Everybody’s heard of show don’t tell, right? That’s so 90s. I say, stop abusing your readers. Let them eat cake!
Today, I’m writing about neurology because I’m a NERD! And I’m writing about tropes because I just got back from a romance novel conference (RT16 FTW!) where cowboys and Navy SEALS were roaming the hallways and gracing the covers of the books stacked on the tables. On one of my nights off, I hit an erm…adult entertainment show involving dancing and oh my! Turns out cowboys and Navy SEALS and firefighters were all over the stage there, too. This got me thinking about tropes.
What’s a trope?
A lot of people think a trope=stereotype, and that’s not true.
A trope is something universal that always appeals. A Cinderella story. A daring rescue. A wounded but tough hero healed by love. These are things that have been appearing in stories since they were told by the light of a campfire flickering on the cave walls.
Tropes also include person types as well as story types: the athlete, the meek heroine who finds her strength, the firefighter.
Where does neurology come in? Well, first you have to understand how the brain communicates. It’s basically like a forest with a lot of pathways beaten into it that converge and split apart again. Our neural pathways MAKE our brain.
Now, humans like novelty. We all know that. The people who made the Ashley Madison website (Match.com for marital affairs) know that. The men who buy a doctor’s coat to role-play with their wives know that. The people who lease a new car every year know that.
We also like the familiar. The smell of our mother’s kitchen. The Princess Bride movie, played for the thousandth time. That one MOVE that only your husband knows that works every time. More importantly, brains know how to process the familiar, and so you avoid confusion and anxiety.
What tropes know is that if you take something familiar, and give it a novel twist, that’s the best of both worlds. In terms of brain chemistry, we’re taking those familiar paths and forging new ones in between. We’re not bushwhacking through the wilderness the whole way, making an entirely new trail. No, we’re taking advantage of the reward circuits that are tied to familiarity by using the paths that are already there, and we are taking advantage of the reward circuits that like novelty by taking thrilling new shortcuts in between the established paths.
Pop songs know this, which is why every song is made up of verses (new) that return to the refrain (familiar).
What does this mean for writers (and readers)?
It means you want to take a familiar trope and twist it in a new way. Take somebody’s catnip (Spec Ops warriors!) and give it a personality. Make it a real person, and then give it a twist (Spec Ops warriors who are also all members of a band and working out of a tattoo parlor where they specialize in covering scars for burn victims).
If you’d like to read more about how to do that, author Katie Golding has a brilliant post on twisting tropes here.
Here’s a great example of my point in a single picture:
Hopefully Tia Louise won’t mind me using her book cover, because I saw it in a Facebook ad and loved it. Why did I love it? Because it takes the cowboy (a trope I love!) and makes it REAL. One look at this image and you can tell that guy is a real person with a story. He’s strong, and he’s got ranch roots, but at some point he went urban enough to get those tattoos, and he’s got a look on his face like a few things in life haven’t turned out the way he planned. I want to have a conversation with him.
Now, what if the book cover had something I’d never seen before on it?
In that case, it might grab my eye, but I might not have as immediate or as positive of a reaction, because my brain doesn’t know how to PROCESS that. That’s why, in books, it’s best to start with something universal and find a way to make it new, not try to reinvent the wheel so it looks something like this:
My PitchWars mentee said something really smart the other day, in passing. Yeah, I know, I’m supposed to be teaching her things, but if you do it right, it always goes both ways. The thing she said was about always leaving little moments open in her writing like fanfiction prompts. Because “the key to inspiring fanfic writers is leave them wanting more.”
This reminded me of that old saying about “Leave room for the Holy Ghost” at church dances, so the boys and girls don’t get too close to one another. Presumably because boy/girl friction calls up the devil, though in practice we all know that space for the Holy Ghost might as well be magnetized because all it does is make the people on both sides wish really hard that it weren’t there.
Which brings me to fanfiction. Fanfiction is born of dissatisfaction. It is a love child created specifically BY that space between dancers. By that longing for them to close that space, to finally declare their feelings, to KISS ALREADY for the love of puppies. (I won’t even tell you how many thousands of words of fanfic were inspired by the above near-touch dance scene. Several thousand were written by me). That’s why TV shows spawn such great fanfiction. With no end in sight, every romance is a slow burn. Every potential kiss is interrupted to keep the tension up.
