Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Can Feel It In My Bones

I've been meaning to say something about this for some time, but I never had an idea about it that felt complete enough. I wanted to say something about how good isn't always good enough.

What I mean is that I think sometimes when we look at our writing (or when others look at our writing), we content ourselves in thinking that we're done when we can't find anything wrong with our work. And yet, sometimes we might not admit to ourselves that even though there's nothing necessarily WRONG with the work, it's also doesn't exactly feel RIGHT.

Some people might call the missing ingredient in a piece like this the "X-factor." What I realized tonight is that it's more of a physiological or emotional response to the work. Intellectually, we might not be able to find a problem to fix, but it's good to be aware of how we react to a piece beyond the intellectual level. Does the work give you goose bumps? Does it make your ears itch? Does it make you look over your shoulder? Does it make you want to walk to the edge of a mountain and throw little things off like car-parts, bottles, and cutlery, or whatever you find lying around?

So, can you pick out a piece of your writing that works beyond the intellectual level?

For me, there's a scene in my novel Rooster where one of the main characters, a teenager named Jaroen, is learning to meditate in a Buddhist temple for the first time. The monk is telling Jaroen to clear his mind, but instead he's flooded by thoughts. Suddenly, he remembers a day from his childhood when his dad is teaching him how to ride a bicycle. That scene always invokes and emotional response for me.


  1. Davin, that's interesting which scene in Rooster gives you that emotional response. I got emotional responses from that novel in different scenes. I think it's all tied up with memories and experiences.

    I get this emotional response in Cinders a lot, which is one of the reasons I feel good about publishing it. I understand what you mean by "feel it in your bones." It's not even something I can explain very well or pinpoint. I do know, however, that things I write which give me this X-factor ALWAYS give me the X-factor - even years later. Some of my short stories are a good example of this.

  2. In my current WIP, there's a chapter where the two sisters are discussing a tough situation the younger woman is in, and the older one reveals a painful part of her recent past she's kept hidden from the family. I cried when I wrote it, and I shed a few tears every time I re-read it.

  3. I think you're right about the X-factor thing; I've used the term magic a lot in a similar context.

    My writing tends to be very emotional reading for me in general. But I think once you've revised a work a lot, especially with some long rests between sessions, feeling the same levels of high response is often difficult.

    I don't think writers should get too distressed over this though. (Okay, I admit I have in the past.) I'm not sure how much this matters once a work's been published because readers don't always have the same responses in the same places writers do. Everyone's so different, and sometimes writers mentally fill in certain spots with other information so those spots seem realer to them, but not so real to some not-the-author readers. Other times, writers will say a simple brief thing not intending to elicit much response, and that will move some readers to laughter or tears.

    Too much seems so (frustratingly) random about writing....

  4. Davin,
    There are definitely scenes from my novel that I think have the X-factor (though I've never put a name to it.)

    A scene that I'm thinking about right now involves the MC trying to help a dying friend, at which point she realizes the gravity of what's happening around her (a pandemic). All the emotions that goes through her in this scene, always give me a chill.

  5. One way I sometimes judge is this way. I write a scene, feeling a certain emotion. Sometimes I'm giggling as I write, sometimes I'm angry, sometimes I cry. If it's a good scene.

    Later, after I've had some time and distance from the scene, if I go back and read it and it makes me laugh, swear or cry, then I feel I've really captured that emotion.

    It has happened that in the process of polishing a scene for other flaws -- overwrought dialogue, incorrect pacing, whatever -- I adjust and adjust, and somehow, when I go back and re-read it, I find to my horror that it no longer evokes emotion. It's completely flat. I polished the shine right off it.

  6. I think that both Michelle and F.P. have pointed out one of the vexing problems with the x-factor: that it's not necessarily universal. I'm working on a scene right now (the one I emailed you about) and last night I roughed out the whole thing and I have my emotions bound up in it, but I have no way of knowing if those emotions will be touched in a reader. This whole communicative-property-of-fiction thing can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.

    As to your larger point, about how you can put down some good solid writing which is technically flawless but it misses something (a sort of psychic resonance, maybe?), I agree completely. I see plenty of good solid writing that is absolutely forgettable. There has to be something behind it.

    For the record, my "x-factor" scenes in Rooster are: the one where Bao and Jaroen race up the stairs at the temple, and the one where Nui gets the phone call about Daeng and eats the grapefruit. I love those scenes and wish I'd written them.

  7. What's interesting, Scott, is that those the scenes with the x-factor for me in Rooster are the same as yours. :)

  8. Michelle, that's just proof of our shared genius. What's also interesting is that, to be honest, I don't remember the scene Davin mentions. Though maybe it was in a version of the book I didn't see. Has Davin shown you the deleted elephant scene? I love the elephant scene. It's all kinds of good weird. Davin, I apologize for talking about you like you're not standing right there.

  9. Scott, yes, I remember the scene Davin mentions. It's really short. And yes, he's shown me the elephant scene. I love that scene, too! I wish he'd put it back in, but if it doesn't work for the progression of the story, I can understand why he doesn't put it back in.

