Underwriters Anonymous

Katherine Longshore 7 Tuesday, May 29, 2012

As Donna mentioned yesterday, this week we are welcoming some of our readers onto the blog to write additions, responses and inspirations from any post or idea or theme we've mentioned over the past couple of years.  It is my pleasure to introduce to you Beth Hull,  former high school English teacher, YA writer, long-time Muses reader, eloquent blogger and now a good friend. (Oh! And mother to a four-year-old and a newborn, so finding the time to write this for us is a major accomplishment! Applause, please.)

In April, Talia wrote a post called “Overwriters Anonymous.” And while I’m as guilty as the next writer for clinging to my purple-prosed darlings, I’m also guilty of just the opposite: underwriting. This usually happens when I’m really excited about the story, and I don’t want to take the time for minor details such as, say a character’s physical attributes. Stephen King distinguished between “Taker-Outters” and “Putter-Inners.” I definitely belong to the second camp—my latest first draft clocked in at 35,000 words—which is a little more than half of the expected page count for a contemporary YA novel.
So if you find yourself looking at a novella when what you really wanted was a novel, here are some areas that might benefit from a little beefing up.

Setting: While most readers don’t want page-long paragraphs describing the exact shade of orange of the main character’s sofa (or the feeding habits of sperm whales—sorry, Mr. Melville), we do need to have just enough detail to put our characters in concrete places and times. Nobody has conversations or battles or romances while suspended in fog.

Character descriptions:  I always err on the side of Not Enough when it comes to describing my characters, so much so that one reader of my last book said the male lead was incredibly sexy, yet she couldn’t remember a single physical description of him (confession: there weren’t many). I went back and added a few things in. No, it’s not going to make a 35k manuscript jump up to 60k, but it’ll help the reader.

Subplots and plot layers:  Rather than pretend I have any of my own tricks for this, I’ll just promote Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. (People who know me are rolling their eyes, because I am constantly raving about this book—it is full of great ideas.) If your manuscript is looking a little anorexic, a few of the subplot and plot layer exercises in Maass’s book will do wonders for its physique. (Really. Get the book.)

Interiority:  Basically, all the showing in the world is not going to give readers an accurate depiction of what your character is thinking. Give us her thoughts occasionally, not just clenched fists or gulps or tears. Tell us why she reacts the way she does. This is something Katy really helped me with, so I may as well just send you to her post "Building Better Voice."

Once I take myself off of writing-maternity-leave and revise that 35k manuscript, I hope I’ll be able to take my own advice. If you have any other ideas, I could totally use them!


I tend to be an underwriter, too! Good to know there are more of us out there because it seems like most everyone talks about having to chop so much from their drafts because of the word count and here I am, thinking of what I need to add to get it up to par (and develop character, setting, the world and all that jazz). Great post!

I, for one, am looking forward to reading that 35k manuscript once you've finished your setting, descriptions, layers and interior monologue, Beth! Thanks so much for joining us, today!

I am also an underwriter; I edit to get a clean sparse sentence, but sometimes I find I need some adjectives! I know, so silly. Adverbs I still try and keep to a minimum, but depending on the type, some are needed. Still learning.

I've read Donald Maass' book but didn't know about the workbook. Maybe I'll consider it.

I'm an overwriter. Even in my comments. And my book reviews. I try so hard not to write too much, but I'm just wordy. Funnily enough, I'm not a talker. But I did find that post useful. My day is tomorrow.

Good luck finding time to write!


Oh Beth,
You are SO talking to me with this post! I'm a terrible underwriter. I struggle to make 50K. Thanks for the words of encouragement.

Beth, thanks for the terrific post and for being such a part of this blog.

It's funny, I've been both an under- and overwriter. Hopefully, with my current WIP I hit the Goldilocks spot!

So good to hear from the other underwriters out there! And the overwriters, too. And those who can't make up their minds...Bret. (Bret, I hope you get your Goldilocks moment this time!)

Muses - thanks for having me on the show!

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