If you have a passion for creating stories but struggle to find time for them, take heart, inspiration is at hand!
But before we get to that, here’s a snippet of info about the author:
Nikki Logan is the President of the Romance Writers of Australia (Inc). She writes nature-based romance for Harlequin Enterprises and Entangled Publishing and has published sixteen books in addition to her craft book ‘The Chemistry of Reading’. Visit her at: http://www.nikkilogan.com.au
Louise: I’ve attended Nikki’s seminar on The Chemistry of Reading at the Romance Writers of Australia conference and found it fascinating (must-hear info for writers) and am thoroughly looking forward to attending Writefest in May to revisit the info. But without further ado, here’s Nikki…
WriteFest 2013 – The Chemistry of Reading (Nikki Logan)
I write full-time in the world’s most commercial of commercial fiction genres, romance. But I cling to my two-day-a-week ‘day job’ to make sure the basic bills get paid because, more than most, I know the difference between writing full time and writing for a living.
To make a living, commercial fiction writers need to build a following large enough to guarantee repeat readership. They need to be prolific, consistent and visible if they want to hold—and grow—their readership but above all they need to engage and excite readers. Readers are fickle and easily swayed by the next good looking book that buys them a drink, and so the mechanism that bonds a reader and an author’s work together needs to be much deeper than just a conscious ‘reader loyalty’.
Ideally, it needs to be cell deep.
The key to that level of cellular-engagement is arousal.
In 2011, I was asked to present in the romance stream of SwanCon/NatCon50. I planned a short examination of the different ways readers can be aroused by fiction. The visceral arousal of a good thriller, the emotional arousal of a romance, the intellectual arousal of a mystery/intrigue novel, the sensual arousal of erotic fiction or the creative arousal of an interplanetary fantasy.
As I got deeper into my topic, I realised that I was only telling part of the story. Before I could look at the technical aspects of how to increase the arousal of your readers, I had to examine why you would want to. And before why, it was important to understand what you were trying to achieve. What was it that happened, chemically and biologically, in the body that fuelled engagement and fed arousal.
And what I found was fascinating. A world of mirror-neurons, insatiability, and experiential ranking, and some of the most ancient, base functions of our bodies being utilised in the commission of one of our most modern, cerebral ones—reading.
And so my workshop ‘Arousing your Reader’ became ‘The Chemistry of Reading’.
I hunted the internet for papers and websites and books relating to the body’s physical response to reading, pulled what I could together, chewed it up and regurgitated it first into a presentation and then into a how-to book – ‘The Chemistry of Reading: Arousing your Reader’. The book seeks to help us understand how reading impacts on the human brain and how to make the most of that knowledge to enrich and empower your own writing.
In essence, how to have someone sitting up in bed at 2am on the morning of an important meeting ‘finishing the damn book’.
Your damn book.
At WriteFest I’ll be presenting a live 90-min version of this workshop (and the how-to) and taking participants through some practical workshop examples to show the theory in action on a couple of commercial blockbusters. Come along if you’re interested in how you can, as a writer, exploit the basic biology of the reading experience.
But if you can’t make it (or if you can’t choose between awesome WriteFest sessions), check out The Chemistry of Reading: Arousing your Reader instead. It’ll be the best $2.99 you’ll ever spend on your writing.
Louise: Thanks Nikki. I’m looking forward to catching up with you over the Writefest weekend. If anyone has any questions for Nikki about her book or about Writefest, please drop them into the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.
And if you’re interested in other Workshop Wednesday topics, the full list is here.
I have a new blog with information for my readers at www.louisecusack.com. My Shadow Through Time fantasy trilogy is being re-released this month as eBooks by Pan Macmillan and I’ve blogged on the amazing journey the series has had in the ten years since it was first print published by Simon & Schuster Australia and selected by the Doubleday Book Club as their Editor’s Choice.
If you’re a lover of “romantic adventures in lost worlds” then I invite you to explore the new website and consider subscribing to my blog there.
What I’m about to say might seem like a no-brainer to writers, but I’ve got a hunch that for some readers it’s going to be fresh news:
Writers can’t create in a vacuum.
Time and tools are not enough to create good fiction. Writers need input if they are to create meaningful output, and let me give you a personal example. The other day I went to an orchestral concert. I could have been writing. I’m currently ‘in the zone’ and story is falling out of me, so it was a wrench to pull myself away from that and be out among people, but now that I’m living in regional Queensland orchestral concerts are few and far between – it’s go now or wait a month.
