Archive for the ‘Blog Hop’ Category

RIP   10 comments

March 30, 2020

How do you feel about killing off one of your major characters?

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Disclaimer – this topic was chosen for the bloghop before Covid19 was a thing, but I still don’t disavow my statements here. Death is a natural part of life.

Fiction Imitates Life

People die! It’s a fact of life and should be a fact of fiction because the best fiction has some reality to it. People die.

In high fantasy, people walk around with swords and get all hot and bothered about honor and cattle. Of course, someone is going to die in that situation. You didn’t think those swords were jewelry, right? They’re weapons and they’re bound to get used from time to time. Plus, there’s rarely been a medieval society that had invented penicillin. We forget that people regularly died from cuts and sinus infections before World War 2. Dying is a natural part of life.

In apocalyptic fiction, people should die. I mean think about it. The world is spinning out of control. Do you really think everyone is going to survive that?

So I’m down with killing major characters occasionally. In Daermad Cycle’s first book The Willow Branch, I killed a major character before Page 10. I built Prince Maryn up to be the hero of the book and then I plunged a 10-foot-long spear through his guts and into his spine, staking him to a tree — and thereby established that anyone can die in this series. I then killed his father and his brother Perryn by the middle of the book. Although they haven’t died yet, I’ve blinded Tamys, drove Daryl mad, put Danyl into a coma, and paralyzed Teddryn by the end of Mirklin Wood. Any one of them or someone else could die at any page turn.

In Transformation Project’s first book, Life As We Knew It, I killed 30 million people. The readers possibly got to know a couple of them. They weren’t major characters, but yeah — anyone can die in an apocalyptic novel. In the second book Objects in View, I killed about 80 townspeople. They were all minor characters, but one of them even had a speaking role before I turned him into a corpse. I built up Jacob Delaney into the 95-year-old voice of reason and radicalism throughout the first five books of the series — and he died at the end of Gathering In, the latest book. I also had Shane leave his best friend to die. Yeah, I’m not nice to my characters.

Maryn, Mike and Jacob were major characters at the point of the story where they died. Why did I kill them?

Remember what I said about I’m mostly transcribing the stories the characters tell me? Well, Maryn stopped talking to me after I wrote the first scene. He wasn’t supposed to die. I had this romantic story outlined for him. He fathered a child and his lover’s story was clear to me, but he was just never in it. I wrote a lot of the first draft of The Willow Branch trying to write this wooden character into different scenes and I finally admitted that Maryn must have died. I went back to where he last spoke to me and — Maryn went out like a hero at the end of the first chapter of the book. Who exactly killed him remains as big a mystery as who John Snow’s mother was for all the way through Dance of Dragons in the Song of Ice and Fire, so his death served a purpose — it wasn’t just to show I can be blood-thirsty.

Right before I finished the draft of Objects in View, an old friend died — the father of a friend and my former Sunday school teacher. I thought I’d honor Dick by putting him in my book as a minor character. He was just supposed to flit in and flit out because I don’t base characters on people I know, but the character of Dick Vance took on a life of his own — for a period of time. But I felt the strain as I wrote scenes for him in A Threatening Fragility and I knew he wouldn’t survive the end of the book. He was never a character that spoke to me in the same way that my fictional characters do. Mainly I drew upon “What would Dick say in this situation?” and when I got to the point where I couldn’t see what my real-life friend Dick would say, he needed to die. I was glad to give him the respect of his final rest, as glad as I was to give him the honor of gracing two of my books. I enjoyed sending him out as a hero.

Jacob was harder. I knew almost from the start of writing the series he would die at some point. I just can’t visualize him in the last scenes of the series. I visualize other people quoting him, but he’s just never there. But he still had lots of story to write and I enjoyed it. He was like visiting an old and deeply wise friend, but I always knew that a 95-year-old is not going to survive the apocalypse. When I started planning Gathering In, I sensed Jacob shutting down. He gave me a great couple of final scenes and then he sat down in a recliner and went silent. Now that I’m working on the next book Winter’s Reckoning, I understand why, but it hurt to let the old man go. It was like if my own father passed away.

