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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How To Write For the 21st Century Reader: 6 Tips to Modernize Your Prose

Publishing isn't the only thing that's being transformed by the digital age. Reading and writing themselves are evolving.

We may not like it, but as writers, we need to be aware that our audience's habits are changing.

Last month I wrote about how to format your blog for easy skimming, and unfortunately, we need to keep the skimmer in mind when writing our books as well. A good percentage of readers buy their novels for screens now, and their habits spill over from Web browsing to novel-reading.

Recently I've been getting some bizarre reviews for my novels, and I'm seeing similar ones on my favorite authors' books. It often seems to me the reviewers have read an entirely different piece of fiction.

But I can now see the reviews probably come from people who skim.

My books—and the ones I like to read—are full of fun one-liners and little ironic treats for people who are paying attention. But all the humor and irony is lost on skimmers who are rushing through, reading only for plot.

Personally, I'm a slow reader who savors every word.  I grew up reading literary fiction and I also read genre fiction with an eye to detail, character, and nuance.

Reading only for plot seems to me like eating the pizza crust and throwing away the toppings. Or maybe watching Seinfeld with the sound off. But I have to accept that people like me are no longer in the majority.

"Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on...The Internet is different. With so much information, hyperlinked text, videos alongside words and interactivity everywhere, our brains form shortcuts to deal with it all — scanning, searching for key words, scrolling up and down quickly...Some researchers believe that for many people, this style of reading is beginning to invade when dealing with other mediums as well."

The changes in reading and writing are so profound that Rob Eagar wrote in a piece in Digital Book World  last October that authors no longer exist. 

He said—obviously with a layer of snark:

"There is no such thing as an 'author'.  Instead, there are only people who write stuff that they want other people to buy. Nobody dreams about writing for free, and the few who don’t care if people buy what they write are generally known as 'poets'.  If there’s no such thing as an author, how do we define people who write stuff that they want other people to buy? We call them 'salespeople.'"

Okay, okay, don't bite my head off. I didn't say that, Mr. Eagar did. (I actually write some poetry and admit I'm totally jazzed when somebody offers to publish it for no pay whatsoever.)

But he's making an important point. We probably need to think of copywriting as part of our skill set—as he says:

"Selling your book means writing effective newsletters, blog posts, short stories, free resources, social media posts, word-of-mouth tools, magazine articles, etc." 

This isn't really news. Ruth and I—and most writing bloggers—tell you this stuff all the time. Last month Ruth wrote a comprehensive post on the art of the blurb which is all about using copywriting skills to sell your book.

But Eagar is pushing it one notch further: he's saying we shouldn't think of selling as a burden, but part of the job description. He says writers have to learn to "sell" within the prose itself.

We now need to entice the reader to stay with us. 

Readers now have the content of all world's libraries and bookstores—plus most of the films and TV shows—at their fingertips. Plus instead of investing $15-$30 in a new book, they're probably paying under $5. If it doesn't grip them with every word, they click away.

But the merging of sales techniques with the art of fiction isn't exclusive to the digital age. James Patterson pioneered it in the early 1990s.

Patterson came to writing from a career in advertising. (He was the Don Draper of one of the biggest ad agencies in New York in the 1980s.) He used his copywriting skills to create the unique prose style that has made him the bestselling novelist of the past 14 years. His books have sold more than 300 million copies: more than Stephen King, John Grisham, and Dan Brown combined.

Patterson isn't just a "good storyteller" as he described himself in a recent interview with Joe Berkowitz at Co.Create .

He is a master of white space.

He places words on a page in a way that's enticing and easy to read. He uses short chapters that invite the reader to go for "one more chapter," creating a kind of popcorn for the brain. 

Or as he puts, he "glues people to the page"

I'm not saying we should all copycat Patterson—but there are things we can learn from him that will make our stories more modern and will draw in the contemporary, skimming reader:

1) Shorten chapters. 

An Oyster study reported in the New York Times in December 2013 says people are 25% more likely to finish books with shorter chapters.

We don't all need to write two-and-a-half-page Patterson chapters. Sometimes a scene goes long and that's how it works best. But if a chapter has natural breaks—the ones we generally indicate with a skipped line—consider making each scene a separate chapter.

My editor suggested I do this with my third Camilla mystery, Sherwood, Ltd, and a lot of people have told me they prefer it. I used even shorter chapters with No Place Like Home, and that's my most popular book yet. So I have to admit there's something to this, even though it was hard to break from my habit of 10 page chapters with a multi-purpose, sometimes ironic title that gave an overview of all the scenes.

2) Unbury your dialogue.

Start a paragraph with dialogue instead of action. I learned about this from reading blogs like Writing on the Wall, the blog of  Freelance Editor Lynette Labelle.

As she says, avoiding buried dialogue "isn’t a rule. It’s more like a trick to help keep your story’s pace flowing well. If you look through some of the more recently published novels, you’ll see authors rarely bury their dialogue"

Here's a scene from my original 2005 Babash-Ryan version of my rom-com, The Best Revenge:

Mr. Kahn’s voice got louder.“Why are you working for me? It’s obviously not the money. Eight hundred dollars a month is pocket change for somebody like you. “Is it revenge, Ms. Randall? Wasn’t blacklisting me enough for you? Is that angelic face hiding the soul of a vindictive bitch?” His eyes flashed icy blue.

This last speech had an odd effect on Camilla. She stopped wishing for the floor to swallow her up. Taking a deep breath, she drew on her mother’s most powerful weapons: a steady smile, and a slow, calm voice. “Mr. Kahn, I do not intend to get into a contest of bad manners with you. Bad manners are obviously your field of expertise, not mine."

And here's the more modern version:

“Why are you working for me?" Mr. Kahn’s voice got louder. "It’s obviously not the money. Eight hundred dollars a month is pocket change for somebody like you."

His eyes flashed icy blue

“Is it revenge, Ms. Randall? Wasn’t blacklisting me enough for you? Is that angelic face hiding the soul of a vindictive bitch?”

This last speech had an odd effect on Camilla. She stopped wishing for the floor to swallow her up. Taking a deep breath, she drew on her mother’s most powerful weapons: a steady smile, and a slow, calm voice. 

"Mr. Kahn, I do not intend to get into a contest of bad manners with you. Bad manners are obviously your field of expertise, not mine."

See how the eye is drawn through the scene?

Putting the dialogue up front allows people to see something juicy is coming as they scan the page. Readers generally prefer dialogue to internal thoughts or "business". So we need to put the most important stuff at the beginning of the paragraph. Or, second best, at the end.

3) Break up paragraphs.

Recently I happened on a piece by P. G. Wodehouse from a 1970s issue of The Paris Review. Wodehouse was of the most entertaining writers of all time. But I found it tough going.

I mean, those paragraphs were HUGE. Solid blocks of words. I found myself mentally breaking them down to get to the point.

And I'm an old person. I can only imagine how it is for younger people who have never had to attack those indigestible hunks of text.

4) Don't paint a picture, sketch.

In the age of instant media, descriptive passages are mostly for the author (and our inner poet), not the reader. If you want to get the map of your medieval village or your teen heroine's school set firmly in your mind, by all means write it all down.

Just don't put it in your final draft.

Everybody has an idea what a medieval village and a contemporary high school look like, and if they don't, they can Google it.

But back in the 19th century, before air travel—and films and color photographs—a writer knew many of his readers probably didn't have a clue what an English country house looked like, or the Rocky Mountains, or a spooky old castle.

So Victorian novelists wrote pages and pages of description, like this opening paragraph of Henry James' 1881 novel, Portrait  of a Lady. (No, this isn't the whole paragraph. It's about half. Obviously written in another time.)

"Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not - some people of course never do, - the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one's enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o'clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned."

But these days, hey, most of us have seen Downton Abbey. And even for the people who haven't, pretty much everybody has their own picture of this setting in their own memory banks from a movie or photograph. Describing it in detail will not only bore them, it may even interfere with their own imaginative enjoyment of the story.

As Patterson says, "I think what hooks people into my stories is the pace. I try to leave out the parts people skip."

And these days, people skip a lot.

What you want to share with your reader is the emotions, not the visuals. They can do a lot of the visual work themselves. Let us know how the country house or the medieval village or the spooky old castle makes the characters feel and you've hooked the reader.  

5) Make entertainment your top priority.

"The way it really happened" is almost always NOT the best way to tell your story.

Real life is full of traffic lights, pointless conversations, and long lines at the bank. Entertainment just gives us the good parts.

Realism is overrated. The most entertaining books and films aren't realistic at all. In fact, the most memorable stories go way over the top. One of my favorite movie moments ever is when Harold and Kumar ride the cheetah. 

