By: Stacey Purcell
One of my all time favorite books is Shanna by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I know it’s a blast from the past, but it was the first time that I “lived” a book alongside the characters. (If you haven’t read it, and like historicals, I highly recommend you escape to a quiet room with this novel!) Shanna was given to me by a friend of mine when I was in tenth grade and I remember reading it in coatrooms, bathrooms, copy rooms- anywhere I could sneak a few pages while I was working at Halliburton for the summer in Singapore. It was excruciating to put my characters down and re-join the real world.
What was it about this book that so entranced me and has forced me to buy several newer editions because mine simply fell apart after so many years of re-reading? (I still have my original copy too!) If you asked me this question last week, I would have given you a different answer. I’ve been Maassified.
This past weekend I attended Story Masters with Donald Maass, Chris Vogler, and James Scott Bell. The rock stars of the writing world! For three days, it was like standing under Niagara Falls trying to capture the torrent of water with a teaspoon-my brain.
I would have said the reason that I love Kathleen Woodiwiss’ book so much was because it was a great story that spans two different countries set in an unstable time. While that is true, it’s not the main reason. So what is it that brings readers into a story, love the characters and makes us sorry when it’s time to leave? It’s all about the emotions.
Donald Maass said that, as writers, we need to open an emotional landscape and in order to do that we need to open ourselves to emotions. Don’t be content to use the primary colored emotions. Ex. Anger, bliss, happy, scared etc. Readers don’t see these. They are so common, so overused; they’ve lost their true meaning.
So how do we do that? Through a series of questions that you ask of yourself.
- What is the feeling you’re most afraid of putting down on the page? What is so personal to you that you’ve only told a few people this truth about yourself? What is the joy that is so perfect, you can see it, but are afraid to feel it? What do you think people would do if you told them? Rejection? Laugh at you? Write it down.
- What aspect of this feeling is most fearful? Silly? Ridiculous? Terrifying? Write it down.
- Where are you when you experience this emotion? Does it come up on you slowly, building in intensity? Does it blindside you with no warning at all? Is it a constant in your life? Do you never get away from it? Write it down.
This is your emotion. This is authentic and personal only to you. No one else will feel this exact feeling or experience it in the same way that you do. No one else will have the specific reasons for having this emotion- you own this. Now, when in your story does your protagonist have this specific feeling? When can you give your character this emotion? Write it down.
Was this difficult for you? Do you feel resistance from within yourself? This is a good thing. Donald Maass says, “Resistance is your friend.” It is your barometer that points you to where you need to go with your story. This emotion that you wrote down is so nuanced, so detailed, so connected to you- in other words, it is authentic. It is exactly what you need because it will make your readers feel. They will live inside the emotional landscape that you paint because you have used yourself.
**A piece of advice- If you ever want to send your manuscript to Donald Maass, don’t ever, ever, ever, use “gut wrenching”. He HATES it!!