It’s been two weeks since I published Red Kryptonite Curve, a YA about a teenage boy struggling with alcoholism and the consequences of his inability to control his choices. It’s a series and while nobody dies in the first book, I’m aware that someone will die in the second one due out next year. It’s realistic and I like realism. And yet, every time I consider the draft points for the next book “Centerline”, I mist up because I don’t want to kill the character I know must die.

So I have mixed feelings about killing off major characters. Reasonably, I know major characters have to die or the fiction doesn’t feel real and that’s vitally important when you’re writing series. But I mourn them. I feel the loss of their voices in my head. And I feel sorry for their family and friends who will miss them. But pretty much, if they quit talking to me, they’re dead and it’s up to me to figure out how they will die in the best way possible to advance the story to the next level.

So Rest in Peace, guys! Know that your deaths were for a good cause.

No spoilers as to who will die in future books, but in Gathering In, I introduced a flu that is somewhat mild in the northern territories, but quite deadly in the southern climes. Why? I’m not telling. It opens up a whole lot of reasons to kill off major characters. Shane’s best friend Mike has already succumbed to the disease and Dylan Rigby has been brought low by the secondary effects of the virus. And, no, I started writing Gathering In back in November 2018, so I’m prescient, not pandering because of CoVid19. I liked Mike. I was sorry to see him go and he didn’t quit talking to me so he’ll probably show up in Shane’s memories. I like Dylan and I hope he lives. But nobody gets out of the apocalypse unscathed and death is just one of the tragedies that might befall a major character.

It’s the apocalypse after all.

_______

Go check out what my fellow blog hoppers have to say on this topic. And also consider following my buy links, because there’s hope in the apocalypse, even as I kill of the characters you might love.

Posted March 30, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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What are YOUR favorite books?   4 comments

Image result for image of a book

Normally, for the blog hop, it’s some question pertaining to me, but this week we’re tasked with asking our readers what their favorite books are. I probably should have posted this earlier in the week, but CoVid19, a new book launch and telecommuting distracted me.

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I’ll go first to make it easier for folks, but you can put your favorites in the comment box.

My favorite books span 40 years, of course. I really like anything by Madelaine L’Engle or Charles Dickens, but I will check out any new book written by Tad Williams, Katharine Kerr, Kate Elliot or Brandon Sanderson. Yes, I might be a fantasy and science fiction fan. I really like writers who world-build and the ones listed above do that, creating settings that you feel you’ve stepped into and could interact with the characters — or be one of the characters. You can feel the dirty streets of London as you read Dickens. You experience standing in the nave of St. John’s Catherdral reading L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns. Elliot, Kerr, Sanderson and Williams build entire worlds and then invite readers to visit.

Yes, there are other writers I love, but this post is about what books YOU, the readers, love. Go!

Posted March 22, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Covered   6 comments

Interview your cover designer (even if it’s you!)(talk about other covers they have worked on, what you love about their work, etc.)

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Who Designs Your Covers?

Right up front — I design my own covers. When I first started, my daughter, who is an artist, designed my first two covers and they were quite good, but a catastrophic computer failure wiped out those cover images just after she left on a world tour (otherwise known as being a starving musician across America). She recommended a friend, a college student, who helped me rebuild the covers for The Willow Branch and Life As We Knew It. They are Ivyl’s basic design, but with new images and we fixed some of the things I didn’ t like. He started to design the cover for Mirklin Wood. Halfway through collecting the various images, he suggested I learn how to do photo editing and computer collage. It would, he explained, save me money (or moose-stew and blueberry pie, which is what he preferred over money) and it would take care of that fact that he was graduating and leaving the state. I’ve completely designed all the others with input from friends, my family and random coworkers and church members.

What Do You Like Best About Working with Yourself?

I’m cheap. Seriously – money is an object and if I spend my money on cover design, I have less money for editing and marketing.

