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Cate 'the man-eater' Ellink on Getting Emotion into the Story

Artist: Jaz Harold

Artist: Jaz Harold

My family have told me I’m an emotional wreck. They hurl tissues at me during ad breaks, movies, TV shows, near the end of books. If someone dies, they wish they had shares in the tissue company. Emotion is something I deal with all the time. I tamp it down a lot, suck in those free-flowing tears when I can, and try to be better than an emotional wreck.

Imagine my surprise when I found that my writing was lacking emotion (it was devoid of it but, thankfully, people tell you these things gently). I’ve been writing for a good few years now, solidly practicing and learning for 7 years, and my first drafts still have zip emotion. I layer some in, then I find my next draft is a mess of emotion that doesn’t flow, or ring true.

I can easily type, “I felt afraid”, or “Anger welled up inside”, but I can’t really get good emotion into my characters without painting it on in layer upon layer upon layer. And to tell you the truth…my critique partners have to tell me it’s messed up before I notice it, and sometimes they have to tell me more than once.

So, how does a complete wreck become unable to write emotion? Wish I knew!

At first I thought it was my science brain and training that stopped me. I thought they were keeping things factual and not ‘getting carried away’ with feelings. But after this long, I think I’ve pretty much trained my science brain back to creativity, so that’s not it.

Then I thought maybe it’s because I tamp down my emotions after years of tissue throwing, general amusement, name calling, etc. But I’ve actively tried to put it in there and still failed! I’ve tried to tap into my emotions while I write. I’ve even written some scenes and cried, or laughed, or got all excited…yet still I was missing emotion on the damn page.

I wondered if I become so overwhelmed by the emotions that I can’t look at the big picture and ‘see’ what I’m doing or feeling. But that can’t be right, because when I do those facial expression tests, I nail them. So I understand how your face moves, or your body moves, when experiencing a different emotion…I just can’t get it on the page.

I’ve given up thinking and now I’m admitting to my problem. I’m hoping by admitting to it, I might be able to learn how to get over it. Not sure it works that way, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

I can write some quirky characters…but my first readers usually hate them. This is the kind of thing they tell me: Samantha, from Deep Diving, was too up herself. Mac, from The Virginity Mission, was pathetic and whiney. Lana, the Sydney Housewife, was a total bitch who only cared about herself and had a sad life. You can see I had some work in turning these heroines around to become someone likeable, or at least somewhat relatable.

So I go back to the first draft after I’ve finished writing and I find each time I wrote the name of an emotion (e.g. scared). There’s this fabulous resource called The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, and I open that up and re-write that section to include body responses and physical actions so the reader knows what the emotion is, without me saying the word. Without this wonderful little e-book, I’d be lost. I’m getting better now at not always needing it, but for some emotions, I have no words to describe the physical effect or reaction because my mind goes blank. There is just nothing in my head, no words, no actions, nothing.

Once I’ve done that, and I think I’ve nailed it this time, I send it to my critique partners who hammer me. One of them we spend hours on the phone talking about the characters, who they are, their background, how they might be feeling, what I’ve missed, and how they might go forwards, etc. The others write comments, loads of comments, about what’s missing. This feedback takes me back to the manuscript again.

This time I plan, chapter by chapter, how my heroine has to be feeling to get from that scene to the next scene. At Chapter 1 she might sad/lost/scared and by the end of the book she has to be happy and hopeful. Each chapter has a scene(s) and I write down the major emotions she should be feeling - like an emotional character arc or journey - and then I go back and work my way through it again, looking for the particular areas where I can show these emotions.

It’s bloody hard work and it makes me swear a lot. It makes me doubt my sanity. It makes me wonder why on earth I’m in this game. It hurts knowing I suck at emotion, which is one of the major reasons for reading romance, joining the heroine’s (and/or hero’s) emotional journey.

When I finish, which can take a few goes before my critique partners allow me to send it to a publisher, it’s with a sense of relief and complete exhaustion. I’m gutted after ripping all that emotion out of me (even if I do have help from that book!). But the story is stronger for the work. I just wish I didn’t have to work so hard to get there, every time! I’d like to learn from my mistakes, not keep repeating them.

I once got a review from someone I don’t know (that’s important because they didn’t know all this about me), who said, “This author, first off, is freaking amazing at writing emotion. She has that kind of style that sucks you immediately in and makes you feel like you're the character, not just right there with her.” And that is the reason I keep trying and keep working and keep writing. It hurts while I do it, but when someone says something like that…every little bit of pain was worthwhile.