From time to time I try to blog about the essence of great writing which, to me, is the ability to capture what Henry James called “felt life.” More recently, I found a description of this mysterious quality in Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. (The movie based on this book is just being released). In quoting the great editor of authors such as Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Berg writes of a time when Perkins had to explain to Fitzgerald why some of his short stories had been rejected by Scribner’s magazine, but would surely be published elsewhere. He wrote, “The great beauty of them is that they are alive. Ninety percent of the stories that appear are derived from life through the rarefying medium of literature. Yours are direct from life it seems to me.”

This uncanny but utterly artistic ability to produce “felt life” or stories that are “alive” in (primarily fiction) stories is both hard to explain and even harder to teach someone how to do. I’ve puzzled over this for many years now. When I see writing that is flat (but probably publishable), how do I instruct the writer to go back (or start over) and write “direct from life?” How do I tell the author their story is not “alive.”  Truthfully, I have no idea, even after many rejections of stories that lacked this quality.

But as the years go by, I think I understand more about the kinds of writers who accomplish this task without training. In fact, since I doubt it can be trained at all, perhaps this gift is simply the writer’s equivalent of capturing what the talented portrait artist captures on canvas. (Note the operative word is “talented.” I’m sure many portrait artists may be technically adept at their craft, yet still lack the ability to impute life into their work).

Whether it’s an inborn gift or (doubtfully) a craft that can be learned, I think I see that the writer of “live” fiction possesses. It’s this: This writer sees his or her characters and stories as true in ways other writers do not, and cannot, view their characters and their stories.

When a journalist is writing a story about a newsworthy event he or she is reporting on, that journalist is writing something that has really happened to real people. The good journalist then captures that real event on paper, a journalistic feat that should be fairly common among good journalists.

A novelist, on the other hand, is challenged by the knowledge that the story he or she is writing didn’t really happen….or did it? An author capturing the “felt life” of a story must subconsciously believe it truly is happening as the story is unfolding on the computer screen. Consciously, he or she knows it is not happening, but on the deeper creative level, there’s a reality that bursts forth on the page that will surprise even the author. Again I repeat: how this really happens, I have no idea. I just know that it does happen and mostly to great writers.

I’m actually rather shocked that Perkins said that ninety percent of the stories he saw weren’t direct from life. Wow. That means one story in ten did have that quality. I wish I could say that’s my experience…but it isn’t. I find it a challenge even in my own writing to bring forth “felt life.”

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of the degree of imagination a great writer has. He or she can imagine the story as a reality in ways a less imaginative writer cannot. Perhaps it starts in childhood with something as common as having imaginary friends. As an only child, I certainly had at least a couple of imaginary friends with whom I could devise some great mischief (aka known as “plots”). Without siblings to play and fight with, I had to entertain myself—and that can become boring real fast….unless I invent someone to play with who is real to me. Real on that deeper level that happens to coincide with the well of creativity developing in me as a child.

I hope this makes sense. I hope you’ve experienced “felt life” as a reader. Even more, if you’re a writer, I hope you have the gift of producing felt life in your work.

To be sure, I will revisit this topic again as I continue to unravel the mystery of “felt life.”

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.

When I think about the writing of fiction, I tend to think best in images. What I mean is that instead of just saying that a novel needs to have momentum from the first page to the last, I use the image of dominoes falling. I tell writers that on the very first page they need to knock down the first domino and make sure the following pages keep the rest of the dominoes falling.

Lately, another image about writing fiction has come to mind. I think it all started when I realized that I was seeing some very fine writers producing novels that really could not be faulted technically. The characters were okay, the first domino was successfully toppled, the plot was good… why was I rejecting this novel?

The image that came to mind was that of a large woods thick with trees in the middle, but with fewer trees on the outer edges. In short, it was a woods that began with a few trees and as you walked deeper into the woods, the thicker the trees got. I don’t know about you, but a woods thick with trees is a lot more interesting to me than one with a few scattered trees. The heart of the woods is really the best part of the woods.

So it occurred to me that although some of the novels I was reading were okay, perhaps even good, they were still skirting the edge of the woods. The writer was content with just being a good writer technically. And yet, to me, as a reader, I wanted more. I wanted the fullness of the story the writer was seeing but not fully communicating. And I knew the fullness of the story could only be found if the writer would venture deeper into the woods.

I hope that makes some sort of sense. I suppose I could also liken it to a swimming pool. The shallow end of the pool is fine, but to really swim, you need to get out in the deep water.

Years ago (many years ago), I had an enjoyable job driving a bookmobile for the county library. I loved that job. I did it for several years and could imagine doing it for the rest of my life. But then I got to thinking….do I really want to stay here, unchallenged, and not find the (hopefully!) deeper and more rewarding life God may have for me elsewhere?

In talking to a job interviewer, I explained my problem. He pointed me to Psalm 107:23-24 which says

Others went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.

He said that to see the works of the Lord, you had to go out to the deeper water. I followed his advice, took the job he offered me and the rest is history. A glorious history, really. God has led me into a remarkable ocean of discovery in my life. And hopefully, there are even greater depths ahead.

In fiction–as in real life–the wonders are in the deep places. Your novel will be best written as you take yourself into the deep end of the waters….or deeper into the woods of your story. That’s where the riches are to be found.

How to do this, you ask? One way is to let each succeeding draft take you there. Every draft of a novel should not only become better technically as you iron out the grammatical and copyediting mistakes, but it should also take you deeper into the woods. Deeper into the real story that you’ve only seen from afar before now. Perhaps one entire draft could be devoted to adding depth to the story….taking it deeper into the woods.

Another way is to make sure you believe your novel is really happening. It sounds strange, but when an author is writing a novel, he must, on a very real level, believe the story is happening. To the extent the story is real to you, so will it be to your readers. This brings up the Mary Gordon quote I often cite. Ms. Gordon says her characters are so real to her that when she gets to heaven she plans to look them up and ask them how things went for them after the novel ended. That can only come from a willingness on her part to believe in her characters and in the story they have to tell. To walk deeper into the woods with them.

I believe this relates to what Henry James called “felt life” in fiction. Does the reader feel the life of your story….or is he merely observing the actions of the characters you’ve created?

I’m sure writers who have mastered this aspect of fiction have their own ways of taking their story deeper. Try to find your ways. If nothing else, invest a full next draft of your story in finding ways to take it deeper into the woods. It will be well worth it…and perhaps the most important element of fiction writing you will master.