Directing Reader Attention

Directing reader attention is an art. As the writer, it’s up to you where that precious resource goes. Are you doing a good job?

directing reader attention, description, narrative voice, creative writing
It’s your mission to show the reader what’s important.

As the writer, you know what’s important about your story. Your reader doesn’t. They’re brand new to the thing and eager to learn what matters about your character and plot. It would be terrible to just tell them. So instead you show them. But how?

You Are the Curator

You need to pick the elements that are important to the story, and leave everything else by the wayside. Act like an art curator when you sit down to write a novel. You need to pick the characters and events that are crucial to the telling of your tale. Then you need to layer in every other element that needs to be noticed.

How do you do this in a way that readers can interpret clearly? Think of the metaphor of a spotlight operator. They sit in the back of a darkened theater. Their objective is to direct the audience’s attention. If there’s a love scene going on downstage, they aren’t going to focus their spot on a big player dancing upstage. That doesn’t make any sense.

As you craft your manuscript, you don’t have a spotlight at your disposal. But you do have other tools. These are the amount of description, and the type of description.

Directing Reader Attention With Amount of Description

One consideration when directing reader attention to what’s important is the amount of writing that you’re going to lavish on the element in question. If an amulet is going to become very important in your fantasy novel, for example, you may not want to mention it in one sentence and move on. That will not be enough to pique the reader’s interest.

But it’s a balance. If you lavish too much attention on describing the amulet, the reader will think, “Ah ha! This writer is trying to tell me something. This isn’t the last we’ll see of this amulet.” So if you’re looking to draw attention without giving away any big reveals, keep your description notable but short.

The adverse is true, too. If something isn’t important, don’t spend time there. If you go into great detail describing the man at the bus stop, his five o’clock shadow, his wrinkled silk tie, and we never see him again, then you’ve wasted the reader’s time. The man was just set dressing. Interesting set dressing, sure, but there was no reason to treat him like the star of the show.

Directing Reader Attention With Type of Description

When you think about how to describe certain elements of your story, think of the emotion you’re attaching to your description. Important elements should have some kind of voice attached to them, they shouldn’t just lie neutrally on the page.

Look at these two examples:

The dog came over and sat on my lap.

The dog trundled over and lolled into my lap, letting his head rest heavily on my knee.

We may not know a lot about the dog yet, but the second description tells me, as a reader, that there’s probably more to know. The first description is so generic, there’s no emotional signature at all. The second uses interesting words and some sensory details. It paints more of a picture. If you want to be especially emotional, you could even do something like:

The little bastard pranced into my lap and nuzzled his homework-chewing chin into the palm of my hand. I couldn’t stay mad at him, but Mrs. Turner would have my neck for missing yet another assignment!

Here, there’s a clear emotional signature to the description. It’s also a good example of the concept of interiority. We can’t help but start forming a relationship with this dog because, clearly, the narrator already has one. I’m also getting some more context about the situation here, and how the dog fits into it.

Of all three descriptions, I’m going to remember that third dog the most, because it was described in an emotional way. It’s also the longest description, practically guaranteeing that my attention is drawn to it.

When you’re revising, think about directing reader attention like a spot operator and curator with your descriptions. Let them work for you, and guide the reader through your story.

Is your descriptive language hitting the mark? Hire me as your novel editor, and I’ll help you take your writing voice to the next level.

Starting a Novel With Aftermath

Starting a novel with aftermath (the reaction to a big event) is hugely temping. After all, writers are inundated with the advice to “show, don’t tell,” start with action, raise the stakes, etc. etc. etc. It puts a lot of pressure on starting a novel!

starting a novel with aftermath, starting a novel, starting a chapter, writing a novel, beginning a novel, prologue, tension, stakes
Whoa whoa whoa, what happened here? Let’s take a step back…

Starting a Novel With Aftermath Is Jarring

The other day, I was working on a an editorial project, and found myself not quite invested in the opening. I should’ve been. The novel beginning was a high-stakes trial. But there’s often a problem with stakes that are too high: it’s harder for the reader to get emotionally attached. When we’re screaming about the end of the world from page one, the reader is trying to muster up an insurmountable level of caring.

So when this client project opens with a trial, the real issue is that the conflict is already behind us. There’s no time to fill in context, let the reader discover who the character is, or foster emotional connection.

