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 writefiercely.wordpress.com

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.

Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

March Dystropia MadnessI’m excited to kick-off the March Dystropian Madness Craft Series!

This month we will enjoy the insight of eight guest authors, each of whom will share an overview of their Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture. Topics range from literary theory, to poetic techniques, creating effective dialog, and finding the perfect boyfriend (well… finding the perfect literary boyfriend that is!). It’s going to be a fun month! 

Starting us off in style — and talking about two of my favorite topics, boys and books — is Peter Langella! Are you ready to engage the male reader? Peter will tell you how!

Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

by Peter Langella

Let’s begin with a few facts: The average boy doesn’t read as well or as often as his female peers. It’s not even close. 40% of boys stop reading for pleasure regularly after 4th grade. Another 20% stop reading for pleasure regularly after 8th grade. Fifteen-year-old boys’ test scores lag behind same-age girls by one and a half grade levels.

The reasons are varied and many: innate brain differences, physiological changes, gender roles and environments, new technologies and free-time choices, lack of male role models at school… I think you get the picture. The list goes on and on.

But what if it’s simpler than that? What if boys aren’t reading as much as girls because they don’t like that many books? What if they feel forced to read certain unrelatable books at school and that turns them off for a long time? Maybe for good?

Don’t get me wrong. I think all of the reasons boys are lagging behind have crashed together to create an imperfect mess of a storm when it comes to literacy levels, but after researching the topic extensively for my graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I honestly think the number one reason is simple: most boys truly choose not to read. And, because they read less often, they read less well. It’s a snowball effect.

I’d like to tell a quick story. I used to get fined for reading books on the bus to away games by my college hockey teammates. You read that right. They fined me for reading. Real money, too. It wasn’t just for fun. They fined people for all sorts of weird things (many of which aren’t appropriate to discuss here), and we had to put money in a jar in the locker room that went toward a big party at the end of the season. For me, the fine was usually a dollar per hundred pages. So, if I read a 400-page book on the way back to Vermont from northern Maine, it was four dollars.

Pretty twisted, huh? Good thing I was already mature enough to ignore the peer pressure. I may not be writing this or anything else if I wasn’t. So please, trust me, I’m not trying to ignore the research or the test scores or the journal articles. I’ve lived through the rough landscape that faces many boy readers, and, as a high school librarian, I’m still battling this problem right at its root.

Boys need to read more books. There are a lot of great ones out there, but not enough.

As writers, we need to try to reach these boys who aren’t reading. Even though we rarely get to control which book ends up in a reader’s hand, we can control what is in our books, so when a reader does grab them, they’re hooked.

Here are some things I think we should keep in mind if we want to engage boy readers:

Window and/or Mirrors: Boys want to read about characters they can relate to or see themselves becoming. For example, The Hunger Games is read by many boys despite being written from the first person point of view of a female character. Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, and Finnick are just a few examples of characters that boys will latch onto.

In an opinion piece for the NY Times last year, author Matt de la Peña described an interaction he had with a student on a school visit:

I was at a school in Los Angeles last week, and a kid in a hoodie waited until everyone else had left before approaching me. “I read your book ‘We Were Here’ like three times,” he said. His eyes were glassy and he kept fidgeting with his backpack straps. “Yo, that’s my life in that book,” he said. Then he took off.

Physical Challenges: Boys want to see characters do tough things, violent or not. Think sports scenes, traveling/adventuring, and triumphing from an underdog role. I’m not trying to sell violence, either. Whatever your take on it in your story, that’s fine, but it should probably come up because it’s something that many boys will have to form an opinion on at sometime or another.

Emotional Gutter: What I mean is trying to end scenes or chapters without too much description of emotions. Let your reader fill in the emotional details for themselves. At my library, many supposed “guy” books are not that popular with boys because of the overwrought emotional passages, while a book like My Book of Like by Angel by Martine Leavitt is more accessible to older boys because of it’s terrific use of the emotional gutter.

Heavy on Facts: Historical fiction fits here, as do some current events and pop culture references, but also passages that deal with “stuff” like maps, gadgets, sports gear, new or made up technologies, moving parts, schematics; anything that makes them feel like the world of the story is literally at their fingertips.

Non-linear: Today’s boys live in a world of video games and apps and tightly-cut movies. They know how to take in (and make sense out of) a bunch of floating pieces. Give them something to decipher. Challenge them without being too wordy. Jump around a little bit and let them, as the reader, feel like they have a job to do.

Peter LangellaMost boys won’t give a book very long before they decide if they like it or not. If it’s a not, they aren’t afraid to put it down for good. Let’s try to make their decision as hard as possible. For some, just “liking” a single book and picking up another can literally change their life.

I know it happened to me.

Peter 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.

Read more from Peter on his blog Smokeless Fire.

March Dystropian Madness!

March Dystropia Madness

I’m happy to announce the premier of a fabulous new blog series: MARCH DYSTROPIAN MADNESS!

During the month of March, Ingrid’s Notes, will be filled with brilliant insight, craft techniques, and the deep thinking of eight Dystropian guest authors. The Dystropians are my fellow writers-in-crime and classmates from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. As part of our graduation requirements, each of us had to give a graduate lecture on a writing-craft topic of our choice.  This series will give you a taste of those lectures (including all the juicy craft techniques)!

Please stay tuned to hear about these great topics:

It’s going to be a fun month!

Quote of the Week: Martine Leavitt

Author Martine LeavittThis isn’t a quote, it’s an entire speech.

