Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Every Writer Needs a Buddy System

Maggie Toussaint writes both mystery and romance, with five books published to date. Her first novel HOUSE OF LIES, won a National Reader's Choice Award for Best Romantic Suspense. She's active in writer's organizations and freelances for a weekly newspaper. Today she's the Five Scribes special guest as she talks about the buddy system. Please welcome Maggie Toussaint.

Romeo has Mercutio. Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson. Stephanie Plum has Lula and Grandma Mazur. Eve Dallas has Peabody.

Great duos are a powerful enrichment tool in genre fiction, but it took me a while to discern why. While some writers may intuitively glom onto that power of two, I learned the old-fashioned way, through trial and error.

An early critique partner (forgive me, SD) used to write long passages from her main character POV. It was flat out fascinating to her. She hung on his every word. The rest of us, not so much. The published member of that critique group suggested that she give the lead character a friend. SD didn't like that idea because everything in her story was all set in her mind. Truthfully, what was set was a book with poor tension and fettered pacing because of the large chunks of weighty narrative.

Now what is so amazing is that while I could see this flaw in her work, I never noticed a lesser occurrence of it in mine. At the time, I was working on a story about an offbeat interior designer trying to get out from under debt to the mob. Criticism within the group abounded for my story, much to my frustration, and even though I reworked it for a year, I finally put it away in disgust. I was certain the main character was unsympathetic and nothing short of a personality transplant would resuscitate that dead-dog.

With the virtue of 20/20 hindsight, I realized the protagonist needed a sidekick. When there are two people in a scene, it comes to life. The secondary character may or may not have a character arc in the story. More often than not, the secondary character serves as a sounding board or a foil for the story protagonist.

During the crafting of my Cleopatra Jones mystery series, I gave Cleo a sidekick. Life had given me the perfect model of a sidekick--a lifelong friend who stood with me through thick and thin. With this example in mind, I crafted Cleo and Jonette to have different body builds, different rules about men and different lifestyles.

However, Cleo and Jonette are joined at the hip when it comes to golfing, dogs and solving crimes, giving them commonality and reason to spend time together, while at the same time providing built-in conflict. They share an absolute loyalty to each other, an enduring bond of universal friendship that resonates with readers.

You might consider adding a sidekick to your story if your work keeps coming back from contests, editors, agents and critique partners with comments like these: your characters just didn't grab me, or the story concept is good but is poorly executed, or even the story is narrative-heavy, disrupting the pacing and lessening the story tension.

Though these comments can also indicate other craft problems, the underlying issue may be a simple fix like adding a buddy. For example, which is more interesting? A downed airplane pilot trying to get back to civilization alone? Or with a dependent character (older, younger, injured, etc.) [character as a sidekick]. Once you add in that other person, possibilities abound.

With two characters, setting elements can be worked into dialogue as the characters react to their surroundings. Your character buddies can discuss an event that already happened, adding new interpretations, or they can plan their next avenue of investigation. Backstory can be alluded to and kept in the background.

Simply put, two is better than one.

In fact, the buddy system works for writers as well as fictional characters. Two sets of eyes are better than one. At the weekly newspaper where I freelance, the rule is that two sets of eyes have to read every story. Once the pages are "pasted" together, two sets of eyes must sign-off on each individual page. We catch many mistakes this way.

Two sets of eyes are also a good rule for fiction writing. Many writers use critique partners to review their work before it begins the rounds of submissions. Other writers hone their prose by submitting to writing contests that provide feedback.

You might assume that this double-check only works for unpublished writers, but I personally know authors who are on the New York Times bestseller list who wouldn't dream of sending something in to their editor without a "beta" reader seeing it first.

After investing heart and soul in the story, authors can become too close to the words. Sure, authors develop lists of overused words, throwaway words, passive constructions, and cliches to remove in the final edits, but many authors want the assurance that everything hangs together before they put their work out there. Each story is a fresh start, a chance to soar or fall flat on your face.

Whether published or unpublished, authors need constructive input. Since everyone works a little differently, your personal solution can be tailored to fit your needs. If critique partners drive you nuts, find an alternative way to gain input. Professional writing organizations, such as Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, often provide a common ground for like-minded writers to meet and swap their work.

Once you receive a critique or review of your work, the burden then falls on your shoulders to discern which advice is relevant. If you're in a group and receive conflicting input, chances are good that the passage in question needs stronger goals, motivations, or conflict. If you receive similar input from different sources on what needs improvement, this is usually golden and you should make those changes without quibbling.