Is that realistic? Not even a little bit.

  • Is it realistic that someone like Miss Jane Marple of St. Mary Mead would personally know hundreds of murderers and crime victims?
  • Or that a 107-year-old vampire would go to high school? (Even if you suspend disbelief about the whole vampire thing.)
  • Or that some rich guy would dress up in a bat suit to fight crime?

Nope. But this is the stuff of some of our most popular entertainment.

In real life, we get stuck in traffic on the way to the burger place and end up eating the stale M & Ms in the glove compartment and going home and watching reruns of Law and Order

In entertainment, we ride cheetahs.

I love this quote from Patterson,

"I don't do realism. Sometimes people will mention that something I've written doesn't seem realistic and I always picture them looking at a Chagall and thinking the same thing. You can say, "I don't like what you do, or I don't like Chagall, or I don't like Picasso" but saying that these things are not realistic is irrelevant." 

Yes, you're going to get snarky reviews from people who think every book needs to be "realistic" (I sure get them—even for my silliest farces), but that kind of review doesn't seem to have hurt Mr. Patterson one bit.

6. Write Shorter Books and Publish More Frequently

Novellas and short informational books are surging in popularity. That's not to say that full-length books are on their way out, but you can fill in with shorter ones. Or you can break that doorstop saga into a trilogy of shorter works.

"Ten thousand to seventeen thousand words is generally acceptable. Keep in mind that if you do short, you don't have room for fluff. "

For more on novellas and short works see our great step-by-step post on how to write a novella by Paul Alan Fahey.


Am I personally going to switch from reading Margaret Atwood and Donna Tartt to downloading this week's Patterson? (He does turn them out at record speed.)

Sorry, no. More thoughtful fiction is my comfort zone. I love a nuanced, complex read, and I hope writers will continue to create the works of art I prefer.

Am I going to remove my signature irony, whimsy and humor from my books to accommodate the chronic skimmers? Again, no.

Am I going to start publishing four novellas a year instead of desperately trying to come up with one or two 80,000 worders?

Probably not right away. I'm going to have to learn to write novellas, for one thing. Writing shorter takes different muscles. And I tend to like big plots with lots of intertwining subplots.

But I am working on breaking up paragraphs, unburying dialogue, providing more white space—and I'll keep working on those shorter chapters my editor loves.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you started writing to accommodate the skimmer? How do you feel about adding "salesmanship" to your skill set? Do you write shorter chapters than you used to? Do you have more tips for writing 21st century prose? 


The Best Revenge: normally $2.99, is Only 99c on Amazon this month! Also available at Amazon UKAmazon CAAmazon AU, and Nook

Snarky, delicious 1980s fun. And hey, the New Yorker says the 1980s are THE decade for nostalgia these days.

Perennially down-and-out socialite Camilla Randall is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but she always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way. This first episode of the Camilla Randall mysteries romps through the glitzy 1980s, when 19-year-old Camilla loses everything: her fortune, her gay best friend, and eventually her freedom. When she's falsely accused of a TV star's murder, she discovers she's made of sterner stuff than anyone imaginedherself included.


Amazon’s literary journal Day One is seeking submissions. According to Carmen Johnson, Day One’s editor, the litzine is looking for “fresh and compelling short fiction and poetry by emerging writers.” This includes stories that are less than 20,000 words by authors that have never been published, and poems by poets who have never published before. To submit works, writers/poets can email their work as a word document, along with a brief description and author bio to dayone-submissions @amazon.com.

NOWHERE TRAVEL STORIES $15 ENTRY FEE. $1000 prize plus publication. Award-winning literary travel magazine, Nowhere, is teaming up with Outside Magazine for the first Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest. Stories can be fiction or nonfiction. Entries should be be between 800-5,000 words and must not have been previously chosen as a winner in another contest. Previously published work is accepted. Deadline June 15

Drue Heinz Literature Prize for a collection of short fiction and/or novellas. Prize of $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Author must have been previously published in print journals. Deadline June 30.

The Saturday Evening Post "Celebrate America" fiction contest. $10 ENTRY FEE. The winning story will be published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and the author will receive a $500 payment. Five runners-up will each receive a $100 cash payment and will also have their stories published online. Stories must be between 1,500 and 5,000 words in. All stories must be previously unpublished (excluding personal websites and blogs). Deadline July 1.

$800 prize for your unpublished or self-published novel, plus possible representation. Writers' Village International Novel Award. $22 entry fee. The winning author will be assessed by international literary agency A. M. Heath for possible representation. The top eight contestants will receive personal feedback on their novels by the judge, novelist Michelle Spring, Royal Literary Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Entries are welcome worldwide. Deadline June 30th

The Golden Quill Awards: Entry fee $15. Two categories: Short fiction/memoir (1000 words) and Poetry (40 lines max) $750 1st prize, $400 2nd prize in each category. Sponsored by the SLO Nightwriters and the Central Coast Writers Conference. Entries accepted from April 1-June 30th.

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Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne, everything you say is true. I'm working right now on a 2014 edition of my first big seller, DECADES. I've cut about 25K words. How?

Unbury the dialogue. Bag the long descriptions. Cut the interior thoughts. Get rid of lengthy character profiles. All of which worked really well in the 20th C.

Now? Not so much.

Shorter is better and more modern. Shorter, by definition, is snappier. That's why twitter is a writer's best friend. Amazing how much you can convey in those itty bitty tweets. Learning to say what you want to express in a few, well-chosen words can only help your fiction.

May 4, 2014 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My books are between 75,000 and 80,000 words, and I was told that was already really short. You mean I can go shorter? Score!
Long blocks of description bore the heck of me. When I re-read LOTR before seeing the movies, I did a lot of skimming - whole pages worth. Know how the scene makes your character feel. That makes perfect sense!
Timothy Zhan's Star Wars books are set up like that - very short blocks of text and lots of dialogue. And they are easy to read as it moves along quickly.

May 4, 2014 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Perfect. Yes, Anne - one of the things I've found is that my comedy writing background lends itself to the way people (not all - but many) read today. Open with dialogue. Pace quickly. Know the difference between conversation and dialogue. Keep your paragraphs and chapters short. It's easier on the eyes, for one thing. Leave out EVERYTHING that doesn't move the story along.

And a short story background, where every word counts, is terrific training for writing a novel. Thanks for this one! I'll be sending my students to it.

May 4, 2014 at 10:36 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Hey Anne,
Thanks for another fine post. Oddly, I've found myself simply falling into writing shorter chapters. I'm not certain what the original impetus was, but I read a lot of teen fiction that most likely shapes my own thinking. Not all teen books these days have short chapters, but they certainly aren't as rare as they were twenty years ago. The first project I did like that wasn't a big hit with my critique group, Laughing, we called them "chapterlets" & I kept explaining that the MS was simply manifesting that way. Your other observations are elements I should embrace, too.

May 4, 2014 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--That's fascinating. A book that was a huge bestseller not that long ago now needs a major overhaul. That shows how much things are changing--and how fast.

And I think you're right about Twitter. I've never seen it as a good writing exercise before, but that's what it is!

May 4, 2014 at 10:59 AM  
OpenID greenlightlady said...

Anne, this post is so timely for me. I'm in the editing stage of my first novel draft. Like you--I love to savor a book and prefer ones with several subplots. So of course, my romantic inspirational mystery follows this pattern.

I was surprised to find myself writing shorter chapters than I'd anticipated. Perhaps it's because I've been a blogger for almost two years and have noticed the need for being concise?

The other thing I was surprised about was how much I depended on dialogue to move the story forward at a faster pace.

Your post plus some best sellers I've been looking over have confirmed that I'm on the right track. What a relief!

Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

May 4, 2014 at 11:00 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--I think trad publishers still see 80K words as the sweet spot (more for fantasy) because that seems the "right size" for a paper book. But I think we'll see them changing as ebooks redefine the book..

I think my inability to skim is why I never got through LOTR. :-)

May 4, 2014 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Melodie--Thanks for passing this on to your students! I think comic novels have always had more dialogue and less description than the dramatic ones, so we're kind of ahead of the game. :-) And you are sooo right about short stories. We all need to keep our short fiction muscles toned in order to write for today's reader.

May 4, 2014 at 11:05 AM  
Blogger Ann Bennett said...

After skimming your post, I thought I would leave an incredibly long, descriptive narrative about the wobbly kitchen chair I am sitting on.

However, I will save that miserable missive for my great tome of science recapping all the highlights of my teaching career.

I read your's Catherine Hyde's book "How to be a writer in the E-age" I must say it was an excellent read. I don't normally read about the business in that I am a few years from selling my writing. I thought I would practice first.

