Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Loop-d-Loops on the Emotional Roller Coaster

Guest Maven Stephanie Rowe

Please join us in welcoming three-time RITA finalist and award-winning author Tanya Michaels! A professional split personality, she writes warm-hearted, community-oriented romances for Harlequin that have been translated into nearly a dozen languages and, under her real name, Tanya Michna, poignant women's fiction novels for NAL Accent. She's also the mother of two small children, a frequent speaker at writing conferences and book festivals, and a TV-on-DVD addict of series such as Supernatural, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars, Robin Hood and LOST. Welcome Tanya!

My morning started around 6 a.m. with a shot of terror because I had accidentally—one might say idiotically—saved five hours of work to a temporary folder my computer claimed no longer existed. There may also have been some anger on my part, accompanied by Naval Academy worthy swear words. When my husband helped me excavate the Lost Files, I was overcome with relief and love for my real life hero. Then there was exasperation with my four year old (who fights falling asleep every night and then, go figure, fusses in the morning that she’s “too tired” to get up for PreK.) I was touched and proud of my kindergarten son for picking out his own clothes because he saw I had my hands full with his sister…and somewhat mortified that anyone who saw his resulting ensemble might think I deliberately dressed him like that. I experienced a fleeting homicidal impulse when a jerk ran a red light, cutting me off with my kids en route to school, followed by gratitude that no one was hurt and finally guilt in car pool when I realized we were supposed to have brought something that started with S for my daughter’s class Letter Muncher and that I’d failed as a mom.

Not even eight-forty five in the morning, and I’d run a gamut of approximately ten emotions. I needed a drink. (Luckily, the lady at the McDonald’s drive thru closest to the kids’ school knows my minivan by sight and always has the Diet Coke ready and sticking out the window.)

In a perfect world, I could deal with a few less emotions—at least, not such intense ones before noon. But in the WRITING world, emotions are our bread and butter. Not only do all the best romance novels, no matter what subgenre, have a strong, believable emotional arc for the hero and heroine, the books that achieve KEEPER status are the ones that have made a strong emotional connection with the reader. Because my first published novels were short romantic comedies with Harlequin, I didn’t think of myself as a deeply “emotional” writer. But the more I looked at the authors on my own keeper shelf, the more that changed.

You want an emotional reaction from your reader! If you write beautiful but angst-filled books (Anna DeStefano, Catherine Anderson, Karen White), you may literally send your readers sniffling for the tissue box. If you write atmospheric romantic suspense with twisting plots and chilling villains (Gayle Wilson, Lisa Gardner, Rita Herron), the reaction you elicit may be that the reader can’t sleep for a week without leaving her hall light on—and I’m STILL having nightmares, thank you very much. If you write witty dialogue, fast-paced clever narrative and memorably quirky characters (Jane Graves, Jennifer Cruise), your readers will probably remember you for making them laugh. Even if you write romantica/erotic romance, where the physical relationship is obviously a strong draw, the emotion is still crucial! (Two authors that I personally think handle this well are Angela Knight and Sasha White.) And, in my opinion the very best authors, including those already mentioned, are those who combine emotions for a roller coaster of a book and a sigh-worthy ending – Eloisa James, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Teresa Medeiros, Julie Garwood, Elizabeth Hoyt.

I write for Harlequin under the name Tanya Michaels (shameless plug—An Unlikely Mommy is out this month!), but in September, 2007 my first trade single title for NAL Accent came out under my less-easy-to-spell-and-pronounce real name Tanya Michna. I was fortunate that Necessary Arrangements got some very nice reviews, but most of them warned that readers might not finish with dry eyes. Some of my writing acquaintances were stunned, wanting to know if I’d “gone over to the Dark Side” and if I’d had to change my craft to write this one.

No—to the second question, anyway. Jury’s still out on the first.

No matter what kind of emotion you’re trying to evoke, there are some tools we can all use to heighten the impact of our books. First of all, and this can’t be stressed enough: CHARACTER! Readers have to find your characters compelling enough to care. Two hundred years after Jane Austen wrote the story, many of us are still reading Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy have passed the test of time with flying colors. JD Robb’s In Death books are on my auto-buy list and I’ll be perfectly honest, it has little to do with the homicide investigation plots. It’s more that I worry about Eve, lust after Roarke, and consider Peabody a friend—I miss her if I don’t check in from time to time. Don’t make the newbie writer (or uptight contest judge) mistake of thinking that sympathetic characters have to be perfect, though. Flaws make characters more three-dimensional and stories more compelling. Watch for historical romance novel Private Arrangements (April 2008) by debut novelist Sherry Thomas to see what I mean! Great story about an estranged married couple who have made some very definite and even cruel (although motivated) mistakes. Consider some of the popular television shows in recent years—Grey’s Anatomy, with an entire hospital full of neurotic characters, or cable’s Dexter in which the hero is actually a serial killer. On the lighter side, check out Jane Graves’ Hot Wheels & High Heels. Her heroine may not be all sweetness and light, but it’s tough not to root for her!

