Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fixing Problems

Some of the most important work we do as writers is editing or book doctoring. Our manuscript might not exactly be ‘ailing’—then again it might be—but maybe it doesn’t quite belong in the healthy category yet. Before we send off our story we’ll need to fix mistakes and weaknesses in craft. But first we have to spot them. They’re likely to pop up in three areas: characterization, story and plot.


Problem #1: Underdeveloped characters that produce insufficient depth, dimension, believability or interest.

The Fix: Here are some areas to check out and revise—The character must have a clear yearning, a traumatic past, a heroic strength and a weakness, many unique personality traits, habits, likes, dislikes, talents, hobbies, attitudes, quirks, strong emotions, motives, fears and secrets, and one or more contradictions. These are all the things you put into character sheets.

Problem #2: Passive characters who are watchers, not actors, who are on the defensive, or who are not effected by the conflicts—that is, they could walk away from the situation without batting an eyelash. I’m talking about characters that are acted upon.

The Fix: The protagonist should be striving to meet an external story goal, resolving the problem and relieving the inner suffering. Our beloved characters are suffering, aren’t they? Remember, we need to torture them no matter how loving we are in real life. We don’t want to bore our readers to death by treating our characters with sugarcoated kindness. We want to keep our readers and boring them isn’t the way to do it. It’s hard for some of us to be mean to the people we love, but we must at least until the end of the story.

It’s okay if some of your characters are in defensive positions, but your protagonist should be on the offensive—strong and active. Formulate your story so the protagonist’s goals are most important, not the antagonist’s goals. Sometimes a plot can be set up incorrectly and that puts the protagonist on the defensive. Not good.

Problem #3: Insufficient relationship chemistry, contrast or conflict between the characters.

The Fix: Increase and strengthen the relationship between the characters and heighten the emotions and the potential for conflict. Make your characters essential to each other, and make their goals at cross-purposes. To avoid a lack of chemistry develop the characters and think in terms of opposites and differences. If they’re too compatible you won’t have much of a story and your reader will yawn. A bored reader will not buy your next book. A very important point.

Problem #4: Awkward shifts from one POV to another POV.

The Fix: Use only one POV per scene so you won’t confuse your reader. For smooth transitions between scenes start with the new character’s name or use a key word or phrase such as “Later that afternoon.” Don’t head hop because it’s confusing and we don’t know whom the scene is about or who to root for.


Problem #1: Too much dialogue for too long; i.e. ‘talking heads.’

The Fix: Very simple to correct dialogue. No speeches or sermons, please. Just break it up with a response from another character so that it becomes a conversation. Don’t overload dialogue with too much information. You can fix your ‘talking heads’ by adding setting, sensory experience or some other characterization.

Problem #2: The speakers all sound alike and are flat.

The Fix: You can use slang, regional figures of speech, words that reflect the character’s ethnicity, race, religion, personality etc. Develop a word list of favorite phrases that fit the character. (I’ve never done this, but I’m going to. Anything to stay organized.)

Problem #3: Dialogue lacks tension, fails to move the plot.

The Fix: Revise based on your character’s scene goal or emotional need. Through dialogue show your POV character striving to reach their goal and running into obstacles. You must have some sort of opposition. If you don’t have this then you could add an antagonist who challenges the POV character through dialogue.

Problem #4: Attributions—who is speaking—take characters out of the story.

The Fix: Don’t use words such as snarled, chided, chortled etc. Replace them with he said/she said. Or replace he said/she said with an action sentence that makes clear who is speaking.

Problem #5: Avoid over-the-top writing of dialect, slang, jargon, clichés, or foreign terms.

The Fix: A few dropped ‘g’s’ such as ‘walkin’ will do the trick. Avoid trying to phonetically spell dialects. Readers might throw your book across the room out of frustration and you wouldn’t want that.

Oops, the bell just rang. Next time I post I’ll finish up with Story and Plot. (This information came from an article written by Elizabeth Lyon.)