Cheers - I love your blog.

May 4, 2014 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--Funny how "chapterlets" are now chapters. You were just ahead of your time!

You've hit on something I should have realized: this is why YA is so popular with all age groups! YA novels use all these techniques: they're shorter, pacier, and have lots of dialogue. I'm sure the popularity of YA is a major factor in the changes in 21st century writing

May 4, 2014 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wendy--I have to admit I went into this kicking and screaming, so I have to credit my editor for enlightening me on this. But since he told me to shorten chapters, I've been seeing them everywhere, and I find the long ones seem old fashioned. So you're exactly on the right track. Happy editing!

May 4, 2014 at 11:11 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ann--LOL!! I'm so glad you found our book helpful. You're exactly the kind of writer we are hoping to reach. Although we have lots of advice for seasoned writers, we also help newer writers avoid the pitfalls, scams and bad advice they have to face in these fast-changing times.

May 4, 2014 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger M Pax said...

I try to keep my chapters shorter. If they get too long, I'll break them up. I keep an eye on paragraph length and trying to keep the story moving. I tend to keep my novels 70-80K. For longer stand alones, I'm thinking of breaking those into serials. Great article for thought.

May 4, 2014 at 11:16 AM  
Blogger Christine Ahern said...

My YA trilogy books are working out to be about 50,000 words each. And it's taking me quite long enough to do that! I like writing shorter and with the help of my critique group and your advice keep my chapters short. I go back and forth between physical books and my Kindle and definitely notice the lack of white space on the Kindle. Something to think about, for sure. Personally, Patterson drives me crazy, too many tags, too short chapters. But, that's just me.Thanks for a great post!

May 4, 2014 at 11:24 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

M Pax--Breaking up books into serials and trilogies is definitely the more modern way. It makes more money too. :-)

May 4, 2014 at 11:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christine--I think 50K words is just right for YA. And it may soon become the norm for adult fiction too. As CS said above, adult fiction seems to be following YA trends. I think you're right that ebooks need to have more white space.

May 4, 2014 at 11:30 AM  
Blogger Vanessa B. Bernard said...

Thank you for another fantastic post Anne! In order to compete with the instantaneous noise of cell phones and ipads, we authors must and will adapt. :)

I think I remember reading about the advantages of white space in copy in _The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile" by Noah Lukeman.

Thanks for all the other info! It definitely helps!

Have a lovely day and looking forward to your next post!

May 4, 2014 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger D.G. Hudson said...

Very good points, Anne. I like the idea of some books being novellas and some the meatier 80,000 types. A variety by any author would add to the readers' choices.

I'm more likely to skim when it's a description of something I'm not interested in or the writer has belabored the point. I know I'm not selecting the big tomes to read like I did in the past.

May 4, 2014 at 11:54 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Vanessa--I probably heard about white space first from Noah Lukeman, too. The First Five Pages is a really helpful book. Short and to the point, too.

May 4, 2014 at 12:19 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

D.G.--I like the idea of mixing it up, too. I just have to work on writing shorter.

May 4, 2014 at 12:20 PM  
Blogger Vera Soroka said...

I'm a bit of a skimmer when I read unless I'm really into the story. I don't like a lot of internal thought going on or description. I write to the point as well and get the story out.
I started publishing novellas to start out with and that has been good for me. I've only made one sale in the last three months but I'm okay with that. I have a long ways to go.

May 4, 2014 at 12:49 PM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

Actually, I've enjoyed this quite a bit:

"In real life, we get stuck in traffic on the way to the burger place and end up eating the stale M & Ms in the glove compartment and going home and watching reruns of Law and Order."

I'm a slow reader, too. I savor every word of my favorite authors. But now that I think about it, my favorite books are written in such a way that one doesn't feel the need to skim. They are deep complex books, with layers of meaning, but at the same time - easy to read. A great combination.

Thank you for the post, Anne. As always, invaluable information presented in an easy to digest format and sprinkled with humor :-)

May 4, 2014 at 12:54 PM  
Blogger Kimber Leigh Wheaton said...

I'm working on edits right now for my novel due out in July. I uploaded it to my Kindle to get an idea of what it will look like. Those paragraphs that seemed short in Word were too long--some took up an entire page unless I made the font size small. As more people turn to e-readers, I have to consider what the book will look like formatted on a Kindle or a Nook. I went back through and cut lots of paragraphs in half.

Skimmers definitely don't want to see a block of words with no break. It's intimidating. I think shorter chapters are a great idea too. It makes the reader feel as though they are reading faster than they are, which in turn makes the pacing faster.

I love the idea of writing novellas. I was planning to give one a try as my next project. It will be a challenge to get a story out in 20,000 words. Should be interesting at least.

Do I skim books? Usually not, but I know quite a few people who do.

May 4, 2014 at 1:10 PM  
Blogger S B James said...

My natural impulse was to have those short paragraphs and dialogue. I very much agree with many of the comments here about YA's influence on the way we are writing. Personally, I'm glad I don't have to feel badly about writing a book that's “only" 60k words. That's still about 270 “pages" long for a 6 by 9 inch book, right? Soon, I think people are going to wonder what a “page in a book" even is.
Thank you for an excellent post.

May 4, 2014 at 1:14 PM  
Blogger Alina Field said...

I have a friend who keeps telling me, "Short chapters! Short chapters!" I'm going to have to go back and revisit some of my manuscripts. Great post, Anne!

May 4, 2014 at 2:04 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Vera--It sound as if you gravitate to the novella form both as a reader and a writer. Visibility is the biggest challenge to a writer today, isn't it? I wish there were a magic formula, but if there is one, I don't know what it is.

May 4, 2014 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger David Rheem Jarrett said...

Thank you, Anne, for another insightful post. In view of the constant barrage of self-promotion I see on social media, I can appreciate Rosenwald's juxtaposition of author and salesperson. I do not relish the thought of trying to sell my works. The writing is enjoyable but the other is not. Fortunately, I have already had one successful career that enables me to enjoy the experience of writing without having to profit from it. I would like to be published simply for the affirmation that others thing my stories are worth reading. To me, that is payment enough. I know others will laugh and belittle this idea, but it works for me.

I already write short chapters, and I have never read a Patterson novel. I write them because my wife told me she likes short chapters, and I just started doing it that way. My beta readers have also told me they like books written in this manner, and I, as a reader do also. Instead of reading like a text, the short chapters are like the movie and TV serials of old (and I mean really old, like Buck Rogers!), in which every episode left the audience hanging and waiting for the one that would be shown the following day or week. Patterson was right on in his thinking there!

May 4, 2014 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger C A Hall said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 4, 2014 at 2:30 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sasha--Thanks! I had fun writing that bit. I think I have an allergy to realism. When people say, "you have to read this! It's exactly like my divorce/cancer/parent issues" I put it on my NOT TBR list. I guess I want more than everyday reality out of a book.

Great to hear from another slow reader. There are still some of us out here.

May 4, 2014 at 2:32 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kimber--You're smart to do that. I know my editor reads all my stuff on a Kindle before a final proofing, and I should probably do it too.

If you haven't read that post on novellas by Paul Alan Fahey I linked to, check it out. He's helped me a lot. I think I have more of a handle on the form.

There are more skimmers all the time--and of course agents and editors skim the slush if they read it at all, so even people going the trad route have to keep the skimmer in mind.

May 4, 2014 at 2:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

SB--I think you're right about the concept of pages disappearing. Already a lot of people don't number manuscript pages any more. (Partly because Word 2010 made it so much harder, of course.) But pages don't exist on an ereader.

I wonder if 60K words will become standard in the next few years. Of course, there have always been shorter books. Trad publishing has standardized length in the last few decades, but The Great Gatsby is only about 50K words.

May 4, 2014 at 2:43 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alina--I have to say short chapters really revitalized my work. Give it a shot. You may find you really like them.

May 4, 2014 at 2:44 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Anne, Thank you for the shout out. And thank you for this great post. I'm going to share, and Tweet, and just scream from the rooftops all you've written today in those six fantastic steps. Yep, this is gold. AND RELEVANT to today's reader and writer. Off to share and Tweet.

May 4, 2014 at 2:50 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

David, there's NOTHING wrong with writing for the joy of writing instead of money. We don't value people who create art for art's sake in this business-centric era, but I wrote about this a few months ago http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2014/01/is-writing-hobby-or-profession-for-you.html

You're right that those short-cliff-hanger chapters are like the old movie serials. I think that's why they work so well. We love a cliff-hanger. I've never read a Patterson novel either, but his thinking makes sense to me.