I’m not a true artist. I can draw, but my inner artist has perspective problems. But Ivyl points out I’m a photographer and I also managed to get a B from a university art class where the professor was a real artist. She was pretty convinced I could do it and so was her friend, who is now a scrimshaw artist in a western village concerned about what CoVid19 is going to do to the tourism industry his income relies on. Cover design is really collage and I’ have always been good at collage. The computer eliminates the need to endure the smell of rubber cement.

But I also like that I know my own mind. I don’t have to describe what I want to another person who may not have read the book. Ivyl had and the design went easily, but there were still issues with conveying my vision. Ethan hadn’t and working on Mirklin Wood was a struggle. He did a good job, but it took a lot of effort.

What Are You Aiming When You Start a Cover Design?

I like covers that give you some idea of what you might find in the book, which is one reason I don’t use cover mills. So, for example, The Willow Branch has a moon that isn’t really a moon and it harbingers the arrival of a goddess who sometimes takes the form of a raven. And you can get that from the cover.

Objects in View features a lot of roadblocks and surveillance by drones. You can see that from the cover. I want readers to be intrigued by what they see and want to check out what’s inside. By the way, that features almost entirely my own photography. I ran around my town and took pictures of cars with their taillights on, then cropped the images, masked the license plates and layered in the collage.

Although most of my images come from the Internet, I try to find unique pieces or edit the images in such a way that nobody is going to recognize it as an image they’ve seen a million times. For example, the moon on the cover of The Willow Branch is a NASA photo that we spun on its axis so it doesn’t look like Earth’s moon.

I always go for some striking image, often a pop of color or contrast in every cover. The brake lights in Objects in View, the aircraft’s yellow standing out against the blue of the storm in Gathering In, and the barn in Life As We Knew It all grab attention in a thumbnail and, hopefully, make the reader go — “Ooo, what’s that? Gotta check it out.”

I want the cover image to look good in print. With the ebook it’s all about the pop, but with the print book, the images need to look good, especially the typography. One of the things I like best about working for myself is I own the image, so I can make changes whenever I want and test them on the live audience on Amazon. I have made some remarkably small changes and seen an almost immediate bump in hits on ads, for example.

How Long Does It Take You to Design a Cover?

About a year, or as long as it takes me to write the book. Of course, I don’t work on it every day, but typically, I start to get a basic idea for a cover while I’m writing the book. In the case of “Winter’s Reckoning,” which will come out this fall, I started to get the cover idea while I was writing Gathering In and actually had the cover more or less complete before I started to write the book. Sometimes it just works out that way.

As I write, I’ll start looking for images to edit. I’ll keep track of where I got them, so if I use them in the final design I go pay the royalty. I’m always looking for that pop of color or contrast and then when I have a rough collage going, I go back and really neaten up the constituent images and layer them into the design. I might do several dozen tweaks. I might toss an image I liked in favor of another one that’s stronger. I finally save it as if it were a piece of artwork and then work on the typography.

What’s Important about the Typography?

I’m actually qualified in typographic design. I trained as a journalist back when small-town newspaper folks had to do everything without computers, so I try to spend extra effort in getting the typography right. You say a lot with the font you use and the placement in the image. While I might take a lot of time on the collage that forms the picture, I will definitely spend several passes at getting the typography right.

Now, when I say right – I mean on the print book. It’s really not necessary to make the typography legible on the e-book. A pop of color or contrast will attract attention to the thumbnail, but ebook customers have all that writing available to them left of the thumbnail in whatever font size they prefer. My focus is on a good or even great cover image. My attention to typography is for the print book and is a matter of personal pride.

Would you ever consider working with a professional cover designer?

Yes, if the price were right and we came up with a final product on our first project that was worth the effort. I recognize that others have talent beyond mine. I also recognize that indie publishing is a numbers game and if I’m spending thousands of dollars bringing a book to market before I’ve even sold one copy, then it’s not a business so much as a very expensive hobby. I already have one of those and at least we can snuggle under my quilts.

Are You Looking for Customers?

