Sunday, December 3, 2017

Emotional Symbols

I've been writing about making your pieces more literary.  Most recently, I've been focusing on talks from League of Utah Writers Fall Conference.  For this post, I'll look at advice by Angie Hodapp's suggestions of how to externalize an internal voyage.  Your main characters should make both, and this is one way to tie both together.  

A lot of novice writers make the mistake of simply explaining a character's emotions.  For instance, a beginning writer may write the following: "George was angry.  He could not stand what was happening to him."  This is very boring and doesn't make the reader feel anything.  The point behind writing is to make the reader feel.  Just telling everything fails on every side.  Meanwhile, a more experienced writer understands showing is much more effective as in the following: "George's face turned red, and he clenched his pencil until it snapped.  He stood up, threw his chair to the ground, and stomped out."  The reader is left in no doubt about the character's emotions.   

Hodapp goes one step further.  She proposes that you use an external symbol to show a character's internal journey.  For instance,  she gave the example of cancer patients passing around a candle.  They may show fear of its going out through their behavior and how carefully they shelter it to make sure it continues to burn.  That candle becomes a symbol of their mutual fear that their own lives can be blown out just that easily.  Or each character can react to the fire differently to show how they feel about it.  

She gave further examples.  Say you want to show your character's disdain for a high class open house.  She sips the tea, makes a face, and then spits it out or tosses the glass.  The glass externalizes her internal emotion.  Say you want to show a character's discomfort at staying at a friend's house.  She beats the lumpy pillow repeatedly.  The pillow becomes a symbol for how she feels inside.   

There are so many examples of this in literature.  For instance, in The Scarlet Letter, the red letter A starts out as a symbol of Hester Prynn's fellow pilgrim's condemnation of her action that gave her a baby out of wedlock.  It becomes a symbol of freedom for her, a symbol of liberation from their expectations.  The turtle in Grapes of Wrath that keeps trying to cross the road represents the internal and external dangers and frustrations the Joads endure.   Prospero's staff symbolizes his internal power, emotional, social, and mystical.  When he puts aside it and his book, he's showing his internal voyage back to the land of the mundane.  

Go back through your scenes.  Is there a really emotional moment that could be embodied and shown more vividly in a physical symbol?  

Monday, November 20, 2017

Setting the Stage

I've been writing about making your pieces more literary.  Most recently, I've been focusing on talks from League of Utah Writers Fall Conference.  For this post, I'll look at advice by Angie Hodapp, writer and literary agent of the Nelson Literary Agency, and McKelle George of Flux, a publishing company.  They both argue the importance of setting a stage that has powerful impact on your piece. 

George tells us that we should only give as much backstory as is "necessary to infor what is happening in the present emotional arc."  Basically, you should know everything about your character and their backstory but only present what the reader needs to know at a given moment.  There are few more boring ways to start a piece of writing than through pages of exposition before the reader even cares about your character or what is happening.  That is a surefire way to lose your reader.  The reader needs to know enough about the character and his/her world "to understand the stakes of the story."  You, as the writer, should know much more. 

Imagine if J.K. Rowling started Harry Potter with a dissertation on the Wizarding World THEN hopped in to explain what Harry was doing there.  Her books would not be the powerful force they are today because no one would have gotten past that wall.  The same is true of Jane Austen's novels, Poe's short stories, and just about anyone's poetry.  The setting and backstory seep into the story and permeate it but don't become so important that the character gets lost in the middle.  Character is always key in these works. 

Hodapp advises that the tone and how you describe the setting are crucial for setting the reader up for your piece.  She says that the setting should "impinge on the character's senses" in every scene.  Show that setting's impact on your reader.  Help your really feel it with phrases like "Bob's hair plastered to his skull" (Hodapp) as opposed to "It was and stormy night."  She says that the author should make sure that the character should not ignore the setting, as if it were a character in every scene.  She adds, "The more present the setting, the more opportunity there is to prime the reader for the emotional experience" of your piece.  Make the experience of living in your world physical and present. 

In other words, make sure you have created a world that feels real.  Don't show off that you know everything about that world.  Simply include it as an emotional and breathing presence in the life of your character.  The same is true for their backstory.  Don't tell the reader every detail up front.  Make sure the reader experiences their backstory as part of the world, that the backstory informs and motivates what they do.  Go through something you've written and make sure that both setting and back story are present in a meaningful and powerful way without taking over in the for of exposition.  If you do this, your reader will do more than just read your book: he/she will experience it.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Emotional Writing Part 2: Know Your Audience

Recently, I've been writing about making your piece of writing more literary.  Of late, I've been focus on things I've learned on this subject from the League of Utah Writers conference I attended.  In the session I highlighted last time, Angie Hodapp of the Nelson Literary Agency talked of emotional writing.  One subject she emphasized was that one needs to know your audience's expectation and give it to them, or they will not be fulfilled. 

