Emotional Extremes & You (Us, actually. All of us.)

Happy Friday, writers! As the Christmas season rolls in, time seems to creep along in preparation for what’s just over the horizon. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you have my sincerest wishes that it went well–if you met your word count, congratulations! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Speaking of overused phrases used to address emotions, that’s what this week’s post is about; I’d like to briefly discuss the fine line between truly conveying the subtle way any specific emotion overtakes a character, and the flipside, what happens when you smear it on thick as molasses in winter. (Forgive me, I just finished reading Saving Wonder by Mary Knight and the beautiful idioms are feeding my chicken-fried heart. The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead. Brilliant.)

For my own NaNoWriMo novel, the interpersonal and internal conflict for the protagonist is very emotion-heavy, and the story is told in first-person present tense–a self-imposed reckoning of my own abilities, since evidently I hate myself. We’re talking long-term conflict that’s carried with the MC over the course of the novel, issues that are looming and essential to the story. No one tells you exactly how hard it is to write present tense emotions like that without sounding like you’re giving stage notes for an actor:

Anger boils inside of me. I dig my nails into my palms, biting back the things I want to say, but shouldn’t.

Chills run up my back and arms. The unknown is what frightens me–too easily can I envision those beady eyes in the darkness, watching my every move.

Moments like these… aren’t very good. Or, at least, they translate from the page weaker than we’d like them to, and I’m not happy with the way these moments continually unfold in my first draft. Not for a narrative running over 50k words. It’s undeniably difficult to restrain from using phrases that we tend to see assigned in third person stories–it makes my hair stand on end–but no one, realistically, speaks like that. Given, it would sound more casual if it were owned by the narrator, for example that gives me chills, but even then, the sentiment is tired by stating the emotion in first-person.

After taking reading and writing seriously over the past few years–as a craft to be consumed and regurgitated–I’ve found a pattern in first-person books that handle emotion really well. My favorite example of how sustained extreme emotional turmoil can see a story through from beginning to end is, without contest, Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It’s a nightmare-come-true story about a young man named Carver Briggs who loses all three of his best friends due to a car accident he may have inadvertently caused via texting.

(If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s my favorite YA novel and offers a visceral, cathartic experience. But I’m easy to make cry, so take that last bit with a grain of salt.)

In a flashback scene, Carver relives the moment in middle school when he met one of his now-deceased friends, Blake. As the heartfelt dip into the past ends, Zentner gives us this:

We go and eat lunch. He shows me his YouTube page. I tell him about my stories. We laugh.
We laugh a lot, actually.

And that, right there, is just one minuscule example of how Zentner manages to show Carver’s mourning, regret, longing, indescribable grief–deftly, through a freaking flashback. The accident has already happened, his friends are already dead, yet he’s remembering their good times through the lens of someone who already knows how that story ends. It’s brilliant, and seems effortless when read, but is difficult (for myself, at least) to put into practice.

That’s part of why Goodbye Days so successfully manages to marry the emotions of the story’s events to the character: being human isn’t an experience that happens to you, it is you. When you feel mad, or guilty, or happy, it affects every other part of your life–you take on life as a series of reactions, viewing everything that happens to you through that lens. Overwhelming emotions aren’t typically something you slip into for one scene, and then from which you become a blank slate the next minute.

I’m guilty of this. It’s hard to remedy, easier to take those throes in the moment and let it fluctuate like a roller coaster. But if we can keep that tapestry woven–let every. single. action. of our characters reflect their headspace and serve as gentle reminders of where they came from, and where they’re going…? Well. I find it hard to believe our stories wouldn’t be stronger.

I worked one of Zentner’s signings for the release of this book, before I even read it. Was just then trying to become a writer. He signed, Tell a good story.

How to Write a Sensitive Book Review

If you’ve ever been to Goodreads–or, failing that, Amazon–to check out reviews for a book, you already know how hyperbolic and cruel some of the so-called “feedback” can be. Here, let me go to a book and pull some excerpts (if you think I need to make this part up, hi! Welcome to the world of online reviews):

“This has to be the worst pile of crap I’ve EVER had the displeasure of reading. I honestly don’t know how this shit even got bought by a publisher!”

“Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

“This was an absolute trainwreck. Not even fun, just… bad.”

No, I’m not going to tell you which book they’re talking about, because that’s not the point.

