Make ’Em Feel Something

A book I’ve been slowly going through these days is a writer’s craft book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. If you know anything about Donald Maass, you know that he’s a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts. He’s also written other craft books.

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Over the years I also have reviewed for publishers and other venues more manuscripts than I can count. But sometimes I found myself puzzling over why a manuscript didn’t work for me. Right off the bat, Maass’s book gave me insight with this quote:

When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it. (Maass 4)

Many times, I did not feel anything while reading a manuscript. Even stellar writing, Maass mentions, can be a turnoff if a reader does not feel anything while reading a story. So the point of Maass’s book is to help writers create the kind of stories that cause readers to experience the journey—not just read about it. In other words, the kind of stories that make readers feel something.

Part of that experience is fostered through helping to immerse a reader in a character’s emotional journey. Have you ever had a hard time writing an emotional scene? I have. Usually while drafting, I only scratch the surface, especially if a character feels a complex array of emotions. Consider how you felt on an extremely emotional day.

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So, writing emotional content does not come naturally to me. But Maass cautioned

While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t natural and easy. (74)

I want to get better at writing emotional scenes. This means I might have to rewrite a scene over and over until I break through the wall of resistance within myself.

Something else that inspired me to get better at writing emotional content is a quote from another book I’m reading. In one of the forewords to The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie, written by Tracey Miller-Zarneke, director Chris McKay and producers Dan Lin, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller wrote

When assembling these [LEGO] movies from the beginning, we always start with an emotional question to explore over the course of the story.

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They actually asked more than one question to shape their main character’s emotional arc. One of these questions was a what-if question. (I won’t share those questions, since doing so would involve a spoiler.) Sure, the filmmakers want to entertain people with their production. But also they want people to feel what the character feels along the way. This inspires me to carefully consider the what-if questions that are the basis for my character’s emotional journey.

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How do you feel when you have to write scenes with high emotional content? Is it easy for you? Hard? If the latter, what do you do to press onward?

If you don’t write stories, consider the last book you read that really moved you. Why do you think it did?

Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.

Miller-Zarneke, Tracey. The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie. New York: DK/Penguin-Random House, 2017.

The LEGO® Batman Movie poster from xemeston.ir. Emotions image from taringa.net.

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Energize!

I like to be entertained. I also like looking at this guy.

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Theo James

And since I recently saw an entertaining movie with this guy (Divergent, directed by Neil Burger), well, that’s even better.

But this post isn’t about that movie or Theo James. (Sorry to disappoint. But at least you have a picture.) It’s not even about Star Trek, though the title of course is a command from that series. As I said, I like to be entertained. Writing is a form of entertainment for me. Consequently, I often write blog posts or scenes off the top of my head that I find entertaining without thinking about whether anyone else might agree. Yes, I’m one of those sad people who love to laugh at their own corny jokes. As I draft a novel, ideas for scenes pop into my head thusly: It would be fun to add a bank robbery scene here. So I write the scene and chortle away.

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12088345But as I began the process of reading through and revising my novel, some of the scenes I thought were entertaining seemed less so. In fact, my energy waned just reading them, so I found myself turning to Plants vs. Zombies or email. I didn’t understand why, until I started reading The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. Alderson states the issue succinctly:

A scene that shows the character achieving a short-term goal but that fails to transition effectively to the next scene dissipates the story’s energy. It’s like stepping on a stair that’s missing. The reader knows instinctively that something’s wrong, sighs, and puts down the book. (Alderson 45)

What’s sad is that I put down my own book. Trust me when I say that as much work as crocheting is, I never stop in the middle of a project to check my email or play a round of Plants vs. Zombies. My crocheting projects are too absorbing, and I know how everything fits together. If I decided to add exta stitches for my own entertainment (like adding extra scenes to a story), I would throw the whole pattern off. (By the way, here’s my latest. I’m still making shoes. My life has become a living version of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”)

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So, I get it now. Some scenes have no purpose, because they don’t really further the plot of the novel. They’re just distractions like Theo James above.

Alderson has other advice for fixing problem scenes. I highly recommend that you get her book. I don’t want to give all her tips away, because that wouldn’t be fair to Martha.

I think you know instinctively the scenes that energize your story and those that drain the life out of it. During the draft phase, my pulse quickened as I approached certain scenes involving certain characters. But one character’s scenes consistently gave me fits, because I didn’t really know her all that well. I found myself coming up with fantastic, plotty ideas like the bank robbery scene I alluded to earlier (and I didn’t actually involve her in a bank robbery; that was just an example) to make her part of the story seem more interesting. Silly me. I need to invest the time to get to know her, to find out what’s interesting about her and how she would react in situations, so that her scenes have the energy of instinct. Even if she stood there washing dishes, my knowledge of how she ticks, and how that dishwashing fits her emotional arc, would invest the story with energy and purpose. But that dishwashing scene needs to be strong enough to lead into the next scene—to be the cause that leads to an effect like ripples on a pond.

It’s also like driving. I don’t have to think about how to do it or what I should do in a certain situation. I move by instinct. If I turn the wheel a certain way, I can expect a certain outcome. Same with my characters in a scene. If I know that character A is the jealous type, I need to show that somehow, as well as the consequences of a jealous reaction in a follow-up scene. I can’t have her suddenly robbing banks in the middle of all of that jealousy just to inject excitement. Instead, I could probably turn that bank robbery scene into a short story. But it needs to be cut from the novel.

