Sunday, 16 July 2006

There are quite a few general accounts of the RNA conference popping up across the blogosphere, so I will not duplicate them. Amanda Ashby's account is as good a place to start as any. Instead I will say a bit about a few of the individual sessions that I really enjoyed. I'll start with the one I found most valuable of all.

Jenny Haddon, Chairman of the RNA, and top-rated Mills & Boon author under her pen name of Sophie Weston, gave a talk on Sunday called What do you mean, it needs more emotion?

The suggestion that our writing lacks that critical emotional punch is one that most writers have heard at one time or another. I certainly have. The first reaction to this has to be "does the person saying it know what they are talking about?"

Jenny suggested that they don't always. Emotional reaction to writing is a very personal thing, and your friends and critique partners may not always be the best judge of something like this. On the other hand the professionals out there - agents and editors - probably do know what they are talking about, and since they guard the portals of publication, it is always well worth listening to them.

However, while these people can point out the problem, they cannot fix it. Nobody can but you. So where do you start?

One place to look is your cast of characters. Perhaps the critical reader doesn't care enough about one of the key characters - the hero or the heroine. The first question to ask yourself is whether you care about them. Really. You love your plot, you love your hero, but when you look into your heroine's eyes you see what?

It was when my agent pointed out that nowhere in Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth was there any physical description of Miss Charlotte Hopesay that I realised that she hadn't properly come alive for me. I thought that I could see her through Lord Alexander's eyes, but it turned out that all I could see was him seeing her. I could barely see him through her eyes, and still less could I see what she thought about herself.

Faced with this dilemma, Jenny suggested going for a walk, to think about the problem character. Do you care about him or her? If so, what do you care about, and are you sure that you have said anything about it? If not, then maybe you should find somebody you do care about.

As it happens I had done just that. I'd found a surrogate Charlotte, I'd listened to her voice, and I had breathed life and emotion into her as I redrafted.

If you think that you do care, it's worth checking to see where in the story you say so. If you go through the draft highlighting every statement that shows you care, where are the highlighted bits? If there aren't plenty of them in the first fifty pages, then perhaps you should shuffle things around until there are.

Of course, your character has to be realistic and rounded. Even if you care about a perfect paragon of virtue others may find him or her unbelieveable. Jenny suggested looking at the flipsides of your characters' strengths. If they are energetic, perhaps they can be impatient. If they are kind perhaps they are weakwilled. If they are loyal maybe they are blind.

Of course there may not be time to pack all this characterisation into dialogue in the first few chapters. Jenny suggested that we should not be afraid to do a bit of telling, rather than relying on showing. But she made it clear that it must be simple telling, not diagnosis. By this, I believe that she meant that we can give our characters' backstories in the form of potted biographies, setting out the experiences that made them what they are now, but we must not say that they are this way because of that event. That would be interfering with the way our readers learn to love our characters.

While we can tell our readers what the characters are feeling, it is fatal to attempt to tell them what they should be feeling.

It's not always the characters that are the problem. It may be a matter of pace. I am certainly not going to try and explain how pace works, but I did recognise Jenny's suggestion that we have to take our readers through the story at the right speed. If we don't start writing until we know our stories really well, we may forget to take the reader through all the steps of the journey. This forces them to make assumptions, and they may make the wrong ones.

This was not a major problem for most of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth, as I did not have a clue what was going to happen next, but when I was a little over halfway through I jumped to the end, to ensure that I knew how all the threads tied up, before filling in the bit before the end. Sure enough, it was the part of the story where I was joining things up that my agent said lacked sufficient punch. This was the bit where I knew where everything was going, but my reader didn't.

There was more, much more than this in Jenny's talk, but this post is already quite long enough. If you want to learn these secrets then rather than reading Wenlock, you need to join the RNA and come along to the conference. Next year we are back at Leicester University.

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Doug Hoffman said...

Hey, you're back!

Thoughtful, enjoyable post, Stephen. In the story I'm writing, I think I've done a fair job creating two likable, engaging characters. But does the story succeed on the emotional level, as you describe? I suspect it's difficult if not impossible for the author to make that assessment. I'll have to pump my readers for more feedback.

Jenny said...

Glad if my talk was helpful, Stephen. Not much I can add to your masterly precis - and even more interesting personal gloss.

I agree with Doug that it's almost impossible for an author to know whether what it is in his/her head has got onto the page. That's why my talk was about fixing the problem, once someone else (someone informed, experienced and, preferably, commercially involved in the book's success) has told you there's a hole. In fact, it's best if you can get them to tell you WHERE it needs more emotion e.g. whole book, last quarter, a particular scene.

I've found that it's a terrible trap to think that, because the characters are emoting fit to rupture something, your readers will be feeling the emotion.

Can't wait to read Lord Alexander.

Kate R said...

emotion schmotion. YOU have brains behind the passion. errr, haven't read your books, but your blog posts and comments are worth publishing.

I am in awe of Stephen.