Musicality and Reader Emotions

Guest Post by Peter Langella

brain-musicWhen I first began writing seriously, I was just telling stories. I wasn’t thinking about plot or structure or the concrete and abstract desires of my characters. Sure, a lot of that found its way into my drafts, but it wasn’t my focus when I brainstormed or sat at the keyboard.

That all changed when I become a writing student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My faculty mentors and talented classmates made me question my intentions in every scene. Were my characters learning, failing, growing, or changing? Was my plot moving forward? Was I creating an emotional arc for my characters that future readers could connect with?

Because of questions like these (among the many other things I learned), I grew exponentially as a writer during my MFA experience. I’m now gaining confidence with my writing voice, and my drafting toolbox is larger and much more accessible.

However, the question I struggle with on a daily basis is the one about character emotions and reader connection. This literally keeps me up at night. Many, many nights. I used to think that I didn’t need to worry about a potential reader. Just be true to your characters, I’d tell myself. Write the story that needs to be written, I’d hear my past professors saying.

Just write the truth, for goodness sake!

the-great-gatsby-movie-posterThen I watched Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. I was blown away, specifically by his use of modern music in the 1920’s setting. By choosing a soundtrack that features Jay-Z, Jack White, Beyoncé, Florence & the Machine, and many other contemporary artists, Luhrmann isn’t only telling the characters’ stories, he is speaking directly to the audience.

Now, I’m fully aware that Luhrmann’s music choices made most critics cringe, but I think it was extremely innovative, and similar choices can certainly be used by writers to make our books more relatable.

Seriously. I’m not crazy.

For example, during the first huge party that narrator Nick Carraway attends at Gatsby’s mansion, Luhrmann chooses to blare techno behind the visuals with vocals by Fergie and just a tiny hint of horns from the 1920’s. It’s jarring for the viewer, but it works because the character and viewer are experiencing the exact same thing. Nick Carraway has never heard music like this before, and he’s never been to a party so lavish. He’s completely out of his comfort zone. Viewers feel the same way. Most of us have never been to a party like that, either, and we’ve definitely never heard music like that paired with the visuals on the screen. We’re completely out of our comfort zone, too. If Luhrmann simply chose a jazz number new to Long Island that summer, Carraway would probably be feeling the same. He would still be blown away by the newness of the situation. But we wouldn’t be. We’d be thinking about the nice period piece we’re watching with timeless jazz music authentic to the era. We wouldn’t be feeling the exact same thing as the character, and the scene would be much less effective for that reason.


That’s what keeps me up at night. How can I – without the sounds and visuals that Luhrmann has at his disposal – create that exact connection?

Or, at least, how can I get it close?

In my current work-in-progress, one of my main characters is the son of a presidential candidate. Obviously, most people don’t know what it feels like to go through that. Neither do I. But many people know what it feels like to have a detached parent or someone at school who doesn’t like you as much as you like them or a friend who can’t talk for more than two minutes without making reference to some book or movie or TV show they watched recently.

The musicality, so to speak, is what happens in the background. It’s what the story is about, even though a hundred people could outline the plot and not mention these smaller items. These items that (hopefully) create an intense bond between the characters and a potential reader.

Looking for AlaskaWhen I read Looking for Alaska, I was blown away by the scenes where Pudge and The Captain hang out in their dorm room. Maybe it’s because I went to boarding school, so I could understand and appreciate the rhythm of the monotony. But maybe it was because that’s where the characters figured out who they were. When I think about that book, I don’t think about Alaska Young or any other characters or anything any of the other characters did. I only think about those quiet scenes where nothing and everything happened for me all at the same time.

So, whether you’re famous like Baz Luhrmann or John Green, or you’re just someone trying to write their heart out like me, take another look at your draft and ask yourself if there’s any room for musicality in it. Ask yourself if there’s a way for your characters to connect with readers on a profound level, even if it happens in a small or weird way that might not seem to have anything to do with your story. It could be a scene from the roaring 20’s with techno music or a chapter where two friends sit around talking about nothing, but it will probably be something brilliant that only you and your characters can team up to create.

Trust me, when you’re up at night thinking about it, I’ll be up thinking about my stuff, too.

