(Note: The Murder Ladies are glad to have Tess Gerritsen here on this Valentine’s Day, to share some of her wisdom and wit.)
By Special Guest Blogger, Tess Gerritsen
Since this is Valentine’s Day, it’s only appropriate that I write today about following your heart. Or your gut. Or whatever part of our anatomy our emotions reside in.
I come to this topic straight from a lunch meeting with an acquaintance who has just finished writing his – ta da! — VERY FIRST NOVEL. (Insert secret groan on my part.) Usually, I try my damnedest to avoid these meetings. All you published writers out there have probably suppressed that same groan when your close friend or relative calls to announce that they’ve just written a novel, too! And could they invite you out to lunch to pick your brain about how best to get an agent and promote their book and manage the zillion-dollar fame and fortune that’s certainly coming their way. Normally, I find some excuse to avoid these encounters, but this fellow is someone I happen to admire, someone whom I thought might actually have written something publishable. And he promised, absolutely, not to make me read his manuscript. “I just want to talk about marketing,” he said.
So I went to lunch with him.
Over cappuccino and sandwiches, I ask him what his book is about.
“It’s about a man who comes of age in the turbulent sixties and moves to Maine,” he says.
“And then what happens?” I ask.
“He comes to realize what’s really important in life.”
“But what happens?” I ask again.
“It’s all about self-discovery. It’s about the journey. About coming to grips with life.”
“Something has to happen,” I tell him. “What’s the conflict? What’s the struggle?”
“Well, life is a struggle.”
Uh oh, I think. We’re in trouble. The more I press him on the plot and the characters, the more I hear about actualization and personal journeys and maximizing relationships. In a fit of frustration, I blurt out: “You’re thinking about this story too hard! You’ve got to start FEELING it!”
At which point he looks at me as if I’d just told him to leave his wife and run off to a commune.
It’s not the first time I’ve given this advice to a writer: “Stop thinking and start feeling.” The writers who most often need to hear it are, oddly enough, highly educated, logical, cerebral men like my friend. Well-read, accomplished people who think that writing a novel is going to be a snap for them because they’re so intelligent, so logical, such deep thinkers.
But deep thinking is what gets them into trouble. They work so hard trying to get across their philosophical or political points, they forget that novels are really about people. They’re about love and anger and grief. They’re about marrying and having children and being terrified of losing them. They’re about standing over your wife’s coffin and knowing that you’ll never again feel her hair brush against your face, never again hear her footsteps on the stairs.
They’re not about “self-actualization” and “personal journeys.”
When I write my own novels, I don’t think my way through them; I feel my way. I’m always stopping to test my gut reaction. Does a scene move me in some way? Am I upset or scared or excited or angry? No? Then I need to dig deeper to find the emotion. Maybe I haven’t layered in enough conflict, or I haven’t given my hero a stake in the scene’s outcome. Or maybe I’ve chosen to send the plot in a direction that leads nowhere interesting — to no crisis, no conflict.
My friend’s book involves a secret that the hero has been keeping from his wife, an explosive piece of information about his past. “Well, what happens when she finds out?” I asked him. “Does she leave him? Does their marriage teeter on destruction? How does he finally confess it?”
He said, “He doesn’t tell her. He keeps it a secret. The book ends without her ever finding out.”
And that’s it. No crisis. No conflict. No marital blow-up. No emotions. Just a fade-out to nothing. Sure, it’s a valid choice to make as a writer if you’re trying to portray an ossified marriage of quiet desperation. But I don’t think that’s why he chose this ending. I think he chose it because he’s scared of dealing with a marital crisis, even on the page. He’s afraid of feeling the truly deep and upsetting emotions that make characters come alive. And no wonder — these are threatening things, emotions. Writing about them makes us confront our worst fears. It makes us weep at our desks, it makes our hands sweat. It makes us wake up in the night, terrified that someone is standing over the bed.
Writers have to be courageous. We have to step out from behind our shields of chilly intellectualism. We have to get down and dirty, to howl in pain. We have to ask ourselves, again and again: “What am I feeling in this scene?” If you don’t feel anything at all, then you’d better write it again.
And that’s my Valentine’s Day tip to you.