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I was recently working on a novel outline, helping the writer flesh the idea out so that they had the strongest possible “road map” to work from when writing their story. It’s a service that I really like because I push writers to consider all aspects of their story before they invest the time and energy in turning the idea into a manuscript. I believe it makes the writing process tighter and easier. It also leads to less long-term headache because we’re figuring things out ahead of time that most people don’t realize until revision. Well, this writer happened to have a very specific theme in mind. In fact, I believe the theme might’ve been the idea kernel that set the whole story in motion. Unfortunately, the story idea was mostly just a vehicle for this theme. In other words, the theme was so prominent that it became heavy-handed.

Why is this an issue? Well, in the case of this story, the writer could’ve easily turned the theme into a motivational poster and left it at that. You know those inspirational quote squares that are all over your Instagram and Facebook feeds? One of those. Why write a novel when all you want to do is communicate an idea that can be summed up in one sentence? This is why theme-heavy story ideas hardly ever work. There’s simply not enough nuance for the reader to be interested in digging deeper. “The point of the story is so front and center, what is there for me to do?” the reader might ask.

A lot of writers have such strong themes. It’s not bad to have a theme. In fact, every story needs at least one. The issue becomes how to express it. If you’re quite subtle about it, you may not be communicating your idea clearly. But I hardly ever see this problem. Much more likely is the issue of overt theme.

Picture books probably suffer the most from theme overload. Many writers are extremely tempted by the idea of putting a wise adult character into their stories for young readers that voices the theme outright. “And that’s why,” the kind grandmother said, “it’s so important to share.”

Yuck. That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own.

In novels, theme usually manifests itself in imagery. Let’s go back to my client’s story. It was a classic coming of age, where the character goes on a journey of self-discovery. Now I’ll depart from the actual idea for the sake of anonymity. What images can we use to talk about transformation, freedom, and self-expression? I know. Butterflies! They go from weird caterpillars to beautiful creatures. The journey is painful. The outcome uncertain. They crawl on the ground and then, all of a sudden, they take flight. These images are evocative and they fit the theme. In that sense, using the image of butterflies to communicate a coming of age theme is a home run, right?

The problem is, this image is heavy-handed. Too many writers have gotten to it already. It feels very familiar. There’s nothing fresh here. Unfortunately, more creativity is required not only to avoid clichés in writing, but to couch the theme in a way that’s thought-provoking, and not just a shortcut.

I would wager that if you were reading a YA novel about a character’s personal transformation, and the climactic scene took place in a botanical garden where there’s a butterfly exhibit, and the main character let a butterfly take flight from the tip of her finger, you would…groan a little? It’s been done. It’s a part of a very obvious conversation.

If you innovate in terms of your imagery as it pertains to your key theme, you will likely get a more engaged reader out of the bargain. What is your theme? What images are you using to convey it? How can you freshen up those images, make them more unexpected, ask the reader to use their imagination more?

After all, the world is your…abalone. 😉

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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?

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This post was inspired by a question from Debbie B., one of my editorial clients, and her critique group. First person is great. A lot of people use it. It lends a sense of immediacy and accessibility to your work. The logic is that it’s easy to connect to a protagonist when you’re intimately involved in their interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). But first person POV has a lot of limitations. (Plus it’s overused, and some writers avoid* it because of how common it is.)

Not Being Able To Go Inside Another Character’s Head

Perhaps the biggest character-specific limitation is that you don’t have access to anyone else’s interiority. In close third person, you don’t really, either, but in omniscient third person, you can “head hop” to your heart’s content and access any number of characters. First person limits you. For example, you cannot say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, feeling annoyed.

Since Susie is not our protagonist, we can’t now her inner landscape. So how do you get around it? Instead, you can say something like:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, annoyance in her voice.

Or you can put the emotion in dialogue:

“Ugh, I don’t know, okay?”

Or you can venture a guess like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, as if I’d asked the most annoying question ever.

Or like this:

“I don’t know,” Susie said, and she was probably still mad at me for being late.

It’s up to you how much to use these techniques. I would suggest to limit the guessing and let Susie’s action and dialogue tell the story. The hard and fast rule is that the one thing you can’t do is tell the reader what’s actually going on in Susie’s head. That crosses POV lines.

