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.

Puzzling.

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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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I recommend a new middle grade book, and share story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

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An Aha! Moment via Joanna Penn: Publishing vs. Marketing

Joanna Penn is so smiley and enthusiastic and knowledgeable that she always gets me inspired. This webinar was no different.

Got a sudden insight from Joanna Penn’s webinar on goals for the new year (2017):
Marketing is what you do to SELL a book.
Packaging, editing, and categorizing are what you do to PUBLISH a book.

This is almost guaranteed to be obvious to everyone else. Why was this such an eyeopener for me? Once I saw the difference, I could break down the process into smaller tasks.

A few years in the query trenches makes the difference between writing and publishing crystal clear. My idea of publishing was fuzzy: it included everything from literary agents and editors to book reviews and book signings.

Marketing decides who the likeliest readers are and sets out to win them over. When you pick out comp titles for your book, you are choosing an audience with particular tastes.

Publishing MAKES the packaging (including some baked-in marketing):

  • edits the story
  • chooses the right categories and keywords.
  • writes a book description that ticks all the right notes.
  • designs a book cover that appeals to readers and matches what your story delivers.
  • chooses formats (audio, e-book, print) and distributors that reach the story’s audience.
  • tinkers with packaging later on if the book doesn’t find its audience

Marketing USES the packaging to attract readers with:

  • book reviews
  • ads and promotions
  • blog tours
  • social media
  • sales and offers

Rachel Aaron has a fascinating, detailed post on which marketing techniques work.

So now that we’ve gotten the difference between Writing, Publishing, and Marketing straight, we can go back to writing the next book. 😉 Because that’s the strongest Marketing* technique of all.

*If you want your work to be clear cut, take up something heroic, like logging with drafthorses.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I recommend a new middle grade book, and share story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

Hero at the Bus Stop

Bronze of hero Garibaldi on horseback.
Who are the everyday heroes in your neighborhood? Image: Garibaldi on horseback. Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

This year, my husband gave me a Page-a-Day calendar to learn Italian. Today’s page was a dialogue between two men at a bus stop, getting ready to go to work. One said his boss was nicer than his colleagues. The other said his colleagues were nicer than his boss. [*cough* We’re learning vocabulary here. Cut us some storytelling slack.]

My youngest went off to a new job today and I went along for the new, complicated, commute. At one bus stop, there was a woman dressed in lots of black fabric pushing a stroller with one little boy and holding another boy’s hand. They spoke a dialect I didn’t understand and the hand-holding boy was moaning. Tears were running down his face.

The littler boy in the stroller contorted himself to look up at the woman and got her to agree to something, reluctantly. He pushed the release button on the shoulder straps and jumped up out of the stroller.

He went all the way around in a way that made me–and his mother, who reached after him with her free hand–think he was going to end up in the street. But it wasn’t a ploy for freedom. He came up behind his moaning brother, smiled, and touched him on the shoulder.

The mother helped the bigger boy into the stroller and fastened the straps. The boy’s head still turned from side to side, and he was still moaning, but the tears stopped.

That’s when I realized the younger boy had given up his spot in the stroller for him. He seemed much too young to show such thoughtful and active compassion.

He gave me hope for the future. A person who can smile and help someone else will be an excellent colleague or boss.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I recommend a new middle grade book, and share story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Limit Yourself

White trails from planes in the evening sky over black tree silhouettes
Airplanes making EtchASketch patterns in the sky. © Laurel Decher, 2016

A blank EtchASketch makes it pretty clear that I’ll be doodling around in squares because the drawing dot only moves in four directions, each at right angles to the other.

National Novel Writing Month is about throwing off the limits that keep us from creating. (If you’ve just finished 50K, congratulations!! Well done!! May I respectfully suggest you do this and save yourself ten years of re-writing?)

But it’s not the only option. You can also choose a form that’s so restrictive it gives you something to push against. The most powerful stories I know are about people overcoming their own “limitations.”

What if you had to choose only one thing to make? What would it be? What if you were only allowed to give one gift?