May 4, 2014 at 2:51 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Carol--Congrats on posting this! I know the Blogger elves can make it difficult.

Great points--and very funny. As a screenwriter, you know what you're talking about. I must admit I didn't think of people like Dan Brown as actually writing films in book form, but maybe that explains his success. I admit to being glued to The DaVinci Code in spite of my inner editor screaming in my head from time to time.

I adored Tess of the D'Urbervilles when I read it--I think I read all of Hardy in my dark, brooding late adolescence--but I'm not sure he'd grip me now. I may have become more of a skimmer than I was. I'll have to think about that...

May 4, 2014 at 2:59 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--That was such a great post you wrote on the novella. And you have mastered that form! I'm reading your trilogy now, and you've packed all the meatiness of a novel in each one of those novellas.

Thanks for spreading the word!

May 4, 2014 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Rie Warren said...

Fantastic post! In addition to everything mentioned, I recently found out I was guilty of writing ridiculously long sentences. I had no idea until an eagle-eyed reader gave me a much-needed crit. She pointed out I had three to four actions going on in a lot of sentences. I've since learned to consciously whittle down and hope it's something I'll soon do by rote.

I also need to get a handle on writing lengthy chapters. I'll tackle that...in my next novel. Great advice here I'll take to heart!

Thanks for the informative post.

May 4, 2014 at 3:09 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Thank you, Anne. What a nice thing to say. :)

May 4, 2014 at 3:24 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Rie--Oh, those endless sentences! I gravitate to them too. Luckily, we have editors and critique groups and beta readers. And I find just the act of reading out loud makes me pare them down.

If you've got a novel in ms. form that isn't published yet, try dividing up the chapters. When my editor made me do it, I was amazed at how the book fell into place. (And I ended up shortening the whole thing quite a bit.)

May 4, 2014 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Brita Addams said...

I read this article with great interest and not a little consternation. I totally agree with unburying dialogue (an editor early on taught me that,) shorter paragraphs, I've done that all along because I so dislike reading lengthy paras. I write chapters at the 2500 word mark, as that makes for a quick read if the reader has little time (lunch, bedtime, commute.)

I've written novellas and then graduated into novels of the 60k to one at 106k. Now, I write the story and don't concentrate on word count. Whatever the story requires is what I write.

While I agree with and have written series, I don't agree with the serial idea. I've known authors who have written serials, each installment between 10 and 15k, and the first complaint is price point. Combined, of course depending upon the number of installments, usually costs more than one novel of equal volume.

Some authors pound out four or more novellas a year, some one a month, and the quality is horrendous. The stories have no substance, the characters aren't fleshed out, and all the other sad consequences of working speedily and to word count rather than quality. Then reviewers will lament the story as too short, not complete, miss opportunities, no character development, plot thin.

Descriptions can be woven into the story without long paragraphs. I don't at all agree with writing a sketch. Reviewers and readers will clip an author who has left too much to the reader's imagine, with the subliminal message that they should google a English house if they want to see them. Or depend upon their own experience with movies of a similar genre to cover what is missing in the author's writings.

While we live in a busy world, there are readers who want the entire experience of a well-written, thorough novel, with all the richness of those written in the past. Writing should be the one thing that doesn't succumb to what I feel is a dumbing down for the sake of a few with a short attention span, and I don't believe the majority of readers want "fast food" in their reading, or that they skim over the meat of the story. Some do certainly, but they aren't the readers that I write for.

Some of these hints will give some writers excuses to ignore rich character, plot, and story development. Good writing shouldn't follow fads and trends. That seems to me, a very slippery slope.

I look forward to your blog each week, thanks to Paul Fahey.

May 4, 2014 at 3:30 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Brita--Obviously, the world is not one-size-fits-all. People do still read Henry James. If you write for those readers, they will be grateful to you. You may not have a bestseller, but you'll have something that satisfies your own muse. There will always be readers of lengthy literary fiction, and some adore long, intricate descriptions rather than plot points.

But I think it's harsh to say all novellas are "horrendous". Sorry you've run into some bad ones, but you say you're a friend of Paul Alan Fahey. I think his novellas are as rich and character-driven as any doorstop novel.

Good writers can pack a universe into a piece of flash fiction and bad ones can write paper-thin characters and hackneyed prose across 200,000 words.

Length does not = quality, in my experience.

May 4, 2014 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger Brita Addams said...

I love Paul's novellas, as he knows. You are right that writers cover the spectrum, and I didn't mean to say that all novellas are horrendous, but sadly, I have read many that are pumped out for volume (backlist) and some, let's say, aren't very good at all. I'm always amazed when I read one of Paul's and he packs so much into it. They are satisfying and so well done. I wish more novellas had such quality.

May 4, 2014 at 3:58 PM  
Blogger Molly Greene said...

Great post as always, Anne! AGREED: Mix in short sentences w/longer, use short grafs, short bits of dialogue, lots of white space and short chapters!! I became a convert the first time I proofed my first novel on a Kindle - acccck! And when I heard thru the grapevine that 65K word novels were selling well, I reduced my own "goal" length to 70 -75K. Eureka!

May 4, 2014 at 4:09 PM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Thanks as always Anne. I'm with you like a shield-brother, for about two thirds of this. The rest, I'm a mutineer.

Dialogue on top, shorter paragraphs, check and check. And I'm breaking up the trunk novel at last, putting out four novellas starting this summer. Couldn't be more excited.

But- skip the little stuff, drop the descriptions, forget realism? Waiter, check please.

I think there's a footnote here, for people whose genre does NOT default to the Alleged Real World. Mr. Patterson has a billion details of how-it-all-works behind him based on shared experience with the reader. I absolutely deny that folks who don't know what a medieval village is like will Google it- either you will tell them about it, or they WILL skip, as in the tale. And btw, it is absolutely realistic for a boy who watched his parents get murdered to go outside the law and do something dangerous and risky about it- especially if he has billions to spend. That's an example that verges between worlds.
If you're telling folks about an epic fantasy setting, or ancient times, other planets- then ANY detail could be realistic, small, tough to explain... and crucial. If we don't take the trouble, then folks might as well switch on the TV. That's my view.

May 4, 2014 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger Autumn said...

I love that tip to unbury the dialogue. I am so guilty of hiding it away between tags and physical beats.

My main issue is the balance of introspection to dialogue. I have lots of white space with short paragraphs, but my current story has whole pages of the character thinking and feeling about what the other character just said and did, before they respond. Oops!

It wouldn't be so bad in a romance where their emotional response to each other is the main event, but it's supposed to be a fast moving suspense!

May 4, 2014 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Brita--I definitely don't like the push to churn out fiction--whatever the length--at breakneck speed. I wrote about the value of slow writing a few months ago.http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2014/03/is-there-place-for-slow-writer-in.html.

One of my idols is Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote deceptively short novels that are "easy" to read but certainly not lightweight. He said he could spend a week on one sentence. If you're just reading for plot you can breeze through one of his books in an hour. It's up to the reader to decide if we want to read it on the level he intended.

May 4, 2014 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger Autumn said...

Forgot to add, I've found Scrivener has helped with my chapter length, simply by making me conscious of them in a way I wasn't working with the whole ms in a single Word document.

Love those word counts and target counters I've set up for each scene in Scriv!

May 4, 2014 at 4:29 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 4, 2014 at 4:30 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Molly--I'm glad you agree. The introduction of the Kindle seems to have been the tipping point. People like Patterson did this stuff before ereaders, and so did YA novels, but now it's becoming the norm because ereaders require more white space.

May 4, 2014 at 4:32 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--It's true that fantasy and hard sci-fi require a whole lot more description than stories in a real-world setting we all know about. I should have added that caveat.

Unfortunately the people who complain about the lack of "realism" usually aren't talking about the realism of the character's emotions. They're saying "Why don't these characters ever go to the bathroom?" It's people stuck in very mundane details that some of us get tired of.

May 4, 2014 at 4:39 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Autumn--As Wm pointed out above, genre plays a huge role in how much dialogue/description/internal monologue you need.

Fantasy needs more description, and romance needs internal monologue. Sometimes suspense and mystery do too, if there's one person trying to figure out a mystery or problem.

I'm not saying we want more dialogue. Just break up the descriptions and inner thoughts into smaller bits.

Thanks for the recommendation. People who have figured out how to use Scrivener swear by it. I didn't know it helped with chapter length. Another reason for me to think about trying it, I guess.

May 4, 2014 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

Anne, I love snippets and flash. It stretches different muscles and challenges me to get it all said in the shortest possible way. I've also noticed that I am less inclined to go over 80K on any of my novels.

Maybe this trend compliments my natural instincts ... but I do love the gaff. Thanks for another great one :)

May 4, 2014 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger C A Hall said...