A last caution, and final duo to consider. When making changes to your manuscript, save it to your hard drive and back up the revised document in an auxiliary location (flash drive, external hard drive or online repository). Do this on a regular basis--files need buddies, too.

Maggie Toussaint's golf game formed the basis of her mystery protagonist's golf woes. While tromping through the forested rough, she realized there's something about trying to hit a white ball in a small hole that brings out dark thoughts and murderous possibilities. With that insight IN FOR A PENNY, the first book of the Cleopatra Jones series sprang forth. ON THE NICKEL, the second installment of the series due out in March 2011, puts Cleo's sleuthing to the test once Mama's car is identified as the murder weapon.

To learn more about Maggie, visit her at


Maggie Toussaint said...

Thanks for having me here, Donnell. I'm looking forward to reading the comments and seeing what others think about having a buddy system.


Doc Nani said...

Loved reading the blog. Very good advice about having a buddy. I am a very new (very new) publications as yet..but maybe in the future. Thank you for the inviation to view.

StephB said...

Maggie, great advice about sidekicks. I always try to add a "best friend" for my hero/heroine because I figure they need to talk to someone else other than the romantic interest. I think it just rounds them out as characters. Cleo sounds like fun.


Donnell said...

We're up with the chickens, Maggie, I've yet to make my coffee ;) You know as I read this post, which is excellent by the way, I kept thinking of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

When you're right or right. The writers of this script obviously knew that a lone man on an island couldn't be very interesting with lots of narrative and isolation, so they gave him Wilson.

They gave Robinson Caruso Friday. This is an invaluable post in my opinion.

I can't tell you how many times I'm judging a contest or in my own writing where I think is the narrative overwhelming this story.

Glad to have you as a buddy, Maggie. You're onto something in every aspect of this article!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hey Doc Nani, Steph, and Donnell,

Yes, we're up with the chickens or maybe the roosters, though it is a smidge later on the east coast!

Wishing you all the best as you start your writing journey Doc Nani.

Hey Steph, I'm glad you use this device! Your books are fun to read.

Hi Donnell, Some of those contest entries can be brutual. Whenever I get one of those, I think back to some of my early entries and grimace. I used to be THAT person. So for all you out there who feel like you're spinning in a circle, take heart. It will get better!


Kat Sheridan said...

Love the idea of including a best friend or sidekick. In one of my manuscripts, I needed to show what the hero was thinking as he worked through an emotional issue. Because it was an historical, and men didn't talk about feelings much, I had him talking to his horse! Hey, whatever gets the job done!

Loni Lynne said...

Buddy system is a great way to work a book/characterization. Two people make for so much banter and real life situations.

My first story has Mary and Tina--which most people who have judged/critiqued my first book like Tina better than Mary (my main character), so I ended up writing about her in the sequel. LOL!

Sometimes the 'buddy' becomes so intriguing they need a story too.


Diana Quincy said...

What an interesting assessment of the value of a sidekick. It seems so obvious now that you've laid it all out!

Thanks for such an informative posting~

karen said...

Maggie, what a great post. I have to admit I'm a freak and loner and I've struggled with finding the right partner to critique with. It's not only someone not appreciating my style but appreciating the style of my partner. How do we find like-minded partners? You mentioned RWA & MWA. I will research that. Most of my friends are male but I want a partner who can write with the sensitivity of a female. This isn't a judgement on gender, just trying to find a fit because I know how important this is. Sorry, I know this is probably silly but like I said, I'm a freak. Thanks for the post.

Karen Cote

Diana Cosby said...

Excellent blog, Maggie, so true about having a foil to enrich the story. Another person in-scene adds a layer of interest and allows dialogue to 'show' events to the reader. It's all a blast. I'm so proud of you, and wish you continued success. I'm blessed to be your friend! *Hugs*
Love you!

Diana Cosby said...

Excellent blog, Maggie, so true about having a foil to enrich the story. Another person in-scene adds a layer of interest and allows dialogue to 'show' events to the reader. It's all a blast. I'm so proud of you, and wish you continued success. I'm blessed to be your friend! *Hugs*
Love you!

Maggie Toussaint said...

Thanks for stopping in Kat, Loni, Diana Q, Karen, and Diana C!

Kat - it works to talk to a horse, too. I've had characters pour out their hearts to horses and dogs. You get some of the same effect as a person sidekick. However, with the other person, there is feedback and often a challenge/realization to change course. That's what I like about the buddy system. Its a catalyst for change, which ups the stakes in the story.

Hi Loni! I love what you said about your buddy needing to have her own book. We invest so much energy in creating a book world, I like that you recycled your world with a different character. That's very cool.

