Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Emerald City Part 1

Thanks to Gerrie for yesterday's post. Writing seems to be something inside us, and we're going to do it no matter what.

After wrapping up notes from the Writers' Police Academy, it's time to plunge into recapping workshops from the Emerald City Conference. The first workshop I attended was about writing emotionally gripping scenes, given by Margie Lawson.

First, it's important to understand that we, as human beings, have involuntary responses to certain situations and stimuli. These are visceral responses, things we really can't control. In high-emotion situations, our hearts beat faster, mouths get dry, hands sweat, etc. These responses are tied to the body, not our conscious thought-processes.

When writing, especially in scenes with emotional impact, we should draw on these responses and make the reader feel them as well. We've all heard, "show, don't tell" and we probably know better than to say, "She was scared." Instead, we might say, "Her stomach clenched with fear." But is that enough?

However, Lawson stressed taking these high-impact moments a step further by using fresh similes. She used the example, "Her stomach shifted like a Buick on black ice" as a much more evocative way to show the character's fear.

Any time your characters, especially your POV characters, are dealing with strong emotions such as fear, lust, surprise, there should be a visceral response. You want to viscerally engage the reader. Major turning points in the plot require these kinds of 'showing.'

She gave examples, one from an author friend of mine, CJ Lyons, which I'll use here:

"Her stomach did a tumble and roll, like being sucker punched by a wave off the coast of Malibu, dragged under by your own stupidity."

A whole lot better than, "Her stomach clenched" isn't it?

Also, when doing this, it's important to show the visceral first, to engage the reader's response, then show the action. Otherwise, you've lost the impact.

Another point Lawson made was the importance of cadence, and the power of repetition. These will add strength to your writing. Basic, more "trite" similes will work if the cadence is right. Stack them, and add fresh ones at the end.

She also spoke of Motivation Reaction Units.
1. Visceral reactions are instantaneous
2. Reflexes are actions that are instinctive.
3. Rational action and speech come last.

Punctuation and beats can also add power.

She addressed rhetorical devices, saying most of us rely on a mere half dozen, such as metaphor, simile, alliteration, etc. There are many, many more that we don't use (or, in my case, aren't really aware of, at least by name). Rhetorical devices add power by speaking to the subconscious of the reader.

She gave examples of anaphora – repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence or paragraph 3 or 4 times. This "auditory echo" speaks to the reader's subconscious and makes the read imperative.

Her closing words: "Find your voice. Find your comfort zone. But challenge yourself."


Jeff Beesler said...

Writing five blog posts a week is both challenging and helping me to find my voice. I didn't even know about anaphora, but I'm glad I heard about here, first.

Terry Odell said...

Jeffrey, congrats on the discipline to write 5 posts a week. And glad to share what I learn, always.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I appreciate the examples. I guess we should all stretch ourselves as writers and not get complacent in our use of language.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Thanks for sharing. This info woke me up -- figuratively and literally.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great tips here, Terry! It's easy to get really complacent when we're writing about reactions.

Terry Odell said...

Jacqueline - I think there are too many Big Names out there who HAVE become complacent. We should strive to make each book better, I think.

Mary - glad to be your alarm clock

Elizabeth - finding words for those visceral reactions is a challenge. Keeping from overdoing it is yet another. Don't want to dull that edge.

Carol Kilgore said...

This is great information, Terry. Thanks. It's hard for me to find the perfect middle ground between the plain prose of 'her stomach clenched' and more exotic purple prose we're so warned against. But I keep trying.

Terry Odell said...

Carol - just plain avoiding purple prose is a challenge when you're trying to bring more life to a scene.

Elena said...

Another reason for more personal visceral reactions is to keep your reader in the story. Too many times I've been flung out of a story by a commonly accepted expression of a visceral reaction which happens to not be the visceral reaction I get in a similar situation. Making the response personal moves the story along in it's own world quite nicely.

Terry Odell said...

Elena, definitely. I think it's because when the writing evokes that visceral response in the reader, we can't help but empathize with the character--and that's what it's all about for me.

Janet Lane said...

Thanks for sharing these excellent points, Terry. Margie's the emo-Queen.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Terry: I heard Margie few years back. I'm glad for the refresher. How quickly we forget! Thanks for sharing.

Kathy said...

I've taken several of Margie's workshops and I'm always left overwhelmed I save each lesson and hope to find time to go back and study them. She is an awesome lady and teaches so much.

Terry Odell said...

Janet - definitely
Joyce - We always have to exercise our chops'
Kathy - I agree--there's no way you can absorb everything.

Mimi Barbour said...

Margie's workshop was good. She makes us aware that the old cliches just aren't good enough anymore...we have to give the readers something new...not easy tho - sort amakes a person have to delve through all the shelves in her mind to look for new material (just practising)
(Nice to meet you there Terry!)

Terry Odell said...

Mimi-it was great meeting you, and thanks again for ferrying my honey. I'm looking at my ms again, trying to get it appropriately visceral!