Writing About Feelings: What Do Feelings Feel Like?

moody, feelings, melancholy, on the beach, how to write feelings
Feeling all the feelings.

Say what? Feelings feel like feelings, duh! Or do they? If you’ve been on the blog for a while, you know that I talk a lot about writing about feelings and making it compelling. The word I use is interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions). You can see older posts where I discuss how to write interiority here. Go ahead and catch up, I’ll wait…

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do

I firmly believe that a writer’s most crucial job is to make the reader care. And putting authentic, relatable emotion on the page is one of the easiest and best ways to do this. But a lot of writers get tripped up here.

Whether they name emotions outright, or engage in a lot of telling, or sink into melodrama, a lot of writers aren’t very good at crafting genuine emotion.

This post was inspired by an editorial consultation I did last week. What I said really resonated with the client, and so I wanted to share it here. In this particular manuscript, the character was very angry. But the writer had written something long the lines of, “Her anger rose.” (I’m making up my own examples to protect client confidentiality, but it’s enough to give you the gist.) Basically, a flavorless telling description of anger.

And? So? How Do You Make the Reader Feel It, Too?

Okay. That’s a start. But I’m not going to feel angry or relate to the character just because I see the word “anger” on the page. That’s not how it works.

So what I’m more interested in is what anger feels like to the character. Let’s call her Erin. Does Erin relish the warm rush of wrath? Is she looking forward to lashing out? Is she afraid of her own anger? Does she think fearfully of what happened the last time she felt like this?

There’s so much more nuance to human feelings. “Anger” simply doesn’t cut it. An example of a rewrite would be: “Erin felt the anger rising and rushed to tamp it down. She couldn’t risk losing it again, not after last time, and the fight that got her suspended.”

Writing About Feelings: Add Context, Make It Fresh

Because we’ve all read scenes where characters feel angry. It’s familiar. What can you bring to the scene that’s new? Well, you are giving us a new character. With a new personal history. And new feelings about their feelings. Do you see how this takes the idea of feelings one level deeper?

What does anger feel like to your specific character? What experiences with anger are they bringing to the situation? My anger isn’t the same as your anger isn’t the same as your protagonist’s anger.

So instead of just saying “anger” and leaving it at that, I want you to really work at introducing layers. How do they feel about what they feel? What do those feelings bring to mind? You can call the feelings by their names, sure. As long as you don’t stop there.

If you struggle with adding relatable emotions to your manuscript, let me take a look and give you personalized, hands-on character critique.

Taking Questions

Man ponders mysteries while writing with sandwich in foreground
I have so many publishing and writing questions, I haven’t even touched my sandwich!

So there’s a new look for the blog. And talk of videos. Helpful headings now break up the endless streams of text. Things are good in Kidlit land. But Kidlit wouldn’t exist without questions from dedicated blog readers. I have about 300 notes for blog post ideas that I’ve been sifting through, but I also want to be responsive to what you want to learn about.

So I’m Asking You…

What are your burning writing craft or publishing questions (or both)? I’m thinking of doing a video in the next few weeks of opening pages for novels. There are a lot of potential pitfalls in this area, and I know a lot of writers are endlessly curious about the topic.

So what might you want to know? I’ve put a blast out across social media and will answer my favorite three questions in an upcoming video post.

But don’t stop yourself there. What else do you want to know? What’s on your mind as you get into the swing of writing in 2017? How can I be of service and address some sizzling conundrums?

Leave your thoughts on first pages and/or any other questions in the comments. Click the handy bubble in the top right corner of this post. Thanks!

If you’re fine on the general front but have very specific questions about your WIP, I also offer private consulting services. Check out the link for my editorial website.

You Vs. The Reader

Look at this guy, he really doesn’t trust your protagonist…

I’ve been giving the following note a lot in my consulting work, and it’s a fascinating idea. Ideally, you are creating a protagonist who the reader relates to and wants to (bad publishing joke alert…) be on the same page with. But are you secretly undermining the all-important reader-protagonist relationship with your writing?

