The Emotional Craft of Fiction

28915986by Donald Maass
5 of 5 stars

My CP’s recommended this to me and I’m so glad they did! Packed with practical wisdom and insight, it’s one of the best craft books I’ve read.

Many books about writing novels focus on the elements of a novel. The plot, setting, characters, pacing, etc. All of those are important, but this book takes a different approach. If the most important element of the reading experience is how a book makes you feel, approach all of the tent poles of a novel with the emotional effects in mind. The best story in the world falls flat if it doesn’t connect emotionally. When you recommend a book, isn’t it because it made you feel something or think about something in a new way? I know that’s definitely true for me!

Broken into sections that highlight the inner and outer journeys of the character, and the journey of the writer in bringing that character to life, it lays out tips for what causes our emotional reactions to fiction and how to guide those reactions to create the resonance you intended. It’s definitely not easy, but the rewards are huge.

I found this to be immensely helpful, and much less condescension towards women / genre writing than is typical in craft books (at least in my experience!). There’s also a helpful checklist in the back of all the techniques covered, so you can quickly refer to them. This is one I will be referring to a lot going forward!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Emotional Craft of Fiction is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – I’ve heard great things about this screenwriting book and I keep meaning to check it out! Many authors recommend this as one of the most helpful books they read.
  • The Positive / Negative / Emotion Thesauruses by Angela Ackerman – These are three invaluable guides to psychology and character motivations! Also a good way to find the most accurate and interesting way of writing your characters’ emotions and plans as they try to survive your story’s plot.

Keeping books and writing books

I have exciting news! I received a promotion and I’m hard at work securing a future for myself that will allow a lot more schedule flexibility and some boosts to my bank account!

Unfortunately, this means that while I’m spending more time at my day job my free hours need to be devoted to writing, so my little book blog needs to slow down for a bit. I’ll be doing one post a week instead of two, because my ultimate dream is to write books for a living, not just read them!

Although this significantly delays the goals I had for 2017, the long-term security I will gain is worth it. I’ve seen too many authors have to make the tough call of meeting a book deadline or paying their bills with their day job, and I’m hoping to avoid that situation myself.

It will be a little quieter around here but rest assured, I’m still hard at work on Fox Story!

Curled Up Fox

Writing Update: Deciding to Embrace Decisions

I have been experiencing an inadvertent fallow period. (I say “experiencing” rather than “enjoying” because I am constantly accompanied by a heavy side of guilt for not progressing faster with Fox Story). With work demanding more of my time the last few months, I think this was my mind’s way of balancing what pays my bills with what is important to me.

Revisions have been daunting to me for a variety of reasons. It is basically the opposite of the adventure and excitement of drafting. You trade exploring for city planning. My wise CP and friend Katy Pool wrote this post about revisions that I have been taking to heart for a few weeks now. Revisions were always a to-do list of “Fix This, Delete That, Add This” for me, and it really helped me see my story in a whole new light. It also made me feel like I could make about a million decisions. Your choices are nearly limitless! Just start choosing! Why is that such an overwhelming thing?

See this thread, which reminded me how much we have to combat decision fatigue to write after work. Understanding why you feel drained is the first step to defending against it! Being presented with the freedom to make a bunch of decisions is exciting, but it is not easy. Fear of making the wrong choice can be crippling. What if you choose the wrong option? Your brain wants you to believe that Irreparable Disaster will follow. Then this common proverb floats into your mind: “Just go with your first choice: it’s your gut. Don’t get side-tracked by other options.”

Nope. Your gut can protect you in a flight or fight situation, sure. Intuition can be a guiding factor, sure. But your gut is also lazy, because as we have mentioned, decisions are hard and burn some calories. We rely on short-cuts to combat fatigue. If you go with your first choice for a plot point or character arc, you are pretty much guaranteed to be going with the wrong one—a short-cut that is no fun for anybody. So that means you can’t ignore the other options! You are supposed to generate several choices in order to roll past your brain’s lazy answer and get to the good stuff. #science

This brings me to Maggie Stiefvater & Court Stevens’ 7 Sentences Seminar, which was a bit like spending 9 hours in an “I didn’t study for this test!” dream sequence. My friend and I traded slightly panicked looks as we went through the process of taking an idea from concept to ready-to-draft in one day. (Yes—idea, premise, mood, setting, plot, character, language—one day). What they explained was that to be an author you must write many books, and the faster you can do that the better. But writing a book requires so many decisions, some of which you can spend months mulling over. Behold: this seminar will give you a process that speeds up your decision-making and allows you to solidify the book sooner, thus writing it faster. What better way to tell me to stop being afraid of making decisions? The entire day was spent making decisions, and making them quickly. It was exhausting—and by the end, it was also not scary.

Because it doesn’t matter if you make the wrong choice when you can follow it to the end quickly and go with the next option, and the next and the next. You know when to trust your gut (because it has been working hard and not just giving you an instant answer). You know because you had some failures—and that’s normal. And only those failures let you know when you’ve landed on something Good.

