Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Psychology of Imagery

It’s established that imagery/visualization helps athletes succeed, so imagine how imagery enhances the reader/writer connection. Even in print, and especially in fiction, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Used deftly, verbal evocation of the five senses creates a world where readers feel what the characters do, see what the novelist does.

Tip: Create not just a plot, but one readers can experience—through their five senses.

Here’s how that works. In The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot refers to the pedantic-sounding but not actually overwhelming concept of the “objective correlative”:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. 
This observation warrants some unpacking. An objective correlative can link (“correlate”) a subjective idea or emotion with the external world (“objective,” relating to something physical, like an object) in a neutral way (again “objective,” but this time in the sense of impersonal).

Eliot introduced the objective correlative to explain why Shakespeare failed to provide a visual image for Hamlet’s emotions. Although many would disagree, the objective correlative strategy has much to offer not just playwrights and poets, but novelists.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that 
what draws us into a story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on the way.
And the more scientists learn how about the brain, the more they discover connections between plot or imagery and reader emotion. Want readers to keep reading? Integrate what happens with opportunity to vicariously interact. The source of  that interaction? Language summoning one or more of the five senses: in other words—imagery. 

Genuinely vibrant description provides additional benefits: 

~ Objectivity.

Concrete details eliminate “telling” what you ought to “show.”

~ Bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

Need to explain something? The technique of analogy or metaphor is about as old as ideas are. Comparison helps readers grasp what’s unclear or difficult, which could be anything from quantum mechanics to the protagonist’s tragic flaw.

~ Contributions from your own subconscious:
one of the things you do as a writer and as a filmmaker is to grasp for resonant symbols and imagery without fully understanding it yourself. —Christopher Nolan
~ Engagement of reader emotion.

Readers identify with what they can see, hear, etc. But they can’t identify with references to “terrible agony” or “delightful happiness.” James Bonnet’s paraphrase of Carl Jung explains why abstraction deprives readers of the protagonist’s world and the events there: 
The auditor experiences some of the sensations but is not transformed. Their imaginations are stimulated: they go home and through personal fantasies begin the process of transformation for themselves.
Why not provide that possibility of transformation for your readers?



Sunday, November 12, 2017

Must Your Readers Unpack for You?

In fiction, as on vacation, traveling light frees you to appreciate the scenery. Few of us leave town to exhibit an immense wardrobe, and probably even fewer read novels in order to study. Still, you won’t enjoy the trip if everything you brought is excessively flimsy or bulky, and many readers prefer novels offering a bit of heft. In both cases, the trick is packing thoughtfully, and taking responsibility for the contents of the suitcase.

Your novel’s length determines the size of that suitcase. Yet fiction’s subject matter determines how much unpacking someone must do. Who’s that someone? The novelist—not the reader.

In one sense, “unpacking” involves revelation of the individual components that comprise a complex concept. It makes sense that writers should provide this, so one wonders why more of them—in every genre—sometimes omit the explanation readers need in order to follow. Anxiety plays a role. What if “just saying it” will irritate, bore, or condescend? 

The rest of the answer lies in what Steven Pinker calls “The Curse of Knowledge”: 
It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details — even when writing for professional peers.—The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Pinker blames unclear, densely packed passages on “chunking,” or storing details in clumps. Inside the writer’s head, this process works fine. But readers require “unchunking.” Without it, you offer A = B, A = C—without including that crucial middle step of B = C. 

Pinker also identifies another opponent of clarity: functional fixity. As with structural rigidity, the issue here is your ability to rearrange details for the reader’s benefit. Or are you stuck with whatever pattern you first conceived? That may not be the ideal way to explain.

Ready to unpack? Try these techniques.

~ Imagine your audience.

It’s not you! It’s doesn’t matter what you know—only what your readers do.

~ Be concrete.

It’s a common myth that difficult ideas require abstractions. But the greatest art is clarity without oversimplification.

~ Provide breaks.

Divide your sentences. Start new paragraphs. Both matter more than you think.

~ Use the familiar.

People usually learn by attaching new facts and concepts to more commonplace ones. Break down those big chunks, perhaps comparing them with the well-known.


Tip: For a smooth fictional journey, keep disorganized, overflowing baggage out of sight. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Voice: Constraint + Conviction

Writing coaches often urge novelists to “let it flow.” Go ahead and write as fast as you can type, which, for most of us, is faster than we can think. In The Basket Weaver, for example, Jan Marquart suggests: “Sit quietly, listen, listen again, then listen some more and write out everything the voice says with no censoring-–none-–not one word.”

For some novelists, there’s no better strategy. But this approach works only if you’re willing to discard everything—yup, everything—that’s self-indulgent, redundant, or second rate. That necessitates more courage than many writers, including yours truly, possess.

Tip: Voice balances wildness with convention.

You need both individuality and artistry. According to Patricia Lee Gauch,
A writer's voice is not character alone, it is not style alone; it is far more. A writer's voice like the stroke of an artist's brush—is the thumbprint of her whole person—her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms. 
If you accept that painters have “voices,” J. W. Turner beautifully illustrates freedom within restraint. He studied, mastered his craft, and produced solid conventional work like this:


But if that’s all he ever did, he’d never have his own gallery in London’s Tate Museum. Historians 
suspect eyesight played a role, but, in any case, here’s why he’s remembered:

a

Without command of the fundamental, how can you paint or write? Like everyone else, novelists can bore, pontificate, melodramatize, repeat, and confuse. If your voice includes any of that, keep it to yourself. Because “Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation” (Noah Berlatsky in “‘Voice’ Isn't the Point of Writing”).

