Teachers Write 7/25 Thursday Quick-Write

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.

41 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/25 Thursday Quick-Write

  1. He could not believe he was feeling the emotion tighten his throat as he walked to the make shift podium. But he felt the weight of pride as he looked out across the gym. This was the beauty of high school football. The row of tables with families and athletes bustling with conversation, the buffet of home made food that would rival any restaurant. This is why he wanted to coach, to be apart of the community, to watch as players grew and developed into men. His first year as head coach was a good year, not great. They would never make a movie out of the season, yet they were building something. And he was the coach.
    The gym easily fell silent as Coach Riner cleared his throat, “We had a handful of goals set for this season… that we did not reach.” The gym’s energy fell. The football players’ eyes drifted from each other to the table in front of them.
    “It is now 13 years since we have won the season opener, it has been seven years since we have had a .500 or better record. We did not play consistent in our games. We did not play this season to our potential.” The senior players seemed to fidget in their seats, a few with growing frowns. The gym was now dead silent, the crowd not prepared for such a negative speech for the fall awards night.
    Coach Riner paused, he believed in honesty. That a football player, that anybody, could not grow if they were not honest with themselves. He let the moment stay, to let the players think about the past and what could have been.
    “Yet,” a smile breaking on his face despite the fact he did not want to show it yet, “we, as a team, have turned a corner. We accomplished a handful of goals, wining homecoming for the first time in eight years, having our first shut-out on defense, and ending the season three and five, after only one win in the last 4 years.” The energy rose just as quickly as his smile. The football players jostled with each other with the memory of the good things they had done. Coach Riner let them have that moment. “And finally,” the gym quickly became hushed, but with a buzz, “we have started… started to build one heck of a good football team.” The buzz was released and the gym filled with applause. This was the beauty of high school football.

    1. I feel the rise of excitement in the gym with this excerpt. So hard to do… build with words, without a background soundtrack like in the movies. Your words build that soundtrack. Great work!

    2. Thank you Margaret and Diane for reading. This is a story idea I’ve been sitting on for too long… The workshop has allowed me to create some moments, given me some real blocks to work with.

    3. Great work, Jamey! I think it’ll be even stronger if you make your first sentence more concise; that’ll show us what he’s feeling more than telling us about the emotion. Something like, “His throat tightened as he walked…,” or maybe he’s worried he won’t be able to speak because his throat’s too tight to let the words out. Or let us see why he can’t believe it– is his throat tightening up just before his speech, even though he’s spoken to crowds like this 1000 times?
      And yikes, I can feel that awkward silence in the gym!

    4. The way you take the reader through the lows and build to the highs is very emotional! The way you crafted this makes it exciting to read!

  2. The inner voice is so important to building a main character. I appreciate this exercise. I went back to a chapter in my WIP. I decided to make the nun only visible to my main character. Still not sure where this will be going, but I added in Blessen’s thoughts about her vision.

    I look up to see the nun draped in black walking in front of the altar. She stops and acknowledges the cross with a kneeling bow.

    I clutch Harmony’s shirt. “You see her?”

    “See who?” Harmony’s voice echoes in the small chapel.

    “Up there, kneeling at the altar.” I point and as I do, the nun is no longer there. Did she disappear into thin air? Is she really just a ghost? I lean down to help Harmony up and turn to leave.

    “Let’s go. I’m getting cold,” I say. What is causing the chill on my spine is more than the drying rain. I am scared. Why do I see the nun and Harmony doesn’t? Did she know we were there? Momma told me the nuns left years ago when the school closed. So why is this nun still here? And why doesn’t she speak?

  3. I found this so helpful. I love the examples you gave via dialogue. Thank you so much!

  4. Thank you Lynne! Here’s my go at it:

    I have to say I’m amazed at myself and how brave and calm I’ve been during this whole ordeal. I mean, if I was stuck in a bad situation like I am now, I wish I had me for a friend—level headed, clear thinking and a natural problem solver. That is, until now. Melvin has fainted dead away and I’m stuck in this cave with a knife-wielding scientist lady. I can’t think, all I can do is follow her directions because I have no idea how to get out of this mess. I’m back to being five years old, Dad is leaving, and I’ve got no power whatsoever to make him stay. No power to stop Mom’s crying. No power period. The lady is commanding me to walk deeper into the cave, but I can’t even make my legs work, I’m so petrified. And my fear is making me even more afraid, until my head is spinning in circles and I think maybe I’m going to faint, too. I try to think—think about how I helped my mom, maybe not right away, but I did, eventually. How’d I do that? How’d I pull myself together and become so strong and clever for her? I have no idea, my jangled nerves have taken over and I might as well not have a head at all.

    1. Wow, Diane! I like how you show the character’s past while showing how she’s feeling and what she’s experiencing in the present. This is just one paragraph and I already want to turn the page.

    2. Nicely done, Diane!
      The way you connected the past to the present was brilliant. I also enjoyed the way you described the character feeling powerless because of events that occurred in the past (it created a feeling of self-doubt).
      Thank you for sharing!

  5. I’ve been writing about a boy who loses things all the time, so today I captured a memory from when I was about the same age and lost something valuable. Instructive, and potentially a great road to empathy. Thanks for the lesson, Lynne! Here are a few of my favorite “and-he-feels” sentences:

    My stomach did a quick twist as I imagined my dad’s anger and mom’s wordless look of disappointment. I felt a wave of embarrassment at my clumsiness. I hoped no one would find out what had happened.

