How many rejection letters have we all had, stating that our writing lacks those two awful words, “emotional punch”? I know I’ve had more than a few in the past. But it would leave me puzzled for a long, long time. What is emotional punch? People say to write the book of your heart and it will come naturally. But which book, since we love them all, is the book of our hearts?
I believe writing from the heart is definitely a plus…but sometimes it takes more. Think of that “book of your heart” — any book — as a whole body: and a body needs several parts to really live. Like we do. So, what makes up the “body” of a truly emotional book?
Let’s go through “body parts”. The bare bones of a story — what else can it be, but the plot? It’s the start of any book, the germ of an idea that starts us writing. Without a plot, there’s no “bones” to hold the book up, or together. The flesh and muscle of any book is, in my opinion, is characterization and sexual tension; the “hair, color and clothing” is the sights, sounds, scents — a book’s beauty and stimulation — and the budding romance.
So what is emotion, then? It’s the lifeblood of a story. A quote I like to use is from the book “Bad Boy”, by Olivia Goldsmith: “He watched her expression begin to change, as if blood was flowing into marble and enlivening it.” So blood enlivens cold marble? Then, if emotional depth is the lifeblood, what does it do for a book? It gives it richness, life-depth. Without blood, we die. Without emotional depth, a book may be interesting, but basically, it’s lifeless.
Let’s explore this idea. What is emotion to a book? To me, it’s not just the blood — it’s also the guts and gore, the heart and liver and veins and arteries, all the stuff that keeps us alive. How many of us truly want to see those things? Yet without them, we can’t live. Similarly, without emotion, can a book truly live?
Without true, strong emotion, what is a book? A pretty store dummy, beautifully dressed, perfect size 6 figure and made up — but it’s not alive. Writing a book without true, deep emotion and punch is like playing with Ken and Barbie. It’s like a work of art that needs the sketch, then the colors and light and shade filled in, the richness and depth. And that’s what editors look for in a book — the color: the life, the fire, the guts and depth of emotion, the unmistakable richness. It’s what makes a book live in the reader’s mind after she’s closed the book, or keeps her up until 3AM reading it until the story’s complete.
So the big question: how to achieve it in your writing?
The first part of this step is to see, and accept, one basic truth: we’re all afraid of emotion to one extent or another. We’re afraid people won’t understand that we think about death 5 times a day, or that we’ll be told we need therapy because we still remember being “pantsed” in year 2, or teased about being ugly, having big/little boobs, freckles or glasses. Emotion is scary! It’s like blood and guts and gore: we know it’s inside us all, but if it spills onto the road, we’re terrified. Of death, our own or whoever’s guts are out. We’re afraid to touch that person in case we do something wrong and make it worse, or it plain makes us sick to see it. How many of us can admit to that fear?
Now, can you translate that into your writing? We can be terrified to put real, strong, raw blood-and-guts emotion into our books. Why? There are many reasons: we don’t want our family to think that’s how we felt about them as kids, or, shock-horror (if we write sexy stuff) that our mother might ask us if we’re sluts (when hello, it’s a made-up person!! I mean, would Mrs. Tolkien senior have asked her son if he’d spent his childhood thinking he was too short, or had a terminal fear of rings? Did Mrs. Tolstoy wonder if she’d let her little Leo play with toy soldiers too much?); we’re scared we’re going to do it wrong, and everyone from our critique partners to a contest judge and an editor is going to be rolling on the floor laughing at our pathetic attempts; or — and this is a biggie — we’re not in touch with our own emotions, so what our hero and heroine should or could be feeling is a terrifying proposition in case it’s really us, deep down.
I emphasize this because this is the scariest reason to have (especially if your characters are divorced, man/woman haters, if they were abused by parents, etc), because it can block our imaginative work and creativity, the wondering if we’re really talking about us (whispered inside our minds, never said out loud).
So what can we do? Face the fear. And no, it doesn’t mean we have to get in touch with our “masculine” side, or spend years with a therapist to find out if our fifty characters are all us (shades of Sybil here!). What I mean is, facing that the fear we have is imaginary. We need to let it go, to separate our life and emotions from our characters’ lives, so we can lose the fear that can cripple us and let loose with the emotion. We have to know that it’s coming from our creative child, our vivid imagination — our heart and gut and soul and innermost fire, perhaps, but not necessarily from our personal experiences.