Without command of the fundamental, how can you paint or write? Like everyone else, novelists can bore, pontificate, melodramatize, repeat, and confuse. If your voice includes any of that, keep it to yourself. Because “Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation” (Noah Berlatsky in “‘Voice’ Isn't the Point of Writing”).

This is where writing commandments apply. Your uncensored self belongs only in a journal. And although we cherish the personal writing of  “the greats,” this is usually due to what they crafted for public consumption—through that “negotiation.”

Writing rules not only reduce “telling,” meandering, and abruptly jolting. Consider your readers, and you create a sort of psychological safety net.  Thasia Frank and Dorothy Wall suggest that
Most writers struggle to unearth voice—not only because one’s own voice is simply too familiar, but also because to speak from your voice means confront your world, your dreams, and your entire life raw and unsoftened by explanations.
In the most exquisite sort of irony, you’re less vulnerable when your narrator and characters stand between your naked self and your readers. And without getting psychologically and linguistically naked, how can you find and use your voice?

And here’s why that’s where it’s at. According to David Malouf,
I've long come to the conclusion that when people say they can't put a book down, they don't mean they're interested in what's happening next; they mean they are so mesmerised by the writer's voice and the relationship that has been established that they don't want to break that.

Isn’t that exactly what you want your novel to do?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Not Just “Writers Need to Read”—But Why

Tip:“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” — Stephen King

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot observed, “Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Just as true today as almost a century ago. So much more to know—and to read. If this seems daunting, consider the opportunity. The art of fiction comes from who you are—and who you are comes from everything preceding you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” 

On a more universal scale, curiosity like this drives people to explore their roots. Don't your cultural roots signify as least as much, whether from ancient Greece or DaVinci? 



















Or all those classics that inform how every novelist thinks and writes? Reading reminds writers that the best fiction is timeless. James Baldwin:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
Here’s Evan Mahone in “The Best Advice for Writers? Read”
Last week the Guardian published a list of writerly rules donated by respected authors. Somewhat surprisingly, only a quarter of the authors advised aspiring writers to read. Perhaps reading is too obvious, too fundamental to be perceived as a rule–like advising chefs to eat if they want to learn how to cook. But despite the fact that most of the rule writers failed to advise people to read, I doubt any writer would argue that reading is not essential to the writing craft.
What does Mahone think reading writers (pun intended) get? Only vocabulary, models, inspiration, and escape from the difficulties of your profession/avocation. So the pursuit of books like the ones you want to write becomes quite serious.
You can't write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates. --Alan Cheus

J.K. Rowling got it right: “The most important thing is to read as much as you can…” Besides, as Neil Gaiman reminds: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” 

Can you afford not to find the time? 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On Taking Time and Leaving Space

Exploit opportunity. That’s one distinction between good fiction and great. Sometimes, instead of faulty plotting or limp prose, the issue is timing. Let’s say the protagonist and hunky guy have been flirting for over two hundred pages. When he—and she or he—finally finish the chablis and hit the sack, why rush that? And you certainly don’t want to summarize, as in, “They had the greatest time ever.”

And in order to deliver optimal emotional and dramatic impact, maybe you can do even more. Whoops, someone has an asthma attack or breaks out in hives. Does the estranged spouse return for a heart-to-heart, courting interruptus? What about the cat, the dog, the teenage daughter? 

Go for the extra twist, never settling for the obvious. Then, develop the events that fulfill and startle readers—that haunt forever. Pause to think of your favorite moments in fiction. Are they ever ordinary? Rushed?

Be careful, though. Capitalizing involves a sort of tightrope between underdone and overwrought. To avoid the latter, watch out for these:

~ Stay subtle. 

Add vigorous and original events and details, not familiar or melodramatic ones.

~ Encourage inference.

Fiction thrives on hinting and suggesting, not clarifying or explaining. Which doesn’t, of course, mean you want confused readers.

~ Say it right the first time.

 Then you won’t be tempted to repeat, which usually frustrates more than it emphasizes. 

~ Slow down the good parts.

Writers tend to meander through detail, then zip through action and drama. Why? The humdrum and non-confrontational amass quickly,  not to mention more comfortably. Often, though, the scenes writers find most challenging are those their readers find most enchanting.

~ Carve out a space.

Don’t clog critical moments with layers of description or filler. Instead? Create a sort of pause-and-catch your breath moment. To illustrate, say a mother is awaiting news of her soldier son. Why not delineate her facial expression, the worry in her eyes before learning the truth? This delaying tactic prompts the reader to experience suspense along with her, to internalize the magnitude of a moment that resembles a mini-climax. How else will readers notice?

~ Set up.

Then always deliver.

As you move through the world beyond your novel (remember that one?), observe the reactions of people—and yourself—to momentous moments. Then you’ll have a better sense of how to time and design such moments in your fictional world.


Tip: Capitalize on the subterranean—not at all obvious—opportunities your novel offers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

From Story Board to Storyboard

Today, storyboard connotes is a series of illustrations or key points illustrating the concept for a film or TV program. Like many techniques from the screenwriting world, this method is also wonderfully useful for novelists and so popular that you’ll find numerous online options for help. But the basic idea is actually much older. Much, much, much older.

Illiteracy, thankfully now far less widespread, was once the norm. If you wanted people to understand the story, you had to show it. Only pictures would do.

For example, in one of the oldest storyboards, the palace of the Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) at Nimrud (now in northern Iraq) had larger-than-life slabs depicting royal and religious ritual. In the photos below, a winged god drops offers pollen from the scared tree of life, insuring the fertility of the land and its people.



