A couple of years ago, my sister (a doctor of education) and I were talking about our kids' picture books. She mentioned liking one in particular because she didn't "feel dumber when she finished reading it." I've thought about that a lot since then. There are so many kid-books that way--books where no author is even listed on the spine or cover. Books no one dares take credit for. Books that deplete the brain mass in my head.
Then, on the other hand, there's the beautiful, mind expanding, soul-lifting book. The book that makes the heart sing. What's the difference? What's the magic?
If I knew that, I'd be cranking out magical books every day.
I haven't got it pinpointed, but I do have one idea that keeps cropping up. It's the term "value added." Like the "bonus features" on the menu selections of your DVDs, sometimes a book has something besides the story to recommend itself. It's the thing that makes the reader come away *not* feeling dumber.
Shakespeare said there's nothing new under the sun. Or, maybe that was Ecclesiastes even longer ago. Fact: plots get recycled--whether the author realizes it or not. Most plots have been done before. The thing that makes a story new or different is the "value added."
Here are some ideas to add value to our writing.
1) Take the reader somewhere new. Describe an exotic setting, whether real or imagined, and make it vivid enough that the reader feels like he or she has really been there. It doesn't have to be a fantasy world or a "foreign land." The movie Napoleon Dynamite made tiny Preston, Idaho, my dear homeland, seem alive and exotic.
2) Introduce the reader to someone new. Describe at least one character with enough precision that the reader feels like s/he would recognize the character on the street. This was the author's gift in Twilight. Readers knew Edward and Jacob well enough they'd buy t-shirts defending one or the other.
3) Teach the reader something new. Describe a process or a situation in your story well enough that the reader feels like s/he can now educate his or her friends on the topic. Legalese is what makes Grisham fun. Make the reader feel smarter in *some* aspect. It doesn't have to take up five pages. It could just be a tidbit, like how to whip cream perfectly, or how to dispose of used oil after an oil change. It just needs to be there, adding to the brains and not depleting them. (Make sure you know the info well, or you may anger well-informed readers who already like the topic.)
Being writers inherently means we think we have something to say that someone else ought to want to hear. It's hinting at the edges of what my husband and I call the "superiority complex." And readers are fine with that. They come to be told a story. They come to be educated. They come to be swept away. Take the responsibility seriously and we'll win repeat customers of our blogs, our novels, our newsletters, our memoirs.
Meanwhile, I'm going to think about what kinds of candy add value to my life. That's easy. Pretty much all kinds of candy. And my category for candy is broad. It includes cake. And pudding. And ice cream. And chocolate of all varieties.
Right now the candy in my cupboard that calls to me is the delicious Snack Pack pudding. Back in the old days, this pudding came in a can. The can had a pop top. If you opened the can just right the lid would bend into a perfect concave to use as a spoon. (I guess that meant the package had added value.) However, if an 11 year old girl was not careful, she could slice open the edges of her mouth with the sharp metal of the pseudo-spoon. Oh, well. Blood just gave the chocolate pudding a salty edge.
I remember sitting at the sixth grade "read-a-thon" where our teacher gave us the whole afternoon to laze about on rugs surrounded by reading materials and treats. Some kids were lucky and brought Snack Pack puddings. Unlucky kids had spongy homemade banana cookies. My mom usually sent red and black licorice for me. The coolest kids got Pringles.
Not a lot of reading got done. More like it should have been called an "eat-a-thon." But that kind of situation is a bit of a fantasy for me still: lying about surrounded by reading materials and foods of my choice. Honestly, tell me: what could be better?