Peter LangellaPeter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Other posts by Peter:


Creating Emotion Within Dialogue

March Dystropia Madness

By Jeff Schill

I love dialogue.

To me, a story is all about the characters.  And I especially enjoy when these characters interact with one other.  But at the same time, dialogue can fall flat when it does not resonate or make the reader feel something.

Dialogue is much more than just the words on the page. Dialogue is largely about how we, as writers, express our characters’ emotions and how the reader, in return, responds to these emotions.

Creating Emotion in Dialogue

In 1967 Albert Mehrabian, a professor at Stanford University, specifically looked at emotion and communication.  In his study, he concluded that 55% of emotion is communicated through a person’s nonverbal cues: facial expressions, gestures, posture and movement.


To emphasize how powerful nonverbal behavior can be in dialogue let’s look at a few lines where I took the nonverbal cue away.

  • “And a place in Beverly Hills. Next door to your place,” he says.
  • “Be there or Be-ware,” she said.

Notice how bland and unemotional these lines are.  Now let’s add the nonverbal cue and see how it changes the lines.

Facial Expressions:

  • “And a place in Beverly Hills.” She cocks her eyebrow.  “Next door to your place,” he says. (178) – Blink and Caution


  • “Be there or Be-ware!” she said, and slammed the phone down. (243) – Dead End in Norvelt.

Notice how in each one of these examples the nonverbal cue adds intensity or emotion to the line.  In the first example, the cocked eyebrow gives us a sense of skepticism and in the last sentence the slamming of the phone gives us anger. Think about how using a character’s facial expressions, gestures, movement and posture may compliment or add emotion to the dialogue.

Paraverbal (How we say what we say)

Mehrabian went on to state that 38% of emotion is communicated through a person’s paraverbals: how they say what they say.  Look at this example from Polly Horvath’s One Year in Coal Harbor and notice how she emphasizes certain words to increase the emotion of the dialogue.

“Oh really? Well where does he think I went to cooking school?”

“I don’t think he thinks you did.  I think he thinks you just, you know, picked it up.”

“PICKED IT UP?” Miss Bowzer’s eyes were afire and her neck was getting blotches of red.  Maybe I’d gone too far.

“You know, like, on the street.”

“ON THE STREET? I’ll have him know I went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris for an entire semester!” (42)

Through the use of typography the reader can begin to feel Miss Bowzer’s frustration. Horvath is using the character’s paraverbals to stress the emotion.

Now look at this example from Tim Wynne-Jones’s Blink & Caution and notice how he uses hesitation in the dialogue to create emotion.

“After what happened… after what I did…” She finds her mouth is dry.  She remembers her soda, takes a swig.

“I’m listening,” he says.

“After that… what I was talking about… I felt like nothing was real. It was” – and this is new to her, the first time she’s thought of it- “it was as if I were the one who was dead.  I killed my brother.  But I killed myself, only I didn’t know it.  And all this – everything that has happened since then is just…” (223)

The character’s hesitation in this passage shows her struggle and reluctance at opening up to the truth.  By emphasizing how she says what she says, Wynne-Jones is heightening the emotion within the dialogue.

Often as a writer we think about our dialogue only through the lens of the words our character use.  However, more often than not it is the emotion behind these words that create a reader reaction.  We want our dialogue to make the reader feel something; to stir emotion.  Challenge yourself to use your character’s nonverbal and paraverbals to create dialogue that resonates with the reader.

*For a discussion on pacing, spacing, metaphors, objective correlatives and the actual words we use to create emotion in dialogue you’ll have to persuade Ingrid to invite me back.

Jeff SchillJeff Schill holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a proud member of the Dystropian family.  He lives, works and writes in Milwaukee, is deathly afraid of dogs and is completely creeped out by the stains found in library books.

You can read more of Jeff’s work on his blog:

Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 2)

March Dystropia Madnessby Jen Bailey

In Part 1, we looked at how onomatopoeia and phonetic intensives can help you evoke emotion in your readers when writing emotionally detached characters. Today we will look at two additional sound-related poetic tools that can be carefully crafted to obtain your desired effect and keep your reader engaged.