No, although if someone would like me to mentor them in DYI cover design, I’d be okay with that. I think, in doing someone else’s cover, I would have the same problem Ivyl and her friend had, trying to read the mind of the author and not quite getting it right. That’s a lot of money to charge someone for not quite getting it right and if I’m going to charge money for something, the final product needs to make them happy.

What Advice Would You Give Other Authors Considering DYI Design?

It’s not for everyone. I had a background in pedestrian art, photograph and typography. All I needed was training in photo editing. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do that. Perhaps you can DYI a mockup for your cover designer, so you can show him or her what your basic vision is. Then take his advice because that is his area of expertise. And cover mills do have a place in the market, although I caution against having the same cover as 20 other books. But you know, having some fun with it. Get Canva or Paint.net (which is what I use) and spend some time playing with some images. You may discover you have a hidden talent.

Posted March 16, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Learning Styles   13 comments

March 9, 2020

Are audio books considered reading?

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Why Is There a Controversy?

audio-books-reading
Does listening to an audio book count as reading? Laura investigates… Image Credit: Spry via Flickr Creative Commons.

I guess I sort of knew there might be a debate about whether listening to an audio book can be considered having read the book. After all, we live in a day and age where it seems like everyone has a strong opinion about just about every subject and they need to fight it out with anyone who opposes them. So, why not argue about audio books?

I belong to a community group at my church that has a lot of diversity, which means I interact with a fair number of millennials. I’ve noticed they seem to comsume their books in audio form.

One debate that’s been dividing the reading community for the last few years is the question of whether listening to an audio book counts as reading.

There has been an abundance of new technologies infiltrating the publishing industry in recent times, and with these technologies have come controversy and debate surrounding their impact on the way we read. They’re always recommending this or that “book” and I can get it with an app from the public library. I think they think I’m very quaint when I buy the either paperback or the e-book.

I don’t enjoy audio books. I find it hard to maintain attention on them. Ditto podcasts. My husband LOVES them and is always declaring that I need to watch this or that one. And, I do, but if I have a choice between listening to someone or reading what they’ve written, I prefer reading it.

I think it’s a learning style issue. Some people are visual learners and, therefore enjoy reading, while others are auditory learners and enjoy listening. Which explains recent estimates suggesting audio books are a $2 billion industry that is growing every year. The industry has reached the point where books are being written specifically for the audio format.

If you listened to Jane Eyre, are you not allowed to claim to have read it? And should you be ashamed of the way you consumed it? To some extreme audio book detractors the answer to the last question is an emphatic yes.

As Psychology Professor, William Irwin, said in his article Reading Audio Books“Audio books began as a boon to the blind and dyslexic and have been mistaken as a refuge for the illiterate and lazy.”

The voices of the other side, however, claim that the method of consumption has little or no relevance – the words are the same no matter how they are being delivered.

The arguments from both sides of the debate range from the scientific to the subjective; the only similarity is the passion behind their beliefs.

Science

There is limited scientific research into this specific issue, but there are a few relevant studies that present cases for both sides.

As far back as 1977, a study was conducted at the University of Chicago, in which participants were asked to write a brief summary of a story after either listening to it or reading it.

The content of the summaries produced by the participants were extremely similar, suggesting that the processes involved in reading and listening, as well as the end results from these activities, were very similar.

The authors stated, on the basis of their findings, “reading and listening involve identical comprehension skills”.

In contrast, in 2013, psychologists at The University of Waterloo, Ontario conducted experiments into mind wandering, interest and memory when reading silently, reading aloud and listening.

Using excepts from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, participants read one section aloud, read another section silently and listened to a third section while looking at a blank screen.

The results showed that when listening, the participants’ minds wandered the most, and they remembered the least. This correlates with my own experience.

The study presents the idea that “a more physically engaged reading experience means readers are likely to spend less time mind wandering”.

The authors also noted that “while listening to an audio book or podcast may seem to be a convenient and appealing option, our findings suggest that it might be the least beneficial to learning, leading to both higher rates of mind wandering and less interest in the material.”

It’s possible that this study even underplays the mind-wandering aspect of audio books, seeing as it would be rare for someone to be staring at a blank screen when listening to a book.

