Have you ever been at a party and someone tells a story and you just don’t care?
Have you ever been that person telling the story and realized mid-story that everyone’s eyes have dulled over?
You feel trapped. You want the story to be over (especially if you’re the one telling it). You know something has gone wrong because you can feel it. The communication of failure is instant.
The problem with writing a novel is that you can’t see when that happens: when (Shakespeare help us all) the reader stops being hooked by the story, no longer cares about what happens.
That’s terrifying, right?
There are two major elements that keep a reader turning that page or scrolling down:
Curiosity—the need to know what happens next
Care—the connection and concern and emotion for the characters.
In Characters & Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card writes, “The intensity of the characters’ feeling, as long as it remains believable and bearable, will greatly intensify the reader’s feelings—whatever they are.”
So, be intense if you want your readers to care about what’s happening, but don’t be so intense that they can’t handle it.
To do that you want to give your character:
A goal that the reader knows—something that matters to the character
Choices that might hinder the character getting to that goal or help them
Sacrifices that happen so that the reader sees that the character has an internal struggle getting to that goal.
When it comes to curiosity, that’s the hook that keeps us moving forward and wondering what will happen to the character in the story. The choices, the emotions that arrive with those choices, are what makes the reader curious about what will happen.
“Most techniques to hook a reader have one thing in common: They force the reader to ask questions. A good hook—whether it uses action, emotion, a strong statement, or another technique—will have your reader guessing about your characters’ motivations, backstories, and more. Maybe in high school, you learned to start an essay with a rhetorical question. Try that same technique now, but leave the actual question out of the finished piece. Instead, set up a scene that leads your reader to come up with the question on their own.”
Think of a scenario for your story (or just a scenario if you don’t have a story):
Zombie hamsters are coming down the street.
The tea mug your uncle gave you has a secret message on the bottom.
Your mom just told you she’s part oak tree.
Now, think of a question and write the scenario and scene toward that question.
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State secrets, family secrets, trade secrets, secret sins and secret loves, entrusted secrets, cosmic secrets, childhood secrets, dark secrets taken to the grave—any sort of secret at all. Can’t keep a secret? Closely guarded treasure, or a bargaining chip. We are more interested in tales of mystery than everyday gossip. Send us your best unpublished stories of approximately 50 words about a Secret, or Secrets. Submissions are open June 1, 2023 through July 15, 2023. No attachments, poetry, bios, or AI generated content please. Send submissions in the body of an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s a story I tell about our dog, Scotty, who was a rescue and a hero kind of dog. Em calls him “the best dog ever.” He had bullets still inside of him when we got him, shrapnel. He was kind and chill and super loving, protective when he had to be, but consistently a great lover of other dogs and strange people even though someone had once shot him.
One time, Scotty, Sparty, and I were walking in Glen Mary Woods (a tiny patch of woods in our town) when a golden retriever barreled over and tried to take out Sparty, teeth snapping, haunches raised.
Sparty dropped, submissive and shaking.
Scotty, instantly whipped into action. He pulled the other dog’s attention to him, got him off Sparty and then stood there sideways, body always between me and Sparty and this dog as the dog lunged and growled and feinted and lunged, hitting Scotty multiple times.
Scotty did the minimum he had to do aggressively to keep this dog away from us. We all survived with minimal physical damage. Psychological damage though? That was a bit different.
After that, Scotty always looked at approaching dogs that he didn’t know sideways, no longer just expecting them to be awesome and kind and ready to romp. He lost that bit of his happy go lucky.
I always tell that story because Scotty is so heroic in it. But lately I’ve realized that though Sparty didn’t have the doggy krav maga skills to fight off that other dog, he did something else heroic. He does it every day.
Sparty chooses not to be afraid. When we go out on walks, I never worry about Sparty being mean to humans or dogs. He’s not reactive. He’s the master of the chill.
So, while Scotty learned to be suspicious and a little wary of strange dogs, Sparty? He has chosen not to be. You can literally see him get excited (think full body wiggle) when he sees dogs, not as strangers, but potentially friends.
This happens even though he was the one who was attacked.
Our puppy Pogie is the opposite and we’re trying to work her through that, but I just keep thinking about Sparty and how he chooses not to judge, not to be afraid, until he has to.
That’s a pretty powerful way to be.
So, here’s to all the Spartys in this world who focus on seeing good.
And here’s to all the Scottys who sacrifice and take the hits so that the Spartys don’t have to.
And here’s to you if you’re a Scotty or a Sparty (photos below) or somewhere in between.
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So, last week I talked about hooking your readers. And I promised that I’d keep talking about it.