I’ll be giving away a copy of James Scott Bell’s wonderful craft book, The Art of War for Writers. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.


Helen Gray said...

Coffee pot's on and timer set.

Wow, Cara!! You must know that many conference attendees have returned home to get submissions ready to go, but want to go through them one more time before the send off.

Thanks for the tips.


DMWEBB said...

Thank you, Miss Cara. This is helping me with a story I just started writing. Now these helpful hints can be posted next to my writer's prayer. Info at hand!

Edwina said...

Great tips! Thanks for sharing!

Dianna Shuford said...

Hi, Cara! Thanks for the info. Great stuff to think about.

Don't enter me in the drawing since I already have that book. (It's a great resource.)

Tina Russo Radcliffe said...

Thank goodness, Helen is back in the coffee saddle. Walt and I tried to keep up but no one compares to Helen.

Cara, this is a wonderful resource post. Thank you.

Cara Lynn James said...

Good morning! I'm impressed you're up so early or going to bed so late! And Helen thanks for the coffee. I'm about to drink my first cup.

It was wonderful meeting you at ACFW!!!!! I had a dream about the St. Louis conference last night. I really should be dreaming about my deadline instead, but maybe deadlines are better described as nightmares than dreams! But I'm happy I have one!

Kirsten Arnold said...

Great resource, Cara! I'm printing this off to reference as I go through my current ms.


Debby Giusti said...

Hi Cara,
Great info. Love the characterization section. I'm cutting and pasting.

I just revised a manuscript and mailed it yesterday. It should arrive in New York today. Hoping I did everything you suggested! :)

Helen, thanks for the coffee. Tastes great and just what I need this morning. So glad we had time together at ACFW!

Glynna Kaye said...

Great info, Cara! Another one for my "keeper" binder!

Debby Giusti said...

So, Cara, what happened in your dream? ACFW in St. Louis next year...sounds like a big Seeker event!

Speaking of events, I'm so excited about our October Birthday Bash!!! Whoo-hoo!!! Fun, fun, fun in Seekerville!!!!

Rose said...


This is great information for writer's at any stage of their career. I'm printing this one off as a check list when I do final edits.

RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

Erica Vetsch said...

Great post! I'm just diving into rewrites, and this will help keep me on target!

So wonderful to meet you at conference. And I can't wait to read Love on a Dime. :)

Sandra Leesmith said...

Morning Cara,

Wow, your post is perfect for me today. I am almost fnished with my wip and now I can go through it with your checklist. I already see some things to fix.

I can hardly wait for next year at St Louis ACFW. I am saving pennies already. And NY RWA. I want to go there also.

Thanks for the coffee Helen. I have some tea and hot chocolate also. And a pitcher of blackberry juice. Blackberries are ripe where I'm at now.

I'm bringing some blackberry cheese blintzes to nibble on. Yumm. They smell delightful.

LOVE ON A DIME was so wonderful. I can hardly wait for the second book in the series.

Julie Lessman said...

Cara, GREAT POST, girl!!! LOTS of important tips here, although as a Multiple POV Queen, I may differ slightly with "Character Fix #4"!! :)

I actually grinned when I read your line: "Readers might throw your book across the room out of frustration and you wouldn’t want that."

Actually, I just got two reviews this morning on AHU where the readers said they "wanted to throw my book across the room," but it was because they were so mad at the character, so I see that as a very good thing. For me, it's all about the emotional ride, you know ... ;)

It was SO great seeing you Indy, Cara, and ALL the Seeker buds too!! Helen was a hoot (love ya girl!!) and Edwina so sweet and sooo much younger looking that that tiny snapshot we see in her comments!! Loved meeting Sarah Forgrave and Dianna Shuford, even though it was often on the fly. And, Pepper and Jeannie??? You guys ROCK!!


Regina Merrick said...