The interesting deed is done, the problem has happened, and now we’re knee-deep in aftermath.

How to Begin a Novel

Instead of taking this dramatic approach (or writing a prologue that’s high stakes right from the get-go), think about the balance of action and information. You want to present the reader with a compelling character who has a manageable problem. Donald Maass calls this “bridging conflict.” The problem is manageable enough that we’re not completely overwhelmed with high stakes. Nonetheless, the problem matters to the character. As a result, we start learning about the character and what their objectives, motivations, priorities, etc. are.

We see them in the middle of this problem, trying to work through it. This is much more compelling than seeing them after the problem has already happened. We see them getting invested or emotional or upset. Our attachment to them grows. Then the initial problem is either solved, or it grows into the larger problem that’s going to carry the entire plot.

By this point, the reader should have an emotional foothold not only in the problem, but in the character, and as a result, the story.

Start Your Novel With Action…But Not Too Much

Without introducing a smaller problem and the character first, you’re going to have a hard time selling the reader on the major plot points you’ve cooked up. So it’s important to start your novel with action, but maybe not too much action.

And as you layer in that action, make sure to layer in context about character. When we start with a trial, for example, I am much more interested in what happened, who did what, and most importantly, why the crime occurred. The dry legal procedural stuff? It’s near the bottom of my list. My curious reader mind wants all sorts of other fodder.

Go where you think your reader wants to be. Court rooms are inherently full of tension, sure, but when you start in one, you’re trying to harness tension you didn’t earn with plot and character first.

Are you nailing your novel beginning? Wondering how to start a novel? Let me be an expert pair of eyes on your first pages. I’ve read tens of thousands of novel openings, and bring that experience to my editing services.

Learn to Love the Revision Process for Writing a Book

The revision process for writing a book can be extremely intimidating. I completely understand. There are some really great points in the comments about why this situation arises, but that doesn’t change the fact that writers are still often too intimidated by revision to give it the time it deserves. Read on.

There’s More to Writing Than Query Letters

I have a harsh lesson for you today about the revision process, my dear readers. Hear me out.

In the spirit of retrofitting my website with all the latest gizmos and gadgets, I’ve also been doing work behind the scenes on SEO (search engine optimization). It’s the art and skill of making websites more friendly to search engines and, ideally, pulling potential readers in off of Google by using keywords that relate to the site’s content. That way, you reach people who are searching for what you have to offer, and they get relevant content. It’s a win-win!

The sweet spot happens if you find keywords that are searched for a lot, but that aren’t terribly competitive. That’s where you find your opportunities to rank high in search engine results. I read a book about it, so I’m basically a pro now. Deal with it. 😛

Revising Your Writing

In reviewing some keywords, I came across the perfect example of why so many writing efforts fail. I feel like the smug spinster aunt for pointing this out, but just look at these two keywords, and the associated search volume. JUST READ THEM AND WEEP (I know I did):

revision process, creative writing, creative writing revision, revision, editing, editorial
You should be ashamed of yourselves, Googlers!

What’s this you’re seeing? These are two search engine keywords and their monthly associated search volume. Up to 30,000 of y’all are searching about how to do creative writing every month, and only 100 brave souls (or even fewer) actually want to know what to do with all that beautiful creative writing once they’ve written it!

I apologize for this scolding post if you’re right there with me on the revision train. For the rest of you, the revision train is leaving the station, and you better be on it!

This reminds of me of all the times I spoke at conferences. 9 out of 10 writers would ask about fuh-reaking query letters. Rarely, rarely, and I mean every third or fourth weekend conference, would I get a craft question at a panel discussion. Or someone would approach me with an insightful writing concern.

Every other time, writers would be falling all over themselves to ask about queries. Queries! Those 300-word letters! Compared to your 70,000-word novels! This misdirected energy continues to surprise me.

Love the Revision Process

The revision process is where it’s at. Writing is actually in the rewriting. Once you’ve done the creative writing, there are so many wonderful things that happen during the revision process. Revision is where you find the shape of your writing, it’s where you tease out all of the rich thematic elements.

I can’t get enough of it. So this is a call to action and a plea from your dear friend MK. If your zest for writing ends as soon as you type The End on a manuscript, dig into this website and think about learning to love revision.