I am keeping that promise.
Hooking your reader might make you think of pirates and nasty horror movies, but it really just means keeping your readers actually reading your book. I’ve broken it down to two sections of two hints a piece and one section with just one lonely hook.
Let’s get started!
TWO QUICK HINTS TO KEEP YOUR READER HOOKED ON YOUR BOOK
LET THE READER IDENTIFY WITH SOMEONE.
We like stories where we can quickly identify with the main character, or at least a character, pretty early on.
Think about all the BuzzFeed quizzes that ask, “Which Succession Character Are You?” “Which Buffy Character Are You?” “Who Are You In The Wire?” “What Disney Princess Are You?”
It goes on and on.
We humans like to identify with characters who are in the stories we read or the videos we watch. It’s like a nice pat on the back that says we aren’t alone, and it creates community.
DON’T DO THIS:
Start with dialogue on the first line. It’s hard to care about the person speaking if you haven’t met them yet.
“Wow,” he said. “That is really it.”
Huh, the reader said.
2. Tell us stuff we don’t need to know.
So, in 1870 or something like that I had this great great aunt who allegedly stepped on a nail or something, not that it matters. Although, maybe it mattered to her, but yeah. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
Neither does the reader.
3. Introduce 18 characters in the first paragraphs. It’s hard to remember who is who and who is important.
As Belinda walked inside the Timberland RV Campground in Trenton, Maine, she waved hello to Lincoln, son-in-law of the owner, a retired man with a name like Jack or something, and then she waved to Debbie, Lincoln’s wife, who was riding on a golf cart with Charlene. Peggy was perched on the back with a blonde child whose name I think is Jackie…Or maybe Sam?
Enough said, right?
4. And finally don’t describe things just for the sake of describing them.
Timberland RV Campground descended into a slight hill, managing to split itself across two town lines. It was Trenton in the front and Ellsworth in the back and the back was where there were no trees surrounding the sites, just pull-in places for the giant RVs and motorhomes and campers and busses. I have no idea which is which. I’d never been in a campground before, but they had hook-ups at some of the sites for water and sewer, or just one, and electricity. There were metal fire rings and some people had fancied up their sites with flowers and decks and lobster buoys because … Maine.
So, those were the no-nos, right? Here’s the second tip.
MAKE IT WEIRD
If possible, make your situation not quite so run-of-the-mill. You have a love story. It’s set in Paris. Okay, great. Can it be set in a tattoo parlor in Paris? Or maybe a desk shop?
Readers like both the familiar and the unexpected, so take something typical like a love story and add in a little weirdness – a love story between a human and an aquatic being. That can keep them reading.
TWO MORE TIPS! ARE YOU READY?
REMEMBER THAT EMOTION ISN’T CONSTANT
Nobody wants to read a story where the main character is always angry or always happy or always passionate or always mellow. There are ups and downs to people’s emotions in real life (WHAT? ATTACK ON TITAN ISN’T REAL LIFE?). There should be ups and downs in your character’s emotions, too.
Some writing coaches/teachers/whatever-word-you’d-like-to-use advocate changing emotions in every scene in big ways. I think this works sometimes and sometimes it sort of lulls the reader into expecting those shifts and therefore that makes those shifts less authentic.
Authentic emotion = good
Changing emotion = good
Forced emotion = bad
MAKE PEOPLE WONDER
Not knowing what is going to happen is a big deal when someone is reading the story. Make them wonder what might happen.
One method to do this is to not tell them everything right off. Give some elements of what is happening, but not all.
So, in the NEED series, I have the main character see a man in the woods at the side of the road and also pointing at her plane as it takes off. The reader thinks, “Wait. Who the heck is that man?”
In Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, introduces the Boy Who Lived, but what did he live through and how? The reader wonders and reads to find out…
MAKE THEM FREAKING WORRIED
The reader needs to care about the character. We want Mr. Potter and Ron and Hermione to survive because those kids are lovable, but we also are worried that survival might not be an option. The stakes are high and those magical bad guys are powerful. These babies aren’t superheroes. Death is possible. Near death happens all the time. We obsess that the trio might not survive.
That’s a hook.
That high stakes conflict coupled with imperfect heroes who tyr so hard? That’s the key.
And there you go. Maybe some more next week, okay?
I hope your writing is happy and you are well!
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It’s not about being risk averse, it’s about being regret averse.
There’s a pretty well known story about Jeff Bezos, the guy who started Amazon. The story goes like this: Jeff Bezos quit his nice hedge-fund job to start Amazon. He did this big leap of faith because he imagined he was 80 and he wanted to be an 80 year old who had as few regrets as possible.
