There are a lot of books that will teach you how to write fiction. And the best ones not only address the craft of storytelling but the issues beneath the story’s surface. A main character’s wound, the overarching theme, internal versus external conflicts. But the key to a really compelling novel is expression emotion in fiction. And that’s the hardest piece to put on the page.
The Trickiness of Putting Emotion on the Page
The reason it’s so difficult is because if you just flat out say what the character is feeling, it doesn’t seem earned. The reader may not respond. If you show it, the reader will respond viscerally. And if you can show it with complexity, the reader will be the character’s ally throughout the story. A while back, I wrote about how Neil Gaiman does this in his novel Neverwhere.
A Deep Book on an Even Deeper Subject
The best book I’ve come across for delving into the art of creating emotion in fiction is Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maas, an experienced literary agent, felt he was experiencing too little emotion in too many manuscripts. He discovered the vital missing piece of these manuscripts was not great prose or an engaging world or lots of action. It was simply an inability to make the reader feel. So in his book, he set out to articulate some solutions.
In it, he explores the inner versus outer strategy or really telling versus showing. Showing, no surprise, is more powerful but telling in a clever way can be powerful too. He discusses the emotional world, how to create a world where a character’s deep sense of self is reflected in what they see and do and how they respond. It’s a complex subject but one worth pondering.
He also discusses the importance of examining not only your main character’s outer journey (plot) but their inner journey (emotional change). And he devotes a considerable amount of time on nailing an emotional opening, midpoint, and cathartic change to your character. It’s complicated and intense. I read that section more than once.
Too Into the Weeds to Be Useful?
Later, when he gets into issues of a reader’s journey and an author’s journey, I felt the book delved too far into the weeds for me. It’s already so difficult to write a compelling novel without thinking about what a reader may experience from moment to moment. Or the unconscious signals you may be sending to readers via character choices or world building. Worrying about it all in the end can be overwhelming.
An Effort to Help Writers
But I don’t think Maas wrote the book to confuse and overwhelm writers. He wrote it to help. In fact, the questions he asks at the end of each section are the most useful I’ve ever seen. They prompt exercises that will produce amazing results. I can attest to that. I took Maass’s three-day workshop on this topic and I’ve never dug so deep into my mind about my imaginary world. He truly knows how to prompt creators to think outside of the box, how to rewire brains to bring forth some serious work of the subconscious.
But if you don’t have the money for that workshop, I recommend doing as many of the exercises in this book as you can. What you discover will change you and most certainly change your fiction for the better.
I’m not really a New Year’s resolution kind of person. I try to keep little resolutions throughout the year like exercising every day and not spending too much time on social media. But in reviewing my 2018 year, I realized I did have one resolution: to change my intention. It wasn’t anything big but, like a weird kind of magic, it changed my writing career.
A Year’s Journey
I started out 2018 realizing that though I was a writer, I didn’t have a book to offer readers, I didn’t have a product. I had enough short pieces published but those lived on other websites and in journals and anthologies. I also had a gardening blog but that was full of how-to articles. They didn’t feature the one thing I was aiming to share with the world: my ability to entertain.
So, I shifted into a new gear. I put my writing more front and center and myself truly out in the world. For years, I’d been quietly writing and editing and submitting to agents. But in 2018, I decided to publicly declare myself an author and publish a book, whether with a press or by myself. I created a plan and jumped into the game.
I spent the better part of spring writing Song of the Tree Hollow. By summer, I furloughed my gardening website and focused on creating a site that featured my writing. I researched branding and hired an author coach. I educated myself about marketing and created a strategy for growing my readership.
In fall, I edited Song of the Tree Hollow and published it with KDP. As I mentioned earlier, I priced it low, hoping to attract readers. I did giveaways and promotions. By mid-December, I had a healthy amount of downloads. Things were buzzing along. I was satisfied. I finally had a book to offer readers.
Then something happened that I didn’t expect. Throughout 2018, I’d continued querying my longer, more polished novel, The Forgetting Flower, to agents and small presses. All to rejection. But in November, I received an offer from a small press to publish it.
Intention or Hard Work?
It was such a surprise. I had the strangest feeling in my gut, as if as soon as I’d decided to truly reveal who I was and what I could do in the world, I received a response. What?!
I can’t prove that my 2018 intention of jumping into a more public game aided me in getting a book contract, but it made me happy to follow through on a plan. It was as if once I’d decided to truly go for it, with or without the universe’s help, the universe then helped! Weirdly magical.
Now, in early 2019, I have a new intention: to make The Forgetting Flower the highest quality and most successful novel it can be.
Do you feel rumblings to change your intentions? I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts as we go into 2019. Tell me in the comments below.