Saturday, September 24, 2011

Eliciting an Emotional Response

I hope you enjoyed what AJ had to say last week. She has enlightened me to a few things things that have eluded me with her first post and her second promises to be an eye-opener. So without further ado, AJ Nuest.

Greetings from the editorial side of the desk, and a peck on the cheek to Lynn for having me back at Decadent Decisions! We had an outstanding response to last week’s Character Development post. So in order to keep those synapses firing at a steady pace, this week I decided to tackle Emotional Response. 
Ask yourself this question: Of the stories you’ve read, which ones remain fixed in your memory? The mediocre plot where the hero and heroine overcame some small obstacle before magically encountering their happily-ever-after? Or perhaps the one that wrenched your heart? The one that had you chewing a thumbnail, or made you so angry at the villain you wanted to reach inside the book and throttle his neck! 
Emotional response is KEY if you’re looking to sell a manuscript, build a following, and in turn, be a successful writer.
If you write in the romance genre, eliciting an emotional response from your editor – and subsequently your readers – ranks right next to character development on the accept/reject chart. It also works in direct tandem with how well you know your characters (reference last week’s post).  I do NOT mean to imply that show vs. tell problems, writing with passive voice instead of active, or continuous POV shifts aren’t troublesome for an editor. They most definitely ARE troublesome – and will undoubtedly need to be addressed before your manuscript goes to print. However, if your story makes your editor laugh, cry, get nervous or even angry, chances are favorable he or she will look past the problematic technical issues because they became emotionally invested in the story
And before the whole lot of you stand up and shout, “Now, wait just a second! That sounds like a big ol’ pile of hooey!” Go ahead and stay seated. I know this for a fact because it happened to me. My first manuscript was a technical nightmare. And the editor wept all over the pages before she mailed me the contract.
So, how does one write from an emotional standpoint? It’s not as easy as following a simple set of rules. Right up front, I’m warning ya, things are about to get messy. If you’re not wearing a comfy pair of sweats, go change now. I can wait…
Back? Okay. The first step an author must achieve in order to write emotionally is to submerse themselves in the character. And let’s face facts. Unless you’re a wealthy heiress whose countryside estate is oft times visited by a devilishly handsome vampire, chances are good this submersion process will be a stretch of the imagination. But remember, no matter what the environmental circumstances, the emotional thread remains the same
I want you to try this exercise: Close your eyes. Now live (yes, LIVE) the moment you are trying to create by envisioning a time when you experienced the exact same emotion you hope to relay through your character. Turn off the editorial stop gaps in your brain and write! Don’t think about what you’re writing. Don’t worry about punctuation or phrasing. If you’re fingers stumble do NOT go back and fix your errors. JUST WRITE! Every single thing you’re feeling, every thought, every detail, the physical responses, all of it. I want you to vomit those words on the page. I’m giving you free rein to SPEAK YOUR PEACE! Let go the fear that you might hurt someone’s feelings or say something inappropriate. If you need to, go ahead and get mad! Get upset! FEEL FREE TO BEAT THAT DEAD HORSE!
When you’re done, only after you’ve got absolutely nothing left inside, THEN sit back from the keyboard, and see what you’ve got.  
BOTTOM LINE TIME: To create an emotional response, you gotta get emotional. You need to locate a specific moment when you were either scared out of your wits, or overjoyed, or madder than kicked hornet’s nest, and THEN fine tune the thoughts and physical responses you experienced in that moment
How will you know if you were successful? If you didn’t laugh, cry, grit your teeth or have some sort of visceral response during that writing session, the words aren’t right. Sorry. But they’re not right. Take a break, walk around for a bit, then go back and try again.
Sidebar:  We have a saying at our house, “If Mom isn’t crying (or laughing, or mad, etc.) the story is crap.” 
If YOU are not experiencing an emotional response to your OWN writing, neither will the reader.  
If you craft a heroine who starts to cry during a scene and YOU ARE NOT CRYING WHILE WRITING IT, the scene is missing that emotional thread.
I recently put the finishing touches on an edgy inspirational, entitled Flicker. I mention this for two reasons. First, to remind everyone that apart from being an editor, I am also a writer. And second, so you all know I completely “get” how difficult it is to write for an emotional response. 
After finishing the story, I sent an email to my editor asking if she would mind giving Flicker a read. Even though the manuscript fell outside the guidelines of her house due to length (Flicker topped out at over 190K, just under 700 pages), she still agreed to read it because she is so incredibly awesome. I attached the file to an email and sent it off late on a Monday afternoon. The following Tuesday morning I received this response:
Oh, AJ. You didn't warn me I'd have to read it all in one sitting. I read all night til 5 a.m. and I am so wasted. My stack of soaked hankies fills a laundry basket. I think I'll reread maybe next week and send you comments and reactions when my head stops spinning. For now just know...your writing is gut-wrenching. In a good way.
In recovery, E