Poetic Tool #3: Assonance

The long o sound we just looked at is not only an example of the use of phonetic intensives, it is also an example of assonance. Assonance is defined by Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft as the correspondence of vowel sounds in words.

In the following passages from Quaking, the assonance is prominent:

“leering at me, sneering” (Erskine 44)

“his oily voice” (Erskine 45)

“I see his greasy black hair” (Erskine 45)

The context of each of these lines is the presence of Matt’s bully, Rat, and she does not express her emotions at all. Instead, the repetition of vowel sounds in these examples evokes a feeling of unsteadiness and invasion – exactly what Matt must feel but can’t express.

Poetic Tool #4: Consonance

In The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky defines consonance as “a repeated consonant sound, as in ‘stroke’ and ‘ache'” (124). Erskine repeats a k/ck sound in the following passages in the context of Matt’s encounters with the Rat:

“His dark hair is rigid and sticks out at the back of his neck” (15)

“His panicked eyes flit around the parking lot” (82).

In this last example, Matt witnesses the Rat’s fear of his own father – a fear she recognizes but cannot name. The repeated k/ck sound is choppy and evokes an uneasy, jittery feeling – the kind Matt was likely experiencing in this scene.

Alliteration is a form of consonance in which there is a correspondence of consonants at the beginning of words or stressed syllables (Burroway 370). Another form of consonance is sibilance, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as an undue prominence of the hissing s sound. Consonance can have a magnifying effect when writers carefully craft their sentences. In the following sentence from Quaking, a general play with consonant sounds results in a very sinister-sounding section:

‘“Chicken-shit!’ the Rat yells in my face, and I clutch my chest but I leave a chink exposed and his elbow catches my rib. He shoves me and I fall to the floor” (Erskine 217).

The hissing “s” and “sh” sounds are sibilant:

shit                  yells                 face                 chest                exposed          catches           

The ‘ch’ sound alliterates at the beginning and middle of some words,

chicken            clutch              chest                chink               catches

furthermore, consonance is developed with the “t” sound,

shit                  Rat                  chest   

and the “k/ck” sound,

chicken            chink  

These sounds all echo each other, thereby increasing the menacing nature of this passage. Because of careful word choices the reader gets the feeling of fear and loss of control that the emotionally detached protagonist either does not admit to or cannot describe.

Poets rely on the sounds of language to evoke emotion in their readers.  Onomatopoeia, phonetic intensives, assonance, consonance are among the many tools they use to achieve this. While these tools will beautify and intensify prose with any kind of character, poetic language is especially invaluable for evoking the emotion that ventures beyond the emotional vocabulary and awareness of those characters who are emotionally detached.

Be sure you didn’t miss the first half of this article: Engaging the Heart – Part 1

Jen Bailey Author PhotoJen Bailey lives in Ottawa, Ontario and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves playing around with rhythm and sound in her writing. Should you like that kind of thing too, she recommends you read Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, and any poetry you can get your hands on.

Follow her musings on writers’ craft and the writing life at

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Boston: Longman, 2010. Print.
Erskine, Kathryn. Quaking. New York: Philomel Books, 2007. Print.
Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. Print.

Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 1)

March Dystropia Madnessby Jen Bailey

As writers who are true to our characters, we allow them to express themselves as they are able. We typically rely on actions, dialogue, physical reactions, and thoughts to do this, but what’s a writer to do when the character in question is emotionally detached, that is, unaware of his or her emotions?

Writing emotionally unaware characters can be challenging because they are unable to communicate their feelings about what would normally be viewed as emotionally-charged incidents. This kind of detachment can be all-encompassing (e.g. a result of psychological trauma: abuse, neglect, abandonment), or transient (e.g. hearing very jarring news). The character may also have a highly intellectual and logical personality and not be attuned to their own emotion. No matter what the source of detachment, if not handled carefully, there is a great chance of losing your reader if they can’t become, or stay, emotionally engaged in your story.

In part one of this blog post, I’ll discuss a couple of ways in which you can engage your reader’s heart all while staying true to your emotionally detached character. Using examples from the novel Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, I’ll show you how you can evoke the emotion your character cannot express through the use of sound-related poetic language.

