So how does a writer put “the secret” into action? Trying to teach a person how to do that is even harder than articulating the secret itself. It reminds me of the often-quoted Somerset Maugham line about writing. Maugham said: ““There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

In my years as a writer/editor/bookseller/bookmobile-driver, I’ve seen and heard it all from writers as to how they work. I’ve heard some authors say they write their very final paragraph first. That way they know where they’re going. Others write the middle first. Others can’t get past page one until it’s perfect.

So too with infusing your writing with the words that will help you capture a reader’s heart. I’m going to suggest a few things you might try….but with no guarantees. In short, most writers try one thing and then another until they stumble on what works for them.

But one vital element, it seems to me, is to come to the blank page full. You can’t give out what you don’t have. Come with your own internal passion, and come prepared to spill out that passion on the page. Another Maugham quote occurs to me here. He said, “I’ve always liked to let things simmer in my mind for a long time before setting them down on paper.” Depth doesn’t come in a single sitting. The best writing comes from brewing, stewing, and waiting.

Then as you write, write from the depths, not the shallows of your life. Reflect on your work. Come at it from different angles. Learn to feel your story before and as you write it. To be honest, most manuscripts I see tell a story, but it’s a passionless story. In such cases, I suspect the author has no passion for the story either—or they’ve not yet learned how to tap their passion and make it come out their fingertips and onto the keyboard.

One suggestion I’ve offered to writers who write without passion is to stop writing to a faceless entity you’re calling the reader. Instead, pretend you’re sitting across the table from your target reader at Starbuck’s. This person has come to you either asking advice or for a story that will move them. Envision your reader and warm up to them. Give the person a name, if necessary. And then talk to them on the page as if they’re your dearest friend.

Another way of looking at what I’m calling my secret is to borrow a phrase from Henry James. He talked about the need for “felt life” in good writing. What is “felt life?” Does anyone reading this want to try defining it for us? I know what it means, but I know it intuitively, and it’s hard to explain things one knows intuitively. And yet “felt life” is, to my mind, that very thing that reaches out from your heart to the heart of your reader. It is the secret.

What about you? What has worked in your writing? How do you invest your writing with felt life? How do you choose words that convey more than intellectual meaning? I’d really like to know.

13 replies
  1. Diana says:

    I never knew you once drove a book mobile 🙂
    Great advice here. Write from a heart of passion to your reader.
    Well said. Thank you Nick.

  2. Jan Cline says:

    I have recently had to give myself permission to go deeper and reach higher. Some of us fight our personality bents in our writing. I don’t want to sound like me when I write anymore – not that I want to lose my “voice”, but I want to let myself explore new beliefs and new ways of looking at things. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense, but it is a bit freeing. And I think it will show in my writing.

  3. Melissa K. Norris says:

    I’m learning to do more background information on my characters. How were they raised? What were defining moments in their childhood? This may never come out in the story, but it tells me where some of their motivations are coming from and why or how they would react in a certain situation.

  4. Rebecca Stuhlmiller says:

    My non-fiction topics began with felt needs–desperate needs–in my own life. But as the years go by, I’m forgetting the feeling. I know it in my mind, and as a speaker, I tell the stories well, but I struggle in the writing. I don’t feel the pain anymore–mine especially and not enough of theirs. I’m hoping this opening to my book will evoke emotion. Does it? Or not? I need to know.

    Like most little girls, I grew up playing house. My sister, Wendy, and I took over the dark but ample space of our parents’ backyard storage shed. There we spent hours sweeping make-believe dirt under our kid-sized sofa, fighting over dress-up clothes with neighborhood girls, and caring for dollies who never fussed.

    At the end of the day, Wendy and I threw our babies onto the floor and ran inside to our real home, which was well-cleaned and cared for by our mommy.

    But then one day, I was the mommy. My babies weren’t plastic and quiet—and there was nowhere for me to run.

  5. Creston Mapes says:

    Hi Nick,
    Each of my novels has clearly reflected where I’ve been in my spiritual walk at the time of writing. Our spiritual condition can be such a roller coaster. I think readers can really relate when we pour out guts and emotions our through heartfelt stories/modern day parables.
    I’m currently 15 pages into writing a new manuscript, but have stopped writing and am studying all kinds of writings on premise and depth of character. I’m trying to figure out where my protagonist is — mentally, physically, spiritually. In each of my novels, I’ve taken the seed of some of the most emotional events in my life, and then said: “What if…”
    I think it is those emotional events in our lives that really empower us to cut a vein, if you will, and pour ourselves and our “felt life” into our stories.
    Hope you are well.

  6. Rachel says:

    Dad, do you think a key to writing from the depths and with passion is transparency? I think if a writer is afraid to say what he wants for fear it’s not profound enough or that it’s not going to mean anything to anybody else, he won’t be successful in writing something someone else can or may connect to. I think that’s something that constricts my writing, trying to be something else than what I am and not enough honesty in being myself and expressing what is of importance to me. I think there’s a great opportunity for humility here too in learning to let one’s self be exposed, the bad and the good, in one’s writing and if that “wall” is broken through then one’s writing can be connected to in a powerful way. Just an idea: I’m working on the transparency issue in daily life, not just writing!

  7. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    Okay…here is the money line for me: “But one vital element, it seems to me, is to come to the blank page full.”

    Bingo. Whammy. Zap a doodle. That’s going to carry me far!

    Well done, Nick.

  8. Nick says:

    Rebecca, I think that works well. Creston, bravo for waiting until your character is ready to reveal himself. But if he takes too long, you might have to prod him a bit.
    Rachel, transparency is good, but also just a good imagination. I’ve imagined characters in situations I’ve never been in myself and tried to experience what they must feel. I think transparency is especially key when you want the reader to say, “Aha! This author understands!”

    Thanks, Michael. See you next month!

  9. Joanne Bischof says:

    Great post, Nick. Thanks!
    Remembering what a character wants the most out of life and what’s at stake for them in the story is so helpful in showing a vulnerability that readers can relate to. I think what makes a great story is when a reader can look at a character and know just how they feel. The reader becomes the character’s advocate for success and nothing is more enjoyable then following a well-developed character on their journey.

  10. Sally Apokedak says:

    I think writing to the character across the table is great. The last manuscript I finished, I wrote to my sixteen-year-old self. It wasn’t comfortable, but I do think it made me more passionate about the story.

  11. Jeff Adams says:

    Okay, Mr. Bookmobile Driver, thanks. Really. I get it. You confirmed what I’ve learned the past 12 years. Nothing replaces passion. Not persistence. Not perseverance. Not perfection. I’m passionate about that. But no one can see passion unless we become transparent. BTW, I often write better after I’ve talked with a friend or small group. Such conversations usually stir my passions. Thanks again. Rich as always, Nick.

  12. Mandy says:

    I’m struggling with defining felt life myself… for a 15+ page final narratology paper I have due Saturday. Hoping I can wrap my brain around it by then! 8/

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