Tag Archives: improving your novel

Bleeding Out: Transmitting Raw Emotions onto the Page

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Emotions are an extremely important part of writing well. In real life, they connect people to each other. In literature, they connect readers to the characters. Without emotions, people wouldn’t be able to feel a story, and if they can’t feel a story, then they can’t relate to it.

Think about some of your favorite stories. How did they make you feel? In all of my favorite books, I’ve felt like I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster. I was able to experience every emotion the protagonist did, whether that was fear, anticipation, excitement, panic, dread, or love.

Our brains are wired to process other peoples’ emotions. When a friend loses someone they love, we feel that loss. When a person yawns, we yawn. When we read an article about a deceased soldier being flown home, or a lion being injured, hunted, and then killed, we experience sadness or anger, perhaps both.

When we are able to put raw emotions onto the page, readers are able to sympathize. Our emotions resonate with them.

But transferring raw emotions into our writing isn’t easy – it’s exhausting – so how can we do it effectively?

  1. We have to feel. Putting up a wall between us and our characters will only harm our writing. If we distance ourselves from our story, readers will know. They’ll be able to feel it through our words. So, imagine scenes as if you were there. Sit back and close your eyes and picture yourself in your characters’ shoes. What does each character see, smell, hear, touch, taste, and feel? Once you can clearly picture and feel a scene, then we’ll be able to write it down in a way that readers will be able to fully experience it.

An author friend of mine has gotten so sucked into her own writing before that she sometimes finds herself crying because her characters are heartbroken, or her heart is pounding and she’s sweating because her characters are filled with apprehension and fear.

  1. Show instead of tell. In some of the workshops I’ve been in, one of the most common critiques is that writers are telling a story rather than showing it. They’ll say that a character feels angry rather than showing anger. For example, “Sally is filled with anger when she sees Rex with his new girlfriend,” rather than, “After spotting Rex with his new girlfriend, Sally rushes out of the party, and when she gets home, she grabs the nearest kitchen chair and hurls it across the room.”

Showing emotion has a much stronger impact than telling it. This is because showing keeps readers immersed in the story. They are in “feeling” mode rather than “thinking” mode. If you say a character is sad, then the reader has to think of sad memories in order to experience the emotion. But, if you show sadness, instead of naming it, then the character will automatically feel the emotion.

Also, by showing emotion, readers connect with the characters, and will want to continue reading. Often when emotions are stated, readers don’t care about what happens because they haven’t bonded with the characters.

It’s not easy to let raw emotions out. It means having to dig inside ourselves to find those emotions, but it will be worth it because then our stories will successfully carry emotion.

As Ernest Hemingway says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

How do you go about bleeding on the page?

(Photo courtesy of SeRGioSVoX.)

Getting a Leg Up: Improving Your Chances of Getting Published

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I’m always searching for ways to improve my chances of getting published. No matter what avenue you pursue getting published is a challenge. Many times it seems more about luck than talent or perseverance, though without staying power the chances of getting published are reduced to zero.

I’ve joined a critique group, taken creative writing classes, read several creative writing books, analyzed commercially successful novels, and am now working toward a Masters in Fiction Writing. All of this done in an effort to polish my work into a piece of writing an agent and then an editor will take on.

wanted lit agentBut even as I do all of this I know my chances are still slim. And before I go off on a bunny trail and start talking about how many poorly written novels end up being bestsellers (readability is one of the most important aspects of successful commercial fiction, not literary finesse), I would love to know what others are doing to improve their chances of getting published.

Currently, there’s the debate of whether or not to pursue an MFA (Masters in Fine Arts) in creative writing. Thousands of people apply each year to get into this program, while each year thousands snub the program. Real fast: an MFA is a terminal graduate degree, usually taking two to three years to complete, that offers students the opportunity to focus on their writing and grow as writers. Students participate in traditional style classes and workshops, where they read and critique other students’ work and where their work is read and critiqued.

One of the best attributes of the MFA is the opportunity to have your work read and critiqued. The program provides you with a community of writers that will give honest and thorough feedback on your writing. Sometimes when you have family or friends read your work, they’ll want to be encouraging, and so will be afraid of truly critiquing your novel. When you’re in a workshop setting, that is not the case. You will get straightforward and truthful feedback, whether you want to hear it or not.

An MFA program also teaches you to read with a critical eye. As I’ve delved deeper into the literary world, I’ve noticed my reading style changing. Whereas I used to read solely for pleasure, now I automatically dissect technique and literary elements within any work of fiction I read. On one hand this is great because I come away with a better understanding of the work I just read. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy books as much as I used to because I can better pick out the inconsistencies, plot holes, flat characters, etc. Though in order to improve as a writer, you have to learn what to avoid when writing, and one of the best ways to learn that is to become a critical reader.

As with all programs, there are downsides to the MFA. One, there’s the cost. Very few programs cover expenses. Most will cost students anywhere from $30,000 to $65,000. That’s a lot of money for a degree that provides little opportunity in the professional world!

There are no guarantees that you’ll get published. You’ll spend thousands of dollars and years of your life focusing on improving your work, and nothing may come of it. One of the most common pieces of advice writers hear is to not quit their day job.

Also, an MFA tends to be literary. If your focus is commercial, it’ll be challenging to get accepted into such a program. The literary world tends to snub the commercial world, while the commercial world doesn’t care all that much for the literary one. As stated earlier, one of the biggest proponents of having a commercially successful novel is readability. I’ve read many novels where the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, where the plot is nothing new, and where the writing is average at best, but I’ve come away liking the books because of their readability. (Literary fiction usually doesn’t promote readability to the extent of well-crafted writing.)writer

In the end, what you choose to do to improve your writing will be based on personal preferences, what you can afford, and what other successful writers in your genre have done.

I’m happy with my decision to work toward a Masters in Fiction Writing part time (this is different from an MFA) because it gave me a group of writers and professors – all published – who provide me with feedback for my work and gave me a group of people who understand what it’s like to pursue writing seriously and who know how difficult it is to be successful in the literary world.

No matter what it’s important to read and read widely. Reading books in your genre is vital, but so is reading books outside your genre. Join a critique group, and in doing so be open to (1) putting in the work and (2) being open to criticism. (I recently learned of a critique group where everyone wants their work read and critiqued, but very few want to read and critique anyone else’s work. Reciprocate people!) And when your novel is finished, revise, revise, revise. If you’re not great at editing, consider hiring a professional editor (if you have the funds to do so). Attend writer’s conferences. Immerse yourself in the literary world.

A great article I’ve read recently about the MFA and whether it will give you a leg up in the publishing world is “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” It’s worth a look.

How do you improve your chances of getting published? What’s your stance on the MFA?

(Photos courtesy of The BookBaby Blog, The Graduate21, i am CAM Jr!)