Sunday, July 10, 2011

the stories that change us

If you've ever read a novel you couldn't stop thinking about, where you cared about the characters as if they were dear friends, where you couldn't wait to get to find out how it ended but mourned when there was no more to read, then you've probably found yourself wondering: How did the writer do that? How did they make me care so much? How did they make me like (or loathe) that character?

Even as a child, I tried to pick apart the books I loved best to discover why they affected me so profoundly. The first books I remember doing this with were Bambi by Felix Salton and Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter. The longer I worked to disassemble the gears, though, the less I understood the mechanics. At some point I finally gave up and decided that great writers were akin to great magicians. It was better to simply enjoy the performance than try to peek behind the curtain.

When I became serious about writing novels the question resurfaced. Finding the answer became more urgent. Though the experience of writing novels helped me better understand the mechanics of how they tick, however, the magic spark continued to hover just beyond my grasp.

Fortunately for me and every other aspiring novelist (not to mention all of us who love to read), Donald Maass never stopped asking the question. As a writer and literary agent, Maass came at it from a pragmatic, businesslike angle. He wondered: Why do some books become runaway bestsellers while others -- even ones written by the same authors -- don't?