Ron (the mean-voiced doubter who sits in the back of my head and whispers nasties in my ear) hisses, Silly little fool. Silly little Nobody Callender thinks she can write a book that will get noticed! Why would yours sell when no one’s buying the already-written ones?
Most days I can remember to tell Ron to go suck lemons, but he is right about one thing: there are millions of books out there, many great ones we will never read, many others we will never even notice. But I can’t stop writing any more than I can stop breathing or blinking or eating Seattle Chocolates’ Coconut Macaroon Truffle Bars. So I figure we should discuss how, in an age where many (myself included) have the attention span of a goldfish, we can write attractive stories that hold readers’ attention.
Of course, definitions of What is Attractive vary wildly. You think Bill Clinton or FDR is attractive; I prefer Abe Lincoln. But what attractive people do to us, I think, is pretty consistent from person to person. Same goes for fiction. What makes a story attractive is far less about what the story is, and much more about what it does to readers.
So what does attractive fiction do? I’ve thunk up three essentials.
Attractive fiction evokes. Sure, sadness and joy, but the more nuanced emotions too: concern, pity, frustration, loneliness, compassion, hope, resignation. We read because it feels good to feel.
Gone Girl had me feeling anger and disgust for the bad guy. Oh! And then for the other bad guy. The Snow Child tapped into the longing and the hope I felt before I became a parent. Reading The Orchardist, I felt frustration and loneliness as the characters failed to communicate that which most needed to be shared.
The most attractive fiction causes us (and allows us) to feel both pleasing and uncomfortable emotions. We humans love to feel stuff . . . unless the stuff we’re feeling is ennui and lethargy. We don’t enjoy feeling like a bored, over-baked potato when we’re reading a story.
Attractive fiction connects. We long to be known. We long to be accepted even and especially after we are known. In reading fiction, we hope to discover that our human experience, our interests, fears and passions aren’t freaky-freakshow, that we’re not alone in our weirdness.
Liesel, the young burglar in The Book Thief, will risk her safety to read. She needs to read. Really? I’m not the only one? Sunny, in Shine Shine Shine, gets sick and tired of masking her and her family’s imperfections. Gosh, yes, I have felt that weariness. Bob, in The Burgess Boys, worries over his neighbor, a woman he hardly knows. I’m like that . . . I thought I was the only one!
Stories become attractive when they reveal quirky, layered, fallible characters. Why? Because we–all of us–are quirky, layered and fallible, and hanging out with characters who illuminate and mirror truths about our selves helps us feel less alone.
Attractive fiction surprises. You know how Cindy Crawford has a mole on her upper lip? A big, brown mole from which whiskers likely sprout? That mole, because it resides on the face of a supermodel, is a surprise. The surprise of that mole gives her a unique, fresh feel that only adds to her beauty.
Or take Lady Gaga. She’s attractive (i.e. interesting and intriguing) partly because she may appear clad in balloons or beef. We never know. Our brains think, Que interesante! But what’s even more interesante about Lady Gaga is the contrast between her bold fashion and the delicacy of her emotions. Her authenticity. Her sensitivity. Her exterior is bold, flamboyant and confident; that exterior belies the beauty of her very human frailty. I love the surprise of that contrast.
Of course, surprises can be too extreme. The other day, while I was walking to my daughter’s school, a crow attacked my head. Just rammed right into the back of my noggin and nearly scared the poop out of me. That was a bad surprise. That surprise made me grab my daughter at school, hurry back home via a different street, and take a 4:00 p.m. shower.
Attractive fiction gives us pleasant surprises, subtle surprises, surprises that do not make us need a shower. It takes a seasoned writer to create a story with just the right amount of surprise and freshness. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan surprises us with unique story structures and points of view. And PowerPoint. While some readers likely found those surprises irritating, many others (including Pulitzer Prize judges) embraced the novel’s freshness. In this Washington Post article, Ron Charles writes:
If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile. Her new novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is a medley of voices — in first, second and third person — scrambled through time and across the globe with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation reproduced toward the end.
I know that sounds like the headache-inducing, aren’t-I-brilliant tedium that sends readers running to nonfiction, but Egan uses all these stylistic and formal shenanigans to produce a deeply humane story about growing up and growing old in a culture corroded by technology and marketing.
We want a story told in a unique way, made vibrant by characters who are as real as the people in our real lives. Just how vibrant, just how experimental, is up to you, dear artist . . . I suggest something slightly less surprising than a crow attack.
What have I missed? What makes you pay attention to a book for more than eight seconds? What does a good story do to you? Do you have a crush on Abe Lincoln, too? Please share your ideas of universally attractive elements of fiction (or hot presidents). And for goodness sake, if you see a crow, do NOT make eye contact. I’m pretty sure my “friendly hello” and good eye contact precipitated the attack.
Photo courtesy of Flickr’s John ‘K.’