Monday, June 11, 2018

RUE the Day We Don’t Respect Our Readers


Missy Tippens

Rue the day we don’t respect our readers. And by RUE, I mean R.U.E.



R.U.E. =  Resist the urge to explain.

RUE is a note I have often seen in the margins of my critiqued manuscripts. I used to be a part of a critique group that met weekly in person. We each had our own gifts to contribute. Lindi Peterson had a knack for looking at the overall story arc. Meg Moseley was known for helping figure out plot problems. And Maureen Hardegree, our English major in the group, was known for helping us with grammar and mechanics. She was the one who often had to write RUE in my margins. I can still picture it in purple or pink ink. :)

I tended to explain things I had already shown, and still fall into that trap. This problem is the equivalent of knocking the reader over the head with something they’ve probably already gotten. Don’t you roll your eyes when you read something like this:

Example: The man grabbed Pam’s arm. She wrenched herself from his grasp and bolted away, cries for help ripping from her throat. She was terrified.

Reader response: Well, duh. Yes, of course she was terrified. I knew that the instant the man grabbed her arm. And if I hadn’t gotten a clue at that point, then I most certainly knew when she ran away screaming.

The fix: This is a matter of show vs tell. In that example, I both showed, and then told immediately after. (Like I said above, it’s like hitting them over the head with a club just to make sure they got it.) In this example, just delete the second, telling sentence. Let the first one shine and do its job.

Let’s not insult our readers. Let’s trust them. I know as a reader, I really appreciate subtlety. I get a sort of thrill when I catch on to something quickly—like I’m an insider. I love being so in tune with a character that I understand a funny comment or chuckle at a thought (and gleefully think to myself that I’m really quick on the uptake because I got it). Well, in reality, I’ve been given that experience by a skillful author who pulled me into her/his world and made me feel like a special participant. I’m probably not as clever as I thought. LOL But still, it’s a great feeling! (Thank you, skillful authors who have given me that feeling of being in your characters’ inner circle!)

That inclusiveness, that bond with readers should be our goal.



We need to R.U.E. in dialogue as well as in our scenes.

Example: Mindy rolled her eyes and threw the book against the wall. “Okay, I get it already. I got it the third time you told me,” she said, frustrated at the author for beating her over the head with the information for the third time.

[Note: I had too much fun writing that example!!! LOL]

Reader response: Um, didn’t you just say the same thing twice?
Critique partner response: a big “RUE” in red in the margin!

The fix: Delete that whole last part, so that it reads:
Mindy rolled her eyes and threw the book against the wall. “Okay, I get it already. I got it the third time you told me.”

Her actions are obviously from frustration. And you don’t even need the dialogue tag. The rolling eyes and throwing the book serve as an action tag.

We need to R.U.E. in the descriptive details and dialogue tags we choose to use.
 Example: Ruthy opened the heavy front door and stepped into the living room. 
“There you are. Did you finish feeding the animals?” Beth asked. 
Ruthy stomped the icy cold snow off her well-worn work boots, marched across the plush new cream-colored carpet, and then picked up the fireplace poker with her hand. She opened the door to the brand new wood burning stove and gave the embers a quick poke. The flames roared to life in sparks of red and yellow, heating up her small frozen hands—hands that looked so much like her grandmother’s she sometimes wondered if she was more like her than she thought. Then she turned to answer her daughter’s question. “Yes. All done. Is dinner ready? I’m starving!” she said excitedly just as her stomach growled.

Reader response: Huh? What was the daughter’s question again??
Critique partner response (as her head spins): I think maybe you got a little carried away trying to set the scene. What’s important here?

The fix: Okay, this example was loaded! LOL
--You do want to set the scene. And details can be nice. But if someone just asked a question, then you can’t go on for too long before answering (unless you’re doing that intentionally to show character hesitation). You don’t want the reader to have to go back to re-read to remember the question.

--You also don’t need to tell EVERY. LITTLE. DETAIL. Not of someone walking across the room and stoking a fireplace! (Oh, my, but I’ve been so guilty of this!) Unless the plush carpet and new fireplace are important (had the character just won the lottery or received an inheritance?), you probably don’t need all those details either. Choose details carefully. Use them to reveal character. Use them to show contrast.