Keep in mind that surprises in the plot or even just smaller unexpected moments within scenes jolt the truest emotions from audiences. So try not to be too predictable. Or try to give your scene that added extra touch that makes it YOUR scene. Also remember that emotion DOES NOT EQUAL MELODRAMA. You want your reader to experience the emotion; you don’t want to bludgeon her over the head with it. Not every kiss in the book can be the hottest kiss in the book; you want to avoid obvious set ups like “It was quiet…too quiet.” And you do not want a hero and heroine that whine. Or, if they do, it better be in such an incredibly entertaining fashion that readers can’t put the book down anyway. Emotions work better in contrast than they do endless stretches—even if you like to use punchlines, you don’t want the book to be one big yuk-fest. Similarly, even in a tear jerker book like my Necessary Arrangements, I used liberal moments of humor. I mean, “poignant” is good, but let’s not confuse it with “so bleak I temporarily lost my will to live.”

Finally, even though most of us are writing genre fiction, don’t overlook some literary devices that can really help your stories resonate with readers: theme/motifs, symbols, and symmetry/juxtaposition. Again, you don’t have to beat the reader over the head—she might not even consciously pick up on the fact that the tree in Waverley family garden is symbolic of the Tree of Knowledge, but symbols can be very effective even as a subconscious device. Also, try not to use a symbol in the expected way. Check out the vintage car being restored in Anna DeStefano’s The Prodigal’s Return; it was supposed to be a project that brought together a father and son. Ultimately, it kind of does, but in the opposite way of what the reader would have predicted. Themes can be both powerful and playful and if you pick a Jennifer Crusie novel to re-read a few times, you’ll have a better understanding of motifs. Elizabeth Hoyt did a beautiful job in her “Prince” trilogy (Raven Prince, Leopard Prince, and Serpent Prince) framing her stories with folk tales that were then thematically important throughout the story. I got especially teary-eyed with how she handled the leopard figurine in the second book.

And symmetry is a great way to frame the entire story, ending in the same place you started…but not exactly. Think about the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, when they’ve just met and dance to a catchy tropical-sounding tune in Colombia as compared to the end of the movie, when after five or six years of marriage, they’ve finally gotten to KNOW each other and are moving together beautifully as they take out assassins…to the same original tune. In my romantic comedy Not Quite As Advertised, the first line of the book is: Jocelyn McBride was in hell. Who knew it looked so much like an airport? And 180 pages later, the last line of the story is: Joss was in heaven. Who knew it looked so much like an airport? Teresa Medeiros and Julie Garwood both use this on chapter levels, coming full circle in a chapter for comedic (or tender) affect or juxtaposing the last line of a chapter with a dramatically opposed first line of the following chapter.

Really, there are all kinds of ways to build on the emotion in your book! Just remember, you can always layer in the little details later, as you get to know your characters better (that’s the beautiful thing about manuscripts as opposed to real life—you never have to think of the perfect response right that minute) and writing shorter work is no excuse for not going for the emotional jugular. Some of my favorite authors can crack me up in a one paragraph blog post, and I’m STILL traumatized from a few pages of a Stephen King short story that I cannot discuss further on advice of my therapist.

Happy writing and just remember, next time you find yourself hovering on the verge of some kind of emotional breakdown or another, it’s valid character research!
Tanya will be around today to answer your questions about craft, publishing, LOST, or whatever you think to ask! And one lucky commenter will receive a signed copy of Tanya's Trouble in Tennessee!


Kendra said...

Lovely post, Tanya. How did you get so many accurate observations in one blog?

It's a delicate process to strike emotions in readers. All too often I feel like a writer is trying to push something down my throat rather than letting it flow naturally from the character. I think it's a sign of well developed characters and talented writing when I find myself rooting for someone who's obviously not perfect and maybe even a jerk.

What was the Stephen King short? Or would typing the title be too traumatic?

Erica Ridley said...

“Poignant” is good, but let’s not confuse it with “so bleak I temporarily lost my will to live.”

LOL! True, but I'm still learning how to do either of the above. My first books, especially, were of the light-hearted comedic variety. I had some quirky characters with their fair share of faults, but not too much angst.

My last book had more angst, which according to one CP gave the book more emotion, but in all honesty... I wish I could learn to write over-the-top "too bleak to live" so that I could understand the whys and hows of it.