Poetic Tool #1: Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoetic words sound like their meanings and call to mind images and/or feelings for the reader. The use of these words is powerful but limited, as they can only be used to describe sounds. Here are some examples of onomatopoetic words – pay attention to what they evoke in you as you read them:  ring, hiss, clatter, bang, grunt, slam, and snap.

In Quaking, Matt, an emotionally detached character, is taunted by a bully she nicknamed “Rat.” Erskine describes Matt’s encounter with the Rat as follows:

“I smell his smoke. His sneer and hiss are quiet but still forceful. ‘You’re dead…Quaker!’” (Erskine 217, emphasis added).

The words sneer and hiss are onomatopoetic. They imitate the dark, sinister sound of Rat’s voice for the reader. The reader thus feels Matt’s emotion, even though she cannot express it.

Poetic Tool #2: Phonetic Intensives

Arp and Johnson define phonetic intensives as words “whose sound … to some degree connects to their meaning.”   Here are some examples:

Phonic Intensives

It is important to note that while these phonetic intensives can contribute to meaning, they are not in themselves prescriptive of meaning. For example, many words that begin with the ‘fl’ sound can be associated with moving light, but there are many others that have nothing at all to do with that association: think flower, flounder, flask, flamingo. Phonetic intensives must be used judiciously.

Let’s look at an example where they are used well:

I am cold all over. He knows. I am dead. It is really over. (Erskine 217)

The long o sound creates a feeling of a moan coming from Matt and to the ear of the reader. It is like a lament and can place the reader with Matt, evoking the sorrow and melancholy Matt is not expressing in this scene.

While the use of onomatopoeia and phonetic intensives is somewhat limited, the sound-related poetic tools I will be discussing in part 2 can be more carefully crafted to obtain your desired effect and keep your reader engaged.

Stay tuned!

Jen Bailey Author PhotoJen Bailey lives in Ottawa, Ontario and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves playing around with rhythm and sound in her writing. Should you like that kind of thing too, she recommends you read Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, and any poetry you can get your hands on.

Follow her musings on writers’ craft and the writing life at

This blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Blog Series.

Arp, Thomas R. and Greg Johnson. Perrine’s Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry. 11th ed. Boston, Mass.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005. Print.
Erskine, Kathryn. Quaking. New York: Philomel Books, 2007. Print.

When Emotion Is Free

EmotionsEmotion is what we strive for in writing. Get your reader to feel something! This isn’t a new idea. There’s been plenty of blog posts and craft books on the topic. It’s why Twilight is so successful, because the audience falls in love with Edward. Not stellar writing, sure, but it definitely got thousands of readers to feel something. Yes, this may seem like a no-brainer. We go to a comedy film to laugh. We read a drama to cry. The point is to create a catharsis.

But why is emotion so important? Possibly more important than plot or even good writing?

There’s a quote from Janet Burroway’s book Writing Fiction that has been on my mind for weeks, and I think it gets it the heart of this question.

Burroway says:

“Literature offers us feelings for which we do not have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve, for even good feelings – intimacy, power, speed, drunkenness, passion – have consequences, and powerful feeling may risk powerful consequences.”

This quote stuck with me because it has so many implications for writing and what an audience wants from a literary experience.

I’ve always hated the concepts of writing as entertainment or even escapism. But the idea of experiencing emotion – emotion that is not our own, that we pay no consequences for – is in a way entertainment. But it’s not “entertainment” as a word associated with money or the market, but entertainment as experience. It’s a real human need to feel, to connect, to have the opportunity to experience something – gain understanding – but in a safe environment without consequence.

And that is pretty powerful.

TexasChainsaw1The idea of free emotion puts a new slant on many of own personal struggles with writing honestly. I’m often annoyed with “rules” that there must be conflict, or catharsis, or change in a character. I’m not convinced these things happen in “real life” – and yet perhaps that’s the point. Emotion without consequence allows us to step out of reality, and live vicariously through the fictional characters that are willing to put up the fight, deal with the consequences, and lose everything. We watch a horror film – not because we want someone to chase after us with a chainsaw in real life, but because we want to feel the thrill of fear and not almost die. We want to know the whole gamut of human emotion. And to do that there must be some fabrication, coercion, perhaps even a heightening of the truth, if you like.