The majority of people listen to audio books while doing other things, such as driving, exercising or cleaning. This kind of multi-tasking is almost impossible when reading a physical book, and is one of the most common arguments against audio books. For people who are really busy, it’s one of the prime benefits of audio books.

The Not-so Scientific

One of the main arguments against audiobooks as a legitimate form of reading is that by having someone else read you the book, you may be influenced or guided into certain assumptions based on their tone or expression. The narrator interprets the text and passes these impressions onto the reader, thus excluding the reader from ever needing to form their own impressions.

While this definitely takes away an important element of the reading process, in some cases, this may actually enhance the reader’s enjoyment and understanding.

As mentioned previously, another significant issue that gets raised is the fact that people find it hard to focus when they are listening to a book – they feel they are much more easily distracted than they would be if they were reading a physical book.

While this is a legitimate concern, it isn’t a valid argument in the current debate. People’s personal preferences and/or abilities are just that, they’re personal, and are not legitimate reasons to exclude an entire method from the reading umbrella.

The most obvious argument in favor of audio books’ legitimacy is that the content is exactly the same regardless of whether the words are being listened to or read.

A listener experiences the same story as a reader, they should be just as able to contribute to a discussion about the book, and have as much of a legitimate claim to having read it.

The Verdict

To say that listening to a book means you haven’t read it, excludes all visually-impaired people from being able to call themselves a reader, which seems extremely unfair.

Reading is, at its heart, an inclusive activity and community – to exclude such a large population for what is essentially semantics seems a little out of character.

This is not to say that audio books are for everyone, in the same way that e-readers aren’t for everyone.

But the fact that the method doesn’t suit everyone’s reading style shouldn’t exclude it from the reading family. There are different learning styles and not everyone has the difficulty I have in focusing on an audio book. I know long-haul truckers and plow drivers who read more books than I do in a year because they listen to them while they drive.

We can either accept that technologies are changing the way we read and expand the definition of reading to fit the times, or we create a new word that encompasses all forms of literature consumption.

Posted March 9, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Keeping It All Straight   7 comments

Share how you keep your characters, storylines, etc., organized. Do you use an outline? Notecards? Post-its all over your walls?

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Writing Series Requires Organization

I write series with ensemble casts, so of course, I have methods for organizing the characters, plot lines, relationships, etc. Those methods varied over the years and still vary by series.

Don’t Embarrass Yourself

Transformation Project is modern times with characters who have ordinary names, but I caught myself once using the wrong name for a side character — Alice Ramirez. When Alice first appeared, I named her Teresa and a beta reader who is a personal friend of mine (a Hispanic-American named Margaret) pointed out that I was being ethnocentric with a character I meant to be diverse. “Pick an American or Americanized name for her.” So I changed her name to Alice. Her husband Marco became Mark (though he’s still Hispanic), their son is Pete, and their daughter is Lisa.

But somehow, that name Teresa stuck in my head and when I was writing A Threatening Fragility, I didn’t even notice until I was almost ready to publish the book. Yikes! Clearly I need a system for organizing my character names.

It’s Complicated

Daermad Cycle is a Celtic medieval fantasy with a lot of weird names. Most of those names started out organized in a continuity notebook. It’s nothing special – just a spiral-bound notebook with “Daemad Cycle” written across the front. It worked pretty good for a long time, except my husband keeps trying to organize things around the house and it was missing for about a year. I finally found it filed away with a bunch of other spiral-bound notebooks from our kids’ school work. Yikes! Clearly I need a better system for organizing my plot lines and character names.

Word Files

Nowadays I have Word files that reside alongside my draft manuscripts for both (soon to be three) series. If I search for a character name (or maybe a town or village), I’ll end up at a section that has a lot of notes about the character/town/village/whatever. What color are Cai’s eyes? Blue. What color Jill’s? You might think they’re blue because her son’s are, but they’re actually green like Shane’s. What color are Keri’s? They’re a blue-green mix (like my husband and daughter’s are). I don’t want to be like Raymond Chandler forgetting the chauffeur in The Big Sleep.

