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Stuck Emotions

It’s been a difficult winter around here. Not just in terms of delving into yet another snowy Minnesota season… I’m speaking mostly about what my clients’ characters are going through. Protagonists in projects this winter seem to all have some common issues with self-worth. I’m reading so many attempts at putting difficult emotions on the page that I wanted to address them in a post. Everybody struggles, and so no protagonist should be spared from some good old-fashioned inner conflict.

As people, we sometimes hate ourselves, criticize ourselves, feel self-doubt, perform acts of self-sabotage. It’s just a part of being human. We are our own worst enemies, etc. As realistic as these feelings are, they should be treated with some caution when we try to translate them to the page.

To illustrate, let me talk for a minute about that person many of us know in life. Their Facebook feed is full of gripes about their injustice of the day. The bank closed early, ugh. The grocery clerk forgot to bag their mustard. Nobody invited them to the picnic. Their Goodreads review was ridiculed. If you know them well enough to be on their call list, it’s likely that you don’t get a word in edgewise as they detail the litany of hurts they’ve overcome…in the last 15 minutes. The point is, nobody likes a complainer. If you haven’t Unfriended them online, you may skip their calls when they come in. It can get to be too much.

One of the biggest reasons is usually that this personality type would rather complain that do anything about the problem. They are inactive in terms of overcoming their issues. If you try to help them with a perfectly reasonable solution, they probably don’t want to hear it. They just want to be heard and for someone to say, “Wow, that sucks.” But they’re stuck, and I personally find that maddening.

So a character who is full of woe or self-loathing or doubt only tends to magnify this dynamic. Fiction is an elevated version of life, where realistic things are elevated into something that can retain a person’s interest, be consumed, and ideally impart some valuable experience or lesson. As such, protagonists can’t be direct downloads of realistic people. They need to have momentum, even if they’re stuck in a rut.

If I see a character who has, for example, intense survivor’s guilt after a car accident, and they keep coming back to the point of “I don’t want to be alive. I wish I was the one who died,” that’s perfectly realistic. But I don’t want to sink four or five hours of my time into that emotional rut. There needs to be some traction and change as the plot moves along. The character needs to acknowledge their emotions, struggle with them, aim to change their situation, fail, struggle, acknowledge their new position, struggle, aim to change, etc. etc. etc. That sort of trajectory, at least, takes the reader on an emotional journey.

This is where stuck emotions and fiction are at odds. People who are stuck are…stuck. Self-loathing doesn’t lift in a week. Addiction doesn’t resolve itself because you meet a cute vampire boy. Inadequacy doesn’t fade after an amazing road trip. So there needs to be some suspension of disbelief to allow plot to act on these difficult emotions. As a result, the emotions are agitated, stretch, or grow, and there’s a level of payoff for both character and reader.

I think this is a really tough time for our culture. Since the economic downturn, kids are entering an uncertain world where they know they’ll face diminished job prospects, outstanding student loan balances, and an economy that’s far from booming. Stuck feelings, angst, and doubt are common. Issues of dreams and identity are more resonant than ever. All of these emotions deserve to be addressed. But just because a character is stuck doesn’t mean the narrative can be. If you’re working with a stuck character, make sure that their emotions still shift and change and grow over the course of the story instead of being bogged down in a rut. Some forward progress and redemption is expected if it’s going to be worth your reader’s investment of time and energy.


Before I ventured into publishing, I was a Theatre major in college. (Well, I was concurrently an English major, but I thought about theatre before I thought about publishing.) As part of my thoroughly impractical training, I bought and read the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was wonderful but, at times, definitely not fun. The historical tragedies were my favorite sleeping pill after a late night performing, you know? And as much fun as it was to be a student of the thea-tah (!), I was simply terrible at it. It wouldn’t be until I started public speaking at conferences that I realized something: I am pretty good at writing and delivering my own material, but when it comes to pretending to be anybody else, with anybody else’s words, I’m pretty hopeless. That didn’t stop me from trying, but that’s another story for another day. But Hamlet was one of my absolute favorite Shakespeare works. And I’ve recently found myself citing the following quote in editorial notes:

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

Wikipedia explains the meaning better than I can:

It has been used as a figure of speech, in various phrasings, to indicate that a person’s overly frequent or vehement attempts to convince others of something have ironically helped to convince others that the opposite is true, by making the person look insincere and defensive.