For instance, she pointed out if you're writing a romance novel, your audience will not feel fulfilled until your main characters get together.  Otherwise, it's not really a romance.  She says that romance writers are at the top of the game because they can so easily give the reader emotional fulfillment in so many ways.  Someone asked the inevitable questions what if they don't get together?  She said that if the main character doesn't get together, she said that one needs to give the main character some kind of fulfillment.  If she doesn't get love, she needs something else she desires, but that needs to be set up from page one.  This would be true, too, even if romance is simply part of a subplot and not the main point. 

Hodapp also pointed out that horror is the same way.  If the reader wants to be scared or startled, the writer needs to comply or he/she is in the wrong genre. 

I would expand that to any genre.  Know your audience.  Know what they're seeking to feel fulfilled after they finish your book.  You may find a unique and/or quirky way to fulfill that emotional need, but the basic emotional need still must be met, or the reader will walk away feeling unfulfilled. 

Look at your book.  What is its genre?  Is it suspense?  Read suspense.  Research what a reader of suspense needs to feel by the end of the book in order to feel fulfilled.  The same would be true whether you're writing historical fiction, women's fiction, children's fiction, or any other genre.  What is your reader seeking?   

Write the first draft for yourself.  Write what you love and what you're seeking.  That's when you go to work to research how to fulfill the reader's needs if you want this book to go anywhere in the market.  Best of luck. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Crying when It Hurts: How to Write with Emotional Weight Part 1

Recently, I've been writing about making your piece of writing more literary.  Of late, I've been focus on things I've learned on this subject from the League of Utah Writers conference I attended.  In one session, Angie Hodapp of the Nelson Literary Agency talked of emotional writing.  She said that moments of emotional connection are what your reader will remember. 

Hodapp highlighted emotional soft spots for readers: children, elderly people, animals, death, rites of passage, lust/love, sacrificial acts of kindness, underdogs/one against man, honor, forgiveness and redemption, separation and reunion, and hope.  She emphasized the importance of giving moments involving these emotional hot spots enough space in the story to really connect with the reader.  Other moments should be shortened, so we can heighten the impact of these moments.  She also pointed out the need to make turning points in the story emotional. 

Above all, the emotions in the story need to make sense with what is going on, according to Hodapp.   She said that the stimulus should go first then the response.   If there is a small event, there ought to be a small reaction.  If there is a major event, there ought to be a much more intense reaction.  Your reader is likely to laugh if  there is a mismatch, such as a killer covered in blood showing up resulting in an eye roll or a timid knock resulting in a shrill shriek.  She pointed out that if humor is what you're going for, this could work.  If not, make sure the response matches the stimulus. 

These seem like basic concepts, but it's always good to review the basics.  It is so important to get the emotional beats and responses right, or the reader will be jarred out of the narrative.  Once you've lost your reader, you're not likely to get him/her back.  If you want your reader to empathize with your main character, to care about your main character, they should really be able to get inside the characters head and heart understand what he/she is feeling. 

I've watched movies and read books in which I just couldn't figure out why a character was acting a certain way.  If I can't feel what the character feels and understand their emotional motivations, I'm not going to care about that character.  If I don't care, nothing else matters. 

Take a look at your story.  Have you given enough time to what is emotionally most important?  Have you glossed over the things that don't have much emotional weight?  Are the turning points emotional?  Do your character's reactions match the stimuli?  If not, it's time to fix it. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Show and Tell Time

I've been writing about how to make your pieces more literary.  For the next few weeks, I'll be pairing that theme with experts' suggestions that I heard at the League of Utah Writers conference this last weekend.  This week's featured expert is McKelle George, author and editor of Flux Publishing. 

Authors are always being told to show not tell, but George says that the trick is to find the right balance.  Doing one or the other all the time gets boring.  Show can get confusing if there's no tell to pin it down and explain. If it's all dramatized, the reader can get lost.  If they have to infer everything without any confirmation they're right, they won't be sure what's going on.  Tell can get boring because it's simply narration.  Narration without action is summary and gets dull.  She described telling as the skeleton and showing as the soft parts.  One without the other is incomplete. 

I once read a novel that showed EVERYTHING.  The author described every moment in vivid detail.  It dragged.  I couldn't tell what was important.  It was all highlighted and got dull.  I've also read pieces where there is next to no description.  I put them down as quickly as possible because they're intolerable. 

George said good telling "marks a change, a physical jump in time or space or a subtle shift in mood that carries the reader from one emotional beat to another."  Those parts confirm what the reader infers, "directing emotional takeaways."  Meanwhile, show is useful in getting the reader to feel things, to have a "strong visceral reaction."  She says, "A novel is a series of dramatic scenes joined together by narration, which covers the passage off time."  If nothing is happening, the writer may be lovely, but the show isn't doing its job. 

It's your job as a writer to carefully review your writing to make sure that balance of show and tell is there.  If your story is dragging or confusing, work on paring back description, so you're narrating to avoid confusion.  If your character is eyeball deep in major events, show them.  Don't describe every detail of the ornate hallway on the way to the big combat, or your description of the combat will just blend in. Highlight what the reader should feel strongly about, not just what looks pretty. 