    *looks over at Davin*

    He's just busy with his beakers at the lab table. He doesn't even realize we're talking about him. ;)

  10. Michelle, It is frustrating that much (I wouldn't say all) is tied up with memories and experiences. I think that's true. I think a way to deal with that is to make sure that your stories have multiple opportunities to create this sort of reaction from the reader. That means having the emotional scenes tied into different things. For example, I have some scenes that are tied into my own experiences. Other times I try to write about things that I know people who are different from me respond to. It's sort of like mix and match, if that makes sense.

    TraciB, as Michelle mentioned, I think that idea of still having the emotion upon rereading is very important. I use that as a test for my own work.

    FP, is is frustrating. As I mentioned above, I try to deal with that by including a mix of emotional writing, or at least what I consider to be a mix. What you say about losing the response after long revision sessions or long breaks applies to me and it saddens me! I started writing hoping that I could enjoy reading my own work. That's a very rare thing in my experience now, and I'm wondering if a writer ever really gets to do that. That's one of the things that makes me think about giving up a lot.

    Crimey, I even get a small emotional response when you summarize this scene. It makes me think of times when I approach a problem and only later or during trying to deal with the problem do I realize how serious it is.

    Tara Maya, that has happened to me too. Far too often. I think sometimes I end up cutting a scene that might have worked just to replace it with something newer, that I still have an emotional response to.

    Scott, in thinking about this idea of universality that you and others have brought up, I wonder now if it's a matter of us being able to read our stories in a certain way. Do you (and others) think it's a matter of being able to read your work from different points of view? I know that I often respond differently to my own work when I try to imagine other specific friends reading it.

    S & M (Ha, I just was the beauty in that!), I am here. For the record, the stair scene and the grapefruit scene are both also ones that resonate with me. They are sort of "featured" in the book, if that makes sense. The bike training scene was interesting to me, and why I chose to mention it, because it is sort of tucked away and yet it still feels emotional to me. And, by the by, the elephant scene is currently in the book, though it is dramatically shorter.

  11. Davin, I definitely know what you mean w.r.t. why you started writing--same for me! I've been dealing with this exact why-have-I-stopped-enjoying-reading-my-own-work-so-much thing myself lately. I thought I could always be at least the one reader of my own work, but I have more problems reading it now, more disappointments.

    All I can say is: when I read (and publish) older work now, as I'm reading I get these nice nostalgic feelings, like I remember how some parts felt when I wrote them. I no longer get so much feeling from the specific words, but I can see how other readers still can. They'll only be experiencing those parts newly. They won't have read my book over and over and OVER again. Maybe you should focus on seeing if you get those same nostalgic feelings--maybe that would be enough sometimes.

    And maybe when we want to write something entirely for ourselves first, we shouldn't revision-read it too many times. But then I don't feel comfortable publishing something that hasn't gone through that process. Like I said, writing's so frustrating....

    Tara, I've often talked about writing being overpolished; I've been through this with my own writing, wound up ruining some of my earlier works. I see other writers overpolishing. Not everything should be changed, but there's so much emphasis on being critical that I think too many writers tend to overwork their prose the way too many painters tend to overwork their paintings. Sometimes a writer DOES get certain things "right" during the first or second tries. When revising, using a scalpel may be preferable to using an ax.

  12. When I finished the word elimination on my MS there was a definite 'feeling' that, for now, I was done. Everything seemed to gel together in my mind. I knew that, until an agent/editor gets ahold of the MS I was done. I could feel it in my bones.


  13. The very last scene in my WIP is the most emotional for me. The main character has to make a difficult choice, deciding where his real home is, and he discovers the importance of family and acceptance. I always tear up a little when I read the scene. :)
    There are a few scenes that make me giggle and some even make me laugh out loud.
    That's when you know if you have the "X-factor." When you feel the emotion with the characters. But most of my writing makes me disappointed when I don't feel it. :) Practice, practice, practice, I suppose.

  14. This is a very good post.

    Emotional response to a story is crucial, otherwise it's like looking at the story from the backseat of a car. You can see the amazing landscapes and the beautiful people, but you're not really engaged.

    I think another area authors need to be cautious in is their subtle morals or messages in their work.

    An underlying statement (about race or class for example) may be beneath the surface to the author, but may be over the top to the reader.

  15. I thought this back in November. But Davin, luckily I had some sense. And decided not to query. Until now when it reads super fantastic to me.

    I have one in SEVENTY TWO HOURS. It makes me cry and the goosebumps flow all over. it's the part when the horse Fancy attacks an animal to save the two girls.

    As to your X-factor, I admit that feeling in my book. I couldn't put my finger on it. Something was wrong back when I decided to query. I never did understand what it was, but now after months of work that feeling is gone. So whatever it was, I fixed it? Without understanding what was wrong in the first place? I can only guess that is why I didn't query. A sort of intuition. Sweet post. :)

  16. Scott M. Congrats again on finishing this draft! That "finished feeling" is wonderful. I get that every once in awhile, and sometimes I can actually even trust it!

    Aimee, I think it's wonderful that you already have multiple scenes in your book that make you react. I actually think it wouldn't work if 100% of our book made us react emotionally. It would probably serve to dilute the emotion somehow. I think you're on the right track.

    wordsareforwriting, that's brilliantly stated about being in the back seat of a car. I love that! Thanks for bringing up the point about being subtle too.

    Robyn, that is very interesting indeed. I think it was very wise of you to let your gut make your decisions. In my life, I tend to find that almost always happier with the outcome if I let my gut decide things over my brain.


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