Fanfic is frequently about providing that satisfaction, whereas tension is created in original fiction by dissatisfaction. AKA leaving room for the holy ghost. There’s something nice about seeing two characters kiss, yes, but it’s all the more mouthwatering to see their lips hover so close but NOT QUITE THERE!
As a fanfic writer who has since transitioned to original fiction, it’s a constant struggle for me to remember I need to keep conflict and tension high by not allowing reader satisfaction…just yet. My PitchWars mentee’s comment was a perfect reminder to me, because by thinking of writing in near touch moments as a prompt for fanfiction writers to later expound on, it changed my focus.
It helped me to feel positive about not writing what I wanted (KIIIIIIISSSSSS!), it stroked my ego a little (look, maybe someday people will write fanfic of my books! I should be so lucky) and it reminded me to leave room for the Holy Ghost. To leave a gap between their hero and the goal, whether it’s the girl, a magic sword, or their own self-respect. Because leaving that space is what keeps people flipping the pages, hoping for more.
I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.
However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.
I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.
When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.
I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.
Should every writer read?
For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.
It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.
There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.
Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)
There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.
In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.
In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).
I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.
Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.
You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.
How to read and be open without be swayed
There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.
In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).
Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.
Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision
I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.
As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.
The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.
The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.
Introducing Joyce Wacoff!
Joined Story Genius - class of January 2017
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Book Coach: Kemlo Aki
1.) What is the biggest difference between the Story Genius method and how you wrote your previous novels?
My first piece of fiction was a “pantser" production. I didn’t know what I was writing, where it was going or what it was really about. It was fun but it sat around for a couple of years until I decided to do something with it … like give it a character with a name and an intention. It turned into a young-adult fantasy novella. For the next work, I decided I needed more of a “plotter” approach so I pointed my characters in a direction and wrote my way forward. I had just sent it off to a few beta readers when I was introduced to Story Genius. I didn’t really want to start a new book, I just wanted to “polish” the current one. (I hadn’t yet received the feedback that said the story was flat and boring until page 82!) However, the geniuses at Story Genius insisted so I started Book 2 in my series. It only took a week or two to realize how wise they were … and how much I was going to have to go back and rewrite Book 1.
2.) What was the most surprising thing you learned through Story Genius?
How incredibly important regular feedback from a coach is. I read a lot of how to books. I could probably write one. I quickly discovered, however, that knowing something is radically different from being able to do it. I thought I was doing things like showing why the protagonist was doing what she was doing. It wasn’t until a coach gently handed me a feedback sandwich (one nugget of “try again” sandwiched between two slabs of “good job”) every week, that I started to integrate the message on a deeper level and actually saw how to do what was being called for.
3.) What did the Story Genius method allow you to do that your previous method didn’t?
Story Genius “allowed” (forced?) me to dig deeper into the why of what was going on. What in the past made the choice being made right now make sense? It helped me put characters in conflict with each other as I developed subplots for each. And, it allowed me to frame each scene almost like a story within a story, each scene a piece of the developing puzzle.
4.) How did the Story Genius method change how you see story & writing?
I had already decided that neither “pantsing” nor “plotting” fit me exactly. Now I think of the pre-thinking about what the story is as a “framing.” I am creating a framework that will hold the story and each scene will fit within that framework. Before, I agonized going back and forth as to which way the story should go. Now, I have more confidence because I can see the framework.
5.) How did the Story Genius method change how you read novels and watch movies or even how you think about the world around you?
One of my consistent barriers has been internal dialogue, telling the reader what’s going on in the protagonist’s head. Getting ideas out of my head onto the paper felt like I was “telling not showing.” So, I’ve started watching for how other writers handle that.
6.) What did you learn in the Story Genius method that you wish you'd known before?
The power of history. How we get to where we are creates momentum for where we’re going and what choices we will make. Having a clue about where to start a story and then how to weave those moments from the past into the present makes it far more fun to tell the story. It is also a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. I know I want the protagonist to take a totally inappropriate job … what in her past is going to make her not see the obvious pitfall? It’s like reverse engineering psychology … and makes me look at my own decisions and try to find the root causes of them, also.