Cara, talk about timely! I'm cutting 6,000 words from my ms, and this should help me. I guess instead of a book "doctor," I need a book SURGEON! LOL

Ummmm. Coffee's good, Helen! Thanks!


Dawn Ford said...

Wonderful tips. I'm afraid I have the tension and the "being mean to your characters" by keeping the action going. I'm working on finishing my rough draft and have portions of action and portions of talking heads. But I'll get that when I edit and I'll use your tips.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cara, why is it so easy to see what you're saying, and so hard to spot it in our own work?

Insert tiny sigh here...

These are great pointers, perfect check-lists. I'm printing this up to remind myself what to look for, how to find balance, how to create depth.

This is a wonderful asset, Cara-mia!

Helen put the early pot on. Good thing since it's after 9....

And blintzes from Sandra...

Oh, sweet.

Grabbing one and hoping to stop in a smidge later to make fun of Mary. Can't be lettin' them thar awards pilin' up go to her head.

Then she'll be gettin' the big head and heaven knows what we'll have to deal with.

Pam Hillman said...

Just popping in to say hi.

I'm home from the ACFW conference, exhausted, and back at the day job.

I had a wonderful time, and was so happy to see so many Seekers there. Go Seekers.

Helen, gimme some of that coffee!!!

Cara Lynn James said...

I'm don't quite remember my St. Louis dream, but there were lots of writers in it--that's not exactly strange!

I love revising manuscripts. It's so much easier than tackling a blank page. But I've taken a step forward lately. I don't edit as I go very much. I used to edit every sentence until I thought it was perfect. It never was though. Now that I need to add to my word count every day I don't have time to analyze every word. So I'm learning to write a lot faster. But I'll never be fast like Ruthy or Mary. I guess we all write in our own way.

Kelly Freestone said...

Just what I needed, Cara!
Great post =D

I'm about to put my fingers to the keys on this WIP.
I think it's time.
Enough hiding and it's time to jump in!!

Lord willing!

Great info.
Have a good one, honey.

Kelly Freestone said...

Why do I forget every time?!


Thanks, Seekers.

lynnrush said...

Love the examples you show to illustrate your points. Very helpful!!

Cara Lynn James said...

I'm curious about how much editing can you all do in a day. Any one? I'm trying to increase the number of pages I can do.

kathy taylor said...

Ah number four. I needed that!

KC Frantzen said...

Write on Helen - that must be the answer - conference attendees running thru one more time...

Hey CLJ - wonderful useful info, especially since I'm in rewrite mode.

Seekerville never fails to be timely. How do y'all manage this?

Especially liked: A bored reader will not buy your next book. A very important point. SMILE

and this: You can use slang, regional figures of speech, words that reflect the character’s ethnicity, race, religion, personality etc. Develop a word list of favorite phrases that fit the character. (I’ve never done this, but I’m going to. Anything to stay organized.)

I haven't done it either, but have been struggling with this - perfect solution! Thanks!

may at maythek9spy dot com

Editing in a day - I'm relating to some of the comments. I keep trying to make each sentence perfect and just need to move on. Yesterday I got in about 3 chapters on new stuff though. Which is good, deadline approacheth.

Mary Connealy said...

Wow, Cara.

I really need to go do some work on my work in progress.

You've depressed me seeing all that needs doing.


Mary Connealy said...

And Ruthy, thank you so much for saving me from self-confidence.

God bless you.

pat jeanne davis said...

Very useful post, Cara. It came at the perfect moment as I'm giving my WIP another going over this week. Many thanks. I'll be printing this one out for reference. Love to win a copy of James Bell's book. I've come away from his teaching sessions better prepared to write.


Janet Dean said...

Cara, you gave us a wonderful list of tips Elizabeth Lyon suggests to improve characterization! Though we know these things, we can easily overlook weaknesses in our own writing. I'm printing the list!

Helen makes a mean cup of coffee. :-) Not sure where that expression came from, but couldn't resist. Sandra, the blackberry cheese blintzes are delicious!! Thanks!

