How Johanna Turned Me Into a Writer

1 shot from 80 yards! YT

Love is where writing began for me.

I couldn’t hack it when I started writing fiction. I would drudge up a few tedious pages, look them over and feel hollow and exhausted.

I wondered how anyone could muster up enough self-discipline to write fiction.

Yet earlier in college where everyone swam in hard work – and even before college where I seemed to be the only one studying all the stinking time – I deeply enjoyed the few fiction writing opportunities that came.

What had changed after college? I still felt deep down that I was a born writer.

Then one day in my first year of med school, with no plan or purpose, I found myself creating two people who were SCUBA diving off the backside of Molokai, Hawaii. They were ocean-going archaeologists. The viewpoint character was a young man, the other person was a Japanese girl, Johanna, who reminded me of my wife.

I saw Johanna for the first time in 39 feet of water uncovering part of a petrified skeleton, using only her hands. She must have been excited. The viewpoint guy did a double-take because her hands were moving as fast as a machine.

As a writer, something weird and amazing began happening for the first time: a character of mine was showing signs of life.

Intuitively, I knew a lot about Johanna at first glance because somehow she was just like my wife.

So I was literally in love with Johanna before we met.

As she and the viewpoint guy with her (Max) approached the dive boat, she swam up next to him and told him to cover his head.

Then, before he knew it, he was flying through the air and landing on deck.

Johanna, who was suddenly with him in the boat, began stammering through apologies, explaining that a shark had come too close and she’d overreacted and shoved him up into the boat with too much force.

“But how?” Max (and I) wondered.

Maxwell couldn’t stop questioning her and asking about her impossibly fast hands.

Finally she told him an ancient family secret of the Fujiwara clan: there was a recessive trait that had remained dormant for centuries and had never been expressed in a female. Johanna had inherited it with this unprecedented phenotypic penetrance.

It was easy to tell that, in her way of thinking, it was shameful and embarrassing for a girl to be as strong and quick as she was. To her it was boyish and therefore a repulsive quality in a girl. She swore Max to secrecy.

And I fell in love. (With my wife, OK? She and Johanna were the same person at heart.)

From that day to this, writing fiction has been fun and meaningful. At times it feels almost like an addiction. It never seems like work – but I’m not a professional writer yet, so how could it?

One thing: it’s not just an addiction. Writing fiction feels like a higher purpose – sort of a “calling.”

And when new ideas come, creating a place for them in the latest rewrite of Johanna’s story is a powerful force of joy.

Decades after meeting her, I’m still writing about Johanna. The stories change. She’s grown younger as I’ve grown older. She still rivets me to this keyboard.

If I ever get paid for writing about her, it won’t seem right. I’ve always had to work at an isolating and difficult job for money (update: I was a pathologist, but recently quit). It will seem weird if I ever get paid for writing about Johanna.

Not that I think money is a negative thing. I don’t at all.

“May the Lord smite me with it. And may I never recover!”  (-Fiddler on the Roof)

But since meeting Johanna, the writing process itself is the only payoff I really need. I’m pretty sure that I need to write fiction in order to be happy.

The hope of finding readers comes and goes. It’s not essential that I find them, but the process of trying can be great fun! All the blogging and exchanging comments with brilliant, fascinating people – it’s a blast! I wish we were all face-to-face friends.

Someday, huh?

But the practical point I want to make about Johanna is the milieu in which I met her: an unstructured environment where the main character was free to act intelligently, free to become, free to decide, and free to experience the natural consequences of her own choices.

The best-selling stories that I admire most are written at the other extreme – around organized plots with detailed planning and outlines.

For me, plotting is the hardest part of fiction writing, and the most neglected. I’m told that it’s neglected even in University creative writing classes, probably because it requires huge mental effort and has a cause-and-effect association with capitalism: book sales.

I think most any average reader (like me) recognizes the value of plot.

I want readers, so I work at my plots.

Outlines seem to help, although Johanna won’t stick to any of mine for long.

