Advertisers know this: to sell a product, the advertisement must engage the senses. The truism hearkens back to "Sell the sizzle, not the steak."
One of the most common flaws in writing is a lack of sensory detail. I'm guilty, too, so don't think that this little essay compares my assumed superiority against the alleged dross others write. As an editor, this flaw most often manifests in violation of the ubiquitous "show, don't tell" rule. The author tells what something looks like, tells what something tastes, mentions a sound. However, the characters show little or no reaction to the sensation.
Say the protagonists sit down to a simple meal of roast chicken, steamed vegetables, and seasoned rice. Simple enough, right? However, what the meat's texture feel like on the tongue? Is the chicken moist or dry? What about the vegetables? Have they been steamed to an unpalatable, mushy consistency? Are they tender with just a bit of crispness to tempt the bite? What about the rice? Is it sticky, soupy, or swimming in an acidic tomato or gooey cheese sauce?
Not every item or every action in a scene requires such thorough description; however, enough does to immerse the reader into the virtual experience of the story. Many authors concentrate too much on the visual aspects of the experience, compounded with an over-reliance on dwelling within a character's inner monologue. Sometimes the senses simply benefit from being engaged without a bias. Let the reader decide whether the experience is something he or she would like to repeat. Or not.
As I work with a marketing consultant, I learn more about the necessity of engagement. From 140-character tweets to short, descriptive sentences, the effort must induce emotion or "feels." From the fresh lemon scent of furniture polish to the buxom beauty draped across the hood of a sports car, nothing about any product promotion goes unplanned. Like a restaurant or manufacturer, an author wants to ensure that his or her readers form an emotional connection with not only the story, but--as I'm learning--also with the author.
I admit this is strange to me. An avid for almost 50 years, I never really concerned myself with the personal lives of my favorite authors or musicians. As long as they produced stories and music I enjoyed, I would continued to read and listen. However, times have changed, even if this Luddite hasn't. People now want to form personal connections with the authors of the stories they read. Therein lies the question as to how much does the author share?
You'll get no answer here. I'm still trying to determine that myself and it's going to be a struggle. I resisted jumping on the e-book bandwagon for several years until my husband gave me a Kindle one year for Christmas and I found myself downloading books and not overloading our shelf space. What convenience! I carried the Kindle to work, took it with me on business trips, and didn't have to weigh down my purse or overnight bag with extra paper. But... I still like the feel of a book in my hands. I like the physical act of turning the pages. I like the idea that to read a real book, all I need is light and time. I don't worry about the battery dying. I don't worry about light glaring off the screen. I don't worry about someone peering over my shoulder and reading the illuminated content that I purchased for my own private entertainment or education.
How much is too much to share? The marketing consultant explained that my author persona of Holly Bargo is a public figure. Funny, I never thought of that. The pseudonym was employed as a way to create distance--and because what I write embarrasses my family. If I understand correctly, I must give Holly Bargo a personality that is somewhat distinct from my own, yet similar enough that I don't suffer from some sort of psychotic, split personality breakdown. Who is Holly Bargo?
Join me as the marketing effort gains momentum and I learn to engage the senses beyond the stories. We'll learn together.
When Julia Child first met the man who would become her husband, they didn't particularly like each other. Paul Child wrote of her faults, noting she was a "sloppy thinker." Use the search engine of your choice and you'll find myriad quotations that equate writing to thinking. These usually pithy words of wisdom have been attributed to William Knowlton Zinsser, David McCullough, Bill Wheeler, Mason Cooley, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, and others. Most agree that good writing requires clear thinking:
You get the idea.
The imperative for clear thinking guides the process for developing nonfiction, especially instructional guides, construction specifications, technical writing, and scholarly papers. The application of clear thinking to fiction muddies the process.
Methodical writers who plot their stories chapter by chapter, create outlines, and develop character descriptions do so to clarify their thinking. Such preparation does not mitigate the creativity of their work, but can limit impromptu inspiration which may take a story into an entirely new and unanticipated direction. "Plotters" organize their thoughts and write with an emphasis on logical progression.
At the other end of the spectrum are "pantsers" like me. This type of story creation begins with an idea. The idea's source doesn't matter. The idea for The Falcon of Imenotash came from a movie; the idea for Ulfbehrt's Legacy combined a picture of a handsome Norwegian naval officer and a PBS special on the legendary Ulfbehrt forge; the idea for Pure Iron came from my having read one too many angst-ridden, poorly composed "New Adult" books that featured characters who disgusted me, which spawned the boast, "I can do better than that crap." Sometimes the idea is the opening scene, sometimes not. I adhere to the advice within Robin McKinley's 1978 book Beauty: "Begin the middle and work outwards. Don't be stuffy." Pantsers have a process, although it may not be readily apparent and it is subject to changing at whim. Regardless of the chaos of their processes, pantsers must also think clearly so that they write their stories clearly.
The final product--the story--should not show the thinking process. Formulaic work may implement logical thinking, but it often reads like an outline filled in by the author adhering to a tried and true formula for story production. The mysteries of Hercule Poirot or the adventures of Jack Reacher follow predictable formulae. The reader knows that Poirot will solve the mystery and that Reacher will beat the bad guys into bloody pulps. I think romance most often, and perhaps most unfairly, suffers from accusations of formulaic writing. Formula-driven stories can be and often are enjoyable: they're about the journey, not the destination.
The journey itself requires good writing, which relies upon clear thinking. Clear thinking requires asking why something happens and then determining its importance to the story. Does the answer to that "why" advance the story or is it background information dumped upon the reader?
Good storytelling needs more than logical progression of thought. It needs the divine spark of creativity to immerse the reader within the imaginary journey. If a story makes the reader oblivious to the world beyond the book and engages the reader's emotions, then the writer has succeeded, regardless of whether the story itself follows a formula or outline.