--Watch for repetition and unnecessary telling. If she picks up the fireplace poker, it’s pretty obvious that it’s with her hand. :) You also don’t need to say she turned to answer—right before she answers. And you don’t need to say she answered excitedly if you’ve just used excited dialogue with an exclamation point!! (I couldn’t resist.)

--Also, the way this character goes on without answering makes the reader think something is wrong. If it’s not, then you’ve built up false expectation. And again, when you focus so on details, you make the reader think they’re important for some reason. R.U.E. also includes not telling or showing more than you need to tell or show. So let me take a stab at a fix for this example assuming Ruthy has no problems with Beth:

Ruthy opened the heavy front door and stepped into the living room. 
 “There you are. Did you finish feeding the animals?” Beth asked. 
 “Yes. All done.” Ruthy stomped the icy snow off her well-worn work boots and hurried to the wood burning stove. (I kept this detail because it’s good characterization. We know our Ruthy is a hard worker!) A quick poke, and the flames roared to life, heating up her hands—hands that looked so much like her grandmother’s she sometimes wondered if she was more like her than she thought. (I would leave this for foreshadowing, but only if it will come into play later.) “Is dinner ready?” she asked just as her stomach growled.

I also considered leaving the plush carpet to show contrast with the dirty work boots. But I didn’t think it was needed in this scene. I think it could be more powerful to use that contrast in a scene where maybe the character is uncomfortable. And this character is not uncomfortable in her own home. Now, take her and her wet work boots and plop her in the parlor of a mansion, and I might like to use that plush carpet detail.

I hope you had fun with these examples. While writing this post, I was re-reading some chapters in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. They include a section on R.U.E. in the chapter on Show and Tell. They point out to always check your manuscript for emotion words that are outside of dialogue. I think that’s a great check to do. I know when Janet critiques for me, she often finds those places.

Granted, sometimes we choose to use narrative summary (telling). So don’t feel like you have to delete every example. Just make sure you’ve left them there for a purpose (for example pacing or summarizing something that doesn’t deserve its own scene). And make sure you're not telling something twice!

I’ve found that in first drafts, when I’m moving very quickly, I’ll make the mistake of repeating myself with telling right after showing. I think it comes from not thinking too much as I'm blooping the words out on the page. That's to be expected on a rough draft. But when those mistakes remain after polishing, I think it comes from lack of confidence.

Just like we have to trust our readers to “get it,” we also have to trust ourselves to show it or tell it. Don’t be afraid to let your words stand. Trust yourself and trust your readers. It’ll make for a better book!

I'd love to hear your experience. As readers, have you felt that wonderful bond with characters so that you felt like an insider? Have you also experienced that feeling of being beaten over the head by a story? Let's chat!




After more than 10 years of pursuing her dream of publication, Missy Tippens, a pastor’s wife and mom of three from near Atlanta, Georgia, made her first sale to Harlequin Love Inspired in 2007. Her books have since been nominated for the Booksellers Best, Holt Medallion, ACFW Carol Award, Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, Maggie Award, Beacon Contest, RT Reviewer’s Choice Award, and the Romance Writers of America RITA® Award. Visit Missy at www.missytippens.comhttps://twitter.com/MissyTippensand http://www.facebook.com/missy.tippens.readers.


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77 comments:

  1. I've brought decaff for our night owls. I'll check back in tomorrow morning with some leaded coffee and tea. :)

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  2. Hi Missy:

    You know, I can't really remember stopping while reading because the author is explaining things too well or in too much detail. That's different from just including too much detail or description which goes beyond explaining anything.

    Sometimes it even helps to have some extra explaining when you are not paying full attention to your reading. I think it would be wrong to think that all our readers are fully focused on our captivating writing. They may be in the doctor's office awaiting bad news. They may be on line in the post office reading while trying to overhear a whispered conversation three people down the line.

    It's funny to think of what we are taught in giving a memorable speech. First, tell them what you are going to tell them. Second, tell them. Third, tell them what you told them.

    But then, that's how to give a speech.

    I especially don't mind deeper explanations if they are short and don't unduly slow the story down.

