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Tears, Idle Tears

There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.

Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.

It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.

But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.

I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.

Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.

So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.

And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto  the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.

The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.

Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.


17 replies
  1. Eleanor Musgrove
    Eleanor Musgrove says:

    I agree – you do have to be able to keep control. If not at first, then certainly when you go back over it. That’s why singers rehearse and writers edit!

    That said, I’m all for a little weeping once it’s over. I hate saying goodbye to characters!

  2. Isobel starling
    Isobel starling says:

    I do cry while I’m writing powerful scenes. I put my characters through some awful situations and I need the release of a few tears. I feel that if it evokes tears in me… the one in ‘control’, then the reader will hopefully be moved too. In life, we don’t deal with out stresses in healthy ways, and stress builds up *reaches for second danish pastry*. Everyone need to find their way to release stress. If crying while reading something I wrote can be cathartic for a reader, then its all good… just let it out. If someone is crying because the writing is bad… then that’s another matter. :-p

  3. Kat Merikan
    Kat Merikan says:

    You can always put the control back in in edits. I’ve even looked up ‘how to stop crying’ on google, without much success. I can control the scene, but I simply can’t help the purely physical element of crying. When I write about crying, I rarely mean it in the ‘I’m so amazing, I made myself cry’ kind of way. It only means I got emotional while writing, which I actually consider a good thing. I like the intense feeling of being in the zone with the character I’m writing.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Fair point. I am, admittedly, pretty controlling when it comes to my work so I don’t like that sense of not being in charge which that would give me. I am capable of crying on rereads, weirdly, but not at the time.

    • Blaine D. Arden
      Blaine D. Arden says:

      A heartfelt YES, to what Kat said. (though I never even thought to Google it)

      I long accepted that some things just make me cry, whether I want to or not…even my own writing (though that doesn’t happen often). I have no control over it, and trying to stop it only gives me a worse headache and lasting sniffles. And… at some point I just had to accept that I cry easily (believe me, I cry during ads, which is bloody ridiculous). I mean, at some point not even my boys cared that Mummy was crying over some film or other. To be honest, with the kids it was better to let them see me cry over nothing during a film, than have them think I was upset over an actual issue because I was trying to hide it.

      I understand your article, KJ, and on some level, I completely agree, were it not that I have no control over my tears.
      That said… it’s a rare day when I post about it.

  4. Sarah Madison
    Sarah Madison says:

    OMG, this resonates with me in so many ways. I was privileged enough to attend a performance of Les Mis when the Broadway tour came to my area. I was blown away by the entire play, but by this song in particular, and Eponine’s painful, unrequited love.(I’ve been known to belt out On My Own in the car with the iPod turned up full blast). I did a lot of theater in high school and college–your voice instructor is *brilliant*. He’s right, too.

    I also get the discomfort with tooting your own horn. Probably one of the reasons I abandoned the notion of acting as a profession.

    I frequently say, “Everything is grist for the mill.” I know that just about every life experience is going to be used in a story some day, transmuted from the original into a different, more powerful scene. Writing those scenes helps me to exorcise old demons and painful memories–but controlling those scenes is how I master the memory. 😉

  5. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Interesting points! I do get emotional when I’m writing, but it’s always in unexpected places, which used to confuse me. I’d be wiping my eyes and thinking, why, of all the scenes, is this one making me weep? I think it might be because I’ve revealed something about my character (or they’ve revealed it to me) that has really touched me in some way. That has tied together other emotional threads, if that makes sense. So it’s me offering some acknowledgement toward that. Other times, it’s because I’m writing the resolution scene, or the one where I make it all better, and my tears are relief.

    That quote about ice in the heart, though. Oy! So, maybe that’s why I’ve been able to write the tough stuff without falling apart. I always thought I was a little bit weird to not be falling about the place crying while my characters were paralytic with grief. I do think we all do it differently, though, and what works for some, might not work for others, eh?

  6. Ariel Tachna
    Ariel Tachna says:

    I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried while writing (not while rereading later, but while actually writing), and those few scenes are ones that hit particularly close to home, and I have always said that it’s because I’m too focused on the craft to get caught in the emotion.