Yes, I know that’s nuts. Talk to her about it. 😉

I’m working to nudge Johanna’s life in the direction of a designed, semi-predetermined plot, so she winds up in a “meaningful page-turner” with an active storyline, a few round characters and a dimension that might cause a reader to take a new look at some of our culture’s lamest assumptions.

As a writer, I welcome a compelling plot as long as it bends and steps aside for characterization and new ideas that arrive.

But the reality is – and this is the point of telling you all this – I never would have become a fiction writer if I hadn’t met Johanna in a place that was free of plot and determinism.

My life would never have been enriched by my kind-hearted, strong-willed, genius girl, Johanna, if I’d started as a puppeteer rather than a humble creator with respect and growing love for a “real” person with free will.

Love is where writing began for me.

M. Talmage Moorehead

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By the way, regarding the picture up top with the arrow inside the squarish bull’s-eye…

With God as my witness, I hit that shot on my first try from 80 yards with my new bow. I’m a novice with bows and arrows. I don’t have a fancy scope like the pros use. I wouldn’t know how to use it if I did. The basic scope that I had wasn’t sighted in at 80 yards. I’m quite sure that I could never hit that shot again in a hundred years – speaking from logic and objectivity, not pessimism.

But the first time I tried it, I nailed it from eighty yards.

What does this mean, if anything?

I keep wondering if there was more than coincidence at work. “But what?” someone might ask. “There’s nothing besides coincidence to explain it.”

Nevertheless, eighty yards is one heck of a long shot for a novice with a new bow without a target-shooting type scope. At the archery range where this happened, only two 80-yard shots are available.

A person only shoots his or her first 80-yard shot at a given target once in a lifetime.

Incidentally, I would not recommend using such an unlikely plot point in a story. It might not be normal enough for fiction. But in real life, stranger-than-fiction things happen…

For instance, Einstein’s time dilation is real and measurable. And the notion that most of the stuff of the Universe is either “dark matter” or “dark energy” is real to the right batch of scientists.

Anyway, this bull’s-eye shot seems as likely as a brand-new writer meeting someone as amazing as Johanna Fujiwara.

When these sorts of things happen, do you think maybe God is trying to tell someone something? Sorry, I didn’t mean to get religious on you. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian anymore, but I’ll always respect those who are.

This is Really Boring. Don’t read it.

Do you feel sick every morning? Not to worry.

Aside from the brutish and manly fulfillment that fiction writing brings me, especially the current version of my novel with a nineteen-year-old girl as viewpoint protagonist, there are several things that help me get top-notch hack writing done.

Insomniacs take note…

1. My most thrilling and important writing prep is – wait for it – getting an excellent week’s sleep. One night won’t cut it – except that it be preceded by six.

A good night’s sleep is 8.5 to 9.5 hours without a dozen wake-up calls from 7-30-09 Mt Bachelor and Museum 019the neighborhood deer barking at dogs.

Most of my life I’ve been sleep-deprived and too stupid to know.

Before deserting the workforce to cruse half-time and have a life, I went to bed at 11:15 to 11:30 PM and got up at 7:10 AM. That sounds like almost eight hours of sleep, but it’s not. Not to me, anyway.

I take a long time going to sleep, same as a lot of brutish creative types with chiseled features.

I remember how foggy my mind was in those days. It didn’t seem quite normal, but it did seem unavoidable.

It’s true that “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” Even the bad things like sleep deprivation.

Here’s what’s also gone now: feeling physically ill every morning. (Aching bones and muscles, the realization that it’s a hundred miles from my bed to my tooth brush, and the nagging question of what day it actually is.)

I thought anything resembling 7.5 to 8 hours was adequate sleep. People “get by” on five or six all the time. It’s easy to get sucked into the madness.

The truth is, our culture promotes sleep deprivation as a healthy norm. And different people have different sleep requirements, a fact that raises confusion.

Nowadays, with 8.5 to 9.5 hours of actual sleep, it feels as if something is going horribly right in my life.