So I deliberately got there late to miss the milling around at the beginning, but I still had to suffer intermission, and that was jarring. When you’ve dragged yourself away from a fantasy world, a roomful of ‘normal’ people feels like being in an aviary of chattering lorikeets, and none of the conversation you overhear seems pertinent. I’ve got an entire empire hanging by a thread and the people next to me in the coffee line are complaining about the price of fuel. My fault, not theirs. So I try to focus on being an observer (always a good fallback for writers who are still half in their own world) and resume my seat as soon as I can, because I know it’s worth it to hear the music.
For those who don’t attend concerts, let me assure you there’s something magical about being in a auditorium of live music where you can actually feel the swell and grumble of it vibrating through your chest. You experience it kinaesthetically as well as aurally, and I love that. Then there’s the emotional reaction. The Bundaberg Symphony Orchestra played Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” and I welled up. I love that song, but hearing it played through me triggered tears, and there’s more than a momentary emotional reaction happening here. When I close my eyes and let the music swirl around me and through me I can feel the creative tank I draw from filling up. Exactly the same thing happens, to a more limited degree, every afternoon when I walk along the esplanade and hear the waves crashing onto volcanic rocks and smell the salt spray. It fills me up somehow.
Jennifer Cruisie calls it “feeding the girls in the basement”. Anything that creates an emotional reaction fills that tank, and not just happy things. Some of my strongest emotional moments have come from pain, the tragic death of a parent or holding your friend’s hand while they cry. It’s all emotion, and writers need that input, they need to fill the tank because if they don’t they’ve only got dust to draw on when they’re trying to animate their characters. I’m completely convinced that when writers get impossible deadlines and they have to put their lives on hold to concentrate solely on output, their work suffers. In fact, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’d heard a reader complaining that an author they loved is just “churning books out” and the quality is suffering. There will always be exceptions to every rule: writers like Nora Roberts are prolific, satisfy readers and seem to do nothing but write! The rest of us, however, need to take time to ensure our creative tanks are full. Unfortunately when authors do that, they’re sometimes the brunt of reader dissatisfaction for taking too long to deliver.
Guy Gavriel Kay discusses this in his 2009 article: Restless Readers go Bonkers where he relates fantasy author George R.R. Martin’s problem of readers not wanting him to have a life: George R. R. Martin is the hugely successful purveyor of an ongoing, seven-volume fantasy series called A Song of Ice and Fire. Four books are done. The first three came quickly, then there was a five-year wait for the fourth. The first indicated publication date for the fifth installment, fiercely awaited, was 2006. That has rather obviously been missed: Martin is still writing it. The natives are restless… Seems some of his loyal and devoted readers are savagely attacking him for taking holidays, for watching football in the fall, for attending conventions, doing workshops, editing a volume of short stories, even for being “sixty years old and fat” … the implication being he might drop dead before fulfilling his obligation to do nothing else but finish the damned series.
That fifth novel was recently delivered and readers are more than happy with it, but how long will the satisfaction last if it takes another couple of years to deliver book six? Will readers again complain the moment George walks away from the desk? Unfortunately, the days when writers could lead anonymous lives is over. Publishers push authors to be active across social networking platforms, but even writers who guard their privacy aren’t safe from cyber stalking. Readers can now search across blogs, tweets and Facebook updates for an author’s name to monitor their movements as reported by others, which is downright scary. The upside of social media is that writers are more accessible to readers, the downside is that they’re being made accountable.
How will writers manage that in the future, particularly when eBooks can be processed in a matter of months, as opposed to the 12-18 months it takes to release a print novel? No idea. But one thing I do know, despite reader expectation: Input is vital for most writers to produce quality.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. As a reader, do you get frustrated waiting for authors to deliver books? As a writer, how to do ‘fill the tank’?
A recent Publishers Weekly article on enhanced eBooks for children has got me thinking about the whole concept of eBooks which might feature “original music; the story is read by the author and, much like all of these apps, the illustrations—all based on the artwork in the print titles—on each screen can be manipulated to make sounds or animated with the touch of a finger.”
