The “Secret”

Last week on Facebook I promised to reveal the one great secret to writing success. The reason I’ve delayed is that my website has undergone a facelift. I hope you like the new look and find it easier to read. There are also some new features on the sidebar to the right, including a way to subscribe.

So now let’s talk about the “secret,” which, though easily stated, can be fodder for several more blog entries. At least that’s my expectation.

So what exactly is this great secret? First, let’s talk about it as it relates to non-fiction, then we’ll look at how it relates to fiction.

Simply put, great writing is writing that evokes in the reader a desired reaction. It causes the non-fiction reader to pause and inwardly gasp, At last, here’s someone who understands! All this time I thought I was the only one who thought this way!

Then, as the reader reads on, he or she comes across another passage that evokes a sigh that here, in this book, with this author, they have found a kindred spirit. The best-known quote I can think of to illustrate this is C.S. Lewis’s great line: “We read to know we’re not alone.” A writer’s job, then—your job—is to find that place deep inside yourself that also exists deep inside your reader and that will open up a bond between you and your reader. To show that reader he or she is not alone.

Although this “secret” has been in the back of my mind for some time now, it was brought to the forefront as I was reading One Thousand Gifts. Author Ann Voskamp is a master at going deep within herself and using what she finds there to connect with readers. I was going to offer up a couple of examples, but I think I’ll let you discover what I mean for yourself as you read her book. Ann writes—as you must—out of the depths, not out of the shallows.

Let’s take a look at how this secret works with fiction. Essentially it’s the same principle, but accomplished in a fictional setting. Like the non-fiction author, you want to touch an emotional chord in the reader. To do this effectively, the writer must create a fictional world that’s welcoming to the reader and then populate that world with believable characters, at least one of whom must be a sympathetic character. This fictional world you’re creating must be one in which the reader is pleased to dwell for the length of the book (and hopefully anxious for you to write a sequel as quickly as possible). The characters must be ones about whom the reader will say, “I understand him!” or “I’m like she is!” Or, to quote Anne of Green Gables, “A kindred spirit!”

Another fictional character—Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye—also helps make my point when he says, “What really knocks me out is when a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours.”

Bingo!

The creating of such a fictional world is not an easy feat. Stock characters and a predictable plot in a generic setting just won’t cut it. At least not for memorable, excellent, emotion-inducing writing. And as novelist Sinclair Lewis noted, “People read fiction for emotion, not information.” Evoking emotion—and the right emotion is crucial to good fiction. It’s what bonds you to the reader—and sells your next book to that reader.

This is why I’m so critical about the opening pages of the novel manuscripts I review. The one vital role of the opening pages is to usher your reader so effectively into your fictional world, they’ll want to stay there for the next 250+ pages. Some writers who have attended my workshops know that I’m put off by a beginning that offers up a weather report or a geography lesson. I find it hard to want to read on when all I see is a description of clouds or the landscape. I want a character!

Well, there it is in brief. The secret: write so as to cause readers to know they’re not alone. Write to cause them to gasp with delight that they’ve found someone who understands. Write so as to make the reader wish you were a terrific friend of theirs.

I hope this makes sense to you. It would ironic to write about the secret of great writing and not have it easily understood. As I said earlier, there’s much fodder here for more discussion. Next time, I want to write about how a writer can implement this secret of evoking pleasing emotions in the reader.

Now, if the above has been helpful, please forward the link to your writing friends. And be sure and take advantage of the new subscription feature on my blog. I enjoy writing about writing and the more readers the merrier!

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16 Responses to The “Secret”

  1. Richard Mabry March 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Nick, This is great advice. My non-fiction book, written after the death of my first wife, is still finding an audience, primarily because I keep getting emails that say, “It was so good to find that someone else felt that way.” As for drawing the reader in so they identify with the characters in my fiction, I must confess I’m still working on that. But your post will make me work harder at it.
    PS–I like the look of your new website.

  2. Charles Chambers March 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Thanks Nick. I hope to keep improving and your help here is appreciated.

  3. Jan Cline March 16, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    To me, that is what all the classics have done for me – even in the movie versions. Ones like To Kill A Mockingbird, East of Eden, and Jane Eyre all play on the notion that we are not alone if we reach out and touch another fellow human being. I love the way these books/movies make me feel. It’s the quality that makes me keep coming back to read it or watch it again and again.
    I love the new look. Who doesn’t like a good facelift?!

  4. Joanne Bischof March 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank you for putting this into words! I think back to when I read anything by Jane Austen and as soon as I can get into the swing of things with her voice, to me her heroines are always relevant on an emotional level. It’s amazing how even as writing styles can change over decades, getting down to the heart of the reader really transcends time.

  5. Melissa K. Norris March 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    This was great. With less leisure time, I’m becoming more and more picky with which books I read. If I pick it up and don’t care about the character or their problems, then I don’t keep reading. I give the author a chapter and that’s it. Naturally, I’m trying to make sure I apply this to my own work.
    By the way, I love the new website. Taking advantage of subscribing now!

  6. Jeff Adams March 16, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Malcolm Gladwell makes me feel smart. Max Lucado makes me feel loved. Other authors stir my passions because I know I’m not the Lone Ranger. Thanks for the secret, Nick.

  7. Michael K. Reynolds March 16, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    What exactly is a secret, when it’s not a secret anymore?

    I’m getting closer to understanding this concept of “Deeper” and this piece draws me in further as I journey through the maze. I suspect you’re getting your hands around how best to define it because it’s beginning to all make sense to me…and yes you’re right…it’s a powerful concept.

    I have Kindled my copy of One Thousand Gifts and will continue the education. Thank you Professor Nick.

  8. Angie March 17, 2011 at 5:26 am #

    {applause!}

  9. BJ Hoff March 17, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Great post, Nick, about a secret that shouldn’t be kept!

    And I like the new look. Classy!

  10. Peggy Rychwa March 17, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Thank you, Nick, that information was helpful. I’ve taken advantage of your subscription feature and am looking forward to reading how a writer can implement this secret of evoking pleasing emotions in the reader.

  11. Judith Robl March 17, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    Sometimes the simplest things to say are the hardest to do. Simple does not equate with easy. As usual, you are right on target with the one great secret to writing success. Thank you.

  12. Dee Kamp March 18, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    Great blog Nick! Thank you so much. I look forward to reading more.
    We have met several times at conferences and face book helps us all
    to stay connected to a good writing community.

  13. Rebecca LuElla Miller March 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    I like the new look on your blog, Nick.

    As usual you do a great job of teaching. You illustrate your points well and summarize them in the end so they are more memorable.

    I just have one observation. I’ve never wanted an author to be a terrific friend. Now I have read about characters that I wished I knew, but generally, before becoming a writer, I didn’t think twice about the author. So was I just reading the wrong books?

    Becky

  14. Nick March 20, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    I don’t know, Becky. When I think of my favorite authors, I would indeed like to be friends with them. Not in every case, I suppose, but often.

  15. Mary Kay March 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm #

    Rest assured, Nick, the post makes sense. Love those times I gasp and think, “Someone else gets it. I’m not alone.” Thank you.

  16. Janalyn Voigt April 9, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    This was worth waiting for! It trumps promoting with 99-cent novels any day.

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