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.

A Writer’s Process (3a)

Greetings! Jonesing for books about time travel? (I sure am.) With me on the blog today is another friend from VCFA who has written a book about—you guessed it—time travel. (Huzzah!) Put your hands together for the erudite and elegant Nicole Valentine!

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El Space: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Nicole: I’m a writer and techno geek with a deep and abiding love for all things literary. My day job has always been in technology. I’ve been the Chief Technology Officer to Internet startups since the mid-1990s. My first job leading a tech team was at CNN where my official title was Webmistress. Yes, my business card actually had that printed under my name. It was a great icebreaker at parties.

El Space: I’ll bet!
Nicole: Many who follow me on Twitter (@nicoleva) know me for my work at Figment.com, a community for lovers of YA fiction to meet and share their own writing. This was, by far, one of my favorite online communities I’ve had the pleasure of creating. All good things must come to an end though. I have since taken a much needed break to concentrate on my writing. I needed to give some time to the insistent voices in my head.

Most of my work is middle grade. I do have one YA novel waiting patiently on my desktop, and a short story for adults published in the Oermead Press anthology, Chester County Fiction. In 2012, I earned my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. This makes me a Secret Gardener.

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El Space: Holla!
Nicole: I live with my caring husband, brilliant daughter, and two maniacal cats just outside of Philadelphia.

El Space: Cool! I’d love to stop by there at some point! But for now, I’m dying to hear a synopsis of your WiP.
Nicole: The Idle Tree is the story of Finn, who is about to turn thirteen in his sleepy Vermont town. It’s the kind of town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Everybody knows Finn’s twin sister drowned when they were only three, and that his mother abandoned him and his father four months ago. It turns out they don’t know everything.

Finn’s Gran, right before she dies, reveals the family secret to him. All the women in his family are born with the ability to time travel. His mother had been battling The Others, a shadowy group intent on changing the timeline, when she disappeared. She didn’t abandon him. She was taken. Now, he must find a way to save her, even though boys can’t time travel. If only his sister were the one who had lived. It would all be so much easier, but no, it’s up to Finn and his best friend, Holly. They have to put together answers from what his mom left behind. He’ll need to find out who is leading The Others in order to save his mother and the world as we know it.

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El Space: That description gave me serious chills. I love a good time travel story. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Please walk me through your process.
Nicole: I was just reading the Donald Maass book on craft, The Breakout Novelist, which had a bit on the whole pantser vs. plotter thing. My first thought when reading it, was that the term pantser makes me uncomfortable. I immediately think of pulling a mean prank on someone in front of the entire cafeteria. I would say I probably begin most projects as a pantser, but would like to call it something more benign.

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My novels begin as characters and scenes written in notebooks. After awhile of doing this, they begin to form full narratives. The next thing I do is start the outlining, which I suppose isn’t very pantser-like at all. I’m a bit of both really. This particular novel has required a ton of plotting. You can’t write time travel without a lot of charts and timelines. Well, maybe some people can. I need charts.

El Space: I admire you for taking on the challenge. How has your process evolved as a writer? What tools have been helpful?
Nicole: My process has changed a lot over the last few years. I think an MFA will do that to you. Before the program, I found myself holding back my best ideas, thinking they needed to be delivered in some big reveal later on in the work. I’ve realized that a novel is made up of a constant reveal of brilliant ideas, and you should never hoard them. New ones will always keep coming along. Trust your inner genius.

The single best tool out there is Scrivener. I’ve been working with it for over three years now, and it’s truly indispensable to my process. I take my scenes from my journals, type them in, and begin to play around with them. I mold them, look at them in different ways, and move them around. Having different ways to view your novel is key for me. When I switch to corkboard mode, I inevitably think of something new. I also love having a repository for all my research in the same file. I keep images that inspire me, information on my setting, time periods, etc.

If I find myself stuck on a scene, I’ll leave Scrivener and open up OmmWriter. It has a zen feel that usually zaps me out of any writer’s block. I’ll write one or two scenes in it, and then copy and paste back into Scrivener.

Finally, if you’re a café writer like me, go to simplynoise.com to drown out the incessant background music and loud talkers. It’s white noise, so it works like a charm.

And judging by the music, that’s all we have time for today. But Nicole will be back tomorrow to chat, so please stop by. If you have questions for Nicole about her book or her process, please comment below.

Key and clock photos from eastonclass1.bltnorthants.net and cloudcentrics.com respectively.