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Preparing for NaNoWriMo? Thrive with Step 5: Plan now to chill

Table with awls, scissors, weights, thread and paper to stitch together a booklet.
Stitching up the middle. Bookbinding workshop at the Frankfurt Book Fair. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the fifth post in a short series on preparing for (and thriving during) National Novel Writing Month. The first post collects story ingredients here , the second finds the core of your story here , the third cuts the story up into manageable portion sizes here, and the fourth clarifies the story soup here. Happy Writing!

We’re half-way through November. How’s the middle of your story going for you?

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I went to a bookbinding workshop for kids sponsored by Colonia Leather and the second year students of Frankfurt’s Gutenbergschule. The students taught us how to do a double figure-eight stitch for the binding. You start in the middle and work your way around. Make sure you tie the final knot on top of the thread so the knot doesn’t pull through the hole.

Doesn’t this look suspiciously like turning points in a character arc or the novelist’s determined pursuit of a live story? When we draft, we keep on finding places to come back to earlier scenes, characters, and details in the story.

Diagram of double figure eight stitch for five-hole binding.
Bring the threaded needle up through the center hole and follow the arrows around to create the binding. Making a book involves lots of twists and turns. Let it settle. © Laurel Decher, 2016

Nice metaphor, you say, (because you’re polite) but I’m a little busy writing a novel.

Have you ever thought of what you really wanted to say after the meeting? Or after you hit send?

From deep in the story, it’s hard to see. When you set a story aside, your subconscious finishes drawing it while you take the rest of your mind somewhere else for a while.

Plan now to chill your #nanowrimo story for three months. After NaNo, your well of words will be low or even dry. Mark your calendar for February 28th, 2016 or 3 months from the day you finish drafting. Back up your file. 🙂

Fill yourself up for three months with all the love, celebration, books, hikes, music, and activism you can find. Make some new shoeboxes for the next project. Pretend the meeting’s over and the e-mail’s sent. Act heartless.

Because a story is like a rubber band. If you keep stretching it, it either breaks or loses its shape. But you if you let it go: It flies.

Happy Writing!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Thrive during NaNoWriMo. Step 4: Story Soup

Lentil soup with a slice of hot dog that looks like a smiley face with a mustard smile and two lentil eyes.
You can turn your story soup into comfort food. © Laurel Decher, 2016

This is the fourth post in a short series on preparing for (and thriving during) National Novel Writing Month. You can find the first post about collecting ingredients here and the second post about finding the core of your story here and the third post about cutting the story up into manageable portion sizes here. Happy Writing!

It’s Day 7 of National Novel Writing Month and by now your story might be turning into a confusing soup.

No worries. Set aside today’s freshly whipped up words and let’s check the “recipe.”

The recipe a.k.a. “The Hollywood Formula.”

Writing Excuses comes to our rescue with “The Hollywood Formula.” Listen to the 20 minute episode here while you do lifesaving work like hanging up laundry or cooking something for dinner.

Then make up some answers to these questions* about your story:

  • Who’s the hero or heroine in your story?
  • What does s/he want?

If you need help with either of these questions, I recommend the Reverse Backstory Tool. It’s like an engine for your story. You can also try asking: Who’s the absolute worst person to handle this situation?

  • Who’s the antagonist?

The antagonist is defined as the person who STOPS the hero/heroine. This seems really obvious, but it’s very easy to pick the wrong person as the antagonist *cough* and then wonder why you’re story isn’t moving.

  • What’s the (simplest) theme? What’s your story about?

Love? Hope? Immigration? The challenges of everyday life? Whatever it is will help you brainstorm more scene ideas that actually have something to do with the rest of the story. If you get something you like, write it down and steer your story by it.

*You’ll notice these questions are awfully similar to “A Pinch of Story Structure.” When you write a novel, there’s no shame in asking the same questions over again. 🙂 As the story grows, the answers sort themselves out: Trust the draft.

Don’t fuss. It’s time for broad strokes. “Hit it and get out” is the order of the day. You’ve got more words to write.

You’re a writer.

Happy writing!

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

 

 

 

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Preparing for NaNoWriMo? Step 3: Cutting your story into squares

1000-year-old brick paving in a herringbone pattern.
If you can’t see which way your story is pointing, maybe you need some building blocks. Byzantine brick paving. Ravenna, Italy. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the third post in a short series on preparing for National Novel Writing Month. You can find the first post about collecting ingredients here and the second post about finding the core of your story here. Happy Writing!