It’s Your Word Against the Reader’s

As your reader, well, reads, they are creating impressions of your characters, your plot, your world, your writing style, etc. Ideally, they are discovering these impressions by reading your action-packed plot that is slim on telling.

So where is the potential problem? If the reader’s impression of anything in your story clashes with what you (or your protagonist) is insisting.

For example, imagine that your protagonist has nothing nice to say about their math tutor. They’re a show-off. And super rude. And nothing but trouble.

Except the young tutor on the page is…nice. She shows off a little bit, maybe, but she’s actually quite helpful and pleasant. So what’s the problem?

This situation actually drives a wedge between your protagonist and your reader’s impression of events. And in this conflict, your reader is going to side with…themselves. Now you’re left with an undermined protagonist, because the reader will always want to trust their own impression.

Cultivating Credibility

Unless you’re working with a notoriously unreliable narrator and that’s a storytelling choice you’ve made, make sure your protagonist is someone the reader can align with. If the protagonist hates the math tutor, the math tutor should be hateable. Maybe not in a way that makes them a caricature (rather than a well-rounded character), but in a way that the reader can get on board with the protagonist’s opinion.

If the reader’s opinion and your protagonist’s diverge, make sure it’s for a good reason. The more clashes there are, the less relatable your main character will seem, and the less inclined the reader will be to trust them.

As a writer, your number one job is to make the reader care, and you have a lot more power over the reader’s emotions when you’re funneling it through a character who they like and relate to.

Think about the effect you’re creating.

If you wonder how your characters are coming across, and whether your characterizations are consistent with the reader’s impression, hire me as an expert set of eyes.

New Site, New Video Content!

Woohoo! I made a video, y’all! I was so inspired by my Facebook Live experience with WriteOnCon, which was super-duper fun, that I’m going to start shooting some of my blog posts out behind the woodshed… Just kidding! I’m going to start shooting some of them as videos. (The WriteOnCon video will be available to repost here in March, and I’m really excited to share it with you. It’s an hourlong Q&A about the craft of revision!)

What You’ll See Here

In this video, I’m talking about the recent changes to the website, the impetus behind those, and my passion for creating this content and sharing it with you, my lovely readers.

Why I Recorded This

I really want to get my old readers and new visitors excited about the site, which has been around since 2009. My hope is it’ll be around for many years to come. I can’t do it without you, though!

What’s Next?

Help me keep a good thing going. If you have any questions that you’d like me to answer, in a blog post, or a video, please post them in the comments below. Let me know if you like the new website format, too!

 

Pardon My Digital Dust!

Please excuse the slightly messy look of the blog that you might be seeing. After eight years (which is, like, forever in Internet time) with the same theme and design, I’ve decided to join my peers in the spiffy digital future.

My new blog theme is much more user-friendly and, best of all, mobile-friendly, very important these days, as people browse on all their various devices.

Website Frenzy

As you can probably tell if you saw my announcement about my freelance editorial site, MaryKole.com, I woke up this January on a mission: to revamp my online presence. But I’m a one-woman show. So there are going to be some bumps and hiccups and probably some things that look weird or don’t work. These are the growing pains of trying to be one’s own webmaster (with a little coding help behind the scenes).

Embrace this beautiful mess!  I’m sure I’ll have everything tuned up exactly the way I want it soon. In the meantime, enjoy the same great content you’ve come to trust from Kidlit.com as I work to make your experience even better!

Balancing Your Writing Life

One of my wonderful, intelligent blog readers wrote in with the following excellent question. I’m not trying to butter her up, I really think it’s a good question and it’s worded very well, with a nice citation and everything. Here we go:

For the past several months I’ve been revising a manuscript and querying agents. But while I’ve been doing this, I haven’t been writing. As you suggest, I put my manuscript in a drawer for several months and started working on a new manuscript. Now the new manuscript (which isn’t finished) is in the drawer. I also have another idea twirling around in my head. How do I balance my writing life? Kate DiCamillo says she writes two pages every day. But how does she do that when she’s in the throes of completing a project?