After several weeks of this, I feel like a plant drowning in water. Occasionally I buy a plant to neglect and when its leaves droop, I overcompensate, almost kill it again with care, and then sigh with relief when it grows taller and stronger than before. As haphazard as the past month has been, I drowned my drooping leaves with inspiration and information. I feel refreshed and ready to plunge into Fox Story with a more realistic lens and plenty of resources when I inevitably get stuck further down the road. It’s spring, even in Denver: new beginnings, new goals, renewed energy!


Writing Update: Draft 2 & How to Impersonate Anyone

Only a week-ish late, I finished Draft 2 of Fox Story! (Not only was I late, I had to focus only on stream-lining the plot, leaving character arcs and setting / world-building for another draft). I drastically over-estimated the amount of work I could get done in February, especially since I spent almost a week of it sick!

SO, as I begin to incorporate critique partner comments on what I’ve created, I’ll start working on Draft 3, which will be anything else plot-related with some character focus thrown in. I’m entering the busiest time at work so this draft will probably take me a month or two, and that’s all right.

Now that my little update is out of the way, I had one other thought on writing, inspired by—of all people—Alec Baldwin. When he was interviewed about his SNL Trump impersonation, he said something interesting. That it isn’t the physical similarities of an impression that matter the most, as everyone thinks. Rather, it’s finding something about the person that makes them who they are, and embellishing that.

He described the reality TV star as “a perpetually failing thesaurus, always searching for a better word and coming up with nothing.” Which is why phrases like, “We have good people, fantastic people, and working with them is going to be….fantastic!” are so funny. Of course, adding a suit and a wig helps, but many times it’s a quirk about a person that creates your “oh!” moment of recognition. It’s why anyone who has worked in a cube can groan over the same characters in Office Space, or why we’d guess “Sherlock Holmes” if someone said “The game is afoot!” during charades.

Many set designs for stage plays incorporate this, latching on to one key, realistic piece and allowing your mind to fill in the gaps of the characters’ world. When you first enter the theater it seems so bare bones, and by the end of the show you hardly notice that.

The same principle can apply to writing! When you make a character, or describe a place, it’s choosing the best detail that strikes the chord of realism in the reader. Rather than describing every item in the room or every fidget or look from a character, you hone in on the one thing that people instantly recognize in their own group of family, friends, and coworkers. Not lazy writing, but strategic writing.

A great example of this is Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. The Dregs have their own slang: “No mourners, no funerals” and “the deal is the deal” to illustrate not only their bonds within the gang but how their speech differs from upper class merchants. The longer we spend in that world, the more nuance is added to these phrases and they can be used to heighten seemingly ordinary moments into conversations with tension.

So when you sit down to write and create, consider the best way to make that impression stick in the reader’s mind. This is something I’m going to practice in my own stories, and honestly, I think it’s a fun way to study people, too!


Writing Update: Draft 2

If you’ve wandered through writing posts before, you will know that Draft 2 is the Beast. The hardest draft because it has you fighting on all fronts: plot holes, character arcs, world-building/setting, and pacing.

Your rough draft attempted to pin a story to paper and it probably resembles the story you intended like you resemble a human when you first wake up—the confusion, tangled hair, and morning breath. Sure, the story is there under all that, but it needs a comb and caffeine.

But before you can even spend time fixing it, you have to make a list of everything TO fix, and HOW you want to fix it!

For me this is agonizing, because hours staring into space chewing on a pen do not feel productive, no matter what I call it. “Brainstorming” “plotting” “revision preparation” “exploring my mind palace”– whatever, it is not a rising word count, and progress is not always quantifiable. It might take days to unravel one problem! And that means nothing on my detailed “Plan of Attack” list gets crossed off for days, leading to anxiety dreams of how I never finished the book because I got so far behind. There is so much to fix, how do you address all of it efficiently?

Well, my lovely CP Christine helpfully reminded me of an important revision tool that I had bookmarked and forgotten about: Sooz’s revision guides!

You really can’t get more organized than Susan Dennard. She has outlined every step of the book-to-query process and you can tailor it to fit your own goals! Highly. Recommend. So I reviewed all these and made my own Draft 2 Plan of Attack in January.

To prepare for February, I had these done in January:

  • Read through my novel and note everything I need to fix
  • Sort these notes into four categories: plot, character, setting, other

So here is what my February looks like:

  • Solve these problems! (done…for now)
  • Go through chapter by chapter (all 43 of them…) and implement my changes (here we go!)

Note: this is still not the line edit, make-it-pretty version. That comes next! For now I just want all the details and beats I need on paper, connecting the dots in the right order, making sense.