Now, it would be a lie to say that I’ve loved every book I’ve ever read, or even that I haven’t had thoughts like these about stories I’ve read. But if there’s one thing that’s true about the anonymity keyboards grant you, it’s that you lose empathy for those whom your words affect. I know that most of these people leaving these comments, if they were actually acquainted with the author, would not say these things to their face. The cult of online bullying and bandwagoning doesn’t stop in gradeschool–it just takes on a different name.

black and white hands mask bussinesman
“How DARE you try your hardest and breach 70k and get an agent and get published and EXPOSE ME TO THAT SHIT.”

Good or bad, novels are artistic expression, and acknowledging that I’m not referring to books that are bigoted or problematic in one way or another, I think book review etiquette needs to take a good, hard look at itself. It’s easy to attack someone’s efforts if you think poorly of their work–but that effort came from someone, and that person might not be in the best headspace when they happen to read a review that says “Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

However! Reviews are incredibly necessary and valuable in our industry. Some authors genuinely want constructive feedback about their work from readers, and will understand their pitfalls in stride. That’s why I’ve created an easy 3-step guide for critically reviewing ANY book, regardless of how much you enjoyed it.

How to Write a Sensitive Review

  1. State what the author did well. Acknowledgments are incredibly important to start with–the author needs to know what their strong points were. Perhaps the dialogue was pretty punchy? Maybe the imagery shined, or the pacing was really good? If you make it clear that you’re being reasonable and fair in your feedback, people will take the rest of your review to heart, including the author. This is a great way to slip in compliments and gush about stuff that resonated with you. 
  2. State what needed work, or what bothered you. Once you’ve pointed out the things that were done well, now you can mention things that didn’t meet your expectations. This is where you can mention that you thought that one subplot was unnecessary, or that you didn’t like the way the story seemed to spoon-feed the reader things that they’d already found out 50 pages ago. Be honest with your criticisms, but also be kind. How would you want someone to say this to you if it were about your work?
  3. Re-state the positives, and potentially mention who should read this book while keeping in mind your criticisms. I usually end my reviews on recommendations, and it’s perfectly fine to add qualifiers like “if you aren’t bothered by [criticism], this is for you!” Because everyone is different, and someone out there will enjoy it.

“But Verb,” you say, scoffing, “who made you the monarch of critique etiquette?”
I DID. BY GOING THROUGH FIVE YEARS OF ART SCHOOL WITH NEAR-DAILY IN-PERSON CLASS CRITIQUES. There’s a pattern to this–there’s a way to say what you need to without harming the person behind the work, and I think everyone who likes to review should try it.

“Fuck you Verb,” I hope none of you say, flipping me off, “I just really enjoy being abrasive and blunt! The author got paid one way or another, so I’m just being honest–it’s fun!”
Oh, cool then! Thanks for reading, Regina George.

Sam Speaks a Sentence

Get it? It’s like Horton Hears a Who, but with my name instead? And it’s not nonsensical because this post is kind of relevant to the famous line of the aforementioned book, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant,” and how it can relate to writing? I know, I can hear you right now, “Wow, Sam, you’re great at introductions that also serve as segues,” to which I shall say, thank you, that’s really very kind.

When we writers… err, write fiction, we tend to constantly worry about whether we sound lyrical enough to pass for more than a boring play-by-play of characters jangling around like marionettes. Every sentence is scrutinized and we perhaps spend more time than we should looking for where to slip in more imagery, more metaphors, more patterns, MORE. There’s something insatiable about writing; no matter how pleased we might be with one particular sentence or scene, the next line is sure to pop our giant egos–or, hell, even deserved fulfillment–and fill our heads with dissatisfaction again.

And this is a dangerous dance; not only are we giving a disproportionate amount of our already tightly-allotted creative time, but if we jam-pack every inch of our works in progress full of lyricism like some poorly cooked Tolkien-esque sausage link (I’m so sorry I made your eyes read that phrase), the result might end up sounding ridiculous. It’s like when someone uses a thesaurus too much: I bedeck you in adulations, mine swain. Sprint yonder alongside me.

woman working girl sitting
“Wh-…what.”

Whenever this happens to me and I catch myself sitting at my desk, staring at the document and willing the words to continue–but, like, in a pretty way–I force myself to take a second and accept the fact that sometimes, the best way to say something is just to say it. No one is going to think less of your story because you couldn’t think of a more emotional way to state “Jimothy frowned.” Jimothy can frown! It’s fine! His feelings are valid! And simplistic writing styles are valid too. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, most of the storytelling is done in simple writing, and it’s one of my favorites. So even if some of us feel this weird lingering, phantom pressure to turn into a specific kind of writer for others’ approval, you don’t have to. I’d argue it’s better to be true to yourself. Just say the thing if you’re struggling.

