*As I prepared the series for publication, I realized I had never given you the final installment. Sorry. Between the holidays and coming down with the ear infection — it SEEMS to be better at last — I completely dropped it on the floor.*
So, here it is:
First, Open a Vein
One reason that can make your entire book feel “blah” is that the reader never engages with the characters at an emotional “gut” level.
This is a truth that was hard-earned for me and took me a long time to learn – or even think about. In fact, I only fully came to terms with it in the last five years or so, after I had been published for over five years.
My only excuse for this is that I was in deep denial, and to understand why I was in deep denial, you have to understand that I was raised in a family that disapproved of “giving way to emotion” and of “making a fuss” or – heaven forbid – “making a scene” so strongly that my paternal grandfather’s last words were, reputedly “Don’t make a fuss.” (He was in his death throes and my grandmother called for help.)
My family disapproves of crying when injured; of being upset when breaking up a long term relationship; of “making a drama” out of anything from losing a pet to losing a beloved relative. Not that they are unfeeling, mind. We seem to throw out three poets per generation because the emotion has to come out somewhere. We also run to a higher than statistically likely number of complaints originating in stress.
Given that background, it is perhaps obvious I wouldn’t know I was supposed to play with people’s emotions. Books affected me emotionally – of course! – but I treated that as a slightly shameful affliction and often told myself I liked books for other, completely different reasons such as “he does such great descriptions” and/or “his plot is so interesting.”
To the extent that I played with emotions, the ones safe to play with were fright and horror, which is why so many of my short stories have a horrific undertone.
I started suspecting that emotion needed to be there and trying to put some in maybe ten years ago, but I didn’t admit till five years ago that emotion is the main purpose of fiction – you live someone else’s experiences and go through their emotions so you don’t need to experience the events yourself. More than that, humans crave emotional stimulus, particularly when administered in a “safe” position. (You don’t have to lose your best friend in war, you can just read about someone who does.)
I think I first realized I needed to make the readers FEEL something when reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s first three books. I suppose that they’re now better edited, in whatever edition they have, but as they first came out, those books had logic and consistency holes you could drive a mac truck through (This is not a criticism of Hamilton. As an author, those slips are quite normal, the books were just HORRIBLY edited.) And yet, I read them one after the other, unable to put them down. Only part of this was plot which was to an extent predictable. Part of it was pacing, of course – the woman is the mistress of pacing – BUT most of it was emotion. The particularly emotions she engaged were fear and horror, but she engaged them very well, and the emotions pulled you through the pacing, whether you wanted it or not.
It wasn’t something I wanted to emulate, though. I CAN write horror, and I can write fear, but I don’t like it, or rather I don’t like it sustained. I read very little in which those are the main and carrying emotions. (I stopped reading Hamilton sometime after 9/11 because I COULDN’T, and I haven’t gone back. I do read F. Paul Wilson, but his character is engaging beyond fear and horror.)
Since then I have been working on emotions and how to work emotions. I think I’m getting better, though it is perhaps for my readers to judge and not myself.
I know though that I still flinch from emotional displays by my characters and find myself trying to hide my own emotions as I write. And, of course, if my emotions aren’t engaged, neither are yours as a reader.
Honestly, I think graphic porno would be easier for me to write than emotions. However, I’m stubborn and I’ve invested enough in this game that I’m determined to get very good at it. I’ve been studying the masters again, seeing how they do it.
You know the old saying “Writing is easy, just sit at the keyboard and open a vein” – but of course there is a great resistance to opening your own vein. I hear that suicides make “practice cuts” before the final one. In fact, the absence of those often tips the police to the fact that it’s not really a suicide.
Nerving yourself to open the vein of your emotions onto the page can be as daunting, and take as much effort to overcome your reluctance, even if your background culture is not as reserved as mine is.
I don’t know what your peculiar challenges are to letting your emotions show on the page. I know that most of us have more ingrained resistence to that than to dancing naked down the street. HOWEVER I do know some tips and craft tricks to at least ease you into “safe” ways to have your characters feel/show emotion, and to play with your characters’ feelings and, therefore with your readers.
I will share those. After that, you’re on your own. Only you can tell how sharp the knife must be and how much resistence your emotional skin will offer.
First, find out what your character dreads or fears the most, then make it happen. Then put yourself in the character’s place and write his or her reactions. NOT TO DO: Don’t let your character become so crushed he just sits there. Let the grief and despondence show, but infuse it with anger or a will for revenge or to set things right. Otherwise, you end up with the Minoan fantasy, where I eventually ran out of walls to drop on my mush of a character. Sitting there for a few minutes is fine, but eventually he must recover his breath and come out swinging. HINT: it is a good way to make your character do something stupid that would otherwise be unforgivable, like rush into danger unprepared. If you carry the reader with the character on a tear of insanity, the reader will forgive it.
Second, to make your reader buy into the emotion, have imagery that evokes the good times. So, your character’s best friend just died. I see. Well, early on in the book seed a memory of how happy they were playing with bottle caps under bar tables as kiddies. After he gets news the giant alien chickens ate his friend, have him find a bottle cap, which evokes and stands for their whole friendship. Have him squeeze the bottle cap in his hand so hard his skin gets cut, while trying not to think of those wonderful days, and while the tears sting his eyes. Then have him go out to make himself a fried alien chicken bucket. DO NOT: Don’t give us the whole scene over again, and don’t let this be the first time we hear of the bottle caps. Have it early on, then just give us an evoking image. His friend’s fingers flicking the bottle cap. The fact he always lost but never cared. Stuff like that. HINT: the scene I gave above is good – unless you grew up where I did, in which case it’s a cliche. Not the bar, but playing with bottle caps. every little boy did it, and yeah I did too. (tomboy, remember?) TRY not to have a cliched scene. “We ran to each other along the beach and fell into each other’s arms” doesn’t have the same force as “She always carried an umbrella, even when it wasn’t expected to rain. And this one time, we stood under a fountain, with the umbrella open, so I could tell her about my true love for her…” etc. (Yeah, we’ve left the friend and the bottle caps behind. WHY do you ask?)
Third, emotion, like humor (they’re actually very similar) can be a running thread through the book, whose effect increases with each use. You know, you start with alien chickens, in a funny book, and by the end, the mere mention of breading will send the reader into whoops. Same thing. Say in the whole bottle cap above, at the end you don’t have to do much. Just have the character spin the bottle cap on the table, while the alien ship burns and thinking “This one is for you, Jim” then flick the cap which flies just as awkwardly as when Jim did it. DO NOT: lard it on too thickly. Yes, I know what I said. But after you establish the real strong emotion, a very little does it. Just a word or a reference. HINT: Lard the first mention of the thing you mean to evoke emotion with little touch stones you can return to.
Fourth, do not TELL us what the character feels. Instead, remember when you felt it and go for the basic physical reactions. The clenching of muscles, the rapid heart beat or, for grief, the feeling that everything has gone very far away and that there’s a muffling wall between yourself and the world. Etc. DO NOT: be afraid of the gross stuff. Yes, people do sweat when scared, and it smells acid and more unpleasant than normal sweat. Yes, people do piss themselves when scared or startled. Don’t dwell lovingly on it, but feel free to mention it. Yes, people do throw up when grossed out or shocked, or in extreme pain. Again, don’t dwell on the description of the chunks, but mentioning it might be the way your reader knows what the character feels. HINT: emotions on the page appear more subdued than in real life. No matter how explicit you are, your reader gets them second hand. You need to heighten them a notch for the reader to FEEL it. Don’t be afraid that the reader will think your characters are hysterical. They won’t.
And now, go forth and open a vein