I find it easier to tone an aspect down then to ramp it up from nothing. (Probably because if I have no idea what I'm doing, I can't write, say, poignant, let alone TBTL.)

So, I'm all ears (eyes?) on any tips for making that emotional poignancy connection with the reader, or even a nice TBTL gut-punch...

Darcy Burke said...

Yeah, I want to know what the Stephen King story was too! And I love writing atypical heroes and heroines that one might not usually root for. I love when they make choices that make the reader go, "Oh, no you didn't! I could never do that! But I can live vicariously through you..."

Thanks so much Tanya, great post!

Jackie Barbosa said...

I’m STILL traumatized from a few pages of a Stephen King short story that I cannot discuss further on advice of my therapist.

I'm that way with the opening chapter of Jaws, Tanya. Read it when I was 12 and was afraid to so much as sit on the toilet for weeks! And the bathtub was right out, much to my mother's chagrin.

Great post. I totally believe that building that emotional connection between the characters and the reader is the critical element to a good romance. I also know it's the hardest aspect for me to really get "right." Like Erica, I think I'd like to learn how to write "too bleak to live" so I could then back off to just "a very sad, black moment."

Vicki said...

This is a fabulous post. One that I will print to re-read. :)

Going back through mine, I found the heroine was crying, alot. I've corrected it, but it opened my eyes up in a whole new way.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys! Night before last and most of yesterday, we were pummeled with bad storms. I woke up this morning to find the Internet was down, along with most of our backyard fence :-( But, hey, at least I got one out of two back so I can come by and play (better late than never). Now to read comments and respond...

Anonymous said...

>>>How did you get so many accurate observations in one blog?

By hoping you guys didn't have word limit *g* And you're right it is SUCH a delicate process. One of the things I had to learn in working with editors on revisions is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Often my instinct was to cut too much of the drama or add to many jokes when really all they wanted me to do was tighten for emotional effect or just add a punchline toward the end for a snapppy scene hook. It definitely gets easier with practice, but some writers just make it look effortless!

>>>What was the Stephen King short? Or would typing the title be too traumatic?

All right, just for you, it was Boogeyman. I will literally stub my toes in the dark and risk tripping over toys that emit siren noises when activiated to make sure my child's closet door is ALL the way closed at night. So the fact that I'm being neurotic almost twenty years after reading the darn thing would suggest it had an impact :-)

(And my son just snuck up behind me, and I almost screamed.)

Anonymous said...

>>>I wish I could learn to write over-the-top "too bleak to live" so that I could understand the whys and hows of it.

You could try watching Battlestar Galactica :D (My hubby and I have stuck with throuh several seasons; it's definintely compelling but a bit too bleak for me to say it's entertaining).

But seriously, I do know what you mean about something being easier to tone down than ramp up from nothing. Harlequin editor Brenda Chin has numerous authors in my RWA chapter and one of them told us about a comment Brenda made about not censoring her outrageous sense of humor. She paraphrased Brenda as saying, "I can always pull you back if you go too far...but I can't tell you how to be funny if you aren't."

You said you felt like your last book had more emotion and that your CP agreed? What were you doing differently? Was it just a heavier plot overall, or were you approaching something in the craft differntly as well?

Darcy Burke said...

LOL, Tanya! I've never read Boogeyman, but I'm pretty neurotic about closing closet doors too. I thought I was just OCD. (Well, I probably still am.)

And you're so right about a little going a long way. Sometimes just one line of dialogue or one internal thought can take that scene to the next level.

Anonymous said...

>>>Going back through mine, I found the heroine was crying, alot

I know just what you mean! I had a character like that adn the thing was, for what she was going through, it was situationally appropriate. But while I was writing about her life over a period of weeks and months, someone else is probably reading it in a period of hours. ("Oh look, it's been ten minutes and she's crying again...") I did take out one or two scenes, but the biggest thing I did was too show her character growth/acceptance of a difficult reality was that I kept some of the earlier scenes where she's still struggling with the news, but after a certain turning point later in the book, you almost never see her cry again. It's one of those things that I don't know a reader will specifically notice, but I do hope it worked on some level to show how she'd changed.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and speaking of crying, Darcy, did you get all teary-eyed at the end of last week's Desmond-centered LOST? Or was that just me :-)

Darcy Burke said...

OMG, Tanya, of course I teared up! I won't say more because I don't want to spoil anything, Best epsiode ever!

Keira Soleore said...

Oh WOW! What an amazing blog. I read through it three times, and yet, I've forgotten what you first wrote about. Definitely one to be taken in small bites and savored (or rather, practised) to be fully understood.

lacey kaye said...

next time you find yourself hovering on the verge of some kind of emotional breakdown or another, it’s valid character research!

Oh, *that's* what I'm doing? :-)

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