One of the first people to respond on the WU Facebook page when we asked for pitches a few months back was nonfiction writer and romance novelist Hugh O. Smith, who wrote, “I’d pitch a post on male writers writing about love.” When we decided to move ahead with a diversity theme, we thought we could squeeze this topic under a banner of ‘diverse voices.’
I wanted to approach this subject because I sometimes found it hard to convey the emotional honesty that I set out to write.
Hugh says he had a misspent youth working as a bouncer in New York and with some of the world’s biggest rock bands. Nowadays he lives a much calmer life working for a Manhattan consulting firm and being dad to the most amazing little girl in the universe. Somehow he also finds time to write, practice Krav Maga, and go to dance recitals.
His latest nonfiction book is Seven Days to Kindle: The Overwhelmed Author’s Guide to Formatting an Amazon Kindle Book in an Hour a Day. Hugh initially found the art and science of preparing a manuscript for publication on Amazon extremely confusing and challenging. Years and many formatted manuscripts later he wrote a book that offers very easy to follow, step by step instruction for other busy indie authors to help them avoid frustration that comes with preparing a manuscript for publication on Amazon.
When It’s Hard to Tap into Authentic Emotion
My writing partner is great at writing about love. She can take the experiences of her romantic life, good or bad, and effortlessly weave them into narratives that move and inspire. She seems to have instant access to the deep pool of feeling that one needs to be able to passionately and effectively write about matters of the heart.
I, on the other hand, do not have easy access to this reservoir of emotion. No matter the genre, I have no choice but to sit and think, no, marinate in the characters’ emotions until I actually physically feel what they would feel. If they are sad at the loss of a lover, I have to channel my misery at my own remembered heartbreak. If they are happily in love, I have to invoke my own love-inspired euphoria.
The difference in the ability to channel emotion hardly seems confined to my writing partner and myself. Peruse the bestseller lists in the romance category and you’ll see that the ranks of romance writers are heavily skewed on the female side.
Is the difference in our styles just a matter of us having different talents?
Is it biology, the much-studied differences between men and women and the way we process our feelings?
Is it the advent of email and texting and other forms of instantaneous communication? After all, the annals of romance are rife with lovers (male and female alike) who, before there were such things as email or cell phones, excelled at writing long, beautiful letters to their loves.
Maybe it’s a mixture of all these factors. What I do know is that men write, too, and in order for our work to be great, our characters must exhibit the full spectrum of human feeling, from the disgusting to the sublime.
So, what do you do, as a male writer (or even a female one!), when you feel stuck because your hard-boiled character needs to be vulnerable to his/her love interest, but you’re not quite sure you will be able to write it effectively?
- Open a vein.
[pullquote]“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
― Ernest Hemingway[/pullquote]
Is your character brokenhearted? Think about the time that person you loved broke your heart. Ruminate on it. Marinate in it. Recall how your body moved. How did you breathe? How did you speak? Could you even speak? Then, when you are squarely back in that moment, take all those memories and feelings, the loss and the pain, and infuse them into your character. Don’t merely tell your readers about your broken heart; let them feel it. Pull them into your character’s pain so that when the character wonders how to go on without his beloved they wonder right along with him. Sound hard? It is, but it’s worth it because your readers will do more than merely read, they will feel not only feel your character’s pain, they’ll also recall their own. If you manage to do that, then you’ve succeeded in doing what you set out to do.
- Don’t be afraid of your emotions.
“He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath: “Only God knows how much I loved you.”
― Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera[/pullquote]
For my money, no one equaled the late, great, Gabriel Garcia Marquez for writing about love. Many writers have mastered this elusive skill, but in my opinion none more so than Gabo. I discovered his work as a college student and was immediately struck, not by his lyrical prose or the fanciful and magical worlds his characters inhabited, but by the sheer passion of his words. Although his worlds were magical, the love his characters felt was entirely earthbound, flawed, and very often tragic. His characters were consumed by love. The fires of their love burned white-hot and Gabo left them there to gradually and gladly burn to ashes.
His work resonated with me because he put it all on the page. He was all or nothing, leaving nothing behind. That is the way we have to be as writers. Don’t be afraid of your passion. Lay it bare on the page with all the unabashed energy you can muster. Let your characters’ hearts overflow with love.
- Dude, just say it.
“I don’t know where I’m going with this,” I said. “But I figured I had to tell you how I felt, and what’s been going on with me. I love you. I know that’s a word we don’t speak, and one reason I have trouble with it is I don’t know what the hell it means. But whatever it means, it’s how I feel about you.”
― Lawrence Block, A Walk Among the Tombstones
Many years ago, a younger, less eloquent me, attempted to tell a young lady how I felt about her. I tried my best in all the flowery language I could muster to convey the depth of my feeling but it fell horribly, horribly, flat. Finally, the young lady said, “Dude, just say it.” And I did.
I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neil Gaiman, Pablo Neruda and the many others who are able to create beauty from their words. I try to emulate these masters but realize that while beautiful prose has its time and place there are also times when you just have to be plainspoken. If your character is a hard-boiled detective from the streets of Brooklyn, having him declare his love with the voice of a Spanish aristocrat would leave your readers scratching their heads. Just have him come out with it. If he’s nervous, show that. He might stutter or curse or mix up his carefully prepared words. Show that, too. We can’t all be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He had his unique voice and you have yours. Use it.
Love is a tricky thing, whether in real life or on the page. There are as many ways to express and experience love as there are people. What do you do when you have to write an emotional scene? Do you have access to the reservoir of emotion or are you like me and have to open a vein to make it happen?