Furthermore, in fulfillment of Koch’s postulates, if I get only 7 hours, I wake up half dead. Just like old times!

Like most brilliant writers, you have trouble falling asleep.

Huh? Yeah, you do.

To exterminate insomnia, I use biofeedback. Before you roll your eyes, consider my newest feedback image and the fact that you don’t need any machines or gadgets to do this:

I picture bees landing on my hands, a few at a time, until they’re so crowded the bees look like mittens. I try to “feel” their feet touching my skin, hear their wings and picture their yellow-and-black bellies. The rule is, they’ll sting me if my mind wanders off to ruminate with the cows.

This type of “finger warming” biofeedback was discovered decades ago as a treatment of migraine headaches. I use it for that, too, along with Excedrin and Advil. Want more details? Comment and ask. I’d love to help somebody with something someday.

Back to writing…

Comparing my ancient sleep-deprived fiction to the glorious radiance of my recent hack-work, it’s clear that sleep makes a difference… even if, like me, you’ve been given but modest talent and no commenting readers whatsoever. Sniff, sob.

2. As I’ve said too often, I re-read a few pages of a best seller before I start writing. Then I read a few passages from “Great Dialogue” (the software program: It seems to have resurrected my dialogue from the dead, but who can be objective about their own writing? Not me.

3. I need caffeine before I write. Usually a mug of black tea does it, but I’m thinking about getting hooked on coffee again, in light of its documented health benefits. Who knew? Here’s a link:

If you can’t get access to that article, leave a comment and I’ll email you my password and username.

4. This was a brilliantly scary trick…

I put my novel-in-progress out there in public at OK, I took it down after a relentless lack of public interest, but still.

While it was out there I focused with new intensity. You might try it if you already have a few people reading your blog.

5. Ideas sometimes drive my writing. I find ideas in the New Scientist magazine, which I don’t read cover-to-cover. I don’t even read all the issues, but at least I feel guilty and wasteful. That means something where I come from.

The New Scientist link:

6. Like you, when I start writing in the morning, I back up and read the previous few pages. It’s a mixed blessing…

The good: It gets me submerged instantly.

The bad: It usually becomes an end in itself, eating up days with re-writing and editing. This is poison. Anything that keeps me from finishing the first draft will eventually kill my dream of becoming a best-selling author.

7. I collect “clever ideas” to insert into stories: Everything from dialogue that comes after running a light, “Honest, officer…,” to personal theories about time dilation and all that crazy, enigmatic photon behavior that few people care about these days.

When my novel doesn’t feel novel enough, those ideas come out and help me.

8. To appropriately ignore spelling errors, poor phrasing and the bottomless technical pit of wordsmithing during first drafts, I’ve tried several tricks:

Typing with my eyes closed,

Typing with the monitor off,

Typing with the spell-checker and grammar-checker off,

Using Dragon Naturally Speaking.

So far, closing my eyes works best. But I’ll try anything to keep my first draft growing without word-level distractions. Writing blind keeps me from re-reading every sentence self-consciously.

If you haven’t tried writing without seeing what you’ve written, you might want to do so and see if it doesn’t boost your productivity.

If you’ve got a better method than those I’ve listed, please, PLEASE, let me know. Thanks.

See, I told you this would be boring. I bet you’re glad you didn’t read it.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Writing Like a Dog


Your conscious mind is a point in space moving through your brain like a red blood cell moving through a Labrador retriever as she runs.

Your subconscious mind is the dog herself – the whole animal except for that one red blood cell. At any point in time, nearly your entire brain functions subconsciously where you can’t sense it.

This puts most of your writing talent in the background, unseen and unexplored.

The subconscious mind is not exactly “you,” but it’s pretty close. It’s probably more like the person you would be if you were a Labrador retriever.

It’s a useful metaphor: You carry a Labrador retriever around in your head.

She’s the keeper and processor of all your feelings, your memories and your talents. You might think she’d be as sharp as a tack, but compared to your conscious mind (the actual “you”), she lives in a bit of a fog.