I'm reviewing my AAs for Wanted: A Family. My last look at the book. Reading carefully, comparing line to line with my version.


Cindy said...

What a great post. There is so much to learn and I appreciate your sharing your wisdom. I look forward to what you share about story and plot as well.

Cindy said...

Oh, and I am soooo coveting ripe blackberries. I spent several years in NW Arkansas in my youth and the blackberries there were so fabulous.

Kav said...

Cara, great succinct advice. Definitely something to keep on hand when editing – I fear if I give some of it too much thought I might just get stymied in the logistics of writing instead of the story.

I do have a question about Problem #4 – Attributions. I’m trying to wrap my head around why using ‘she said’ is better than using ‘she chided’. I remember eons ago when I was in school we got marked down for being so unimaginative as to use ‘said’ instead of something more descriptive. Now it seems to have done a complete turnaround and I’m curious as to why.

I wouldn’t want to see reams of dialogue punctured with ‘snarled, chided, exclaimed, ranted’ etc. but I wouldn’t want to see it all ‘said’ either. I can see how an action sentence can break it up and have noticed that technique among many Seekerville authors (reading Hope Undaunted right now and have Autumn Rain waiting in the wings – at last! – and I just picked up Formula for Danger at the bookstore today!!!) – oops – getting off track. I’m just stymied over why ‘said’ is preferred to something more descriptive.


Cara Lynn James said...

Personally I think he said/she said is too bland. But these blend in with the sentence. The dialogue should speak for itself as much as possible and carry the impact. The dialogue should do the work much more than the attributions.

Words like chided etc. stand out. However, sometimes I say sneered, for example. It would be better if I described exactly how the person's face changed. Saying sneered is lazy. Sometimes we're lazy. I think it's ok once in a while, but not too often. Editors don't seem to like lazy words.

Any other ideas?

Janet Kerr said...

This is great information. Thanks so much Cara.

Susan Anne Mason said...


Wonder advice! I'm keeping this post for sure!

Thanks so much for the help, both in revising and in starting out a new project!


sbmason (at) sympatico (dot) ca

Digging for Pearls said...


Great ideas for fixing problems. I enjoyed your book Love on a Dime.

Jodie Wolfe

Walt M said...


It's 4:30 and I've got a small pot of coffee brewing. Just needed it.

I also needed the tips. I have a pssive hero that needs to be fixed.

Please don't include me in the drawing. I have The Art of War for Writers.

Pepper Basham said...

GREAT post, Cara.
Oh dear, I have a lot of work to do.
Getting a few proposals ready for sub requests and I'm going through this checklist as one way to see if it's ready.
Thanks for sharing this.

Your book is such a sweet story, Cara. Sigh.
And Julie.... I wanted to throw your book across the room for the same reasons as the reviews. Good grief! Torture, pure and simple. The good kind.

Deb Salisbury said...

Wonderful tips! Thank you!

Coffee needs to wait until morning, though. ;-) I catch up with you way too late.

Jill W said...

Thanks for the great post Cara! I've printed it and placed it into my resource notebook with all of the other useful postings from Seekerville. I love this blog! Happy Friday!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Is it too late to comment? This is a wonderful post, Cara! Alas, I'm not this organized. But you made some really good points. I liked what you said about making the hero and heroine essential to each other. The reader must believe that if the two of them don't get together, it will be a terrible tragedy. Life as we know it will cease! Just imagine if Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet hadn't gotten together! That would have been awful!!! That's what I think about when I'm plotting my romances.

Melinda Evaul said...

I'm editing my novel now so this is timely information. I'll refer to this often, I'm sure.

Cindy W. said...

Great post Cara! Thank you for all the helpful tidbits. :) I love stopping by Seekerville because there is always so much to learn and everyone here loves to teach and share their knowledge!

Smiles & Blessings,
Cindy W.


Natalie Monk said...

Wonderful fixes for those problems I run into a lot! Thanks, Cara!