“Move on, already!” I snarled at the female protagonist in a book I attempted to read recently. “Change your life or make the best of it. Stop whining and wallowing.”
When I put the book aside—after skipping over 80% to see if I was correct about the identity of the killer—I felt relieved.
I also felt embarrassed.
My first book had been much the same. The action—what there was of it—was episodic and the scenes were repetitive. My protagonist arrived at the end of almost every chapter in tears or fuming about losing another argument started because she wasn’t enough of an adult to keep her lips zipped.
When an agent pointed that out, I was aghast. I was also argumentative. “My character is under a lot of pressure,” I said. “She’s a murder suspect. Her boss hates her. She’s miserable. She feels helpless.”
About a week after the agent scraped me from the telephone line the way you might scrape dog doo-doo from the sole of your shoe, I had a multi-part reality check:
• By the end of chapter 2, if readers had been paying the least bit of attention, they knew the character and her situation. They didn’t need constant reminding.
• A crying character gets old fast.
• A character holding an endless pity party likely won’t provide an escape for readers who may face the same kind of thing on a regular basis with a friend or family member.
• When a character decides to stop wailing and make changes, that leads to action.
• Action creates new kinds of conflict with other characters.
• Conflict drives the plot.
• A plot in gear and rolling makes readers turn those pages and maybe buy your next book.
I reviewed that teary manuscript and chopped away at the lip chewing, nail biting, pillow pounding, and other emotional outbursts. As I did, I found the objectivity I’d lost. I realized I’d become so close to my characters that I was letting them get away with behavior I’d normally grow tired of in ten minutes and walk away from at a four-mile-an-hour clip powered by a giant go-cup of coffee.
Since then, I’ve been more aware—if not while writing the first draft then in the revision process—of rehashing issues and emotions to the point of wallowing. And I’ve developed techniques to help me shake those clingy characters and see them for what they are.
First, I set the manuscript aside and ignore it for at least three months. That gives me distance.
Second, when I pick it up again, I read through it as fast as possible, without stopping to correct spelling and pick nits. Speed lets me see whether I’ve used angst as a springboard to decision or action, or whether the plot is grinding to a stop. It lets me say, “Sheesh. I’m tired of hearing about your first husband.”
Third, of course, is to ask someone to review the story. Don’t ask a close friend, the kind you drink and commiserate with. Don’t ask a friend who has more problems and issues than you do. Find a friend who, on an honesty scale of 1-10, sends the needle to 16. Thank that person in advance. (Because, let’s face it, how many of us really want thank a critic, even a constructive critic, after we’ve taken a verbal slap?) Then step aside.
Fourth, review that friend’s comments. Put them aside for a week. Then review them again. Rinse, repeat, and revise.
Carolyn J. Rose is the author of the popular Subbing isn’t for Sissies series (No Substitute for Murder, No Substitute for Money, and No Substitute for Maturity), as well as the Catskill Mountains mysteries (Hemlock Lake, Through a Yellow Wood, and soon-to-be-released The Devil’s Tombstone). Other works include An Uncertain Refuge, Sea of Regret, A Place of Forgetting, a collection of short stories (Sucker Punches) and five novels written with her husband, Mike Nettleton (The Hard Karma Shuffle, The Crushed Velvet Miasma, Drum Warrior, Death at Devil’s Harbor and Deception at Devil’s Harbor).
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She’s now a substitute teacher in Vancouver, Washington, and her interests are reading, swimming, walking, gardening, and NOT cooking. Website www.deadlyduomysteries.com