Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Lynne Kelly, whose debut novel CHAINED was published this spring from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux/Margaret Ferguson Books. Learn more at her website: http://lynnekellybooks.com/wordpress/
Before my manuscript of CHAINED was submitted to editors, my agent Joanna Volpe asked me to do some revisions. After a while, many of the comments started sounding familiar: “And how does he feel about that?” “How does that make him feel?” “And he feels…?”
I’d received similar feedback before. Sometimes the comments on chapters I’d brought to critique meetings showed that readers wanted to see more about how the character was feeling or what they were thinking. A couple of agents who were nice enough to send feedback with the rejection letters indicated the same thing– I wasn’t showing enough about what was going on in the character’s head. Maybe I was worried about the dreaded “telling” too much instead of “showing.” Sure, if I filled the story with internal thoughts like, “I was sad,” and “I was so angry,” that would be really boring, but there are ways of showing those feelings that help readers connect with characters more, and thereby root for them and keep reading the story to see how things turn out.
So it took some work, since for whatever reason the feelings thing doesn’t come naturally for me. Here are a few before-and-after lines, showing how I revised those parts of the manuscript using Joanna’s notes.
Before: I try my best to look brave.
Jo: But inside he feels…?
Me: Um…not brave?
Revision: I try my best to look brave, but I worry I’ll never feel safe again.
This is from a scene where Hastin surprises his mom with a visit after not seeing her for a couple of weeks, and he notices her smile seems forced:
Before: I run toward her, then stop. Doesn’t she want to see me?
Jo: How does that make him feel? Tie it to his elation, then being deflated in some way.
Revision: I run toward her, then stop. Doesn’t she want to see me? All this time, I thought she must be missing me as much as I’ve missed her, but not it feels like I’ve done something wrong.
I went through the manuscript and highlighted all the places where I could show Hastin’s reaction to what was happening. And there were a lot. Then I tackled each highlighted scene by doing a little freewriting about how he felt at that time, and how I’d feel if I were in his place–not just the emotion, but what it would feel like physically too. Is there a sinking feeling in his stomach? Does he hit something out of anger? Does he feel like things are so bad, he’ll never be happy again? I picked out my favorite words and phrases from the freewriting to add a concise description of the character’s feelings to the scene. HYPERLINK “http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.com/”The Bookshelf Muse has an Emotional Thesaurus that helped tremendously. (It’s also great for setting descriptions, so bookmark it!)
In your own writing, look for places you can show more about how your character is feeling. Think about when you’ve felt the same way, and freewrite about that. Don’t worry about overwriting it– get everything on the page first, and the editing can come later if you need to scale it back. On the surface it might seem that you don’t have much in common with your character, but everyone has at times felt afraid, lonely, sad, desperate, or whatever else that character is feeling at the time.
After writing all you can about that feeling or experience, look over what you’ve written and see what you can you can apply to a scene you’re working on. Or, you may even want to start a new scene for a new character. Often it takes only one strong sentence or two to make an impact on your readers so they feel what your characters feel.