are far too heavy and I can’t wield them, even though I really wish I could. I struggled for vital minutes trying to load an arrow into the crossbow, but the tension on the wire was just too great for me. All I did was strain muscles, leaving me weak and shaky again. Good heavens, I’m just not cut out for this cloak and dagger nonsense.
“Get ready to do some major mauling,” I whisper to Bella,
(Danger on every page! Questions, anxiety, drama, action… maintain this pace throughout)
Tension on the wire – use puns in your writing. This is not just about her, but she is that tense too. Use the objects in your writing as sly metaphors for your characters and their position.
My palm starts pulsating the red light of clan leader. It’s a warning, we are under threat.
Stepping close to Emma, I drop to my haunches and whisper, “Change over to telepathy. We’ve got company.”
I don’t have time to explain, throwing thick shadows over the fire and Emma, cloaking her in a black so absolute no flashlight could penetrate.
(more danger! Even halfway through the novel the danger is ever present!)
The brute comes stomping down the tunnel, announcing his arrival before we have eyes on the maniac.
I nod Arghin to my right, standing side by side with my greatest warrior and his shaggy mop of hair, a mammoth’s pelt on his shoulders, worn with pride, designating him as more than just a Raven warrior, but kin to the berserker chief Ewan.
The monstrous savage strides in, blood all over his clothing, still bleeding from his left eyelid as he sweeps his eagle eyes over my flock.
Meeting him with my sword in my hand this time, I incline my head while keeping eyes on his every movement, many more of my men concealed in the shadows of his sin black cave, saying to him impassively, “Greetings Chief Ewan.”
At this point you are close to the end of the novel, you know the characters, you know the environment, yet still the danger and imminent menace saturates every chapter.
Your reader is dependent on you to deliver apprehension. Without this tension, they have no desire to seek release. You are boring, your book is easy to put down and walk away from, it’s easy to forget you amongst the hordes of other books in their kindle.
Including drama and action in every chapter makes your novel a swift and exhilarating read! It’s a roller-coaster ride in a demented theme park and you are delivering the highs and lows of a great journey. This is your duty.
My next ‘secret’, a thimble dram toast to my writing style, is to choose wording and phrases which create the atmosphere for you. Do not tell your reader that it was a dark and stormy night and the hell hounds are baying across the moors. Instead, as your main characters walk through their actions and interactions, it is during their journey that you show your readers the atmosphere. Word choices are paramount to overall atmosphere. I can only do this by showing you examples throughout the new novel. The excellence of your writing must be a standard maintained throughout your novel.
Examples from my new novel:
Chapter 1: The pine forest on the opposite bank creaks and whistles with a fresh gale swooping down through the valley.
You can run Deliah, but you can’t hide from the slithering night…
She sacrificed the only flat stretch for the deeply shaded glade, which is where we wait in ambush.
Your cat recognizes a predator, but you do not.
Look at the word choices: creaks, swoops, sacrificed, ambush, predator… Without me ‘telling’ my reader there is danger, I use word choices that imply it for me. These word choices create atmosphere and foreboding.
Chapter 2: Twisting, I place my palm against the rippled surface. It’s a devilish mirror of inky onyx stuff. And it’s not cold.
So I’m not on ice, instead I’m in Satan’s test tube. Giving it a sharp rap, the sound is swallowed, deadened on impact. Screaming would be useless then. How convenient.
Jesus, if this is Dias’s new playground I am never getting out alive.
The thought spurs me, fizzing wildfire panic down every capillary in my body, pillaging my breath and giving me an immediate whirl of vertigo.
Oh god. I have to get out before one of his goons comes to check on me. Shoving to my knees, I crouch, willing myself to stand even though terror has me by the eyelashes and is pulling so hard my corneas sting.
Yanking a hair out of my head, I dangle it in front of me with tweezered fingertips to discern which direction the air is moving.
It hangs limp and immobile.
One lone strand saturated with unique DNA can announce so boldly, ‘you are fucked’.
Not yet I’m not.
Hoping my intuition isn’t too rusty I follow my instinct and creep rapidly to the left doing the SWAT crouch run, covering the endless corridor as fast as I dare, pausing only long enough to remove my shoes. I probably look like a lumbago patient with a slipped disc trying to do the hunchback battle charge.
Word choices: devilish, inky, onyx, Satan, deadened, screaming, wildfire, panic, pillaging, vertigo, goons, sting, limp, creep, hunchback, battle….
Again all of these words create the atmosphere without me waxing lyrical or going into the overwrite category. These words do the talking for me, they are telling my reader this place is a danger-zone rife with evil. BUT, and this is crucial, your reader can only handle ‘so much’ stress at a time. Do not be afraid to use humor in these situations. Don’t take yourself seriously. Reading should be fun! Using a metaphor such as “I probably look like a lumbago patient with a slipped disc trying to do the hunchback battle charge,” breaks the tension, while still maintaining foreboding via word choice.