The Protagonist Having to Be Present

The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit! But, they are the narrator. So if they’re not there when the murder weapon is found and planted in their locker, they can’t narrate it. So the reader can’t find out about it. And it doesn’t get on the page.

How do you get around this? I’m less able to prescribe a solution because a lot depends on what you need to narrate. Here are some common workarounds, though do be warned that some of these are cliché at this point:

  • Eavesdropping (they can overhear key information)
  • Clues (they can find clues to key information)
  • Direct confrontation (not everything has to be hidden, sometimes you’ll solve problems by revealing your secret sooner because the ramifications are actually where the drama is)

How else do you get around these issues? Are you grappling with any particularly hairy POV-specific questions? Leave some thoughts in the comments.

ETA: I didn’t meant that agents and editors reject a project just because it’s in first person, I meant that some writers avoid it and try third person because they don’t want to use such a common POV. I have to be careful about the word “reject”! Thanks, Chris!

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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.

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There are no new stories in the world. I’m sorry, but there really aren’t. Every story ever told can be boiled down to archetypes. So where does that leave the story you’re writing right now? No, not in the trash can. Don’t worry! But, it does leave you with some work to do on that story if you want it to stand out.

In the last few months, I have had a lot of clients come to me and say, “Mary, I’ve written yet another boarding-school-for-wizards story. I know it’s probably not a great idea, but I can’t just not write this novel. It has gripped me. Yet the odds seem so high against a story that’s been done and done and done, maybe to death. What do I do?”

There are a lot of stories that would fit in this category of “overdone.” A lot of them happen to be “high concept” stories, instead of, say, contemporary realism. Examples: Birthdays that bequeath magical powers. Vampires. Dystopian worlds. Time travel. Apocalypses. Schools for those kids with magical powers. It’s not that these stories are bad, it’s that they were trendy at one point or another, and now the shelves are full of them. And for every one that’s published, there are probably a thousand more in manuscript form that didn’t make it past the agent or editor’s slush pile.

And yet there are still extremely well-meaning writers who want to toss their hats into these crowded arenas. And that’s okay. Now, some agents will flat out say, “No vampires. Don’t even try. I don’t want to see it.” And that’s okay, too. But I’m here to say that all hope is not lost just because you want to write in a familiar category.

So, how do you go about defusing that resistance you’re likely to encounter, and standing out? Well, the devil is in the details in your case. Truly. Let’s take everyone’s favorite dead horse: vampire books. (Though it has been so long since the Twilight days that you may be able to sneak one in at this point.) The biggest mistake that people make when writing in a familiar category is that they don’t innovate. They take for granted that everyone knows the basic deal about vampires, and they don’t even think to build on that or turn it on its head.

Since you’re smarter than that, dear reader, I really want you to think about what could make your vampires, or the world they operate in, unique. And instead of being more general about it, be specific. Design all of their powers from scratch. Maybe these vampires can only recharge on the blood of those with a certain virus that makes them vulnerable. Some poor people have this virus naturally. Other unfortunates catch it. Criminals are injected with it and pawned off as vampire fodder to keep the beasts away from the more desirable members of the population. Now you have a slight dystopian tinge to your vampire story. And your protagonist, lo and behold, comes from a family tasked with keeping the vampire menace at bay. Then he’s in a terrible hovercar accident (another specific detail of the world-building) and ends up…catching the virus that makes his a prime vampire target. Now his family turns their backs on him because they cannot be seen as vulnerable, etc. etc. etc.

This is literally the first thing that came to mind, but I was trying to establish a world and a spin on the familiar vampire story. What I’ve tried to do here is come up with specific details about the world, a new twist on how vampires function, and something interesting and high stakes that will provide plenty of plot fodder for the story.

If you find yourself working on a familiar-sounding premise and worrying that it looks like everything else that has come before it, this is the thinking you must be doing. What is unique about your idea? If it’s a kid with powers, how specific and interesting can the powers get? If it’s a school for wizards, what world-building details will make it stand out? Don’t just have them go to the same boring classes and do the same boring training exercises. What else can be part of the curriculum? What can you bring to your chosen genre that will turn it on its head?

Don’t be lazy. Treat your vampire or wizard or love triangle or sorcery summer camp like nobody has ever heard of such a thing before. Forget everything you’ve ever known about mermaids and unleash your imagination, populating your water-based world with creatures and details and magical rules that set new boundaries. Free yourself from the conventions of the genre and take some risks.