I could demur here and say I’m sharing this email as proof that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to crafting an emotional story. But the simple truth is, this response really cranked my knob. That a person who spends most of her days reading submissions would stay awake all night to finish my story…well, the closest I can come to explaining how it felt was like I’d just won an Emmy. 
Here’s the important part. I SOBBED while writing that story. There were times I spontaneously burst into tears at the mere thought of it. I submersed myself so deeply into the heroine that I became Jillian Parkes. 
If you want to craft an emotional story, you must let go of the fear that you may get caught up in the story. You have to be prepared to step on some toes. You’ve got to break down the barriers of what society deems “proper” and get it all out there. If need be, you can always pull back once you get into the editing phase of your story. 
Next week’s post: Technical Malfunctions, “Houston, we have a problem.”

AJ Nuest lives in northwest Indiana with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is the Senior Editor for Still Moments Publishing, and the author of two contemporary romance novels.
Visit her on the web at:

Jezebel’s Wish Buy Links:


wlynnchantale said...

Morning AJ. Thanks again for being here. My chef was overjoyed to learn you were returning and he's whipped up a fantastic buffet, complete with warm chocolate filler croissants. You may even get him to make an omelet for you. :-) As always there's the open bar, with coffee.

Around here my 14y/o gives me a funny look if I tell him the words I've written make me cry. He thinks I've gone off my rocker, but now that I know it's okay to have that response I'll do my best to create it with each manuscript.

AJ Nuest said...

Coffee, I say! Lots of coffee, and you bet your sweet patootie I'm having a chocolate filled croissant. I think your chef read my mind *AJ wiggles her eyebrows at him from across the room*. I dreamed of chocolate croissants last night, and I'm not even making that up!

My 8 yo daughter had a friend over a couple of weekends ago. While they enjoyed their playdate, Mom took the opportunity work. Of course, they just so happen to enter the dining room (where I write) at the exact moment I'm blubbering like a jello mold because I'd just written a highly emotional scene. My daughter turned to her friend, who was looking at me like I'd lost my damn mind, and said, "Don't worry. She does that all the time. If she doesn't the story isn't any good."

By the way, I've been busted just as many times laughing -- like hysterically laughing. My family just rolls their eyes and walks past.

wlynnchantale said...

LOL! About your daughter and her friend. My fam looks at me the same way when I start laughing as well. Oh well the life of a writer.

Glad you're enjoying the croissants and coffee.

Sarah Grimm said...

I. Don't. Cry. I hate it. But I cried a time or two when writing After Midnight, so I know where you're coming from.

Another great look at what it takes to catch an editor's eye, AJ. :-)

Jennifer Jakes said...

Excellent advice. Mega-excellent! Writers should bookmark this page and read it everyday:)

Vonnie Davis said...

Another awesome post, AJ. Great advice. But for overly emotional people like me, who cry easily and find the strangest things funny, how do we know we're eliciting the same emotion in others? When I share a scene with my writers' group that I cried while writing, they just sit there...and then hammer me for word choices. The best response was when I shared a fast moving child abduction scene and recovery. The men in the group gave a collective "whew" when it was over. They loved it. The women said I hadn't kept the delination between the two women clear, that they didn't know who was who. So I could suck the guys in with fast moving action, but not the women...and I'm writing for women. Bangs head!!! I guess what I'm asking is how do we know what makes our hearts race or tears flow or laughter peel will do the same for others???

AJ Nuest said...

Now THAT'S what I'm talkin about, Sarah! I cried while reading After Midnight, so you were definitely successful! And why do you hate to cry? No one's watching, right? What's the dealio?

AJ Nuest said...

Well, thank you, Jen! What an awesome thing to say! You just made my day!!

AJ Nuest said...

Great question, Vonnie! And a tough one at that! The answer is, you don't. Writing is such a subjective thing, and everyone will interpret the story differently based on their own personal experiences. The trick is to key in to that common thread within the emotion so that as many people as possible can relate to the feelings your character is experiencing. So they have that, "Boy, have I ever been there" moment.

