May You Write Interesting Books — Addendum

*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

25 thoughts on “May You Write Interesting Books — Addendum

  1. 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.

    Yeah. I know that story.

    As to writing porno, I actually tried doing that. It’s harder than you think to write good porno, i.e. porno that people would actually want to read. Hey, I got curious. Sue me! No, I never posted or sold it. It’s still sitting on my hard drive some where. I got bored by it. How many ways can you describe plumbing connections?


  2. I write non-fiction (naval and military history, mostly), and can testify that showing emotion is as important in writing exciting non-fiction as it is for fiction. The three latest books I wrote explored the career of a General (George Washington) and two important sets of naval battles (Decatur’s burning of the Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor and the ship-to-ship cruiser duels in the American Civil War). All three probably got the best reception of all the books I have written. One reason is that I presented the motivations of the participants — why did they react as they did? What emotions did they feel and why? What did the spectators think? How did that affect their actions? I don’t think I could ever write a novel, but I can write a history that reads like one.

    No, I did not make stuff up. Most of this was in the historical papers that existed, but often it is overlooked by historians trying to achieve proper academic detachment. Nor did I exaggerate. Did not need to. But I believe if you can entertain as you inform, you do a better job than if you just inform.

    One of my role models is Winston Churchill. If you ever read his biography of the Duke of Marlborough or his History of the English Speaking People you will realize that he was a magnificant entertainer as well as a great historian. There was as much adventure in his stories as in a Heinlein novel.

    Yes, emotion and motivation can be overdone, but a total lack of both makes a book just as boring as an overdose.

      1. Yes it is.

        I discovered that there is a lot of relevance in Washington’s time to today. To say nothing of the fact that Washington’s life has become the basis for a trilogy by Drake and Lambshead. (THe first of which I reviewed:

        (And that link should answer the question about my name.)

    1. “The three latest books I wrote explored the career of a General (George Washington) and two important sets of naval battles (Decatur’s burning of the Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor and the ship-to-ship cruiser duels in the American Civil War). ”

      Titles, please?

  3. Thank you, this actually helps with the problem I complained about in a comment to your last post, those siblings and their dead parents. I can’t write it to my satisfaction because I can’t get the emotions right, maybe because it feels personal to me. I want it to be touching, and every time I have tried I end up with something that seems overdone, underdone, or not quite right in some other way.

    Also, there is more than one character. I think I might be able to do that scene to my liking if there was only one, but a scene with several different personalities sharing grief which is equally strong for all of them just stumps me (er, is that the right way to say it? My English is fairly good, but sometimes the Finnish bleeds through).

    And then there is that perfectionism problem. As said, personal. The thought that there would be readers who’d find it overdone or cliche or maybe funny (worst possibility) is scary, since it does relate to something that has happened to me (just mother, though), and how I felt then.

    1. Marja,

      First, “stumps” is perfectly correct English idiom in that context.

      Second: “…readers who’d find it…” Bah. I keep saying: there are seven billion people on this planet, and a billion of them (more or less) speak English. Among a billion people, you can find any damned thing. Take the absolutely weirdest, most disgusting thing you can think of. I’ve got $10 says we can find three people who love it, treasure it, and write poems to it. For more commonplace stuff there are thousands.

      It doesn’t matter what you write. Some readers are going to find it overdone, others will find it underdone, still others just won’t see the point at all. And yes, some will find it funny. You can’t stop it. A bell curve with a billion people under it has too much room for outliers. Or, in the sardonic epigram: tha’s nowt sae queer a’fowk.

      Write it. Put it out there. I guarantee one thing: sink or swim, you’ll do better the next time you try. Writing is both an art and a skill, and skills get better with practice.


        1. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m finally going to try, with the Kindle Direct Program, and a couple of shorts.

          Once I figure out the formatting, and find something for temporary cover pictures. I have started to paint again and I should be good enough to make at least halfway decent covers myself, I used to be, but it’s been a while since I last painted so I will think I will need at least a few months of practice before I get the knack again.

        2. Apropós the earlier thread: current body count, beyond those previously reported, is one (1) FBI, two (2) IRS, two (2) Federal Security (plus the “on-site coordinator”), and an otherwise inoffensive pilot and copilot on loan from $BIGCORP to support the operation. I let the woman live. My protag is sentimental, and anyway I might need a suitable subject for torture later. Progress is being made!


  4. On point 3, one thing to keep in mind is the readers aren’t dummies (yeah, even thought they spend significant amounts of their money and time reading your crappy* stories.)

    IF you’ve got them to this final scene you don’t even need the “This one’s for you”** signifier. Just describe the bottlecap action, give us a little twitch and, if you really need to, raise the bottle in a toast before drinking. Most readers will project their emotions into the scene far better than you can write them in. As ecdysiasts know, “it ain’t what you see, it is what you thought you saw” that really counts.

    * “crappy” in this context means as opposed to the one you had in your head and wanted to write, rather than the one you actually did write. NO disparagement of actual authors, living or dead, is intended.
    ** No slight on proprietress intended; it is acknowledged that the signifier was provided for illustrative purpose only and that actual published work by proprietress will be much much subtler. This comment is provided for the benefits of writers struggling with the vein-opening who are liable to slash their wrist when a simple incision will suffice.

    N.B. your spell check quails at ecdysiast???????

    1. My spell checker probably hares at it too (runs before the pun police arrives.)

      And now I know why I’m up at four in the flipping morning and unable to sleep. My instinct told me that someone had used ecdysiast in the comments on my blog, thereby forcing me to save the world by using as many low-brow words as possible for an entire day. I sense an imbalance in the force, Luke.

      1. My dictionary doesn’t even have it, so I’m not surprised that spellcheck hops away from that one.

        Out of curiousity what Laurrell Hamilton books did you read? The ones I read the emotions consisted mainly of humor (pretty good humor, really) and sexual angst.

        1. The first three. There are emotions — sexual tension and pity, mostly — aimed DIRECTLY at women, though. More, women of a certain age. I’ve found that ten years later I can’t re-read them. The objectification of men makes me want to scream, now I’m the mother of teen boys.

  5. On Baen’s Bar, in Michael Z. Williamson’s forum, there is currently a discussion about the following quote from his book The Weapon.

    “Twelve hundred and eighty-seven Operatives have died in the line of duty. At the end of time, the forces of evil will form ranks and march to the last battle. When they reach the gates of Heaven, they will find those Operatives guarding it . . . Rowan, Tom, Frank, Neil, Tyler, Kimbo, all scarred and grubby and laden with Death . . . and Deni in front, a calm, imperturbable look on her face, hunched over her rifle and ready to deliver immortal wrath. And if the legions of evil have any brains at all, they will about face and leave.”

    For those of you who haven’t read the book, this quote is used near the beginning of the book, and then again at the end. Except in the beginning the number of dead Operatives is lower by about a thousand, and Rowan, Tom, Frank, Neil, Tyler, Kimbo and Deni are all alive. This is problably the best example I have ever seen in contemporary fiction of evoking emotion, like described in the bottlecap scene.

    1. Sarah,
      Rereading my above post it sounds like I’m promoting someone else’s book on your blog, that wasn’t what I intended. But if that isn’t acceptable, please go ahead and remove the post.

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