Yes, you may have a harder row to hoe, and you may get bounced by your dream agent because they have five other similar projects already. So a certain level of psychological preparedness should happen on your end. And yes, you’ll have to take some care when pitching the project. But you don’t have to abandon ship.

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Series Beginnings

A few weeks back, I reached out to see who had questions. Rachel had a great one:

Back when I read the Baby Sitters Club as a kid, I would always skim over the whole “introduction” to the club and group, which appeared in each book. I am currently working on a chapter series and wonder if each book needs the “introduction” to the story, or if they are a bit unnecessary these days?

This astute reader is totally right. A catch-up introduction is no longer the norm in a series. Whew! No need to write a dry and skip-able synopsis for your manuscripts. (Though, unfortunately, you’ll still have to craft one for when you submit.) However, this opens up a bigger question: “So how do you begin a series without boring readers who are familiar with your premise?”

For a more modern feel, you want to include that information in your opening few chapters. However, you don’t want to bog the opening down with tons of facts right off the bat. So what I would do is pick several key facts about your main characters and their relationships, about the world in which your story is set (even if it’s in our modern non-fantasy world, each “world” has its own rules and climate, like a high school cafeteria from a popular person’s POV vs. an underdog’s, those “worlds” look very different), and anything else from previous installments that’s crucial to know.

By providing this context but weaving it into the first few chapters of the story, you will be welcoming your existing readers back into the story while simultaneously giving new readers a chance to catch up. All without info-dumping. The important thing to remember is to keep everything brief and relevant. The story should start in action that continues the plot you’ve already been telling. This way, it’s easy to keep pacing quick while providing some relevant context.

For example, if your characters are at war at the end of Book 1, open Book 2 with them gearing up for an important battle. From the action, new readers will be able to gather that they’re at war and something important is coming up. During that scene, you will want to drop hints concerning why they’re at war, who they’re fighting against, what the stakes are, etc. Since characters will be interacting as they prepare, you can start introducing a sense of their relationships, values, personal objectives, and motivations. Sure, you have all this juicy backstory about the king and some palace intrigue, but leave it for later. Open with big action that carries the pacing and buys you a few moments to balance it with information.

I have recently been reading some craft books and if you want to delve more deeply into the topic of starting your novel, whether it’s a stand-alone manuscript or part of a planned series, I’d recommend The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman.

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Sorry for the radio silence, beautiful readers. I’ve had a crazy summer trying to juggle everything. Luckily, August is my quietest month of freelancing as my primary clients, parents and teachers, get ready for back to school. We plan on spending a chunk of time up at the cabin with Theo and living life on the river in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about characters and relationships, and wanted to share some of that with you.

I was editing a manuscript in July where two characters had a contentious relationship. Let’s call them Jackie and Mike. Truth be told, Jackie didn’t trust Mike. The writer did a good job of establishing the initial distrust. As with so many craft considerations, though, we had to move past that to the “And? So?” element.

She doesn’t trust him… And? So? In ordinary life, Jackie would just move on from Mike and call it a day. After all, there’s no good reason to stick around with someone you don’t trust. But Jackie and Mike were trapped in a situation. This is good fiction writing. Instead of letting Jackie separate herself from Mike, the writer created a reason for her to also need something from Mike.

Remember this as you’re writing: You always want to be turning the screw. Jackie doesn’t like Mike but, darn, she needs him. Let’s say he possesses knowledge that she wants in order for Jackie to get what she wants from the story.

The place where my client had gotten stuck, though, was on the relationship that Jackie and Mike were having. The distrust was established, and established well. Maybe too well. It was starting to seem like we were going in circles. That’s where my favorite questions, “And? So?” came into play. Because if we’re going to commit to the premise that Jackie and Mike aren’t in a good relationship but they need one another, then there needs to be some movement with the relationship piece. Otherwise, this element of development stagnates.

In other words, something needs to happen to move the relationship forward. Does Mike apologize for being so shifty? Maybe it comes out that he was wary of trusting Jackie, as it happens. Or maybe Mike does something that softens his character. And Jackie starts to question her initial conclusions about Mike. Maybe Mike does something so endearing, that Jackie starts to feel some ill-advised affection for him. Or she decides to trust him but he lets her down, and now she not only doesn’t trust him, but she feels betrayed by him and stupid for allowing herself to believe him in the first place. Lots and lots of conflict to be had!

