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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6 ways rhythm helps us feel at home in a new world

2-day-old foal standing next to mare cropping grass in a green meadow.
New neighbor in our world. This 2-day-old foal is getting used to day and night, rain and sun, traffic and kids on bikes. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

On the weekend, I practiced a new skill and had a sudden aha! moment about learning to adapt to a new culture by finding the beat.

(1) Every culture has its own heartbeat. When I lived in West Africa for a year, the people next door talked all day every day. There are many languages in Ghana and I never learned the one(s) they spoke. I couldn’t tell if they were talking or shouting, angry or excited. But after a year of living near them, the rhythm of their voices told me when something unusual was going on.

(2) The beat keeps going. When I took my youngest to music class as a baby, the teacher taught us to pat the baby gently in rhythm to teach to idea that music is continuous. It doesn’t stop in the middle to do something else. It keeps going because music has a heartbeat like our own. When you’re trying to learn to join in the music, it’s stressful when you can’t find your place. There’s a feeling of jump rope game that’s going on without you because you don’t know how or when to jump in.

(3) Drinking coffee has its own rhythm. It’s not always the Gemütlichkeit of Kaffeetrinken in Germany or Austria where people sit down together and have a piece of cake with their coffee. Knowing “how” people drink coffee can make you feel at home.

In Sicily, people stand up at the counter together and knock back an espresso before heading out to do the things that need to be done.

A German friend who’d spent many years in the U.S. theorized just yesterday that Americans love their coffee to-go because American culture encourages busy-ness. Sitting outside in a café where everyone can see you can get you a “slacker” label. Hence few outside cafés. But she also mentioned the beloved bookstore cafés (and libraries!) where you can drink coffee and read.

(4) Every journey has a song. The rhythm I noticed for the first time this weekend was on the drive back from my in-laws’ house. We’ve used our GPS unit to find our way through the bewildering combination of highways, single lane country roads with two-way traffic (with cows), villages with traffic-calming and traffic circles to my in-laws’ house. This trip, I realized how much I need to practice this “song” until I recognize the rhythm. Looking at a map would definitely help me.

(5) Time to process. When we alternate between moving and resting, we’re much happier and less stressed when we come home. Writing a few postcards in a café or taking time to photograph something carefully helps us to process.

(6) Remember your own culture in this international world. I once invited two young West African friends for a big Sunday dinner and they arrived unable to eat. They had visited the American church in Bonn where Thanksgiving was celebrated as a huge potluck. They had eaten all they could already. I had forgotten about Thanksgiving because it’s not a German holiday!

We start to feel at home when the rhythm is familiar. It’s much easier to do things when we’re in sync. Picture books and songs with catchy meters stick in our minds. When we feel the beat, we can play instruments together in an orchestra or sing different parts in a choir. We can be ourselves and still participate in the group.

Questions for you: What have you noticed about the rhythm of your life? What happens when we internalize other peoples’ rhythms? Or if we make our own easy to follow?

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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.