Monday, April 5, 2010

Brenda Novak~Tugging at Readers' Emotions

Weekend before last I attended the NECRWA's Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference. If you're an aspiring writer and have difficulties with the expense of a national conference, I urge you to check out a regional RWA conference. You're likely to have the same quality of speakers, an opportunity to pitch your work to editors and agents, and a chance to network with industry professionals at a bargain price.

NYTimes Bestseller Brenda Novak was one of the excellent speakers at NECRWA's conference. Her two hour workshop zipped by at lightning speed and after taking notes for a while, I finally decided to just let her wisdom wash over me. Here are the highlights:

To keep the pages turning, authors must engage a reader's emotions. If your book is a tear-jerker, make them go through a box of kleenex. If it's scary, make them keep the lights on. If it's sexy, make them need a cigarette!

OK, how?

Brenda says we engage readers' emotions by pulling them in close with use of really tight POV. We let our readers experience what's going on as our characters do. An omniscient viewpoint, sort of a "God's Eye" view is too far away. We have to get inside our character's head. Here's an example from my STROKE OF GENIUS (and I apologize for using my own work as an example. I'm just more familiar with it so it's easier to find a snippet that illustrates my point.) In this scene, if I used omniscient POV, I might say, Crispin leaned in and kissed Grace more deeply. She liked it more than she should. Instead, I take you inside Grace's head:

Crispin slowly leaned in again, covering her lips for a longer kiss. He slanted his mouth over hers, running the tip of his tongue along the seam of her lips.

Tasting her.

There was a loud roaring in her ears, an ocean pounding in her head. Her world spiraled down to the exquisite sureness of his mouth on hers, to the feather of his breath on her cheek, to the roughness of his chin against her smooth one. She couldn’t move. If she did, the spell might break. All she could do was bunch the extra fabric of the palla in her lap between tightly scrunched fingers.

The second thing Brenda suggested for pulling our readers in close is subtext. When a reader picks up a book, she brings her own experience to the work. She is able to read between the words on the page to infer meaning. In the example above, the sentence All she could do was bunch the extra fabric of the palla in her lap between tightly scrunched fingers shows readers this was a toe-curling kiss and Grace liked it far more than she should have. That's subtext. It's what's really going on beneath the words on the page.

For other examples of subtext, you might want to refer back to my Red Pencil Thursday with Gillian Layne. She used it deftly in her excerpt a couple of times.

If you get a chance to hear Brenda Novak speak about writing, I encourage you not to miss it. She's a fount of ideas for excellent writing practices. In the meantime, check out her website and look for her books! She also runs an annual auction for Diabetes that features goodies for aspiring writers--critiques by editors and agents for example. You get your work read by top people and a great cause benefits as well.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel you had lived the character's life?


Unknown said...

Brenda Novak was amazing. I'm so glad I had the chance to listen to her workshop!

EmilyBryan said...

Wasn't she awesome? I couldn't believe two hours could go by that quickly.

Mary Anne Landers said...

Thank you for sharing Brenda Novak's advice with us, Emily. I'm trying to engage the readers' emotions any way I can.

If you come upon or think up other means to achieve this end, please share them with us. Keep up the good work!

EmilyBryan said...

Hi Mary! I'm always looking for fresh ideas myself. Until the workshop with Brenda I'd never considered that it's not just the premise which engages readers, but how we writers use the tricks of the trade (tight POV and subtext) that really tugs at the emotions.

It's a little like when I learned how a singer can pull in her audience by making it through a long phrase in a single breath. Once you get the audience breathing (or gasping!) with you, you've got them!

librarypat said...

I can't think of a specific book at the moment, but I know I have been drawn in and felt what the characters were feeling.
Brenda Novak sounds like an outstanding speaker.
I bid at her auction last year. It was great fun. I did win one bid. It is a good cause, so I hope everyone will check it out and bid.

Emily, I found another opera singer turned author tonight. Kate Quinn (MISTRESS OF ROME) was a guest on enchanted
She had a cute list.