Are you feeling it? Emotional Connection in Fiction Part 1

photo of compartments under the lid of a piano, paintboxes, brushes, sewing things
The perfect piano for a tiny house? This one has built-in toolboxes for sewing, painting and grooming. Andreas Landschütz, 1820. MAKK museum in Cologne. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

An accomplished novelist friend recently got feedback on a manuscript that was heartbreakingly familiar to me.

“I like it but I’m not loving it.”

Ouch. I know just how that feels.

For years, I worked on a manuscript that repeatedly got the critique that readers couldn’t connect with my main character’s emotions. The feedback was inexplicable and painful because I didn’t have any tools to address it with.

Over time, it started to feel like a personal attack. They were all after me. There was something wrong with me as a writer. I had the wrong feelings. Or I didn’t have feelings. Or I didn’t show them properly. Or something. You know the voices.

A brief non sequitor: getting obsessed with adverbs or gerunds or passive voice or what have you may lead to such controlled language that the emotion is beaten out of it. *cough*

A comment like “I like it but I don’t love it” can hurt so much. But they don’t have to. It might be time to let your story out to dance or skate or sing. Here are three mini-stories that helped me see emotional reactions in a whole new light.

 1. A musical interlude: One day in high school, I was practicing a piece of music in the empty band room and the band director walked through and tossed off a comment about playing with more feeling: “It’s okay. You must have just gotten that piece.”

I played a line or two again for him, putting my feelings into the music. He shook his head.


My feelings were evidently wrong. But how can a person fix their feelings?

Now I realize he wasn’t asking me to feel the music. He wanted me to use technical skill to let the listener feel the music.

2. A skating interlude: Years ago, I read an autobiography of a couple whose skating pair routines moved audiences to tears. In My Sergei, Yekaterina Gordeyeva writes about the demands of creating an emotional experience for the audience. While performing, they were working far too hard to be feeling all mushy.

Look at all the technique to communicate emotion in this pairs skating routine. Or this one with a stronger female lead and lots of passion. Or this one based on Rodin’s The Kiss and skated by Gordeyeva and Grinkov.

(Thanks to Susan Gilbert-Collins for reminding me of the skaters’ names!)

3. Vanessa Van Edwards researched which TED talks go viral. She noticed that two excellent talks, released at the same time of year, found completely different success. One found a small audience and the other exploded.

Talks that went viral had LOTS more gestures than the ones that didn’t. The number of gestures are a measure of the speaker’s commitment to his or her topic and to the desire to communicate it to the audience.

They are also a measure of the speaker’s skill.

Gestures, body language, and words that match communicate much more.

Communicating emotion in a story is a skill. The novelist’s craft includes so many ways to move the reader: foreshadowing, characterization, story structure, dialogue, body language. So if you get this feedback, reach for your tools.

In next week’s post, I’ll recommend some brilliant toolboxes you’ll love.

What about you: Have you gotten feedback that stumped you for a while? How did you handle it? Or have you got favorite tools to add feelings to your WIP? Go ahead and share in the comments.


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Marc Chagall’s stunning gift of reconciliation

"Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet." Stained glass window in shades of blues with flying angel and candelabra by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.
“Your Word is Lamp unto My Feet.” Stained glass window by Marc Chagall/ Charles Marq. Pfarrkirche St. Stephan, Mainz, Germany, 2016.

St. Stephan’s church in Mainz, Germany has stunning stained glass windows. The church burned on February 27, 1945 and Marc Chagall designed most of the current windows in the late 1970’s.

The windows show love stories of all kinds: Colorful people and angels float in a sea of blue glass. In light of the Holocaust, I was especially touched by the window of Abraham pleading with three angels to spare Sodom and Gomorrah.

“The windows in the church of St. Stephen were intended by the artist as a token of friendship between France and Germany, a pledge of international understanding and of the peace which we all need so badly.”

–Klaus Mayer [Genoveva Nitz, translator]. St. Stephan in Mainz, 8th rev. English edition. Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Schnell & Steiner GmbH Regensburg, 2015.

Marc Chagall was 91 years old when he designed the first windows. But when he was 98, he created several more and gave them to the church as a gift. He died a few months later. That’s a life full of art and faith, generosity and forgiveness.

An awe-inspiring role model. I don’t think I would be strong enough to be this generous after the destruction and the grief of World War II. I hope this for us all: that we find many ways to reach out in friendship, while it’s still easy.

Have you used your skills or talents to bring people together in friendship? Was it a special cake or meal? A painting or an ice sculpture? A story or poem? A replacement water pump? I’d love to hear about it.

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7 Reasons Why “There’s not a moment to be lost”

Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel, MASTER AND COMMANDER, is an action-packed story about the friendship between two very different men.

Jack Aubrey is an ambitious Captain in the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin is the ship’s physician and a devoted naturalist.

Stephen’s nirvana is anteaters, platypuses, or a rare liana. He’s always longing for a few days to explore an exotic shore.

But, the tide turns, the wind comes up, and Jack tells him: “There is not a moment to be lost.” Stephen looks longingly at shore, but he’s swept away to the opposite side of the ocean. Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity disappears over the horizon.

Sometimes the wind fails. The two friends retreat to Jack’s cabin and play duets on their violin and cello until the doldrums are over.

A few years ago, I crossed the ocean—by plane—to visit the British Library. The many floors of the open stacks are filled with books, white like Oreo filling, and just as delicious.

The Sir John Ritbalt Gallery houses the Treasures of the British Library.

I saw Jane Austen’s lap desk and her steady, even handwriting; Shakespeare’s scripts, written without any flourishes; Thomas Hardy’s revisions, and Handel’s closely-written music scores. You can scroll through some of them here.