Most of us don’t walk around complaining about how much free time we have. Life is a busy thing. So how do you do everything you have to do, keep the bills paid, and still find time to write? I don’t have a definitive answer. I do have some thoughts, though. And I think you’re on to something in your very own answer, and with Kate DiCamillo’s advice.

There’s this old adage, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Writing isn’t going to fall into your lap, you have to go after it. And once you get into a writing habit, it’s much easier to maintain it and keep writing. So whether that’s two pages a day, or ten, or fifty (ha!), the number is irrelevant. The key piece of info is: “a day.” That means every day. When you’re sick, when you’re stressed, when the baby is cranky, you still do your daily writing. If you need to wake up 30 minutes early? Or cut out those fifteen minutes that you spend absently browsing Facebook at night and replace it with writing time? Then that’s what you need to do. The key is, do it every day. Two pages a day sounds so insignificant that it’s not even worth it. But that habit of writing every day? That’s really the secret.

The other advice is to rotate between projects, as you’re already realizing. There’s only so much you can do when you’re querying. You send out all those emails and then…you wait. That’s just part of the deal. So instead of letting that waiting drive you crazy, put it away and work on something else for your daily practice. And if you hit a wall with Project 2? Don’t let that writer’s block stop your daily practice. Put the new project away and start working on an outline for Project 3. Then Project 2 might call to you. Or you might receive feedback from an agent on Project 1.

By that point, you’ll have enough momentum to be more flexible about what actually happens during your daily practice. Should you write new pages? Revise pages that have been sitting in a drawer? Sketch out some broad ideas for something that’s on the back burner? Your muscle memory, once a good habit is established, is going to get your butt into that chair. From there, you can let your creativity guide you to whatever needs to be done.

The hard part really isn’t the writing, it’s making that space in your life that says, “Writing is necessary today.” Besides, you’d be amazed that two pages a day can turn into 700 pages in a year. That’s two novels! When I’m editing, I can provide notes on about 20 pages an hour. In two weeks, even if I work one hour a day, I’ll have that whole novel edited. Or if I can only work 15 minutes (or 5 pages) a day on revising something, it’ll take me two months, but that novel will be done. That’s all that matters. Every day, you’re making progress.

The wheels of publishing turn very slowly. Six months to write a novel, in the grand scheme of things, is NOTHING. Two months to revise a novel, in the grand scheme of things, is NOTHING. They say, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today.” You could commit to 15 minutes/two pages/whatever a day, and in six months, you’ll be a hell of a lot farther than you are today. Or you could agonize about how you never have time to do anything and two pages doesn’t really seem like a lot and you’ve got analysis paralysis, etc. etc. etc.

So don’t worry about what the balance part will consist of once you’re actually working. Where you want to put your energy is making that work mandatory, and getting to the working place every day.

Sending Multiple Projects to Multiple Agents

Recently, an editorial client of mine wrote in with the following awesome question:

Is it ok to query two books at the same time to different agents? A novel and a picture book? An agent I want to work with is accepting queries for both picture books and novels. Is it ok to query the same agent with two different books? But I’d also like to send both projects to other agents.

This is a two-parter, so buckle your seat belts! The two questions here are:

  1. Should I send two projects to the same agent?
  2. Should I query multiple projects at a time?

If you’re like my client, you have a lot of ideas in a lot of stages of development. You have a picture book here, a middle grade there, a YA up your sleeve, and maybe a few non-fiction pieces, just for the hell of it. You want them all to become real, live books yesterday. So how to do you proceed?

1) Should I send two projects to the same agent? No. Let them consider one project and respond before you send them something else. That’s just good etiquette. And based on their response, you might realize, “Hey, I have a better idea now of what they’re looking for,” or “Maybe they’re not the one for me.” If you’ve already sent them another submission, you won’t be able to tailor that second letter to increase your chances. Also, you might run the risk of scaring them off. If they haven’t yet gotten a chance to read Project 1, and Project 2 just hit their inbox, is Project 3 next? How many are there? Is this what you’ll be like to work with? Too much! Too soon! Aaah! That’s a bit melodramatic, but you really will run the risk of the agent being put-off because it looks like you’re just fire-hosing all of New York City with a bunch of projects. They’d rather see a writer who is passionate and focused on one project at a time.

