I'm reading "Eight Keys to Making a Good Book Great" in RWR magazine. Would you like to follow along on one of their exercises with me?
"I know you've heard 'write what you know': Write the emotions you know, and they will give authenticity to your writing."Funny, I've just been priding myself in writing what I know. My current book is about Grand Lake and Tulsa Oklahoma and about the world of people who grew up in the oil business. And yes, that's my life.
My dad was a welder, but created components used in oil wells and pipelines. My second husband (stay with me here) was from a pipeliner family. Both he and his father had traveled the world, building pipelines that carried the oil from place to place.
My third (and final) husband is a Reservoir Engineer. That's the guy (or gal) who keeps track of how much oil a company has in the ground. Very complex stuff. Even I work for a software company that creates software for energy trading and logistics. I am a weapon of mass instruction. I help teach people how to use the program--create the lessons for use both online and in the classroom.
So yes, I'm writing about what I know, but this question threw me for a loop. Writing about the EMOTIONS I know? Hummm.......
The first Key in the article is "Discover your story." OK. Let's go.
The article instructs you to list your three most powerful childhood memories.
Well, there was the time , when I was very young, maybe four or five, when we found baby rabbits (yea--lived on a farm) and my Daddy threw them over into the chicken pen, where our mean rooster promptly gobbled them up. To make it worse, that rooster was the cute baby chick that a magician had pulled out of a hat and given me a few years before. Yep. True story.
Then there was the time I killed my dog. I, my little sister and maybe some cousins were riding in the back of a pickup truck. My dad was driving. For some reason, we had to stop and back up (It was a tiny country dirt road). I was holding our boxer puppy, but he wanted to jump out, and he pulled and fought me. Finally, my arms were so tired that I (about eight years old) thought, "I can't hold on any longer," and he jumped out of the truck and was promptly run over and killed. I COULD have held on longer. I know now that I could have.
For the third memory, I'd lump several together, but prefer not to describe any of them here. What they meant to me was embarrassment that no one ever taught me how to act around people, or in society. I grew up poor in the hills of Arkansas. My parents (salt of the earth) used poor grammar and were not, themselves, comfortable with people they didn't know well, so they didn't know what to teach me.
What emotions did these three experiences evoke?
Maybe the first evoked horror, but also taught me that life is complex. The rooster who had started out so cute and cuddly turned into a monster that chased me around and ate baby bunnies. We ate that rooster soon after that incident, with my complete approval. And my Daddy, who'd chosen to feed him the bunnies. Well, I still loved him after the horror he'd put me through. Life is complex.
The second experience taught me firm determination, the value of never, ever giving up. You don't let go, even when you think you can't take another second. You save yourself when your car goes into a skid. You finish grading those papers even if you don't sleep a wink. You FIND a way to send your son to that expensive college. You don't spare yourself and you don't give up.
The third experiences? Well, humbleness, and also determination again. I read tons of books growing up, and lived in other people's heads and worlds. I learned early that life offered more, but I'd have to reach for it. I determined to teach myself how to be comfortable out in the world. Even though I almost (abd) completed a Ph.D. in English, I still have to watch the way I speak. Hopefully, my son is much more comfortable in the world than I will ever be.
Was there a common emotion that each experience evoked? I'm not sure. From them I learned acceptance and determination. Is it an emotion that makes you grit your teeth and dig in when you could give up? Is it an emotion that makes you look forward, not backward or to try not to judge others? It's something.
The next step in our exercise is asking what book I've written that was easiest to finish, who was the most compelling character and what are his or her five strongest characteristics (focusing on emotions). Well, I haven't quite finished my first book, but I'm choosing it.
In my book, my most compelling character is the heroine, Hadley. She is impulsive, open to life, goal driven, and confused by her upbringing. I guess, in some ways, that describes me too. My character starts out thinking life is not terribly complex and that her mother had settled into a comfortable life where denying most emotions made her happy. Hadley learns a lot about her dead mother's emotions...and her own.
But the thing that I learned from this exercise was not really this answer. It made me think about strong emotion itself.
I once read that a book should be like sex. Or like classical music. The action should swell and grow, and rise and fall, and there should be crescendos and lulls. And of course the grand finale. I realize now that emotions should do the same, maybe even more so than the action. My book is full of emotions, grief, desire, curiosity, fear, joy, as Hadley learns about her mother and herself.
I didn't think much about the pattern until I worked on this exercise. Now I will consciously play with it, and, if this book is a success, remember to create a different rhythmical, emotional (and complex) pattern for each of my books in the future.