Spreadsheet

I’m also developing an Excel spreadsheet for Daermad Cycle. I know, so boring, but it’s a complicate series, so the spread sheet makes sense. Search for a village name and it will pull up all the character names and their occupations, so I no longer need to go back and read the sections on the village to know who is who. Eventually, I hope to track the objects of power in the series and I’m sure I’ll come up with other things to track as well. Although I developed the spreadsheet for a few basic reasons, it’s expandable and I can “jot down” something I need to remember with a few keystrokes. And my husband is unlikely to file it away in a plastic tub in the basement.

I don’t anticipate creating a spreadsheet for Transformation Project or the new series starting What If … Wasn’t, because these are modern stories and somehow, just less complicated.

Sticky Notes

A lot of my organization consists of Sticky Notes. No, not the ones you stick on your walls. The ones on the front page of your computer. I love these multicolored notes for current projects because as I accomplish something in the story, I can remove that note and see that I’m making progress. It’s also a great way to remember the name of a character you keep forgetting.

No, I don’t use dedicated novel-writing software such as Scrivener to help organize scenes and chapters. Why not? Because I like being an iconoclast and too many other people swear by it. I fear (ish) that such reliance on a software program might lead to cookie-cutter similarity with other people’s work and I don’t want to fall into that trap. I also don’t use index cards, which my husband loves. Why not? Because I don’t want to spend an hour flipping through cards trying to find the information I need.

It’s all in what works for you and this is what works for me. You do what works for you.

Posted March 2, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Writing Passion   7 comments

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

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So, I wrote this great article on this topic and accidentally swapped it for last week’s blog hop article. Have I mentioned I suck at math? Yeah, I do. And calendars, apparently.

Here’s a link to the original article, and I’m starting this one with the same intro. It was a great article in which I explore novels written by Artificial Intelligence. Yes, that’s really a thing, though neither a good one nor a real threat to legitimate novelists, in my opinion. It’s probably before its time, just like my article was. Great ideas are always jumping the gun.

Do I believe a writer can be a good writer if they don’t feel strong emotions?

Absolutely!

Let’s define our terms first. A writer is someone who writes. An author is someone whose writing is published. A novelist is someone who writes fiction.

Do we assume the author who wrote Essentials of Modern Refrigeration (a book on my husband’s shelf in the family library) had strong emotions about refrigeration? How about the Chilton’s Manual on Ford Taurus 1995-2010?

Yes, writers produced those books and I’m thinking neither of them wept over any chapter of them, although I can assure you my husband has shed a few tears over that stupid California car in our driveway. Essentials of Modern Refrigeration didn’t even put me to sleep (I am my husband’s study partner, so I am obligated to read his technical manuals before he has to take licensing tests, so he can use me as his pre-tester). So, yes, a writer can write without feeling any emotion whatsoever about a topic that really doesn’t stir a lot of emotions. Trust me, absolutely nobody is passionate about how to change an oil filter on a 2005 Taurus.

I think the question we’re really asking is “Can someone be a novelist if they don’t feel emotion strongly?”

In my other article, I focused on the writer’s job to draw out the emotions of the reader regardless if we feel the emotion. Yeah, I’m not writing the same article, so go read it if you didn’t already.

I don’t think you need to have experienced the exact same emotion your character experiences in order to illicit an emotional response from your readers.

Writing about a hot mess doesn’t mean you have to be a hot mess yourself. I work a responsible job and have managed to stay married to the same man for more than 30 years. I raised two reasonably well-adjusted children (okay, one of them is a gypsy musician, but she’s a functional gypsy musician. I did MY job and she’s feeding herself, though the roof-over-her-head thing is still debatable). I would not define myself as a hot mess.

On the other hand, I’ve lived a life. I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it. I’ve been scared. I’ve faced loss. I’ve been angry. I’ve been lonely.

But I’ve never killed anyone in a drunk driving accident and I’m writing a character who has. How can I write that character if I’ve never felt that emotion? Well, maybe I can’t. We’ll see how the readers like it when it’s finally published.

