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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 19: Emotion in Fiction with John Brown

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 19: Emotion in Fiction with John Brown


Key points: fiction is all about guiding an emotional response in a reader. Writing takes time to think about writing plus time to write. Make time for both. Emotions come from reaction and thoughts, but when we think distorted thoughts, we cause our own emotional reactions. Cognitive therapy tool: stop, write down the feeling and the thought that went with it. Then examine the thought to see if it is realistic. Don't just compare what someone else does well with what you are weak at -- pay attention to the things you do well, too.  Good writing guides the reader into experiencing emotions, so think about what evokes a response in you, then put that in your story. Character identification, believability, clarity, focusing on triggering details are all part of evoking emotions. The question you have to ask yourself is, what would evoke that response. Then put that in the story.

[Brandon] We once again have John Brown with us. We're going to be pitching a lot of questions at him this time because this is kind of his topic. Just as a reminder, John Brown writes epic fantasy. His first book is coming out in mid-October.
[John] October 13th.
[Brandon] I was only a couple of days off.
[John] You were only one day off.

[Brandon] Emotion in fiction. Why did you want to talk about this topic, John?
[John] This one is incredibly important to me for two reasons. The first is, as an author, this was one of the two things that added 10 years to me breaking in. It was how I dealt with rejection and hopes and fears. I had to dance with the Dark Lady of depression for about 10 years until I figured out that I was dealing with that. When I did, the insights from that into writing fiction were incredible. Because fiction is all about guiding an emotional response in a reader.
[Brandon] I think what we'll do then is break this podcast into two parts. The first part will talk about you during that time trying to break in, because a lot of our listeners are trying to break in, and how you dealt with all of these emotions. The second part will be what you learned and how you learned to apply that to your writing. First part, what was generating all this? These 10 years, what was fueling it and turning you in... what caused the depression? That's a terrible question to ask. What specifically about the writing process fueled your depression?
[John] I think the cause of the depression is good, because it talks about the emotion. So let me just... there were two things that were killing me with writing. The first was I did not spend enough time at it. My mind is like a furnace, if I don't have enough time, I'm always just getting up to speed and then never really getting anywhere. Or I'm able to write and six months later I come back and have to junk it. That in and of itself is a problem, you have to just overcome it. But depression or emotions, they depend on a couple of things. There are three nodes. There's... you have the sensory input or thought. There are two paths to emotion. There's a very quick one that goes to your... technically, amygdala and then your thalmus and boom, you've got a physical response. There's another pathway that goes at the same time, you get the same input, and it goes up to your cortex and you think about it. You go outside and step on this slithery thing. Boom, that's the quick way of the emotion, you jump back and you think it's a snake. But you don't really... it's kind of a fuzzy way that you're thinking, but it's quick. Then the next one, you see that slither's a little bit too long, oh, that's the hose. Here's the deal, here's how this ties in. That cognitive thing... when I was trying to break into writing, I think most writers or a lot of writers have this... you write something and there is a cognitive thought that comes through your mind, "This is junk." Or you go out and you read somebody's stuff and you realize I will never be able to compete with this guy. I just read Orson Card. Holy schnitzel. There's no way. Why am I even trying to compete with Stephen King? You have these thoughts that come through your mind. You get a bad review, or somebody doesn't say something about your's that they said about somebody else's. If you're not careful... at least in my case, if you're not careful, these have an immediate effect. Because these thoughts are input... they have an immediate effect on your emotions and then on your writing. Am I answering the question?
[Howard] That's perfect.

[Brandon] Let's dig into it a little bit. How specifically did you deal with it when you are comparing yourself to other writers?
[John] This is great. If you look at depression, about 60% of people can be treated with cognitive therapy. What cognitive therapy does... you have these three nodes again, you've got this very quick emotion, you've got the physical response, and then you have your cognitions, your thoughts. What cognitive therapy does, the whole basis of that is, the reason why you are sad or depressed is because you are thinking certain things that are causing that, that are distortions of reality. This is where this falls into place. Here I am, I read... I can't remember who I read just recently... it was that same thing, it was holy crap, what am I doing? There's no way that I am going to be able to compete. Immediately then, I used my cognitive therapy tool, which is I need to write that feeling down and write the thought that went with it. Then I examine the thought and say, "Is that really realistic?" Oh, this guy actually has 20 years of writing experience. Well, no wonder his book is so good. What was his first book like? It was pretty good, but it wasn't that good. That's the process. There are a number of these things that I notice with other writers that they do all the time.