    I will also say, though, that those few scenes are the ones readers yell at me about the most, as being the ones that made them cry big, nasty tears. Not the only ones readers yell at me about, but the ones they yell about most often. So there may be something to the scene being so powerful it overwhelms even me, as the author.

  7. Sandra Lindsey
    Sandra Lindsey says:

    Don’t think I’ve cried while writing… I have got a bit *ahem*distracted sometimes while writing sex scenes, but that’s because I have to visualise scenes for description. And even mentioning that in general terms feels uncomfortably like blowing my own trumpet (as it were)

    I have had a sniffle on read-throughs sometimes, but that’s when I’m approaching the story as a reader rather than a writer…

    …and outside of the story, I have at least once lost track of where I should be in a dance because I started listening to the lyrics & it suddenly struck a chord with a certain character…

  8. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    I have a particular character–Ben Warren from my Lake Lovelace series–who makes me cry nearly every time I write him–I feel very connected to him, more than to any other character I’ve ever written. He has a complicated worldview that touches some spring of emotion in me every time I have to put myself in his head. Who would have thought a New England private school educated suburban mom would connect so deeply with a brash Floridian redneck who can’t keep the word “ain’t” out of his mouth?

    I think there are some characters we just connect with in a way that makes it hard to divorce what’s happening to them on page from what we’re feeling in regards to our own lives. Yes, it’s all fiction, but we’re driven to tell certain kinds of stories and characters for varying and sometimes deeply personal reasons.

  9. Jay Lewis Taylor
    Jay Lewis Taylor says:

    Am I the odd one out? I /never/ cry when writing, [takes deep breath] I don’t see the point.

    I can’t remember the last time I cried reading something either. I may get wound up to the point of having to stop [KJC will know I had to do that with Jackdaw, the swine]. I don’t even set out to make people cry when I write my books, though I believe some do [Eleanor?].

    But if I do cry, it’ll be a song that sets me off. Something about music, cadence, tunes, I don’t know what. How does the music-emotion trigger work? Why does a particular set of soundwaves … well, who knows.

  10. Mia West
    Mia West says:

    I’m with Kat M here, re: edits vs drafting. If my internal editor is where I want her during initial drafting (locked in the cellar), I don’t care what ends up on the page or down the front of my shirt. 🙂 As long as something’s on the page, I can clean up everything (including me) during revisions.

    That said, if something makes me cry in drafting, I pay close attention to my final read-through to see if I have a similar emotional experience during those scenes.

    As far as tweeting about the blubbering, I think I’ve done so more out of self-deprecation than pride.

  11. Jordan L. Hawk
    Jordan L. Hawk says:

    In (mumble) years of writing in various genres, I can count the number of times I’ve cried on less than one hand. Weirdly, one was within the last few weeks. The scene in question was affirming rather than sad, so there you have it.

    (Usually I cackle with glee–the Black Moment is always one of the fun scenes for me to write, if not fun for the characters to endure, so clearly I’m some kind of psychopath, I mean normal writer, yes.)

  12. willaful
    willaful says:

    “I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha)”



    This post brings to mind something someone once told me about a problem he was having with amateur porn, which was that too often the writer just wrote to the place that (obviously) got them off and then ended the story. Definitely a problem with being too emotionally involved. 😉

  13. Bliss Bennet
    Bliss Bennet says:

    I knew I was British at heart. Don’t ever cry while writing. Occasionally tear up on a re-read, but definitely have to stay in control to get the scene emotion-worthy for an audience…

  14. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I can only recall crying once while drafting, many moons ago – well nearly ten years in fact, because it was during my first NaNoWriMo event in 2006. It was also the first non-fanfic novel I’d written, I’d just massacred most of the main characters and resolved this long running thread through the story about the narrator. It was a cathartic crying for me. Relieved the tension that built up to that point in the story.

    I don’t recall doing it again. And I never cry reading books. Movies and TV on the other hand can set me off. It’s probably the music.

  15. Lisa Padol
    Lisa Padol says:

    When I got into filksinging, one of the things I had to learn was how to sing when my eyes were tearing. I suspect the fact that I cry easily made it easier to learn how to keep singing.


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