I don’t need to tell you to never use a cliché. You are a writer, being original is what you do best. Every sentence should be something new, invigorating, refreshing, different to the norm. ie: terror has me by the eyelashes and is pulling so hard my corneas sting.
Never resort to ‘I am so afraid I’m shaking’. Boring. ‘Puts book down and walks away.’
You have already read my example of how I describe terrified tremors: I’m bloody shaking like a cobweb in a typhoon.
Your metaphors are the little gems inside a novel where you get to shine. They are spotlights on your originality and your talent, and they make you memorable.
Metaphors and descriptive word usage you’ve just read:
a fire so yellow it looks like an eye of brimstone in a charred face
alarm drumming my veins numb.
Panic dances the highland fling across my neurons
shaking like a cobweb in a typhoon
Footsteps pound hollowly
apprehension is enough to invert my heart.
the slithering night
fizzing wildfire panic down every capillary in my body
Keep it exciting, keep it tense, use metaphors and words that are pertinent to your novel. These are choices, examples of your talent, and they can make or break your novel.
Character driven novels are entertaining because the reader is relying on the main characters to tell them the story, to be their eyes and ears, the reader wears their skin in the most intimate form of voyeurism, and it is this that makes your work addictive. Writing as I do in the Paranormal and Horror genres, it is imperative that I give my readers a fully immersive experience. You can see already from these examples above how my characters are driving the pace and story, they are dragging the reader along for their ride, even though you have read it from 3 different points of view, each one manages to give the reader that fix.
Here I’m going to give you a big chunk to see how the characters are fully in control of this novel (This is from chapter 2, your characters must drive from the beginning right through to the end):
My limbs do their weak accordion impression as I stagger back to the opening. My bowels are hot and roiling, my thighs tender and spastic, so great is my fear. Cold sweat trickles a frosty nail from my armpit to my ribs and my traumatized breathing is verging on hyperventilation.
Closing my eyes, taking a deep stinging breath, clinging to the wall for support, I take a rigid step onto the threshold to face my gaoler.
Anticipating the prongs of taser teeth, I flinch, barely catching a glimpse of the foreign environment and the strange hulk when I recoil and freeze.
My teeth clatter, my dinner burns up my esophagus, and I’m immediately doubled over in cathartic terror, puking my eyeballs out with diabolical enthusiasm.
I was wrong about the level of hell I’m in.
Dias has stepped up in the underworld. It’s that, or I’ve just been summoned by the devil. So much for the ‘life screw up’ chat with a spiritual guide type, this is straight to the flogging and chewing on decomposed intestines.
I don’t feel so good. Hot and cold vie for dominance while the world swarms in a feverish swill.
A mammoth hand holds my nape, keeping me bent over while his other pulls back my hair, exposing my cheeks to a forge blast of furnace heat.
Fire pit. My god it’s a fire pit!
Is this where they cremate the bodies?
Are they going to cast me unto the jaws of the dragon? I would argue if I was given the chance to debate my fate, that I would make a surly and sour sacrifice.
I wish I could fight but last week’s lasagna is still trying to climb out of my gullet to redecorate the matte black floor.
It needed a woman’s touch anyhow. Consider my duty here done.
Glancing askance I spy a man sprawled out on a vast couch, rolling a coin between his fingers. He’s hidden in a smoggy shroud of smoke which billows around him as if he is Buddha and this is his shrine.
He’s got that look about him. Like this is an opium parlor full of thugs counting bullets, smoking spliffs, picking their nose, relaxing while working coins between their fingers which they plan to put on the next sinner’s eyes, after they put a cobra in your bed to give you the goodnight kiss of forever bliss.
It’s menacing. He’s menacing.
Which of you degenerates is Satan? I’m counting three. Oh lucky antilove king, he also gets an angel for each side of his throne. I guess down here the people sent to the left are on Santa’s nice list.
Completing my Exorcist impression I try to stand erect, but the hand vices my neck in a choke and his deep voice warns, “Don’t move.”
It’s the final churn in the nausea vat and I rabidly puke again, this time feeling as if my soul fell out with the last chunk of trouble.
Holy fuck, I feel like I’ve been poisoned.
Before I have the chance to form the words through queasy spittle, I’m lifted up by my waist and my head dunked in the conveniently placed stoup brimming with nefarious water.
I’m assuming that, as I doubt he likes to keep holy water in his antechamber.
Splashed about, effectively drowning, the seizures gripping my body in ruthless spasms desist when a new wave of panic bombs my body and I scrabble for a handhold, pushing back against the grip on my head which is homicidally baptizing me.
Sucking in water, coughing and flailing, I’m yanked up so fast the world tilts.
My knees don’t work when my assailant releases me and I crumple up, my cheekbone throbbing in the impact of stone meet bone.