Diana Q - I hope this post helps inspire you to think of ways to enrich your writing.

Karen - finding the right critique partner is a matter of trial and error. I started with family members, but they wouldn't hurt my feelings and they couldn't dissect my craft. Another writer can do that. Are you a member of any writer organizations? Many of them have folks in the same boat, trying their best to get constructive input. Also, many writing conferences offer critiques from published authors. I've done them before at Killer Nashville, and I'm sure its common practice at the other cons too. I wouldn't worry so much about gender, though I appreciate what you are saying. My current critique partner and I write different kinds of books, but that makes our perspective and strengths different, which is a great fit. Most writers are loners and introverts, so you're among friends.

Hi Diana C - always good to have you at my side. It feels like a big hug when you drop in for a post. Thanks!

Wishing everyone a great day!


Zequeatta Jaques said...

Enjoyed your blog. Good advice about the buddy system. One or both of my main characters always seem to have a sidekick. I hadn't really thought about it until reading your post.

Mona Risk said...

Maggie, what a great piece of advice. It couldn't come at a better moment for me as I am revising two books and trying to show my characters in a more sympathetic way. I have wonderful critique partners who insist on some changes.

Theresa said...

Welcome to the 5 Scribes, Maggie.
WONDERFUL article! Great points, I'd never really thought about before, but really valid observations!

Donnell, Maggie's right and not even Wilson was enough to resuscitate Castaway for me. Sorry. Maybe a living person would have worked--and not a woman 'cause that would be cliche.

Karen, you're not a freak! And a critique partner who isn't too sensitive or thinks like you could be a good thing. Good critique partners are GOLD. I find that those who don't write in my genre bring an extra richness and perspective to their observations of my work.

Celia Yeary said...

MAGGIE--a nice simple way to spice up a ms. Yes, that's something to remember--add a buddy, someone to knock around with and bounce ideas off of. (Never end a sentence with a preposition. Hogwash.)
Anyway, I do dislike reading novels--or even excerpts that is heavy on narrative.
Thanks for the reminder and your excellent narrative on the subject! Celia (that was a joke.)

karen said...

Thank you Theresa and Maggie. I'm glad I stopped by. You give me the hope to keep trying as I KNOW how important a different perspective is. I have joined groups but haven't found my niche yet. Thanks for the positivity you two, it's a support greatly appreciated.

Karen Cote

Jane Sevier said...

Great post, Maggie.

Is more than one sidekick too many? I'm thinking of the wonderful Douglas Preston-Lincoln Child series featuring Special Agent Pendergast in which recurring characters rotate helping him solve the case in each book. In my manuscript, the protagonist has a couple of confidants and the love interest who advise her on solving problems in the mystery and in life. Or does that differ from what you say here?

Thank you!

Barbara Edwards said...

Hi Maggie,
Really insightful blog. I'm still looking to replace my 'buddy'. Writing is tough without trusted input.

Donnell said...

Just wanted to shout out about critique groups. I have two -- my romance critique group and my on line mystery group. They both look for different things in my writing, which I am soooo grateful as I straddle the genre fence.

I also worked for newspapers and the two eyes is so important. When you're proofreading your manuscript your brain sees what you mean, not necessarily what's there.

True story, we had a breaking story at the Colorado Springs Business Journal where I worked for six years and we proofed and proofed the lead story. Satisfied that it was great and we broke the story before the daily we were giving each other high fives. When I came in the next day, the editor had misspelled the company name in the headline. It was an argggh moment. Two buddy eyes on e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

Maggie Toussaint said...

I'm so excited to have such an active group of commentors here today! I'm loving Five Scribes!

A pile of folks came in while I was running errands. Hey to Zequeatta, Mona, Theresa, Celia, Karen, Jane, Barbara, and Donnell!!

I'm excited that folks have opinions about critique groups and main character sidekicks. Yes, I think you can have more than one of each! Each critique group adds a different insight - the trouble with being in mulitple groups is all the reciprocal critiques you will be doing. I've been in critique groups as small as 2-3 people and as large as 8. Let me tell you, 8 was a lot of 20-page submissions to review every other week, which was our review schedule.

With regard to having more than one sidekick, that can work too, though it is a delicate balancing act and highly skill dependent. Like critique groups, different sidekicks can reinforce what the lead needs to do, or they can offer disparate advice. The key is that the sidekick needs to bring something to the scene that furthers the plot.

Also remember, I'm stating my opinion, and you can surely find many different opinions on this subject. My hope is that folks will be inspired to create after reading my post!

