Saturday, July 24, 2010

Writing a Book That People Want to Read

Last week I mentioned that on June 28 I’m going to be doing a talk for the Scottsdale Society of Women Writers about “the one thing I wish someone had told me about being a writer”. You know how you never notice Hyundais on the road until you buy one, and then you see Hyundais EVERYWHERE? Or you think you’re being so original when you name your kid Olduvai, and then when he gets to kindergarden, there are six other Olduvais in his class?

I’ve been finding illustrations of the points I make in my talk in everything I read these days. In my presentation, I go on for a bit about how to write a book that people want to read. I postulate that the best way to do it is to create characters that the reader really cares about.

Last night I was reading an older Barbara Kingsolver book, High Tide In Tucson. a collection of essays. In one of the essays, “Jaberwocky”, Kingsolver notes that “a novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life ... The power of fiction is to create empathy.” As an example, she says that a newspaper will give you the facts of a situation, say a plane crash, but a novel will show you just how it felt to be one of those hundreds of people who were killed in the crash.

One of my basic beliefs about fiction is that you as the author have to figure out how to make your reader care about the people in your book. It seems to me that truly empathetic characters can even cover sins in the plotting and construction of your book. Think of how many bad plots or unbelievable situations you’ve read in really popular books, and yet, even as you were aware of the novel’s weakness, you still enjoyed it. How does an author manage that?

Jean Auel’s books are a great example. Her “Earth’s Children” series is spectacularly fascinating. Talk about being able to create a world! She manages to make a character in Ayla that millions of readers wanted to follow all across Ice Age Europe though five encyclopedia-sized tomes. And yet in Auel’s world, one woman is responsible for every technological innovation known to Stone Age man. Do we care?

Here’s an egregious example: ever see the movie Troy? I love The Iliad. When I was an English teacher, I taught The Iliad. I know it well. And yet - in the movie, the Trojan War lasted three days instead of ten years. Paris and Helen lived happily ever after. Menelaus got killed. Agamemnon met his fate somewhere other than his bathtub. However, when Brad Pitt stripped down and sluiced himself off after a battle, did I care?

It all depends on how successfully the author (or filmmaker) is able to pull you into her world and how willing you are to go along with her. In his book on writing, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosely said, “a novel is a collusion between the author and the reader.” The reader wants to walk in your character’s shoes, to believe in the world you’ve created, and you don’t want to let him down.

One more unrelated but fabulous thing for anyone interested in the past: My brother-in-law sent me this link to a You Tube video of the first 35mm film ever made. It was taken by camera mounted on the front of a cable car in San Francisco, filmed only four days before the Great California Earthquake of April 18th, 1906, and shipped by train to NY for processing. It is hypnotic. I’ve watched it several times. This is from the intro:

A fascinating movie taken by a camera on the front of a street car 104 years ago. Look at the hats the ladies were wearing and the long dresses. Some of the cars had the steering wheels on the right side. I wonder when they standardized on the left? Still a lot of horse drawn vehicles in use. Mass transit looked like the way to get around. Looks like everybody had the right of way.

The number of automobiles is staggering for 1906. Absolutely amazing! The clock tower at the end of Market Street at the Embarcadero wharf is still there. How many "street cleaning" people were employed to pick up after the horses? Talk about going green!

Click here to see the film. Enjoy!

p.s. Jean Auel fans, I just checked her website in order to make sure I remembered all her titles, and saw that after a nine year gap, her sixth “EC” book, Land of the Painted Caves, is set to be published in March of 2011.


Renaissance Women said...

I loved the film!!! It gave a good feel for 'city' life. Thank you so much for sharing the link.
Also your comments were thought provoking and have given me more food for thought as I continue the rewrites of the novel.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, RW! Good luck on the novel. Persevere.

Susan J Tweit said...

Donis, I loved the 35mm film of San Francisco--the Ferry Building and the clocktower don't look much different today. Very cool! Thanks for the discussion on why creating empathetic characters matters. Lots to think about there.

Charles Benoit said...

I liked Troy as well, more for the battle scenes though. Rose would agree with you though.

I really liked your bit about empathy - that's a good, succinct way of thinking and I'm going to use it the next time I teach a writing class, giving credit where it's due, of course!

Donis Casey said...

Thanks. Charles, I'll take what notoriety I can get. And Rose sounds like a woman after my own heart.

Julie said...

Good column about creating characters and why it is so important to bring the reader along. You've given me an important aspect of my writing to work on. Thanks! Also loved the video--it does look like everyone has the right of way.

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