Well the study junkie’s been at it again. As usual I ‘ve had my head up my (*cough*) in my books, immersed in one topic or another for the past several months, undoubtedly at the expense of my writing. Well, in the short term anyway. In the long term, I hope it all adds up to something even better.
One of my recent distractions, and it’s been a MAJOR distraction, has been screenwriting and film making. But I’ll get to that in another post.
Most recently, I’ve thrown myself into a new topic, one which I realize is a shortcoming in my own writing – and that is emotion. I entered two of my unpubbed manuscripts into the writing contest of my local RWA chapter, The Judy, and last month discovered that I placed second for one of them. Yay! A prize! This is a rare and beautiful thing in a life so lacking in validation.
What I valued even more than the prize, however, was the detailed scoring and comments of the six judges who read my two entries. The perspectives of experienced writers, many of them published, with fresh eyes on my work, and the generosity to tell me what they think – that is priceless.
So, ironically, it was the comments on the manuscript that did not win that I focussed on first, because this is the manuscript that I earnestly pitched at the National RWA conference in Anaheim this past July. And to my surprise and delight, the one agent and four editors all asked to see it. So of course I hurried home and took a good hard look at it.
One of the things I decided to do was apply Margie Lawson’s Deep Edits technique to at least part of the manuscript to discover if there was something I had overlooked. It’s not that this story hasn’t been revised and edited a thousand times already. It’s pretty tight.
And that brings me back to emotion. What I discovered, over and above the valuable suggestions made by the contest judges, was that, according to Margie’s system what my manuscript lacked was, of all things, emotion. Well, in fact it’s not absent. It’s just not explicit enough for the particular market to which this book aspires.
My reading history is broad and deep and varied, and one of the things I sometimes have trouble doing is adjusting my writing to suit a particular market. So I might be writing a commercial women’s fiction story but use language or voice that’s more suitable to literary fiction. And I’m beginning to see that this just won’t work. I think. Or at least I have to find the balance that’s just right for my story and my “hypothetical” readers – whoever they may be.
So while I believe there’s tons of emotion in my novel, I don’t necessarily make it as obvious or visceral as I probably should to give my target readers the kind of reading experience they are looking for, and are used to. The emotion is situation and character based, and it’s often between the lines. I know readers are clever, but I’m learning that there’s a pretty powerful effect that certain kinds of language has on the reader’s emotional engagement. So my current learning curve is all about finding artful ways of engaging my readers in the emotional experiences of my characters.
And the material I have from Margie Lawson is invaluable in helping me to do that. Revisions are underway.
But of course when you cast the net of consciousness you catch all kinds of things. One of these, that kind of fell into my hands last week, was a book entitled The Passional Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories by psychologist and author Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto. Someone with the same professional background and perspective as Margie Lawson.
While I agree somewhat with the Quill and Quire review of this book, and did have the same difficulty the review discusses engaging in Oatley’s short story, One Another, embedded in the academic text, I still found much of his discussion of the role of emotion in fiction in our developmental experience as fully formed human beings quite fascinating and enlightening.
In any case, it points to the fact that wherever my work fits on the commercial-literary continuum, emotion is such a central part of fiction and the reading experience that I’d better get some clarity about how this ought to be conveyed in my own writing.