Falling Down at the Finish Line?

Susan DeFclassesLeave a Comment

I had the honor of presenting a class for Jane Friedman that you might think of as the expanded, class-sized version of one of my most popular posts for her, The Alchemy of Emotion.

In this class, I covered the ways that emotion is generated in long-form fiction at three very important, very distinct levels: At the level of the story structure, the level of the storytelling, and the level of the prose, as exemplified by this little infographic of mine:

As you can see, there’s a lot to this–and I’m really fascinated by how all of these elements work together to create that most mysterious of emergent properties in fiction: an emotional connection to the protagonist.

But here’s the truth: you can do ALL of the important things I’ve noted at the bottom two levels of this pyramid right and still fall down at the finish line–meaning, you can still fail to get emotion across to your reader in scene, where it really matters.

That’s why I got down to the real nitty gritty in my most recent post for Jane, which discusses the exact craft tactics I share with my own book coaching clients for getting emotion on the page, when it matters most: in the moment.

You can read the whole post here.

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How to Get your Reader to Share in the Emotional Experience of your Protagonist

Susan DeFCreative WritingLeave a Comment

For so many of us, it was the way books made us feel when we were kids that made us want to write them when we grew up.

The plots of those early, formative books…well, the fact is, we probably don’t remember a whole lot about them at this point.

Regardless, we remember those feelings of wonder, of connection–moments when we laughed at a character’s triumph or commiserated with their grief–moments when we felt for the protagonist through tense moments, and joyful ones.

Which seems very much in keeping with what the great Maya Angelou once said: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”

Okay, but…how do you do that, exactly? Like, as an author?

Meaning, how do you actually get emotions on the page in a way your reader can feel?

Which is to say: How do you get your reader to share in the emotional experience of your protagonist?

In my latest post for Jane Friedman, I share two key tactics for doing just that. You can read the full post here. 

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Is Fiction Escapist?

Susan DeFfictionLeave a Comment

fiction, escapism

Recently, I’ve been reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall—an excellent companion to the work of Lisa Cron, on the evolutionary role of storytelling and its centrality to human consciousness and culture.
In the course of Gottschall’s argument that fictional stories are in fact essential to our learning and development as a species, he first dismisses the claim that novels are mere entertainment—in a word, escapism.
Anyone who knows my work knows that I too consider fictional stories an essential tool for human learning and development, a sort of “virtual reality” by which we rehearse ways to deal with threats and obstacles we have not yet encountered, learn from those who have gone before us, and fine-tune the critical neural pathways associated with social skills—as Gottschall goes on to establish at some length.
But part of me got stuck on that charge of escapism. Like, is that really such a dismissal of the power of story?
Or is it in fact one of the most essential powers of story?
Last week on The Skimm (yes, I’m a fan) I learned a concerning statistic: hospitalizations for children with mental health conditions skyrocketed by more than 25% between 2009 and 2019. 
Further: Many of the kids admitted were 11 to 14 years old—the majority of them girls. Girls exhibiting self-harming behaviors.
And why? The same study that revealed this concerning statistic indicated that depression in this population related to social media use may be, at least in part, to blame.
This brought me back to my sixth grade year—one of the hardest in my life to date. It was the year I had no friends. The year I sat by myself at lunch, reading fantasy novels.
The year I wrote a fantasy novel of my own.
Fast forward to my thirty-eighth year of life—the second hardest in my life to date. It was the year I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. That year, after undergoing the surgery that saved my life, I sat in the backyard lounger during a summer heat wave in Portland reading novels.
Big, weighty novels. Novels that remain some of the most meaningful of my adult life: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt.
Yes, those books allowed me to face threats and challenges I had not faced in my actual life: The challenge of moving to a remote island inhabited by a culture completely different from my own. The challenge of living through a war of unprecedented scale and brutality.
Yes, those books helped to fine tune my social skills, my understanding of human beings, of men and women and children, and my understanding of history as well.
And yes, those novels both have deep truths at their core—timeless truths that really and truly gave me the courage to fight for life, and to understand how very much we as people are capable of enduring.
But what those novels gave me in the moment—and what the novels I read at eleven gave me in the moment—is no less significant. And that is the opportunity to leave the hardships of the world I lived in, at least for a while.
My husband and I are in an adoption pool right now, and this essentially means that we could become parents at any time—two weeks from now, or two years from now.
And in the face of the pressures young people are under today—in the face of the immense pressures of early adolescence, and the social toxicities of that time, exponentially amplified by social media—it occurred to me that there is only one gift I can think of that I might be able to offer my child, one gift I think might help.
One gift that might allow them to slip the bonds of time and space for a while and inhabit a completely different world.
That is the gift of fiction.

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Small Changes > Big Goals

Susan DeFReadingLeave a Comment

If you’re like me, you have some big goals, and you’ve had them for years. One of mine has been to read 52 books in a year.

Every year, it seems, I resolve to make this happen during the first week of the new year–and every year I fall short.

Pictured here, you’ll see what my husband calls my Pile of Glory–all the books I read in 2022–minus the one he stole from me, for his own reading purposes, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. Counting that one, it comes to 30 books–almost half as many as I intended to read in 2022.

How could I have failed, despite all best intentions, to be the big reader I intend to be? How many delicious, important books had escaped my grasp, never to be read?

Alas, to paraphrase Goya: My TBR pile is long, and life is short.

But then it occurred to me: Didn’t I read some e-books too? And listen to some audiobooks?

Yes, as it turned out, between e-books and audiobooks, I had read another 17 books. Books I hadn’t even given myself credit for, taking me to within 5 books of that elusive, year-after-year goal. I just didn’t “see” these other books because they were all on my phone (I use Scribd for both of these other types of books).

I think our writing goals are often the same way: we don’t give ourselves credit for the work we’ve really done, and for all we’ve really achieved.

Because in many ways, that work is invisible–cut from our current draft, or on a draft that had to be scrapped, or contained in a great many scribbles in a great many notebooks. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter–or that it doesn’t count toward your ultimate goal of finishing and publishing your book.

Beyond that, what my reckoning with my 2022 Pile of Glory sparked for me this week was the realization that I’d gotten closer to my big goal–a LOT closer to my big goal–by simply observing what so many habit and productivity gurus teach:

1. Make it easy
I’d made it easier for myself to read more books in 2022 by finding a way to always have a book within reach (by essentially having a library of e-books and audiobooks on my phone).

2. Diversify your approach
As long as I only read books at the end of the day, in my reading chair, with a physical book, there were only so many books I was going to read.

In 2022, I started “reading” books at the gym, on my walks, and on road trips (my husband and I listened to three of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels on our cross-country road trip this year–highly recommend).

3. Use snippets of time
I subscribe to the newsletter of productivity guru Lauren Vanderkam, and adopted something she recommends: when you have a little snippet of what she calls “confetti time” (e.g., standing in line, waiting on hold), turn to an e-book on your phone rather than random scrolling.

As an added bonus, I found that this actually made me feel good, like I’d snacked on something healthy and nutritious, rather than mental junk food.

I believe these same strategies can work for our writing goals.

Making it easy might mean always keeping a pen and notebook handy.

Diversifying your approach might mean using the voice memo function of your phone to write some part of your current WIP via dictation (or by hand, if you currently only work on the computer).

Using snippets of time might mean turning to that handy notebook you always carry with you instead of turning to social media for a break from work–and perhaps even writing a few pages on your lunch break.

However you go about it, consider this an invitation not to beat yourself up for all the big goals you’ve failed to achieve as a writer, and instead to focus on small, process-oriented ones. Because it’s in focusing on the small that we manifest the large.

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