As January comes around again and, for the fourth year running, I’ve made the same resolution to finish writing my “big book.”
My agent always talks about “when you write the big book Hannah” – but it’s a struggle to get to it. I juggle a full-time job on the West Coast (working remotely from the UK), an elderly mother (not juggling her physically I must add), plus exercise two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas at least a couple of hours a day.
Trying a different genre is always a challenge. For those who don’t know me (yet), I write three mystery series – cozies. I love writing puzzles and of course, the joy of writing a “traditional” mystery is that justice is always served, good conquers evil and if you can make people smile along the way, that’s even better.
Readers expect to solve the mystery. They get caught up in the whodunnit and the page-turning climax but with a different genre and a different kind of reader, it’s a new experience for me.
Rather than rely on my friends to read the current draft of my “big book” (who would be kind), I hired a respected book/script doctor, Lisa Cron.
Well, to say I was utterly crushed is putting it mildly. “I’m sorry but it just doesn’t resonate. I don’t feel anything.” What? How can it not resonate? The story was solid and, although I say it myself, it was quite clever, especially with the final twist. But Lisa was not interested in the nuts and bolts of story. Of course, character development, setting, dialogue etc. are critical since they’re the foundation and cornerstones of the ‘story house,’ but it’s the essence, the soul of the story that is the key to drawing a reader in.
It’s not enough to tell your reader that your character is happy, sad, or angry. That’s too general. As Lisa says, “these descriptions are the what – we need to dig to the why.” If you pluck a scene out of any novel, are you able to immediately tell what your protagonist is going through emotionally?
Just like us, whatever we are worried about or mentally going through, is always at the back of our minds. My mother has been deemed end-of-life at least three times this past year and her health dominates my every waking moment. We don’t live in a vacuum so nor should our characters. And just like us, how would your character’s state of mind impact everything he/she says and does?
Another thing to ponder – who really remembers the twists, turns and intricacies of a good plot be it a thriller or a love story? Yes, we’re caught up in the story especially if it’s a good one, but don’t we just remember how a scene makes us feel? I think back to my childhood and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) – I wasn’t that bothered about the lion and the White Witch, I just wanted to find a wardrobe and wade through some fur coats to meet the Faun under the lamppost.
When I began to develop feelings for the opposite sex, I devoured sweeping romantic sagas like Penmarric and The Rich Are Different (Susan Howatch) and The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy). I don’t remember the plot in the Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) but I do remember that scene on the beach where the priest and Meggie consummate their illicit love. Toe tingling stuff.
In a “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1991, researchers found that To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) ranked second only to the Bible as “making a difference in people’s lives.” Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel,” and former first lady Laura Bush said, “it changed how people think.” But maybe it changed how people felt as they lived vicariously through Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch? The story resonated with readers and, as Lisa believes, “the only way to change how someone thinks about something is to first change how they felt.”
As for my “big book” I’m busily rewriting it. I’m digging into the why of my protagonist and it feels so different to the what. I’ve learned that it takes a lot of courage to excavate emotions of my own that I would prefer to keep buried but I’m doing it anyway.
What books still resonate with you years later and why? Don’t think too hard. I’ve already added a dozen or so books to my original list of favorites! I’d also love to hear tips and suggestions on how you make your writing resonate with readers.