Granted, this is a slippery slope. If we read too many romance novels we might forget that great passionate love comes with consequences. You can’t have the glorious love affair without the tears, and the work, and the heartbreak. We might start expecting our partners to be something they aren’t – something easier. We might want a relationship with emotion that’s free.

But then…that’s what books are for. In real life we have to pay the consequences and make the hard decisions.

Breaking the RulesI realize this post is rambling a bit. I’m still wrapping my head around how this affects my work. But it does give me insight and respect for some of the mainstream “popular entertainment” books and films out there. They create an emotional response in their audience – and that’s not easy to pull off.

It also makes me consider the emotional response I want in my reader. Are there enough risks and consequences in my book to create a truly exciting “free” emotional experience? Are my characters really put to the test? Or is my book about creating a pleasurable intellectual experience for my reader? Maybe it isn’t about making a reader cry, but activating their curiosity, or letting them feel the wonder of a new phrase of language.

The concept of “free emotion” opens you to so many possibilities.

Image Systems, Liaisons and Motifs

How do we express the ineffable? How do we make our readers feel the emotions and tension of our scenes? In particular, how is this done if we are writing a “quiet book” where the growing stakes of a novel are internal?

Liaisons and motifs are a great way to incorporate specific imagery that adds unspoken weight to your narrative. In many cases the effect is unconscious for the reader. It’s one of those writerly magic tricks that is felt, yet hard to pin point. This is the best kind of writing, where the technique is invisible, but the effect is emotionally resonant!

So what’s a liason or a motif?

A liaison is defined as a close connection, relationship, or link. David Jauss quotes Mark Rose’s seminal text Shakespearean Design in defining a liaison as: “a key word or image whose repetition links two seemingly divergent scenes in a play and thereby reveals their underlying connection and unity” (Alone With All That Could Happen, 153). Jauss goes on to explain that “when a liaison appears throughout a work, not just in adjacent stories or in a small group of stories, it has become a motif. A motif is nothing more, or less, than an extended, expanded liaison” (Alone With All That Could Happen, 155). I define a motif is a dominant image or central idea that is repeated or evoked in various parts of a composition. A liaison is a shorter connection between scenes or stories, whereas a motif is an extended connection throughout a novel or larger work.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Novel Speak uses liaisons and motifs in a masterful way. The novel tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman with a secret that she must find the courage to tell. The major antagonist of the story is her environment of silence. But how does Anderson make an abstract antagonist felt by the reader? She does this through the motifs of closed mouths/throats and snow/ice, which illustrate and intensify the stakes Melinda feels in her environment.

Through the motif of closed mouths and sore throats, Anderson creates an overwhelming sense that Melinda should not speak. Each image intensifies the threat to Melinda’s objective (to speak) with cumulative impact:

“My throat burns.” (5)

“My throat squeezes shut, as if two hands of black fingernails are clamped on my windpipe.” (28)

“I try to swallow the snowball in my throat.” (72)

“The sharp edge of the flap cuts my tongue. I taste blood.” (74)

“It’s easier to floss with barbed wire.” (108)

“I have an egg in my mouth. One move, one word, and the egg will shatter and blow up the world.” (117)

The question that propels the narrative (will she speak?) is alluded to with each mention of silence, sore throats, and shut mouths. More than forty-five of these violent images accumulate in the novel, creating an average of one every four pages. The dominant impression of this motif is the suffocation of the main character.

A second motif, numbness and ice, also exerts a negative force. Freezing ice and snow come to represent Melinda’s desire to forget, go numb, disappear, and bury her ugly secret. Twenty-four instances of this motif appear in Anderson’s novel. The sampling below reveals their cumulative effect:

“I am going to be completely, totally cool, like nothing has happened. Think ice. Think snow.” (20)

“Every mistake I make is frozen in the picture.” (54)

“A minor blizzard blows outside … I can feel the wind fighting to break through our storm windows. I want the snow to bury our house.” (87)

“Cold and silence. Nothing quieter than snow. The sky screams to deliver it, a hundred banshees flying on the edge of the blizzard. But once the snow covers the ground, it hushes as still as my heart. ” (130)

Within the story, these examples are part of Melinda’s everyday life. They don’t call attention to themselves in the dramatic way that isolating them does. Instead, they accumulate slowly, like snow itself, gradually falling page by page, over the whole.  Their presence is a reminder of the pain and secrets that Melinda is trying to hide.

