I love a good writing workshop, no question about it. I discovered the RWA workshops-on-tape back when they really were on tape and have enjoyed a lot of lightbulb moments listening and learning. Some workshops will forever stand out in my head and heart for the impact they had on my life, starting with Debbie Macomber’s words on setting goals: “You have two hours in your day to write – find them!” Those hours happen to be hiding in the darkest corner of pre-dawn, but once I discovered them, I got my first book written.
Robin Perrini and Laura Baker’s fabulous daylong seminar on Discovering Story Magic exposed me to my first plotting board and the concept of a turning point at the end of every few chapters. I left that workshop and created the plotting board for the book that became Tropical Getaway, my debut novel.
Deb Dixon spoonfed me the concept of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict and I gobbled it up; Jennifer Cruise hammered down the idea of plot points as “tent poles” and I learned how to support my story; Joan Johnston taught me the power of saying no during negotiations (still working on that one, Joan!); and Judith Ivory opened up her writer’s toolkit and handed out some unforgettable tricks of the writer’s trade.
If the measure of good workshop is to make you want to go home, tear up your work in progress, gnash your teeth because you still have so much to learn, vow to improve, and then go buy the entire backlist of the presenter…then Brenda Novak’s presentation on emotion given to the Space CoasT Authors of Romance (STAR) this weekend was a rousing success.
A New York Times bestselling author of spine-tingling romantic suspense, I have no doubt Brenda Novak is an author the MSW community knows well. For the past few years, she’s delighted readers and dominated contests with thrilling tales of danger and love at the mind-boggling rate of three per year, and all the while has made a huge and positive difference in the lives of many with the amazing online auction she runs to raise money for juvenile diabetes. She’s cracked well over $1 million in that effort, and also has helped numerous writers find agents, meet editors, and win fabulous prizes.
Brenda traveled three thousand miles to speak to my RWA home chapter and I cannot thank her enough for making the trip. I also want to give a huge hug of gratitude to my awesome chapter for sponsoring the event and most especially dear friend Leigh Duncan for taking and sharing magnificent notes. I tried to jot things down, but, honestly, all I did was sit slack-jawed, nodding like a fool, drinking in Brenda’s energy, wisdom, and enthusiasm on the subject of infusing emotion into writing.
Emotion is the difference between the book that leaves us drained and changed versus the one that, well, just leaves us. Emotion, Brenda reminded us at the start of her workshop, isn’t something an author can layer in during last pass of revisions. And, she told us, emotion is directly related to the amount of “investment” a reader makes in the story and characters. The author’s job is to use every tool at her disposal to get the reader to “participate” in the story and become emotionally involved.
The fact is, a reader may not remember the particulars of a story, the name or a character, the setting, the secondaries, or even the real identity of the bad guy. But she will remember how a book made her feel. She will remember if she cried, sighed, laughed, squirmed, cringed, gasped, or screamed at the book because she was so completely invested in every scene and every page. We want to write and read those books…and Brenda had some brilliant insights and suggestions for how an author can accomplish that kind of memorable writing.
I won’t attempt to recap the entire workshop, but will share some of the key points that really resonated with me. Brenda highlighted the concept of “active” writing, which includes starting in the present and moving forward in real time; specific illustrations not generalizations; showing, not telling. She reminded us to convey information in the most physical way possible, and described a writer’s options for making an emotional point as a pyramid: at the bottom is direct thought/internal dialogue; in the middle is giving information to the reader through dialogue; at the apex is action, metaphor, subtext and deep POV.
Of all the techniques she described and detailed, the idea of subtext intrigued me the most. Through layered dialogue, subtle body clues, having a character say one thing but mean another, or through powerful understatement, subtext can really amp up the emotional impact. In addition, Brenda walked us through multiple backstory delivery techniques (none of which included a “dump”), numerous ways to use characterization to create an emotion (most notably the “flip trait” – for every negative character trait, there is a way for it to be positive, or vice versa), and the use of point of view to deepen and texturize emotion.
Brenda spoke for two riveting hours, sharing multiple examples from her own work and others to drive home her points, making us laugh, sigh, cheer, and quit writing because we’ll never be that good! She ended with an in-depth discussion of conflict, encouraging us to change and escalate the conflict, make the stakes as high as possible, and (this one really rang true to me) don’t forget conflict for the secondary characters to keep them three-dimensional.
I cannot do justice to this workshop in a blog; suffice it to say, I was impressed and inspired. Writers, call Brenda and get her to your chapter to speak, stat. You’ll be glad you did. Readers, run don’t walk and pick up one of Brenda’s award-winning bestsellers. In fact, In Close hits bookstores today! I was one of the lucky winners to snag last month’s release, Inside, and Brenda kindly signed a copy for me to give away today!
If you’d like to win an autographed copy of Inside, leave a comment and let us know the last book you read that really moved you to an emotion — fear, heartache, joy, misery, worry, or, of course, love. And don’t forget to check out the awesome auction Brenda runs every May on her website – the MSW gang is always well represented!