If you read last week’s blog post, you’ll know we looked at some common writing gremlins, such as overwriting, multiple gestures, extra staging, etc (check out the full post here).
When the post went live, a few readers commented on underwriting being one of their gremlins.
As a chronic overwriter, underwriting hadn’t occurred to me, so I looked into it. Turns out it’s not just finding it hard to write enough words. Underwriting also involves leaving out details that can rob your characters of depth and your story of important info.
Those are things I have definitely done when penning my manuscripts. If you have too or would like to know more about underwriting problems and fixes, read on…
Underwriting: Problems And Fixes
Problem #1: Low Word Count
This is probably the first thing most people think about when they hear the term underwriting.
Not reaching a certain word count, or not being able to “write enough” to complete a scene, is the most common form of underwriting. If this is you, don’t worry, there are ways to fix the problem. All it takes is practice and new habits.
Fixes: set yourself a word count. Just like a short story might be capped at a certain length for submission/publishing purposes, so will a book. Industry standards are a Google search away and will give you something to aim for. With your word count in mind, break it down into chapters and then scenes.
Knowing a scene needs to be 1,200 words could be all the push you need to raise your low word count.
For an underwriter, that’ll be overwhelming at first, but the more you get used to writing a certain amount of words, the easier it will get.
As for what to write to fill those counts, it shouldn’t be filler. The words need to be important to the story, and that’s where the fixes for the other underwriting problems listed in this post should help you out.
Problem #2: Missing Internal Thoughts/Feels
If you’ve ever connected with a character in a book, it’s because you relate to them and/or have gotten to know them. One way writers achieve this is by using internal thoughts, aka, putting the reader inside the head of the character.
If your story doesn’t include internal thoughts, or enough of them, not only are you robbing your readers of that connection, but it’s contributing to your underwriting.
The same goes for feels. What are your characters feeling when things happen to them? Make sure you include it.
Fixes: add/increase the level of internal character thoughts and let the reader know how they feel about things, especially the big stuff.
You can do this with a monologue of thoughts or even via showing. Everyone knows to show emotion rather than tell it, for example, “She threw the chair” vs. “She was angry,” but don’t forget to add the thoughts behind the anger from your characters. It’ll help your underwriting and add depth.
Problem #3: Plenty Of Scenes But No Sequels
As a reader and a writer, I prefer books that get straight into things and keep it moving to the last page. I don’t need chapters wasted on characters sitting around doing nothing. However, just sticking to the exciting parts can contribute to underwriting.
If it’s all go-go action, not only will you fail to write enough, you’ll also miss out on creating a well-rounded story and characters.
The same applies to reactions. For everything that happens to your character, there should be a reaction. Don’t just drop a bombshell and then move on without showing the consequences for your MC.
Fixes: any action/event scenes need to be balanced with a sequel where the character and reader process what has happened.
It doesn’t need to be a 3,000-word chapter on their feelings, but if there’s a scene where your MC is hurt and they then go about their business like nothing happened, it’s not only unrealistic, it’s bad underwriting.
Include immediate reactions to the events in your book and watch it drive up your word count.
Problem #4: The Main Plot Doesn’t Stretch Far Enough
Well, you’ve done it! A brilliant idea popped into your head, you executed the premise perfectly, the characters wrote themselves, and the plot flows perfectly from the first page to last—all 50 of them.
As good as your main plot is, if it doesn’t stretch far enough, you won’t just be underwriting a book, you’ll be creating a short story instead.
Fixes: explore a subplot. Brainstorm ideas, think about characters that might be missing, events that could happen if your characters did something else between robbing the bank and then getting caught.
Subplots could help round your book out in ways you hadn’t expected, which will only make the main plot even stronger and help you craft a story that is far from underwritten.
Problem #5: Skipped Decision Processes
Sometimes when we’re eager to get from one event to another, we forget to add those little in-between moments, that although small, make a big difference to your story.
One such example is decision processes. When you omit a decision process from a character, not only is it another form of underwriting, it’s also confusing for the reader.
For example, a character being adamant they don’t want to go to a party with their friends and then turning up at said party is jarring. But, if you’ve established that they’ve changed their mind and put that decision on the page, it won’t be so out of the blue.
Fixes: check that your character acts are backed up by decisions the reader is told about or that the act can be surmised by what you’ve written.
Sometimes this missing info isn’t there because you’ve accidentally edited it out or it’s in your head but not on the page. We’ve all been there.
Problem #6: Thin Set Ups And Resolutions
This kind of underwriting pops up when you rush the set up with poorly detailed setting descriptions, or by not putting enough into your world building.
When your book’s world is thinly set up, it makes it hard for the reader to get into the story. It also robs your book of vivid, image-inducing paragraphs that will give you the kind of word count an underwriter dreams of.
Another place where a lack of words can be increased is in your resolutions. You might have nailed the MC getting their objective, but if it happened so quickly that it’s over in a page, it does little else than create an unsatisfying read.
Fixes: ensure your settings and endings are well-described, vivid, and aren’t underwritten so readers get the full picture.
So, there you have some underwriting problems and fixes. While this post doesn’t cover everything, hopefully, it provides enough info and inspiration for you to add more words and depth to your manuscript if underwriting is a gremlin for you.
— K.M. Allan