Writing Character Emotions: Lessons From Walter White And Jessica Meuse

Writing Character Emotions: Lessons From Walter White And Jessica Meuse

“Wit is the epitaph of an emotion.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

REMOTE CONTROL

 

Okay, I’ll be honest. In the winter, I become a TV junky.  While I’m confessing, you may as well know that I’m also a closeted fan of American Idol and The Voice. These shows create enough white-noise to make me forget I’m writing, especially at the end of the day when the need for sleep tangos with my goal of reaching a higher word count, and my neck is stiff from sitting at the computer all day.  Determined to meet or exceed my productivity goals, I often take my laptop into the family room, settle into a comfy chair and let the television drone in the background.

Last Tuesday, I was hammering away on the first draft of a novel that seems to have more tentacles than an octopus, half-listening to Jessica Meuse’s performance, when American Idol judge Harry Connick, Jr., completely punctured my writing bubble with a jarring critique, not of her song, but of her facial expression during the performance.  I really want to like Jessica.  She looks every inch the rock star with her hot pink hair, and she writes her own music (http://bit.ly/1jjAMJt).  I have a natural inclination to support her based on writing solidarity, and yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing.

Harry asks Jessica, “Why were you smiling? Do you understand the words?” The song, Pumped Up Kicks is about a school shooting (“…you better run, run, run, there’s a bullet in my gun…”). He has a point.  A song this controversial should invoke all kinds of emotion in the audience, but there is no such emotional UMPHHH to the performance. In fact, the expression on her face reminds me more of a beauty pageant contestant than a musician. I feel like I was expecting a ride on the Ferris wheel and ended up on a Big Wheel, instead.  For all Jessica’s beauty and talent, she comes across as emotionally wooden. 

SMILE

The last thing I want to do is dismiss or disrespect this contestant. She has the courage to stand on stage and sing for millions of viewers, knowing that, within minutes, her performance is going to be analyzed publicly.  I can’t imagine standing on a stage having chapters of my book read while millions of voters weigh in on the material after a panel of judges have ripped it to shreds. But the fact remains that, during each performance, she has the same one-size-fits-all smile, the same detached look in her eyes.  As a performer, she’s probably heard it all before, and her expression verges on boredom as the judges speak. Two of them dismiss the notion that it is inappropriate for the contestant to smile while singing about a school shooting. Harry disagrees, and I think he has it right. Music should move people, one way or another.  The song she chose should be offensive or disquieting or provoke some emotion, but it doesn’t, because the emotional cues are missing.  If this performance were a book, I would wonder why I should care about it.  A book that doesn’t grab me quickly is doomed to be returned the library, deleted from my iBook shelf or donated to charity.

SAD CHILD

What  makes my lack of emotional connection remotely relevant is that I’m such an easy mark. Thirty seconds into Josh Groban’s performance of his song You Are Loved,  I was struggling to hold back tears.  I nearly got kicked out of a bookstore for openly weeping while reading Marley and Me in the aisle.  Okay, that’s not true. They didn’t threaten to kick me out, they just suggested that maybe I would be more comfortable if I finished the book at home.  Garth Stein’s book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, left me feeling ragged and completely drained when I finished it. It was that good. I walked around for days after I finished the book wondering what my dog was thinking. Christopher Moore’s book, The Stupidest Angel (http://bit.ly/1gOCOJO) had me howling with laughter, while Gillian Flynn’s, Gone Girl (http://bit.ly/1fSz2yU) chilled me to the bone.  I can only aspire to write something as emotionally brilliant as these writers, but my point is this: For me to feel nothing means that the entertainer (or writer, if it’s a character in a book) is not there on some level.