When I give this note, it usually goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts on characters in denial, another idea that I cite a lot in my editorial work. I’m also not trying to be sexist, because both male and female characters can “protest too much,” but admittedly it does happen more often with female POV manuscripts, especially when it comes to romance. It can apply to all manner of things where the writer wants the character to stay in disbelief just a liiiiiittle while longer, but the reader is already catching on. But yes, overwhelmingly, this applies to crushes and chemistry.

Writer, please. We have all read enough romantic subplots in fiction to know that the main character and the cute new guy are going to get together at some point. That’s what makes this event so difficult to render believably and genuinely. Because we’re all waiting for it, especially if there’s a girl and a dude on the cover with their lips hovering inches apart. The challenge then becomes acknowledging reader expectation while at the same time giving your character a full experience.

My piece of advice here would be: We know where you’re going, so get there sooner. Don’t rush through the establishing parts of your plot, but don’t also dwell in the time before character buy-in by employing denial. Often, writers put off giving a certain plot component the green light until other parts of the story have caught up. This often happens with romance. They really can’t hook up until chapter seven, but the guy has been around (and brooding) since chapter one because he had to make a grand entrance to hook the reader in the first ten pages. So how do we bridge the gap?

There are two options. The first is to have your protagonist “protest too much” that there’s an attraction:

A limo has been picking me up from school every morning, my locker is stuffed with a new dozen of red roses every day, and Garrett wrote “Will you go out with me? Love, Garrett” in skywriting, but I just don’t know how he feels about me because he’s so popular, and I’m not. Plus, I have way too many freckles for anyone to find me attractive.

I don’t know about you, but I want to take a chainsaw to this particular piece of writing. It’s overly obvious to communicate a point, but even in its subtler incarnations, this type of “protest too much” rhetoric really does sound this fake to me. It’s right there in the Wikipedia definition…this sort of breathless denial manages to sound incredibly insincere, which distances us from the protagonist. We don’t want to know more or guess more about the story than s/he knows (or is willing to admit). And once we do find out something the protagonist doesn’t know, we’re just waiting for him or her to figure it out so we can be in harmony as reader/character once again.

The second option is to allow the character to admit there’s a spark but use internal and external conflict to keep the characters apart…for probably less time than you’re comfortable with. Internal conflict can go like this:

The truth is, I’d love nothing more than to date Garrett. To give in and say “yes.” But I just can’t. He’s new here. He doesn’t yet realize that he’s made a horrible mistake. It’ll be social suicide for him to be seen with me, and he’s just too nice to realize it. For his own good, I need to stay away.

There we’re layering in some self-confidence issues where she ADMITS that there’s an obvious romantic desire between them, but blocks it. Then plot can come into play as well to keep them apart. For example, she can do something really embarrassing at an assembly and this, for her, confirms how “awful” she is. So she distances herself even further.

But if the two characters are hovering around one another with steamy dialogue, nearly kissing the entire time, and then the girl is like, “Nope. He can’t POSSIBLY be into me…” Well, I find that a little hard to swallow. If there are any instances of characters protesting too much in your work, they are probably even more obvious to your potential readers than they are to you. Writers tend to over-explain a lot to make sure readers get it (they do), and especially when it’s something a writer wants to keep hidden, the tendency to deny deny deny is magnified.

If you have a writing group (and you should), and you’re worried about this issue, ask them to read your manuscript with an eye toward what was so glaringly obvious that it was frustrating until you addressed it. That might help you tighten up your work.