Though novelists use words, the storyboard can give the author an equally useful visual. As Candace Williams observes in “Storyboarding for Novelists,” 
Storyboarding is not a rigid plotting device. The whole point of the board is that it’s flexible. The greatest advantage is seeing exactly how your novel is “built,” just as an architect refers to a blueprint.
The storyboard is especially useful to these novelists:

~ Plotters and pantsers.

If you’re a plotter, this lets you assess pivot points even more efficiently. If you’re a pantser, a storyboard lets you see where you’re going with the least restriction possible.

~ Internal world addicts. Do you revel in oodles of talking and thinking and more of the same? 
Provide an image for each scene, and something will happen in the physical world.

~ Nonlinear writers.

a storyboard, you can write the fourth scene, sixteenth, then second and so on. Compose in any order you like and still see where you are.

In an interview, Rebecca Skloot, author of the complex and successful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, addressed the complexity of her creative nonfiction with index cards. 

Chuck Sambuchino, in “Storyboarding For Success: Plotters vs. Pantsers,” reminds that:
The magic of a storyboard is turning a book idea into a visual tool, which makes the story’s structure much easier to grasp and handle. A storyboard can be drawn on a board, a piece of paper, or in a computer file.
The storyboard reveals where the climax is, and, in fact, whether you have a climax at all! The inciting incident and major moments that earn the ending are visible—and thus readily reparable. Use index cards, sticky notes, sheets of paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or the many free apps and templates.

Tip: Storyboarding’s been around for a long, long time. With good reason.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Motive and Movement

Inexperienced comedians and actors often wander the stage aimlessly. Sometimes that’s part of the schtick. More often, though, random action signals nervousness and simply distracts. So in theater, directors often warn actors that you can’t just cross the stage because you feel like you’ve been motionless for too long. Movement originates from motivation.

Tip: Never let your character say or do anything without a current, immediate motive.  

In “Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing, ” K.M. Weiland explains the “motivation-reaction units,” or MRU’s, that Dwight V. Swain introduces in Techniques of the Selling Writer:
In a story, everything that happens can be separated into two categories: causes (motivations) and effects (reactions). Once you grasp this, all you have to do to create solid and comprehensible prose is to make sure your MRUs are in the right order.
The First Gate blog explores this further. The:
Motivation-Reaction Unit is the fundamental building block of an action sequence (it’s important to stress that it does not apply do description, exposition, or reverie).  It’s pretty simple:  something happens, the hero reacts to it, the situation changes, and something else happens.  How characters react to events will largely determine their plausibility and how closely we bond with them. — 1/21/’11
If perhaps a stream of MRU’s seems like extra work, first consider how logical this is. Then consider all the areas you’ll improve.

~ Characterization. 

To link motive to action, you must clearly identify character psychology. 

~ Verisimilitude.

In real life, people do things for reasons. When they don’t, others ask, “Where are you going?” Or, “What’s suddenly bothering you?” Novels need to supply the answers readers might want to ask. This is especially true when characters change their minds or make major decisions. But. This isn’t permission for a paragraph or two of rumination, because there’s never permission for that. It does mean one sentence pinpointing explicit motive.

~ Stage business. 

A character hears something and thus does something. Causal and realistic. It also tests whether stage business serves some purpose beyond interrupting the dialogue.

~ Causality. 

Within the scene, these MR Units mirror what Linda Seger calls “pressure points”—the five or six turning points forming the spine of the novel. Use MRU’s, and the structure of each scene parallels the structure of the scenario.

~ Emotion.

In both characters and readers. Only characters that make sense elicit empathy, and characters can’t make sense unless the rationale underlying behavior is clear. 

Link motive to motion and action, and you enrich both plot and characterization. Because“why” has always been fiction’s most compelling component. 






Sunday, September 24, 2017

Do It with Verbs

But not just any old verb. Only so-called “strong” or “action” verbs propel, fire, and glide to accomplish what writers want and readers need. Verbs like “was” or “have,” though essential to communication, electrify writing no more than vague nouns, useless adverbs, or redundant adjectives.

Tip: Weak verbs produce weak sentences—which produce weak novels.  

In “Verbs: Spice Up Your Writing with Verbs that Rock,” Dave Bricker remarks:
If your writ­ing was an elec­tric gui­tar, your verbs would be the vol­ume, tone, and dis­tor­tion con­trols that shape the music of your sen­tences.
Johnson’s “Writing Style: Use Good Words, Not Bad Ones” suggests:
Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.
Henneke concurs:
strong verbs add action, vitality, color, and zest. So, the “secret” to writing with gusto is to choose stronger verbs. — “99 Strong Verbs to Make Your Content Pop, Fizz and Sparkle”
And 
Forget about adjectives -- they're as floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings. Verbs, on the other hand, are the muscle-men and women of the beach. After all, if your goal is to move readers (either literally or metaphorically), doesn't it make sense to focus on the ACTion words in your writing?— Daphne Gray-Grant, “Starve an Adjective, Feed a Verb”
Committed to verbs? Here’s how to work out with them so they work for you.

~ Expand your working verb vocabulary.
In conversation, we use the same verbs over and over: “Come here,” “Bring the popcorn,” ”Let the dog out.” The problem arises when the fiction writer accesses that same limited number of pedestrian verbs.  Start collecting intriguing verbs.  Check the many online action verb lists.
~ Ruminate.
Mull so readers needn’t. Not “Working through the many disagreements about how to spend money made their marriage that much stronger.” Instead? “Discussing money, instead of quarreling about it, strengthened their marriage.” Invest time in choosing weight-bearing verbs. The more you ponder and practice, then the easier this gets. 
~ Exercise and apply.
Chase different—and better—verbs, even when not actively writing. Notice great or ghastly verbs in everything you read and hear. Yes—everything. 
You can do it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Secret Spaces inside the Scene

Fiction requires vividness, suspense, and empathy. But do you leave readers enough room for an intimate experience of detail, tension, and emotion?