To make a long story short, emotions need to evolve. When I see one dynamic playing out, I want to see where it goes. All too often, it goes nowhere. Jackie still doesn’t trust Mike, even though now they’re stuck together. But all of their interactions are tinged with distrust. There’s no evolution. The distrust is established, and that’s the way it stays.

For every one of your character relationships, big and small, think of what the leading emotion is. Then ask yourself, “And? So?” Where can you go from there, and how can it evolve? Each relationship should be an arc, not a flat line.

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I’ve worked with a few manuscripts recently where the writers established and then promptly forgot about important threads. In my book, I talk about shining a spotlight. If something is important, it’s your job as a writer to shine the spotlight on it. You pick where to aim that light, and how bright it is.

What do I mean about dropping threads? Well, let’s say that your character is a musician. They speak in musical metaphors and seem to see the world through a Beautiful Mind-esque musical lens. Until this fades from the manuscript about a third of the way through. And music doesn’t really factor into the plot itself.

I often see this in manuscripts. Just like voice sometimes fades in and out (the writer is focusing on voice when they’re writing certain passages, then they shift focus to something else and the narrative tone changes), so do various other elements of novel craft.

Character attributes (musicality), secondary characters (a supposed best friend disappears for 50 pages and nobody thinks anything of it), world-building elements (the world is on the brink of war and yet there’s no danger or news of danger in the middle of a story), and plot points (the character says their objective is to seek something, then they get wrapped up in a romance and the desired object seems to fade into the background) can all be lost in the shuffle.

Your job as a writer is to analyze your story and see if you’re dropping any threads. Are you swearing up and down that something is important, then abandoning it? Does everything that’s vital to the story and introduced at the beginning wrap up by the end? Do all of the important elements get some kind of closure?

This is a common note that I give. “Whatever happened to XYZ?” Make sure your story feels cohesive from beginning to end, leaving nothing/nobody of note behind.

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There are two types of writers when it comes to scene, I’ve found. One type takes a minimal approach to the stuff around the dialogue. One uses dialogue tags, adverbs, and narrative to construct scaffolding. If you’ve ever worked with me no a manuscript, you know that I don’t take kindly to a lot of scaffolding. I feel that it distracts from the dialogue, which is the rightful star of scene. It’s usually totally unnecessary. When I see a lot of scaffolding, I often remind writers to trust themselves and their readers. Trust themselves to come across as intended, and trust their readers to pick up on what’s being conveyed.

The point is, if you can’t be clear using dialogue alone, you need to look twice at what’s within the quotation marks, not what’s around them. Take a look at the following examples. The first is dialogue with no scaffolding. I’ve only used dialogue tags twice, one for each character at the beginning:

“Hey,” Sara said.
“What’s up?” Zach asked.
“Oh, you know.”
“The usual?”
“The usual.”

I would say that there’s not enough here. We don’t know enough about the characters, what they’re feeling, or why they’re talking in the moment. So I would say that something needs to be added. But how much something? Let’s say that you want to really convey what’s going on with Zach and Sara. How might you achieve that? Well, let’s add some emotions, tags, fancy “said” synonyms, and choreography. The simple scene can easily become:

“Hey,” Sara snarled.
“What’s up?” Zach said, icily.
She waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing him. “Oh, you know.”
“The usual?” He made sure to roll his eyes.
Quite annoyed, she dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “The usual.”

Well, I would say it’s quite clear now how Zach and Sara are feeling. The dialogue is exactly the same, but now I’ve festooned the scene with all sorts of little extras that clearly tell the reader that Zach and Sara are having some kind of fight. Maybe they’re avoiding one another. Maybe Zach has come into Sara’s coffee shop and she has to serve him but she doesn’t want to.

There’s tension in the scene, I’ll admit. But maybe it’s also a bit of overkill? After all, after reading this, my head is almost ringing from being hit too many times. The writer here (me) is explaining the emotions way too much. “Snarled” conveys anger. Waving a hand in the air is a cliché gesture for dismissing. If that wasn’t enough, the dismissal is also explained (“as if dismissing him”). Eye rolls are another cliché gesture. Then the emotion of annoyance is named, and a tone of voice is introduced that further underscores the tension between the two. We usually only whisper things if we’re trying to be quiet or if we’ve tightened our throats in anger.