At that same conference, I had the first chapter of an early chapter book I wrote reviewed by freelance editors.  I found I'd told in all the places that I should have shown and was showing things that could just be summarized.  It can be hard to strike that balance, so it helps to get outside eyes to look at your work to see if it works. 

It's your turn.  Go and read your piece out loud.  Are there places it drags or is unnecessarily pretty?  Are there places where your reader might get lost?  Are there places where something interesting or important is happening that you haven't described?  It's time to fix it. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I've been writing about how to make your pieces more literary.  Novice writers make little to no effort to consciously shape their writer's voice.  They just put words on the page without thinking how they sound.  More experienced writers pay attention to each word, how they sound, and how they work together.  They consciously shape how their voice sounds on the page.  If your words sound like everyone else's words, they're less likely to grip and hold the reader.

One good way to work on one's writer's voice is to listen to the voice of good writers.  Any author will tell you the way to learn a genre is to read representative samples of that genre.  Those who admire spare writing can break out Hemingway and read it out loud.  Listen to how it sounds then go to your own writing and cut out any words that don't absolutely need to be there.  Those who want to write horror may do well to read aloud authors like Poe or Stephen King.  How do they shape their words?  What makes them distinct?  Someone who dreams of writing fiction for the young can read such writers as J.K. Rowling or Rick Riordan.  I've found that if I'm reading Riordan's Percy Jackson series, my writing starts to echo his snarky tones.

However, remember that an author doesn't become famous just because he can mimic another writer.  He or she needs a distinct voice.  You can also listen to people talk.  What do children really talk about?  Just listen and take notes.

Also, pay attention to the language of your piece itself.  This is often an important step in the revision process.  Experiment with alliteration, with metaphors, with turning nouns into verbs or verbs into nouns, with unique turns of phrase, with language you can make special just to you.  I wish you the best as you work on your writer's voice.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Flashing Back

I've been going over various ways an author can make any piece more literary.  One technique that an author can use is the flashback.  Flashbacks can be important to highlight the importance of current events in the story.

However, authors can bet themselves in trouble quickly with flashbacks.  Too much of a good thing is really too much.  Here are some common issues with flashbacks:

1. Problem: An author will often make the present so brief and unmemorable that the reader gets disoriented and forgets what's happening.

Example: "Jill picked up a book, which reminded her of a time several years ago when she picked up a book just like this.  It had medieval-style cursive on it and illuminated images that told her it could not have come from this century.  She'd opened it and found a knight, springing forth...."

Note: By the end of a paragraph like this, full of detailed description of things that happened in the past, the author has no memory of what led the character into all of this.  Once the flashback ends, the reader has to go back to the beginning to remember what was really going on.  Any time a reader feels forced to look back, he's been thrown out of the narrative.

Solution:  Make sure to flash back only when the current events are established firmly in the reader's mind.  Make what's happening in this moment meaningful and vivid, so the flashback merely supports and enlightens some aspect of it.

2. Problem: An author will let flashbacks pile on top of each other in a confusing manner such as a flashback within a flashback.

Example: "Jack remembered the day he led his football team to the state championship.  He'd felt so triumphant.  As he'd spiked that ball, he'd thought of all the doubt his father had piled on him, how his father would slap him around and tell him he'd never amount to anything."

Note: By the time the author is two flashbacks in, he's forgotten what was happening and has to look back.  As the above note pointed out, this is a very bad thing for the magic of the narrative.  

Solution: Keep flashbacks simple, straightforward, and sparing.  Do not show multiple flashbacks within one chapter.  Avoid the impulse to give a flashback within a flashback.  The reader gets lost quickly.  The point is the present.  Anything from the past should support it, not overtake or muddle it.

3. Problem:  The reader may not understand this even IS a flashback.

Example, "So I says, remember that time except it wasn't really that time.  It was more like this time.  Anyway..."

Note: Don't confuse your reader.  Just don't.  It's rarely helpful.  You can keep bits of information to yourself until it's critical to bring that information forth, but it's never a good idea to frustrate the reader and make him want to put your book down.

Solution: Cue the reader in somehow (through tenses, italics, clear phraseology, or a similar technique) that the author is entering a narrative that happened in the past.  Then, make it clear when the flashback ends.

4. Problem: Including a flashback in chapter one.

Example:  Chapter 1: "The Time Far Gone."  Joan loved writing in her journal.  She picked up her pen and wrote about the time she was five, when her best friend came over for a visit.

Note:  Chapter one is about establishing your character now in what they're doing.  Don't confuse that or fill it with explanations.  You'll lose your reader first thing.

Solution:  Hold off on data dumping (indefinitely, if you can manage it) and flashing back until at least chapter two, when your reader has a firm grasp on your characters and events in the story.

Conclusion: Flashbacks can be very helpful and enlightening when done well.  They can show your reader who the characters really is underneath.  However, they need to be kept short and meaningful.  They should not control the narrative but simply support it.