As Charles Baxter puts it, 
A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.
That’s subtext, which, according to A.J. Humpage, 
is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt.
If everything is “overt,” from the character’s loneliness to the cold moss where she rests her tear-stained cheek on a fallen tree in the Southeast corner of the Olympic National forest, then perhaps ironically, fiction becomes drab, tepid, and dispassionate. 

Tip: Spell everything out, and you deprive readers of the chance to participate.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that:
When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum.…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.
What’s this new entity? In the best novels, it’s the synthesis of every aspect of fiction: plot makes detail more vivid, context builds characterization, and description intensifies suspense. But there’s more. That’s your readers feeling, wondering, interpreting, and analyzing. Until “The End,” those responses change frequently. And if the writer succeeds, many of those conclusions will prove irrelevant or inaccurate. Do you want surprised readers? Give them some freedom.

When readers can infer, fiction imitates life. There’s no circumstance where we reliably have all the information. So if fiction leaves nothing to the imagination, a novel is not only overloaded and oversimplified, but unrealistic. 

How can you encourage reader participation?

~ Subtext in dialogue.

      People rarely say exactly what they mean. Your characters shouldn’t, either.

~ Metaphor.

     When symbolism works, it replaces setting dense enough to overwhelm plot.

~ Emotional overload.

      Provide clues that let readers experience what the characters do.

~ Focus.

     If your goal is intense drama or suspense, don’t let anything compete with that.


Instead of walling readers out with excessive description and explanation, let readers take the journey along with your characters—instead of getting it secondhand.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Shopping Cart and the Novelist

Consider this random grocery list, left behind at a supermarket.

Anything strike you?

That’s what this blog’s about. Not a suggestion that if you can’t fix a passage or find a publisher, stock up on butter pecan ice cream, toffee peanuts, chocolate syrup, and marshmallow fluff for topping. Nor will the following suggest how to build a character from a mash-up of income, hair color, education, favorite TV show, and place of birth. Instead, here’s the deal.

Tip: The wonderfully unexpected is available everywhere; you only need to notice.

And that’s mostly a matter of habit. Because finding pattern in chaos approximates the age of humanity itself. Things have changed, though:  
Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. — J.P. Shiel, “The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon”
For creators in any field, including fiction, the price paid for that instantaneous knowledge is high. We’re no longer continually on the hunt for the observations to protect our families, no longer sifting and sifting to recall a particular fact. It’s easier just to look it up, and that includes storm watches and warnings.

This means it’s harder for the cook or woodworker or novelist to surprise herself. That’s not good, because as Jane K. Cleland puts it, “The best surprises add significant insights to the characters involved in that surprise, while setting up future suspenseful situations.” It’s why people don’t want to know the ending of the book or movie in advance. Surprise is fun.

Now what’s this got to do wth shopping carts? Scrutinizing details is among the many potential strategies for perceiving pattern and producing surprise. For example, what can you infer from the list above?

     Lots of brand names

     Both fancy tortellini and pedestrian hamburger

     Few carbs

     No desserts

If you wanted to, couldn’t you use this list to build a profile, shape a character, compose a backstory? You probably don’t want to, because that’s unlikely to improve your novel. Here’s what will, though:

~ Notice everything around you. Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar.

~ Recognize “found art.” Ruminate on its meaning.

~ Check for patterns in the apparently random. This might take practice.

~ Look for potential organization in what seems totally chaotic.

~ Train yourself to brainstorm without censorship. Inhibition thwarts creativity.


Next time you find someone else’s list, imagine the story behind it. This will open you to a more insightful and original version of that story you really want to tell.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Awwww” versus Awe


Neither including the sound "awww" nor "telling about the concept "awe"is likely to evoke the desired reader response. But "showing" either?  Perhaps juxtaposed? Ahhhh. Here’s why.

Awe comes from perceiving perception, as in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See:
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away.
Or from spirituality versus practicality in Colson Whitehead’sThe Underground Railroad
Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.
Don’t you experience awe when someone explains the incomprehensible?
Looking a dead insect in the sack of basmati that had come all the way from Dehra Dun, he almost wept with sorrow and marvel at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them anymore. ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
In contrast, “Awww,” like ice cream that never melts, is cleaner and happier: 
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. — Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
But perhaps most effective of all is an unexpected pivot. In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Sabbathday River, the shift from “aww” to awe represents not a doll’s murder, but a child’s:
 She saw, freshly, the two blond little girls in smocked dresses on the television commercial; she could hear the happy jingle extolling the doll's mind-bending ability to wet. And her name: Sallie Smiles! (The exclamation mark thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer.) Naomi Roth's parents--they of the Little Red School House and Pete Seeger persuasion--had been horrified, naturally enough, but she must have had her fill of ant farms and nonsexist creative discovery objects. The small blond pixies on the television were the company she kept in her fantasy of the parallel childhood she was not leading. She coveted the doll.     
When it disappeared, less than a week after her birthday, she had waited before panicking.Then she approached her parents, whose unmistakable relief over her carelessness--the carelessness they assumed, despite her denials--was clear. Naomi's older brother declined to shed light on the situation, but months afterward it was from his window that she saw her doll again, grimy in city filth on the roof of the apartment building next door. It lay on its stomach against the asphalt, its bright face obscured, its fleshy pink hue bleached to stark white, and the legs between which it had wet so endearingly splayed to the extent of its somewhat limited hip sockets.
Tip: Expand your novel’s world by capturing rather than mentioning “aww” or awe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Man Who Said Everything Twice

“Not much traffic today.” His wife nods, and they continue on. He lights a cigarette. “Nope. Not much traffic.” As their destination comes into view, she says nothing. He clears his throat. “Nice flat lake.” She turns away from him, toward the window, as he repeats, “Nice flat lake.”