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I often tell writers that good writing is about the balance of action and information. I’m also always telling writers about mimetic writing. The other day, with an editorial client, I thought of a great image that helped them conceptualize these ideas in a way that made sense.

Let’s say that we have a getaway car. It’s assumed that it will be used in a chase sequence, which is primarily action. Per the idea of mimetic writing, the narrative style of this passage should be quick and to the point, since we’re dealing with a scene that’s meant to move quickly.

Now think about a camera taking a picture of the getaway car in order to convey what it looks like to the reader. This camera can take amazing high resolution images, or it can take grainy “potato quality” shots like you’d find coming from a middle-of-the-line cell phone. In this case, a many-megabyte high resolution picture of the getaway car might be beautiful, but if we try to work with that picture or send it to someone (the reader), it’s going to be a huge attachment, it’ll take time to upload, and it’ll clog up their email bandwidth. (Unless they have fiber, in which case this analogy is useless!)

For the chase sequence, then, we’d be fine with a quick, grainy snapshot of the getaway car so that we can get on with the action and not get bogged down with information. Here the balance swings to action rather than information. If we’re establishing a very important setting, then the beautiful high res image is very appropriate, and the balance swings to information. The reader wants to know the delicate details, and you can dwell on them more, taking your time.

I hope this short but effective reminder helps you craft tight and effective prose as you start a new year of writing!

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Much like with my post on “the blurt,” I invite you today to consider that characters actively making conscious decisions and taking conscious actions has more power than them acting impulsively, especially in important moments. Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to have a character surprise him or herself with an action, like falling offstage during a monologue or tripping. Calamity happens.

For the more consequential actions, like slapping one’s best friend or driving past one’s house and ending up in, I don’t know, Argentina, though, I would prefer that some more thought goes into it. Here’s why: I fully believe that building anticipation is important to nurturing that connection with the reader. I’m going to get so much more out of the scene if I sort of know what’s coming.

I don’t need to know how it’s going to be executed or what the outcome will be–that’s the fun part where you build your suspense and where the unexpected happens. But I want to have some vague idea of where things might be headed so that I can start getting invested.

Let’s say that Julie has beef with her best friend Chris. They’ve been inseparable since kindergarten but, lately, Chris has been saying really mean things about Julie (often within earshot) to get in with some people who he thinks are cool. That’s part of the picture, but it’s just the situation that these two characters are in. Imagine, now, that Julie goes to see Chris and all we have to work with is the following. I see this sort of thing in a lot of manuscripts:

Julie sat down across from Chris and watched him carefully. “You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Not really.” He chewed his granola bar like he was thinking about it for a minute. “Yeah, no.”
“That’s it, then?”
“What’s it?”
Before Julie could think, her hand flew up and connected with his cheek. She’d never been more hurt in her life. “I can’t believe you!” she hissed. Before she even knew where she was going, she was running out of the cafeteria. Julie had no intention of letting it go that far, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. Great, now Chris and his stupid new friends could have something new to laugh about. All she wanted was some reassurance from her supposed best friend that they were still on track. But he apparently couldn’t see anything wrong with his behavior. Well, if he had no time to be nice to her, she wouldn’t waste hers on him, either!

Why did she slap him? I have no idea, unless the writer had gone through the trouble of establishing context for the action first. And it’s not as gratifying to have her unpack the event after it happens and worry about it, as you can see here. Without that work on objective before the scene, this seems like she’s just flailing around, acting on raw feelings that I don’t have access to. Getting her motivations later just isn’t nearly as satisfying.

Now let’s add some context. Let’s say Julie’s getting peeved that he’d rather sell out their friendship to impress some douchebags rather than maintain something that used to be important to both of them. Not only is he not sticking up for her when the bullies start to crowd around, he’s being outright mean and a bully himself.

