On Constant Companions and Distraction (Tis the Season)

When I was younger, I smoked. It’s been twenty years now since I quit, but I still remember how much I loved smoking. (For years, I swore that once I hit my eighties I was going to take up smoking again, because at that age, who cares, right? But I no longer have any desire for it.) In response to a writing prompt recently, I wrote about how smoking had been my constant companion. The hardest thing about quitting was missing my best friend, cigarettes. They were with me always, through good times and bad, ready to soothe me whenever needed.

But when I thought about it more, I realized that my true lifelong companion has been writing. I’ve been scribbling in diaries and journals, writing poetry (that’s gone by the wayside) and reports and stories and articles and novels and blog posts and newsletters, some form of writing, all my life. Literally, since I was old enough to hold a pencil in my hand. And writing has been far more of a soothing comfort and BFF than smoking could ever have been. I’m grateful for it, so grateful.

Even constant companions get boring sometimes, though, and then it is easy to stray from them. Especially at this time of year, during the winter holidays, when everyone is shopping, wrapping presents, hanging out with family and friends, and so on. There’s a lot to get distracted by.  What’s a writer to do? I just happen to have some suggestions, based on hard experience.

Remember the value. Your constant companion, be it writing or drawing or painting or knitting or lawn mowing, is important. (Okay, let’s not lump smoking into this one.) Remember, not everyone has one.  This sounds dorky, but I feel like it is an honor to have one. I always have a place to go, no matter what. I have a place to go to bitch and moan, to celebrate, to laugh, to fall apart. Come to think of it my writing companion fills many of the same roles as a human companion without any of the other issues. (I will admit, I am a dedicated extrovert, so people are quite important to me as well.) And because I value it so highly, I will treat it with respect. At least most of the time.

Kaizen it. Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that advocates small improvements, baby steps at a time. So often we think we have to do all the things, all at once, when, really, we can accomplish a lot a little at a time. Like writing, for instance. Because writing is accomplished one word at a time. The trick is to honor and congratulate yourself for every teeny, tiny step you take. It will add up!

Go back to it. The cool thing about constant companions is that they are always there for you. At least constant companions of the writing sort are. Stay away from your journal for a month and it makes no judgement about you when you return. It is just there, waiting for you, ready to take up where you left off. You don’t have to explain, or apologize, or get defensive about your absence (unlikely with a human). All you have to do it pick up your pen and start again, one word at a time.

Just relax and go with the distractions. Ha! I am so terrible at this. I planned a lovely four weeks of lazing about the house after my recent hip surgery, and that lasted about four days. I can barely get myself to take a nap, or enjoy an afternoon off. I’d rather torture myself by sitting at the computer staring at a blank page than giving up and doing something else. But maybe you are better at this than me? If so, I hereby give you permission to go for it. Allow the distractions to sweep you away, and most important, enjoy it while they do. Because, tis the season, the best time of the year, so you might as well have some fun.

So, in this festive season, I hope you have a constant companion that pleases you. And I also hope that if you are neglecting it amidst the current hustle and bustle, that you are not feeling guilty about it.  Because if it is a true constant companion, all the distractions in the world will ultimately not keep you from it.


Here is your prompt of the week:

The most constant companion I’ve had in my life is….


 A very cool teleseminar! It is called Writing Into the New Year. I’m going to be sending out full information on this to all of you this week (if you’re not on my list, click the button to the right to join), but on January 17, my dear friend Patty Bechtold  and I are doing a special expressive writing workshop.  It is called Writing Into the New Year, and it is FREE! Sign up here. 

 France 2019—We’ve posted the information for next year’s workshop! Find all the details here.  We’ve already had a few sign-ups and there’s a discount if you commit before the end of the year, so check it out now.

Coaching—I haven’t done a lot of it this past year, but I’m taking on a few new clients in January. If you are interested, email me and we will talk.

Facebook Group

And of course, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.


