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Empty Calories

I watch my weight through diet and exercise, but I’m not what you’d call a calorie counter.  I know what foods are bad for me and weed them off the menu when I’m in the reduction mode.  However, I work closely with eight women and have had numerous conversations with them on the subject.  Through osmosis, I’ve picked up all sorts of interesting tidbits of information about food energy, including the topic of empty calories!

Empty calories are high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats.  Put simply, empty calories = high calories but low nutrition.  Another technical phrase commonly used to describe this type of food energy is discretionary calories (I had to chuckle when I read that one), but we regular folk just call it what it really is…Junk Food. French fries, snicker bars, double-stuffed Oreo’s, ice cream, pizza, a bottle of Samuel Adams or glass of red wine, all the stuff we really REALLY love!  Ultimately, no matter how good they temporarily make us feel, they are not good for our bodies.  These empty calories provide short-term stimuli with no long-term benefits, and can actually be detrimental.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve experienced this same feeling after closing the cover on some of the books I’ve read.  All show and very little substance.  The purple prose equivalent to a banana split.  I won’t name names, but I know a few of my favorite authors who have seemed to have taken a vacation while writing a book and the result was less than satisfying.  I call it the ‘All dressed up with nowhere to go’ syndrome. Being a man, and firmly entrenched in the mystery/suspense genre where plot heavy manuscripts are the norm, I’ll admit my threshold for hollow, flowery writing is more limited than most of my blog followers.  Certainly, we all have our boundaries. 

I enjoy reading evocative, stylized, ornate, emotionally charged writing as much as anyone, as long as the narrative has weight and continues to move forward simultaneously.  Extravagant prose that draws attention to itself and bogs down the flow is a guaranteed way to cause me to skim ahead.  Nevertheless, I’ve been guilty of sliding in a glazed donut myself a time or two (as pointed out by my CP’s), so I know how hard it is to resist the temptation.   Just as its next to impossible to stop yourself from tossing that pan of lasagna into your shopping cart while at the supermarket, because it’s so easy to prepare and taste so good, it’s the same as trying to keep those calories out of your novel.      

And why is this so important anyway?  Because I guarantee you that all of the agents you’ll be sending your prospective manuscript to are literary dietitians and can easily recognize these empty calories for what they are.  So substitute fruit snacks for those pop-tarts in chapter seven and try whole grains instead of the refined ones in the scene you’re currently writing.  Your body, and your manuscript, will be better for it.   


  1. I've noticed this too! Every once in a while a banana split is OK, but you eat too much and it's a guaranteed stomach ache!

    My favorite stories leave me thinking about the plot and the characters long after I've finished reading. I think that's what we're all aspiring to when we sit down to read a book ...


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  3. I've been wondering if it's just me. The last three books I've read have left me feeling full but not satisfied(complete with full on skimming). I wonder if I've just become a harsher critic or maybe just more discerning. Or perhaps my own desire for what a book should be and how it should effect me is simply my own and others don't share it.

  4. There are a lot of empty calorie books out there. One author I used to really enjoy has written several lately that aren't very good. I haven't been able to get past 10 or 15 pages. I won't bother trying his stuff again.

  5. I guess I should be thankful mine had just enough substance then!

  6. I love that analogy. Also, I love the idea of agents as literary dieticians. I read what I eat--heavy on the junk food--but I skim over the bad-for-me parts (something I can't quite manage when it comes to food).

  7. Great post!

    It's all about balance to me. Sometimes I just want that empty calorie snack, at certain times it just is exactly what I want, but other times it's far from satisfying.

    Just so, a book needs description in order to draw me in, but just enough. Nothing more, nothing less.

  8. I agree on the literary front.

    But now all I can think about is double stuff Oreos!

    I admit, when it comes to food, I eat a lot of junk.
    I'm a healthier reader than I am eater. ;)

  9. Glazed donuts!! Yay!!!

    But yes. Excellent analogy!

  10. Did you know the medical association wants a warning label placed on sugery sodas? Sorry, 'empty calories' made me think of it.

  11. I just received a critique back that had a lot of those empty calories in it. All in the form of back story.

    I'll just pretend its all prep work and say "oh yeah, I working on that tread mill plan".

    Now I think I deserve a banana split and a glass of wine for all my hard work at revision.


  12. Apt analogy, as always!

    When I read a novel that's overwritten, long on style and short on substance, I get bored quickly. And that's despite the fact that I love good writing and a well-turned phrase. I still want to say to the author: "Dude, will you please make something HAPPEN!" :-) Really good writers don't have to lose plot to write memorably.

  13. Excellent analogy! I've read a few empty calorie books lately and like you they're from previous favorite authors. I actually found myself wondering what made said authors so lax of late. The diet of course (winks). (Hugs)Indigo

  14. Literary dietitians . . . I like it! It's always disappointing to reach the end of a book and feel that, for all it's beautiful words, it was somewhat empty. Great post!

  15. Love this analogy! You're so right; those literary empty calories leave you feeling gross and unsatisfied. Great food for thought! (Sorry for the silly pun :P)

    Still loving FK. I'm at the moment when Agent Cooper whisks Lee and Dianne away from Detective Barrow. Good eats!!

    Hope all's well!

  16. Love this analogy.

    It definitely hits home...why is it so hard to cut out those harmful but yummy empty calories?

  17. Great post, I do thing some empty calories are need in books, just not ones we won't enjoy.

  18. Oh I love this, DL! Literary dietician - what a great metaphor. It's what Stephen King says: You must kill your darlings. Or give up your donuts. Whatever works!

    Thanks so much for posting my Amazon Web Splash Badge! Really appreciate your help and support! :)

  19. Great analogy. Now you've made me hungry for whole grain pop tarts? You know they really have those, and the sugar cinnamon ones are fab! :)

  20. DL--

    When I first started writing, I was really in love with empty calories. A dash of powdered sugar here, a honey glaze to sweeten things up over there. If you took a pencil to one of those old drafts and circled adjectives, it would look like a tic-tac-toe game gone awry. Every sentence read like this: "The ghostly, barren house sat along the wide, cobblegrey road, next to a stand of dark, ominous-looking trees." Clearly, pages and pages of this will put anyone in a sugar coma, which you probably want to avoid if you'd like people to read your stuff.

    Happily, I've been able to go "more lean" over the years, but even now, I sometimes fall into the old junk food habit, so I think your analogy works really well because it captures that feeling of having to write in a "nutritious" way, without serving up the same thing over and over again.

  21. Hahaha! I love this post. Well any post with food but this one has food and writing!! Awesome.

  22. Love the analogies here Alex. I love my empty calories (or kilojoules as we call them in Oz) but I get the message. As one who writes a fair dollop of flowery prose, I also have the joy of cutting it out, just like going on a diet, ha ha.

    I sometimes think authors who write a ripping good yarn, then get a 3-book deal, often show their weariness by writing a trashy, empty tome. No doubt the first book was carefully crafted over a long period. Now you be careful after CassaStar is published. We'll be looking for even higher quality in your next!




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