Dan Wells’ 7 Point Structure video lectures are helping me so much that I’m squeezing in an extra blog post to help writers getting ready for National Novel Writing Month. Dan’s five lectures are only ten minutes each and well worth watching. If you watch them first, this post will probably make more sense.

Or feel free to get a taste of why I got excited about these videos by reading my post first. NaNoWriMo season is all about finding out whatever works for your writing process. Take your time playing with this. A little bit here and there is perfect. Enjoy!

Step 0: Optional. Markers and real index cards work too. I’ve got a little present for you: A plotting template. Yay! Read the files in Word or import them into Scrivener for future use (see bottom of post for how to). Download the files from Dropbox here.

Note: You don’t need a Dropbox account. Just click on the tiny blue print that says “No thanks” and Dropbox will give you the files.

Step 1: Import or type up the 7 Point Structure in Scrivener or in your software of choice. A simple table will work fine. The numbers on each card are the order Dan uses in the video to figure out the plot points. The letters on each card are the order the plot points occur in the story. I typed up his tips on each card to help myself through the process.

How to use the index cards: Start with the ending of the story (RESOLUTION). The RESOLUTION isn’t the wrap-up here, it’s the thrilling final victory or defeat.

The opposite of the RESOLUTION is the beginning (HOOK). The MIDPOINT is the half-way point in the story between the HOOK and the RESOLUTION. After that, it’s a repeated cutting the story in half, like cutting brownies in a pan.

7 index cards on corkboard background.
Scrivener Index Cards for the 7 Point Structure described by Dan Wells.

Congratulations! Now you have an overall shape for your story. That will help a lot during NaNoWriMo, even if it changes while you write. If you’re anything like me, it will. Feel free to stop here. Letting your story grow in your subconscious makes it much easier to get the words later on.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-12-19-52-pm
7 Point Structure Index Cards going down the page with 4 Story Threads going across: CHARACTER, ACTION, FRIENDSHIP, BETRAYAL. Based on Dan Wells’ video series.

Step 2: If you’ve got more story ideas that need a home, you can repeat the process above for each story thread. Dan Wells’ video uses CHARACTER, ACTION, FRIENDSHIP, BETRAYAL. (I changed the ROMANCE category to FRIENDSHIP because I write Middle Grade.) I put a few key words under each thread to jog my memory. It’s easier to do this across all the threads, i.e. the RESOLUTION for each thread, followed by the HOOK.

Cut and paste the different threads from your overarching 7 Point Index Cards and add more where you need it. Remember that all the HOOKs don’t have to happen simultaneously.

Be gentle with yourself. If you’ve got blank spaces or you can’t figure it all out at once, go away and come back later. You’ve got a whole month to play with this. Joy is key.

Step 3: If November still hasn’t arrived (or if it has and you’re taking a break from the words), you can sort your index cards into chronological order. Now you have a handy scene list to write from. Since 7 x 4 is 28 :), you now have an index card for each day in NaNoWriMo. And two “free days” for catching up. Well done!

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-12-21-32-pm
Index Cards for 7 Point Structure sorted into chronological story order.

Step 4: Try/Fail Cycles for Extra credit. Dan Wells talked about the power of Try/Fail Cycles. Add some to the middle of your story, right around the PLOT TURN 2, and get your readers to cheer for your characters.

If you’ve got fifteen minutes, listen to Writing Excuses’ great tips for how to succeed at Try/Fail Cycles.

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-12-21-50-pm
Pump up the middle of your story with Try/Fail Cycles and get your readers cheering for your characters.

How did it go? Did you try Dan Wells’ 7 Point Story Structure? Do you have a good feeling for your story now?

Happy writing!

Download the templates files from Dropbox here. The Template Sheets folder in Scrivener is inside your current project. Drag the files into the folder and they magically become Template sheets. Look down at the bottom of the Binder and you should see something like this:

Screen shot of Template Sheets folder in Scrivener's Binder showing location right above Trash.
Screen shot of Template Sheets folder in Scrivener’s Binder showing location right above Trash.

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If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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