For instance, she’s not clever at differentiating real things from pretend things. Dreams and TV can sometimes be almost as real to her as ordinary life. If you show her mainly upbeat things, she stays happy.

She doesn’t always know if you’re joking when you poke fun at “yourself.” She’s apt to take you seriously when you turn away compliments by saying that you don’t deserve them.

Like any dog, she needs a leader, even though she may want only followers. If you fail to lead, she becomes neurotic. If someone attacks you verbally and you don’t defend yourself, she feels abandoned and defenseless.

Some things must be said to her many times before she understands, while other things need be said only once. If you want to tell her that she did a great job, you’ll have to say it several times slowly or she’ll be too distracted to listen. If it’s not a crisis, she’s not focused.

The passage of time isn’t linear for her. Work can feel like torture or fun, depending on what it is. If you give her the job she was born to do, she will work until she keels over and your arm falls off from throwing the ball. She won’t know where all the time went or why you want to stop playing so soon.

All these points are probably relevant to writers, but it’s the last one that new writers would do well to grasp and believe.

The key when you start your journey of writing fiction is to figure out what you were born to write. When you find the things that your subconscious mind loves to create, the work of writing disappears and is replaced by one of the best experiences of your life.

Here’s a way to discover what your subconscious Labrador retriever wants to write about:

1. Read the first ten pages of several dozen popular books from various genres. Pick out your favorite two.

2. Turn your monitor off and write the first six to ten pages of a dozen stories that are similar to those two books in terms of mood and characters, or whatever made you choose them.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you feel a sudden compelling love (or other strong emotion) for one of your characters.

4. Begin a novel immediately with that character in it.

After you’ve found the character who turns writing into fun for you, it’s probably best if you don’t write any more practice stories. It’s better to work on your ultimate goal from the start. Otherwise writing can feel like school in the sense that you’re preparing for “someday” when you’re “good enough” to face the real world.

You’ll become “good enough” a lot faster if you’re working on the real thing. If you work on it in the “real world” of a blog, where people are watching, it will probably help you improve even faster.

In some genres, short stories are part of the real world. If that’s the case for you, it might be wise to crank out a dozen short stories and submit them before you start your novel. But when they are all rejected, don’t feel bad, it’s the norm. It has nothing to do with how much talent you have or how successful you can be. It merely reflects the story to publisher ratios.

As long as you’re working with a character who moves you deeply, on a story that you plan to submit, you’re working in the real world on an achievable goal. Hang tough and never give up.

In my opinion, the real world is a place where good things happen to the few who love their work.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Writing Cite

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I used to have another website at where I posted excerpts from successful writers. The site was a tool for learning the magic side of story telling, the part that can’t be communicated in how-to books.

Years ago I read a book that said you should transcribe famous authors’ stories word for word so you can learn their subtle techniques. In getting that other website up, I did some transcribing and found it more instructive than I expected. I think it really helped me.

Anyway, I didn’t have enough time to keep posting over there, but the lesson I learned from typing pages of successful author’s work was worth the trouble. The things I absorbed can’t be put into words, but I think you should consider trying it.

If you have time.

M. Talmage Moorehead

The Predator’s Laughing at You, Kid

I’m quoting an Egyptologist as he tells us how stupid we would be to disagree with him:

“I laughed the first time I read that idea somewhere in a more speculative forum.”













No matter the topic, the tone of this quote embodies the most convincing argument against any idea, especially an idea that can’t be refuted with hard data, logic or reason.

The haughty, condescending put-down laugh IS The Predator.

Unless we inoculate ourselves, we become trophies of the “informed” elites in any field, the wielders of the laugh.

History is heavy with experts laughing down innovators and thinkers. But some underdogs prevail.

Pathologists look at tissue sections under a microscope to see if a patient has cancer. The malignant cells invade tissue. The slide is a “snapshot” of the action: killers and victim fighting and dying with their hands on each other’s throats.

Once upon a time in real life, a non-pathologist outsider had the gall to scrape cells off the cervix in search of cancer. He said he could look at the killer cells and identify them without seeing their victims. (Cytology.)

