They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I’d have to disagree when it comes to writing fiction.  Fiction is like a river.  It needs to flow to survive (and a few rapids thrown in when it comes to crime fiction).  When a story gets bogged down by heavy detail and technobabble, the writer has effectively created a log jam.  The river stops flowing and the water turns foul.

Agree, disagree, I don’t care, I stick by this.  I like stories with pace.  It doesn’t have to be a fast pace but I don’t want the story to get sidetracked with too many little asides and procedural blah-blah-blah.

I really should listen to myself sometimes.  During the writing of Paying the Piper, I dug myself a big pit that took six rewrites to get myself out of.  I tend to steer away from procedural things when it comes to cops, etc.  I write about “everyman” characters (or Novice Heroes as it’s been dubbed).  I tend not to make my leading characters cops or FBI agents because I don’t know the mindset well enough.  However, I broke that rule for Paying the Piper.  I have an FBI agent as an important secondary character.  FBI procedure is important to the story.  I did my homework and inserted the FBI procedures into the story, like a diligent little writer.  It seemed like the right thing to do.  It wasn’t.  It was bloody boring.  I’d killed the pace stone dead.  Bugger!

The problem was I felt this obligation to insert everything into the story that I’d been told.  The story’s subject matter was very important to the FBI.  They’d spent a lot of their valuable time outlining all this information to me.  I felt that I needed to get this down as faithfully as possible out of respect for these people and the work they do.  That’s all very nice to the FBI, but not my reader.

Getting every detail correct is great for non-fiction book about the FBI but not for a fast paced thriller.  It was time to break a few G-man hearts.  It was time to cut.

I didn’t ignore what I was told.  I just became selective.  What did my readers need to know to understand what was going on?  If I showed the characters doing something, did the reader need an explanation to back it up?  I decided no.  The story isn’t about how the FBI do their job.  The story is about a vindictive kidnapper tearing a family apart.  This simple analysis became my mantra.  So I removed everything extraneous to the story and kept only what was relevant.  As I trimmed, the flow returned and the excitement was back.  This was a story worth reading again.

This is the problem with research.  A strong and varied knowledge base, while essential can be explained away in a couple of sentences on the page.  I can spend a day researching the ballistics of a 9mm pistol, but all I need to know is that a couple of rounds at close range are going to hurt a person quite bit.

Details are important, but the story is more important.  Everything else is TMI.

Yours streamlined,
Simon Wood
Paying_the_piper PS:  I received the cover art for Paying the Piper.  It’s quite bold.  I’d just like to point out that no teddy bears were harmed in the making of this cover.  A professional stunt bear was used.

17 thoughts on “TMI

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Creepy cover – that image juxtaposed with the title is REALLY ominous.

    You’re so right about too much detail – most of what I ended up cutting in my last revisions of THE PRICE were all that geographical and place detail I’d gone to so much trouble to collect. But you just don’t need that much detail to set a scene, and then you really have to move on to the emotion. It’s particularly true for thrillers, as opposed to mysteries, which can be more intricately detailed because the pace is more leisurely, but for thriller writers, pace trumps just about everything.

    You know, filmmakers have the same struggle – directors and producers tend to hold on to the expensive shots that took a whole day to capture, even when in the final assembly it’s clear that that million-dollar sequence is slowing down the movie.

  2. billie

    A question from a non-thriller writer – as part of creating the flow and pace, what techniques do you use to speed things up and/or slow them down?


    Does detail and description become a tool as well in slowing things down a notch in certain places?

  3. B.G. Ritts

    When a book has TMI for me, I begin skimming past all the excess ‘whatever’ to get to the next significant part of the story. Occasionally, questions about what the editor was doing come to mind — and I usually stop reading writers whose prose has developed serious verbosity.

    There’s nothing ambiguous about that PAYING THE PIPER cover, Simon. It easily notifies people of the book’s basic storyline.

  4. Mike MacLean

    If you were going to kill off a bear, it should’ve been a care bear.

    I absolutely agree, too much detail and the story drips like molasses. You need enough to make the character believable, and not one ounce more.

    But, as the song says, different strokes…

    Try telling Tom Clancy to cut out the details.

  5. JT Ellison

    Love that cover! So creepy. I’ll never look at Teddy the same way again.

    My dad calls this extraneous stuff the “superfluous bullshit.” You need some to keep the story real, but too much and you’re just writing a school report. The talent lies in knowing what to use and what to cut. Kill your darlings, right?

  6. Louise Ure

    When I include researched topics in my work, I look for that little gem that says, “Damn, if she knew that, then I’ll bet she really knows what she’s talking about.”

    But you have to get through a lot of paste to find that gem.

  7. Naomi

    Wow, what a difference a year make. Last year you were selling your collection of short stories published by a small press and now you have introduced us to a new cover of a second Dorchester book!

