The Power of Feels in Writing

Published on Jan 29, 2019 by Alys Murray

Welcome to Fanfic to Published Fic, a new series where I take my experience as a fanfiction writer and help other authors make the transition from online storytelling to professional storytelling! This is the first installment of this new series, so let me know what you think!

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In fandom parlance, there is a common term known as "feels." If I were writing a fandom dictionary and needed to use it in a sentence, I'd probably say something like, "Oh, this Han and Leia fanfic where they have to share a bed gave me all the feels."

Feels are, usually, those fluttery, golden-edged giddy butterflies that collect in the top of the chest when one is enjoying a story...particularly a romance.

Romance novels can give us all the feels, a term used when the feels are particularly heightened. There's even a podcast called All The Feels, dedicated to (you guessed it!) romance-induced feels.

Now, I find this terminology useful. In most non-fandom conversation, we would use something like, "This story made me emotional." Or, "this story really got to me." But the term feels, vague as the word may sound on its own, actually taps into a very specific emotion, and it's one that I've found very useful in my own writing career.

In my own writing career, it's incredibly difficult for me to decide on writing projects. I have notebooks overflowing with ideas, but when it comes to actually decide upon a project to whole-heartedly pursue, I find it incredibly difficult. When an idea comes to me or when I think I've found my next Big Project, I agonize over it. Will this idea sell? Is it good to try and publish this particular story in this current market? Will anyone like it? Is the hook strong enough? On and on, my mind runs around in circles, questioning my idea.

And this questioning is good! Critical questions of a book idea are a good thing! But at some point, they become not an iron against which my ideas can be sharpened, but a barrier that keeps me from doing my work.

This is where the feels come in.

During what I call The Great Ghostbusters War of 2015, I remember a tweet floating around that really spoke to me. Even now, almost four years later, I can still recall them by heart, even if I haven't remembered the author's name. (Side note: If you know who said this, please pass the name along so I can credit them!)

Basically, the tweet said, "You don't want another Ghostbusters. You want another thing that makes you feel like Ghostbusters made you feel." 

That sentiment spoke to me and stuck with me. And now that I'm trying this "being an author" thing out, I have tried my best to take that quote and apply it to my writing life.

Now, when I open my notebook to a blank page, ready to start a new story, I start with two questions before anything else: How do I want to feel when I read this book? How do I want my feels to be engaged?

Usually, the answer to this takes the form of an "I want" statement. I want this book to make me feel like 12-year-old me felt while reading Twilight. I want this book to make me feel the way I feel when I watch The Princess Diaries. I want this book to make me feel the way I feel whenever the opening of Ten Minutes Ago from Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella plays. 

This is not to say that I want to copy those stories. I don't want to write the next story about a normal girl falling in love with a vampire or about a prince who falls in love with first sight with a beautiful stranger. Remember, the Ghostbusters quote doesn't encourage copying or sloppy seconds, but instead advocates for a renewal of Feels, for things that give us glimpses of the depths of our very souls. That's why I love this system. Instead of asking myself, "what work do I want to be like?" I instead ask, "What work do I want this new book to feel like? How can I capture that feel in my work?"

Example: my last completed manuscript was a novel called Public Image, which tells the story of a comic book nerd hired by a Shakespearian actor to teach him how to play a superhero in his upcoming movie. This premise didn't come out of a feels statement about Marvel or As You Like it but from Hairspray. In my first brainstorming session, I wrote, "I want to write a book that makes me (and other people like me) feel the way I felt when I left Hairspray for the first time: like I could be my unapologetic self, follow my heart, love what I love, land the guy and change the world for the better, even though society at large tells me fat girls can't do any of that."

From that one Feels impulse, I wrote an 80,000+ word novel...and one I'm pretty damn proud of, too.

Above all, the reason I think this technique works (and the reason it's helped me produce some of the work I'm most proud of) is because it continually reminds me of what is important when writing a romance novel. We go to romance novels for their emotional center. For the way they make us feel.

We love romance because of The Feels.

And when my novel originates from this place of The Feels, I can write confidently, knowing that Feels will drive the story with every letter. And, hopefully, the feels that take over me when I'm writing will flow through to the reader, too.

But enough about me! How do you get your big book ideas? How do you make sure you keep the emotional core of your storytelling in place? How do you follow your feels?

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