Irritating as this man is, she probably won’t leave him for this reason alone. But if this pattern materializes in your novel, your reader will likely leave you.

Most writers know that they mustn’t repeat. So why do they?

~ Metaphorical throat clearing

Saying it again resembles “um” or “er” in conversation. Maybe details or events occurred twice in the first draft and were never deleted. It’s mostly habit—and you can break it.

~ Schooling

Over and over, writers heard: introduce what you’ll say, develop what you introduced, summarize what you said. This makes sense for teaching and learning. Is that what novels are about?

~ Distrust of the reader

This one is the most powerful. Good writers are nearly always insecure, comparing themselves to novelists they love and feeling they fall short. Very short. Concern that the metaphor is shaky, the subtext too subtle, or theme too understated, such writers clarify. Usually, though, they merely repeat what readers already absorbed.

What do writers repeat?

* General/specific

You know. First you comment on all dogs, then on individual breeds. You could also reverse the order to specific, then general. But don’t.

* Metaphor and explanation

If the metaphor can’t communicate without explanation, it’s not one you want.

* Transition

Yes, you must link each detail or idea or moment to the next. But, for example, don’t link each detail or idea or moment to the next by repeating the whole thing!

* Recent events

Never bring other characters up to date by repeating what readers already know. Hint. Condense.

How do you handle the repetition problem? You already know. About the lake and the traffic.


Tip: Once is enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

It’s Not a Dream!

Fiction is neither as long-winded, random, or forgettable as the scraps of stories that visit us during the night.  The novel’s achievement starts with the creation process that John Gardner describes:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. 
This is narrative at its happiest and best—writing that gives readers a  world more dramatic, realistic and moral than daily routine. But the boundaries of this world are fragile. In fact, as Gardner points out, “one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”

Those distractions come in many shapes and sizes, but the other kind of dreaming goes a long way toward explaining them.

~ Cliché.

If you’re gifted enough, of course it’s possible to write anything. But, for the most part, any version of “Henrietta woke, relieved that it was only a dream” won’t work. Dreams may be messages to the dreamer, but rarely to anyone else. If you want your novel to delight others, everything must seem new, starting with the plot and ending with the details capturing it. Cliches like waking from a bad dream? That is a bad dream. 

~ Grounding

Dreams let us fly out windows, land in foreign countries without deplaning, simultaneously chat with former lovers and elementary school teachers. If there’s anything fun about dreams, that’s probably it. But readers demand a fictional dream that, however invisibly, explains arrivals, departures, changes of location, and everything else that makes any world outside a dream clear, logical, sensible, and compelling. 

~ Credibility

In your nightmare, your patient and adoring Mama turns on you for no reason, viciously humiliating you in front of every teacher you encountered in your entire life. No wonder you can’t wait to wake up! But the point is that fiction, unlike dream, requires motive and causality. It’s logically true to itself. Anything else shatters the fictional dream that Gardner describes.

~ Pace

Often when we narrate our dreams (or are forced to hear someone else’s), events and details emerge with agonizing slowness. Trivia receives meticulous tedium, while grounding rarely arrives at all. In contrast, novels need momentum and context. Without those, readers doze off, blissfully escaping to the other kind of dream.

Tip: Dreaming is the first step for many writers. But it shouldn’t be the last.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bridge It


San Francisco weather often hides part of the Golden Gate Bridge. Without the mid-portion, it resembles two ends of a structure—with only heavy mist in between. Omit the transitions in fiction, and readers might feel as if only mist joins one sentence to the next. With an important exception. California fog can seem mysterious and romantic, whereas two disconnected ideas or sentences or paragraphs are anything but.

How often do fiction readers need a bridge? Every time they sense a shift, and that’s in the reader’s mind—not the writer’s. Shifts include focus, time, space, speaker, mood, emotion, scene, or verb tense. And lack of connection isn’t among the surprises readers enjoy.

Tip: What seems linked to the writer doesn’t always seem linked to the reader.

Because most writers live with their story world until every relationship seems obvious. So those crucial transitions joining one observation or moment to the next often go missing. 

Here’s an example: 
Leaning back with a sigh, Abby surveyed everything she loved about the living room: white carpet versus drapes in a slightly different ivory tint, Danish modern furniture, hand-blown glass artfully catching the light in various corners.     Though her husband had only black socks, they always looked mismatched.
Whoops. How did we get from interior design to hubby Bill’s habits? For the writer, this might seem crystal-clear. The character muses on order and taste and how differing hues complement each other, unlike her husband’s mismated footwear. Abby might resent his slovenliness contrasting with her taste, which she clearly admires. Perhaps she wonders why she likes snow-white with ivory, but not brand-new black with three-years-old black. 

And, in fact, developing any of those would clarify why the passage abruptly shifted from decor to laundry. The crucial component you accidentally omit from the page perplexes readers. Huh?

Remedies exist:

~ Notice, even if you don’t want to fix this until later.

Consider capitalizing markers like LETTING HER MIND WANDER, or LATER THAT EVENING.  This reminds that you need to improve this temporary transition.

~ Collect transitions in your daily world.

Store effective links from what you read, hear, and see. This becomes part of noticing.

~ Identify the connections you thought of but never included.

This smooths the way while adding causality and suspense.


Let readers view the entire bridge—without something missing in the middle.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Allure of the Lure

What about these openings?