A literary agent’s slush pile is overflowing with manuscripts where the writer wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and rev–nah, let’s just send it in! In the overwhelming majority of cases, these are not the manuscripts that get offers of representation.

How to Revise

If you’re stuck or just getting started with your manuscript revision, take this tip: Put your manuscript away for a few weeks. (Ideally three months but nobody ever takes me up on this advice!) Once you’ve typed The End, your subconscious has gone into overdrive thinking of your story and all of its various elements. When you return to the page, you will actually be seeing it with new eyes.

It’s the easiest advice to give, but the hardest to follow. Are you up for taking the challenge and loving the revision process a little more with me this year?

If you really don’t know where to start with manuscript revision, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll give you a comprehensive, actionable, and inspiring map.

Rushing Through Revision

Recently, I had a potential client come to me for freelance editorial work. He had a 4,000 word manuscript and a dummy that he wanted me to review. It was a rush request, which is fine. I charge more for those because I have a lot of clients who wait quite a while to get on my calendar. Not a problem. But I ultimately ended up declining to work with him, and I got to thinking that I’d write a post about why. The real reason was this client’s personal deadline, and a potential issue it implied. Note that I received this email on December 10th, six days before the writer wanted me to turn the work around, and ten days before his submission goal.

Here is how I responded to this potential client:

Thanks for writing in. Winter is my absolute busiest time. I call it the New Years Resolution effect. Do I have an hour to look at 4,000 words and scroll through a dummy? Sure. But, to be honest, I am hesitant for a number of reasons. Two have to do with how I operate, personally. First, I’ve had people sign up in August to work with me over the winter. I sometimes do expedited services, but because you’re contacting me to skip the line and all of these other clients that are on my plate right now have been waiting so patiently, I do charge 25% more than I usually would to accommodate rush requests. Second, I always need an agreement and deposit in place to begin work. You’re not allowing a lot of time for those logistics. I could just dive in, sure, but I operate on a fairness principle. I don’t want to throw my usual workflow out the window for one client, when others would’ve probably liked for the same. I didn’t make exceptions for them, and so I won’t in this case, either.

My next two hesitation have to do with your self-imposed deadline. First, publishing essentially shuts down during the holidays. Since so many people are away from the office, very little gets done. I’ve been discussing submission strategies with several clients and I’m recommending that they fire work off to agents and editors in mid-January at the very earliest. Could you submit five days before Christmas? Sure. What are the odds your submission will actually be read on the 20th? I would say 1%. I realize it’s a symbolic deadline that has a lot of meaning to you, but it’s probably one of the most hectic times to try and show your best foot forward. You risk hurting your chances if you submit now.

Second, you’re requesting editorial feedback. If I do read the manuscript, chances are, I’ll have notes for you. A lot of notes. But you want to submit by the 20th. Is four days enough to address them and do a revision? A really good revision? That’s where I have to draw a hard line and say, “No.” The bulk of a writer’s work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the revision. You’ve told me that you don’t plan to change your dummy at all. That makes sense. You’ve already created it, and you’d prefer not to repeat that work. But the manuscript might have a lot of opportunities for growth. A lot of opportunities that you don’t want to miss. 4,000 words doesn’t sound like a lot to some, but any story, even a short one, has a lot of moving parts. There’s plot, character, voice…

If you engage a developmental editor who’s likely to give you suggestions for changes, I’d say you’re not giving yourself enough time to make them. There are writers who submit to freelance editors with the expectation that the editor will say, “This is perfect as is, you’re ready to send.” I have only encountered a “ready to go” manuscript twice in my years of editorial work. Even those two could’ve benefited from some tweaking, which both writers took their time to do before going on to secure their agents. Much more often than not, there is a lot for a writer to do after they receive feedback. If you’re looking for someone to just give you the green light and no notes, I’m not that person.

It’s for this last reason that I am going to kindly decline your rush request. I have the hour, absolutely. Everyone has an hour. But I don’t think it’s a good use of my time or your money to give you thoughtful editorial feedback if you’re just planning on zipping through a revision in four days. If you want to really jump into the editorial process, let’s talk. If it’s not right for you at this time, I wish you all the best.