So Julie goes over to Chris’s house to clear the air or to get some answers, she doesn’t know which. All she knows is that if he doesn’t apologize, she’s going to break up with him as a friend, even if it’s just for a little while. She’s clear that something needs to change, because she’s really, really hurt.

This is a lot of context and I know what Julie is going into the scene with, objective-wise. She wants clarity on a relationship. And she has thought through some bottom lines, boundaries, and possible outcomes. From all of this, I can tell that this confrontation with Chris means a lot to her, and that she’s really taking it seriously. As a reader, I begin to take it seriously as well.

Once all of these pieces are in place, if Chris continues to be a butt and Julie ends up slapping him in the heat of the moment, I am totally fine with it! It’s an impulsive, unconscious action when it comes down to it, but a whole lot of consciousness went into getting her to that scene.

Let’s try this scene again with some interiority to motivate the slap in the moment, instead of letting it all catch up to her after the fact:

Julie sat down across from Chris in the middle of the busy lunch room. She searched his eyes for a trace of the old Chris, her old best friend. Nothing. If only she could get him to really see her, to remember the old times, then maybe he wouldn’t treat her like crap. “Hi.”
He didn’t really react, not at all like the kid she used to know.
“You don’t have anything to say to me?”
“Hmm, let me think about it.” His voice was mocking. He chewed his granola bar. “Yeah, no.”
Julie’s hand tensed into a fist. Twelve years was a long time to be friends, and he was throwing it all away. Well, she wasn’t going to take it. If he wanted a punching bag, he’d have to find someone else! “That’s it, then?” she asked. She pleaded with him, deep down, to just snap out of it.
“That’s it.”
Nothing. The rejection stung all over again. Before Julie knew what crossed her mind, she reached across the table and slapped his smug face.

These are quick examples, dashed off for illustrative purposes, but I want to try and convey here that unmotivated sudden action isn’t nearly as satisfying as something with backstory, sudden or not. Interiority, what the character experiences during the event, is a huge part of this, too. The more we know about what they want and what they’re going through, the more we can follow their conscious and unconscious movements through the story.

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I had a great phone call with a coaching client a few weeks ago, and it reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years. He was really passionate about his first five chapters, the ones he’d already drafted. He had a strong goal to finish his manuscript, but no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t progressing. Why? He was fixating on revising those completed chapters!

Some writers sit down and bang out a draft, no problem. (Those jerks!) Some writers have the hardest time pursuing new pages when they already have part of a draft completed. This can be trouble for a few reasons.

What you’ve already written is a known. It’s there already, and you can begin to work on it. Plus, there’s the idea that if you really polish those first few chapters, you’ll have a stronger springboard for the rest of the story. The blank pages that follow are unknown, they’re not nearly as appealing. In fact, they can be downright intimidating. So who would blame a writer for sticking to the familiar?

In addition to being done, your existing chapters also provide a lot of opportunity for distraction. When we’re tinkering with the same few chapters over and over again, we tend to feel pretty productive. But we may also miss the forest for the trees. Because while you’re working on syntax and trying to decide what order those three scenes should go in, the “bird’s eye view” of the entire project itself is getting ignored. Just like some manuscript revisions tend to devolve into moving around commas rather than dealing with larger issues like plot and voice, tinkering can take you away from what needs to be your focus, especially in an early draft: getting the big picture down on paper.

What do I recommend to writers who are getting caught up in their early pages at the expense of finishing a draft? Write a long outline where you detail what you plan to do in each additional chapter. Cover what scenes you’ll include, what the big plot turning points will be, and how characters might grown and change as a result. It doesn’t have to be fancy or thorough. The goal here is to give yourself a map for finally committing those unknown chapters to the page.

The hard truth is this: once you finish a manuscript, you will most likely discover things you didn’t know about your story, you’ll have developed your themes and characters, and you will want to go back to the beginning and start planting some seeds that will eventually grow and blossom over the course of the novel. So those first chapters that you’re polishing are likely to change as your own understanding of the manuscript changes.

