It’s funny what draws us to a book. But even those we wait for with great anticipation often disappoint. More to the point is what causes one to take hold of us, to think about long after turning the final page. The characters, the story, the voice; that unique something, which grabs us and won’t let go.
Editors are notoriously jaded. We read, after all, tons of manuscripts and stories. A good buddy who’s a VP at Kensington, and one of the most irreverent people I’ve ever met (and who will remain nameless here so he doesn’t shoot me :), confessed that he cried watching Titanic in the theater. It still gives me a chuckle today. Although a softy at heart, it literally takes the Earth moving for a story to get to him.
And as a novel editor, I understand entirely. You can’t read as much as we do and be moved all the time or we wouldn’t get anything done! And yes, the old, “Ya gotta grab ‘em on page one,” applies. The hook is vital. Editors know on the first page whether this is for them. The company line is that they read the first fifty pages. In some parallel universe! That’s why writers come to me daily, saying that they’ve received rejection after rejection that says, “This just wasn’t compelling enough for me.” Agents mean that literally.
Yet and still, stories grab us for so many reasons. And often, they don’t fit any sort of mold.
I’m a big John Nichols fan. If nothing else (and there’s always a boatload else), I know I’m gonna laugh myself off the chair. On Top of Spoon Mountain, his latest, had me rolling. And it’s not a funny premise—an aging, infirm man who’s as dysfunctional as they come, the fruit of that bearing out with his grown children and disastrous romantic relationships, simply must climb the mountain of his youth (preferably with said children in tow) to prove, well, whatever it is aging men must prove, no matter how they couch it in “family.” A slim novel, it’s the antithesis of the book and film that made him famous, The Milagro Beanfield War, which rambled for 800 or so pages and made me laugh on every one of them. The thing about Nichols is that under all the comedy, lies the essence of what makes us people, community, cohabitants of this planet Earth.
I recently finished editing a slender, literary work that just haunts me. Almost all the action occurred in the beginning. A huge crash, actually, seen by the three narrators, none of whom were involved in the event, although each reacted in character. And each stayed in character for the remainder of the story, which was one of quiet desperation for all, leading to the climax that took my breath away. It will haunt you too, once published.
So what it is that “compels” us to get involved in a book? To not put it down?
1. That hook. That thing up front that’s different, unique, too funny not to keep on reading, so poignant without being purple that it grabs us. Done well, the hook doesn’t have to be about major crashes or aliens or the murder of a celebrity, although McCarthy’s The Road, which opens after the Earth burns up, the reason for which isn’t even of great importance, will clutch you by the throat and not let go. Yet, as with all McCarthy’s work, the hook isn’t even what forces you to keep reading.
2. The Voice does. And that term is so nebulous, it’s tough for writers to grasp. Voice isn’t something you’re born with, really. It’s something you hone from years and years and years of learning your craft. Most new writers imitate the authors they love. And that’s actually fine. It’s like trying on different dresses to find those that fit your body best. And you’ll never really sound like the authors you emulate anyway. They’ve already spent those years and decades perfecting that voice. But you can pick out a Conroy, a Nichols, an Atwood, and of course this list could go on from here to eternity.
3. The Story. Well of course, you say, the plot’s the thing! But again, story in novel development isn’t as easy to define as the beginning, middle, and end. What I see most often from new writers is a rambling, sprawling work where the story exists, but it’s buried deep under all the verbiage and didactic opinion. It’s tough, as a writer, especially learning your sea legs, to not let your characters and story be just mouthpieces for your personal opinions. Those will always be there, but that beating-your-reader-over-the-head with how the world should be is the biggest way to turn said reader off. We all have opinions. I’m quite certain the world would be a much better place if I were Queen of Earth. But that doesn’t at all stop me from hearing what others think, seeing life in a different way. And to do that, a writer has to paradoxically put predilections aside, at least as much as possible, and speak to the human condition in an offering, rather than a preaching way.
4. Characters who seem real, but so compelling we want to know them, to bring them into our worlds, if just for the time. Even if they’re evil. They intrigue and interest us. They can exasperate us—but only to a point, especially in a protagonist. They breath from the pages. We want them to succeed (or not! based on the author’s intent). Or we want to rise to their heights.
5. The Human Condition. Across all genres, the best books speak to something within us. The more universal this is, the more a book succeeds (even if the rest of it is pretty much crap!). The biggest bestseller in recent years (spawning its own industry), plugged into women’s dissatisfaction in their love lives. Who knew! LOL. (Okay, so actually, as a developmental editor, I’ve seen this trend rise for well over a decade.) None of the above really mattered—the book hit the hot spot (no pun intended). On the other hand, it’s no quandary why dystopian novels have been all the rage—we live in precarious times.
All of these of course deserve much deeper attention. I’ve written entire articles on tiny points of each one. But in toto, they’re what cause a book to worm its way under the skin and call to us when we put it down. To make me reach the end and say, “I wish I’d written that.” And thank all the writing gods we still have authors who do that!