***

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But there are a lot of writers, it’s true, who engage an editor with the expectation that they’ll hear, “Wow! Rush this off tomorrow, it’s perfect!” I’m not saying that this writer thought exactly this, but given the timeline he wanted, I just couldn’t see how there would be bandwidth for anything else. The point is, many people spend all of November pouring 50k words onto the blank page. Is this an accomplishment? You bet! But once their first drafts are done, some writers decide that it’s time to find an agent yesterday. They’ve written a novel, after all! It’s right there in Scrivener, formatted and everything! So what more could possibly be needed?

A lot, actually. If you’re like the other 99.99% of us mere mortals. So I hope this post serves as a reminder of the importance of revision. And a peek into my thought process. (And a reminder that December is a dead zone in publishing!) It’s rare that I turn down an editorial client, but it does happen. Some projects simply aren’t a good fit for me to begin with because of subject matter, genre, or style of writing. It’s very rare that I consider a project unreadable, but it has happened once or twice. In that case, at my rates, it really doesn’t make sense to have me come in and try to bring it up to a basic level. You would go broke, and I would go crazy. More likely, when I pass on a client opportunity, it’s because I don’t see how I’d be able to add value. If I don’t have good ideas for how to work with you, I’m not going to take your money. Or, in cases like this, I see a potential red flag that a writer’s expectations will not align well with the actual service that I pride myself on providing. It’s always a tough call to make.

In a very satisfying plot twist, I heard back from this potential client. He took the points I made to heart and scrapped his self-appointed deadline. We’re working together on his project next month, and he’s giving himself the time to turn around a quality revision. Sometimes these stories do have a happy ending!

A Boring Edit

I’m not calling my editorial work boring. Not in the slightest! I am suggesting a specific revision technique to work on pacing. I call it the “Boring Edit.”

Now, I can give advice until I’m blue in the face, and I know that maybe only 1% of people will actually try it. For example, I routinely tell writers who are struggling with a manuscript to put it away for three months and THEN try revising it. So far, I’ve heard from maybe a handful of writers who’ve tried it. (They loved it, BTW. Just sayin’…)

Yet I still persist in giving advice! Because it’s good for you! (What a Mom thing to say.) This technique is especially useful if you’ve been told that your writing sags or slumps or stalls. I’m looking at you, Muddy Middle. There’s not much of a trick to it, it’s very simple. All that’s required is a printer and some marginal self-awareness. As you “edit,” you only have ONE task. Sounds great, right?

Here are your steps:

  1. Put your manuscript in single-space formatting. This is so you’ll be less tempted to scribble on it and line edit. Sure, it hurts the ol’ eyeballs, but we all have to suffer for our craft sometimes.
  2. Print it out and pick a time when you can read it as you would any other book. This works best if you have a few solid chunks of time to really kick back and sink into it.
  3. Start reading. Consciously avoid trying to edit as you read. Try and read it like you would any other book.
  4. Have a pen in one hand. The pen is NOT for editing.
  5. Look at your own mind as your read. Your one job is this: Put a check mark in the margin whenever you feel yourself starting to drift, mentally. If you start thinking about the grocery list, or what you’re doing this weekend or sinking into a mire of self-loathing about how crappy your manuscript is, or whatever, put a check. That’s it, that’s all. Don’t even analyze it, just put a check mark.

Awesome. Now you have a manuscript with some check marks in the margins. And what does all that mean?

These are the parts of your book that are boring.

I’m sorry. Someone had to say it. But we can’t all be brilliant for 250+ pages, especially in the early stages of crafting a manuscript. Scenes run long. We lose the point of what we’re trying to say. We get more excited about crafting wonderful prose than actually accomplishing any action. Objectives disappear and are replaced by banter that may or may not be witty. Plot points go into hiding. Or maybe you’re just trying to make your 1,667 words for the day because it’s NaNoWriMo. (I’m on to y’all…) It’s OKAY.

With this largely hands-off read-through, you are identifying the parts of your story that need work. That are, let’s face it, a little boring.

The most important take-away is that, if even you can’t focus enough to read it, you can’t expect a reader to slog through. Simple as that. You have a vested interest in this manuscript. Nobody else does. (Yet.) If you’re boring yourself, you need to take a long hard look at those places. Usually the culprit is too much thinking/talking and not enough action. I have tons of plot-related posts you can check out to help beef up in that respect.