Now these particular eBooks are designed for children and will likely encourage very young readers to keep at it until they understand how to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. As well as the added features: “All releases will feature dedicated Web sites, interactive games, read-along functionality, animation and many other in-app activities for the young reader. Adam Royce, v-p, digital content development at Penguin Young Readers, said the apps offered an “enhanced reading experience and interactive features that are true to the reading experience.”
I take issue with that last phrase, and you’ll see why below, but I’m not so much worried about what’s happening for very young readers, I’m worried that these new developments will bleed into adult fiction where publishers are already looking at “enhanced reading experiences”.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading (print book or eBook device) at some point I stop being in this world and I get into “the zone” where I don’t even remember I’m lying on the lounge any more because I am the character and I’m living the story. Inevitably something happens to plop me out of the story and then I remember it’s ‘just a book’ but prior to that I was somewhere else, in the land of the story, using my imagination to hear wind whispering through trees or see sunlight sparkling off water or smell the salt tang of the ocean. And in fact, if I’d had to stop reading to experience someone else’s idea of what that sunlight looks like or what that ocean smells like, I’d immediately plop out of the story and remember that it wasn’t real.
Now I don’t know about you, but I never wanted that to happen when I was a kid. I was desperate to stay in the story (Alice in Wonderland, Magic Faraway Tree, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie), for the characters to be real, and for the magical settings to be somewhere I could inhabit for as long as possible. I’m sure the same thing happened to kids reading Harry Potter, and I know for sure (because I interviewed a heap of them) that teenager girls reading Twilight lived so thoroughly inside that created world that they’d often get mildly depressed when they returned to ‘real life’ because it couldn’t compare with the sparkle of Edward’s attention. For the period that they were reading, they were Bella, and he loved them. I seriously doubt that would have happened if Twilight had come packaged with werewolf howls and assorted interactive buttons. Maybe as an audiobook, but even then I doubt it would work as well as simply reading the text and letting your own vivid imagination create the sensory experience, with nothing to jerk you out of the story and back to reality.
To me, there’s nothing “true to the reading experience” about adding anything that distracts the reader from being inside the story, because I believe the reader’s imagination is the greatest factor in bringing a story to life – not clever graphics or sounds or even smells and tactile experiences when they work out how to deliver that. And I’m not a Luddite. I’m more than happy for eBooks to overtake print if people want to read on a device. Whatever the reader wants, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of them dropping into the world I’ve created. And I believe “added features” get in the way, so I’m hoping they stay at the very youngest end of the market where they may entice a bored toddler to keep with a story. But once a reader grows up, I really just want them to have text on the first run through.
I do love the idea of the dedicated websites with extra features on them, but only to be used after the reader has finished creating the story inside their own mind. Otherwise we might end up with a generation of children not being able to use their imaginations to fully create the world a writer has sketched out for them. I’m worried about what that means to their enjoyment of story, and also what that means to the creative development of their brains.
As always, I’m really happy to kick start the discussion with my opinions and see what everyone else has to say!
A recent study by Shawn Nielsen of the University of California has revealed that the contraceptive pill alters the way women recall an emotional narrative. I hear you saying “What’s that got to do with writing?” but bear with me.
Female participants watched two slide shows: one emotionally charged, the other similar but less emotional, and the first thing they discovered was that all the women studied recalled more slides from the emotional story. No surprises there. But what did trigger interest was the fact that women on the pill remembered the central plot better (big picture of the story), whereas those not on the pill were better at recalling the peripheral details.
And this might seem like a leap, but straight off the bat I started to wonder if female writers who were instinctive plotters were more likely to be on the pill, through menopause, or have less fertility hormones running through their system for some other reason. Is that why they have more of a ‘big picture’ focus on their stories?
If the study’s revelations on hormones affecting story recall could be extrapolated across genders, it would explain why a predominant number of men (readers and writers) and a certain number of women are more interested in thrillers, courtroom dramas and cleverly plotted who-done-it novels. Men do tend to be attracted to plot driven stories, or at least to those where the goal and conflict is more important than the emotions of the characters. And at the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, a fair proportion of women are attracted to stories where the character’s emotions play a vital part in the decisions made and the actions taken.
So are hormonally fertile women writers are more likely to be drawn to the types of genres and stories that are ‘character driven’, writing them via the seat-of-the-pants method (as opposed to plotting)?