    What I don't like at all and what will usually pull me out of the story is when the author uses dialogue which would never be spoken but only is said to convey information to the reader. TV shows are very bad at doing this. I've heard this called S.D. or Scientist's daughter. In old science fiction stories the hero was a young man who was a science genius and his mentor was the scientist. Of course, the scientist and hero would not be explaining to each other how their project works so how was the reader to find out? The scientist always had a daughter who knew nothing and everything that needed to be explained was explained to her so the reader could understand what was going on. Every time I encounter a case of S.D. I almost shout out 'Scientist's daughter' and I feel like I'm being insulted. Couldn't the author take the trouble to work the info into the story naturally? And the author would reply, "No at a penny a word." (All too true of the old SF pulps.:))

    Anyway, that's how it seems to me this early in the morning.

    I just may be someone who needs extra help reading. I'm kind of a distraction attraction. :)

    Vince

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    1. Vince, I don't think I've ever heard that term "Scientist's Daughter." That's so true!! That type passage drives me crazy! And your thought on not slowing the pacing down is a good one. More detail can be a good thing to many people.

      You know, your example of giving a speech is interesting! It reminded me a little of the format I learned for essays: using an intro with a thesis statement, then supporting your statement, then summarizing by restating your thesis statement. Of course, it was a challenge to try to write all that well without it really feeling repetitive. :)

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    2. Vince, love the "Scientist's Daughter." I have heard it explained differently, with the speaker beginning, "As you know, Fred..." and then proceeding to tell Fred what he already knows and we don't. "Fred" and the S.D. are cut from the same metaphorical cloth. Sigh.

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    3. AND I wish I could say I never did this...

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    4. Vince it's an absolute truth that dialogue being used as an info dump..........is still an info dump.

      Smart and valid reminder!!!

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    5. I was watching the movie Twister with a few of my adult children and (if you remember) Bill Pullman brought his girlfriend along to a tornado chase to get Helen Hunt to sign divorce papers.
      And my children were discussing the weird notion of that girlfriend. She brought absolutely no role to that movie and why was she there.

      And I said, "She's the most important character in this movie. She's the 'dumb friend'."

      Because she knows NOTHINGN about tornados adn all the other chasers know EVERYTHING about tornados, the dumb friend (scientists daughter???) can ask questions none of the chasers would ever ask because they all know.

      And when the chasers explain things to the dumb friend, they are explaining them to us.

      This can be done well, or it can be done POORly!!!

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    6. Mary: The writers of that story probably grew up reading those SF stories. On Star Trek they ask questions that embed the info that the actors would ask. Like, "Sir, do you think we can skirt that force field close enough to avoid causing any warp speed reverberation damage." They might say something like this if the questioner really didn't know the answer to what he asked.

      To SF writers the SD is just as common as 'show don't tell' is in romance writing.

      I live in Oklahoma but I never saw Twister. What's the odds of that?

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    7. P.S. come to think of it, those writers may have been having fun pulling off an in joke that got by the producers. The SD has grown up!

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  3. Missy, this is a new acronym for my collection and a needed wake-up call. I'm past the point of saying "she felt terrified" or "she was happy," but I'm tempted to do, and sometimes do, things like the Ruthy/Beth example. Let's put it this way, nobody has ever accused me of UNDER-explaining. My current crit partner is more Hemingway-ish, with long stretches of dialogue not broken up. It's good dialogue, but I'm always having to remind her to do something to ground the reader...We have some interesting discussions, leave it at that.
    We're having a floor put in today and I need to get out of the way, may take the laptop to a café or something.
    KB

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    1. I love this quote, Kathy: "Let's put it this way, nobody has ever accused me of UNDER-explaining." Hahaha I totally get that.

      I think dialogue definitely has an expected rhythm. It depends on the particular character and might be in longer stretches depending on the character's personality. But usually there's a point at which it doesn't feel natural. If you have your friend try reading it out loud, that could help.

      Enjoy the coffee shop...and the new floor!!

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    2. Not at café YET, sigh. Floor guys haven't shown up yet. I have a bad feeling about this.

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    3. They showed up and went back out again.

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    4. The newest version of Microsoft Word has a new feature under the review tab< the speech section< Read Aloud. I love it, because I hate reading to myself. I still miss mistakes, but when someone else reads it to me, I hear the mistakes.