I’ve never shot anyone in a war either and I don’t suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from an experience I’ve never had. Yet readers seem to think I do a believable job of portraying Shane because they read all the published books in the series and enough people have read the most recent book in Transformation Project that I’m guessing they were waiting for it to come out. Do you think they read the whole series (to this point) because I did a bad job of conveying emotions I’ve never experienced?

Probably not.

Though I’ve never actually experienced those emotions, I know people who have and I can sense by what they say and, more importantly, what they don’t or can’t say what some of their emotions are about those past events. My job as a writer is to give expression to the groanings of a soul that has no words for what has wounded it. And, yes, of course, I feel empathy for their emotional turmoil, but frankly, if my response was to weep, I’d not be able to interview them dispassionately and that would, I believe, harm my purpose. If you’re feeling too deeply, it’s hard to put the words on the paper. It’s hard to even understand the other person’s emotions. As an author, I need some distance from the character to write their pain effectively.

My job as a writer is to give expression to the groanings of a soul that has no words for what wounded it.

When I experience the emotion is when I read the manuscript as if I were a reader. And, if I get that tingling sensation in my soft pallet and my eyes start to gloss up, then I know I’ve done my job, because if it makes me cry, it’s going to illicit a strong response from the readers who encounter it for the first time.

I trained and worked as a journalist where you typically have less than 350 words to convey something to a reader – the horror of the car accident, the fear of the burning building, the passion of the City Councilman. In my day, journalists were supposed to report the news, not insinuate their opinion or feelings into the news, but certainly good reporters understand word choice and how to tug on a reader’s emotions without saying “Hey, cry about this.” My News Writing professor used to say “Be dispassionate to bring out the passion.”

I don’t have to feel the emotion strongly to write strong prose, but absolutely, I have to understand what elicits emotions in others in order to draw an emotional response from them. But there comes a place and time where writers must not manipulate the readers into feeling passionate about the character’s experience. Instead, we need to set up a scene where the reader follows the character through an emotional roller coaster and then provide an opportunity for the character to reflect on that now-past shattering event. While the character is unpacking their own response, the reader may process theirs as well, if they choose, and if I’ve done my job as a novelist correctly.

Cat Herding 101   11 comments

Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

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Defining Terms at the Outset

Absolutely!

Let’s define our terms first. A writer is someone who writes. An author is someone whose writing is published. A novelist is someone who writes fiction.

Do we assume the author who wrote Essentials of Modern Refrigeration (a book on my husband’s shelf in the family library) had strong emotions about refrigeration? How about the Chilton’s Manual on Ford Taurus 1995-2010?

Yes, writers produced those books and I’m thinking neither of them wept over any chapter of them, although I can assure you my husband has shed a few tears over that stupid California car in our driveway. It will someday be replaced by a nice sensible Subaru or a Jeep that’s old enough to vote. (We both hate modern electronics and want cars that we can work on).

Can someone be a novelist if they don’t feel emotion strongly?

Can AI Write Novels?

That’s a more nuanced answer, isn’t it? Afterall an AI recently penned a road-trip narrative novel and some of its lines made me go “hmm, that’s interesting.” Starting with “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy”, 1 the Road reads like a Google Street View car  narrating a cross-country journey to itself. It’s a tour of the built and noisy world interpreted by a machine. It’s surveillance-technology fiction, written by the same species of technology that is conducting the surveillance and processing the data. What might an AI teach us about a world already so totally impacted and sculpted by the data it gathers that a human writer can’t? For the record, to a natural-rights libertarian who believes in human individuality, it was … pause-worthy. I didn’t consider it great literature for some of the same reasons I don’t think Jack Kerouac’s Benzedrine-fueled On the Road was great literature, but the AI’s view of the American highway system did make me think, and unsettled me enough to stir dystopian sci-fi novel possibilities in my imagination.

For now, let’s just focus on the humans.

Novelists deal in the arena of feeling and emotion. Our books thrive on the conflict wrought in the character’s emotions. Obviously, a novelist must understand emotion and the best way to understand it is to feel it, but is the writer required to be a hot mess with internal conflicts similar to the character? I hope not.