Hurry up & Haiku

Rumplestitskin's sin:
Verbosity does not win
name's the game, not kin.

If you can take a story down to a sentence, and keep it whole, tis well. Complexity is in the density of thought and language, not the length.

C A Hall

May 4, 2014 at 5:37 PM  
Blogger Firetulip said...

My third book was completed at over 80K and the editor cut out almost two full chapters out. Wanted to keep it around 70K and in its published state it's actually shortest of my 3 full length novels but when I wrote it, before editing, it was the longest piece I've written.
On the other hand, I see books with mixing POV's, burred dialog, hurdle of paragraphs, jumbled mess of sentences and they have raving reviews and it makes me wonder how.
I do critique for other writers and some are novices and keep telling them exactly what you have listed in this blog post. Many leave because they don't want to read my comments and think I'm too conceited and think I know everything there's to know about writing and publishing. Far from it. I'm only trying to help and let them know that during writing process it's the time to make mistakes and have them addressed. Once the book is out and bad reviews ensue they won't like it.

May 4, 2014 at 5:46 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

If I add up the sum total of what you say, what you're really advocating is that writers of fiction become writers of screenplays. This does to some degree make perfect sense, because the changes in reading habits have much more to do with visual media than anything else. As for James Patterson, if he is to serve as the template for "success," then your suggestions should be followed. Otherwise, not so much.

May 4, 2014 at 7:26 PM  
Blogger Kelly Byrne said...

Great post, Anne. I was just discussing with my boyfriend the other day how I'm going to be shortening my chapters. Not quite Da Vinci Code Short, but short. I think that was one of the main things that kept me in that book. You just keep thinking, oh, just one more...and one more... the ease of it sucks you in. It's not great writing, but easy to move through. That seems to be the way of things now, easy.

I'm not at all happy about this, but I think it's important for writers who want people to buy their wares, to be clear about what those people/readers want and give it to them.

Once you start making consistent money (Dear Lord, one can only hope that day is in our future, right?) then you have a little leeway to write that meandering tome (that no one will buy) that's been stuck in your head for the last 10 years, but it seems there's no room for those these days when money is on the line. At least for most authors.

Sue Monk Kidd could compile her grocery lists from the last 10 years in a book and people would probably buy it. But most of us are not SMK. ;)

Thanks again for a great post. I'm off to read the one about novellas.

May 4, 2014 at 7:35 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Fois--You are indeed talented at flash and short scenes. Who knew Boomers were so innovative?

May 4, 2014 at 7:51 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Love the haiku!

"Complexity is in the density of thought and language. Not the length."

Kurt Vonnegut could have said that. :-) Thanks!

May 4, 2014 at 7:52 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Firetulip--It can be so frustrating when you try to help people and they don't want to listen. But bad books generally sink of their own accord.

Some people learn from their mistakes, and other people enjoy falling on their faces in public. Nothing we can do but pick them up and dust them off and hope they'll find a creative outlet where their talents lie.

May 4, 2014 at 8:00 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--Actually, I don't know a thing about writing screenplays so I can't comment on that. Patterson isn't a role model for me, but he outsells King, Rowling, and Brown combined.

May 4, 2014 at 8:02 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kelly--I didn't notice Brown used short chapters in TDVC, but I read it a decade ago. I know I was "glued" to the story kind of in spite of myself.

But there's no reason short chapters can't be incorporated with great writing. I just checked a dog-eared copy of Vonnegut's "Mother Night" on my nearest bookshelf and it has many two-page chapters. And if you say Vonnegut was a hack writer, them's fightin' words...

I think Sue Monk Kidd's quality might be a little spotty, but I can't be sure. I read some of her stuff when I was recuperating from surgery. Might have been me, not her.

May 4, 2014 at 8:16 PM  
Blogger Kelly Byrne said...

If memory serves me correctly the chapters were usually 2-4 pages long in TDVC. I was also glued in spite of myself. I think we all were. ;)

And I absolutely agree about including great writing in short chapters. In fact, writing shorter chapters well, may be a challenge like writing short fiction well. It's a different beast, but if it's done well, it can be terrific.

I'd never say a bad word about Vonnegut, especially hack! Just yesterday I read a letter he once wrote to a high school and it was amazing. Made my face leak. You've probably seen it, but just in case...


I hope you're all recovered from surgery now. :)

May 4, 2014 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Rie Warren said...

Reading out loud is definitely another key for pacing, dialogue, and sentence structure. I think I might get Siri to do it for me ;).

I've added a 'split this stuff up!' note to my current WIP chapters. Thanks for the advice. You are pretty epic.

May 4, 2014 at 10:23 PM  
Blogger Laila Blake said...

It's odd, I actually do agree with most of these not just from a "yes, I know I should" perspective but also as a reader. I've been drawn to shorter works and novellas a lot lately - and it's not because they are shorter, it's because the writing feels snappier, more immediate and focused than a long, rambling opus a lot of the time.
For my one published novella, of course, I get flack from readers that it's too short (and I think 27k is on the longer side for novellas. People keep calling it a short story).
But especially in terms of chapter length, I've been thinking about that a lot lately. And I always feel like a slacker when my chapters don't reach 3k, but I like them a lot. I need to get out of that mindset lol.

May 5, 2014 at 3:05 AM  
Blogger Nina Badzin said...

Favorite line: "And I'm an old person. I can only imagine how it is for younger people who have never had to attack those indigestible hunks of text."

May 5, 2014 at 4:32 AM  
OpenID deborahjayauthor.com said...

How wonderful, Anne - you've just formalized what my instincts have been trying to bring to my attention.
I've noticed when reading on my kindle that I get impatient with big chapters, or unbroken chunks of writing, so I reckon I should be taking note.
I already write with plenty of white space (I've written for magazines for years, with the increasing demand for shorter and shorter pieces with plenty of the white stuff), but I'm off to chop my chapters up into shorter pieces now, and as I've just downloaded Scrivener this seems a very opportune moment to make this change.
And while it seems sad to have to write specifically to appeal to today's reader, in the magazine industry we've always had to do this - researching the publication you're writing for and producing work in their specific style (word count, paragraph and sentence length are specific, as well as voice and style) is essential if you want to make a sale.
Although my fiction is epic fantasy (which still requires a much bigger word count than you were discussing) and comes in on average around the 130K words (lots of intertwining sub-plots to support the main tale - what I like to read also), I'm starting to develop attached short stories and novellas around the main books, and loving the freedom to be able to do so!

May 5, 2014 at 5:16 AM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

I understand what you mean about your "allergy", but I think there's "bad realism" and "good realism", I believe it boils down to either bad or good writing.

I'm again thinking about my addiction - Anne Tyler. There is a lot of realism in her books. Her novels are set in Baltimore and they are filled with very specific real details, like names of streets, restaurants, etc. Her characters talk "Baltimorean."

She writes about families, family issues in all their complexity, and her writing rings so true that readers make a very personal connection thinking, "this is written about me, this is just what happened to me."

Yet, she's never put in her books anything that happened in real life. She's made a point of never doing that. It's all fiction. And it's magic. As Updike said about her, "Not merely good...She's wickedly good."

May 5, 2014 at 7:22 AM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

Anne--My reference to screenwriting was meant to be ironic: screenplays are almost always ignored--skimmed--by directors, and by high-priced stars. All that matters to them is the concept.
I'm sure you know I side with those like you who don't skim. And also like you, I'm a slow reader, which may in part account for why I have a weak spot for the clever use of words. But I have something more to say (when don't I?), this in relation to realism. I'm absolutely with you about its being overrated and misused as a compliment. I used to draw a distinction for my students between realism and truth-telling. Maybe the most "realistic" thing on TV is a soap opera. The costumes, settings, bland dialogue is all closely related to current American reality. But there's no truth to be found in soap operas. On the other hand, there's nothing whatever realistic about a fable, a story in which animals think and talk like people. But a fable may convey a great deal of truth.

May 5, 2014 at 8:17 AM  
Blogger Claude Nougat said...

Ruth, I'm astounded, you cut 25 k from DECADES? I LOVED it and it didn't seem one bit too long to me, I never noticed the dialogue was "buried" or that the paras were too long.... But I do get the point !

To this excellent post I would just add that new forms of novels could be contemplated, like serialized novels à la WOOL, really a bundling of long novellas - each an episode - that all add up to a full novel (and even a rather long one, easily up to 100 k words...)

May 5, 2014 at 8:47 AM  
Blogger Tam Francis said...

We have been talking about this a lot in our writer's group, especially white space and dialogue and although I agree, I still enjoy books like "Lord of the Rings," and "Pride and Prejudice." Do you think there is room for these in our future world?