Infamous chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cooker Walter White is an enviable example of writers who clearly understand the impact of character emotion. Love him or hate him, Walter, seamlessly portrayed by actor Bryan Cranston, is not someone who makes the viewer feel nothing.  Far from it. By the time the Breaking Bad finale aired, Walter White was not in the least redeemable, and yet, I sat glued to the storyline to the bitter end, holding on to the edge of my seat, waiting to see what new catastrophe Walter’s miserable choices would bring him and those he loved.  Walter’s weakness, his greed and narcissism and the way he mentally pimped his cancer so he could continue to cook meth for reasons which had nothing to do with providing for his family, stirred my feelings of contempt and disgust.  Watching this character unravel was a primer in how to create complex character emotion. With each character arc, we move further away from the pathos of this desperate, panicked, vulnerable man, to an arrogant, hardened criminal, who, by his own admission continued to cook meth long after he needed the money for one simple reason: “Because I liked it.”

Feeling nothing is the last emotion a performer or a writer wants their audience or their readers to experience.  Becca Puglisi’s book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression gives writers solid tips for creating character emotion.  Writing a character who responds in an unconventional way isn’t a bad thing, but if there is no emotional response in the character, we have to know why.  A character who doesn’t react to winning the lottery or being told a loved one has died is an emotional minefield, rich with conflict, but the writer has to give us insight about why he reacts (or doesn’t react) to a situation that calls for a strong reaction.  I struggle with creating authentic character emotions, but I know when I have character responses right within a scene, because I feel it.  My heart races when a character is in danger, or I become angry at a particularly nasty character and have to stop myself from prematurely offing him. For writers who have difficulty visualizing the show versus tell technique with writing character emotions, Karen Lotter provides excellent examples of original and reworked passages in her blog post at http://bit.ly/1gfRlTy.

Like singing contestants vying for votes, writers also compete. We compete with ourselves to improve our craft with each revision, each new project, always aware that readers have a vote, too. They can buy our books, or they can bypass them.  A great cover may attract their attention, but the characters hold (or lose) their attention for the long haul.  As a reader, I have read both great and mediocre books, and I’ll bet you have, as well.  Be honest.  How many bestsellers have you picked up and put down because you couldn’t relate to the characters? My answer is too many to count.  How many times have you finished a remarkable book by a brand new author, and immediately searched for a backlist? My answer is still too many to count.  Books like this draw us so deeply into the story, that there is almost a sense of loss when we have to part company with the characters.  Emotions make or break our writing, our performances, and in the end, whether we have a book that the reader not only connects with, but one that impacts her long after she has turned the last page.

WHIMSICAL GIRL

Self-Publishing Success: Hopeful or Hopeless

Self-Publishing Success: Hopeful or Hopeless

IMG_9482

Writing and publishing a book seems a lot like having a baby. There is always a stranger who wants to tell you their awful story.  They had to use the paddles during my C-section.  Worse, you could be trapped in a corner for hours while a new mother shares all the tiny details of her child’s very routine birth,  measured out in breathy bursts (“and the baby CRIED when the doctor…”).  Like a baby, “delivering” a book  is hard, painful work, but worth it when the precious bundle is sitting in your arms (or on your bookshelf). Imagine how much harder it would be if a line of people stood right outside your hospital door waiting to tell you that, not only is the baby ugly, but she probably won’t amount to anything so maybe you should just admit that the situation is hopeless and give up now.

The topic of self-publishing seems to bring a similar line of people hell-bent on telling us just how spectacularly we are going to fail in ever getting decent book sales, let alone making a living doing what we love. Turn on any podcast and you will hear industry experts stating that the e-book “boom” has come and gone and sales are now winding down, while yet others say that the industry is changing to one driven by hybrid authors (traditionally and self-published) and success is possible if only one finds the magic formula of producing a great novel at the right time marketed just so and for the right price. As a newbie, I’m almost convinced that, for a reader to buy my book, they would practically have to live next door and follow the signs posted on my lawn “get e-book here!”

John Winters, a humorous and clearly talented writer, calls himself a self-publishing failure, equating self publishing with (gasp) masturbation, but “with less thrilling results.” The post is worth a giggle and found at http://www.salon.com/2013/04/02/im_a_self_publishing_failure/. Turn the figurative search-engine page and Patrick Barkham will tell you that you can be an e-book superstar, and “here’s how.”