So who’s with me? Who’s excited to do a Boring Edit?

Revise or Give Up?

An editorial client of mine wrote me this morning, just as I was wondering what I’d post on the blog. Her question, to paraphrase, was:

I see that my manuscript has a few flaws, some big, some small. But are they fatal flaws? Is it better to revise this manuscript or give up on it so that I can focus on something else that doesn’t feel quite so full of holes.

In other words:

Does this have a chance of getting published or should I place my bets elsewhere?

If this isn’t THE QUESTION, I don’t know what is! And, as you can guess, I love and I hate this question. I hate it because it’s, for the most part, impossible to predict which projects will sell to a publisher and which won’t. Which will, once they sell, go on to achieve commercial success, and which won’t. Even publishers don’t have the secret formula: most of the books that they pay advances on don’t earn out. Yet this is the question on every writer’s mind, and understandably so. Unfortunately, I can’t answer it with any degree of certainty because I don’t have a crystal ball. (If I did, you’d see my IP address coming from some island. Cuz I’d use it to play the financial markets and not hedge my bets on publishing, ha!)

But this noncommittal nonsense is NOT why you’re reading this post. So, while I have to say it, I won’t give you some fake half-answer and call it a day. I know what you’re really asking, and despite my caveat, I will tell you what I told my client, just in less specific terms because I likely haven’t seen your manuscript. If there are weaknesses to your manuscript that you or someone else has identified, or if it’s in a very crowded category (zombies, for example) and you just don’t know if you can make a dent, I would really dig in to the area that needs work. If it’s craft, read as many plotting/character/voice/whatever books as you can get your hands on. If it’s premise, start thinking of ways to make it stand out. (I wrote a post with some ideas here.)

While you’re at it, you will want to really take a long, hard look at everything that’s going on in the book. In fiction, one element informs the other, and so it’s pretty hard to untangle them and say, “This is the culprit, revise this and everything else will seem different, too.” Take all feedback you receive with a grain of salt, and make sure you do your own digging, too. Hint: If you have a hunch that something isn’t working, I can basically guarantee that you’re right. The majority of things I comment on in manuscripts are things the writer knows are an issue but has been avoiding fixing because the fix seems complicated, or they just don’t know how. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “Yeah, I thought so!” in response to an editorial note.

You know that I hate this question, but I said that I also love it. I love it because writers are asking it. That means they have the presence of mind to think critically about their own work. A lot of people don’t, believe it or not. Not any of you fine people who are reading craft articles in the pursuit of knowledge, that’s for sure. With you in mind, however, I will say this: It’s possible to be too critical and nip a good project in the bud before you give it adequate time to flower. We all want the certainty of, “If I spend six months on this manuscript, I will reap the rewards with a juicy book deal!” But it doesn’t work that way. If you’re an unproven talent, you have to do the work and put in the time long before anyone has heard of you or validated your efforts. So don’t get frustrated and quit too early, because any work you do on your WIP is good work. Is necessary work.

You don’t get any guarantees but revision is never a complete waste of time, either. Unless you know, without a doubt, that the manuscript is terrible and even your Mom has told you so, there is something to be learned from every revision effort. You can certainly speed up the process by getting qualified feedback (not everyone who has something to say about writing knows what they’re talking about, so only seek out the opinion of people you trust). And you can speed up your ability to do something with the feedback by reading about the craft.

There’s no way to say right now whether your revision will result in a manuscript that goes on to be published. I am NOT trying to dodge this all-important question when I say that. Either way, though, it will be worth it because I can say, categorically, that every writer has at least a few things to learn. Whether they’re for your current WIP or for your next idea or whatever’s after that, you will learn something and you will be able to use it to your advantage going forward. There’s an obstacle course in front of you, and I’d at least run it, even if you don’t get the outcome you want.

If this answer doesn’t seem right for you because you suspect your manuscript is flawed as all get-out, I recommend the following: Put it aside for three months (this is key, I promise, nobody will do it but it’s good advice), and work on whatever new idea is getting you excited. Then give it one last read anyway. Sometimes revision fatigue can blind us. You may find something there that’s worth working on. Or you may confirm your suspicion that you’ve written a manuscript only its author can love. Either way, you’ve given it one last look.