The second scene would have too much “scaffolding,” as I call it. Whereas the first scene has not enough. If Zach and Sara were really fighting with one another, there would be no way to tell without some help. You might think that I’m playing the scaffolding up to provide an example, and while that was my objective, I am not lying when I say that I’ve seen scaffolding that thick in manuscripts. And sometimes even thicker scaffolding.

Oftentimes, writers don’t trust themselves to be clear about what they’re saying. And they (subconsciously) don’t trust readers to “get it.” So they go overboard. You will know if you put up a lot of scaffolding because you’ll see that almost none of your dialogue exists “naked” on the page (without any tags or narration).

So what’s the solution? Pare way down. And let the dialogue itself do the emotional talking for you, instead of putting everything in the scaffolding. I’ve changed the dialogue itself to have more emotional energy. You can also use interiority to convey feelings, like I do with a peek into Zach’s head here. This would be my ideal third example, a sort of middle ground:

Sara looked up from the register. “Oh. Hey.”
“Oh.” Zach fumbled with his wallet. He should’ve known her schedule better. Maybe she swapped shifts? This was the last thing he needed. “Um, what’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up. Really? You know.”
“The usual?”
“Yeah, let’s go with that. The usual.”

There’s a sense of tension here between Zach and Sara, but it’s not hammered home. There’s some breathing room for the reader to wonder what they might be thinking or going through, and it opens the door for more of an interaction than “I HATE YOU”/”WELL I HATE YOU MORE!!!” That’s sort of the tone of the middle example, and you can definitely find more nuance.

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I’ve been doing some work with difficult characters over the last few months. Either the character in question has some pretty obvious flaws (which are part of who they are), or they do some pretty flawed things over the course of the story. Or both. It’s not that the characters I’ve been working with in my editorial practice are unlikeable, it’s that they’re human, quirky, realistic.

People are not all good, all the time. That doesn’t happen in real life, nor should it happen in fiction. But in fiction, you have to always keep in mind the idea of “relatability.” Because a character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Tinkerbell needs applause, the characters in novels need readers to believe in them and relate to them in order to be real. In the publishing world, if I can’t relate to your character, as a reader, chances are, I’m not going to get too deep into the story. I may even put the story down.

But sometimes characters must do things that aren’t exactly relatable. They must be mean, or selfish. They must act in a way that hurts others, or themselves. They must get away from their own best interest.

So how do you make a character like this accessible to the reader through good times and bad?

Vulnerability.

Sounds simple, but what does that look like on the page? I’ll prescribe my magic solution: Let the character admit that they’re being a butt, and it will humanize the behavior. It will get the reader on the character’s side. Just like in real life, in fictional life, an apology or owning up to a mistake go a long, long way.

Here are some examples. If a character is being cruel to another character, they could do something like this:

“Takes one to know one!” I shouted. I was being so terrible to Brady, but I couldn’t get past him telling the teacher on me. He was supposed to be my friend.

While the reader may not agree with the behavior, at least they know that the character acknowledges it and has a reason for it. Even if that reason isn’t that valid, at least the character knows they’re in the wrong. Even if the emotion blows over soon, the character has taken the time to guide the reader through their less-than-noble feelings. The character here is being a butt, but the behavior is coming from a place of hurt. In other words, vulnerability.

If they admit that woundedness, they become more human and less of a jerk in the reader’s eyes.

The same applies to actions. Play with vulnerability and motivation there, too. For example:

I knew it was wrong to steal. That’s the first thing we learned in Sunday School. And yet here I was, sitting in my car with a brand new MP3 player, still in the box, burning in my pockets. They hadn’t even stopped me. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I kept that on a loop in my head, but it didn’t make me feel any better about what I’d done.

In this example, the character has shoplifted something expensive. But they feel bad, which is one layer of vulnerability. And they did it for a noble reason, which is another. So we have two things that help sell the reader on the behavior.

The other vulnerable thing to smooth over tough-to-swallow words or actions is how they handle themselves after the fact. Does the first character apologize to Brady, even if it’s at the very end of the story? Does the second character go back to the store and pay them for the MP3 player once the financial emergency is over? Admitting their wrongs to the reader in the moment, and admitting their wrongs to others in the story: a two-pronged approach to broadcasting vulnerability.

If you have tough-to-motivate stuff in your manuscript, how might you use vulnerability to help build a bridge between the character and the reader?

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