You may remember I did a lot of pre-writing for Fox Story last summer. I made a detailed outline for plot, character arcs, and world-building. Everything I did has saved me so much time at this stage! It’s impossible to write a perfect rough draft. But this rough draft resembles draft 2 or 3 of previous projects thanks to all this hard work, so 10/10 I will repeat this process in the future! No, it did not magically eliminate the need to revise, but when I sat down to make my draft 2 notes, I was dealing with a pretty organized story, not a mess of “inspiration” that got out of control by chapter five. I had no extraneous chapters of random events. I did not have to analyze chunks of my book wondering what I wrote it for and how it was supposed to fit in my outline because apparently I thought it was important at the time and now I can’t remember why! Most of my notes were about things I could not have known until I wrote the rough draft! Extra layers to enrich rather than explain the story. Not everyone outlines a story and that is totally all right, but if you do, remember everything you add to that outline is time saved later on! Treat your future self!

I have set the (very) aggressive goal of finishing draft 2 by March 1. We’ll see if I can manage it!


Writing Update: Revision Plan of Attack

After a lovely, refreshing holiday break I was absolutely itching to get back to my Fox Story! I missed the characters and the world and as fun as it was to catch up on reading and thinking up some new ideas, I’m ready to dive back in and make my rough draft into an actual book.

The best part about a critique group is getting so many perspectives not just on drafting or books but on the craft and process. I polled my writing buddies for their revision processes and cobbled together some good advice for tackling my own project!

So this is my plan to carve Fox Story into the book I imagined so many months ago:

First, I always need to read through my rough draft, noting plot, world, character, pacing issues, and what needs more research. I draft quickly and don’t spend much time going over what I previously wrote, so more than anything I need the entire story fresh in my mind so that I don’t confuse what I *think* is in the manuscript with what I actually wrote.

From these notes, I make a list of action items to smooth out the plot and decide what scenes should be added, cut, or changed. I can’t focus on character until the events make sense to me, so I have to make sure my timeline and actions happen in the right order and aren’t confusing. “Making a list” sounds simple, but what this really means is that I will make a BUNCH of lists with things to do. For instance, “Add this character’s backstory” becomes “Create backstory, what are motivations, what is the timeline, what is the best way to reveal this information, does this change anything in my plot and if so how…” The second draft is basically pulling even more threads into the tapestry and then weaving them together properly.

I also want to wrap up any additional research needed! No sense in revising and then having to change things again based on something I could have looked into before (what immediately comes to mind as an example are my sword fighting scenes).

When the plot is smoothed out, I ensure character beats are placed correctly for maximum impact. Character and plot are always entwined, but if I know what needs to happen I can adjust these moments to best toy with and push my characters along their own path. This is the part where “make things worse” comes into play!

After all this, I will develop any other material needed (world, setting, character) and include all that. My draft is already about 10K longer than I anticipated so we’ll see how much it balloons!

Finally, I’ll polish it before I send it to my first round of critique partners for notes, which basically means make it as book-shaped and typo-free as possible.

Based on their notes, I’ll begin the cycle of revising and getting more notes until I feel like Fox Story is ready for the final and most agonizing step: querying!


2017 Goals

It’s that time of year that makes everyone review what they did last year and resolve to make this year even better. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes with little things.  It’s a way to deal with changes (or lack of changes) by seizing control of what you can, and lately that idea has left me feeling pretty inspired!

For now though, I’m laying out what I want to accomplish with my writing this year. It kept me so motivated last year, and although not everything went exactly as I hoped, it was the best year my writing has seen in a long time! If you want to know the significance of the tarot cards, these are from Maggie Stiefvater’s deck, available here.

img_20161228_131226Revise and polish Fox Story

So far so good with my plan to get this book off the ground! I’ve met all my deadlines and I’m satisfied with my first draft. I have a long way to go to get this story to line up with what I saw in my head, so I’ll be revising for the next few months. That’s probably its own post!

img_20161228_131234Pitch and query Fox Story

Once I have it as shiny and perfect as I can make it, it’s time to put this story out in the world! Right now that feels so exciting because it’s the reward for months of hard work–I’m sure when it comes time to hit “send” on my queries I will be a little more nervous!

img_20161228_131253Develop my Shiny New Idea

During my break from Fox Story, I stumbled upon another potential Shiny New Idea and I’m excited to let this simmer and evolve for a few months! It has a setting I love and so much potential for complicated characters and intriguing mythology, so we’ll see where it goes! If it becomes a true project, my hope would be to start the planning stages for it in late summer.

img_20161228_131303Draft my Shiny New Idea

Finally, once I have my next idea, whatever it may be, I want to have a draft written by the end of the year. I liked last year’s rhythm of revisions leading into a new project, and I’m hoping I can duplicate it. Ideally that would happen in the fall!

img_20161228_131319Find the next idea or two

What’s left after all of that? More ideas of course! Coming up with something new is so refreshing after you’ve been buried in a project for months at a time–and it relieves so much anxiety from querying or drafting a story if you have a few ideas on the back-burner just waiting for their turn. Plus it means that you’re never too far away from keeping another skill-set sharp!

Each of these has a list of steps and deadlines to make them happen, but these are my hopes and goals for 2017! And whatever your own goals may be, I wish you the best of luck and willpower to make them happen!

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