Hopefully this example illustrates how the repetition of key images reminds the reader of both questions and stakes, while also helping to deepen emotions and themes.  A few other books with excellent use of liaisons and motifs include: Beneath a Meth Moon by Jacqueline Woodson, and Keesha’s House by Helen Frost. Of course, many other novels also use this technique, but these are a couple that I’ve looked at personally.

In our work, we’re all looking to create an emotional connection with lasting resonance. Repeating key imagery can be an invisible and effective tool for that goal!

Other Posts on Creating Emotion and Resonance in Your Writing:

Nuts and Bolts and Chocolate

Picture book author Tony Johnston has over 125 books for children in her repertoire! She was kind enough to speak at the 2011 Southern California SCBWI Writer’s Day and share her immense knowledge and insight. This was one of the most heartfelt talks I’ve ever been too. Johnston is passionate and moved by her responsibility as a writer.

The following notes were taken during her talk:

"Giant" by N.C.Wyeth

Where Do You Find Inspiration?

  • “Keep alive to everything.” – N. C. Wyeth
  • Bumble through life at the ready.
  • “If I keep alive to everything, a story will find me.” –Tony Johnston
  • “I have not exhausted the ground I stand on.” – N. C. Wyeth (on why he doesn’t need to paint the alps. There is plenty to see and explore where he lives.)
  • Notice things more and more. Inspiration doesn’t always come from an emotional core.
  • The LA Times is a great place to find stories.

 Let the Feelings Catch You:

  • “Be caught by feelings.”
  • “Words from the heart, enter the heart.” (Saying in the Torah ??)
  • Sentimentality is the cheapest lie.
  • You don’t have to include significance and meaning to have a heartfelt moment in your book.
  • Make ‘em laugh, but do it honestly.
  • Heartfelt silliness is also an emotion.
  • When writing about difficult subjects (like racism) remember that children don’t flinch. It is the grownups that flinch.

On Writing Picture Books:

  • Keep it simple.
  • “How difficult it is to be simple.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • Writing simply does not mean words must be short and easy. It should be the words that belong.
  • “The difference between the right word and almost the right word can be the difference between the lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
  • Don’t slip into Cinderella’s Syndrome. Don’t try to fit a story into something that doesn’t fit. The glass shoe is the shape/structure of your story, if you try to force it, it will break.” Johnston’s example of this was a picture book that was really a novel, but she didn’t realize it till an editor pointed it out to her.
  • Find the right form for your story.
  • Listen to your editor.
  • Don’t sentimentalize or trivialize.
  • The process for every book is different.

The Essence of Childhood:

  • Great picture books deal with the essence of childhood. Essence is the spirit, the pith, the heart of a story.
  • The language of essences is clean, like an arrow, straightforward.
  • “To the memory nothing is ever truly lost.” –Eudora Welty
  • You must get back to the place where it hurts.
  • “No tears in the writer. No tears in the reader.” –Robert Frost

Be Bold When You Write:

  • Don’t play it safe. Writing is about risk taking!
  • Writing is about sharing yourself.
  • “Don’t hold anything back. Don’t hold anything for the next one (book). It’s the only way to write. It’s the only way to live.” – ?

 Other Thoughts and Wisdom:

  • Any small goodness is of value.
  • We need to take time to halt our lives, become introspective, and focus on what is important to us.
  • “It is in the early morning that I think about what I believe and want to say.”
  • How do you write a novel? Hemingway’s answer: “First I clean the Fridge.” (He’s finding space to think).
  • Johnston is a bit superstitious. She believes it is “spiritually healthy” to let her manuscript to “rub elbows” with other great books. Before she submits a manuscript she puts it on her shelf between other great books and lets the essence rub off onto her work.
  • If you are in the middle of a cocktail party and inspiration strikes, politely say “I’m writing a novel, I’ll be right with you in a moment.” Then go and get out what you need to. “It is about the writing, not the cocktail party.”

