The Saturday Writing Quote — the role of emotion

I’m reflecting this month on the role of emotion in art, primarily on the page. Not portraying characters in the midst of an emotional experience, or not just that, but creating an emotional experience for the reader.

My friend, Rachel “Rusti” Warner, a well-known tonalist painter who lives in our valley, often talks about emotion on the canvas, and quotes her teacher, painter and print-maker Russell Chatham. Art, he said, as opposed to a well-made picture, is able “to bring forth the tears.” Or as she puts it, it should communicate more than an excitement or response to the object.

And on the page, too. As my teacher, Don Maass, writes in The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2016), “Why is it important to look at fiction writing through the lens of emotional experience? Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings. You  may curate your characters’ experiences and put them on display, but the exhibit’s meaning is different in thousands of ways for thousands of different museum visitors, your readers. …

When readers feel strongly, their hearts are open. Your stories can not only reach them for a moment, but they can change them forever.”

Bitterroot Winter by Rachel Warner (2017), collection of the author

The Saturday Writing Quote — creating an emotional experience for readers

In mid-April, I spent a week in Hood River, Oregon attending the Breakout Novel Intensive Graduate Learning Retreat. What? you say. It’s a six-day intensive writing workshop lead by agent, teacher and novelist Don Maass. This version is aimed at students who have already attended the basic intensive — known as BONI; it’s smaller with more individualized instruction. When I attended BONI in April 2012, I had a 3-book contract for the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries. The first draft of book one was due August 1; I had about 60% of a first draft and was feeling pretty good about it. I went home and started over.

But that book, Death al Dente, won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. So, I’m a BONI fan, even though it took me longer than any of my classmates to come back. (Scheduling problems, mostly.)

Maass The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surfacetalks a lot about emotion on the page, but more significantly, about evoking emotion in the reader. His 2016 book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, gives writers practical insights and exercises for giving readers an emotional experience. So that’s my theme for May.

It starts, I think, with E.M. Forster’s dictate: “Only connect.”

Or as American novelist and short story writer Dan Chaon said in The Writer (June 2009), “You can’t tell people how to feel when they read your work. You can only hope to connect.”

But I think maybe you can do a little more than that, actually creating an experience. How? Stay tuned.

The Saturday Writing Quote: on regret

“No regrets? Really?” asks author Richard Power. “I have regrets. They are sacred to me. They inform my character. They bear witness to my evolution. Glimpses of lost love and treasure are held inside of them; like small beautiful creatures suspended in amber.”

In his Breakout Novel Intensive writing workshop, literary agent and teacher Don Maass works hard at getting writers to think about all aspects of character and how our characters’ emotions drive their action. One tool he uses is to ask students to think about a specific experience they’ve had of an emotion. “What do you regret?” he asks. Invariably, students say “Just one thing?” The same thing happened when I asked that question to students in a class I taught, which answers the question “Does every character need to have a regret?” quite nicely, doesn’t it?



BONI-HR — The Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop

Last week, I went to Hood River, Oregon, about 60 miles east of Portland where the Hood meets the Columbia, for the BreakOut Novel Intensive workshop.

“Intensive” is the operative word.

For a full week, I lived and breathed fiction writing. Thirty-two students from across the US and Canada met Monday evening, eager and a little nervous. We parted the next Sunday afternoon, tired, happy, and much, much more aware of what make stories succeed. Along with the dirty clothes in our bags, we took home tools and determination.

Did I mention it was intense?

BONI is sponsored by Free Expressions, a seminar and editing firm run by Lorin Oberweger. But the firepower comes from Don Maass, literary agent, writer, and teacher. Don teaches a three-hour class every morning and a couple of evenings. Lorin and Jason Sitzes teach an evening scene class. Every afternoon, we wrote, using exercises Don gave us in class. Each student has individual sessions with Don, Lorin, and three other instructors–and each offers something  different. Jason, for example, who also runs the Writers Retreat Workshop, spent half an hour brainstorming with me on how to redirect a couple of plot threads gone wrong.