    “How could you be so irresponsible?” my dad said with words, my mom with her eyes. I felt ashamed, like I wanted to cry though no tears were coming. I had to call my friend and ask him if anyone from his family had picked up the necklace. I knew that was a smart step, but it still made me feel worse when others knew my mistake.

    Now I knew I’d need to tell my grandparents, who’d given me the gift in the first place, and my heart sunk a little deeper. One careless moment, and I was letting down a lot of people close to me.

    1. “my dad said with words, my mom with her eyes.” Simple but yet allows the reader to see it. I see mom and dad standing there, mom just off dad’s shoulder…

      1. I liked this same part, and the statement “one careless moment, and I was letting down a lot of people …”

        1. I agree with Jamey and Wendi. I liked this part because I instantly was reminded of a time that I let down people I cared about. Your writing always catches my attention. Nicely done!
          Thanks for sharing!

    2. Ugh, I hate that sinking feeling of having lost something! There’s something everyone will identify with. Here’s something to look at when you revise, that I’ve found helps me: I always look for my sentences that start with “I felt…” and try to reword them without that phrase, starting with the feeling. Something like, “A wave of embarrassment churned my stomach.” Same idea you had before, but it makes the sentence stronger.

      Thanks for sharing!

  6. I can empathize with this boy’s fear of confession, not only to his parents but to his friend and grandparents. That’s such an agonizing moment and I can feel that in the writing. I like the line where the dad is showing his disappointment in words and the mom is showing it in her eyes.

  7. Thanks for being our guest author, Lynne! Here’s my quick-write:

    Holiday family gatherings are always a time to recount “funny” mistakes from the past, and if it is your mistake, you have to be laughing along.  If you’ve ever dredged up the chicken gizzard in the ladle of gravy and then had to choke it down to not insult the cook, then you have an idea of how sick my stomach feels at each retelling of my blunders.  This Thanksgiving the gravy incident isn’t going to happen to me because everyone seems to be watching to make sure too much ham, too much butter-slathered bread, and too much of anything-that-tastes-really-good doesn’t end up on my plate.  But the stories, these will never stop.  In this athletic family I will never live down my hating to play soccer days.  And now, with me about to start jiu-jitsu, and wear those pajama things in public, I can’t imagine it was going to get any better.  How is a pair of thin pajama thingies going to protect me from embarrassing injuries?  They won’t.  If I manage to escape every hold, and dodge every stray elbow and flying foot, I’ll still be scarred by some graceless move I make in my pajamas.  And with Dad watching from the sidelines it is sure to show up as entertainment at a future Thanksgiving meal.

    1. “If I manage to escape every hold, and dodge every stray elbow and flying foot, I’ll still be scarred by some graceless move I make in my pajamas.” – I love this line (I could visualize it and it made me smile). It was a strong conclusion to the details from the beginning of the story. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Hi, Lynne!

    Thank you for a great post and congratulations on all of your success!

    Here is an excerpt of my short story (revised after reading your mini-lesson):
    As I pull onto Route 28 and head towards the sleepy Adirondack town of Blue Mountain Lake, my mind slips back to years ago. I spent the next twenty-five summers coming to this camp with my parents and now with my own family. And at least three or four times during our week-stay at the cabin, I would find myself looking for Matty, either out on the water, at the park, or in town. I would never find him.

    That all changed when I got a phone call about six months ago. It was a cold February afternoon when the phone rang. I will never forget that phone call. Matty was on the other end of the line and after a few emotional minutes of telling each other about where our lives have gone since that summer week in 1985, Matty told me that he had bought Davidson’s Tackle and Bait Shop and he wanted me to stop in this summer and visit. For the first time in my life, I realized how important childhood friends could be. I was tempted to get in the car and make that nine-hour drive to Blue Mountain Lake that day. I had a feeling of relieve. I had no idea how much Matty’s disappearance from my life had bothered me. I could not wait until our summer trip to the cabin.

    “Mom, hello, we are driving like ten miles an hour. You just got passed by an elderly man on a moped.” Kaitlyn joked. I smiled at her through the rearview mirror, partially because of her joke and also to show her that I was back from daydream land. I pulled into a parking spot in front of Rustic Reynolds Bait Shop and I was shaking with excitement. Matty had done a ton of work to the place and it looked totally different than Davidson’s Tackle and Bait Shop. The entire front porch, which ran the length of the store, was made out of wood and he put up wood siding to make the shop look like a log cabin.

    I sat in the car for longer than a minute staring at the front of the store. The butterflies in my stomach were actually making me feel sick. “Mom, are we going to sit in the car all day or are we going to go into the shop?” Kaitlyn says as she gets out of the Jeep. I have to hustle to catch up to her and we fall into stride as we climb the stairs onto the beautiful front porch of the Bait Shop. I notice that my hand is trembling as I reach for the Shop’s door. Am I ready for this moment?


    1. “Mom, hello, we are driving like ten miles an hour. You just got passed by an elderly man on a moped.” Excellent dialogue for a laugh and for showing the mother’s apprehension and daydreaming state. Then the last paragraph adds to my apprehension and desire to read more. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Interesting! I enjoyed the atmosphere of this scene, and was intrigued by why the protagonist was both excited to see her old friend and nervous. I get nervous like that to see an old friend, but wondered if there was more to it than that?