Tinkering can be good if you recognize it for what it is, and don’t indulge it too much. When writers come to me with a promising first few chapters or one really rough complete draft, I am much more intrigued by the draft, each and every time. In the first chapters, you are still very much in the idea stage and trying to figure your novel out. When you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve at least put everything down on paper and you’ve executed a version of your vision. It may not be the final version, and it may not be terribly polished yet, but at least it’s complete. Pulling that off may be more intimidating up-front, but it’s definitely more gratifying in the long run.


Thank you everyone for your kind words about the wedding pictures. I hope that everyone had a restful and invigorating Thanksgiving celebration with loved ones! Now, unfortunately, it’s time to get back to business. There’s something I touch upon a little in my book that I want to discuss it in more detail: melodrama.

Sometimes I’m cruising along in a story and I encounter melodrama. It can happen in interiority, description, or the overall prose. Here are some examples:

My heart dashed into a million jagged pieces as thoughts of betrayal swirled like a thunderhead in my frazzled mind.

I cried out, my breath rasping, my voice desperately pleading, “No!”

He snapped his neck toward me, his eyes laser-beaming me with an intense glare. “Leave. Now.”

It’s actually quite tortuous for me to write this way. There’s not a whole lot that bothers me more in prose. Melodramatic writing works so hard to convey emotion that it goes completely over the top. You may be guilty of it if you’ve developed a finely tuned adjective thesaurus. Or if you have a lot of physical clichés in the work. Or if you’re taking great pains to describe a tone of voice.

Melodrama is going above and beyond to hammer home a certain emotion. It almost always reads as false to me. Here’s my real issue with it. Real drama comes when a reaction matches the situation or stimulus. If I stub my toe, I swear a few times under my breath and walk it off. If my car rolls down the driveway and into the lake, I will swear…well, not a few times. But if I stub my toe and I’m on the ground, moaning and wailing and thrashing around, then the magnitude of reaction doesn’t match the situation.

Most of the time, when melodrama strikes me as especially fake, it’s because of this disconnect. If a situation is not particularly intense because there’s not enough tension or the stakes aren’t high enough, but the writer is trying their best to make it seem intense: melodrama. Whenever you see a lot of purple prose coming to the party, you’re likely trying to create a mountain out of a molehill.

But tension isn’t created with a lot of over-the-top adjectives. It’s created when a situation puts a character further away from what they want. So if that tension isn’t naturally there through how you’ve set up your characters and plot, you might find yourself (even if it’s subconsciously) compensating by tying on the window dressing of intense descriptions and heavy physicality. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve created adequate objectives for your character, and whether or not you’re frustrating them in an effective way.

Remember, your characters shouldn’t get to win that often. Struggle and frustrated desires are par for the course with a plot that’s going to really challenge your character. This is not the same thing as a superficial wound that sets your protagonist into a histrionic hissy fit. Where there’s intense emotion, there should be intense tension underlying it, and a real cause for concern that’s driving your character crazy. (Even if you have a really good set-up for a dramatic reaction, you may want to play it more reserved, to begin with. The sooner writers wean themselves off of purple prose, the better.)

If you’re worried that maybe you more flamboyant writing style is coming across as melodrama instead of desirable tension/conflict, ask your critique partners if a scene ever starts to feel fake or over-the-top. This is a very serious issue. Despite teens and kids getting a bad rap for being melodramatic in their personal lives, they are also really good at sussing out what’s authentic and what isn’t. You don’t want a flare-up of dramatics to alienate the reader.

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I’ve been preaching all along that characters need a clear sense of motivation and objective, those twin drivers that are often part of the same coin. Objective is, simply put, what a character wants to do, and motivation is why they want to do it. Each character should have these things in their back story, even if the objectives are smaller (for secondary characters and such). The protagonist of your story should have the clearest objective and motivation of all, with an overarching need/goal for the entire story arc, as well as more tangible objectives and motivations throughout, from chapter to chapter.

