Sunday, 23 August 2015

Writing With Feeling – Where is the Emotion?

I’m sure you’ve read books that, without quite knowing how it was done, brought memories, feelings and emotions you didn’t even know you had up to the surface to flood through you.  Books you’ve laughed with, cried with and even screamed in terror with.

They are not always the obvious books; the romantic weepy, the slasher horror story or the slapstick comedy.  They can be books about ordinary lives and the kind of people we might know. People going about their business; experiencing their daily small hurts and triumphs.

Written by authors who can make their words dance in a way that speaks straight to our hearts.
The best books let us learn something about ourselves. They illuminate parts of us we might not really want to look at; allow us to feel stuff, revisit old hurts and wounds safely in the world set out between the pages.  The tears we cry for our fictional friends are just as cathartic, the joys we share with them just as uplifting as those we feel for ourselves.  With books like these, when you turn the last page it’s like leaving home and saying goodbye.

So as writers how do we go about putting the emotion back into our writing?

I have to confess I am at the very beginning of this journey, so all I can do is share the thoughts and insights I have had and what brought me to the realisation that my writing needed more feeling, more raw life and a bit of true grit.

Writing the Aten Sequence books is fun.  It is a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek romp through science fantasy and Ancient Egypt.  So far the characters have faced some challenges, been in a bit of danger and had their petty disputes, but there’s been nothing too heavy. And let’s face it, there’s not a shred of evidence that our protagonist Aten even has a heart, let alone knows how to use it.

In the third book, which I’m currently revising and editing, this all changes.  Something happens which will have a major impact on the major characters; they will experience loss, suffer grief, regret and guilt.

Yet when I went through the chapter that would change everything for them and, hopefully the reader, it read with all the emotion of a recipe posted on a cooking blog.

The words are there, the facts are there; everything the reader needs to know about what happens and move the story along is there.  But the feeling isn’t there.  It’s as emotionally flat as a pancake!
So what have I done to help put the emotion into my writing?

 Exposure – as authors we might think we are writing solely for the benefit of our readers, but I believe the most talented authors know that they have to put themselves into their work.  They have to expose themselves.  Show who they are through the actions, feelings and thoughts of their characters.

Exposure is scary; letting people see who we really are and be honest about our feelings is hard for a lot of us.  But the only emotions we have access to are our own, so we need to use them when we are creating our characters and putting words into their mouths.  Especially, the darker, pettier, less glorious traits we possess. 

Exposure makes us feel vulnerable, but as an author I feel you have to accept you will feel a degree of vulnerability every time you send a manuscript out, every time you read your story out loud to an audience or ask a friend to critique it.  Letting myself feel vulnerable like this has been a hard one for me, as I used to hate anyone reading my writing.  But I’m having to work to get over it, or all I’ll ever have to show for my effort is a few yellowing manuscripts at the back of a drawer.

Practice – like everything you want to be good at, writing is about practice.  Just as nobody gets to be good at tennis by sitting on the sofa watching TV, your writing won’t improve unless you write.  Most experts recommend that if you are serious about your craft then you need to have the discipline to write every day.  To set aside some time and write, even if you only produce a couple of lines in the time allotted.

Intention – if, like me, you don’t think you are getting your readers to feel the range and depth of reaction and emotion you would like to call from them; take time and pay more attention to the words you choose and how you use them.  I tend to like to gallop on with the story, so miss opportunities to draw the reader in and give them the space to experience it all – to feel whatever it brings up for them.

It is also tempting to tell our readers what they should be thinking or feeling.  Avoid being too explicit with what your characters are experiencing.  The old ‘show not tell’ is just as pertinent when it come to emotion and allows the reader to create their own interpretation, come to their own conclusions.   If you tell your readers your hero Joe is heartbroken because his girlfriend left him, it is not likely to grip their imagination as much as if you painted a picture of his grief and sense of loss through his actions and dialogue.

So, taking my own advice on board, this week I have been practising!  I have been writing poetry, which is very unusual for me – love poetry no less!  It might not be very good poetry and probably wouldn’t win any competitions, but the aim was to write emotionally, to expose feelings, pain and hurt.

As an author you can never really know if you have achieved that; only a reader can tell you if you touched them with your words. It may take hundreds of thousands of these words to get it right, but if you are serious about being a writer you will keep on trying and will never give up.

 I Wish I Knew

Ribbons of thought unwind
Round kisses, words and time
When lying warm and drowsy
Sun creeping across your bed
Was all the paradise I needed
To banish the doubts from my head

From the night I first saw you
The casual glance you threw my way
When I saw in a stranger
A man to steal my heart away
The heart I left unguarded
A trust for which I’d have to pay

Didn’t know shadows could lengthen
Thought the sun would stay
Believed that in that patch of golden light
My dragons you would slay
So when I smiled and reached for you
I didn’t see you’d slipped away

For though your body lay warm beside me
In your head you’d gone
Galloped to a distant country
Where another conquest you won
I wish I’d seen, I wish I knew
That all I was, was the past to you

That even as you loved my body
My face you did not see
Patterns on the wallpaper more interesting than me
 I was a port of call, a pit stop along the way
A place to fuel and rest awhile
Till other interests lit your day

I tried to stay, I tried to pretend
Things had never changed
That the words you said still rang true; believed them all the same
But knowledge is a dangerous thing, so when I saw you smile
And look across the crowded room to catch a brand new gaze
I could hide no longer; from Eden turned away

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