On Planning and Setting Goals (Or Not), A Love Letter

I’m such a sucker for reviewing and planning at this time of year. I’ve tried a million systems, some expensive, some not, some helpful, some way too detailed and structured to work for me. I’ve bought programs from Michael Hyatt, and calendars from Leonie Dawson.  Often I buy expensive planners that promise to make me more productive and focused. By February, they are abandoned.

Photo by Renáta-Adrienn on Unsplash

I tend to make elaborate plans, complete with ambitious, unattainable goals. Mid-year I look back and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I don’t want to do that this year, and yet I do love the process of planning (probably too much) and I don’t want to skip it. And so this year I am doing my my best to keep the process loose and open.

And still, I am a sucker for any post or article about end-of-the-year reviewing and planning.  This year, I’ve found some good ones, and luckily for me, they are pretty simple. You might be interested in:

The Max Daniels planner, which is a short PDF, and for $10 a great starting point.

I loved this post from Cynthia Morris, also very short and simple.  (I highly recommend getting on her list to be notified of when her next Devoted Writer program comes around).

Jeffrey Davis, who is running a month-long program on planning that it is not too late to join.

Michele PW has a good blog post on goal setting in a different way.

Taking a little bit of this, a little of that, and much inspiration from the above resources, here’s the plan I’m following (loosely, as always). And I’m still in the middle of it, so the jury is out as to how well it will work. Come next July I’ll know for sure!

–I’m using plain sheets of computer paper, though usually I prefer to work in a journal or spiral. But for this I felt I needed to see a bigger picture.

–I turned the paper sideways and drew a line down the middle, then labeled each half a specific month. With the help of my 2018 calendar and the photos on my phone, I was able to note what happened in each month. This is the first time I’ve done it this way and it was really helpful.

–Here is a wonderfully helpful tip from Cynthia Morris: review your year in terms of your values.  How did what you did align with what you hold most dear in your life? I loved this idea and it became key for me in mulling over my year.

–On a fresh piece of paper, brainstorm all the things you want for 2019. Note your writing-related goals. What projects do you want to finish? To start? Which ones need to go out into the world? Are you going to indie publish or look for an agent? Maybe you want to try something new, like writing memoir or essays rather than fiction or short stories. Write it all down.

Then there’s the personal, of course. The usual—lose weight, eat healthier, exercise, meditate, fun stuff, travel, hobbies, etc. This is an initial brain dump, off the top of your head. You can organize it later.

This may take more than one sheet of paper, and if you are so inclined you might also want to do it mind map style.  (Write 2019 in the middle of the page and draw lines out from it for each area of goals.)  As you do this, consider your values. Is what you’re writing on the page in line with what is most precious to you?

–Take a break. Go eat chocolate. Or drink wine. Or a nice hot cup of tea.

–Look at your brain dump. What are the things you really, really, really want to spend time doing? To quote Marie Kondo, what sparks your joy? Cross off everything else. (This is the hard part for me, and I’ll be honest, I’m not good at it. I want to do all the things.)

–Then create the same matrix of months as for 2018, only label them for 2019.  Write down all the things that are already scheduled, and then add in the things you want to make happen.

–From here, you can transfer these intentions/goals/desires to whatever you like best to work in—a bullet journal, a regular old-fashioned journal, your phone, a Word doc, one of the many gorgeous planners that are available. I’m partial to the Erin Condren planners, but at the moment I’m using my phone and a minimalistic bullet journal (no fancy hand-drawn spreads for me) to organize my life, time, and goals.

Et voila, there you have it—your year, planned, without too much muss and fuss.

Leave a comment and tell me how you like to review and plan at this time of year. Does this “system” appeal to you, or do you follow something else?

News Flash!—We’ve had a cancellation for the February Astoria Workshop. It filled up quickly, but one person had to back out for personal reasons. So there’s an open spot! Is it yours? Check out all the information about it here ,    and if you’re interested, reply to this newsletter.