“Absurd,” the pathologists said. Smearing loose cells on a glass slide? They laughed the outsider to scorn and said:

“He isn’t even a pathologist.” Snort!

If you can get this kind of laugh on paper, it will improve your story.

The outsider was the great Georgios Papanikolaou. His absurd idea (the Pap smear) has already saved the lives of over six million women.

Although his findings were published in 1928, many pathologists hate and despise cytology to this day. (I’m a pathologist and I’ve heard the disdain.) That’s the power of “the laugh.” The predator’s laugh.

It’s the most effective argument against anything, at least in the short-term.

Truth prevails eventually, though. It may take centuries.

Your story’s character might be too smooth to say, “It’s amusing how intellectually beneath me you are,” but you can let his laugh says it all for him.

Using the put-down laugh against your hero makes her enemies seem to be people from a culture where “experts” have incubated traditional ideas for generations.

If your hero suffers public humiliation at the experts’ laugh, she becomes sympathetic, closer to the reader’s heart. Her refusal to cave in to authority shows moral courage.

See if this illustrates the laugh at all:

Joey finds a way to beat the stock market. He needs seed money.

He goes to grandpa who’s made his fortune as an entrepreneur, pulling all-nighters, paying employees instead of himself, bankrupt twice, lost his house, but finally made it in business.

Joey makes his plea for money to Grampa, who says…

“That’s nuts, Joey.” He looks at his wife and smirks. “If…” He suppresses a laugh. “If you could make money on your ass.” He looks at Joey “What pressing buttons?” He chuckles. “Everybody would be doing it, Joey. Hell, why work?” He looks at his wife. “I’ve been a fool all these years!” He raises his hands and shrugs.

Joey’s lips won’t move for him anymore. He presses them together.

Grandma sees his face and stops laughing. “Joey, honey,” she says…

If your hero is part of an elite group, then “the laugh” can be directed at the bad guys. This helps convince the reader that the good guys believe they are true experts.

The arrogant put-down laugh has another relevance to writers…

I knew a gifted writer who was convinced that writing popular fiction would make him a prostitute.

He became a lawyer and hated his life.

No logical argument can be made against paying a writer for her work.

Those who feel a need to keep gifted writers away from money resort to name-calling (whore) and chuckling warmly downward from moral and intellectual high ground. Supposedly. But they make me sick.

Imagine an NBA basketball coach telling his star, “You’re better than this. You shouldn’t be on TV making money. You have the soul of a great basketball player. Don’t be a whore in the NBA. Go back to college ball.”

Do you see a fundamental moral difference between fiction writing talent and other rare talents?

I don’t.

Write for love, but get paid, too. If you possibly can.

M. Talmage Moorehead

Note: That picture up top is a statue of The Predator. I did some effects to try to make it look infrared. Remember how the Predator laughed at Arnold at the end of the first movie? The alien hunter lay there half dead, ready to blow himself up and take Arnold with him. That was a nice put-down laugh.

Viewpoint Character as Author

Should it be the author or the character who tells the story? How should that story-teller sound in print? The answers make a walloping difference.

7-30-09 Mt Bachelor and Museum 007


I’ve read conflicting views. Rarely is the subject discussed directly and insightfully.

That’s not going to happen here, either.

In The Hunger Games, there’s a convincing answer demonstrated by Suzanne Collins, the best-selling author…

Katniss says (as she writes to the reader), “I peel off my mother’s blue dress and take a hot shower. I’ve never had a shower before. It’s like being in a summer rain, only warmer.”

Collins’ “voice” isn’t getting in Katniss’ way. Collins isn’t trying to achieve a voice for the sake of literary self-aggrandizement.

In terms of voice, Collins and Katniss are identical. In Collins’ next novel series, expect to hear a different “writing voice,” one that matches a new viewpoint character perfectly. Expect comments from the critics to emphasize the change in Collins’ writing voice. They won’t like the change, that’s a given.