What did all of these writers and composers have in common? Their handwriting was small, even, and consistent, as if they were sawing wood, driving across Nebraska, or crossing the ocean in a 19th century frigate.

  1. The creative journey is long. You can’t dawdle or rush. You have to pace yourself.

But all this industry, this dedicated effort, makes you wonder why anyone would work this hard to make something no one wanted, yet. Sheer stubbornness?

Back to the library for answers.

Jane Austen folded her manuscripts in quarters so she could tuck away her work if disturbed while working. I don’t think it was shyness or insecurity, because the Gallery’s folded manuscript is PERSUASION: Austen’s last novel, not her first. Outside help is dangerous until the story finds its shape.

2. Before an imagined story is fixed on the page, it is indescribably fragile.

But that still doesn’t answer why people do these things. What makes the pursuit worth it?

Jason Fried’s REWORK says inspiration is perishable. If we don’t capture what we see, embark on the adventure, plant the garden, or record the music, it will disappear behind the horizon.

Snowflake Bentley explains why he kept making photographs of snowflakes: “I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.”

3. The payoff is when beauty takes us out of ourselves.

This is why using your imagination is so addictive. It’s restful and exhausting. It uses everything we have and immerses us completely in the other.

The common question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” is really asking

“How do you get beauty to visit you?”

There are two answers:

4. Inspiration is everywhere. Those things you recognize, that give you shocks or thrills or chills, that’s your beauty.

In CROSSING UNMARKED SNOW, William Stafford writes:
And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are
why you are in the world.

5. I have no idea–but be ready. Always carry a pen and paper.

Inspiration isn’t under our control. Ringo Starr must have been struck unexpectedly, because he wrote the lyrics to “It’s been a hard day’s night” on the back of his son’s 1st birthday card.

6. We bear witness by our continued efforts that there is something worth seeing.

Handel’s manuscript book is full from edge to edge. He worked steadily until he created THE MESSIAH. Snowflake Bentley went out in every snowstorm. Jane Austen’s quartos must have been convenient for whipping out work when she had unexpected moments to write.

If we want treasures collected in the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, we have to DO THE WORK.

Persistence and steady labor work well. Until the day comes when the muse gives you something much better than you are capable of. Just because the muse visits you once, doesn’t mean she’s coming back.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, the muse isn’t under your control and you’re not to blame if it goes away again.

7. Sometimes the wind fails. Once you do your best work, you have a choice: stop working or start as a beginner all over again.

We make art and seek discoveries in the world around us out of a desire to be moved out of ourselves and a desire to share what we are with others. A story about a friendship between very different people, like Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey, can be the seed of many friendships. A story is a created experience, but it’s also a question: “Can you see it?”

Beauty is as ephemeral as life. We need our whole lives to find our way through or around the obstacles that separate us.

What we make is imperfect, but we have a chance at butterflies and lightning bolts. Keep your nets open. Keep your pen moving. Capture the snowflakes.

As Captain Aubrey says: “There is not a moment to be lost.”

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Exploring the Imagination: Fictional Characters From Art Museums

Brochure for Zurbaran exhibit showing painting of woman in red, brocade, dress, long black hair, ivory face and a scratch that symbolizes a halo.
Art museums are treasure troves for fleshing out characters. This beautiful painting inspired a queen antagonist character in my latest work-in-progress.

See the trailer for the exhibit here:

The stunning poster drew me in for the latest exhibit in Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast. It’s called “Zurbarán: Meister der Details” [Master of Details] and features 16th-century full-size portraits by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

My first reaction to the poster was: “There she is!” She is the queen antagonist for my new middle grade work-in-progress.

The extreme contrast of ivory skin and long, black hair, the 397 pearls on the hem of her gown, and the intensity of her eyes, almost scornful–certainly assessing–give the sense that you’ve caught her attention and it may not be to your advantage.

She’s caught up her brocade gown with one, white, elegant, hand and is ready to move. She’s only paused to run her eye over you.

Only after I went into the exhibit did I realize that the tiny flaw in the canvas above her head is actually a halo. The painting’s subject is St. Casilda, not an evil queen at all.

If I borrow his St. Casilda and embroider a character for my latest middle grade adventure, I’m only following his example. The rich gown is an invention of the painter, the son of a cloth merchant, who invented the elegant fashions of his subjects based on his father’s cloth samples.

There are advantages to drawing characters from a master. The artist works in a visual medium and the character traits that are words to me, are the artist’s details of dress, expression, and gesture. The artist paints a mood with colors and light and, through his painting, I can borrow his eyes to sketch a vivid character.

If you’d like to try it yourself, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Cast an eye over the museum guards and visitors. Anyone who thinks there’s no romance to a museum guard hasn’t read FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (or seen Audrey Hepburn in HOW TO STEAL A MILLION). What visitors say and do in museums tells another set of stories. Sometimes I catch a moment of conscious or unconscious mimicry or hear a wonderful snippet of dialogue that helps my story along.

2. If your museum doesn’t have portraits, try a more literal use of a painting. In C.S. Lewis’s THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, a painting of a Narnian ship turns into a portal to the imaginary world of Narnia.

3. Prep a character or two before your museum visit. The Reverse Backstory Tool is an efficient tool for working out the connection between your character’s want, need, flaw, and wound. The “Reverse Backstory Tool” appears in Appendix B of THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS by Angela Acker and Becca Puglisi. The tool is handy to prep before your museum visit or to develop characters who’ve caught your eye in the museum.

Art museums are a treasure trove for characters. The artists have done all the work of people-watching and the paintings already express personalities and stories. It’s all ready-to-pick, so go ahead and fill the well.

Do you find art museums inspiring? What do you enjoy about them?


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