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” —Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead 

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

In every case, don’t you want to read on? Don’t you feel you can’t help it, even though you ought to walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, pack the lunches, turn out the light?

Tip: Start every scene—especially the first one—by enticing your reader. Irresistibly.

Because, as Paula Berinstein puts it, “We all know that if we don’t capture reader attention within a few seconds, we might as well kiss the sale of our work goodbye.”

K.M. Weiland adds: 

Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.

Hooked on hooks yourself now? These tricks might work more often than not:

~ Check to see if your hook is already there—just not in the opening sentence. 

~ Emphasize what drives the scene. 

How will it intensify the obstacles from the previous one? What must the protagonist learn? What additional pressure will the antagonist exert? What single sentence propels the protagonist into the next difficulty or exacerbation of a previous one?

~ Value high stakes over context, which you can easily fill in after you’ve grabbed attention.

How can you crystallize huge tension right now? Can you provide enough grounding with a prepositional phrase or two?

~ Write vigorously. 

This means connotative nouns, active metaphorical verbs, and minimal modifiers.

~ Watch your sentence structure.

Don’t overdo any one technique. But compound sentences rarely coalesce the most energy. Strive for either short sentences or highly rhythmic long ones.

~ Use the ending of the scene to launch the subsequent one.

It’s often helpful to have that in mind before you even begin writing a scene. How will this one cause whatever’s next?


Like so many things about fiction writing, developing hooks is a skill that anyone can master, simply through lots and lots of practice. No magic involved. Doesn’t that challenge hook you?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Novelist and Cheap Dental Floss

You know the kind. Bought on impulse at a price too good to be true, it knots and breaks, leaving behind tiny, disgusting, barely removable fragments. Of course you should discard it. But small though the investment is, you’ve made one and feel obliged to see it through. Is that how you treat whatever you’ve already written? If so, is that in your best interest? 

Tip: If it really doesn’t work, let it go.

“An editor,” says Susan Bell, “doesn’t just read, he reads well, and reading well is a creative, powerful act.

What does it mean to “read well?” Mostly likely, that no matter how much you put into this point of view, setting, even scenario, sometimes you must admit that it simply isn’t salvageable. Consider these questions.

~ Is this problematic whatever so ill-conceived that no amount of editing will fully repair it?

This is a tough one. You thought long and hard about this scene. You can visualize it; part of you loves it. But the objective part of you—the portion that cares more about the story than its author—knows that the dialogue is limp, the tension low, the new character an irritant, the stakes low, and the collection of simple or compound sentences lethargic. Listen to the writer rather than the ego. Don’t keep words (or lousy floss) just because it’s an investment.

~ Does this detail or sentence or character add?

Here’s Thomas Wolfe’s confession:

What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.

~ Is this moment, however lovely, simply backstory?

Beware lengthy forays into the past, especially flashbacks. Fiction readers follow the suspense of what’s ahead, rather than the yesterday’s news about what led characters to this point.

~ Is this example a rather self-indulgent journey into what you long to teach or describe?

Colette makes this distinction: “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

~ Is whatever passage you’re questioning redundant?

How many images or metaphors capturing the same thing are too many? More than one, even if each differs slightly. Craft what you want the reader to experience, and you needn’t repeat. Here’s Truman Capote: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

According to C.J. Cherryh, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.” But if you can’t bear to relinquish your investment in time and words? Consider not writing them in the first place. Plenty more—and better—words where those came from.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Writer “R” and “R” and “R”

Pushing yourself to meet deadlines, achieve goals, and revise deeply—all great. Rejuvenating every so often is not only equally great, but crucial. So here are some “r’s” to balance not only writing, but the writing life.

~ Replenishment.

How can you create if you’ve exhausted the supply of words, ideas, story questions, metaphors, and revision techniques? Maybe you need a vacation. Or a staycation.  Or a rigorous workout, a hilarious movie, a fancy dinner.  No two novelists will need exactly the same thing or amount of it. But when you genuinely need a break, take one. Minus the guilt.



~ Remembrance. 

As Dean Koontz reminds,
Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you will most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you'll have a happy life.
When did you last remind yourself what drives you to write your novel?

~Rhythm.

Obviously, you want rhythm between dialogue and narrative, scene and summary, snappy and leisurely sentences. Don’t you also need a rhythm in your writing time? Sometimes a super-short session on one day might produce a far magnificently productive one the next. In contrast with flexible goals, rationalization, of course, is the writer’s enemy.

~ Reality.

As A. Lee Martinez put it, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.” External and internal circumstances will never cease rollercoasting, so protect momentum when it hits. For the rest of time, if necessary, create a schedule. Then respect it.

~Resolution.

Neil Gaiman admits that “All writers have this vague hope that the elves will come in the night and finish any stories.” If that hasn't worked for him, it’s unlikely to work for the rest of us. This doesn’t mean that a litany of “should’s” “should” immobilize you. Or you “should” descend to guilt equivalent to consuming an entire carton of gelato. Resolve not to squander the exquisite energy fired by your scenario, or characters, or the stimulation of crafting words. Remind yourself why you’re writing.


Tip: The act of completing a novel requires as much balance as the art of writing one.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Harsh Numbness Descended to My Entrails, Writhing There

Whoops! A harsh numbness as opposed to a cheerful one? The numbness actually descended, writhed later? Is it strategic to discuss emotion (or lack of it) in terms of entrails?

Here’s why not. Ever start watching an old movie only to become dismayed by the music? The melodramatic facial expressions? A plot so obvious it seems a sixth grader contrived it? Although you’re dying to know who Tony Curtis was or how the young Tommy Lee Jones looked (blond and great!), you give up. No novelist wants readers doing that.

Tip: Tastes change.