Heaving for air in compulsive coughs, all I can see is a mongrel with her tail up, running for me. That can’t be right. They let you take your kitty to hell?
Don’t mind me, I’m just doing my rug impression. Prostrate to a fault, or what eh? Sucking in oxygen while Arrabella tries to smother me with her ‘smell my arse because you love me’ twirl, another head rests on the floor, two black beady eyes looking into mine.
The head doesn’t look dead. Those eyes are moving. Do the decapitated still look around like that?
It looks at me again and I get the weirdest impulse to challenge it with a customary, ‘what the hell are you looking at’ jibe.
Then it smiles.
“What the fuck are you smiling at?”
Oh look, I spoke without my brain giving permission. Holy shitness, they’ll be using my head to practice slam dunks because of my runaway mouth.
“You. Are you quite done fouling up the place?”
“Fuck off,” I snap at the imbecile, wishing Arrabella would stop poking her tail in my eye and smothering my nose with cat hairs. I’m trying to breathe here!
“She’ll fit right in,” he says, moving out of my line of sight, speaking to the king of the unseelie court.
“Help her up then, Adam! She’s going to think we live up to our reputation at this rate.”
And what reputation would that be? That you burn odious sigils into unblemished flesh before carving out my liver to make the morning toast paté?
I’m hauled to my feet and supported this time.
I am not a dainty girl, what do these guys eat? They must live on powerlifting whey and egg whites to throw me around like a wisp of wishes.
Lurching against a man with hair the shade of pampas grass, he urges me toward the dude with the coin.
I remember him now.
“It’s you!” I accuse, recognizing him as the man who caught Arrabella.
“It’s me,” he exclaims, opening his arms in a cheesy ‘here I am’ gesture.
Descriptive writing in there is conveniently made bold for you to spot it easily.
Do not be politically correct when you are writing a character driven novel. We think a multitude of sins daily, and for your characters to be realistic your reader needs to share these sins and uncensored inner monologues.
In this excerpt you can see the damsel in distress over-thinks everything, has a sense of humor even in her darkest hour with imminent threat all around her (her saving grace), and it gives you great insight not just into her psyche, but the writing exposes the humor in her abductors interactions too.
Just because a novel is ‘dark’ ‘threatening’ ‘dangerous’ doesn’t mean you have to be as serious as a politician vowing to end presidential blowjobs with the interns, or a Miss World candidate telling you her greatest joy will be to advocate world peace and be an ambassador for big hair. No! If in fact this is what you are writing about, give the reader the gritty. Miss World will instead be an ambassador for the Brazilian wax and is willing to do a youtube video with step by step instructions (and you can bet it will go viral immediately), and if he is the president, he’d instead be releasing a booklet on how to give presidential head with maximum effect and to make sure you become as famous as Miss World demonstrating the Savalis look, and will have as many people sucking lollipops as the original baldy of 80’s fame. In other words it will incite your readers to want to misbehave and be audacious. That’s bold writing.
Your writing speaks not just about you and your talent, but your writing tells your reader how much fun you are. If your characters can have fun in the bowels of hell, trust me they’ll be lining up to read your next novel. Employ every sense, and that includes your sense of humor. Dullards never make for interesting scandal, and if there is one thing most readers love to read, it’s scandal and gossip, and dirty deeds. Reading is voyeurism, make it a worthwhile escape.
My last pearl of wisdom for you is to keep your chapters short and to the point, and to break up big chunks of writing. Always assume your reader is reading your novel on their new phone. What is a minimal paragraph on an A4 piece of paper instead takes up five pages on a phone. Big blocks of writing without return and indentation breaks fatigues your reader, so even if your writing is subliminally genius, you will still tire your reader if you do not pay attention to the simple logistics of how words read on a page.
The examples above come from a romance novel, not a horror. Break stereotypes in your writing, be original, and be true to yourself. Thank you for listening to me waffle on, I hope my experience helps you on your writing journey. Happy writing and happy reading!
Poppet is a published author, signed to Wild Wolf Publishing, Eibonvale Press, Vamptasy Publishing, and self published, with forty novels to her credit. Her writing covers everything from YA PNR, fairy-tales, horror, PNR erotica, to psychological horrors, and children’s stories. Her work is as diverse as the artist’s palette which paints both portraits and impressionistic pieces.
The excerpts used in this blog come from her novel The Master of Umbra (book 2 The Valhalla Series), to find out more about this author you can locate her on
Deliah is in grave danger, running for her life from a man who needs her dead, when serendipity plants her in the path of the Master of Umbra. Inducted into the mysterious Eagle clan of the Scottish highlands, Deliah is torn between her fate and destiny when kin clash for her affections. Falling for the scandalous villain who heads the Berserkers of the Hebrides, her fragile hope is snuffed out early by revelation and impending war. The only mantra she can cling to is the one uttered in heartfelt promise; that love comes back. Because that’s what love does.
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