This is the commencement address from my graduation at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It’s given by the brilliant and articulate, Martine Leavitt, and it captures the dedication, heart, and love it takes to write. A large portion of the address relates to going to VCFA in particular, but the larger themes will resonate with any writer.

Here’s a teaser:

“… These are the best reasons to do anything in life. People who say things like this are the kind of people who change the world. Who prevent the world from ending. Or at least they can change the inner world of a reader and that is a sacred power.” – Martine Leavitt

I highly suggest taking some time to watch this video:

VCFA Graduation Speech

If the image link above didn’t work, please try:

VCFA Graduation Website Link

Martine Leavitt is an American-Canadian author of many books for young adults, including My Book of Life by Angel, Tom Finder, and Heck Superhero. Her novel Keturah and Lord Death was a National Book Award finalist in 2006. She is a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the mother of seven children.

Highlights From My Last VCFA Residency

Graduation HatsIt’s official. I’ve graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in writing for children and young adults! It’s been a vigorous and wonderful writing adventure and I’m proud of all that I’ve achieved.

My final residency was glorious (I love this community), stressful (I had to give my own lecture and reading), endlessly inspiring and a fabulous send off into the next stage of my writing life. There’s always more to learn, but I look forward to applying all the tools I now have. The following are a few final tid-bits of writerly advice that I gleaned from my last residency.

Highlights From My Final VCFA Residency:

The Writing Process:

  • Writing is messy, magical, hard, and requires a daily leap of faith.
  • A novel is a hundred ideas or threads that are all braided together.
  • You don’t have to write a perfect sentence every time.
  • There is danger in rushing toward the fun bits of our story. Slow down.
  • Self congratulatory cleverness can be lethal.
  • Several things can be true at once. There are no universal truths when it comes to writing.
  • You can’t hide from pain if you want to evoke pain.  Sometimes the fear of censorship is really about protecting yourself from being vulnerable.

In Regard to Your Reader:

  • Don’t tell your reader everything. Give them 2 + 2, but don’t give them 4. Make them work for it and become involved in the story.
  • Tension happens on the page between your characters. Suspense happens between the pages, it’s the interaction of the reader and the book.
  • Look for the illusive quality of your work, the weight and felt presences. The ghost within the work that the reader will feel but not articulate.
  • Do your character’s choices empower your reader?
  • If you were telling your story out loud in front of a group of 10-year-olds, what would you keep and what would you cut? You’d probably cut more than you think.

On Plot:

  • Ask yourself what charge every action in your story carries.
  • What is the promise whispered to your reader in the first pages? Can/does your story fulfill that promise?
  • Every novel starts with a coincidence, after that no other coincidence will be believable!
  • At the end of the book we are looking for catharsis, redemption, that “good cleaned out feeling.”

WritingOn Writing Picture Books:

  • Look for contrasts and opposites when you write a picture book.
  • Sometimes we know how a book ends, but it is the HOW that is important. How do we get there is what will bring a kid back for re-reading.
  • Animal characters can be easier to access for kids, because they aren’t influenced by gender, race, etc.
  • Pack your sentences. Say more with less.

A VCFA residency is full of a thousand musings, genius thoughts, inspirational quotes, and new ways to think about craft! I will dearly miss my bi-yearly residencies. Thank you to all the faculty, students, alumni, administrators, and friends that make this amazing education possible! It’s been a wild and wondrous ride.

Now… to the writing cave!

The VCFA Universe

VCFA universe logoOne of the things I love about attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) is the school’s traditions. We name our classes and have class-name “reveal” ceremonies. We  decorate the portraits that hang on campus with silly kidlit references. There’s even a costume party themed in honor of the graduating class, and more.

I graduated this week (woohoo!), which meant my class (The Dystropians) had the our honor of introducing the VCFA faculty at our last residency. Per tradition, the presentation is inspired by the graduating class’s name. My class is the Dystropians — a play on Dystopian “end of the world” literature and the literary device of tropes. We named ourselves the Dystropians because we graduated in Jan 2013, having just survived the Dec. 21st 2012 Aztec apocalypse.

With our theme of “rising from the ashes of the apocalypse,” the Dystropians introduced the VCFA faculty as SUPERHEROES who must write, teach, and spread the written word after the end of days.

This all serves as preamble for the fact that I had the honor of drawing all our faculty members as superheroes! And I would like to share them with you.

Thus, I present to you – The VCFA Kidlit Universe!

Rita Williams Garcia


Tim Wynne JoneS


Matt De La Pena

Martine Leavitt


Louise Hawes


Susan Fletcher

Mark Karlins


Franny Billingsly


Alan Cumyn


Bonnie Christianson

April Lurie


Sarah Ellis


Sharron Darrow


Julie Larios


Shelley Tanaka


Amanda Jenkins

Betsy Partridge


Mary Quattlebaum


Jane Kurtz


Margaret Bechard


Coe Booth


Tom Birdseye


Leda Schubert


Laura Kvasnosky

An Na


Kathi Appelt


Uma Krishnaswami

After the apocalypse the future of writing is secured with the Dystropian Task Force!

Dystropian Task Force

Illustrations by: Ingrid Sundberg

Snowball Fights

I’m flying to Vermont tomorrow for my last VCFA residency!

I’m excited to see my writer friends, go to lectures, give my own lecture (eeek!), and graduate. And if I’m lucky, perhaps there will also be time to throw a snowball or two. That said, I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks. But I’ll have plenty of inspiration and final VCFA writerly thoughts to share when I get back at the end of January.

Here’s to the close of a wonderful chapter in my life. It’s been a writing whirlwind, and I’ve learned more than I could have ever imagined.

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

VCFA Chapel Hall in Winter