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    5. Alisa, that's a great idea! I would hate to read to myself, plus I probably wouldn't catch as much while reading.

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    6. Kathy, I hope they don't stand you up!

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    7. This would drive Hemingway nuts! Just look at the first two chapters of "Farewell to Arms": long paragraphs and little to no dialogue. Papa did not write like the imitators thought he did. Hemingway did it with his voice. You have to imitate his voice. In writing it is not enough to look like Enya, you have to sound like her! :)

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    8. They showed up and are now hammering in the background.

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  4. Great examples, Missy! And such an easy thing to mistakenly do in those first drafts when we're trying to find our way in the story get words on the page! Then later, when we've read it so many times that our eyes almost glaze over, those things are easy to miss!

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    1. Glynna, I agree about missing things when we know the story so well we can practically quote it! :)

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  5. Fun post, Missy, and very informative. I will keep this in mind as I go through and do a second draft of my book.

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    1. I hope it helps, Sandy! I have to remind my self to look for these type things. I think it's something I'll always struggle with.

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  6. I don't think I'm a very intuitive reader, so like Vince said, maybe sometimes I do need to be shown AND told :) But I definitely know when I've read books where this is done often and it makes them difficult to read. I fear this in this my own writing simply because I don't feel very intuitive myself, I'm sure that I beat the reader over the head. Now I have a new acronym to use when I'm editing my rough drafts. Thanks for the info, Missy!

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    1. Glynis, I suspect we all need to be shown AND told sometimes. :) But for me, it's so fun when I feel as if I've gotten an inside "joke." I love those rare times in reading!

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  7. Thanks for this post I had not heard of RUE. I will add it to the list for when I am editing.

    I hope everyone has a great day.

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    1. Wilani, I hope it helps you on your next edits!

      I also hope you're feeling better.

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  8. Thanks for an interesting post. I wasn't familiar with R.U.E. but I am familiar with someone who feels the need to explain, repeat, explain....I had to laugh!

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    1. Connie, I had such fun with those examples. I laughed out loud while writing one of them.

      Yes, I'm a weirdo! haha

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  9. Fun post, Missy! Thanks for all the examples.

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  10. Ruthy's starving and I'm frustrated. Sounds like a typical Monday morning. :D Especially the part about Ruthy working outside. I have no doubt that's what she's going right now, working up an appetite for one of her big ol' summer salads.

    Love the way you approached this post, Missy. I often find myself deleting RUEs when I'm editing. It's like, "You just showed the reader how the character felt, you don't need to tell them, too." But better I catch it than my editor, right? I also have the same problem with too much detail. Again, I find myself deleting, keeping just enough to get my point across.

    So glad you posted this today.

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    1. LOL, Mindy! Yes, I'm sure Ruthy, once she got her writing done at zero-dark-30, then she headed out to plant something or feed animals. :)

      P.S. I did not mean to imply you're an impatient person! hahaha

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  11. I've been MIA for the last little while, on a trip to see my folks. It's good to be back!

    Missy, I think you hit it on the head with lack of confidence being the root of over-explaining. Either lack of confidence in ourselves to get our point across succinctly, or in our audience to get it if we try!

    Excellent post to consider as I dive back into my WIP after a two-week hiatus.

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    1. Erica, we missed you! I'm glad you had a great trip to see your parents.

      Yeah, we need to learn to trust ourselves and our audience!

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  12. Hi Missy. What a great post. RUE huh? I had a critiquer call it spoonfeeding. I guess both of those terms name it quite aptly. I had this problem just last night (the writer kind, not the reader.) I tend to not give the intended audience credit for being smart enough to get it without explaining, and yet, I hate it when I read things like that. Thanks for your methods and tips on avoiding this painful error.

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    1. Cindy, it's tough not to want to spoon feed. I like that term! I guess a little spoon feeding is okay. I guess it becomes a problem when it hits them over the head. :)

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  13. Great Post, but I wonder what is meant by "emotion words that are outside of dialogue". Is it good or bad? Could you give an example? I'm sorry to be so dimwitted. It probably shows how little I know about writing, but I can't learn without asking questions, can I? I promise I understood everything else and am currently edited those things from my WIP.
    Thanks.

