Writing an emotional novel?

I’m forty thousand words into the next novel. The writing experience is completely different from last time. Some of that is deliberate. With Suspicion, I’m aiming for clearer plot, more characters, at least one important male viewpoint. I’m writing loosely in this initial draft. My sentences are passable but not gorgeous; there is little that I will feel unable to delete in the next version as I pare down to what the story is.

I’m also feeling emotions as I write, and that is entirely new.

The Storyteller is not an emotional book. It offers unusual perspectives, settings and characters. I brought to it a clarity of memory of some of my stranger experiences and an ability to write well-turned sentences. It creates and holds readers in a powerful atmosphere. I hope people will enjoy it for all of those reasons. But it does not deal in everyday emotions. It is at a remove from most people’s experience of life. It is, as one reader has said, ‘strange and compelling’. The character growth is towards normal experiences and emotions. It never quite gets there.

Suspicion is different. It deals in families rather than isolated singletons. There are ‘scenes’, of the ‘don’t make a…’ type. There is anger and jealousy and hatred and fear and desperate love. While writing some sections I have shaken with emotion. (It makes typing both frenetic and inaccurate.) I suspect that whatever else is cut out, this emotional intensity will remain. It’s a significant departure for me.

Literary greats run the gamut of emotional intensity. At one extreme is T S Eliot: intellectual, aesthetically obsessive but emotionally austere. At the other, I imagine, is the Dickens of Little Dorrit. I imagine, I don’t know: I’ve never enjoyed emotional literature.

When studying I avoided the melodrama of the nineteenth century. I skipped from Milton to Modernism. As a choral singer I was a byword for detestation of the sentimental. Bruckner, Stanford, even Brahms, reliably drew forth my derision. This amused my fellow undergraduates inordinately.

Yet here I now am writing my own novel which if the reading experience holds anything of the writing experience will reek of this dastardly emotion.


I mocked sentimentality in my twenties because I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was mystified by the emphasis people placed on emotions, by the things they claimed they led them to do. My wedding day and a few days early in relationships aside, feelings just did not well up in me. I lived in constant fear, but that was backdrop, and emotions live in a shifting foreground. I didn’t write emotion into The Storyteller because I didn’t have emotion to write.

But my brain has changed enormously through the breakdown and recovery of the last five years.

Now feelings wander around and through my body most days. Often that’s pretty inconvenient. I don’t want to be sad when I need to be at work. I don’t want to be envious. Joy, it seems, is tiring too. The shifts can be bewildering. They distract me from what I need to get done. The mechanical focus I used to have is gone. Welcome to the world, I hear you say.

Neurologically there are explanations. Different networks in my brain are firing and wiring in new ways. I suspect the balance between my right and left hemispheres of righting itself from its left-leaning past. fMRI scans could be done to check. If I could remember all I’ve recently read in textbooks I could work a lot of it out at the physical level.

But the neurons are less interesting than the daily experience:

Writing Suspicion is astonishing. I too have contradictory emotions. I too feel the right (or wrong) thing. How can I get this on the page?

What I’m now writing is on my edge. It has a freshness in my lived experience as well as in my ability to write that experience down. It is incredibly exciting. It may also generate a better book.

In the meantime, Bleak House, anyone?