They’re paid to criticise, for the love of sanity! What planet?!

When Collins tells the reader that Katniss is taking off her dress, she uses the verbs, the vocabulary and the style that anyone would expect from Katniss, a girl who talks clearly and simply, never puts on airs, hunts dangerous game, and probably wouldn’t get comments from her District 12 English teacher saying, “clever twist of phrase,” or “wonderful use of simile, Katniss!”

But if a hack were trying to get an A on a story assignment in a creative writing class, do you think I’d write, “I peel off my mother’s blue dress…”?

No, laddie, I would not.

I’d be looking for something like, “I throw off my mother’s cyan plumage…”

Gag me with a blunt instrument!

And in writing this way I’d be making a horrible mistake that might draw a good grade: I would be telling the story myself rather than letting Katniss tell her own story.

I would be placing a barrier between Katniss and the reader, creating a translator:  A man in a suit standing in front of her, paper in hand, translating her gruff, honest, simple words and raw emotions into the “elevated” verbiage of literary sophistication.

OK, I’d be trying desperately and not succeeding, but still.

This would ruin the consistency of Katniss as a character and make her less real.

The reader, in the back of her mind, would be asking, “Who the devil is telling this story? Isn’t Katness a teenager in poverty? Where did she learn big words?”

The rawness, honesty and directness of Katness’ emotions, the thrilling feeling that “she’s talking right to me,” the respect we have for Katniss and others who don’t put on airs… all of this would be lost.

Why would an author want to lose all this gold?

Answer:  Because she hopes that some supercilious critic will say of her, “What a powerful and distinctive voice!”

This is toxic motivation that yields self-consciousness, collapsing the wave function of your magic spell as a writer.

When you write in first person it all becomes clear. But when you don’t, it’s murky and critics may not understand. Especially if you have multiple viewpoint characters.

I know from painful experience…

In earlier drafts of my story, I changed viewpoint (vp) characters from one chapter to the next. One vp was a doctor, another a genius (Johanna), another had autism, another was an evil person of high intelligence, utterly mad.

I dared to let each vp character “write” his or her own part of the story in third person. Johanna, my genius vp used bigger words and longer sentences. She carried the mood of a brilliant scientist. The doctor – a pathologist – when he was vp, used comparisons to gross things with technical words, and carried an angry mood of discontent. The autistic boy as vp wrote with small words in short, often incomplete sentences that didn’t make adult sense (cause and effect were backwards sometimes). He carried the mood of an innocent child who was hopeful and trusting but bewildered. The villain as vp, carried a dark, depressed, angry, remorseful mood, and used aggressive verbiage with a vocab that reflected her ancient roots and the influence of her first language, now extinct.

Trouble was, I emailed a small piece of the story to a well-read friend. The small piece had the young autistic boy as vp. My friend read the thing and thought I couldn’t write. He probably thought that I needed to learn basic sentence structure, the meaning of word economy (tight prose), and a few zillion vocabulary words.

Although he’d read ten times as much fiction as I had, he didn’t understand what I was doing. I tried to explain that I’d attempted to write in the style and voice of each viewpoint character whomever it might be in the current chapter. He said, “Boy, you’re really getting into this, aren’t you?”

Yes, I am. It’s the thing I would do with my life – if only I could. (Update: now I’m doing it. Wheee!)

The rules and expectations of readers change from decade to decade. “Gone With The Wind” was a page-turner that raised eyebrows in its day. It was so “evil” to the missionary parents of one lady I knew that they disowned her after she read it. Now it’s literature. Try to convince a teenager to read it. Heck, try to convince me to read it. A few pages in and I’m done. (I’m not a gifted reader.)

Writing fiction is infinitely more art than science, so the rules change on cultural whims. To fight this reality is to tilt at windmills.

So I’m going with Collins and Katniss on this one:

I’m letting the viewpoint character tell her own story. As her writer, I’ll step aside. (Update: her story is in progress and starts here.)

