Want to Write a Best-Seller? Mine Your Empathy

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The greatest of divides…is between those who regard the visible world as being of primary importance…and those who do not.

Dallas Willard

 

There are so many challenges to writing a story that works, let alone that can capture readers’ hearts and imaginations to get talked about and shared. And so few people who talk about writing never will for one simple reason: permission.
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First, you need full permission to share your story exactly as it happened. Even if it’s fiction, you’ve got to be able to go to the heart of what made this story grab you–the reality and heartache of it, the real pain and struggle it speaks about.

That’s job one. And in a way, knowing you have it because it’s the truth, and claiming that freedom to say it all is all that matters. Make that the heart of your motivation, because with it, you can overcome any other opposition—all the skill, ability, competition, understanding, logic, research, organization and all the logistical problems of writing a book are secondary.

Though as you know, there are so many things that need attention after that.

If you also need to ask permission from others, do it. If it means reconciling, forgiving, feeling your grief or anger and then releasing it and writing that part into the story, then that’s what you need to do. Don’t waste time setting things right.

FullSizeRender_1But whether you’re writing a true story or fiction, your first task after claiming and establishing your full permission to share is to think of the external story and the internal as distinct, but related stories. This is so basic, but it’s so neglected in the writing instruction and literature I’ve seen. There are always those two parallel stories and they need alternating attention, often within a paragraph or two. Otherwise readers get lost and forget what’s happening.

Readers can’t see the story as you can—and most writers can’t see that fact until it’s pointed out (= job security for me). Your job as writer is to show them. And you’ll develop this skill best by learning to get inside your reader’s head.

But how in the world do you do that?…

Simple. Give up what you know about the story, discard your knowledge and power as creator, and become ignorant, pitiful, and lost. Because that’s always how your reader feels when they start your story. When you think about it, it’s a wonder anyone reads books at all. Who wants to feel all that? And I’d argue it’s exactly for those feelings that people stop reading. So your job is to prevent that at all costs.

FullSizeRenderWhen you become like your reader, you will know exactly what it feels like to know nothing about your story, and you’ll know exactly what’s needed to resolve those problems.

Empathy—that’s why it’s the key element necessary for becoming a great author. Humility allows you to enter the reader’s experience and make that your strategic priority over teaching or telling them something. You feel their need and you know you need to engage their hearts, reach into their darkness, and reveal the exciting surprise of your story.

Why haven’t you read this in writing books or heard it talked about in courses? Why don’t published authors speak of it more? They obviously know developing this empathy is essential. It’s more than feeling sorry for the reader—it’s getting inside them and feeling and seeing what they do. It’s knowing and feeling what they feel inside, and acting on it in your own external world. See how that works? When you allow your external to be impacted by another’s internal, you’re entering the space of the author’s essential empathy.

FullSizeRender_3That’s your sixth sense that’s developing, and that’s what tells you when to cut, when something needs revealing, deepening. Can the reader feel it or see it yet? If so, congratulations! You’re done. Stop. If not, keep defining and refining to the point. And always remember the internal and external stories must be shown to happen concurrently and influence each other in many ways.

Your main character is the representative of the reader’s experience, which means he or she must respond to external action either similarly or exactly like the reader would. Sometimes, it’s best for the main character to respond better than the reader would, to demonstrate the best self the reader aspires to be—to inspire positive change through wish-fulfillment (“I wish I could be so confident/decisive, etc.”). This will seem obvious to the authors who’ve been writing a while, but many haven’t yet thought about this vital skill enough and they’re forgetting the one key they need to unlock the reader’s understanding and delight in their stories.

I’ve talked about this essential empathy a lot because it’s so important. But it’s important because there’s an internal story that the external is both creating and threatening. Don’t miss that. It’s everything. Too many writers think they can just write “what happened” and expect that to hold readers’ interest. And they’ve missed that there’s an internal world writers must strive to make come to life, to make real.

We have to first feel what readers want conveyed. What emotion is natural to the action, and how will it come across? Consider the sensory experience—the sights, sounds, smells, the words that will bring the right emotion and context.

Think about deepening engagement by evoking feeling with your words. And remember, you create the drama from what you write and what you don’t. Often, the magic comes in the editing where you think about all you don’t need and how much stronger the experience becomes when you eliminate what’s not working or pulling its weight (= more job security for me).

Powerful writing comes with powerful editing. When you edit, think of the internal story, showing the experience of that—the main characters’ thoughts and feelings—and eliminate the words that aren’t necessary to that. It will absolutely increase the sense of drama.

There are many specifics I’d love to share here, but we’ll continue discussing over the coming weeks. For now, think about your favorite books and whether part of the reason was feeling strangely cared for or helped along by the author’s essential empathy for you…

Have you felt that? If you have, share this post with someone and let’s discuss….

For the Higher Purpose,

Mick

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4 thoughts on “Want to Write a Best-Seller? Mine Your Empathy”

    1. Thanks, Heidi! So grateful God brought us together–let’s keep pushing to help readers together….that’s a good word, isn’t it? Together! -M

  1. First, you seriously are a story crafting Jedi. How in the world do you know all this? Is it a sickness? ;)

    Secondly, instead of feeling a bit nervous of going to back to my story, I’m eager to develop my empathy because I’m super confident of the heart of my story (3 years later). While I have much growth ahead of me still as a writer, I’m already taking this element deeper than I ever have in anything I’ve written and I can feel the richness of emotion in a wonderful way. Perhaps I have the force also. Ha!

    1. Jedi to Jedi, I love seeing you grow and change, my cheerleader sister! The thought that immediately comes to mind this morning is–sit at the master’s feet and listen. Jedis are lifelong students of their master. That’s what we get to be if we’re willing to keep showing up and doing the work. And you are proving you’re one of the rare few who will go the distance. Keep following your heart–the master is in there! -M

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