The hotel–the very comfortable Hood River Inn–sits above the river, and a walking path leads to a nearby park and marina. It also leads into the village of Hood River, a delightful historic town revitalized in recent years by recreation–sailing, wind surfing, winery-hopping. The village has several fun wine bars, cute galleries, and boutiques. And tons of coffee shops and three bookstores. It is the northwest, after all.

So, what did we learn? Don’s books, The Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction, are crammed with great analysis, exercises, and examples. But the class brings them to life.

One assignment was to bring a flat scene to life using the techniques we’d learned that morning: focusing on the protagonist’s goals and what frustrates them by identifying and showing internal and external turning points, using externalization to show the protag’s emotions and stir things up, identifying the mood of the scene and shifting it, then showing the effect on her, and rewriting dialogue

It took me most of the afternoon to rewrite a 2-1/2 page scene into 2 pages, by adding about twelve lines.

Ok, math isn’t my strong suit.

But that was Friday, and I was also using techniques we’d studied earlier in the week in pursuit of my overarching goal of redefining Erin, my protagonist: rethinking every line, thought and image, asking “does that convey what I want?,” “is that still part of the story,” and “is it still true?”

Intense. And worth every minute. If you get the chance to go–no: make the chance. BONI is offered twice a year, in Hood River and Orlando. Lorin and her excellent crew also offer other workshops, with the amazing Mr. Maass and other instructors.

Go. Your stories will never be the same again.

Life without parole for young killers?

In real life and in fiction, young people commit serious crimes. In late March, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether juveniles–14 year-olds, in these two cases–can be sentenced to life without parole for murder. The SCOTUS blog–always a great source–provides a roundup of coverage and a detailed report on the arguments.

The cases ask whether a state should be able to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole on juveniles, e.g., those under 18 at the time of their crime. Should it be optional? Barred entirely? Or barred only for very young offenders, e.g., 14 and under?

The cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, are the third in recent years asking what limits should be put on sentences for juveniles.

As I discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed before 18. It held that the death penalty for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and is “disproportionate” in light of the general immaturity of youth. It acknowledged that some juveniles commit brutal crimes, but wrote that their

“susceptibility … to immature and irresponsible behavior means their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult. … From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

The majority also concluded that juvenile executions do not serve the goals of retribution or deterrence.

And in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for crimes not involving murder, and that inmates already under such a sentence must be given an opportunity to show grounds for early release. 

Something for your fictional prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other characters to consider.

I’m in Oregon this week for Don Maass’s Breakout Novel workshop. Wow. My characters may never recover–and that’s a good thing!  

Books for the writers on your list

Hannukah, Christmas, birthdays, Fourth of July–any chance to give a writer a book! Some of my favs:

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (Harper Perennial, 2006) A lovely book.

Bryan Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3d Edition (Oxford, 2009) Garner takes on usage fearlessly, analyzing what changes are acceptable and what aren’t. He tackles common words and errors as well as more technical distinctions. Essays are interspersed with word entries, all highly readable. Word wonk heaven.

Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great (Writers Digest, 2009) The title says it all.

Elizabeth Lyon Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore (Perigee, 2008) Lyon shows fiction writers how to think differently about their work. Terrific discussion of “inside-out” and “outside-in” revision, revising for genre, use of structure, and characterization.

Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (Univ. Of Nebraska Press, 2005) I read this on a 60 mile backpacking trip through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but it’s great for the couch, too.

Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World into Word (Graywolf Press, 2010) A poet’s POV, from the Art of … series

Christina Katz, The Writer’s Workout: 366 Tips, Tasks & Techniques From Your Writing Career Coach (Writers Digest, 2011) What I’m asking for!

And don’t forget, Books, Crooks and Counselors!

What’s on your list?