How Much Interiority Should You Use When Writing Character Emotions

This is a great question about writing character emotion that came via email from Matt:

Is there a writing principle about how much interiority should be within a scene?

As with all great writing debates, I’m here to say that there’s no set guideline. Womp womp. Interiority is a tough topic, and every writer will forge their own path. Sorry to not have something more concrete, but I do have some food for thought that might help you choose your own approach.

writing character emotions, interiority, emotion in fiction, protagonist emotions, protagonist pov
It’s hard to bond with a character when we don’t know what they’re feeling or thinking. Peel back the hood with interiority.

Writing Character Emotions As Necessary

My rule of thumb is to use what’s necessary and find a balance. As with anything, balance doesn’t come easily. Some writers err on the side of too much interiority, some writers barely scratch the surface of their character’s rich inner lives, even in first person.

The imbalance of too much interiority is especially apparent when nothing is happening, plot-wise. Alternately, nothing happens because there’s too much interiority, or internal conflict, rather than external conflict. If you have your character thinking about everything, maybe you’re on this end of the spectrum. Know that, while a level of interiority is desirable, you also need to focus on the things that come less naturally to you, namely pacing and plot.

It’s very important to know how a character reacts to what’s happening, but it can’t be the end-all and be-all. To be fair, I see this imbalance less than its opposite.

Explore Interiority During Important Moments

The more common imbalance is seeing little interiority in big moments, when connection to the character should naturally increase in order to keep from alienating the reader. Writers who fall into this category tend to be very comfortable with plot. When they do talk about emotion, maybe they simply name what a character is feeling, or talk about the feelings by using clichés that detail emotions in a character’s body.

These are offshoots of telling, and, as you’ve heard me say many times, interiority is quite different from telling, though the distinction can be subtle for a lot of people. Characters with too little interiority are also prone to being stuck, or to being in denial.

As you can see, there are many more links discussing a lack of interiority or issues with inadequate interiority than there are dealing with too much of it. This is yet another reflection of the fact that I see writers end up toward this end of the issue a lot more.

Writing Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of the Story

If that’s not the case for you, and you think you’re somewhere in the middle as an interiority-user, I would still suggest analyzing how you’re striking that balance. Make sure the reader feels connected to important moment, and use enough interiority to highlight the things that are truly important. When something big happens that your character should be reacting to, ask yourself: And? So? Some recent thoughts questions that help develop interiority can be found here.

Next, think about how interiority and plot intersect. Use interiority to plant the seeds of tension as you develop your plot. It’s not enough to have a character feel afraid, for example. They’re usually afraid of something very specific, or a worst case scenario. To help tension along, let their minds go to those darker places, especially if the plot hasn’t caught up yet. More thoughts on that here.

This is such an important facet of the fiction writing craft that I really hope you never stop exploring this fascinating topic, and figuring out how to best use this tool.

Interiority is difficult to master, and every writer will have their own approach. Hire me for developmental editing to help you tease out just the right balance of action, emotion, characterization, and theme.

Developing Character Interiority

One of the biggest fiction concepts I champion, in first and third person, is character interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) as a way of getting to know character. (You can view all the posts I’ve written with an “interiority” tag here.) Now that you’re learning what it is, how do you foster it in your own fiction writing?

developing character interiority, interiority, writing interiority, character thoughts, character feelings, character emotions, protagonist
Developing character interiority is where you want to work smarter, not harder. Make small changes to really reveal your protagonist to the reader.

Access to Emotions Is Crucial to Making a Reader Care

Some writers struggle with the idea of accessing a character’s emotions. When to do it, how much, whether or not it falls under the dreaded “telling” category, etc. But I maintain that access to your character’s thoughts, if done well, and at the right time, is one of the most important elements of getting a protagonist down on the page in a relatable and nuanced way. The thing is, you don’t have to revamp your whole novel.

Picking small moments where interiority can shine is key.

Developing Character Interiority Isn’t Intuitive for Everyone

Many writers have a sense of whether or not they excel at this. I recently worked with a client who came to me saying, “Dang it, I just don’t know how to render a character’s emotions.” It was true, and I appreciated her self-awareness.

Instead of accessing her protagonist’s head, she pulled out physical clichés as shorthand for his feelings. His heart was beating, so that meant he was nervous. His fists clenched, and he was angry. His cheeks flushed, and he felt in love. But when you’re simply letting your body parts do the talking for the character, you will never get to the emotional nuances underneath.