Unlike Sarah, I find the older I get, the more I cry -- and personally, I LOVE it! I think everyone should have a good cry pretty much daily. It's incredibly cathartic. But just because I cry during a Hallmark commercial doesn't mean everyone else will. HOWEVER, if you delve deep enough into your characters -- IF YOU TRULY KNOW WHO ARE ARE -- to first discover and then fine tune that common emotional thread, chances are good you will touch the hearts of many.

Does this help?

Caroline Clemmons said...

AJ, such a great post! No wonder your JEZEBEL'S WISH gets such good reviews. Thanks for sharing!

AJ Nuest said...

Awww...thank you so much, Caroline! It's interesting the responses I've received from JW. Some people are downright MAD, some really upset, others happy. But no matter the impact, knowing the story elicited that emotion makes me smile. Thanks for stopping by!!

Calisa Rhose said...

Like Sarah, I don't cry. Well, I do- but it usually takes A LOT to get me to that point whether in anger, sadness or happiness. Or it used to be that way. The last time I cried, really cried (besides at the death of my parents) was when my beloved dog was murdered. After that my emotions seemed to close down.

It was years before out of the blue I cried at a stupid commercial with a girl who kept dropping her baton no matter how hard she tried not to. Then...the day of the big parade she'd practiced so diligently for arrived. When she caught that baton I cried... and couldn't stop. Even now I'm tearing up remembering that 90's commercial.

I cried reading Jezebel's Wish. I hate that. But I LOVE it.

My family gives me 'the look' when I'm writing and laugh, or cry or yell. My daughter tells everyone she knows about the night some of my characters (ref L&B AJ) wouldn't stay out of bed--or wouldn't abstain long enough for me to write a decent scene. I was cussing at them, in tears at the non-cooperation, furious to the point I closed the doc. But my daughter was laughing because, she said, they had such a chemistry they couldn't deny, and she knew they'd make it to their HEA before I ever write the end (which still hasn't happened but I'm working on it).

AJ Nuest said...

I REMEMBER that commercial! Too funny that you cried! But I think it bears mentioning -- what was it about that specific commercial that got to you? Maybe there's a key emotion you felt through that baton twirler you hadn't felt in a while?? Okay, now I'm laughing...

One time my DH came into the dining room to find me writing. He asked, "What's so funny over there?" I was all, "Shhh...I'm in the middle of a baseball game." Long story. LOL!

Joanne Stewart said...

AJ, you are so inspiring. I LOVE this blog. Excellent advice. That's exactly what I usually do, immerse myself in my character. To the point that some days, I can't write because I'm having trouble getting back IN character. I just cross my fingers and hope and pray I'm getting it right, that some day someone will tell me I made them cry the way you made me cry. Excellent post.

AJ Nuest said...

That is IT! Joanne, the first million I make, I'm buying the house that's for sale next door and you're moving in! I need someone like you around every day! I ADORE you! Anything you want, you get. Name it! Sounds like you are on the exact right track to me! Hugs!

lessie401 said...

My husband thinks I'm entirely too emotional, but what AJ says is true. The best books, the stories I remember, are the ones that invoke a strong emotion. I tend to remember negative emotions more clearly. (I wonder if anyone else does that?)The thing is, every story that I love has a character I love, LOVE; hate, HATE; or a line/scene that just touches my heart so (Till you do right by me, everything you think about gon' fail).

AJ Nuest said...

Hi Lessie! I soooo get what you're saying. I read a book once where one of the main characters died, and even though he wasn't a "good" man by society's standards, the author did such a poignant job explaining his motivation that I wept buckets over his demise. That character will forever live in my memory. I think it's even more important to focus on this element if you're writing in the romance genre. Women are ruled by their emotions. Tuning into that through our writing is a great way to make our stories memorable.

Janice said...

My critique partners are always asking me, what is she/he thinking/feeling in this scene?

This is a wonderful inside look into working the emotion into a scene.


AJ Nuest said...

Thanks, Janice! I'm chuckling at that comment from your CPs, because anyone who works with me can attest, one of my favorite comments is, "Yes, but what KIND of emotion is she feeling?" Thanks so much for stopping by!

Misty Dietz said...

Hi Lynn! Hi AJ! Totally, frickin' awesome post. Gonna go cry now. LOL

wlynnchantale said...

Hi Misty, I'm glad you enjoyed AJ's post. Thanks so much for stopping by.

AJ Nuest said...

LOL Misty! Thank you so much for joining us, and for the great comment about the post! Love it!