When you’re thinking about this, I also want you to think about balancing positive and negative motivation. Let’s start with negative motivation. Maybe you’re someone who hasn’t had the, ahem, pleasure of experiencing a lot of negative motivation in your life, and for that I commend you. But it goes something like this:

Everyone always told me I’d never make anything of myself. Well, I’d prove them wrong. Smoothing my brand new thrift shop suit down to get rid of any last wrinkles (though doing anything about its smell was impossible this late in the game), I headed into the job interview.

I joke that spite is a terrific motivator. And it is. We often react to adversity by stubbornly wanting to best it. But it’s important to note that this is a reaction to something negative in life that we’re inspired to overcome. It’s negative motivation to want to show your bully what’s what, or land a new job because your stupid current boss thinks you’re a bad employee, or want to claw out of poverty because you never had anything growing up. The motivation is valid, but the aspiration had roots in something negative instead of something positive.

On the other hand, positive motivation is more of a proactive goal. Take one example from what I just wrote: growing up in poverty. You could write two very different characters with the same backstory and related-but-distinct motivations, one negative, one positive. Character A wants to claw their way out of poverty, indeed, because they never had anything good growing up and it sure feels crummy. The buck stops, or rather starts now, and they’re going to do something about it. Character B grew up the same way, with the same kind of deprivation. But they’re positively motivated, they see what they want to do and why in a different light. Maybe they aspire to be the only person in their family to go to college, or maybe they’d like to provide a better childhood for their own kids than they ever had.

I bet I conjure very different people in your mind just by describing Character A vs. Character B in terms of motivation. One is negatively motivated, one positively. They’ll do different things to reach their goals, and justify them with different logic.

In your own manuscript, keep an eye on who is negatively motivated and who is positively motivated. If you want to mix it up, get their negative vs. positive motivations in balance, so that there’s a little bit of both in each. They feel adversity but also possibility. That’s where you’ll find complexity.

Related but slightly different are passive and active motivation. Passive motivation is a condition that exists (unfairness in the world, for example) that your character thinks about and wants to solve or overcome. But it’s not something they can affect directly, it’s more part of their general situation. Active motivation, on the other hand, refers to something they have control over and that they can work toward by taking concrete steps. The needle is obvious and they know how to move it.

All of these are shades to the same issue, and it gives you more to think about as you craft your characters.

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I tell clients all the time that my job is to manage expectations. Part of working with a freelance editor is expecting to be pushed outside of your manuscript comfort zone a little bit. Most writers come to me with the thought, “I am excited by my idea but I know there are several things that aren’t working. I want to learn and grow and make it better.” Maybe that writer has gotten some early feedback from critique partners about things that need tweaking. Or they’ve already done an unsuccessful submission round with agents or editors and they didn’t get the response they expected. Or maybe their manuscript isn’t meeting their own internal expectations and they just don’t know what to do about it. Enter a second pair of eyes: an editor.

A small percentage of writers, however, and I’ve only had this experience twice in my editorial career, are so convinced of the merits of the manuscript that they’re not looking for an editor. They are looking, I’d imagine, to get on the radar of someone even tangentially connected to the industry, and get a booster to the top. Maybe they think I will recommend them personally to agents. Maybe they think I’ll start agenting again myself for the sake of scooping up a hot project. Or maybe they just want the gold star from someone who has made a career of saying, basically, “yes” or “no” to thousands of other writers.

I try very hard to generate constructive, actionable feedback. I’ve never sent a set of notes that says, “This sucks, it’s dead in the water, and you should probably stick with your day job.” One time, at a conference, I met with a writer who told me something shocking. “This,” she said, “is the first manuscript I’ve written in twenty-five years. I had a writing teacher in college tell me I was no good, and it hurt so much that I stopped writing altogether.”