When I think about it fiction, I liken it to music, you have pop music, that is short, snappy and catchy. Pop fiction is the same. It's my guess, that just like people still listen to classical music, we will still have amazing descriptive longer fiction, they just may not be best sellers, but they might be Pulitzers?

~ Tam Francis ~

May 5, 2014 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger Carol Tice said...

Great piece! I've been writing an email series to my own blog subscribers about e-book marketing, and one of the secrets of success is more, shorter e-books rather than one big fat one. I know because I wrote the one big one initially. Now living happily ever after putting out smaller ones in a series. ;-)

May 5, 2014 at 9:23 AM  
Blogger Chuck Willman said...

GREAT ADVICE!! Thanks so much for the help!!

May 5, 2014 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sasha--I'm a huge Anne Tyler fan! Yes, she writes fairly realistic fiction, but it has lots of wit and quirky characters that the realism police hate. Here's a quote from a review of The Accidental Tourist: "The relationship between Macon and Muriel is simply not realistic". People who use the "realism" stick to beat up writers can always find something that isn't boring enough.

May 5, 2014 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--Ooops. I didn't get the irony. I must have skimmed your comment. LOL.

Great point about the difference between realism and truth. We not only have soap operas but "reality TV" which is the most unreal, manipulated, untruthful form of entertainment we have. "Reality" is not truth, and truth can be told in many "unrealistic" ways. Fables are a great example. How can Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Grapes be good? Foxes don't even talk, Mr Aesop! One star. :-)

May 5, 2014 at 9:50 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kelly--Thanks so much for the link! That's Vonnegut gold and no, I hadn't seen it. Such a fantastic piece of advice! Writing IS its own reward.

May 5, 2014 at 9:55 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Laila--27,000 words is NOT a short story, People will complain about anything, won't they?

I used to have a very set routine when I wrote. I wrote double spaced and aimed for exactly 10 pages for each chapter. I'd feel like a "slacker" too, if I didn't reach page 10. My editor had to hammer me with the short chapter message to get that out of my head.

May 5, 2014 at 9:58 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

I AM an old person. I have to keep reminding myself of that. :-) I certainly know young people who read the classics. My nephews do. But they also say they prefer shorter paragraphs.

May 5, 2014 at 10:00 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

deborah--E-readers really have accelerated this change. I see it on my Kindle too. A whole page of words without a break is not enticing.

Epic fantasy does have its own set of rules, as Wm Hahn mentioned above. When you're following in the steps of Tolkein and George R. R. Martin, it's hard to be breezy and sketchy. But if you can write stories and novellas in your world, you've got some reader gold. Sounds as if you're doing it right.

May 5, 2014 at 10:10 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Tam--I'm sure people will continue to read the classics. Actually Pride and Prejudice is an amazingly modern novel. It doesn't have much description. Austen let the reader do a lot with their own imaginations. All she tells us about Elizabeth Bennet's looks is that she has "fine eyes". Long descriptions don't necessarily mean good writing.

But I have no doubt that literary fiction will continue to be published and read. Donna Tartt's long, literary novel The Goldfinch has been topping the bestseller lists for months now.

May 5, 2014 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Carol--Absolutely. That's the way the market is going: short is the new long!

May 5, 2014 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Chuck--Thanks for stopping by!

May 5, 2014 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger Sasha A. Palmer said...

Reviews can be surprising :-) Bradbury in the preface to "Dandelion Wine" marvels at a critic who accuses him of not being realistic enough, wonders "how Bradbury could have been born in Waukegan...and not noticed how ugly the harbor was" and so on. "But, of course," Bradbury writes, "I had noticed them and...was fascinated by their beauty." Realism has many faces.

So glad to find another Anne Tyler fan! I discovered her books before my move to Baltimore (actually, they played their part in the move), but now that I live in this city, I appreciate them even more. I personally find them very realistic. I see these people every day. Who is not quirky anyway? Even the reality police is quirky in their pursuit of boredom. :-)

May 5, 2014 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Kelly Byrne said...

Oh good, I'm happy to be able to show it to you, then. Yes, is it awesome advice. I've seen a lot of things like this from him - different quotes people make into memes. He's so inspirational. And brilliant, of course. :)

May 5, 2014 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Catherine Stine said...

All great tips! I have a new romance novella out, and I do think people appreciate short reads. That was my first short piece, so I had no idea what the reaction might be.

May 5, 2014 at 10:46 AM  
Blogger Roland D. Yeomans said...

I can't read Patterson. I just get into a chapter and BANG! it stops. To me, it is strobe light prose.

I believe in breaking up my paragraphs -- as I do even in my comments to my cyber friends like here.

I like my dialogue to zing back and forth with as few HE SAID, SHE SAID as possible. It also makes my dialogue sound more normal in my audiobooks.

You've brought up pertinent facts -- the internet has changed the way people read. Attention spans are much shorter, too.

But then, fewer people are reading books for pleasure, too. Authors may become the next dinosaur. We may be laboring over our smoke signals and wonder why no one is answering! :-)

May 5, 2014 at 10:49 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Catherine--Great that you're finding appreciative readers. I'm still trying to teach my muse to think short. :-)

May 5, 2014 at 11:50 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Roland--"Strobe light prose"--great phrase! Dialogue tags are another issue. I didn't have room to discuss that here, but definitely people prefer fewer tags these days, and yes! I've just recorded my first audiobook and tags make for a lot of clunkiness.

I do hope that reading isn't on its way out. Novels may be, but I'm not sure that means fiction will die. That smoke signal picture is pretty bleak!

May 5, 2014 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger Nathan Walpow said...

One of the good things about electronic publishing is that it's opened up the market for a variety of story lengths. You used to pretty much have to write short stories (maybe 3-8,000 words) or novels (60,000 and up). Now we have the luxury of letting each story take up as much space as it needs. Eighteen thousand words? Fine. Forty-five thousand? You no longer have to cut it to get it to something someone will publish, nor pad it to "book length."

I see specific growth in the market for 22,000-35,000 words. I've got one novella out from a company (Stark Raving Press) that is only looking for that length. They're mostly crime fiction at the moment but hope to branch out into all fiction genres. And I'm working on another 25,000 word one for another publisher. I'm finding this a great length because, while novels seem like a major commitment, I'm finding I can kick out 25,000 words or so in two weeks. One good thing about that is that I'm a lousy plotter and, at novel length, I feel I have to continue working on a book to make it right. While if I pick up a 25,000 word novella the day after I finish it and realize it's a load of crap, I can just toss it aside and move into something else ... which is exactly what happened with my first try at the novella for Stark Raving.

May 5, 2014 at 4:11 PM  
OpenID fornow said...

Hmm - I can see shifting the style of writing a little to make it more accessible due to changing mediums. But I'm not sure I'd go as far as catering to skimmers.

People are of course welcome to develop bad habits but this is about putting quantity over quality. I suspect people will burn out on Twitter and such just as they are now with Facebook.

In blog world, I've noticed I can get huge numbers from a social media mention but they skim through and are gone. No subscribers, no feedback, no follow through. Do I want this kind of reader? I don't mind them but it's not going to be my focus. Otherwise, it all just becomes market-speak without substance.

May 5, 2014 at 5:10 PM  
Blogger Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Right on, Anne, as usual. I love to read, but I find I'm skimming more than I used to.

May 5, 2014 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger Lexa Cain said...

I love your tips and agree with Mr Eagar and Mr Patterson. I have to start doing those things...especially unburying my dialog. Thanks!

May 5, 2014 at 6:47 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nathan--Absolutely! I think this is one of the biggest benefits of the ereader for authors (readers too.) Not only can we write novellas--which were taboo for many decades--but we can write big, 200K word sagas if we want, too. It used to be you could not publish anything outside the 75K-95K window unless you were already famous. (And had two R's in your name :-) )

May 5, 2014 at 6:48 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

fornow--Actually these tips don't mean you have to sacrifice quality. I'm finding short chapters actually make my books better. (Don't tell my editor that. :-) ) A lot of people have always skipped to the "good parts." Elmore Leonard and Kurt Vonnegut taught us a lot about how to leave out the "flyover" bits.

The skimmers will be with us forever, but the great thing about epublishing is you can cater to a niche and you don't have to please all of the people all of the time. Find a niche of non-skimmers and they're going to be very grateful you took the time.

May 5, 2014 at 6:54 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Marilyn--Thanks for weighing in. I'm a whippersnapper compared to you, so if you're becoming a skimmer, I think we're seeing a pretty big trend. It's not just the teenagers. :-)

May 5, 2014 at 6:56 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lexa--Thanks! A lot of this stuff is really simple, once you're aware of it. I'm amazed at how much this has improved my writing.

