How to Improve your Writing, number 2.

Happy Thanksgiving!

This is the second in a five week series on how to improve yourself as a writer, with five minute exercises designed to train you in five areas.

Last week I talked about how to improve grammar, punctuation and spelling (but not vocabulary). If you missed it, it has to do with memorization. Fun-fun.

This week, let’s talk about a five minute exercise you can do to work at expressing emotion in your writing.

When writing a novel, play or screenplay your emotional attachment to characters needs to be disguised, embedded in the dialog.

In The Postscript to The Name of The Rose, Umberto Eco notes that “a novelist should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations.” He notes that Shakespeare works so well because there’s virtually no stage direction to tell the actors HOW the actions are done. All expressiveness happens out of the scripted dialog.

Novels can be written with some sort of agenda behind them based on a sort of activism, but they don’t usually fare as well as novels without a distinct agenda. Atlas Shrugged is a great example of a book that’s been widely read and criticized for its distinct agenda. It’s also just not a very good read. We don’t like to be told what to think when we read a novel. I’m a huge fan of Barbara Kingsolver, but some of her books border on activism. I tend to agree with her concerns for the earth’s ecosystems, and she’s far better than Ayn Rand, but it’s still there. A bit. Many Christian novels aren’t Christian at all, or perhaps it would be better to say they aren’t novels. On the other hand, lots of great novels have Christians in them and they use words like Fuck and Nipples, too. For my part I am not trying to write an adjective (Christian) I’m writing a noun (novel). Whatever adjective one might ascribe to my novel, it isn’t worth much if it isn’t considered a novel.

Eco notes a difference between

“How are you?”

“Not bad, and how are you?”


“How are you?” John inquired anxiously.

“Not bad, and how are you?” Peter cackled.

He points out that the author of the latter has intruded on the story to impose his point of view.

There’s a line between novels and poems in terms of the way words are used to express feeling. I think the same goes for the difference between musical performance and theatrical performance. I’ve heard it said that rock musicians make terrible actors because during a rock concert the musicians express their own feelings and aren’t really able to tell a story any other way, so when they get in front of a movie camera they aren’t really able to avoid interjecting their own point of view in favor of playing a role.

Similarly, the novelist conceals his heart like an actor, while the poet writes with heart on sleeve. The words novelists use construct, as Eco said, a machine for generating interpretations. Poems, on the other hand, are about the feeling of the words perhaps even more than the meaning of the story they tell. There’s a difference between sharing your feelings and telling a story.

I have a friend whose first novel was not very good and I’m discovering why. She told us that she spent far more than half her composition time weeping as she attempted to reconcile her emotions between two conflicting social ideologies: she had people she loved on both sides. And this entire social conflict was her subject matter. The novel would have been better off as a series of poems.

So, when artists talk about growing in terms of sharing a heart-expression, there are certainly some cases when you need to keep your poker face. Kill the adverbs and let the dialog give your reader space to decide for themselves which character they like the most, and which one they hate. You can grow in the Heart area in two directions because it’s a continuum. To the one side there is the musician/poet and to the other side the actor/novelist. Knowing which direction you want to go is important. This doesn’t mean that the actor/novelist doesn’t write and perform from the heart, it just means that their heart is accommodating someone else’s story to empower it by an authentic depiction, while the poet/musician is sharing authentically from their own heart. Novelists must of course write from the heart, often expressed as “write what you know.” If you want to write what you feel, turn to poetry.

If we want a five minute exercise to help us move in one direction — towards personal sharing —  writing a quick poem might work, but I think we’d do even better to write down words that express how we feel about our immediate surroundings. Try doing it in the first person, in the present tense, and go ahead and stack it up with adverbs, feelings.

On a Friday in November I write with cold feet in fuzzy slippers, my scalp itches, I hope my kid didn’t bring home a head lice epidemic. Feeling enslaved to my circumstances but always hopeful too. Thinking about yesterday. Remembering, reliving it: I pace the floor, exalting when the mail comes, my final proof arrives from the publisher. I flip the pages through my fingers, I’m nervous, jumpy already, quickly finding imperfections; that’s why you order a proof, it’s a maddeningly painstaking process, you’re so close to the finish line but you’ve got nothing left in the tank. Will people like it? Will they even read it? Are they interested enough to buy it? Still, here it is, none of that matters, I want to celebrate, enjoying a sort of masculine sensation of accomplishment. My wife wants to be alone. I drink a glass of wine alone, drop into bed with a book, the wind rattles the window behind my head, researching the next novel already, not really taking the time to enjoy the moment. Sadly, I turn out the light. I didn’t really share my moment with anyone, at least, not the way I’d hoped. What’s my problem? Do I not believe that this is good work? I’m sorely tempted to think that royalty checks are the only thing that will impress her.

So now, on Friday, the wind stays close to my office window, the sky all gray, today I wonder again, will they buy it?

Remember, if you want heart stuff, you gotta let it bleed. You can clean it up, edit later.

Now, if you want to go the other direction towards the novelist/actor, take a paragraph and cut adverbs and let the reader interject feelings for themselves. You’re still in the character’s head, but you’re not being emotionally guided in the same way.

It was a Friday. Yesterday Joe’s final proof arrived from the publisher. He had flipped through it several times. He wondered how people would react to what he’d written. Still, there was the book. It had been on a computer screen for months, but now it had weight. That was the noticeable thing about flipping pages, it was half a pound of paper. That and the imperfections. Some of the photographs’ captions were cut off. The editor had more work to do. But it would be done on time for the release date, and that was out of Joe’s hands. He poured some wine. His wife was downstairs, doing some laundry, bed sheets and pillow cases. Joe knew she was angry. She’d found a dead louse and treated her hair, which killed forty-five minutes of her evening, ruining her plans, whatever they were, and they probably didn’t include sex in the first place. He realized she wouldn’t end up celebrating with him in any sort of way, after all. He drank his wine, then got in bed with a book, something he’d purchased with his next novel in mind. It got late; he turned off the light. Now, Friday, not much light still in the November sky. Joe scratched his head and wrote some more. You have to keep writing, they said. So he did.

There’s definitely heart in the second piece, it just comes across differently.

Know what your intended medium expects of artists in terms of how they share their heart, then work to take your writing, painting, lyrics, poetry or acting in that direction. Novelists let their readers decide what to think. Poets invite their readers to feel a certain way.

As Eco said when asked whom of the characters he most identified with, “For God’s sake, with whom does the author identify? With the adverbs, obviously!”

It’s been interesting to try to write the story in two ways, once with a personal, journaling-style authenticity and once with a more detached novelist approach. The second piece still has that authentic feel of a real world, even if it’s fiction. You, the reader, get to decide what Joe’s feeling. (Probably skewed by reading the first paragraph earlier, though!) Take five minutes, writing a story both ways, because a huge part of expressing your emotions is knowing when and how it’s appropriate.


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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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