Even my sometime idol, Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords has weighed in on the difficulties with the pitfalls of success as an indie author in this blog post http://blog.smashwords.com/2010/09/seven-secrets-to-ebook-publishing.html. I can easily forgive Mark. He gave self-publishers a platform, and like any good mentor who truly cares about writers, he wants to maximize our success and minimize our disappointment. Without visionaries like him, we wouldn’t have the luxury of asking the failure-success questions.

Successful authors like Amanda Hocking (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/12/amanda-hocking-self-publishing) or Blake Crouch may seem like anomalies, but are they? Hocking says that she never expected much from her books. In fact, she doesn’t want all this rags-to-e-riches recognition based on how she sold her first books, but for the books themselves. Hocking designed her own covers and took the road that many traditional publishers are still trying to shame indies from taking: self publishing without an editor, an agent or a cover designer. Blake Crouch, another hybrid author success story is the opposite of self-made millionaire Hocking. While Hocking’s first e-novel, My Blood Approves, still sells for .99¢, Crouch, an author with an agent and traditional publishing contract, states (http://thenextweb.com/media/2011/03/07/the-economics-of-self-publishing-an-ebook/ – !u6mgy) that he can’t justify selling his novels for such a low price. Crouch, unlike Hocking, has used industry services such as cover designers to facilitate sales of his books.

While Hocking has recently gone the traditional publishing route—it’s tough to be a one woman business and still produce books—I believe her journey is more relevant than ever. The publishing industry is built on a rejection model that assumes cream will rise to the top. How many industry backed best sellers have you picked up but couldn’t finish because you kept falling asleep or couldn’t care less about the characters?

The industry is changing and it has to change. Jenny Trout’s excellent blog post, Our Exclusionary Attitudes Toward Self-Publishing Must Change ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenny-trout/our-exclusionary-attitude_b_4602996.html ) is a brilliant perspective on attitudes toward self publishing.

Writing heavy hitter, Anne Rice, posted this response to Trout’s blog post on her Facebook page: “Our Exclusionary Attitudes Toward Self-Publishing Must Change” — by Jenny Trout. Excellent article and I agree with her all the way on this. Thanks to Jeffrey Brasher for the link. (By the way, I personally prize fiction as the creation of an individual soul. If I suspect a book has been re-written by a committee in a New York publishing house, or smoothed out and edited for popular consumption by in house editors, I don’t read it. If you read the article you’ll understand why I’m saying this.)”

Bear in mind that writers who fail may sell you on their failure, not because they want you to fail, too,  but because that is their experience and they may extrapolate it to the entire industry. Not all books are timely, well-written or what the consumer wants. Bryan Hutchinson makes excellent points about what makes a successful book—and it doesn’t have anything to do with a grammatically perfect, industry-approved style of writing. He shares the criteria for the books that sell at http://positivewriter.com/blogs-books-fail/.

At the beginning of my journey, I bought any and every book out there on the subject of self-publishing before I realized that, ironically, self-published books on self-publishing are sometimes written by people who don’t know anymore than I do. Taking writing advice about your writing future is like anything else in life: to be taken with a grain of salt,  because—until you write it—no one can tell you how successful your book will be. Advice that is worth the price you pay for How To books should focus on what you can do to improve your craft and promote and market your product (anyone else tired of the word platforms yet?) or what to avoid, such as sites that charge author-hopefuls for services rather than promoting their books and taking a fee from sales. One author-entrepreneur with a pay-it-forward attitude who demonstrates compelling fiction writing skills as well as balanced writing and publishing advice is Joanna Penn (aka J.F. Penn of http://www.thecreativepenn.com/). Penn is often one step ahead of the industry, taking the time to research and learn what is working, what isn’t, and where we should go as writers. Her book How to Market a Book is more than worth the price.

We’re not idiots. We know the path may be rocky or uphill at times, but it’s a complete waste of time to focus on what we can’t achieve.  Writing is hard enough. We don’t need to get sucked into the notion that we are failing before we start. The only thing we can control is the quality of our books, our attitude toward writing and publishing, and what we choose to carry as we travel this path.

As Emily Dickinson so eloquently said:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

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