Tony Johnston has written around 125 books for children. She studied under the renowned poet, Myra Cohn Livingston, and has taught creative writing at UCLA. Her awards include Honorary Texan for The Cowboy and the Black-Eyed Pea, Simon Wiesenthal Award for The Wagon, and the John and Patricia Beatty Award for Any Small Goodness.

Five Ways to Show Emotion in Your Writing

I’m currently reading a fantastic craft book called From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler. The book is a collection of lectures by the famed author/teacher. Among the many great insights in this book, one little tid-bit that I found particularly interesting was Butler’s thoughts on how to express character emotion in your writing. We are always told to show and not tell in our writing, and there’s nothing that bores a reader more than writing “she felt angry” or “he was sad.”

But how do we express emotion? How do we engage our audience in our character’s feelings? According to Butler, there are five ways in which our characters can experience emotion on the written page. They are as follows:

1) A Sensual Reaction Inside the Body – Your character feels emotion immediately through his or her body. This could be an increase in heart beat, a change in temperature (hot or cold), muscles tightening, a flutter in the stomach, etc. Identify the body reaction in your character, and get creative with your language (beware of clichés like butterflies in the stomach).

2) A Sensual Reaction Outside the Body – Your character will also express emotion through his or her body language. Your character will start by feeling the emotions (and sensual reactions)  inside the body first, and then translate that emotion into the physical. The body will react. Think about your character’s posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, etc.

3) Emotional Flashes of the Past – When humans experience emotion we reference moments from our past in our minds. Small flashes of memory show up in our consciousness. These moments  don’t come as ideas but as vivid images. These images could include memories of similar emotion, people, environments, etc. Think about what your character’s triggers are from his/her past, and how they may surface in the present.

4) Emotional Flashes of the Future – Similar to flashes from the past, a character can also flash forward to the future during an emotional moment. These flashes show what the character desires or fears, as these flashes have not yet come into existence.

5) Sensual Selectivity – Consider your character’s surroundings at the moment of emotion. At any given time your character will be surrounded with hundreds of sensual cues. But the mind cannot process everything at once, the character will select certain elements in his/her environment with which to focus upon. Often one is not conscious of this selection, instead one’s emotions hone in on something deeper, that the character is not aware of. The emotion (in a way) makes the selection. Use your landscape to help reveal character.

This is just a sampling, and I highly suggest you go check out this book for yourself!

Happy reading and happy writing.

The Shape of Our Stories

“I see stories as a three-point projectory with you as the wild card.” Author Marion Dane Bauer began her keynote speech at the 2010 SCBWI LA conference with this statement. Her powerful speech was given with such honesty and power I was nearly brought to tears. The following notes were taken during her session:

The Three Point Projectory…

  • One: All books begin with desire. I don’t know how the story will end, but I know what it will feel like when I get there.
  • Two: The story strives for a climax.
  • Three: We read to reach an emotional resolution. Your book’s resolution will hold its theme.

Where Do Stories Begin?

  • In our hearts.
  • Stories are about struggle. They begin with neurosis, anger, fear, unfulfilled longing, etc.
  • I write for my own pity and fear.

A Common Theme in My Writing…

  • The first three novels I wrote have a common frame – losing a parent figure.
  • The common theme wasn’t intentional. I didn’t see that I was doing it. But when someone pointed it out to me my first reaction was sheer panic! I am writing the same story over and over again! But then I remembered that Hemingway repeated some themes too, and I felt better.
  • Don’t think about the pattern. It simply happens. I feel my way into it.

Arguing with Your Editor…

  • I told my editor what needed to stay for the book to still be my story, and she told me what needed to change for her to publish it.
  • Concept is not a story.

Answering Your Deepest Questions…

  • Desire has to rise up through you in order for it to work for you.
  • The feeling response to “said” issue, you must let that move through you with each story. This is what feeds you as a writer. This is what will answer your deepest questions.
  • If what pulls you (writer) forward is what will cause you to want to write your story.
  • The emotional resolution is your truth. This is not something you can teach. This is something that you must feel and explore many more times.
  • Discover your stories, and in the discovery find your own personal truth.

Marion Dane Bauer has been publishing since 1976 and is the author of more than seventy books. She has written novels, easy readers, both fiction and nonfiction, picture books and novelty books. She has won numerous awards including the ALA Newbery Honor. She recently retired from the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and was the young adult faculty chair.

