Everybody’s heard of show don’t tell, right? That’s so 90s. I say, stop abusing your readers. Let them eat cake!
Writers have a real problem with “just,” and I don’t mean in the filler word sense. I mean more in the way we treat our dearest accomplishments as filler words.
I’m not a real writer, this is just my first book.
I write, but just children’s books.
I’m published, but just small press.
I’m a bestseller, kind of, but just USA Today, not NYT.
Of course, writers aren’t the only artists guilty of this.
I’m not an artist, I just like to take pictures.
I scupt, but just in plain old clay, not marble or anything.
Most of us have done it, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I weren’t one of the worst offenders. It’s a defense mechanism, this self-protective way we downplay our attachment to the things we actually care about the most. And okay, humility has its place because nobody likes a swaggering assclown. But this constant downplaying contributes to a society-wide attitude toward art that is incredibly destructive.
For instance, politicians are always trying to cut fine arts in schools in favor of science. Science builds cities, they say. Science saves lives. Not entirely true.
Emotion saves lives.
Without emotion, nobody would have cared about anything enough to invent science. And art, even more directly than science, is made of emotion.
It would be difficult to find a part of the literary world less respected than romance novels. But I keep writing about love because it’s the most powerful thing there is. People will kill other people for hate, but they’ll kill everything including themselves for love.
That’s why I don’t believe in “just” a zombie show. “Just” a kid’s book. I don’t think a 10-foot painting of geometric, razor-edged penises is more or less valid than a Play Doh elephant.
Literally thousands of lives were changed by Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It doesn’t matter what you think of that book, or that genre, or her writing. What matters is that book mattered. Measurably. To the people who worked on the movies and the YA publishing industry that flourished as a result. To every person it spurred into fanfiction who then moved on to a writing career. To every person who met a lifelong friend through a fan site. Stephenie Meyer can afford a private freaking plane because the way she wrote sparkly bloodsuckers mattered to a whole damn lot of people.
Evoking emotion isn’t petty, or frivolous, or just for entertainment. Emotion is the energy that drives the entire earth. It, not fossil fuel, is what powers the creation of literally everything. And art keeps that that moving, like the water in the turbines of a giant power plant.
Which is why I want to pause here to tell a story about a concert.
Concerts are my church. In the synergy of movement and sound and the upswelling of pure emotion generated by a crowd, I can experience transcendence brought by connection to other beings. And, rather unfortunately, smell their beer breath.
This particular concert was from a band that’s one of my go-to writing playlists. They’re just a mid-level band, popular enough in the Northwest to headline their own venues but not stadiums. I’ve written thousands of words while immersed in their music. Watching them perform those same songs, I saw that they were playing with such absolute passion and heart… The lead singer had to set his microphone higher because every line of lyrics kept drawing him weightlessly up onto his toes like he was straining a little closer to something above us all.
I could see on all the band member’s faces that they were getting caught up in the flow of it, the same flow I had found while listening to their music and creating art made of words instead of sounds.
And snagged by that crazy connection between strangers, I thought, “You know, for everything that’s wrong right now, we’re still doing a few things really right with each other, with our time here on earth.”
Their band name, Blind Pilot, is a two-word metaphor for faith.
Some days, I see a little more clearly than others how all the pieces of art in the world can intersect, ricocheting off each other in arcs of inspiration that create new things of ever-increasing beauty and truth.
Fan art always reminds me the most loudly of that, whether it is paintings, stories, songs…even a really epic cosplay costume. The most beautiful line I’ve written in my entire life is in a piece of fanfiction: inspired by someone else’s art.
Art is seeing the butterfly effect in action. Creation begets creation. Creation begets emotion. Emotion begets everything.
There was no “just” in that sentence.
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.
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.