One of my writing mentors, Sol Stein, once told me to avoid melodrama in my fiction, melodrama being characterized by exaggerated scenes or characters that are intended to appeal to the emotions.  The damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks. The villain twirling his mustache.

I’ve been editing A Prayer for Rain, and even after great input from several readers, my manuscript is covered with red marks of my own doing.  Much of what I’m finding are sentences and phrases that make me cringe. Phrases that I thought were good when I wrote them, but now jump out at me as melodramatic. Even a simple word choice can make a sentence melodramatic.

In one scene, Trevor has an exchange with Jess, a young woman who works at a convenience store. Since his accident five years before, he has had very little physical contact with anyone, and when they shake hands for the first time, he has this reaction:

He took her hand in his and though it was only for a moment, he relished the soft touch of her skin on his.

The word in question is relish. By definition, it’s accurate enough. It simply means to take pleasure in something. But in reading it afresh, it strikes me as a little bit of an over-reaction.  I picture Trevor going “ahhhhh” and quivering like a bowl of jelly. Come on, man. Get a grip. It seems melodramatic to me now.

Here’s the current version:

He took her hand in his and though it was only for a moment, he appreciated the soft touch of her skin on his.

I’m not sure appreciated will be the final word choice, but it definitely takes away the melodrama. Trevor notices her in a unique way, but he’s not about to melt into a pile of butter.

I said to the guys at the Shelton College Review the other day that sometimes I’ll open my manuscript to a random page and read a couple of sentences and get embarrassed by the poor quality of the writing. I think what I’m seeing when I do that is the amateurish, melodramatic passages. Recognizing the problem is the first step to recovery, right?

That’s why there’s red ink all over my pages.

Words matter.