Obvious as that seems, what you learned to read in what my folks called “their youth” (see how language changes?), that’s unlikely to be what you want to write right now.

So what’s different?

~ Concept.

It may have been true since Ecclesiastes that “there is no new thing under the sun,” but as Donald Maass puts it in Writing the Breakout Novel:
What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do.
It’s a bittersweet irony that readers enjoy familiarity—but never too much of it.

~ Characterization.

Readers loved Dickens not despite the unctuousness of a creep like Uriah Heep or unmitigated greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, but precisely because the good and bad guys were unquestionably identified. Now, though, every bad guy is in some way good, and every good gal overcome by fatal flaw. In pretty much every book, today’s characters are full-bodied, passionate and resilient, but usually wrong-headed in at least one way.

~ Plot.

A great divide exists between those arguing that literary fiction is never about plot, while genre fiction is never about anything else. But writing coaches like Lisa Cron or Jessica Page Morrell, not to mention agents, publishers, and readers themselves, like to see high stakes. Unlike the meandering beauty of the 19th century novel, what sells—and gets read—is a causal chain of events that are neither improbable nor overly predictable.

~ Language.

Today’s fiction has its own share of overwrought agony. It also has examples like these, retaining the rhythmic intensity of yesterday’s sentences with the acute diction and metaphor that contemporary readers hope to encounter:
When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.—Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.—Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
 I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Of course you want to read on. They sound like right now—at its very best.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Think like a Bird?

Once a young marsh hawk apparently considered an open garage part of the skyline and flew inside, perching on the metal rafters controlling the sliding door. Fine. Until it couldn’t escape. The woman, nature lover that she was, told the neighbors she’d free it right away. No problem.

First at the front door, then just inside, then closer to the rear, she offered the bird raw hamburger, cooked hamburger, a chicken leg, canned and dry cat food. No dice.

Still undaunted, she got a broom and gently chased the confused stranger toward the front. Over and over it flew maniacally forward, only to reclaim its original post. She became increasingly afraid—she and the hawk both. It clung, fluttering frantically, piteously opening its golden beak to emit silent cries more taxing than a howl ever could be.

The bird had done her in. Or had it? “Think like a bird,” she chided. “Think like a bird,” she barked and began searching the yard for a something natural enough to represent escape. The woman took her time arranging the branch, altering its position, attaching more sticks, setting it up to imitate exactly what it was supposed to be. And, lo, this time when the broom urged the prisoner forward, the raptor found the tree, hesitated, circling for relentless moments until its back leg briefly touched the tip of the facsimile tree and it zoomed away.

For novelists, it doesn’t matter that this woman sank to the driveway gravel and wept for some time. It matters that she thought like a bird.

Tip: Enter the mind of every living being in your novel, whether child, wizard, cat, or grandpa.

After all, if you want every character to feel real for readers, first every character must feel completely real to you. In a short story titled “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner,” John Barth wrote: “In life there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

Your story or novel should have neither characters too minor for dimension, nor snapshots that reduce some players to heroes, others to reprobates or scoundrels. 

How do you think like each of your characters?

~ Explore desire.

Nothing reveals a person (or a bird) as well as a burning obsession to change the
external or internal territory.

~ Brainstorm.

Let your subconscious roam free. How are you like a goat? A chancellor? A seer?

~Cheat a bit. 

For a while, choose a hat to wear each time you switch to a different head.

~Empathize deeply.

Use your own emotions, uncomfortable or embarrassing as that perhaps seems.

“Take Your Characters to Dinner.”

Mentally interact with them outside the format of your story.


You needn’t rescue a hawk, or, before the last page, anyone else. But your readers expect that if you include one in your book, at least epiphany occurs, you penetrated that avian mind.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

“Anguish” or “pain”? “Yearning” or “Desire”?

The difference? Less is more. For novelists, that notion never gets old, because most of us want more words, more syllables in those words, and more melodrama everywhere. And why not?

Because, Brendan Kenny puts it, 
Hyperbole and overstatement do more harm than good. Hyperbole is exaggeration. Overstatement is an attempt to convince your audience by bludgeoning them with facts, arguments, and pleas to get them to accept your assertion.
And this is as true for fiction as for law. In an interview with Roxane Gay, Joshua Henkin agrees:
I tend to gravitate toward understatement. My novels and stories are animated as much by what’s not said as by what’s said. It’s the silences in fiction (and in life) that, if rendered well, can be most illuminating.
Tip: The source of emotional engagement is putting readers in the moment instead of pushing them there.

Inflated or cliched language and description never involve readers the way these passages do:
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate and that, when they’re gone, we’re left with the concept, but not the true memory—why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once? I think I understand what she means when I look back on the night of the fire. Part of me knows that there was tremendous pain, that the heat of the blaze as it came down though the old village on the hill and Slavko’s farmland and our orange grove and ripped through the fig and almond trees, the pinecones sizzling like embers for what seemed like forever before they exploded, was unbearable; that to say that it was difficult to breathe is an impossible understatement; that the hair on my bare arms was already singed when the fire dropped down through the pines and rushed the brick wall. —Tea Obreht The Tiger’s Wife
You’re right there with the girl trying to beat back the fire. This connection happens because of the opening metaphor, the particularity of the details, the reflection after the fact, and the acute physical sensations. An understated portrayal of tragedy.

Understatement works equally well for joy. In Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the Queen Victoria’s new status terminates what could’ve been a budding romance, and she tells her prime minister:
“I was so happy … before.’”     “I find that happiness can always be recollected in tranquillity, Ma’am,” said Melbourne.      Victoria put her hands down and looked up at him, her pale blue eyes searching his face. “You were happy too?”     When Melbourne spoke, it was in the voice not of the urbane Prime Minister, but of a man of advancing years who is facing the loss of the only thing that is still capable of bringing him joy. “You know I was, Ma’am.” 
The Lord’s unadorned admission conveys everything Victoria needs to know, and through her, to those experiencing the scene vicariously. 