Back in 2021, Utkarsh Amitabh wrote about career transitions in the framework of the regret minimization formula for the Harvard Business Review, he talks about how Bezos’ boss walked around New York’s Central Park to talk about why Bezos wanted to quit. His boss gave him two days to decide to quit.
Bezos theorized that even if he failed, he would regret not trying, because when you ignore your dreams you become a curmudgeon yelling at kids and dogs to stay off your lawn.
“Transitions aren’t just about doing something different. A career transition is a lifestyle redesign that often entails rethinking how you want to feel at the end of the day, how you want to spend your time, and how this relates to your longer term goals. When you feel this need for change, it isn’t necessarily related to a fancier title or more money, but your inner voice whispering that you could do more, be more, experience and achieve more.”
It is always a little terrifying for me to put myself out there. I met a local man last night and he shook his head and said, “I like to fly under the radar, you know?” His suit coat was off. His tie was still on. He made a motion for an airplane with his hand. “Whoosh, right under it.”
I do, too.
And earlier this week, I talked to a woman who was telling me things they were going through at her company as they tried to do kind things.
“No good deed goes unpunished, right?” she said this with a half-frown and a half-smile.
Another woman said to me, “I know you are close to this man, but he is a snake. A snake!”
Full disclosure: I’m not close to this man, not in the way she meant. I’ve never even been to his house. He has never been to mine. We’ve never been in a hotel room together. Cough. But he has hugged me. A lot of people have hugged me. I’m good with that. I like hugs.
“Everyone in town,” she said, “knows this man is a snake.”
Another full disclosure: Once after a Rotary meeting, I held the door open for the governor who had just spoken. He engulfed me in a hug. We’re not close either. At all.
There are a lot of songs about small towns in country and rockabilly music, about life within them, about trying to breathe in them, about the goodness in community and everyone knowing your business, and about the bad apples that make you feel during politically divisive times that talking to someone might not hold your political views is a crime. That having a Facebook friend who holds alternative views on something like short-term rentals or cruise ship visitation is a crime. That when someone hugs you or fist-bumps you after a meeting, it means you are besties
It’s not. Not yet anyway.
Another day this week, a woman I know said, “I love this place, but sometimes I wish—I wish that I could just pull up my hood, put on some dark glasses, and be anonymous. But these people, they do. They find you.”
And another day this week, I talked to a woman who said almost the same exact thing, a lovely, amazing cool woman full of humor and goodness.
All these people who want to hide? They are good people. I don’t know everything about them. I don’t know what makes their hearts hurt, what keeps them up at night, what they’re proud of or ashamed of or what they yearn for, but I love them. I hardly know them. I love them anyway. Someone this week teased me and said, “Carrie, you pretty much love everyone.”
That’s true, I told them, until it isn’t.
Yesterday, a woman came up to me and told me that an event I’d just held was horrible. That’s how she started the conversation. “It was horrible.” I said I was sorry to hear that and asked her why and how I could have made it better. She gave me reasons that were the same exact reasons that other people had told me it was a great event.
What a cool lesson, right?
She offered me insight right there and showed me how different her take was. It hurt even though it was the opposite of so many other people’s views, but it was good to know who she was and how she felt. Here’s the thing I always have to make myself remember: People are always going to have their own likes and their own takes. People are always going to have their own logic and their own feelings. Even when you want to hide, go whoosh under the radar, huddle in your sweatshirt and sunglasses, some people are going to find you and tell you what they think and sometimes they will think awful things that are fiction about you or others or even themselves.
That’s especially true when I think of the three shiny people I mentioned before, the people who want to hide. The more you are out there, the more feedback you get: good and bad.
The other thing is that you can reach out when these things happen, talk it through, and remember you aren’t alone. Some really brilliant and kind people helped me with that last night. I was brave enough to reach out to them (something I have a hard time doing because I’m used to being the one who helps) and they were brave enough to reach right back and help me in mama bear and papa bear ways. How cool is that? It’s so cool! And that wouldn’t have happened without that lady. And for that? I am so grateful.
This painting might look vaguely familiar. I posted it last week I think, but I didn’t like it. There was something wrong. So, I started working on it some more–reframing it just like I’m reframing my experience last night. It’s rough and color is trying to break through and there is chaos and there is hope. And that’s what I’m working toward, too.
That’s all I have this Be Brave Friday. Maybe be brave with each other. Maybe be kind to each other. Maybe be kind to yourself, too.
And if you choose to fly under the radar or right through the turbulence? It doesn’t matter. Just freaking fly. Don’t let anyone stop you. Just fly.