If eleven quadrillion people should suddenly read my story and agree that it’s not literature, I will have accomplished everything I set out to do… to write a meaningful page-turner that my grandkids will open and finish without a bribe.

If fifty years later my story has reached trillions more, including the alien species in formaldehyde at Norton Air Force Base, then perhaps the critics will decide that my story was literature all along. Whoo hoo! Look, Mom!

But their decision will mark the end of my story’s popularity, putting it out to pasture as required reading for literature classes and those really smart kids who are always their own generation’s gifted readers.

M. Talmage Moorehead

(not “Talmage Eastland” anymore)

By the way, “Talmage Eastland” was my pen name for awhile, or – since I’ve never had any fiction published, it was my “fake name.” I used it because bad credit card charges made me suspect identity theft. I wasn’t paranoid. It’s just that I didn’t want the CIA to come and steal the UFO’s from my basement again. (Just kidding. 😉 They never found them.)

Valuable Procrastination

When I sit down to write, I have a tendency to do all the things you do, check my email first, look at my blog stats, answer the rare comments (edit note: actually I later learned that they were all spam, I still haven’t had one single comment), use the free “One Click Cleaner App” for Chrome, fiddle with things to get my computer to exit turtle mode…

Sorry for the boring detail, but…

Two bits of procrastination are essential to me:

1. I read a few pages of a best seller very slowly, breathing in the emotion.

2. I read excerpts of great dialogue from the “Great Dialogue” program.

Aside from a good night’s sleep, these two habits improve my writing more than anything.

This morning I was floored when Katness first met Peeta as a child (in Collin’s Hunger Games). I dropped everything to write this for you.

I had to type the excerpt. (You can’t cut and paste from Cloud Reader.) So please read what Collins is saying here, don’t skim it. Skim my stuff, not hers.

I’m going to bold the places where I see character emotion. See what I’ve overlooked…

From The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins:

“But the money ran out and we were slowly starving to death. There’s no other way to put it. I kept telling myself if I could only hold out until May, just May 8th, I would turn twelve and be able to sign up for the tesserae and get that precious grain and oil to feed us. Only there were still several weeks to go. We could well be dead by then.

“Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Staggering through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one.

“On the afternoon of my encounter with Peeta Mellark, the rain was falling in relentless icy sheets. I had been in town, trying to trade some threadbare old baby clothes of Prim’s in the public market, but there were no takers. Although I had been to the Hob on several occasions with my father, I was too frightened to venture into that rough, gritty place alone. The rain had soaked through my father’s hunting jacket, leaving me chilled to the bone. For three days, we’d had nothing but boiled water with some old dried mint leaves I’d found in the back of a cupboard. By the time the market closed, I was shaking so hard I dropped my bundle of baby clothes in a mud puddle. I didn’t pick it up for fear I should keel over and be unable to regain my feet. Besides no one wanted those clothes.

I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips. I couldn’t walk into that room with the smoky fire from the damp branches I had scavenged at the edge of the woods after the coal had run out, my hands empty of any hope.

I found myself stumbling along a muddy lane behind the shops that serve the wealthiest townspeople. The merchants live above their businesses, so I was essentially in their backyards. I remember the outlines of garden beds not yet planted for the spring, a goat or two in a pen, one sodden dog tied to a post, hunched defeated in the muck.

“All forms of stealing are forbidden in District 12. Punishable by death. But it crossed my mind that there might be something in the trash bins, and those were fair game. Perhaps a bone at the butcher’s or rotted vegetables at the grocer’s, something no one but my family was desperate enough to eat. Unfortunately, the bins had just been emptied.

“When I passed the baker’s, the smell of fresh bread was so overwhelming I felt dizzy. The ovens were in the back, and a golden glow spilled out the open kitchen door. I stood mesmerized by the heat and the luscious scent until the rain interfered, running its icy fingers down my back, forcing me back to life. I lifted the lid to the baker’s trash bin and found it spotlessly, heartlessly bare.