Shout, and you might get ignored. Whisper, and everyone will lean in to overhear. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Novelist and “Hardwired for Story”

Exactly what does that catchy little phrase actually mean?
Your reader is biologically wired to respond to your protagonist’s inner struggle. When we’re lost in a story, our brains sync with the protagonist’s and her struggle becomes our struggle. This isn’t a metaphor—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals that when a story engages us, we experience what the protagonist is going through as if it were happening to us—because it is. We feel what she feels because her emotions travel down our neutral pathways. —Lisa Cron, “Story First, Plot Second,” from Author in Progress, Therese Walsh, ed.
That neural pathway connection depends on the characters of a story or novel. Almost magically, readers respond to vital ones as if they were vitally alive, but without any of the danger, disappointment, mayhem or messiness that real-world interactions bring. Cron goes on to add
To hell with those clunky virtual reality visors—humans already come equipped with the most effective VR of all: the ability to neurologically slip into someone else’s life, especially when she’s struggling with an unavoidable problem trying to figure out what the heck to do. The unspoken question we’re wired to bring to every story is: What would it cost, emotionally, to have to go through that? What will I learn about what makes people tick that will help me navigate my own life?
So as the storyteller every novelist is, your initial challenge is to let readers make an emotional connection that sparks something meaningful to the personal lives of your readers. This could be curiosity, betrayal, paranoia, forgiveness, spirituality—any human issue.

You don’t need anything complex to accomplish this connection, observes Orion Jones in “How the Human Brain Became Hardwired to Tell Stories”:
A standard story-telling formula may go something like this: character(s) + predicament(s) + attempted extrication(s). In short, the very stuff of life. Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children. Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions.
All stories, from cave paintings to meta-novels, share those basic elements. In “Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains,” Leo Widrich reminds that “A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.” 

Tip: Build plot and characterization keeping the hardwired impact of story in mind. 

Most novelists already know that characters mustn’t seem flat, that many readers dislike too much “telling,” that episodic or coincidental plots rarely convince, and that story resides in plot instead of theme, rather than the other way around.

So it’s less that writers should revise their approach to plot and characterization than remember what underlies those. Spoon-fed readers can’t experience anything vicariously. Stereotypes don’t evoke human behavior, and thematic statements move us far less than the journeys that reveal those. Consider why internal arcs satisfy more than external ones, why you need to “show” the behavior of your multi-dimensional characters. 

The “why” might just be the path to the “how.” Although it may not feel like it when seeking an agent or publisher, every novelist has a built-in audience. You’ll find those readers through characters who are universal and thus empathetic plus a plot that is causal and thus credible.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Novelist as Character Beats Character as Novelist

Even writers tire of fictional protagonists enduring blocks, deadlines, and the humiliation of the one-shot-wonder syndrome. Writers can become almost as disenchanted with someone else’s pages reflecting a mirror image—whether witty, maudlin, or ironic—as other readers became long ago.

But using your non-novelist self as template, inspiration, or guru for a protagonist? That’s another story, quite possibly one which exquisitely blends truth with embroidery of it, genuine feeling with “recollection of it in tranquility,” as William Wordsworth put it.

Certainly that involves risk. Skimp on the tranquility component, and you might transform anyone who irks you into a melodramatic villain. Perhaps you’ll splash your politics all over your chapters, or compile scenes so syrupy with self-pity that pages stick together in interactions that seem endless.

For the lucky writer, though (and the lucky readers who get their hands on that novel), the synthesis of raw emotion with the objectivity of narration approaches closest to universal feelings and themes. After all, as Joseph Campbell put it, “You are the Hero of your own Story.” What a great foundation for the hero your imagination and craft create. Why not take that concept further? Shanon Grey believes that “Your life is a book; make it a bestseller.”

How might you infuse your fiction with personal emotions and experiences?

~ Articulate your reactions to events, whether trivial or monumental.

Using either a mental or written journal, consider how anger smells, what your stomach muscles do when you’re happy, or your personal metaphor for fear or passion or spirituality. Note these, again, either on paper or in your head, so they’re available when you need them.

~ Assess “ticking clock” anxiety in your daily world.

According to Sidney Sheldon, “Life is like a novel. It’s filled with suspense. You have no idea what is going to happen until you turn the page.” How does it feel to await the doctor calling you back, the results of the job interview, the tally of an election? That’s how your protagonist feels. Of course you can’t just “tell” readers that, or they’ll never turn the page to get the results. Instead? Translate your responses into imagery, body language, or metaphor.

~ Probe. Shamelessly.

“I think one of the appeals of suspense is to safely explore our innermost fears,” Lisa Gardner observes. Readers can’t do that unless the novelist does it first. Do you shout in rage whenever you’re actually hurt? Does sour grapes ever convince you that the unwanted outcome feels okay? What role does rationalization play in your interaction with others? With yourself?

~ Appraise the stakes.

Whatever worries or bothers one can escalate, even when insignificant as a thoughtless thing you said or heard. Concentrate on how hard you can grit your teeth over what to do. Now make your character feel that, so your readers can.

Tip: Be your own “artist’s model.” And it doesn’t cost a penny,

Many writers enjoy research, correctly believing that it can cement geography, history, and forays into sports or art, quilting or banking. But one area of emotions often goes unexplored: what the writer knows about suspense, emotion, and life. Why neglect that opportunity?