 France 2019—We’ve posted the information for next year’s workshop! Find all the details here.  We’ve already had a few sign-ups and there’s a discount if you commit before the end of the year.

Coaching—I haven’t done a lot of it this past year, but I’m taking on a few new clients in January. If you are interested, reply to this email and we will talk.

Facebook Group

And of course, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.

This newsletter contains affiliate links.


On Beginning Again, A Love Letter (+ November Round-up

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

I’m two weeks out from my hip replacement surgery, and, as noted last week, I’m doing well. I jokingly tell people I’m a little disappointed—I thought I was going to have at least a month to laze about, reading and recovering. And now I feel like doing all the things!

Including writing.

Sort of.

Because, funny thing, the desire is there but I haven’t actually had a lot of luck getting words on the page. I write in my journal every morning.  I managed to write a post on Medium (see below), and I’ve now put together two newsletters. But every day in my journal I write about how eager I am to get back to my fiction. How today might be the day.

And then it isn’t.

While I am frustrated with myself, this gap between desire and action isn’t fully a bad thing, because it puts me right back into how it feels to be a beginner. When I was a young woman, I wanted to write stories so badly. And yet I had no idea how to do it. I’d open a page in my journal and feel blank. I didn’t know how to get started. I didn’t know what to write about.

Eventually I fell back on my education in journalism and started free-lancing articles. But I still wanted to write stories. Fiction.  It took me a long time to find the confidence to do it. And if I had known then, what I know now, it might not have taken so long.

Because now I know the secret: the only way out is through. The way to solve the problem of not writing is to write. Something, anything. Set a timer for 15 minutes, put pen to paper and write without stopping. (I mean it. Don’t stop.) Make yourself do it. (I’m telling myself this, too.)

The relief and joy you feel will far outweigh the earlier pain of procrastination. And then all you have to do is start over again. And again. And again. That’s how all books, essays, stories, blog posts, anything, are written.

A Prompt

Here is your prompt of the week:

Oh no, we have to start over again?


 I wrote a blog post about how surgery is like long distance travel on Medium. Read it here.

November Round-Up


Winter in Paradise, by Elin Hilderbrand.  A good read, but be aware—there’s a cliffhanger at the end that leaves you hanging until the next book, which isn’t out yet.


10% Happier, by Dan Harris. The benefits of meditation, mixed in with entertaining stories about the broadcast news business.


Sisters First, by Jenna and Barbara Bush. I never in a million years would have read this book. But my sister went to hear Jenna Bush speak as part of a lecture series she patronizes and brought me the book. I actually enjoyed it, and it made me respect the Bushes a whole lot more.


The Christmas Camp, by Karen Schaler.  Predictable and corny, but it was fun. And I was still in a bit of a haze from the anesthetic. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Solace Island, by Meg Tilly. Yes, that Meg Tilly—the actress. I really enjoyed this romantic suspense novel, set in the Pacific Northwest.


Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Oh boy, this one is a bit of a slog. I love Kingsolver’s writing style—her style is a joy to read. But every scene in this book turns into a polemic about a current or historical political or social problem. It gets a bit tedious.


All the Hallmark Christmas movies. Honestly, they are pretty much interchangeable and so are the actors and actresses and the names of the films, (hence why I’m not listing any). But I don’t care, I love them in all their tackiness anyway.

And Don’t Forget

 France 2019—We’ve posted the information for next year’s workshop! Find all the details here.  We’ve already had a few sign-ups and there’s a discount if you commit before the end of the year.

Facebook Group

And of course, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.

This post contains affiliate links.

Coming Out the Other Side + Holiday Special (A Love Letter)

Years ago I read a science fiction novel, the name and author of which is long lost in the mists of time and my brain. A female scientist (I think), living on another planet (of course), was studying an alien life form that appeared in the form of lights in a lake. The lights blinked on and off, saying I am here. I am alive. I am here.

I’m like one of those alien light forms. I am here! I am alive! I am here!