Also, a good point my critique partner Maryanne brought up: writers are observers. We don’t have to live the experience, just see it, and “report” it. Think Stephen King: is he an axe murderer or pyromaniac? Did Agatha Christie kill people? What about Diana Gabaldon — did she go back to 1745 to make her emotion authentic? Of course not! So let fear go: it does no good, and can limit our potential, stopping us from being all we can be.
So I want you all who relate to this idea of mine, to do one of two things: imagine bungee-jumping off a cliff, leaving a bundle of fear behind; or casually dumping that truckload of fear over that cliff, and walking away — straight to your computer. It’s time to get to work!
First exercise: read!
Get out your never-to-be lent, all-time favorite books and read some of them, and ask why. Analyze why they’re your favorites, why they mean what they do to you. What lines from the book hit you, and why. Use the book like a university text. Mark it with comments, or if you can’t bring yourself to do that, get a piece of paper and write it all down. Analyze yourself and every emotional response you have to that book, and WHY. No-one’s looking at you! No-one can see you. So do some self-talk and physician, heal thyself!
My favorite books, in my line, SIM (I won’t go into my other favorites now), are: The Morning Side of Dawn (Justine Davis), In Memory’s Shadow (Linda Wisdom), Jezebel’s Blues (Ruth Wind), Jennifer’s Outlaw (Karen Anders) and Cullen’s Bride (Fiona Brand) and The Man For Maggie (Frances Housden). I keep these books, and don’t lend them out, for their true, raw, blood and guts emotion and fire.
I especially want to discuss the books by Karen Anders, Frances Housden and Fiona Brand, because they’re first books. That therefore makes them what I call textbooks: they are wonderful first books for emotional punch. I cried my eyes out with Jennifer’s Outlaw — oh, Corey, what a wonderful, tortured, against-his-will hero…and Jennifer was a beautiful, gutsy heroine! She’s a real text for compelling emotional punch. When Corey goes to one last rodeo, to prove to himself that he was something better than his abusive father — when his sister was found alive — I cried buckets. And though it was mostly a darker book, the pig in it is so darn cute, as is the budding romance between two kids in the story.
Cullen’s Bride hit me with its lush sexuality and tight, compelling hero and dark, beautiful writing. When Cullen holds Rachel in his arms “like precious porcelain” as they race for the hospital, you could see the anguish on his face, feel the living, pulsing fear, like when he realizes he’s broken the cycle of abuse. I want to mention Frances’ book especially because she was accepted with this book with NO revisions at all. She’s an absolute textbook for how to write to get a book picked up! She’s also a textbook for reading a book that does fear within deep point of view (man, read the scene in the wine vats with a faceless murderer, and the tied-up ribbons on his victims — scary! Not to mention Maggie’s gift-cum-curse of psychic ability only with family) and emotional sex scenes, very, very well. Her descriptions are spare and brilliant. She draws a word picture so well I can see where her hero and heroine are. All three of these books are real copy-plates for compelling emotional punch in a first book.
There are many other first-time authors coming out, for any SIM-aspiring authors: Jenna Mills’ book, Smoke and Mirrors, was out in April, and for thrust-and-parry sexual tension, emotion amid danger, she’s a text-plate. The scene in her son’s bedroom — oh, man, it’s sooo sad! Cathy Mann’s Wedding at White Sands was out last month, and it was great for hiding strong, compelling emotional depth beneath lighter fun, or stark danger. Read her scene on the water — wow! Carol Stephenson’s Nora’s Pride for SSE got rave reviews; Bronwyn Jameson recently had a smash hit for Desire with In Bed With The Boss’ Daughter, as did Linda Conrad with The Cowboy’s Baby Surprise, and Gail Dayton’s Hide and Sheik is another first book; and Jane Porter’s first book is a text for anyone aiming at Presents.
So that is my tip for the day: LOOK FOR FIRST-TIME AUTHORS IN THE LINE YOU WANT TO BE PUBLISHED IN. Because they’re at the cutting-edge. They’re the ones who’ve broken in, who’ve made it. Older authors are wonderful, but they can get away with more. First-time authors show you exactly what editors are looking for in new work. Examine those books. Analyze them. Work out why they were picked up, what you like about them. And learn — not to copy, but to see the reasons why they were accepted, and adapt this to your own style.