Should we stop thinking guys are insensitive and women are soppy and just accept that our current hormone balance is likely to dictate what resonates with us and (importantly) what we’ll remember of the story we’re either writing or reading?
There’s grist for a hundred blogs on this and I just wanted to kick-start the conversation, controversial thought it might be.
Feel free to comment!
Yesterday was National Bookstore Day in Australia, and like a lot of authors around the country I turned up at my local bookstore to say “Thanks for selling our books.” My Dymocks here in Bundaberg were particularly pleased because I came bearing chocolate mud cake, but the more important message was that authors care. With the demise of bookstore chains and the pressure from eBook sales (which continue to soar) there’s a lot of gloom and doom surrounding the future of bookstores. There’s also a lot of talk among writers about how that affects us, and to be honest, from what I’ve heard recently at the Romance Writers of Australia conference from #NYT best selling authors, print publishers and eBook publishers, they all say the same thing: authors who write a good story will be fine. The format for delivery of our stories is changing, but the demand for good stories remains strong, and whether the format is print books or eBooks, we’ll still make money.
So that’s the writers side of the equation, but from a readers perspective things have a different slant, and as we writers need to understand our audience (and most writers are readers too), this bears looking at. You’d have to be deep in first draft to have missed the wave of grief (and outrage in some quarters) at the idea that print books may soon become as challenging to buy as an LP record. I doubt that will happen, but if it does, those readers who perceive the world in a tactile/kinaesthetic way – myself included – will be the hardest hit.
The loss of a container for story which I can hold and caress (a book) will upset many of the rituals I have around reading that give me such pleasure. I do understand that eReaders are super efficient and freely admit I use one myself on occasion. Their publicity was true in my experience – as soon as I drop into the story I completely forget that I’m holding a machine in my hands instead of a book. I’m “in” the story and the format for delivery is no longer important. I even have Kindle for mobile on my smartphone so if I get stuck waiting somewhere I’ve got something to read. They do have their place and I’m not denying that.
But being “in” the story isn’t the only pleasure I get out of reading. Anticipation of the reading experience is important to me too, the same way anticipating catching up with an old friend for coffee (or a new man for dinner) can create excitement and pleasure long before the actual meeting takes place. I’m also not ashamed to admit I feel happy just standing in front of my bookcase looking at all the multicoloured spines, remembering the thrill each book has given me. Plus, I adore covers! There’s nothing nicer than revisiting a great cover and remembering the characters and the world that author created. Even reading a back cover blurb can evoke a spurt of happy memories.
Then there’s the coffee table beside my lounge where I sit when I’m on a writing break. I always have a couple of books on the go, and they sit there with their enticing covers, waiting for me to come back, feeding that delicious anticipation every time I glance their way.
And don’t get me started on the smell! There is nothing more fabulous than the scent that drifts up as you open a new book for the first time. And as the paper ages the scent changes, the same way a baby’s milky-sweet scent gives way to the school-lunchbox smells of ‘children’ and the musky hormones of a teenager. Books grow. For those of us who adore books, they can be even more potent a thrill-trigger than the smell of the first-picked strawberry of the season, or that first sniff of the ocean when your car reaches the esplanade. The pleasure pathways in my brain that are triggered by the scent of books lie dormant when I use an eReader, and to say that’s disappointing would be an understatement.
Reading should be an experience that’s rich with the texture and tradition of pleasure. And I ‘get’ that we’re living in a fast paced world, but when the pendulum swings too far towards rat-on-a-wheel, you end up with rebellions like the Slow Food Movement that send you back to savouring the process of what comes before you eat the meal. I’m sure there will always be a market for printed books, but I’m less certain that I’ll be able to drive down the road and walk into a book store if Amazon and the Book Depository keep snagging all the trade.
So if you’re a reader like me who loves the sensual experience of a printed book “to have and to hold”, act now before it’s too late. Go into your local bookstore, introduce yourself (particularly if you’re a writer) and buy your books there. I’m sure they’d be happy to order in anything they don’t currently stock. I’ve recently become hooked into the completely addictive YA series by Kelly Armstrong that starts with Bitten, and was delighted to find book two on their shelves when I went in with my mudcake. So I bought it! Easy, and now it’s sitting on the coffee table saying “Read me! Read me!” every time I walk past.
And I love that too. More than I can say.