May 5, 2014 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger Libby Hellmann said...

This is a super post, Anne! I'm just about to start a novella, and you've inspired me. Thank you. I might even go back to my WIP and shorten the chapters.

May 5, 2014 at 7:22 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Libby--This is the moment to be writing novellas! Have fun with it. Shortening chapters can be fun, too. It might give your WIP that extra bit of polish.

May 5, 2014 at 7:39 PM  
Blogger Sussan Tuttle said...

Guess I've been moving into the modern skimmer era without knowing it. My earlier works were long, involved stories with complicated, entwined plots and subplots. But what I/m working on now seems to be tending toward shorter chapters, and two of them seem to be heading toward novella territory instead of full novel status. Go figure. I've been unburying my dialogue for a long time, and breaking up paragraphs so they aren't huge blocks, probably because I've been reading so many ebooks lately and long paragraphs just don't work. I did that with my latest release, "Proof of Identity," and also with the next one which will be out sometime next week ("Sins of the Past"). But in my heart I still write for readers, those who want to immerse themselves in my story worlds for days, not just a few hours. That's my first love, and I'm not giving it up! No sir. Even if those novellas are snuggling up to me... LOL

May 5, 2014 at 10:58 PM  
Blogger Libby Hellmann said...

I did it. Went from 46 Chapters to 106. Boy, does this thing MOVE!! You are incredible. Many thanks, Anne!

May 6, 2014 at 5:12 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Claude—Thanks for the flattering words. :-)

Ironically (or maybe not!), cutting DECADES brought it full circle. I originally planned to write about a marriage in crisis. When I thought about the age difference between the wife and the mistress, the decades theme emerged & became of equal importance.

I cut (but didn't eliminate) sub-plots, narrative about shifting attitudes and mores, portraits of subordinate characters, the publishing background. Cutting restored the focus on the devastating triangle and its shattering impact on the characters' lives.

BTW, the other day Michael mentioned the fact that all that research was done in pre-internet days. Hours in libraries, sifting through micro fiche. Yet another example of the impact of different decades and, as Anne points out, the profound changes in the way fiction is read and written.

May 6, 2014 at 5:47 AM  
Blogger ryan field said...

Can't disagree with anything you said. I actually am I skimmer in many cases. Not all, but I'm always so eager to read more I wind up skimming many things I read to save time. It might take me a month to read a John Irving book because I want to hold on to each word he wrote. But I'll read a lighter non-fic book in one night, skimming all the way through it.

I remember reading about the concept of "word economy" once and I have always tried to practice it...even in blog posts. Ironically, I have a 114,000 word novel coming out soon, but I typically keep them around 50-60,000 words...if not shorter.

Excellent post on how communication is evolving constantly!!

May 6, 2014 at 8:45 AM  
OpenID haydenthorne.com said...

I find that the books that stay with me the longest (and end up in my Favorite Reads folder) are the ones that are complex and even slow-moving. I appreciate the writer's willingness in allowing a story to unfold according to the dictates of his / her vision and not because of the reader's attention span. I love the challenge of being fully involved in the book, not just reading it quickly and then promptly forgetting it the moment I move to another title because it just sounded no differently from other books written in the same style.

I'm with you on the shorter chapters bit. If anything, I find that I *need* to shorten my chapters because of my writing style. I think readers would appreciate the more frequent breaks after working their way through the long-ish sentences and world-building / scene descriptions I tend to prefer (I write purely speculative fiction, so world-building is integral).

May 6, 2014 at 9:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Sussan--Congrats on your impending launch! I'm with you. I'd rather write for the people who are really going to love what I do instead of the vast majority who want to skim and forget it.

I thought of your short writing ebooks when I read Penny Sansevieri's post I quoted above. For nonfiction instructional books, short is definitely the new long.

May 6, 2014 at 9:36 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ryan--Thanks! It wouldn't make sense if communication didn't change and evolve along with everything else.

I guess I might be the same as you. I do skim on the Web. No way could I get through the day if I read every word of every blog I visit.

l prefer to read long, complex books in paper. Being away from screens feels more like relaxation to me, and I feel I can savor every word. For faster reads, I prefer my Kindle. I probably am skimming without realizing it. Something about that "percentage" line at the bottom keeps me going faster.

Congrats on the 114,000 word novel! It's an amazing accomplishment to write a long, complex book.

May 6, 2014 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Hayden--I still love a book like that. Although I must say I picked up an ancient edition of Ivanhoe the other day and it looked daunting. I loved it as a teen, and scenes are still in my head, but I didn't feel drawn to reread it.

The short chapter thing seems to be working for a lot of people. I see Libby Hellman above just tried it with great success. And yes, I should have added that stuff like fantasy/spec fic/scifi needs more description because people don't have a picture of your planet or spaceship or whatever in their memory banks.

May 6, 2014 at 9:50 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...


May 6, 2014 at 9:54 AM  
Blogger Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I'm late, but better late than sorry. I bury my dialogue. Eric Lustbader is far too big an influence. I love him, but I've got to get with the program. Starting now! Thanks, Anne. I'm a new follower. I'll be back. Love this post!

May 6, 2014 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Joylene--Welcome! It's actually pretty easy to go through and unbury. And it makes your work look prettier on the screen, too.

May 6, 2014 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Michael John Olson said...

Anne, fantastic post! I've been getting the same type of reviews making me wonder if the the entire book was even read. My most recent reviewer even confessed to skimming parts of the book, and then mildly complaining that the book was too long (ok, confession: it's a door stopper)

I think that those of us who grew up reading THE BIG books like James Clavell's Shogun or Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove are making the mistake of trying to emulate them. As much as I love the monster size epic, those type of books seem to be on the way out. Times change, have to change with them.

May 6, 2014 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger Gregory C. Randall said...

Anne, fantastic post - so good I reviewed it in my own blog with notes and expansions. All the best, I look forward to your posts every week.
Greg www.writing4death.blogspot.com

May 6, 2014 at 5:19 PM  
Blogger Dana Delamar said...

Like Ruth, I cut 18K from my first book, and it was all the better for it. I also ended up using a lot of the techniques Anne mentions (especially unburying dialogue and breaking up paragraphs) to make the text more readable. I aim for chapters around 6-10 pages long (I will let them go longer if there's no good place to break, particularly if I'm at or past the midpoint), with 8 being the sweet spot. I also do revision passes at the end looking for fluff to cut (that advice from Stephen King to cut 10% is spot on) and to make sure there are good hooks throughout.

May 6, 2014 at 6:50 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Michael--I've had some insight into those reviews from people who commented on this post when it was shared elsewhere. I've long suspected--and commenters confirmed: there is a group of "reviewers" on Amazon who only skim or read the "peek inside", then they return the book within hours but get the "verified purchase" on their review. Apparently if they get a certain number of reviews they can start getting free stuff. I had a bizarre one-star from a person who had never reviewed any book before, but had hundreds of 5 star Amazon reviews of plastic jewelry and other trinkets. So it's good to be aware a lot of reviews are from scammers.

But I agree about the Clavell/McMurtry/Michener-type saga. They're out of fashion for a number of reasons. I remember when I'd buy the biggest, fattest book I could find to take on a trip or to the beach. But I haven't read one in years myself. I guess I've been following a trend.

May 6, 2014 at 6:54 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Gregory--Thanks for the shout out! I left a comment on your blog.

May 6, 2014 at 6:55 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Seinfeld without sound? Nooooooo!

Love all this great advice, Anne. I'm actually glad to see the part about shorter chapters. My chapters are generally pretty short, and I worried about that.

May 6, 2014 at 7:11 PM  
Blogger Dana Delamar said...

Last year, my book club decided to read some of the classics, so we started with "Wuthering Heights," which I'd read as a teen and loved. It took me quite a while to get into it this time. (Same with "Villette.")

I later re-read Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire," and again I struggled initially--I had to settle down to the rhythm of those books and their more leisurely pacing and lush descriptions. (I also was reading "Interview" on a Kindle, and those long, lovely paragraphs that looked fine on a printed page were just murder to get through on my Paperwhite.)

I love, love, love reading, but if I'm having that reaction today, it tells me that folks who don't love reading as much (or who are growing up in today's faster-paced, sound-bite world) will probably struggle even more than I did, and many may give up altogether.

I think it's still possible to tell a rich, complex story while making it much easier to consume, and the presentation is probably a key component. The first time I read one of my books on Kindle (during revisions), I was appalled at how long the paragraphs were. I immediately set about breaking them up. I aim for three to four sentences max in my paragraphs, with one- and two-sentence paragraphs to break those up. (And I just went through and broke this comment up into a bunch of shorter paragraphs!)