This woman lost twenty-five years of her writing life. She clearly loved doing it, but because one voice (in a presumed position of authority) told her she wasn’t good enough, she gave up on her dream for a quarter of a decade (and almost all of her adult life up until that point). People perceive me as an authority, too. And so I have made it my goal to never wield that power in a way that hurts a writer.

Do I rave about every manuscript unequivocally, then? Absolutely not. Even excellent writers have some blind spots. So whether I’m helping a beginning writer cut fancy “said” synonyms out of their dialogue, or I’m helping an MFA-graduate with beautiful prose work on plot and overall sales hook, I try my best to do it with the dignity and respect that each writer and each manuscript deserves, for where they are in their individual journey.

All that said, I still run into writers who have expectations that perhaps outpace their current manuscripts. Whether those expectations are of the one-in-a-million runaway success, or their shot at being a multimedia mogul, perhaps even in the query letter, I see this happen with writers. They’ve created websites, maybe, or products, or they’ve already self-published. They have a lot to say about various awards they’ve won or endorsements they’ve gotten. There’s little talk about the manuscript, though, as if that was just an afterthought.

This sends a message to me that the writer isn’t as interested in rolling up their sleeves and working on the product itself. To me, everything but the manuscript is just noise. You can send me a t-shirt with your characters on it, or a list of testimonials from school appearances, and all that is fine and good. I’m a driven, type-A personality, too, and I have way more ideas than I have time to make them all a reality. I respect proactive people. But my only concern is the manuscript.

It’s what an agent or editor will respond to. It’s what will stand out among the noise if it’s, indeed, worthwhile. I saw excitement bubbling over for a perfectly lovely client last week, and I wrote to them: “The only way to get someone excited about your work is by presenting good work, and letting it speak for itself.” It’s easy to say but very hard to do. It’s also at the very core of what I do as an editor. Every writer has a different personality, and some are more eager than others. That’s okay. My job, however, is to help put the crucial piece of that manuscript into place, and help writers create good work so that they can then present it. It’s as simple and as difficult as that, but, man, do I love my job.


One of my favorite things to talk about these days is character buy-in. It’s the idea of committing to the story, and when your character decides, “Screw it, I’m all in, let’s see where this crazy adventure takes me.” It’s very important, especially in fantasy, action, paranormal, etc. stories where there’s a certain amount of disbelief or world-building that needs to be overcome. I mean, Percy Jackson didn’t exactly imagine his life as a demi-god when he was just starting out. It took him a little while to get on the roller coaster and strap himself into the seat.

Fiction is built, ideally, in layers. We have the basic foundation of a story, then we layer something on as the plot advances or a relationship changes, then we layer the next development onto what exists already, then the next, then the next. It’s important, then, to solidify each layer before building on. We are, in essence, creating something out of nothing when writing fiction. The world doesn’t exist until you establish it. The relationships don’t come to life until you define them. The plot doesn’t mean anything until we combine the events with your protagonist’s objectives, motivations, and development.

Done right, this delicious fiction layer cake will be very satisfying. But the whole thing sort of tends to fall apart if each layer isn’t solidified properly before the next one is poured on. An instance where I notice this issue is when a character flip-flops in their opinions about a plot point or character. It’s one thing to consider one issue with multiple layers: that’s called building complexity. But when a protagonist can’t decide whether they can trust Character A, and this goes on for five chapters, I say it’s flip-flopping.

Let’s extrapolate on this a bit more. The protagonist wants to trust A, but A just told one of their secrets to the antagonist. Your character is really pissed off at A, but they also believe that A is the only person who can help them along in the story. So, with some nagging doubt in their mind, they decide to trust A because the benefits outweigh the risks.

What I’ve described above is a complex situation. The trust is established, but there’s something going on below the surface that colors it a certain shade of wariness. The most important part, though, is that the protagonist has decided to commit to trusting A. They have bought in.