I made it through surgery with flying colors.  I woke in the recovery room, looked at the nurse, and said, “That’s it? It’s all done?” I was so amazed to remember nothing after being wheeled into the operating room—and then wake up two hours later, with nothing but blankness in between.

That was a week and a half ago and I’m doing great.  I’ve got very little pain, less than what I had before the surgery, to be honest. I’ve ditched my walker and am getting around easily with just a cane. (My advice to anybody getting hip replacement surgery: find a doc who does the direct superior approach. It is far less invasive and offers a much quicker recovery.) I’m working hard at physical therapy, doing my at-home exercises, and trying very hard not to do too much too fast.

And I am grateful. So, so grateful. It is such a gift to be given a second chance—an opportunity to live without pain. It’s a cliché bordering on the ludicrous to establish a gratitude practice, but the last few nights I’ve found myself spontaneously listing what and who I’m grateful for as I fall asleep.  My surgeon, all the nurses who cared for me, family, friends, and of course—you.

You who read my weekly missives, join the Facebook group, and read my blog posts. And so, in the spirit of this past weekend’s Black Friday/Small Business Saturday and the upcoming Cyber Monday, I am offering my own mine-sale.

Here’s the deal: two options, listed below. Please be aware that I won’t be booking any appointments until mid-December at the earliest. But you can grab the discount prices now and use the sessions any time over the next year. Prices good through Wednesday, November 28th at midnight Pacific time.

Also, please be aware that my rates will be going up in 2019.  I’ve had coaches yelling at me for years to raise them and it is time. So take advantage of one of these deals while you can!

You can pay direct by using the buttons below. Thank you!

 One Hour Coaching Session, during which we can talk about your work (you can send me up to 10 pages), brainstorm plot ideas, or talk about how to get your writing practice back on track.  $100.


Three Months Coaching at a killer price.   12 sessions of coaching, consisting of me reading 10-15 pages and a 30 minute phone or Skype conversation. $1,200. (You will NEVER get this low  price again.)


Hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

(No photos today because for some reason the media library is not accessible.)


On Taking Time Off (A Love Letter)

One of my favorite images on Instagram is one that reads, being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. Because, it is, isn’t it? This is not necessarily a bad thing. I was always the nerd kid that loved homework and writing reports. But it can be a tiring thing. Because from the moment I wake up, I’m thinking, when am I going to write? I should be writing. Why aren’t I writing?

Photo by Aleksandar Cvetanovic on Unsplash

Most of the time, taking time off from writing is not an option, because it is such a compulsion. And those feelings tend to extend to all the related things I do as well. Since I’m always trying to find more time to write, I’m usually playing catch up with client work, writing blog posts and newsletters, into the weekend.

But all that is about to change.

I’m having surgery in three days and I am bound and determined to take time off.  For real time off. I’ll write in my journal or on my novel if I feel so compelled, and I have a couple long manuscripts to read, but beyond that, I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to relax and heal and read and do some drawing, knit and watch a whole lot of TV. (For starters, I plan to watch Outlander from the beginning.)

I’m not going to worry about blog posts or social media or anything along those lines—unless I want to. Which may or may not happen. I will most likely return to writing newsletters post haste, but don’t expect anything from me next Sunday. That will be four days post-surgery, so nope, nada. (Yes, I could easily set a newsletter up, as I did when I was in France, but for some reason that doesn’t feel right. If I’m taking time off, I need to really take time off.)

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

It will be interesting to see how this works out for me. I’m not good at taking time off, so we will see how long my grand plans last! But I truly do want to use this time to ponder and be open to new ideas, to think about where I want to put my precious time and energy from here on out.

I’ll end with a quote I just found in my journal: writing is my companion and I have a hard time letting it go. So at the very least, I will likely be journaling throughout these days to come! But we shall see.

On Deep Inner Magic (A Love Letter)

An email came into my inbox this week with the subject Deep Inner Magic. Being a sucker for such things, I clicked. It was a promo for a webinar that didn’t interest me much, but the phrase stuck with me.