7.) What piece of advice could you give people who are considering taking the Story Genius Method Course?
Do it now. The process is brilliant, but having a coach give you feedback every week is absolutely golden. I went into this thinking it was crazy to spend so much money. Now, I just wish I had done it sooner.
Thank you SO much, Joyce! We can't wait to read your novel!
So, your partial manuscript request just turned into a rejection rather than a full. Don’t worry, I have a plan. First, smash some shit.
Look, I spent ten years in the counseling field, and I’m telling you, there IS no therapeutic modality equal to dressing like a panda and wrecking something loudly breakable (and hopefully cheap and easy to clean up). But once you’re done whacking ice blocks with a sledgehammer, your manuscript will be in exactly the same shape it was when you sent it to that last agent or Pitch Wars mentor. Note: Step away from the matches. AWAY.
What next? Let’s break it down logically.
If an agent requests a partial, it means they like your concept, they like your writing, and you passed all their auto-no red flag warnings. There are a ton of factors that determine whether a query and sample pages will get you a partial manuscript request. But as for what will keep a partial manuscript from turning into a full? There’s really only one.
If they read your partial and don’t want to read more, it’s probably because the story didn’t go anywhere. The conflict did not drive the action forward fast enough for them to keep reading.
This might mean you need to tighten your pacing. Namely, make sure every scene is fully necessary, moving the plot forward, and doing it in as few words as possible. Do you really NEED that scene where your main character plays World of Warcraft and makes a sandwich? I know it’s character development, but maybe you could blend character development into a scene that also moves the plot forward. Kill two birds with one sandwich, that’s what I always say. Which may be why my husband seems so eager to do the cooking lately.
Pacing and conflict are very closely related. Go look at your conflict. Is there enough conflict? (Example: Does your MC want something? What stops them from getting it?) Is that problem introduced early enough? Without a conflict, you don’t have a story. You have people, doing stuff.
Yeah, that gif was boring AF, am I right? Would have been a lot better if a giraffe would have punted that bird, put a foot through his granny’s picnic basket, and spit on the sandwich.
So, more conflict. Faster pacing. Those are the heavy hitters when revising after several rejections on a partial, but there are a few more possibilities.
One: manuscript isn’t evenly edited. Don’t reel them in with your lipstick and miniskirt, and then show up to the second date in sweatpants. I’ve heard agents say for years that writers spend more time polishing their opening chapters than the rest of their book. People. STAHP. A polished opening will get you a partial request but it won’t get you an offer. You don’t just want a second date–you want a ring. Besides, if you don’t have an agent yet, you don’t have a deadline. Take as long as you need to polish your WHOLE book. You are not going to “trick” an agent into signing you with a really great opening and then a sagging middle that you didn’t revise as often as the first chapter.
Two: characterization. I think this is less common, because if your readers connected with your characters enough to get to a partial request, you’ve probably kept up the good work. But if the agent or mentor isn’t any closer to the characters after fifty pages than they were after ten, they will put the book down. So get out your favorite gel pen and make a list. What do we know about the characters after the sample pages the agent/mentor read? What do we know about them by the end of the pages requested in the partial? If the second list is short or nonexistent, you have characterization issues.
Three: synopsis. If the agent/mentor looked at your synopsis, go back and make sure your synopsis contains your conflict, stakes, and ending. Is it a good representation of your book? If this was ALL somebody knew about your book, would it be accurate or would you be scrambling to say, “Wait, but I didn’t tell you the cool twist with the robot-monkey or the part where the MC loses an arm!” The synopsis should not summarize every chapter, but if it doesn’t show what is unique about your book, it might be holding you back.
Take home message: If you’ve been querying for a while and you’ve gotten lots of partial requests but no fulls? Go back and take a look at the pacing and conflict. Then, polish the rest of the book to the same shine as Ch 1. Check your characters. Then, and only then, send more queries.
Also, buy an ice block. They’re cheap, fun to smash, and they melt so you don’t have to clean them up.