For those writers where ornate and overflowing poeticism comes naturally and they don’t feel any pressure when attempting flourishing language, it’s probably not a problem. Congratulations on the flowers that spurt from your fingertips when you sit down to write! I’m not bitter at all! But for those of us who constantly struggle to reach that peak, I’m here to remind myself, and you, that it’s okay to be proud of every foothold you manage, even if the next part in your story feels like you’re falling back down a ways. Highs and lows are natural, and without the lows, we wouldn’t appreciate the highs quite as deeply.

Note, from Herb:
I think there’s an argument to be made that modern writing styles tend towards a trend that wants word economy to be the priority, i.e., if a word does not serve to further the plot, it has no use, which undermines words for aesthetic purposes or words for enlightenment of a theme, etc. So I think in a lot of ways we’ve moved past an age of flowery language.

Minutes vs Moments: When Measurements Can Damage Your Storytelling

WHO’S READY FOR ANOTHER PASSIONATE AND NITPICKY POST?

This entire post–the whole freaking thing–is sponsored by the word: minutes.

I’m not going to give specific titles, as I don’t like being in the business of shaming authors, but there have been more than a few instances where I will be reading a scene and something like the following sentence happens:

He picked up the stone and was silent for a few minutes as he looked at it.

Okay. So, on its face, this is a fine sentence. It gets the point across–there is a pause while the character observes something. The issue I take with it, is that “a few minutes” is a staggeringly long time compared to what the author was likely going for (perhaps a few moments?). Let’s assume “a few” could even be interpreted as being as short as two minutes–120 seconds.

Now, feel free to listen to this video I found (which, yes, I did search “annoying 2 minute video” to make you see my point, sorry) and you let me know if you think 120 seconds is an appropriate amount of time for a character to exist in liminal space while they think of how to respond to another character. If you were talking to someone, and they abruptly stopped talking, after probably around 15 seconds you’d try to engage them again. Unless our character is looking at something of great detail or intricacy, I highly doubt he needs minutes to come to a general conclusion.

woman and man wearing brown jackets standing near tree
“You’ve been watching that bird for the past two Hozier songs, Elena. If you’re still not done, would you mind if I at least make a phone call?”

Exception! If a sentiment like this is followed by non-dialogue descriptors of the environment, or thoughts going through a character’s head, this is likely fine. It’s when it happens in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced scene or dialogue that it’s jarring and distracts readers (or maybe just me, pedantic asshole that I am).

Phew. Let me take a deep breath as I segue into the bigger point I’m building to, which is that exact measurements rarely add anything to the story, unless you are able to pull it off tone-wise (a la Dahl). Allow me to defend my claim.

Say we have this sentence in a book:

The corrugated metal sign was only two feet tall.

I see why the author has chosen this wording; they have a very precise estimation in their head of what said sign looks like and wish to project it exactly. But I would argue that this is almost never more powerful than other methods of description they could use:

The metal sign was low to the ground, and easy to miss.
The sign barely came above her knee, its serrated edges threatening to add more holes to her jeans.
Tall grass obscured the writing on the reflective sign, and bugs crawled freely on its face.

Not only do these convey the same idea, but they help set the scene more effectively than giving exact measurements. Instead of forcing numbers and estimations into the readers’ heads, instead find other ways to say what you will. Be wary when you fall back onto using units of measurement in your writing: feet, miles, cups, kilometers, pounds, cents– these words can act as red flags and give you an opportunity to be more lyrical.

P.S. As much as I just railed against these words, there is obviously never a set way to write. If you insist on writing with exact measurements, or it fits your tone better, or you just want to keep writing this way out of spite for me, then please do! I just wanted to address this topic for those who might be interested in observing their own writing style in a way they might not have considered before.

Soundless in Seattle

Got sensory processing issues? Dying for a moment of silence while you’re trying to write your novel? Suffering from every possible distraction the outside world throws at you? Have I got a solution for you!

Well, maybe.

I don’t know. But I have a solution for me, and everyone knows that blogs are people talking to themselves and pretending like their advice applies to everyone, anyways. So here’s my deal, and if it’s your deal too, then congrats, you can benefit from my discoveries.

Sound is my number one distraction when I’m trying to focus. Whether it’s writing or studying or reading, if there’s conversation or television, there’s a good chance I’m not going to be getting anything done. Even music is often too much, especially music with words. Trying to write words and listen to them at the same time is the ultimate maddening experience. Instrumental music is okay sometimes, but even that can be a gamble. So, what is an auditory-sensitive kiddo like myself supposed to do? Who will save me from this plight?