[Brandon] Something that I do, is I look at... I take a step back and say, "Okay, the things I'm noticing that they're doing are what they shine at." Oftentimes, it'll be I'll notice what someone else shines at that happens to be a particular weakness of mine. Then compare the books that way. As unfavorably as humanly possible, looking at their bright point and my dim point. If you reassess, you can look and say, "There are some things I do really well that they're not even trying." That's one of those mental gymnastics that helps me. You guys got anything? Dan?
[Dan] No.
[Howard] Dan has nothing. I was going to say that...
[John] They're all even keel.
[Dan] I'm far too arrogant to have problems like this.
[Howard] No, no, no. I struggle with the same sort of emotions. There are days when I look at myself and say, "Boy, I am really depressed. Something's got me down." I have to throw everything I'm doing through the cognitive filter and think about it. I'm not allowed to have a visceral reaction without thinking about it... at least trying to think about it. When I'm done, often I'll identify, "Oh. This is because I read that one e-mail from that one person and it got me thinking about this and that's not a happy thought. That's really kind of irrelevant. That has nothing to do with what I'm trying to accomplish today. So I can be happy. Sometimes that thought works and sometimes it doesn't. I think the difference between clinically depressed people who have to be medicated and people who can get by is whether or not that particular strategy works.

[Brandon] Although, I do want to say, this isn't an episode about depression. It's an episode about being a writer and dealing with these things. We did do an entire podcast on dealing with criticism. Perhaps we could point back to that. Let's focus it on the new writers. One of the things you mentioned that you had a problem with was that mental energy, finding time for writing. What did you specifically do to overcome that?
[John] That's a good question. I was in a very transformational workshop. It was Orson Card's boot camp. I write about it on my blog. But that was the climax of my writing. Because if I didn't perform there, I was going to be done. That was it. The manuscripts were going in the garbage. The books were going to be sold, and I was done. One of the insights there is that they talked about finding time and making time. Here's Mary Higgins Clark, a single mother, getting up at 5:30 in the morning to get an hour and a half to write. Here was another guy in the Bootcamp, this guy named Paul Bishop, who writes these police novels. He's very, very busy. He heads up LA's... half of LA's sex crimes unit or something like that. Incredibly busy, making time to write. I just had to say, that's it. If I want to do this, I've got to make time to write.
[Brandon] If they can do it, then...
[John] If they can do it, I can do it. So I got up early. During breaks, I would walk around and think about it. My lunch, I would write. That broke that dam for me. Suddenly the ideas started flowing. But I still had to deal with these other writerly messages that are just distortions that I think a lot of writers run into.
[Brandon] One thing you said there that I think is very important is... and a lot of writers, new writers, don't realize this... the mental time you spend, not necessarily writing, is as important as the time you spend writing. Finding a couple of hours at night to write most of the time isn't enough, because we need to focus on something. I've got a friend who is a schoolteacher. He has so much trouble writing, not because he can't find time to write, because he can't find time to spend thinking about his writing because he is always focusing on his students. Which is great, it's important for him. But find mental energy.
[Howard] That's why, when I lie down to take a nap, I am working. The voices are playing in my head.
[Brandon] You need to find time for that.
[Howard] You need to find time for that.
[Brandon] New writers have to be able to say, "OK, now is not the time to think about work, now is the time to think about writing. That can be very hard to do."

[Brandon] Second half of the podcast. Let's dig into how do you use this, John. How do you take all this experience, this turmoil, this depression, this wrangling with yourself and apply it to your fiction?
[John] This was the fascinating thing. There is a book... if anybody out there is dealing with this, the book you have to get is Feeling Good by David Burns. End of story. It will change your life if you're dealing with it. But as I was reading that, as a writer, all of a sudden, all these lights started to go on for me. Because writing is the process... you're guiding... a good book guides the reader into an arc of emotions. What I found was that I needed to make sure that they had the thoughts... in the text... I had to make sure that we put in the thoughts that would lead to suspense, that would lead to mirth, that would lead to whatever the effect was that I was yearning after. Once I identified that... then the other thing... this goes back to Adam... I had read this before, but not put together. This is Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiment. That is, I'm not going to have that emotion by having somebody tell me about it. I'm going to have it by seeing the raw inputs. Don't tell me to be scared. Show me something that is going to scare the crap out of me. Don't tell me to be creepy. You have to show me something, you have to give me these things that would elicit, evoke that response in me if I were out on the street.
[Howard] Show, don't tell.
[Brandon] Now you're making us sound stupid again, because you said that about 10 times as well as we ever have. So stop it.
[Dan] John, John, John.
[Howard] I just figured it out -- he is the same guy.
[Dan] He is that guy.
[Brandon] He is that guy who posts that stuff on the forum that makes us look dumb.
[Howard] Get out of here.
[Dan] You'll have your turn, in prose.
[Brandon] Our stupidity aside...