If you’re a millennial like me, you might be more used to the slight tinking noise of your laptop keyboard. Perhaps it’s the click of your cell phone keyboard. But, when the developers of Freewrite decided to bring the past back to life (with a just a touch of modernity), they realized they’d capitalized on something people take for granted… nostalgia.
Hi everybody! In honor of today’s #CPMatch (thanks, Megan Lally!), and all the people polishing their ms for upcoming #PitchWars, it seems like a good time to talk about how to work with beta readers or critique partners. Really anybody reading your writing and giving you feedback. For my definition of CP vs beta reader, see ** at the bottom.
At the bottom of this post, I included a cheat sheet of potential questions to send to your betas/CPs with your manuscript. If you’ve worked with betas before and don’t need tips, feel free to scroll down to that. I’ve found that talking to beta readers is sort of like running a therapy session as a counselor: You get a lot out of what people volunteer, but you get more out of them if you ask the right questions. So look forward to that. In the meantime, let’s talk the Five Commandments of what you should do for your betas. Not ten, because ten is a lot and I don’t like rules that much.
1. Thou shalt not Lie
Find a way to be positive. But if you didn’t like their ‘Jeremy rides a giant squid’ scene, DON’T say you did. This will help no one.
2. Thou shalt be specific
Don’t just say, “You know, Darla’s reaction just didn’t read true to me.” Where? FOR THE LOVE OF CHIPMUNKS, WHERE? It is a 450 page book and Darla has at least 350 different reactions to things in this book. Also, don’t say: “Your grammar sucks. Your punctuation needs work.” Say where or how, or something they can grab onto like a lifeboat in a storm. Make sure they know what to fix, and how to start.
3. Thou shalt not be a d*ck.
Find something nice to say. Did you like that one funny line of dialogue in Ch 5? Did you like the way they had an aunt character because nobody remembers that fictional people have aunts until the parents are killed in a horrible accident? Did you like that their grammar was strong and consistent? Find SOMETHING to compliment. In any piece of writing, no matter how rough, there’s something good, and if you tell the writer what that is, they will find something even better to show you. And folks? Stick around for that moment because it feels reeeeal good. Don’t you like making people happy?
Also, amount of positive feedback: this is different for every writer, but take whatever amount of positive feedback you THINK they need, and double to quadruple it. They know what they did right, you think. I don’t need to say it, do I? You do. In fact, most writers don’t know their strengths and even if they do, they’re probably afraid that they’re wrong and are in fact a fraud and a sham and should probably burn their laptop and take up knitting or perhaps sitting very still in the corner of a dark closet. You need to mention more positives than you think you do in order to convince them they’re wrong.
4. Thou shalt not take everyone
Seriously, don’t sign on with everyone who wants to beta read or CP for you. Try them out first. Trade a chapter or two. See their writing, see how helpful their comments are to you. It’s okay to shake hands, say, this is fun but let’s just be friends. You know? Because first, you want somebody that’s close to your level of skill or better. If they’ve just written their first Post-It note and you’re on your fourteenth epic fantasy cycle, you’re not going to benefit much from the relationship. Which is fine. There is a time and a place for helping out writers and it can be super rewarding and fun and help you organize the knowledge you didn’t even know you had.
BUT. For a really quality beta relationship, you want somebody close to your skill level who writes in a moderately similar style to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t go outside your genre (I have one CP who is a romance writer, and another who writes fantasy. They have different strengths and I need them both to make me whole.) but it does mean just because another writer is good doesn’t mean that their style will be close enough to yours for you to help each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Stephenie Meyer would not be great beta partners for one another, even though they’re both seen as fairly successful authors. Similarly, John Green and Tolkien might not be a superb pair. Also, some people are great writers but they suck at giving feedback. They’re snooty or they tear you down to feel good about themselves or they just don’t know how to articulate how you need to fix your book. There, I said it, so you don’t have to.
5. Thou shalt remember thy purpose.
Sweet, you think. My purpose is to make them better and I told them all the stuff that’s wrong with their book. They’ll thank me later.
WRONG. Your first purpose as a beta is to make sure that writer doesn’t quit. They will be a better writer tomorrow than they are today. In ten years, you won’t even BELIEVE the stuff they’re pulling off. And if you discourage them so much today that they quit, the world will never see any of that. Trust me, you don’t want that kind of karma hanging over your head. Also, I will find you, and I WILL kick you in the shins. I have literally nothing better to do than find people who discourage writers and give their shins a good kicking.