2) Should I query multiple projects at a time? Absolutely not. Let’s say the best case scenario happens. Watch how quickly it turns into the worst case scenario. In this day and age, remember, most agents represent more than one category. Sure, sometimes agents only represent novels. In that case, some of them will be fine with you having a picture book agent on the side. But some won’t be. Keep that in mind.

Let’s say Agent A wants your novel and Agent B wants your picture book. But A represents both categories, while B only does picture books. You’ll have to tell them about one another at some point. When you do, I guarantee Agent A is going to ask you, “Why the heck didn’t you send me the picture book?” You run the very real risk of turning B off. You’ll immediately look like you were sneaking around behind their backs. I hope you can see that it’d turn into a mess very, very quickly.

FOCUS on one project at a time. Submit it. Hear feedback. Then you have two options: Revise that first project and submit it again, or put it away for a while and focus on the next project. Use what you’ve learned to make the pitch for your next project even stronger, then submit it when it’s truly ready. The take-away: ONE PROJECT AT A TIME, PLZ.

Everyone wants to rush rush rush through this process, but I’m here to tell you that if you have a need for speed, publishing is not for you. If you sold a book today (not gotten an agent for a book, SOLD the book), the earliest it’d come out is 2019. So, as the song says, “Take your time, do it right.”

Life Post-Publication

Over the holidays, I received a great question from Jenny. She makes the very valid point that there’s so much focus on life before publication, because so many writers are striving to take that crucial step, and then there’s, perhaps, a dearth of information about what happens after. Here’s her question:

There is much information out there about the “publishing process,” what happens if/when you get “The Call,” and the time line of events that follow from contract to publication. I often find myself wondering what happens AFTER that. Should I be so lucky as to receive a contract for one of my picture book manuscripts, what would life look like for me, after the final product is ready to sell? You speak often of authors being required to become marketers to push their book once they are created. I can see where that is a crucial step, but what are the logistics of that? How much travel is involved? Are new authors flitting about, across the country selling their books? How much is accomplished electronically? What does ‘real life’ look like for a newly published author, trying to make a name for herself?

First of all, let’s dispense, for the moment, with the notion of an author flying around the country on “book tour.” In most cases, that is not going to be your reality because publishers are investing less and less in these brick-and-mortar-heavy strategies, especially for debuts. If you have the sort of marketing plan for your book that includes a book tour, you will be in the minority. And then you don’t have to worry about the logistics as much, because the level of marketing that includes a book tour will also include a support person on the publisher’s end to walk you through the finer details.

So let’s toss the idea of a book tour out for a moment. Sad, but true, you’re likely on your own. So here is what the life of a writer who has a book out (or is about to have a book out) looks like. There are two kinds of marketing you’ll be doing, passive and active.

Passive:

  • Setting up a simple informational website for your book, series, and/or yourself as a writer. Most of the content here is going to be “set it and forget it.” You can add a blogging function, to be discussed later.
  • Set up a profile on GoodReads, flesh out your Amazon Author page, create a Facebook Page (rather than just your personal feed). The first two are rather static, the latter is more active. Make your book cover your profile image.
  • Create paper marketing materials if you wish, postcards of your cover, etc. Have them at the ready.
  • Create ways of people online to message you (via your Facebook page, for example), put a contact form on your website, and set up a mailing list submission form that collects email addresses on your behalf. I use Vertical Response, for example. It’s not going to knock your socks off with responses right away, but you’re building your list, regardless.