So much to do! But making my story tighter gives it more energy . . . and me as well.

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Speaking of robbery, I couldn’t resist leaving you with this image:

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Alderson, Martha. The Plot Whisperer. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011. Print.

Theo James photo from zimbio.com. Tape measure photo from prevention.com/food. Book cover from Goodreads. Bank robber image from lostinidaho.me. Snowman robbery image from jobspapa.com/robber-clip-art.html.

Check This Out: 52 Dates for Writers

Once again, I am interrupting the Space Series, this time to bring you this awesome author: Claire Wingfield. Claire’s book is 52 Dates for Writers. For those of you who will participate in NaNoWriMo, you’ll find this a great way to stay inspired. One of you will have a chance to win this Kindle ebook. But first, let’s talk to Claire.

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El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Claire: I live in the great literary city of Edinburgh—the first UNESCO City of Literature—with my husband and book-loving toddler. I work as an editor and writing consultant, supporting writers at different stages in completing their manuscripts and developing their craft. I studied English Literature at Cambridge University’s Downing College, where writer P. D. James also studied. She kindly submitted an article to a student magazine I launched. One of my first jobs in publishing was as a reader for a book production company, and I remain painfully aware of how mistakes can creep in right until the end of the publishing process!

El Space: Please tell us how you came to write 52 Dates for Writers. How did your background make you uniquely suited to write it?
Claire: The ideas in 52 Dates for Writers: Ride a Tandem, Assume an Alias and 50 Other Ways to Improve Your Novel Draft stem from my one-to-one work with writers over many years. Many of the exercises are those I devised to help writers solve real problems in their manuscripts. I decided to bring the material into book format during a period of maternity leave, and following the suggestion of one of my writers.

10569El Space: At this post about Stephen King’s craft book On Writing (“Stephen King’s 20 Tips for Becoming a Frighteningly Good Writer”), we learn:

Where other writing books are focused on the mechanics of the written word, King shows you how to capture the joy of the craft. You’ll find yourself wanting to write, not because of fame or fortune, but because it’s fun, and there’s nothing else you would rather do.

How does your book encourage the joy of writing?
Claire: 52 Dates for Writers is all about encouraging writers to be playful. Play is so important to creativity, but increasingly there can be so much pressure in day-to-day life that I found even the writers I worked with needed an antidote to this. Each writing date is almost like a workshop environment—giving writers the chance to experiment with different facets of their writing—from voice and style to the format and structure of their piece—away from the screen or written draft, and then return to work with new ideas, a refreshed approach, or simply the desire to keep writing.

The experiences themselves are designed to be fun—from completing a hi-tech treasure hunt to help readers think about the order of revelation in their novel, to climbing a hill or riding a ferris wheel in order to experiment with perspective. There are plenty of simple tasks like cooking a luxurious meal to work on refreshment scenes, which can often suffer from underwriting, as well as many which encourage the reader to try something entirely new.

6867The dates are an invitation to writers to escape their desks and engage in challenging and enjoyable tasks, often bringing new light on an area of their writing. They each provide space away from the daily grind to workshop a particular area of a draft, plus fresh and unexpected inspiration, all backed with rigorous theory in the form of a series of mini essays on the craft of writing. There are also fun examples from well-known novels to accompany the dates, such as the plot of Atonement laid out as a maze.

Those who are new to writing will find plenty of prompts and inspiration, showing there are as many different ways into a fresh piece of writing as there are those of us willing to write.

El Space: What author or authors have you read recently who seem to capture the joy of writing? How so?
Claire: I read a lot with my son right now, and am really enjoying revisiting the stories of Dr. Seuss. So inventive and playful with language. We’ve also just acquired a book by Neil Gaiman called Chu’s Day—about a panda with a very big sneeze, which has my son in fits of laughter, so certainly captures the joy of reading for both of us.

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El Space: What are you working on now?
Claire: I’m currently working on the second in the series—52 Missions for Children’s Writers—Learn a Circus Skill, Go out in Disguise, and 50 other Ways to Inspire your Children’s Novel whilst continuing to have the pleasure of working with a host of talented and committed writers. I’m working on a section called “Eat Jelly for Breakfast” right now—which is proving very enjoyable!

El Space: What writing tip would you offer a writer going through writer’s block?
Claire: 52 Dates for Writers is all about preventing writer’s block, but for starters, try to recall what first sparked your passion for what you are writing, and incorporate something from that into your writing life. If it was a place you haven’t visited for a while, pay it a fresh visit, or if it is a place you visit every day, try varying your journey. If it was a strong opinion that motivated you, try embracing the opposite point of view for a week—the clash of ideas may just get your project moving again. Or take your writing outside and tackle the part of the novel you’re most afraid of—that niggling problem you’ve not got around to fixing, but know you must. Be playful in your solutions—push your story further than you or your reader ever expected.

Thanks, Claire, for being my guest!

You can find Claire at her Goodreads author page here. Claire’s book is available right now at Amazon. One of you, however, will win a copy just by commenting. Since I’m hosting two giveaways this week, the winners will be announced on Saturday, November 1. Thanks to all who stopped by!

Book covers from Goodreads.