So your first purpose as a beta is to encourage the writer and make sure they know what they’re doing right and what their potential might be so they don’t quit. Your second purpose is to help them get better.
And now, because I hate rules and I’m sort of tired of them, let’s talk questionnaires. This isn’t a comprehensive questionnaire. It’s just one my CPs and I made up, to make sure your beta reader notes will cover all the bases. I encourage you to add questions for your specific concerns for each manuscript. Like, “Does Jeannie look like a bitch when she steals Tommy’s pet roll of toilet paper?” “Is it too slow when you watch Kent sort his coin collection or is it good character development to see his precision?” Whatever you’re worried might not be working but you want to make sure it’s not your self doubt talking. Also, I added some happy questions in there because you need to know the good stuff, not just the bad. One of my fave lessons from fanfic writing is that your readers’ favorite parts aren’t necessarily your favorite parts. It’s super fun to see what’s working for people.
-Does the ms have a strong hook at beginning? Does it start in the right place?
-Strengths/Weaknesses of the ms?
-How is the characterization? Was there any place where you felt you couldn’t follow the motivations, or didn’t buy them? Were there any places your reactions to the characters undermined your enjoyment in the story (not that they pissed you off so you turned pages faster- that’s positive)?
-How is the pacing? Were there any places where it slowed down?
-When did you feel the most/least engaged with the text? At what point did you start getting bored/distracted?
-Were there any scenes you didn’t get the point of, or felt that they didn’t serve the story as a whole?
-How was the imagery/description? Do we need more, less, just right?
-What did you think were the overall themes of the book? How would you strengthen them, if needed?
-Did anything in the book seem fake/unrealistic to you?
-What are issues you see agents/editors/other readers having with the book?
-Was there enough conflict? Did it feel natural to you? Were there any points where it felt contrived or forced?
-How was the romance? Did you like both characters? Did you care if they got together, and when they did, did it feel realistic and believable to you? (This should be genre specific. For fantasy: how was the worldbuilding, etc.)
-What was your favorite part/thing/scene of the book?
-What was your least favorite part/thing/scene of the book?
-What is the one problem with the book that you are hesitant to bring up, possibly because you’re not sure how to fix it?
That’s it, folks. So now go forth, get betas and CPs, and be very very nice to them, because your writing future depends on their wisdom.
**Definitions. Many people have different definitions of beta reader or CP. Whatever works for you is fine, just talk clearly to the other person about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. For me, a critique partner (CP) = somebody who gives you line by line feedback (Wouldn’t ‘dick’ work better here than ‘manroot’? Or ‘add a comma’. Or ‘You spelled schnitzel wrong again.’) and also big picture feedback on pacing, characterization, plot, conflict, whether your story is working, etc. A beta reader is someone who reads and JUST gives you big picture feedback, not line by line comments.
By Julie Artz - Book Coach
Recently, one of my clients asked me for pointers on writing character emotion without falling into telling or cliché. As I wrote my answer, I realized it would make a great blog post because, let’s face it, writing emotion is hard. Here’s a technique I’ve come up with over the years that I hope you’ll find helpful.
A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. A lot of authors (including me when I first started learning this technique) stop there. That's why you get a lot of anxiety describes as sweaty palms & thumping hearts in books. But instead of just telling us the character's palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she's in a cold sweat that's tickling her as it drips down her face. It's OK to do some physical cues--face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs--but don't only do that.
Once you have reviewed the entry/entries for the emotion you’re trying to convey, put yourself into the character's body and conduct a character interview. Why are you doing what you’re doing in this scene? What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel? Then dive deeper, leveraging your own experience with these emotions: How do your legs feel when you’re scared/nervous/angry? How does your stomach feel? What gestures might you make (tugging your hair when nervous, biting your lip or the inside of your cheek, shoving your hands in your pockets, tugging at the bottom of your shirt)? Different characters may tend to feel emotions in different parts of their bodies, and this can be a great way to differentiate voices in a multiple-point-of-view story.
