Sunday, March 28, 2010
I Got Your Feelings Right Here, Part 1
Recently I finished a round of revisions for SuperAgent Joanna to get my mid-grade novel ready for submissions to editors. In addition to sending an edit letter that addressed big-picture issues, Jo sent a hard copy of the manuscript with notes written throughout. After a while, many of the comments started sounding familiar: "And how does he feel about that?" "How does that make him feel?" "And he feels...?"
And it wasn't the first time I'd had feedback like that. Sometimes the comments on chapters I'd brought to critique meetings showed that readers wanted to see more about how the character was feeling or what they were thinking. A couple of agents who were nice enough to send feedback with the rejection letters indicated the same thing-- I wasn't showing enough about what was going on in the character's head.
Obviously I was being too sparse in my descriptions of my character's thoughts and feelings. Why was I holding back? I love the quote from this article: "...although the Irish have a marvellous ability to tell stories, when it comes to their emotions, they may have no words." So maybe that explains it. It's hardly my fault. Or maybe I was worried about the dreaded "telling" too much instead of "showing." Sure, if I filled the story with internal thoughts like, "I was sad," and "I was so angry," that would be really boring, but there are ways of showing those feelings that help readers connect with characters more, and thereby root for them and keep reading the story to see how things turn out.
So it's taken some work since for whatever reason the feelings thing hasn't come naturally for me, but here's some feedback I got from agents and the revisions I did in response to that.
Last year I got "the call" from an agent who was interested in representation, but she wanted to see a lot of revisions first. Here are some comments she had about the need to show my main character's feelings more, and I think it shows that line we try not to cross between saying too little and overdoing it:
"The story needs to pack a strong emotional punch."
"Currently, the connectedness between [the characters] is lost...you need to focus right in on these two and show us how crucial they are to each other...Let's SEE the connection between them, rather than just being told about it."
About the main character, Hastin: "I wonder if there could be more feeling from him. I don't mean a lot of breast-beating and over-writing, but we never really see him get angry or in strong emotional pain. I think we should see more of what's in his heart, though it's possible to convey this with a lightness of touch and understatement."
She was right--the character was going through a pretty miserable time, but he didn't express that. One suggestion she gave for improving the manuscript was to strengthen the character arc, and to do that I'd have to show not only the events that happened to him, but how he changed on the inside as he went about his journey.
I went through the manuscript and highlighted all the places where I could show the character's reaction to what was happening. And there were a lot. Then I tackled each highlighted scene by doing a little freewriting about how he felt at that time--not just the emotion, but what he felt physically too. Is there a sinking feeling in his stomach? Does he hit something out of anger? Does he feel like things are so bad, he'll never be happy again? I picked out my favorite words and phrases from the freewriting to add a concise description of the character's feelings to the scene. The Bookshelf Muse has an amazing Emotional Thesaurus that helped tremendously. (It's also great for setting descriptions, so bookmark it!)
I also added a rock--a gift to Hastin from his dad--that he'd hang on to when he was nervous or afraid, because it helped him feel safe and closer to his dad. Later in the story, when his hand reaches for the rock in his pocket, Hastin doesn't have to say anything for the reader to know how he feels. (When I mentioned this to my awesome manuscript critiquer Uma Krishnaswami, she told me I was using an example of T.S. Eliot's objective correlative. Hmm, yes, objective correlative...I meant to do that. Now write that down so I can Google it.)
I spent about three months on that round of revisions; here's a bit of the letter I got back after resubmitting:
"The story isn't quite 'singing' to me the way it needs to...We would need an editor who fights to acquire it because they have fallen in love with it--because they feel with Hastin in his loneliness and fear..."
Not what I wanted to hear, of course, but I knew the manuscript was a lot better than it was before, so the time I'd spent revising wasn't at all wasted. But I still hadn't quite accomplished what I needed to. After some more revising I submitted to agents again, and here's a paragraph from a response I got back from another fabulous agent that was so helpful:
"...I felt that there were first person point-of-view issues. I like it when characters play it close to the chest and show instead of tell how they feel, but first person POV requires the occasional outburst of feeling. ...The author gives external hints to the character's state of mind, and were it not in first person POV I would find those enough, but it's jarring to be in Hastin's head and not know explicitly how he feels."
Of course--since we're in that character's head, we should always know what he's thinking and feeling. If it were too stream-of-consciousness the story would get bogged down with too much description, but the reader should never be left wondering what's going on in the character's mind. That makes so much sense but it hadn't occurred to me before.
I have some examples of how I revised the manuscript again based on Jo's comments, but I'll save those for a new post. For now I'll leave you with a couple of unputdownable books I've read recently that showed the main character's feelings so well on every page: The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan and The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (here's an interview with her on Cynsations.) Certainly there are many more great examples, so leave 'em in the comments and I'll include the suggestions in Part 2 of the post.