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

As I pondered why, I realized it’s because deep inner magic is what I believe happens to all the best story characters. The characters I love to read about in novels transform themselves in some way.  They are alchemists—transmuting metaphorical base metal into gold.

We readers experience that transformation with them. There’s a tension in watching a character transform.  The wise reader often knows exactly what the character needs to do, but it takes the character much longer to figure it out, since they are the ones doing the transforming. That tension sustains attention, and when a reader’s attention is sustained, the reader is much more likely to share the emotions of the main character. (All this is according to Psychology Today.)

And—wait for it—if the reader shares deep emotion with the character, they are more likely to mimic that emotion later in their own lives. Which is why reading truly is transformational, baby. And, I submit—why writing is transformational as well. Because I believe that we writers transform as we write our characters’ transformations as well. As the ancients used to say, as above, so below.  Transformation in one area of life is always echoed in another.  And if that isn’t deep inner magic, I don’t know what is.

But how do we make this magic happen?

You’ve heard it a million times before, but I’ll repeat it. Give your characters something they desire desperately—and then make it really difficult for them to get it. This is the simplest of story-writing advice, and putting it into practice is incredibly hard.

I think this is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, most of us have been trained not to go after what we want with everything we’ve got. And so we settle.  We settle for a good enough life, a good enough marriage, a good enough career. But the characters we love to read about don’t settle. They go after what they want with a vengeance. And get pushed down, knocked about, and pressed to the ground in the process.  Because so many of us don’t have experience doing that, it is hard to write about.

And second, we don’t like to torture our characters. I don’t know about you, but I fall in love with my characters, all of them, even the despicable ones. And then I want to make their lives easy and simple and sweet. However, sigh, easy and simple and sweet does not create deep inner magic. Or any kind of magic.

So, give your characters a fierce desire and huge obstacles to achieving it and watch the magic happen in your character, your reader, and yourself.

Monthly Round-up


 Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. This novel is the star of my October reading. I’ve heard how marvelous it is for years, but only just now got around to reading it. Ursula Todd is born, then dies, and is born again.  Throughout the book you read her different lives. I don’t know how Atkinson made it work, but she did. Not a quick read, but worth it.

Nantucket Wedding, by Nancy Thayer.  I’ve been reading Thayer’s books since I was a young woman with small children, an eon ago, and she is still at it. She’s traditionally been one of my favorites but I’m finding this one predictable and a bit boring. Yet still, I persist.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,  by Daniel H Pink.  Pink consolidates tons of research and thought into a highly readable book.

10% Happier, by Dan Harris.  After an on-air panic attack, the he ABC News anchor started searching for answers to his anxiety. He writes a funny and engaging book about his journey through self-help. Ultimately, he lands on, wait for it, meditation. So of course he’s near and dear to my heart!

Make Something Good Today by Erin and Ben Napier.  In one of my free writes I had an idea for a story about a couple similar to this one and then I saw this book at the library, so I brought it home. The book exists for no other reason than that this cute couple has a TV show.


Oscar’s Oasis, Justin Time Go, The Cat in the Hat, Story Bots, and many more kids shows. Please don’t make me do a run-down of each of them for you.

 Don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.

This post contains affiliate links.


The Scourge of Not-Enoughness (A Love Letter)

I have it. You do too. But the funny thing is, most of the time I look at you and think you don’t have it. And you most likely look at me and feel the same.

But every human being on the planet, except for maybe Queen Elizabeth or Elon Musk or Gwyneth Paltrow, has it. And it is a scourge.

It is the scourge of not-enoughness.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

It manifests in many different ways.  Such as, my writing is not enough, my talent is not enough, my body is not enough, my brain is not enough. I’m not smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, famous enough. I don’t have enough money time or talent. There’s not enough, not enough, not enough.