Loren Long: Illustrating The Picture Book

Why do you want to write and illustrate picture books? Illustrator Loren Long, began his keynote speech at the 2010 LA SCBWI Conference with this question. The following notes are an overview of what he had to say about his process, creating emotion in art, and the importance of leaving something behind for the next generation.

Illustrating the Picture Book – My Two Cents:

Ask Yourself:

  • Why do I want to be published?
  • Why do I write children’s books?
  • Is it to make a living?
  • Do I just like kids?
  • What do I want to give this world?

The Author/ Illustrator Relationship:

  • It is a non-collaboration collaboration.
  • You don’t really talk to one another at all.
  • As an illustrator I want authors to know that when I accept your manuscript I’m paying you the highest compliment I can. I want to make your book mine too and I want to share it with the world.

How Do You Start Illustrating a Picture Book?

  • How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you start a picture book? One drawing at a time.
  • One sketch per day. Make one drawing today and then forget about the rest of the book till tomorrow.
  • If someone else can illustrate a book. Why not me? Get your John Wayne on!

My Painting Technique:

  • I paint with acrylics.
  • I paint thin washes of paint on illustration board. I build up the layers slowly until it becomes opaque.
  • I used gouache paint for my book Otis.
  • I spend 2 to 3 months on the sketches of the book, and then 4 to 6 months on the paintings.
  • I do about two books a year, but it usually takes me about a year and a half.

My Background and How I Got My Start in Picture Books:

  • I started out working in greeting cards. (Gibson greeting cards).
  • I went to art school in Chicago.
  • After greeting cards I moved into editorial work and magazine work. I worked for magazines like TIME, Atlantic Monthly, Readers Digest, and Sports Illustrated.
  • I worked for 12-15 years as a freelance illustrator before I discovered publishing and children’s books.
  • I said yes to every job that came along.
  • Dave at Night was the first YA book cover I did.
  • I didn’t do my first picture book until I was 38. (Frank McCourt didn’t write Angela’s ashes until he was 66, so don’t worry, age doesn’t matter!)

Some Career Highlights:

  • Working for Madonna was kind of a dream job. But Madonna did have to see every sketch for the book. But she loved them. I really loved the world of that book.
  • I re-illustrated The Little Engine that Could. What an honor.
  • One book always informs the next book you will do. If I didn’t work on Truck Town I wouldn’t have found the inspiration for my book Otis (which he wrote and illustrated).

Infuse Your Illustration with Emotion:

  • Always search for the “emotional hit.” Find the one spread, the one image that really captures the impact of your book. That’s something I am always searching for in every book I do.
  • When I was a child I loved books. It wasn’t just the stories and the characters but the books themselves became my friends. I would carry them around, take them places with me, etc. Reading was always like visiting a good friend. One of my favorites was the Pokey Little Puppy.
  • Mood and emotion are key in art.
  • Look for the emotional moments in the story like you’re a film director.
  • I like to imagine the music that would go with a particular scene. Like the music in the Last of the Mohicans  – brilliant!
  • The emotion comes through the character. It is more than a smile or a facial expression, it’s the heart and soul. Feel the picture!
  • Trust, loyalty, and security – these are all things a child is looking for in a picture book.

The Mystical Sketch Phase:

  • The intellectual part of the illustrating comes in the sketch phase. This is when I am choosing my moments.
  • I want the reader to feel the art, not just look at it.
  • It all starts with the mystical sketch phase. If only my paintings could live up to my sketches.

Some of My Artistic Influences Include:

  • Grant Wood
  • Thomas R. Benton
  • Edward Hopper
  • George Bellows
  • N.C. Wyeth
  • Become a student of art! Become a student in your field!

“Set sail for a new horizon in your artwork!” – Long

Loren Long is the #1 New York Times best-selling illustrator of Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could and Madonna’s Mr. Peabody’s Apples. Other books by Loren Long include Toy Boat, Angela and the Baby Jesus, I Dream of Trains, When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, as well as Otis and Drummer Boy which he wrote and illustrated.  Loren lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and two sons. You can visit him at