I am currently working on a YA that is the start of a series that will follow the young adulthood of Peter – a hot mess whose internal conflicts are going to lead to dark places. I’ve never been a teenage boy and I’ve never engaged in some of the behaviors Peter engages in. I keep giving my 21-year-old son chapters of the first book to read and he’s starting to say “Mom, did you read my mind when I was 17? You’re scaring me.”

Write What You Know?

Or Understand What You Write?

Clearly, I am not writing what I personally know. I was last a teenager decades ago, but I’m not Peter. I am drawing off of my own experiences and conversations I had with my kids and their friends. I’m feeling Peter’s emotions, but they are not my emotions. To a large degree it is a cerebral process of applying knowledge in the arena of emotions.

I worked in community mental health for almost two decades. I was an administrator, not a clinician, although that line blurred often because I wasn’t afraid to interact with clients. Much of what I say in the next few paragraphs pertains to what I learned from that experience.

Feeling requires introspection, which necessitates identification with the character and empathy for what he or she faces. But, the story’s action and its characters are vehicles through which the reader creates her own emotional experience. The goal is not to get readers to feel what the characters feel per se, but to use the characters’ emotional conflict as a device to get readers to feel something on their own.

Recent neurological research suggests the mind must assess a feeling in order to experience it fully. Despite the modernist advice to “show, don’t tell,” readers need some processing of feeling by the character to register it meaningfully. This means allowing characters to think about what they’re feeling, which makes the feelings both more concrete and more personal and creates time and space for readers to process their own feelings. If the writer attempts to connect the reader to the character’s feelings, then the reader must be able to ask if they feel the same way or if their feelings differ.

Does this mean a cerebral writer be a good novelist? Hemingway was a pretty strict advocate of “show, don’t tell” and his novels impacted me powerfully. I love reading Hemingway, but I long ago departed from his journalistic just-the-facts style to a novel style that focuses on revealing a character’s emotion through a particularly dramatic scene or a series of scenes that culminate in a devastating reveal or reversal, plunging the character, and hopefully the reader, into a powerful emotional event, followed by a scene that has some introspection, permitting characters and readers alike to take a breather and process what just happened.

I use that technique a lot in Transformation Project. There’s a traumatic event or series of events followed by a time of the town turning inward and characters analyzing what just happened. Within those “resting” scenes, the point-of-view character often registers and analyzes the emotional impact of recent events, comes to a somewhat logical conclusion about the meaning of those events, and makes a plan of how to proceed going forward.

Peter will do the same thing, though this younger character will have fewer skills for how to analyze his emotional experiences because 17-year-olds live “in the moment” and it’s hard for them to see what tomorrow might look like.

If You’re Going to Herd Cats, You Must Understand Cats

My hope is readers will process their own emotions and interpretation of events while the character is doing so, not necessarily in parallel or even consciously.

And there’s a proviso here – it needs to be brief because I don’t want to bore or alienate readers who may be ready to move on. The point isn’t to over-analyze the character’s feelings, but to clear a space for readers to examine their own feelings. And, frankly, in most of our lives, we spend very little time in introspection because we’re too busy cleaning up the messes our actions cause.

A character changes through the emotions he experiences and through the evolution in self-awareness this process allows. This gradual metamorphosis creates the story’s internal arc, providing the character an opportunity to move step-by-step from being at the mercy of his emotions to mastering his feelings, providing a means for the reader to traverse an arc of her own, expanding her emotional self-awareness … hopefully.

I can only write it. Herding readers is a lot like herding cats. You have to set up the conditions where they think it’s their idea to go in the direction you suggest — which leaves open the possibility that they will choose a direction you didn’t plan. I love when someone gets a message from my books that I didn’t consciously intend.

So, yes, you can write if you don’t feel strong emotions, so long as you understand how to evoke strong emotions in others, but I think you have to have some feeling at some level to know how to pull on the heartstrings of others. I don’t think we need to worry about artificial intelligence replacing novelists.

Posted February 10, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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