“Suddenly a voice was screaming at me and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the Peacekeepers and how sick she was of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash. The words were ugly and I had no defense. As I carefully replaced the lid and baked away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother’s back. I’d seen him at school. He was in my year, but I didn’t know his name. He stuck with the town kids, so how would I? His mother went back into the bakery, grumbling, but he must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig and leaned against the far side of an old apple tree. The realization that I’d have nothing to take home had finally sunk in. My knees buckled and I slid down the tree trunk to its roots. It was too much. I was too sick and weak and tired, oh, so tired. Let them call the Peacekeepers and take us to the community home, I thought. Or better yet, let me die right here in the rain.


In my story, Johanna is still exploring the inside of an ancient sub. I was reading my story from the top, trying to judge it as a reader. Objectively. It’s impossible, really.

I’d already re-written the first chapter to add emotion. This kind of thing…

To description, I added an emotional reason why she was looking at things. I’d given some objects internal emotional content. I’d tried to tell and show the reader how the scenery and settings make Johanna feel.

To dialogue, I added quantity, diversity and motivation to the emotions, not just brittle personality clashes that may drum up superficial tension without developing character or sounding genuine…

I mean, not too much of this:  “Oh, you would say that, you’re such a critic,” she said. “I’m a critic?” he shot back. “You should talk! You’d find a flaw in Noah’s rainbow.”

When I do too much of this, it seems falsely motivated, more lashing-out and histrionic than justified. It has the wrong echo because it’s hollow and thinly motivated. It becomes an end in itself and takes my eyes off the big picture… what is the nature of the main concern at this point, and how likely is it that two people whose lives are in danger would exchange flirtatious insults that they don’t really mean?

Instead, I wanted to bring in a broad spectrum: hope, pride, fear, love, affection, loyalty, thankfulness, anxiety, apprehension, dislike, loathing, disdain, anger, hatred, and the anaphylactic reaction I’ll get to in a sec.

But I had only done my emotion edit to the first chapter, not the rest.

Reading my first chapter got me involved. I felt an almost certain ray of hope for my writing.

Then Johanna and Max got into the ancient sub that I mentioned a few blogs back, and she was fascinated. So much so that fascination was the only emotion. After a few sentences I wasn’t feeling it with her. The dialogue went cerebral: explanations of technology. The story fell flat for several long and painful pages.

Finally Max felt claustrophobic. A new feeling for the scene! Johanna switched from fascination with technology to concern for her friend. I was interested again. She took charge and helped him cope with his feelings. The story was back! My career was not over! Why won’t anyone read this thing, it’s great!

So, yeah, today I re-learned something that I thought I’d learned before. I’d told you about it a few blogs back: Emotion drives all the stories that I enjoy reading.

And I’m not alone. Or am I? A few days ago…

I caught a conversation of J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, talking with Steve Kloves, the screenwriter.

Tucked into that generous, soul-searching exchange, Rowling said she is “allergic to sentimentalism.” Kloves agreed. Rowling’s body language was speaking of no small allergy, it was anaphylactic. She hated this horrible thing, sentimentalism, exactly the way I hate drowning in rivers now. (Details in a previous blog.)

I wish I knew what she meant by sentimentalism.

This hack writer hears Rowlings’ abhorrence of sentimentalism and says, “Gee, maybe I shouldn’t show my character’s feelings.”

My wife thinks Rowlings was talking about becoming too sentimentally attached to a character to let go (“killing off one of your babies”), when the plot demands it. Hopefully my wife is right, as usual.

I wish I could ask Suzanne Collins what Rowling’s meant.

But until then, I’m going to forget about trying to make myself “allergic to sentimentalism,” because I don’t know what it actually means.

I do know that if I fail to do a deliberate, conscious re-writing for the specific purpose of fleshing out and spelling out character emotions, my story reads like a textbook.

“My knees buckled and I slid down the tree trunk to its roots. It was too much. I was too sick and weak and tired, oh, so tired. Let them call the Peacekeepers and take us to the community home, I thought. Or better yet, let me die right here in the rain.” – from Collins, The Hunger Games.

M. Talmage Moorehead