Description also plays a role in getting emotion on the page. What your character notices about the world is influenced by how she’s feeling. For example, if I'm sad, and I look outside and see it's raining, I might feel the rain is heavy and depressing and awful. But if I'm happy, I look out the window and see how the water glistens on the leaves or how the intense green reminds me of my honeymoon in Belize. So you write the emotion not by putting feelings on the page, but by showing how the character's feelings (and their backstory) influence how they perceive everything in the world around them. The details you as the writer choose will help convey the character’s emotions without ever naming that emotion on the page.
Same goes for dialogue. An easy crutch to fall back on is using dialogue to convey emotion such as, “Mom, you make me so angry when you talk to me like that!” I’m not saying you can never do that. In fact, it can be very effective, especially when it’s more voicey than my example, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re conveying emotion.
If you can identify the emotions you want to convey, and then convey them with a mix of gestures, physical sensations, description, and dialogue, you’ll be well on your way to writing emotion that will keep your reader turning pages.
Next time you’re reading one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how they do this.Two of my current favorites,Leigh Bardugo and Maggie Stiefvater, are masters of showing emotion without naming it on the page. Their styles are very different (Bardugo is more lush and Stiefvatermore sparse in style), but they both end up delivering gripping stories in part because of how they write emotion.
What tips have you learned about conveying emotion in your writing? Which authors do you think do it particularly well? This topic could fill multiple books, so feel free to continue this discussion in the comments.
One thing that many writers (and other creative types) with day jobs kvetch about is finding the time to write. How the heck are you supposed to write the next Great American Novel (or Young Adult Dystopian Adventure Set in a Not-So-Distant-But-Bleak Future Where Kids are Pitted Against Kids and Centers Around an Empowered Teenager Girl Who Not Only Has Special Powers but also Has Cancer and Must Choose between the Two Boys Who Don’t Know How to Live and Love and only Learn to Do So Through the Limited Yet Caring Time Spent with her in Her Final Days) if you work 9-5 and juggle other responsibilities like a spouse and kid(s)? I mean, it’s hard enough to squeeze in exercise and home-cooked dinners, let alone find time to write a book. I can’t say I have the end-all-be-all answers to this dilemma, but I know what works for me. At least, I know what works for me today. If I can find at least one, quiet hour a day to devote to a writing project, that’s a win. But it’s a struggle for me, a target that refuses to stay in one place. I try to write every day, even on weekends, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have a few tricks up my sleeve
1) Write early. As my semester progresses, I get slammed with papers to grade. That’s not a bad thing—I love that my students are completing their work, but it means all of my daytime hours are monopolized by grading. To get my writing in during these times, I’ll start early and write before Josh and Virginia get up to start the day. For me, this means a 5 AM wake-up, which takes some getting used to. My New York Pitch Conference friend, Monique, who not only works full time, but is also a mom to four kids and a wife. She’s writing a memoir and is up and in front of her computer, coffee in hand by 3:45 AM. Mad props to her—that takes a level of commitment and discipline not shared by everyone including myself.
2) Write late. My husband can do this. He’s a night owl and can often get as much or more accomplished after dinner than a lot of people can during bank hours. And often this strategy can work for many writers. Like writing early, the house gets quiet after everyone else goes to bed. This can be an ideal time to concentrate and rack up your daily word count. If I wasn’t nodding off to Dancing with the Stars by 8:30, I might be scribbling something down, too.
3) Write anytime, anywhere. An opportunity to write can spring up when you least suspect it, and it’s often in our best interest to know when to take advantage of these moments. I don’t know what it is, but it seems like I come up with my best ideas when I’m running, a time I don’t carry around a notebook and pencil. Instead, I jot or record ideas down into a notebook app on my phone. Although I look like I’m talking to myself, more than a few times that notebook app has been my savior. An old writer friend of mine said that she used to write in her car at stoplights. She was a single mom of an infant and chipping away at a master’s in journalism. Car trips were the only few times she would be able to be alone with her thoughts, because that’s when her daughter would nap in her carseat. She’d have her spiral notebook open on the passenger seat next to her, and when she’d come to a stop, she’d scribble down a sentence or two before moving on to the next stop. That’s some bad-ass determination.