He’s nervous…about what in particular? About whether or not he’ll succeed? About a specific worst case scenario, which would give me additional context or foreshadowing about the plot? He’s angry…at who? The other character in the scene, who is a snake, or himself for believing the snake in the first place? As you can see, there are many things beyond the base emotions that we can name, and that is where the real meat of your character lives.

Checklist for Developing Character Interiority

If you suspect that you might struggle with interiority, write the following questions on a Post It note and hang it above your writing station:

  • What is your character doing right now (objective)? Why (motivation)? (The why is especially important.)
  • What do they hope will happen?
  • What do they worry will go wrong?
  • How do they feel about themselves?
  • How do they feel about their scene partner?
  • How do they feel about their place in the plot in general?

Obviously, you don’t have to address these questions in every scene, but you can train yourself to think along these lines when your character is experiencing emotions.

Explore the Emotional Nuances of Big Moments

For every big emotion they might feel (anger, fear, lust), there are probably two or three secondary emotions that you can tease out that serve to deepen our understanding of the character or increase tension. When you become better at looking through your protagonist’s eyes with these issues in mind, you can pick and choose whether or not to funnel some, all, or none of this information into interiority.

Emotions are tricky, messy, nuanced. They deserve a lot of attention as you craft your protagonist, and even secondary characters. At any moment, no matter what is happening, you could delve into their inner lives and discover some of these thoughts and feelings. Do you always need to share them? Of course not. But in bigger moments, where you really want to pull the reader in, try to hit some of these notes. Specificity is key. Take a scene you’re really struggling with, or that feels alienating, and try answering some of these questions today!

Character interiority is one of the most important concepts that I really drill into with my editorial clients. Check out my book editing services and see how I can bring my years of character development experience to your novel.

Changing the Context

I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!

There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.

But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.

In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.

My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.

So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.

If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.

What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:

First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.

Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.

If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.

Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.

Preaching in Picture Books: Wisdom From Without vs. Within

Nobody wants to admit they’re preaching in picture books, but… Most people also start out wanting to write picture books and their idea has a point to it. It’s usually a lesson about living that they’re eager to pass on to impressionable young minds.

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Preaching in picture books is not the way to electrify impressionable young readers. Now you’ve got me preaching, too!

Even if that lesson is zany and fun and uplifting, rather than moral or serious in nature, there’s still an element of “Let’s distill some life experience for these young’uns.” Even if it’s not as conscious or overt as all that, teaching is still part of the urge that draws people to writing for the youngest readers.

How to Avoid Preaching in Picture Books

There’s definitely a way to act upon these instincts and get across to these impressionable readers. Absolutely! But it’s not to preach or state your “message” aloud. Today’s market, and discerning young readers, don’t much appreciate the, “And then we all learned to share” kumbaya moment at the end of the book where everyone lives happily ever after in peaceful coexistence.

Not only is it a bit Picture Book 101 to tell this kind of moralizing story, but think of your audience. You want to avoid the situation of “wise older character comes and tells younger character all about how life works.” Kids get this all the time from parents, grandparents, teachers, older siblings, pastors, babysitters, etc. They receive a lot of the “should” type of education.

Incorporating Message and Theme in a Picture Book

This way of conveying your idea also doesn’t show your child audience the utmost respect. Why? It implies (even if you didn’t mean it to, and many writers don’t!) that the kid doesn’t know all that much about much, and that it takes a wiser (usually older) character to set them straight. This takes all the power away from the kid and gives it to an adult. Again. Just like what happens all over your average 3-7 year-old’s daily life. That’s not as sympathetic to their experience.

They come to stories for maybe another way of getting information. Maybe the “message” is buried in subtext, below the surface. It arises naturally from something the character might experience or realize as they journey through the story you’ve created.

I urge every aspiring picture book writer to try and stretch beyond this, maybe to the point where the character realizes some things, or better yet, comes up with the solution to the problem, all by themselves. Through seeing it experienced by a relatable character, kids will interpret your meaning on a deeper and more approachable level.

Do you want to make sure your picture book manuscript is compelling without being preachy? Hire me as your picture book editor and we can convey your message without moralizing.