06 November 2018

Everybody Hurts

by Michael Bracken

There have been times in my life when all I wanted to do was turn off the lights and put R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on repeat play at a high volume.

So, I did.

Carolyn and John M. Floyd with Michael Bracken
at A Bridge to Publication, Lake Charles, LA.
The emotional impact of the song—and, to a lesser but similar extent, Adele’s “Someone Like You” and SinĂ©ad O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U”—resonates with me in a way that other music does not. Perhaps this is because my life is defined more by what I’ve lost than by what I’ve gained.

But everybody hurts, in one way or another, and there’s nothing unique about my pain.

Except.

Except, as a writer, that pain infuses my writing.

Whether my stories have ostensibly happy endings, or they clearly do not, a great many are stories of loss or the threat of loss. In “Chase Your Dreams” (AHMM, June 2016) Cody loses his lover; in “The Mourning Man” (AHMM, March/April 2018), Johnny loses his wife; in “Going-Away Money” (AHMM, November/December 2018), Sean loses his innocence; and in “Smoked” (Noir at the Salad Bar, 2017), Beau fears losing everything.

If I’ve done my job properly, readers feel the loss or the threat of loss.

And I want them to.

I admire writers who have the ability to embed esoteric clues into deftly plotted stories, but I often feel nothing when I finish reading their stories.

And I want to feel something.

IF YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE ALONE

When I write my stories—the stories I write first and foremost for me, rather than for a particular market or by invitation—I follow the old dictum, attributed in various forms to a great many writers, to sit in front of a keyboard and open a vein.

But, as clever as it is to say such a thing, the reality of it is much different. Most of us only scratch the surface with our writing, not bleeding any more than can be staunched with a metaphorical Band-Aid.

We imagine what others will think of us if we let loose all the pain that courses through our veins. So, we let out a drip here and a drip there, never enough to make us woozy from blood loss.

And our stories suffer because we hold back.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

While all of us hurt in one way or another, not all of us define our lives by what we’ve lost. Our pain is only temporary. We see the light at the end of the tunnel and know it is not a train barreling down upon us.

So, make readers feel that, as well.

When your characters overcome adversity, survive a harrowing experience, or meet the love of their life, it isn’t sufficient for your story to have a happy ending if your reader doesn’t feel the joy.

I wish there were a magic formula I could share, one that would allow you to write an emotion-filled story each time you sit at the keyboard. If there were, I would share it. But I’ve found no magic plot, no specific scenes, and no particular combination of words that infuse a story with emotion. What I have found is that the writers who most infuse their stories with emotion are those who are not afraid to reveal themselves through their writing.

So, sit at the keyboard and open a vein. If you bleed sweat and tears, write sad stories. If you bleed rainbows and unicorns, write joyous stories.

Just don’t be afraid.

You are not alone.



“Going-Away Money” appears in the November/December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Also in the issue are stories by fellow SleuthSayers R. T. Lawton and Robert Lopresti. Pulp Modern Vol. 2 No. 3, in which my story “Good Girls Don’t” appears, has been available for Kindle for a few months now. The print edition has just been released.

10 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Well that worked. The article made me shiver, Michael, really.

It brought Roy Orbison songs to mind, Crying and Love Hurts, for example. I seldom like covers as well as the originals, but Don McLean and Nazareth dug deeply for their versions.

My entry in an MWA anthology, a reviewer said, was more a love story than a crime story. Definitely a narrative about about loss, perhaps the most one can lose.

A poignant article, Michael. Everybody hurts.

Leigh Lundin said...

Michael, RT, and Rob… Publication congratulations! Well done.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Yes. You are right - "And I want to feel something." To elicit emotion in the reader. Not easy to do. I've used this quote from Robert Frost before: "“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Adele’s “Someone Like You” is such a powerful song. So is Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" and many others. Loss. Life is about loss.

Reading your post reminds me how far behind I am in my reading. I look at the stack of AHMM and EQMM on my nightstand.

Recently, an editor contacted me about one of my stories coming out soon. There was an historical error and we corrected it. The editor added, "such a sad story." All right. That one worked.

Keep plugging away, Michael. One of these days we will write the perfect story.

Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Michael.

I think it was playwright Marsha Norman who said we should write about something that happened to us early in our lives that was unfair and awful and we haven't gotten over it yet. Work based on good news has nowhere to go.

It's another side of making our villains smart and cruel. If they aren't a challenge, the good guy doesn't have to be a hero.

"It don't mean nothing if nobody cries later."

R.T. Lawton said...

Michael, thanks for the shout out on the AHMM story.

Humor is what gets me through the day. I've seen enough of the dark side of life to not want to write about it. If I can write an uplifting story, I will. If I can write a humorous story, I will. Of course, the uplift or the humor may be preceded by a tragedy for emotional contrast, but that is generally as far as I let myself go into the abyss.

Nice article, and yes, music can set or enhance a mood. Different songs for different folk.

Eve Fisher said...

I remember writing a lot, in my youth, to Meatloaf's "Bat Out of Hell" album. At the time, it worked.
I'm with you, R.T. - I've seen enough of the darkness that I want to provide a way out, if possible. And no, it's not always possible. Sometimes everyone loses, and that's noir, and I can enjoy that too. (More Dashiell Hammett, though, than Cormac McCarthy, who seems to want to make his readers suicidal.)

Barb Goffman said...

Good post, Michael. I once submitted a story to AHMM that I didn't think was a good fit, but I figured, it wouldn't hurt to try. As expected, Linda Landrigan rejected it, but she told me that not only had she enjoyed it, but it made her cry. One of my best rejections ever. (That story will be coming out next year, so maybe other people can cry too!)

Louise Tripcot said...

I don't know why I love a great plot and in fact a poor plot (or none at all) puts me off, one reason I prefer mysteries with romance elements instead of romance with mystery elements. But great characters and emotions stick. I suppose it's like building anything wonderful in that it starts with the bones to make a solid skeleton (the plot). Only then can the beauty emerge (characters, emotions).

Congratulations to all 3 amazing SleuthSayers.

Melodie Campbell said...

One of the things I teach in my class: Fiction is about Emotion. You've demonstrate that (show not tell!) with this post, Michael.

Michael Bracken said...

Thanks for all y'all's kind comments.