A lot of this is tied to me just trying to keep to some sort of a writing schedule, even if my kid comes down with the stomach flu, or the hot water heater conks out and I’ve got to scramble to find a plumber. It’s a commitment to fitting in time for all the work that goes into creating something you hope to share with an audience at some point. When Josh and I lived in L.A., we knew a handful of unemployed actors who sat around complaining they never got any acting jobs because they didn’t have an agent. They weren’t doing anything in the meantime, i.e., auditioning, putting together a reel, taking improv classes. They simply pointed to the fact that they had no agent and used it as an excuse to do nothing and whine about it. We were also friendly with another bunch of actors, who hustled every day and put themselves out there relentlessly so they could make themselves available for their big break. They just went for it.
Sometimes I think that a big difference between creative people who eventually make it and those who fall by the wayside is a sense of stick-with-it-ness. Going for it even when there is no tangible reward other than the work itself. There’s no easy way to do it. You just work harder at it and become better, find the time because it won’t necessarily find you. And with a bit of talent and a dash of luck, eventually it’ll pay off. Fingers crossed.
In my last post, I talked about how YA is overtaking the adult fiction market. Books for 13-17-year-olds are gaining ground even faster than adult books are losing it.
So what are we supposed to do when we love the immediate, beautiful voices in YA books, but we’re ready to get rid of the parents and head for edgier themes? What about twenty-somethings struggling through student debt, trying to find their place in a world and an economy that all of a sudden seems to have no place for them. Where are books for them? What if (God forbid) our stories are partially told through sex?
I’m absolutely one of this demographic: I moved to YA books because I was tired of gratuitous sex scenes in adult romance novels, and the stilted third person voice so prevalent in that genre. It never really sounded like a real person to me.
Let’s take a moment and compare a line from Pearl Moon by Katherine Stone (one of my old faves in the adult romance genre):
“For a wondrous moment, Eve’s haunted blue eyes bid adieu to all their ghosts and hope–and gratitude–fairly shimmered.”
With a line from Swap Out by Katie Golding, a great sample of the down-to-earth, colloquial style exemplified by New Adult.
“I am Home Depot’s bitch.
The purveyor of hardware and the wielder of hammers, the hauler of tables and builder of beds.
But mostly, I am a grunt.”
Can you see the difference? I–and many other people–are dying for books that actually sound like us! The way we really talk. And one day, POOF! The publishing Gods smiled upon me and created New Adult.
It’s for ages 18-24 and it deals with so many of the problems I’ve faced myself: the reality of how to turn your dreams into reality in a world where most people’s dreams are creative pursuits and most paying jobs are NOT in creative pursuits. NA also deals with heavier issues like disability, rape, college, leaving home, having to move back home, starting careers, etc.
It is categorized by the honest, immediate voices we all love in YA, and it can tell stories that sometimes take place through sex. It makes perfect sense that now is the time for NA. Books used to be categorized as for Children or Adults. YA came about when we realized that adolescence is its own time in life, with challenges specific to the age.
But the world, folks, it is a’changing, and the early twenties look very different now than they used to. More people are going to college and even more are finding that they need a master’s degree or even more to go after the careers they want. College is a very specific environment, with dorms and apartments, flexible class schedules and frat parties. Even after college, the changes in the economy are changing lives for people in their twenties. They’re overqualified for so many jobs, and underqualified for many more, and in most cases, end up underemployed. Many are finding it difficult to find jobs equal to their student loan payments, and some folks are being forced to move back home with their parents.
The early 20’s are an all-new adolescence, as validated by books like “The Quarter-Life Crisis.” and “Twenty-Something, Twenty-Everything: A Quarter-life Woman’s Guide to Balance and Direction.” We can no longer think that the experience of a 22-year-old and a 60-year-old are the same and should be categorized only as “adult.” Just as we once drew the line between fiction for nine-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds.