    I’m of two minds about research. Like other former journalists, I’m not into going overboard on research. Been there, done that. But on the other hand, I realize that my readers come to my books because they want to enter into a new world, and those details need to be as authentic as possible. Like Alex has said, there are different demands on thrillers versus traditional mysteries. I guess I’m more mysterious, not thrilling!

  8. Gar Haywood

    Simon, I’m with you 100% on this one. TMI strikes a book’s death knell for me, especially when it’s transparent that the info is only there because the author spent months collecting it and can’t bear not to use every word of it.

    For one thing, tons of technical info is intrusive and, usually, boring as all hell. But even more importantly, it can almost never be conveyed in a way that seems natural and unforced. TMI in dialogue, for instance, puts a distracting spotlight on the author like nothing else.

    For me, here’s the value of tons of research: It gives you the confidence to write about a specific subject knowing you aren’t likely to screw something up in the details, because you KNOW all the details. If you know what’s real and what’s right—because you did your homework—you should be able to write realistically about FBI procedure, or whatever, completely organically, without having to consciously decide what to put in or what to take out.

    Louise, forgive me, but I had to cringe a little about your post…

    When I include researched topics in my work, I look for that little gem that says, “Damn, if she knew that, then I’ll bet she really knows what she’s talking about.”

    …because you don’t ever really want your reader to be thinking about YOU, do you? Even if it’s a Wow! moment, anything that draws a reader’s attention away from the story to its author is a bad thing, wouldn’t you agree?

  9. Stacey Cochran

    I think there’s a brilliant subject here. It seems like the mystery community of writers (and more specifically the editors, agents, and publishers) want procedurally correct crime novels.

    There’s no way in hell I’ll ever write with the kind of procedural accuracy of say Patricial Cornwell or Kathy Reichs, and so I’ve chosen to write psychological suspense novels.

    Perhaps it’s just that I haven’t knocked one of these out of the park yet, but the reaction from editors and agents makes me wonder if they don’t prefer the “procedurally correct” detective novel over a straight psychological suspense novel from an everyman’s perspective.

    I prefer reading the latter and have set my course on writing these kinds of novels. The emphasis is on suspense and anxiety, rather than on real-life police procedural accuracy.



  10. Deirdre Savoy

    Damn I wish I could remember who it was, but some writing mind much greater than mine spoke of finding the exact telling detail that defined a situation, character, whatever, using that and letting all other information slide. As a reader, I can cope with a little overzealousness in detail providing. Sometimes, though, there is a certain kind of intrusion on the author’s part that cries “look at me, see what great stuff I found out,” that truly annoys me. There is a difference between getting the details right and a book feeling “researched.”

    Great cover, Simon.

  11. simon

    Billie: necessary details should never be lost, but you build description into action. When Chandler refered to Hollywood in the morning looking like a hooker without her makeup, the reader has an image in a sentence. The reader needs to know what’s relevant. I don’t need a description of a bucket, just tell me a bucket.

    The same applies to action. if two characters arguing, suddenly sidelining the story to recount a memory from 10 yrs ago slows the pace. the heat of an argument is focused. A character wouldn’t go there.

    And character history. the writer might know everything about their characters from the day they are born, but the reader doesn’t. Segways into character history that don’t drive the story forward aren’t needed.

    Stories are engines. They need fuel in the form of characters and action and plot. When you throw in a little sugar to sweeten, it seizes up. 🙂

  12. simon

    Naomi: whether it’s a mystery or a thriller or a romance, the story needs pace. it doesn’t have to be a fast pace, but it jst needs to run steady.

    On the subject of TMI in general. The writer needs to keep the reader informed, but doesn’t have give a lesson. If a writer does an information dump, then the writer has put the burden on the reader to work it out. The writer has to be smart and elegant when it comes to description. When someone coined the phrase “splitting the atom” they condensed nuclear physics into 3 words. Smart writing.

  13. pari

    Great, great cover, Simon. Creepy indeed.

    Procedure isn’t the only TMI pitfall . . .

    In my NM series, I know that people want to see the landscape, eat the food etc. And it’s an incredible challenge to give that without bogging down the pace.

    I remember my agent’s comment after the first read of the book that’s coming out in January.

    “Pari, you can let Sasha just get to her destinations sometimes without telling us everything she sees.” I went back and cut at least half of the descriptive passages and the book is better for it.

  14. billie

    Simon, I’m going to print out your response and read it next week on my 5 day editing blitz out of town. Great info to keep in mind as I move through the pages.

    Pari, I will miss the details of place. 🙂 But I’m sure you’ve left enough in to satiate my desire for that lovely landscape!

    Very interesting and informative post, Simon, and so well-timed for me.


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