Donnell - great newspaper ancedote. I hate it when a person's name is spelled one way in the article and another in the cutline. Argh.

Lenore said...

Thanks to Five Scribes for hosting this instructive post. And thanks to Maggie for sharing it. Very good stuff. One of the series I love has a sidekick for the heroine--a ghost who may be nothing more than a figment of the heroine's imagination.

So far, I've stuck to dogs and relatives, but am about to give my heroine a misunderstood geek for a sidekick, and it's a relief to see that sidekicks are okay in books, and not just in movies. Thanks!

liana laverentz said...

Buddies are the best! Great post, Maggie, as always!

Liz Lipperman said...

Great blog, Maggie. I love dialogue, so unless my character needs to be on meds, having a sidekick is positively necessary. And as they say, a good critique partner is worth her weight in gold. Fortunately for me, I have one like that.

Thanks for the insightful blog.

LK Hunsaker said...

Interesting post, Maggie. Now I'm thinking of my own work but also my fave books by other authors. Hm. I have a character who sometimes talks to herself in my current WIP. Dialogue is my thing and I can't imagine not having plenty of it. I guess I do always have a sidekick of sorts - hadn't thought of them that way.

On the other hand, most of my favorite reads are heavy on narrative instead. Now I'll be thinking about this.

That's always the sign of a good blog. ;-)

Maggie Toussaint said...

Checking in one last time before I turn the computer off for the night. What a fun group you guys are!

Lenore - I think a misunderstood geek would be a perfect foil. Lots of opportunities for miscommunications and fun.

Hey Liana! I'm happy to see you here, especially since I know how busy you are being a buddy to so many people. Thanks for stopping in!

Hi Liz - I enjoyed your comment very much. Sidekicks and critique partners are two essentials in my life, too.

Loraine, If your favorite reads are narrative heavy you might tend to write a more narrative weighted book. There's nothing wrong with that. I hope I didn't make you feel like you have to have a sidekick in your book and lots of dialogue. For my style of writing, these things greatly accelerate the pacing. You write in the way that works for you - nothing worse than someone trying to change your writing style!

Thanks again everyone for stopping in and sharing your thoughts on the buddy system. I've enjoyed being here today.

Tia Nevitt said...

Excellent post! I think a sidekick is just what one of my characters needs. Hmm. Lots to think about.

donthangupthequill said...

Maggie, the duo thing is so true! Even if it's not a complete sidekick, just having someone around works so much better than the hero talking to himself.

AND in real life, too! Kicking around an idea with someone brings a completely different view.


Donnell said...

Maggie and guests, it's been our pleasure. Thank you!

Mary Marvella said...

Great advice, as usual, Maggie. I have a critique group and another partner who isn't in the group. All give good advice but see different things.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maggie,

You give excellent advice! Very helpful to fellow writers such as myself. I look forward to reading your new novel.

Jean said...

What great advice! It had me thinking of stories I loved and whether there was a sidekick character. Movies, also, have power when a sidekick character is added.
Thanks, Maggie, for pulling me from the details of plot to sitting back and really looking at the story.


Adelle Laudan said...

Perfect timing, Maggie. I just had a light bulb moment after reading your post. I thank you, and my muse thanks you. Have an awesome rest of the day, my friend.

Joyce Yarrow said...

Excellent post, Maggie and well thought out. Characters are best revealed by their relationships and this is also an excellent way to build conflict. For example, the "buddy" can be someone the protagonist is forced to work with in spite of their differences - as is the case with Jo Epstein in The Last Matryoshka, who has a tumultous relationship with Nikolai and yet travels to Russia to help him.

Thanks for putting this into focus so well!

Gerrie Ferris Finger said...

Excellent post. Good advice. Gerrie

Kari Thomas said...

Great post and advice, Maggie! Im a big believer in the "buddy" system for writers ---its almost a necessity. Writing is a lone profession to begin with. But, too, you can learn so much from each other with your writing. I was very lucky to have a great writing buddy --she taught me things about my own writing I would have never really noticed.

Thanks for sharing!

Hugs, Kari Thomas,

Maggie Toussaint said...

Wow! The fun keeps happening here. I'm so excited that this post really resonated with folks.

Tia, Abigail, Mary, Jacquie, Jean, Adelle, Joyce, Gerri, and Keri - thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your unique perspectives and I wish you well in your writing journeys.

Thanks for being great buddies!

Maggie Toussaint

Ellis Vidler said...

Good advice, Maggie. Maybe that's the answer to my dilemma--I'm running out of story before the end of the book. Maybe a sidekick would add something to it. Thanks. This was timely for me.