[Dan] I actually have a point on this. At the Stoker conference that I went to, F. Paul Wilson was giving a talk about engaging emotions in the reader. He said that it's especially in that genre, in horror, that character was vitally important. Because you wouldn't be scared unless you were scared for the character. That means that you had to be attached to that character. That means that you had to love that character, which means the character has to be incredibly strong. For me, really strong characters that the reader identifies with are the surest route to evoking these emotions.
[John] Something else that goes along with that... you will not... in the cognitive research that they've done, you will not have an emotion if you do not believe there's a threat or there's an opportunity. That's why it's so incredibly important that it's believable. You will not have an emotion if it's not clear. This is why it's so important to be clear. The other thing is... we talk about the rule of three, three of this, and three details, and three whatever? But the reason this is so important is because our working memory only has so many slots. If I go, and I'm trying to be clear, and I'm trying to be believable... this kind of is what Mary was talking about, with focusing attention. I have to make sure, because of the working memory, I have to make sure I am focusing them on these critical salient details that will trigger... that evoke that situation for them. That's why you don't want to load it down. That's why you want to have characters that have a dominant impression. Because they can't remember it. They've got that working memory thing and you have to focus them in on it.

[Brandon] It comes back to the whole stage magician aspect which I talk about a lot. How do you use and focus somebody so that you can punch them in the side of the head with a surprise? But a lot of times that focus itself is really important because that's what's going to be in their memory.
[Howard] I've been going to the wrong magic shows. You can go to a magic show and be punched in the head?
[Brandon] Yeah, by William Shatner, it only costs 200 bucks. [Laughs] Sorry, inside joke that... if you had listened to the episodes in between episodes, you would get.
[Dan] The un-episodes.

[Brandon] So, John, I want to ask a very hard question of you. How? How, specifically, are you doing this? Can you give our readers something that they can try, that they can practice, that will make the emotions spring out at their readers better?
[John] The first thing is what everybody has already talked about. That is, think about what is going to elicit... when I am writing, I am yearning for an effect. Sometimes I am very explicit about that. I know I want to have a great beginning. I don't know exactly, but I want... or sometimes it's a very emotional thing, and I'm yearning for the affect. The question I always ask myself is... what do I need... what would elicit that affect in me in real life, and I've got to put that in there. It just depends on what I'm trying to do. This is like what you're talking about with twists and turns and surprises. I've always got to say to myself, what would evoke that? Then go back and do it. I don't know if that's what you're looking for, but that's the question that I have to ask myself.
[Howard] That's fairly concrete. Because if you kick that... if the writer in question is somebody who has been struggling with emotions and has actually kicked things through that cognitive loop and been thinking about their emotions. That is a tool that they can then apply to their writing because you take the character and you push them through that cognitive loop, only you give them the information that you had in your head. Then force them out of the cognitive loop so they are having the visceral reaction instead of the thinky one.
[John] Let me just go on this... there were two things... for example, I wanted to write a romance. I also wanted to write about villainous heroes. I said to myself, "OK, having the working memory issue, having all these others, how can we write villainous heroes and have them actually work? What is it that is being presented to the mind that makes me still cheer for these people?" When I asked that question, I came up with a number of surprising insights. Same thing with romance. What is it that I have to have to be able to start feeling romance or attraction? Oh, I've got to have this, this, and this. When I ask that question, I usually get some good insights into the emotion. Then I can say, "OK, I've got to put that in the book somewhere." He's got to be a noble character. He's got to be attractive in some way. He's got to do something. That's how I approach it.

[Brandon] OK. Let's go ahead and do a writing prompt. I think that might be a good one right there. A story about villainous heroes that has a romantic element that inspires terror in your reader. That's going to be your goal. All right. This has been Writing Excuses, you're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: characters, cognitive therapy, depression, details, emotions, response

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