Active:

  • Start being an active participant on publishing blogs, blogs specific to your book’s category (there’s a lively YA writing scene), Facebook pages (there are groups and communities for everything). When you’re active here, contribute to the conversations going on instead of just spamming people about your book.
  • Look for timely articles that have to do with your book’s category, or your book’s subject matter. Post these on your blog, on Twitter, on your Facebook page, and in your relevant communities.
  • Generate lists of contacts with youth librarians and bookstores with good children’s programs, starting in your area, and then branching outward. Your publisher may be able to help point you to resources for doing this. You can start reaching out by mailing those postcards you made.
  • In the same vein, talk to buyers and event planners at bookstores and literary festivals, universities, schools, etc. in your area. Pitch them something of value instead of just “an appearance from wonderful me!” Say your middle grade deals with a character who moves around a lot. Call schools and say, “I’d love to give a talk on Thriving in a New Place.” Or however you want to brand it. You’re more likely to get speaking opportunities if you have something to offer, instead of simply a sales pitch for you and your book.
  • Make connections with other writers who are being published around the same time, writers who you admire, and writers who are still looking to break in. They will be your allies and a great wealth of information, as long as you don’t just talk about yourself and spam them with sales messages.
  • Join and get involved with the SCBWI. They will often have authors speak or do workshops at regional conferences.
  • Reach out to journalists who have written articles about your book’s subject matter. Again, you should figure out what your hooks are. In the middle grade example, it’s that your character is an army brat and moves around a lot. That’s a topic you might be able to speak about. That’s a topic people might be interested in. So get on the radar of people who are writing about it. Offer yourself as an expert. It might seem weird to think of yourself that way, but once you’re quoted in one article, it becomes easier to get quoted in another one. Start small, with a blog or local website. From there, approach more journalists.

These are examples of what an author who’s about to be published or has recently been published should be doing. As you can see, a lot of this work isn’t going to pay off in obvious or immediate ways. By building a network of journalists, you aren’t going to get on the cover of Time next week. But the more seeds you plant, the more chance you have of something coming to fruition.

Ideally, you’re doing this a year before your publication date. Basically, as soon as you know that you’re slotted for Winter 2018, you start putting plans in place to do some of this stuff. You don’t have to do it all at once. And some days, you’ll have other things to do.

But you should hold yourself to the standard of doing some marketing every day. Reply to a message that comes in via your website. Post something interesting from Twitter to the YA writer’s Facebook group. Craft a blog post. Send five emails to librarians in your area. Call and ask to speak to the book buyer at your local bookstore. Call the English department of the university that’s having a literary speaker series. Maybe it won’t pay off, but maybe it will.

Most importantly, you’re getting in the habit of marketing, and of selling subtly, and of positioning yourself as an author with something important to say, not just a book to hawk.

For more marketing ideas, don’t forget to check out the Book Marketing Power Bundle from Writing Blueprints. It’s a wealth of ideas and information. I’ve gone through the program myself and can’t recommend it highly enough. The money and time you invest in marketing will only pay off exponentially in the long term, you just have to know what you’re doing, so you’re working smarter, not harder.

The Good Old Days

I recently received a beautifully written question. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

Here goes:

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

***

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always thought of as glamorous to be a writer. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it.

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

Happy Holidays and a Joyful New Year

macdonald-family-8

It’s funny that this picture was taken in October and, already, it’s out of date. Theo is now 9 months old and about to walk. He’s babbling and getting into trouble and so big. There’s so much to be grateful for this holiday season. Theo is happy and healthy, pulling books off the shelf for me to read. My husband, Todd, has just opened a new restaurant, Red Rabbit, in downtown Minneapolis with a focus on fun, approachable, satisfying Italian food. Though I took some time off this year to get into the swing of motherhood, I continue to work with wonderful freelance editorial clients through my consultancy, Mary Kole Editorial.

Coming up in the new year, I have WriteOnCon (February 2-4, 2017). I’m involved doing critiques, and this is a great online writing conference. There are a few other things in the works for 2017 that I’m very excited about, but can’t really discuss at the moment.

Please share your 2017 writing resolutions in the comments to inspire your fellow blog readers, and me! I can’t wait for another wonderful year. Though a lot of people would rather see 2016 over and done, I have to say, it’s been a great one here at Kidlit! As always, I am so, so grateful for you, my wonderful readers. I can’t believe it’s been eight years of learning and discussing issues related to writing and publishing together. Here’s to many more!