Enter the sound of rain.        

Growing up in Florida, rain pattering on the roof was a staple of living, and for me, one of the most soothing sounds to have ever been invented. It’s the child of white noise and a monotone musician, the heir of the uniform/unique throne. Whenever we got a good rain, I would sit out on the porch with my laptop and write, and it would calm my brain right down.

You say, well that’s great, Herb, but what if I want to write when it’s not raining?

Hmmm. Yeah, too bad, huh? I guess you’ll have to move to Seattle if you ever want to finish that novel. If only there were lots and lots of rain soundtracks that you could stick in your ears at any time, available from anywhere, instantly creating a soft, un-distracting barrier between you and the outside world.

PSYCH of course I’ve got those resources queued up for you. Have fun writing in peace, fellow auditory angst pals.

A website that is nothing but a fifteen minute loop of nature rain.

A website that lets you control the ratio of rain sound to background cafe sound.

A Spotify playlist of different rains. (Some of these are too loud or quiet for me, but you can pick and choose from them and put one on repeat if you find one you really like).

White noise Spotify playlist. (I don’t use this because it makes me feel like I’m stuck in a liminal space between life and death where my mentor will appear out of nowhere, probably wearing white, and ask me if I wish to live and finish the fight I definitely didn’t start, or if I want to pass on in peace. But maybe that’s what gets your writing brain going.)

Belittling Children 101

If you follow the world of kid lit, you may have seen this recent Time article authored by Newbery medal recipient Matt de la Peña regarding honesty in writing for children. (The response from our ever-prolific Kate DiCamillo is worth every second of your time as well.)

Today, I am channeling those titans of kids lit so that I may crash on down into today’s topic like a self-immolating, gasoline-fueled comet.

I take reading and writing for kids’ books seriously, and on this path, I’ve tripped over something time and time again that I would like to address so that people might quit plopping this obstacle down on the road: kids aren’t idiots. Okay, maybe some kids are idiots⸺and we love those kids just as much⸺but what I’m getting at is that children are emotionally intelligent and don’t deserve to be sloppily spoon-fed lessons when they read.

Before you jump down my throat about how I sound like I attended a Waldorf institution, hear me out. You were a kid once, right? (You might still be one, in which case, get off of this blog, it’s not suitable for children, you little asshole.) Think back to something that happened when you were young⸺some great injustice that stuck with you through the years. Maybe a teacher didn’t believe you when you were being honest. Maybe a friend didn’t invite you to their birthday party. Just in case you are absolutely void of any human memories, then welcome, Mr. Zuckerberg, allow me to lend you one of mine:

I was at an arcade with two girls from Hong Kong that my family was hosting. I offered them the tickets I had won from the games only once at the beginning, to which they politely declined, stating that they wanted to see how many they could win alone. Later, I saw one of them drop a sizable bundle of their own tickets, and when I tried to return it to her, she got angry and accused me of being dishonest.

We climbed back onto the bus to go home, they sat far away from me, and I cried.

It was an instance when I had heard someone loud and clear on their initial rejection, yet when I tried to do the right thing later, they assumed I was being deliberately deceitful. As you can imagine, that hurt.

baby child close up crying
I JUST WANTED TO BE A GOOD PERSON.

But here’s the thing: I knew instinctively that it hurt, and more importantly, I knew why: I had suffered an injustice of character. What had happened didn’t represent who I truly was, and it riled something in me that never settled back down (obviously).

Now, let’s replay that situation, and this time, when we’re settling down into the sweaty leather bus seats, I’m going to ask you to imagine that there was a chaperone at my arm saying, “They didn’t believe you. Do you know how much that should hurt your feelings? That hurts your feelings, right? Cause it should. That’s bad. What just happened was really awkward. Do you understand why that was awkward, sweetheart?”

No, you’re not allowed to punch the hypothetical adult in the nose.

