Keeping It Real

In my last post, I touched on how YA faces the hardest parts of life, head on. Life, love, and loss–nothing is too intense for YA. Sometimes, it’s even more intense, super-charged with young emotions. It’s also so important to be true to these emotions, and be raw and honest when it matters, especially when dealing with sensitive and difficult subjects.

A lot of my most recent writing is very emotional and powerful. I’ve been exploring love and relationships, loss and grief, despair and depression. I’ve already pushed my characters to their breaking points and beyond, and now I’m handling the effects of that. After such extreme conflict, my characters are going to be forever changed. Some of them will learn and grow from it, some will never be able to recover. All of them will have scars, both seen and unseen, just like in real life.

As I’ve been writing these intense scenes, I’ve struggled sometimes with just how raw they are. I knew they were going to be, but seeing everything in words, stripped bare on the page, is something entirely different. Honestly, it’s even a little scary because in going to those raw places, there’s also a lot of deep and personal pieces of myself on the page. In exploring my characters’ scars, I’ve revealed some scars of my own.

So how much is too much? Is there a such a thing as being too raw, too deep, and too honest in your writing?

For me, I don’t think so. It might be scary to be so open and vulnerable, but that’s what writing is. It’s our blood, poured out in ink. And I think as writers we have a responsibility to be as open and authentic as we can. If we aren’t, what is the point of writing?

This week, I let a friend of mine read my MS. It’s the first time a non-writer friend has read my work. At first, it was a little terrifying. It felt like I was revealing this deep, inner part of myself. But I gave in, and she read the entire book in two days, cried at the end, and is already begging for the second.

That is exactly why we can’t be scared of being raw and authentic. That is the writing that affects people, even changes them. And if my writing has the ability to do that, I consider that the highest success of all, best-seller’s lists be damned.

Don’t be scared of going there. Our instincts always tell us to build walls, and lock those parts of ourselves away. It’s terrifying to knock those walls down and lay things out in the open. It will feel vulnerable and personal, sometimes too much so, but those are the words that will make a real difference.

Tear down your walls. Be open and authentic. Grab your demons by the horns, and wrestle them on the page. That’s what will resonate with readers.

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To Build A Story: The Feels

I think emotion is probably the hardest thing we face as writers. We all know emotion done well when we read it. That moment of gut-wrenching, swooning, heart-pounding emotion–otherwise known as the feels. 

But how do we create that? How do we effectively translate emotion to the page, and make our reader truly feel? There is a delicate balance between emotion and melodrama, or emotion falling flat altogether. 

This is partly because emotion is such a complex, abstract thing. Human beings have such an amazing capacity for emotion–both high and low, and everywhere in between. How is a writer supposed to capture something like that into words?

I think the first key to making emotion effective is remembering that characters are people. I have said this before, but I will say it again. When you remember that characters are human beings, emotion becomes a lot easier. This makes it easier to avoid both flat emotion and melodrama. 

For instance, you might overplay emotion for dramatic effect. But when you examine the person who is experiencing that emotion and their situation, you might rethink that. Instead of bursting into tears or collapsing from shock, they might experience denial, or show their emotion in more subtle ways, such as a wavering voice or a clenched hand. 

How would that person really feel in that moment? 

On the other hand, you might downplay or even forget emotion in lieu of plot and action, or throw it in as an afterthought, and the emotion falls flat completely.

I think that is the second key, matching every instance of action with proper reaction–and emotion. I think emotion is the true heart of action and climax, but in order for it to truly be effective, there also needs to be the effect of that. 

This is something I have to be conscious of. Sometimes, it can seem like there is emotion in the action, and that that is enough, but it is still not in order to be effective. For example, in Nightfire, when Kera sees her mother ripped, she becomes very emotional and lashes out. But after that, she doesn’t have a personal reaction. She goes right into searching for her sister. Yes, there are scenes later where she considers her mom and feels sad and everything, but she never really grieves, and never initially deals with it.

So, I added a scene after the attack where she is laying with her mother while the others are asleep, and she tries to process and come to terms with this new reality she has been thrust into. Though her mother is still alive, her mind is not there, and whoever she was is gone. So Kera has to grieve for that. And this is also the first time she realizes the ramifications of not having her mother–things as small as not hearing her sing all the time, or as big as her not being there to help look for Hana, when Kera needs her most. 

I realized how much more powerful her mother’s loss is when the emotion goes further and deeper than the initial reaction and scattered sad scenes. There had to be that first reaction. The girl holding her mother against her and pleading with her to wake up, to come back, though she knows she can’t. A girl who has been surviving her whole life but for the first time faces the world on her own, and is scared and uncertain. That is what makes the loss powerful, not her initial scream and shock. 

So, which side do you lean towards–melodrama, or flat–or have you achieved a balance? How do you best capture emotion in your story? How do you make readers feel?