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    1. Alisa, I'm so glad you asked! Great question! You're not dimwitted at all!

      An example of that would be:

      In dialogue (okay to use): "I'm so furious at you I want to slap you!" she yelled at him.

      Out of dialogue: "I want to slap you right now!" she yelled, furious at him.

      You don't need to say she's furious if you just show us in her words and actions. So that second one could be shown more:

      She thought the top of her head might blow out. "I want to slap you right now!" she yelled right up in his face.

      In that case, you've shown she's furious without telling us. Plus, it's more engaging to read with those extra details.

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    2. I hope that helps! Please feel free to ask questions. Examples always help me.

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    3. Thanks! I get it. Although, people sometimes say those kinds of things, but I guess in writing I could be to much.

      I hope you don't mind, but it makes me want to try my hand at this. Best way to learn is to do, right? Personally, I like to leave off any 'said' tags. Especially when you have an exclamation point followed by yelled. Feels more like telling. There is nothing wrong with it, and we could go round and round discussing the pros and cons of 'said' tags. It's just my personal preference. So, here is my attempt:

      Her hands shook. "I want to slap you right now!" She glared up in his face.

      What do you think?

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    4. Alisa, that's even better! Yeah, using the yelled and exclamation points together was actually another example of what I had talked about in my post. :) So nice work catching that!

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    5. lol. See, I did understand the other stuff. :) So, hard to catch everything at one time, though.

      Thanks you so much for letting me practice and for the extra help. :) I don't always leave comments, but this was fun.

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    6. I'm glad you did, Alisa! It was fun for me, too. :) And you're right about it taking multiple passes to polish a manuscript!

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  14. CPs & PC

    Sometimes, in some ways, I think the CPs get it backwards and write for other writers and not the typical reader.

    Just a thought.

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    1. Vince, that's probably true sometimes. I know I started reading differently once I started writing. I may be harder on CP's than I would be if I weren't a writer. Then again, Browne & King talk about this issue as well. So it's something to consider while polishing! :)

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  15. Great examples, Missy. Thank you for this reminder.

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  16. Working with the floor guys here. Hope I can produce something halfway decent.

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  17. Hi Missy:

    Actually many new writers do have to worry about writing for editors, contest judges, and other writers they deal with in their writing chapters. The reader can get lost in all these other important considerations.

    Maybe this is another good argument for Indie publishing. You can put the reader first. This is something I really like about many Indie books and authors (like L.A. Sartor who publish about locations that you don't often, if ever, find from traditional publishers.)

    I think Indie authors can break a lot of rules but they can't break 'reader' rules and still sell many books.

    So now we need a post on the "Unbreakable Reader Rules"

    How about that for a future post?

    Vince

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    1. Vince, I've actually heard it said that there shouldn't be any hard and fast "rules." And of course, we've always heard that you should know the rules before you break them. So many differing opinions! :)

      I guess the only unbreakable rule is to write a great story!

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    2. Well, in that case, how about coming up with rules that cannot be broken even if you try. Would you even need to know them if you can't break them. Say there is a rule of physics that nothing can go faster than the speed of light. Wouldn't it be worth knowing this rule as it can have an impact on learning more about all the rules-- even those that can be broken but shouldn't be? What writing rule could not be broken even if one wanted to? Is there one?

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    3. Vince, the first thing I thought of is that there has to be conflict to have a story. What do you think about that one?

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    4. That's brilliant!
      I couldn't think of such a rule when I wrote this post.
      However, if you posit that a story must have conflict or it is not a story, that conflict is axiomatic, then you could not break that rule and still have a story.
      This brings to mind the theater of the absurd and plays like "Waiting for Godot" in which nothing happens.
      But then waiting for a whole play for something to happen and nothing does may be the biggest conflict of all…only the conflict is in the audience, not on the stage!
      Maybe instead of too much explaining, there can be too much thinking about it! :)


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  18. As a reader I don't know if I felt like an insider but I did feel what the characters felt in a small way and I did have pity on a character that was getting a bad rap because no one knew why but the character him or her self did know why.

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    1. Kim, I love that you were empathizing with the character, which is great while reading! I love when I get so into a story that I feel their emotions.