Name your favorite not-enough scourge and someone else shares it. Which is scant comfort when you’re trying to deal with your own not-enough crap.

But deal with it you must. Because otherwise it will eat holes inside you that turn into yawning black chasms of depression, disgust and all the other dire emotions. And you won’t get a lick of writing done.

Myriad are the ways in which we can battle our not-enoughness.  Like meditating, exercising, eating right, reading a lot (but not the internet and definitely not social media), doing all the things we know are good for us and doing them regularly.

But the best way I know to battle not-enoughness is to write.

I feel enough when I’m doing my writing, period. Whether it is terrible (as first drafts are), or wonderful, whether the words flow like magic from a wand or they stay stubbornly locked inside me until I force them out, I feel enough when I have written something. Anything. I may go back to not-enoughness when I finish, but for the brief shining moments when I’m writing I can keep it at bay.

And then everything is enough. It is not only enough, the world is brimming with life and energy and vitality and good cheer and hopefulness and I am in love with it.

So that’s the best reason I can think of to pick up your pen.


Don’t Give Up On Your Creative Practice (A Love Letter)

This has been a crazy week.  Besides the usual round of appointments and teaching commitments (which I love), my daughter had hand surgery after slicing a tendon and a couple of nerves in her thumb.  Thus, I’ve been tending small children even more than usual. I know, you’ve probably had a crazy week, too. And even if you haven’t, there’s the constant onslaught of news to contend with.

Distractions galore.

It’s enough to make you run screaming and vow you’ll never write another work again. (Or paint another picture. Or plant another garden. Or knit another stitch.) Because who can write when life events are making you feel so very un-creative? So distracted and un-focused?

It’s so easy to go into overwhelm and decide it’s just too hard to write. Sure, you have a few minutes here and there to put pen to paper, but what’s the point? What difference do a few paltry minutes make? And so you don’t do it and then you just give up. You forget who you are at your core, and who you want to be, and you just go along the path of least resistance.

Sound familiar?

But I submit to you that taking those few precious minutes—or longer—is what will save you. And maybe the world, too. Because it is your writing that will ground you and center you and remind you of who you are through the darkest of times.

I adore my grandchildren beyond all reason, but this week as I changed diapers and made mac and cheese and picked up toys and coaxed a three-year-old to take a nap (which went about as well as you might expect), I forgot my creative self. Which I believe is my true self.

Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash

Except I picked up my pen and wrote for fifteen minutes every day. And then I remembered. That simple practice brought me back to myself and made it infinitely easier to hobble down the block after a toddler on the loose. And, make no mistake about it, writing is a practice, one that gets easier with every fifteen-minute spring you devote to it. A practice that makes it easier to commit to how you want to show up in the world, whether you observe from the safety of your office or go march to express your opinions. A practice that may some day bloom into a finished novel or memoir or garden or painting or sweater. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. The sheer act of doing it is what’s important. Because that is what will steady you for whatever comes your way.

So no matter what is going on in your life, please don’t give up on your creative practice.  You need to, I need you to, and the world does, too.

The Delicious Effort of Story (A Love Letter)

Story takes effort.

Photo by Robert Baker on Unsplash

Sometimes at night I sit in front of the TV and I don’t have the energy to watch anything more than a thirty-minute sitcom, or a singing reality show, which I can digest in small bites and turn off when I get bored. Because the mental effort of engaging with a longer story takes too much effort.

Watching a story takes effort.

Sometimes I get in bed at night and read one page before my book falls out of my hands and clatters to the floor. It’s not even that I don’t like the book—it’s just that I’m tired and want to go to sleep.

Reading a story takes effort.

Sometimes I don’t think I have it in me to write. It is so much easier to consume words rather than create them myself.  So off I go to wander aimlessly around the internet, which mostly involves sort-of, kind-of word consuming.

Writing a story takes effort.