Even though they have fresh minds compared to yours, children don’t need anyone to hold their hand through everything, especially when they don’t come to you for it. Children understand guilt. They understand betrayal, and right-and-wrong, and that soggy lump you get in your throat right after you receive a life-changing level of bad news. They might not have a lot of experience with it, but they don’t need a guide on how to feel any more than the rest of us. Their feelings, the way they interact with the world and experience it are just as valid as a person in their 30’s, or 50’s, or 80’s.

bare feet boy child couch

This is why, when I crack open a children’s book that tries so desperately to tackle a subject like, say, drug abuse, or death, and they dance around the subject so much that you can see sugar crystallizing on the soles of their feet, it drives me nuts. You cannot shield children. They know. They know right from wrong, they know people get addicted to drugs, and people die, and bad things happen. They see the same headlines, hopefully they study the same history at school that you did, the same genocides. More than ever, they live in a world where schools aren’t even safe. They know people fall out of love⸺hell, half of my friends’ parents growing up were divorced⸺and the more you try to shield these truths from them, the harder these topics will be to deal with once they’re past their formative years.

You are not doing a child any favors by censoring what they read.

You are not doing a child any favors by censoring how you write tough topics.

Please, Don’t Stop Writing

When I was in middle school, I spent a lot of time on the computer talking to online friends. Note that I didn’t say “friends online,” because to be frank, I was very awkward at 11 years old, and although I did have a close handful of friends at school, the majority of my socialization was done on the internet. On one pubescent afternoon, I had just finished an MS Paint doodle of what was likely a Neopet. (Side bar: I was embarrassed to love Neopets as a kid. The standards we bully ourselves are ridiculous sometimes; I was 11.) Desperate for a reaction, I opened AOL Messenger, sent a chatroom invite to two of my closest friends, and shared the file.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that one of them also happened to be an artist, and the other one was not. The artist friend was very supportive; she pointed out what she liked about my rudimentary, pixelated efforts, and gave me gentle pointers about what I could improve on, if I were so inclined. The other friend, however, didn’t acknowledge the drawing. Instead, as I was afraid she might, she took the opportunity to turn the conversation onto herself: “I wish I could draw. You guys have no idea how lucky you are.”

Let me pause here to inject some empathy: I am fully aware of how discouraging it is to see the work of someone you feel is more talented than you, and then to base your self worth on that assessment. It’s basically half of what artists do. But middle school me, who had heard from this specific friend this same self-pitying rhetoric before, and whose words of encouragement (“Start practicing! Anyone can!”) had fallen on willfully deaf ears repeatedly, was fed up. I was trying to figure out how to convey frustration through a keyboard when the other artist friend beat me to it.

The gist of what was said in that chat 15 years ago was that complacency gets you nowhere. There gets to be a point of heartache you can reach, where you desperately want to stretch yourself into an area of temporary discomfort. I’m familiar with this pivotal liminal space, because it still haunts me in my other interests: needle-felting, painting, clarinet. The point though, is that each time you feel the heartache, you end up making a decision, whether you know it or not. You can continue to sit in stasis and let time swallow the desire down into your stomach again. Or, and this is the one that seems so unattainable that it nighs impossibility, you act.

Full admission: are there people out there who are born into this world and create masterpieces like they were designed for it? Uh, yes, Bernini sculpted The Rape of Proserpina when he was 23, and that’s totally unfair, yes. But it’s easy to see those things and say, “Guess I don’t have the predisposition to be great at this,” and drop it altogether. To anyone who feels that way a lot, think about it like this: do you stop social learning just because your aunt Claire is an amazing storyteller? Of course not. She’s not you. You’re you.

So, act. Don’t just buy materials to “prepare,” don’t spend weeks “researching” in preparation. This was something I had to brand into my brain in order to move past them: those stages are ghost productivity. They feel good, but when you go to bed, you haven’t done anything.

But taking that gut-dropping leap is different. You turn on a tutorial and follow along, even though you’re scared shitless. You put pen to page. You put a knife to wood. You burn the quiche, but you are one burnt quiche closer to being able to cook a non-burnt quiche. You’re going to be terrible at it at first.

“Why are you writing this blog post like a vindictive motivational poster?” I hear you asking. This is a reminder, to myself as much as anyone else who should need it. Don’t discredit your failures. And there are going to be a plethora of burnt quiches in your writing. Like, scads. I constantly think my own writing is terrible, but I’m doing it, ignoring the thought that some of you are reading this and thinking, “Who let this person have a blog, what the fuck?” Writing is a craft, a craft as valid as tattooing or leatherworking or the loom. You will improve if you push yourself and put the time in.

When you feel discouraged, please don’t stop writing. When you read an amazing book and it belittles your passion because the prose was so enrapturing, please don’t stop writing. You will get better. Please don’t stop. And it might not get easier if you continue to stretch, but the places you’ve tread before won’t prick your feet quite as harsh. Please, don’t stop writing.