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  19. Hi Missy
    Great post today. I tend to over-explain in real life (according to my DH) so I figure it probably leaks into my writing as well. I'll shall have to go look over my work and see.
    I always enjoy examples and am glad to see the fun you had creating the "bad for reader" samples. Oh, and I, too, love it when I feel like I caught that "insider" information from the author when reading - especially with cozy mysteries. It makes me feel smart. Hmmmm...note to self: make the reader feel smart.

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    1. Deb, I had to laugh about over-explaining. My sons always tease their sister about that. :)

      Yes, I bet that would be really fun in a cozy mystery!

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  20. I think you are both correct. I've read reports that women speak many more words a day than men. Here is the lead to one of those reports:


    "It has been claimed that women speak about 20,000 words a day - 13,000 more than the average man - and scientists say a higher amount of the Foxp2 protein is the reason women are more chatty

    But now scientists have found the key to explaining why women are the more talkative sex.

    "A study just published suggests that higher levels of the protein are found in the female brain."

    But I've also read in a best selling book on communications that women talk to do a lot more then just convey information.

    Talking, especially 'trouble talk' is a way to share feelings and when the men were mostly hunters and away from the camp for most of the daylight hours, it was women who had to keep the peace in the tribe. They did this with talking things out rather than fighting as men would be wont to do.

    Now the big question is: does this hold true for male and female readers? Compare romances with westerns. "Jep."


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    1. Vince, I've heard of studies like that, however my husband and I are the opposite! He's more of a talker than I am. :)

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  21. Loved this post, Missy, and I sure could relate, LOL! ;) My wonderful editor pointed out to me that I have a tendency to explain, rather than letting the reader "get it" on her own. Your examples were great (and entertaining).
    This is going into my Keeper File.
    Thanks again!
    Hugs, Patti Jo

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    1. Patti Jo, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one! :)

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  22. Missy, what a timely message! I'm currently doing self-editing of Twofold Love Comeback before I declare the first draft done. I will keep this in mind as I read it a few more times.

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    1. Faye, I'm glad it was good timing for you! I hope your edits go well!

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  23. Great post, Missy! I have a hard time in the real world with over-explaining things.

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    1. You know, Caryl, it could be fun to write a character that does that. Wouldn't that dialogue be fun to write! :)

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  24. I get RUE but what about the opposite FTE, failure to explain, in which the reader gets lost and has to go back and reread a page or two because to the writer and her CPs the passage is clear but to the reader it is not. (I mean this was all explain three pages ago in one obscure reference that was part of the foundation. How can the reader be so thick?) I believe I've run into more problems with FTE cases than problems with RUEs.

    Rules may be why it takes so long to learn how to write fiction well.

    Rules are like scalping: it is necessary in the construction but it is not part of the building itself and it does get in the way a lot of the time.

    Language comes first, then the grammarians come up with the rules. It's the same for great writing. The writing came first then the teachers came up with the rules using the great writing as examples.
    Rules are like bread crumbs dropped so we can find our way thru the dark passages of unknowing.

    Well, it sounds like it might be true. :)

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    1. Vince, I'm guilty of FTE as well. My great CP's help show me the places where they're lost (where all the info is still in my head). :)

      I like the bread crumb analogy.

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  25. BTW: Missy, do you get extra pay for manning a two-day post? (Can you even say 'manning' these days?)

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    1. Missy, do you realize that you may have made a statement that is literally true but figuratively false!

      Isn't this always the other way around?

      "I get paid double" is true if you get paid 0. Any number times 0 is 0. So twice 0 is O. You do get paid twice as much in fact. But I think that used figuratively people would expect you to actually make twice as much in actual value. That is, they would not expect it to be the same value. This makes me wish I was back in philosophy class. :)



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  26. LOL she says RUEfully. Guilty as charged. On my current edit I'm removing many instances of over explaining. Thanks for this reminder.

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  27. This is an excellent reminder. I'm just now done with a manuscript and it's editing time!!! I needed this!

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  28. Such a fun post, Missy! Your examples were smile-worthy.

    The first fiction writing book I owned was Self-Editing for Fiction Writers -- great resource.

    Yes, I've felt that wonderful bond with characters -- it kind of concerns me though that the ones I tend to bond with are the quirky ones :-D

    Nancy C

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