“Yes!” I can hear you all saying. “That’s what we want! Sign me up!” But before you run out to your local Barnes and Noble to raid the NA shelf, stop. It isn’t there. As a society, we’re there. We know the 20’s are their own special period of development, AND adults are buying the heck out of YA books, even the ones that are really adult in disguise. Or like Rainbow Rowell’s amazing “Fangirl” which takes place in college and is a perfect example of NA but is sold as YA. In 2013, we were starting to see articles from big papers like USA TODAY and The New York Times about how NA was the next big thing. More people are writing it: NA is showing up as a genre in many Twitter pitch contests, and some mid-level publishing houses, like the very successful Entangled, are snatching it up.
But even trendy independent bookstores like Powell’s Books don’t have a section for it yet, much less the giant bookseller Barnes and Noble. Worse, some publishing houses and agents are starting to turn NA away because they’re finding it a hard sell, such as Mandy Hubbard’s new agency, Emerald City Literary, who will now only accept NA if they can change it to third person and sell it as adult. The popular website, NA Alley even changed its name to Next Lit: Coming of Age Fiction for the New Generation, and began to encompass YA as well as NA.
So wait, you might ask. Is this blog just wrong? (Pshaw, the blog says in response). Is there truly no demand for the new age category of NA?
The one place that has a shelf for NA (you guessed it, Amazon.com) has hopeful news: NA is selling! The top-selling NA book on Amazon right this moment is #8 on Amazon’s bestseller list as a whole, nipping at the heels of the top-selling YA book, which is #7. However, most of the NA out there is self-published and a lot of it is…how shall we say this delicately? A quick peek at the covers in the top 20 reveals a lot of what my CP calls “Man Torso” books. A representative example from the top 10:
These sorts of books don’t deal with issues specific to NA so much as they’re just another facet of the growing erotica market. (No offense to my example book. I haven’t read it, but a whole lot of someone elses have). But hey, I guess at least we know that there are plenty of people looking for racier storylines than YA allows.
So is NA just YA with sex? Do we really need a category for that, when we already have one helpfully titled, Erotica?
To me, the truest answer of that can only come from the intended audience, and over the past year I’ve talked to many 18-24-year-olds about what they’re reading. I didn’t hear anyone say, “Ah, I tried NA but to be honest, I still like YA better.”
In fact, what I heard over and over and over again was, “What is NA?”
And to me, that’s the truest answer to the question of where the genre is at right this second. Is it the next big thing, or just the fad of the moment that will fade into the background? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for some amazing NA books to try out, I recommend the following:
Maybe, Someday by Colleen Hoover: a deaf musician learning the maturity to deal with disability, love and infidelity. Also, this book has its own soundtrack of the music “written” by the two main characters. If you don’t realize that that is the coolest innovation in publishing history, I don’t even know what’s wrong with you.
Easy by Tammara Webber: a college student dealing with rape on campus and how Greek culture, the police, and peer pressure only make things worse. This has one of my all time favorite book boyfriends, the tattooed artist/engineering student Lucas.
Lost in Oblivion series by Cari Quinn and Taryn Elliot: This is a story of a bunch of musicians trying to put a band together and make it in the competitive music industry, similar to my own work in progress. This has a bit too much sex for my taste, but it’s well-written sex and others might feel differently. I ADORE the camaraderie of the band members.
Trust the Focus by Megan Erickson: This is a superb, heart-tugging road-tripping M/M romance of a MC searching for his own identity and the courage to come out after college graduation.
Full Measures by Rebecca Yarros: This is a story of a college-aged girl suddenly responsible for most of her family after her father dies in combat. Meanwhile, she’s falling for a soldier and she wants nothing to do with the life of an army wife. Ouch.
Order Up by Katie Golding: This is the cute and funny story of a pizza delivery guy who falls in love with a dancer who is younger than him. They have to surmount disapproving parents, a long distance relationship when she goes to college, and he has to confront his own lack of ambition and feelings of being lost to finally find the career that’s right for him. Finally, a romance that’s not about a billionaire!
Hierarchy of Needs by Rebecca Grace Allen: This is a perfect example of New Adult. It’s a girl who wanted to be a fashion designer who ends up back in her parent’s basement and teaching swimming instead. Her love interest wanted to be a photographer and ended up running his parents’ mechanics shop instead. I love the unvarnished truth of this book, how she takes a hard look at economic realities and lost dreams, and gives her characters the hope and courage to go after a middle ground that still pays the bills but doesn’t taste so much like giving up.