All that said, I'm currently writing a series where most of the books clock in around the 100-110K mark, except for the prequel, which is 65K. The most frequent complaint I get on the 65K book? It's too short! So, go figure. :)

May 6, 2014 at 7:22 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Julie--Seinfeld without sound drives me crazy. Some people keep the TV on all the time and just turn the sound off. You know they're saying brilliant things, but you can't hear them. Yeah, keep those short chapters. Readers love them.

May 6, 2014 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dana--Very interesting about Interview with the Vampire. I don't think of that as being very old, but it was of another time. I loved it then, but might get frustrated reading it on my Kindle.

I agree it's possible to tell a complex story and still use the modern formatting to make it easier to view on an ereader.

I see reviews that complain a novella is too long and a 90K worder is too short. I think people will complain about anything. :-) Also it depends on what people are used to. Most people hate change. If they expect long from you, then it might be hard to break the habit.

May 6, 2014 at 8:00 PM  
Blogger AD Starrling said...

Late to the party!

Just wanted to say thanks for a very helpful post again. I'm getting better at unburying my dialogue, using more white space, entertaining, and sketching.

I still have a weird obsession with 100-105k words novels though. I feel as if I'm cheating my readers if I write less than that. On the other hand, I don't pad my books out to make that figure; it tends to happen organically.

Now, the chapter length issue is a good one. Patterson (I'm told) goes for very, very short ones. Mine tend to run from 3000-3500 words and about 10 pages in an MS doc file with 12 pt Times Roman font. This kinda works out organically as well. And I always make sure I end the chapter on a cliffhanger. Making them shorter would involve more cliffhangers than I can think of, I feel. And the poor reader might get vertigo!

May 7, 2014 at 6:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

That's the length my chapters used to be. It's the way we were all taught to write a novel.

And yes, it's a lot of work to have a cliffhanger in every little chapter. But you know what finally convinced me my editor was right?

I noticed how short and cliffhanger-y Downton Abbey's scenes were. And even though I was disappointed with the show this year, I was glued to it. I think it was all those little cliffhangers.

But if you try it and it doesn't work, it doesn't. Luckily, some readers will always like things done the traditional way.

May 7, 2014 at 5:50 PM  
Blogger Susannah Cyrus said...

I love this post. I don't always love taking a hard look at the new reader reality and getting honest with myself about how much time and mental effort audiences are willing to commit.

Happily, I remind myself of that one Chrismukkah Dinner, back when I had dropped out of college for the second time, and the obligatory "so-what- have-you-been doing" interviews from the elders to us "kids" started rolling in.

I will never forget the patriarch of the house and my parents' very financially successful friend looking at me and saying "So, what on Earth will you do with a Poetry major?"

I stammered then, having no biting response at the ready. But now, in the age of the micro-blog and screen skimming, I feel the contemporary poet's ability to be the most compelling in the tightest spaces is serving me well.

Dialogue is a challenge and always will be. I love how Junot Diaz and Haruki Murakami handle things. They are masterfully evocative and pretty concise.

At 30, I feel weirdly disconnected. I am of the "bridge kids." We had rabbit ears on our family TV and then got our first Apple II a sometime in Junior High.

Secretly, I don't connect completely with Boomers who find digital tech and go all "happy happy joy joy" on the newfangledness of it all but I can't relate AT ALL to the generation below me who literally cannot look up from their devices or play independently outdoors.

Surely, this comes through in my writing. I am somewhere in between. I studied English Literature and actually enjoyed Milton and the Romantics. Now I publish ebooks to Kindle for a living and some stuff reads so much like TV that I have to ask, can there be a balance between the entertain at all costs with an eye for sales approach and that old standby; art for art's sake?

Just sayin'.

You are the best blogger I know of Anne. Thank you

May 7, 2014 at 7:40 PM  
Blogger Jan Ryder said...

I'm late commenting on this, Anne. Thank you for another informative (and timely) post. I'm doing well with white space, and shorter chapters, but will need to find a shovel and dig out the dialogue in my WIP!

May 8, 2014 at 4:41 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Susannah--It's so great to have a poet weigh in here. A lot of commenters seem to feel long=literary, which is why I keep bringing up Vonnegut, who was short and literary..

Poetry is the art of distilling thoughts into their essence. I think this is the direction prose may be taking. Short isn't necessarily something for writers to dash off quickly, but readers want the work pre-distilled--more like poetry. Which is what Vonnegut was doing in the 1960s and 70s. His books are deceptively short and full of white space. They also have a whole lot more powerful stuff to say about the human condition than big books of the era, like Grace Metalious's Peyton Place.

I think what's happening is big doorstop "blockbuster" bestsellers are on their way out, but literary fiction will always have a steady market.

TV is where a lot of our cultural creativity is happening right now. Shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and MadMen are breaking barriers we're not allowed to do in novels--like having an unsympathetic protagonist (something early novels were allowed to do, but is pretty taboo now.) And film has divided itself in to comic book blockbusters and semi-plotted indie meditations, so following current TV precedents may not be a bad idea at all.

May 8, 2014 at 9:27 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Jan--Unburying dialogue can be time consuming, but I guarantee it will be worth it. It sure helped my work!

May 8, 2014 at 9:29 AM  
Blogger kongjie said...

Dear Anne,

I confess I am unfamiliar with your work and your blog--I happened across this entry via "Thoughtmag" in Flipboard, in case you're curious.

When I saw the title I was curious but assumed like most other headlines these days it would be vapid linkbait. Instead I was pleasantly surprised with thoughtful and useful ideas. Great job.

Two observations. I find myself currently skimming a book for plot. But it's not really something new for me and it goes back to pre-Internet days--I skim when the author's prose isn't up to the plot. In this particular case, it's a time-travel scenario. The author lured me in with high-concept promises and had me for a little while.

But before long I felt some characters were responding in uncharacteristic ways; others seemed solely tasked with exposition, forced to explain every detail of this future world. The author lost me, yet I had to skim on to find out what happens.

So sure, I will agree that readers have to some extent changed their habits. Another part of me suspects, though, that the right writing will snag even the skimmers.

Point two: there is at least one thing that the Kindle can't easily do, and that is to allow me to easily flip ahead and see how much is left in the chapter. Sure, it shows me how many minutes are left, based on my reading speed, but when I'm getting impatient and want to get to a stopping point, there is nothing like knowing how many pages I have left. Or, in the case of writers who structure plot lines into alternating chapters, how many pages I have left until I get back to the plot line I'm really interested in.

Thus, making shorter chapters quells the impatient reader. At least for those of us still used to holding a book in our hands and being able to flip to the last page.

May 10, 2014 at 8:09 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kongjie--Thanks for stopping by! We're glad our readers are sharing our posts. Our readership has gone from 35K hits in January to nearly 75K hits this month, and we owe it all to our readers. Thanks for spreading the word, everybody!

Thanks for pointing out another reason for short chapters in the e-age. I write that way myself--with alternating POV in different chapters--and I know what you mean about wanting to know when we're going to get back to the other storyline.

I'd like to think my core readers don't skim my books, but there will always be skimmers. I try to write stuff that can be enjoyed on several levels--something satisfying for the literary reader who gets the subtext and a fast-paced plot for people who are only there for the surface plot points. Not always easy.

May 10, 2014 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Good reminders! The short chapters and powerful dialogue are really key - I've noticed it while reading as well.

May 10, 2014 at 7:50 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nicole--I'm noticing it more and more in my reading, too. And as a reader, I can see how well shortening things works.

May 11, 2014 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger Icy Sedgwick said...

I feel like I've been doing a lot of these by accident! Breaking up paragraphs is always a good one, so people feel that what they've got to read next is more easily digestible.

May 11, 2014 at 10:10 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Icy--Isn't it great when you find out you've been doing things right and you didn't even have to be told? I think we're seeing this in a lot of the new fiction we read, so some writers are probably making the adjustment subconsciously, the way you have.

May 11, 2014 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger Emily Cross said...

Excellent advice as always Anne, I think I'll be taking a lot of this on board - like shorter chapters, spacing and dialogue (things I've noticed myself that I like when I read). I think the importance of white space can never be underestimated.

That being said - when I read a book I love, I want it to never end so I'm not sure about the length (although I can see from a money perspective how more books would be better lol)

May 16, 2014 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Emily--Great to see you here! It's so true about white space. The short chapter thing is more about making money than accommodating the reader, I think. People love George R R Martin,and his books are HUGE.

May 16, 2014 at 11:27 AM  

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