Here’s the moral: anything to do with story takes effort. Studies show  that you use more of your brain when listening to a story, and I surmise that the same holds true for reading a story and writing one as well.  The more tension in a story, the more you’ll pay attention, the more you pay attention, the more you’ll feel the emotion of the characters in the story, and the more you feel the emotion, the more likely you’ll be to mimic the behavior of the characters in the story afterwards.  Which kind of goes to show why everything to do with story takes such effort. It’s almost as if we’re living it ourselves as we watch, read, or write a story.

Because story changes us. Never forget that you wield that power as you write.  I don’t know about you but knowing that motivates me to write. It motivates me to open the computer on days I don’t feel like it, to spend the time it takes to get a story onto the page. To make the effort. Because I can’t think of anything more powerful than the ability to change a person’s life with the words you write. Can you?

And so, truly, story is worth the effort.

Here’s a related prompt for you:

The story begins when….

(Remember, just use the prompt as a starting point. And you don’t have to take it literally.)

Writing Workshop!

And if you would like to study story through the lens of the five senses, consider coming to Astoria, Oregon, for a winter workshop!  We’ll be offering a week-long writing workshop in fun, funky and eclectic Astoria, Oregon, the first week in February. Great seafood, fun shops, a week devoted to writing and writerly camaraderie. We’re so excited, and we’ve already had several sign-ups. Space is limited, so check it out soon! You can read all about it here.

Make the Reader Feel Emotion

The other night, over a writer’s dinner, my friend Angie mentioned a writing tidbit she’d received from a class she’d taken with James N. Frey, of How to Write a Damn Good Novel fame. (Not the James Frey of A Million Little Pieces fame.)

It was this: make your reader feel the emotion, not just your character.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Simple piece of advice, and yet it was halfway mind-blowing, mostly because I could see in many books I’d read lately where the reverse of this applied.  In other words, just because you, or any other author, feel the emotion, doesn’t mean readers do. I thought of so many novels that had fallen flat for me and realized that this was the diagnosis.

The remedy for this is manifold, and encompasses many of the old familiar writing recommendations. However, as with so many things, viewing these old tenets through a new lens can make them more meaningful.

So how do you ensure that your reader as well as your writer feel emotion? Here are some suggestions.

–Show don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard this one before, probably a million times. But it is so often repeated because showing brings a story to life and makes us relate to the character. Showing makes it much easy to be certain your reader is feeling the same emotion you do. Most often, this means writing in scene.  Narrative summary most definitely has its place, but the bulk of your writing should be in scene.

–Use character types.  Make your character sympathetic, or conversely, unsympathetic. Either extreme will arouse emotion in the reader. Classic ways to make a character sympathetic include making them unjustly accused of something, making them good at something, making them physically attractive, make them actively trying to achieve their goal, make them sacrifice for another, make them courageous.

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

–Rely on the power of character wants, needs, and fears.  This technique has to do with motivating your character from the get-go. What motivates her? What does he want? What keeps her awake at night? Answer those questions–and then put your character in action to deal with her wants and needs and fears.  A passive character will arouse very little emotion in the reader, just as a  passive person often arouses very little interest in real life.

–Remember style. Word choice is important! And so is sentence structure and grammar. Don’t use gentle, serene words to describe a character’s anger and don’t indulge in long, flowery sentences to evoke it, either.  Neither will get your reader actually feeling the anger. Instead ,you’ll probably get him to close the book and wander away

–Ladle on the conflict.  Always easier said than done. We fall in love with our characters and hate to torture them. But torture them we must. Because, there is no story without conflict. And whether you realize it or not, the books that keep you turning pages are the ones that create tons of conflict–whether it is emotional or otherwise.

Again, none of this is probably terribly new for you, right? But think about each point specifically in terms of how you can ensure the reader is feeling the emotion.  Question yourself: is it just thinking this is a good idea for your character? Is it possible it is just you who is feeling the emotion? Are you going deep enough to make the reader feel  it, too?

I know this is something I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to in the future. Let me know if it resonates for you.

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