Compare this to the same scenario. And let’s say the decision is made in chapter one to trust A. But then in chapter two, the protagonist avoids A’s phone calls, saying “I just can’t trust them.” In chapter three, your character crawls back to A to ask a favor, acting for all the world like there’s an intact relationship. In chapter four, the protagonist spurns A’s friendly advances, vowing to go through the rest of the plot alone.

But didn’t we say we trusted A in chapter one? Why does the tide keep shifting? To go back and forth on a commitment sends the reader for a loop. “I thought we agreed on A, and now the rules have been rewritten!” I’ll say as I’m reading a manuscript where flip-flopping is an issue.

The bigger problem here is that flip-flopping isn’t an action. Taking one step forward and one step back doesn’t advance either the plot or the relationship (in this case, the protagonist and A). There’s a slight distinction between committing to conflicting viewpoints about a character because of advances in the plot. For example, the protagonist can fully buy-in to trusting A, and only after some deep betrayal will they make up their mind to forge ahead alone. That’s complexity, and it’s the evolution of a fraught relationship. But the key is commitment. Buying in. Without it, the protagonist changes their mind without investing, resulting in flip-flopping and leaving the plot and relationship development stuck.

Some writers think that flip-flopping is complex, and in some ways, safer. Their characters have angst, but they don’t actually go down any wrong paths. They just keep changing their minds. I don’t find that this is beneficial in the long run, in fact, it’s maybe even a bit shallow. Instead of flip-flopping, commit! Buy in!

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As you know if you’ve read the blog for a little while, my favorite musician is Ben Folds. His band’s most recent album was called The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Not only is the title track my cell phone ringtone, but the idea of “the life of the mind” comes into play today.

In a lot of manuscripts, I’ve seen descriptions like, “My mind exploded with questions” or “He interrupted my train of thought with his voice.” There’s nothing technically wrong with these bits of narrative, but they fall onto the chopping block because of my aversion to filler. If the mind is exploding with questions, you don’t need to narrate that. Cut right to the interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) and the specific questions.

If someone is brought out of a meditative moment or otherwise interrupted, let’s get that in interiority instead of the simple description. For example:

Should I get the light-up pumpkins, or the little spiders? Gosh, Target is tough. Too much good stuff, but I can’t get it all. I wish I had more of a decorator’s eye. Maybe these sconces shaped like witch hats will redeem me. I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband looks at me like it’s not his first time trying to get my attention. “I think we have enough Halloween stuff.”

I can’t possibly figure out what inspired this excerpt. Certainly not a trip to Target over the weekend. 😉 But here we can see the train of thought interrupted in action, rather than narration. It would be superfluous to also include description of how I’m brought out of my thoughts, for example:

I’ve never done anything Pinterest-worthy in my life. How about this cauldron bowl for all the–
My husband interrupts my thoughts. “Sweetie?”
I’m still thinking about candy bowls when the fantasy comes to a grinding halt. “Huh?”

Here, the idea of being interrupted is pasted on so thick that it slows down the narration. As a bonus side note, let me remind you that you can also exterminate filler on the topic of interruptions in dialogue. There’s formatting to do that work for you. Use an em-dash to denote interruption. I’ve seen a lot of writers using an ellipse and narration, but there’s a much easier and cleaner way.

Before (less correct):

“I think we need more candy. What if a lot of kids…”
Todd interrupts me. “We don’t need more candy. We have ten bags already.”

After (better!):

“And what about pumpkins? Let’s line the driveway, and get one for each step, and–”
“You’re giving me a migraine.”

The em-dash successfully communicates the interruption. There’s absolutely no need to narrate it (“Todd interrupts”) because your formatting is doing all the work on your behalf. An ellipse, on the other hand, indicates a speaker who has drifted off instead of one who is abruptly cut short. For example:

“But I don’t want any of that…”
“Any of what?”
“The stuff, the spider…”
“Yes! No spider webs. We’ll be picking them out of the bushes until Thanksgiving!”

There you have it, some thoughts on filler, interiority, and interruptions! Happy (early) Halloween!

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