What Makes Us Cry

At the second turn of the Belmont, when American Pharoah opened up his stride and pulled away from the pack, I burst into tears. And I wasn’t alone. In the room, on the screen, over Facebook and Twitter, people were sobbing. Yes, the horse ran a glorious race, but why did we cry? I’ve often wondered the same thing about books. Unlike movies, where the image of people crying stirs a sympathetic response, characters blubbering on the page can make readers detach. Mere sadness isn’t enough. Something more complex and nuanced is required. Books need to earn our tears.

Tears mean the body is involved as well as the mind. Crying comes out of a physical need for release. As readers, we have to care so deeply about the character that the struggle feels like our own. We need to be surprised in a way that gets past our defenses. The character has to want something with primal resonance so the stakes grab us viscerally. Most of all, the writing must stir our souls. Our conscious brains have little to do with it: it’s our bodies that break into tears.

To care so deeply that the problems feel like our own, we have to know and identify with the character. Knowledge comes out of the character being specific and seeming real to us. For this, the writer needs to believe in and care about the character first. Backstory – what brought the character to this point – may be critical to the writer’s connecting with the character, but how much of that to include and when is up to each writer. The important thing here is to write him or her as vividly as you can out of your own deep connection.

Identification is built up through showing a specific character in scene. Even if characters are very different from us, we put ourselves in their shoes when things happen. As they react to events, so do we. This is how identification begins. The reader thinks: if I were her, I’d react that way too. When people talk about a character being sympathetic, it has more to do with our relating to their reactions and desires than it does with lengthy character descriptions.

Readers also need time with a character if they’re expected to care. Writers are often advised to dive into a problem at the start of their book, which can generate a lot of interest and energy, but not usually tears. I’ve been hooked by the tragedies that open some books – such as the death of the mother in The Secret Life of Bees and Swamplandia (these aren’t spoilers: if you flip through their first few pages, you’ll know this before you buy them) – but they don’t make me cry.

The Goldfinch comes close by telegraphing the mother’s death early on, then dropping back to build up to the event in scene, letting us get to know both son and mother before the loss. But this early reveal is more effective at engaging us with the main character – we open up to a more intimate and serious level with him right away – than it is at getting us to cry. We know about the death, so we defend ourselves from caring too much. That takes an element of surprise.

The stakes also have to be big enough. In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder tells writers to root their plots in primal drives such as survival and hunger – urges so basic they connect with all of us in a visceral way. What the character wants, we feel ourselves wanting too. This is how our identification becomes complete. Add to that obstacles, setbacks, trying and failing, trying again, courage in the face of bad odds. Achieving these wants can’t be easy. Struggle gets to us. Often it’s not a loss, but the sudden success despite everything that moves us to tears.

Finally, the way you tell the story matters. The beat of words, the rhythm of sentences, the infusing of image with meaning. The storyteller’s art. If you want tears, you need to make these moments count. Poor writing can leave readers cold even if all the other elements are there. Beautiful writing almost seems to pull tears out of readers.

I cried about American Pharoah because it had been so long since anyone took the crown (stakes and surprise) and the way he ran showed me that he had heart and that he cared (character). The other horses running meant that he could still lose (struggle). The race even had a kind of rhythm to it – the pound of hooves, the reach of muscles – that stirred me inside (akin to good writing).

I’m also a sap when it comes to horses, but that’s just me.



Book Research Take Two

Solid research is a necessary part of fiction writing. We depend on factual details to convince readers to believe in our fictional worlds. But getting our work into the hands of readers merits another kind of homework. If you want to pursue traditional publishing, you need to spend some time researching agents to give your book its best chance in an extremely challenging marketplace.

1. Finding agents through other authors

Beginning your query letter with a referral from one of an agent’s authors is an ideal way to get some attention. Unfortunately, that’s rarely an option. Agents also appreciate hearing that you admire an author of theirs whose books are similar to yours – a much more achievable goal. You can start with books you love and look up their agents, or go to a library or bookstore and flip through books in your genre. Pay particular attention to recent books and debuts: the agent for a Pulitzer Prize winner would be a stretch. Alternatively, you can reverse-engineer this by first researching agents online and then looking up their authors to see if any of them are a good fit.

2. Researching agents online

QueryTracker, AgentQuery and the Poets & Writers’ Literary Agents Database are excellent free online resources with filters to help you find appropriate agents. You can use them to generate a list or to look up individual agents. Each agent’s contact information, genres of interest, and authors appear in the same place. With that in one tab, you can right click on links to his or her website and Twitter feed as well. The website will provide more information on the agent’s interests and submission policy. The Twitter feed will give you a sense of his or her personality (which you don’t need to be on Twitter to see). Finally, the author links will open up Amazon pages so you can take a peek at their books. Another terrific resource is the Writer’s Digest Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog: he makes a point of listing agents in search of new work. I’d also recommend a quick Google search of your agents in case they have interviews online. As well as determining who would be a good agent for your book, you want to see if you have something in common – literary tastes, of course, but even growing up in the same town – so you can mention it in your query in hopes of making a connection.

3. Meeting agents in person

Agents often appear at conferences or other programs for writers. I’ve attended a number of conferences which feature agents, from the immense Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, with over 800 writers and 50 literary and film agents, to the trimmer Writer’s Institute in Madison, with closer to 300 writers and 9 literary agents. Conferences like these give you the opportunity to hone your pitch – by giving it repeatedly and in person, you learn rapidly what’s working and what’s not. Agents are also more likely to look at your manuscript if they’ve met you in person (a connection has already been made). The downside is that conferences can be expensive, time-consuming, and inefficient as a means of finding agents. They can also be daunting. When choosing a conference, you should pay attention to how much time they give for pitches. Some conferences engage in pitch slams with as little as 90 seconds per pitch. The Willamette Writers Conference and the Writer’s Institute both allow 8 minutes for pitches, enough time for a brief conversation. Attending one of these conferences provides a great education, but if the cost or fear factor is a problem for you, you can still reach agents without it, as described above.

What I’m talking about here is the kind of work it takes to attempt an authentic connection with a stranger whom you’re asking to consider being an advocate for you and your book. Think about how you’d feel if the positions were reversed. There may be ways to shortcut this, such as the Twitter pitch fests like #PitMad, #PitchWars, #PitchtoPublication, #AgentMatch and #SFFpit, but they tend to rely on a short high-concept pitch without giving you a chance to include a writing sample or past publications. That approach may work for some books, but not others. It also doesn’t allow for a learning curve. But you should be sure to check them out to see what you think.

Whatever you decide, the search for an agent requires and deserves some of the same seriousness of purpose that you brought to writing your book.



A Visit from the Goon Squad

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 2010).

9780307477477The music industry may link this fascinating collection of characters, but what we experience is each one’s separate, deeply personal movement through time as they dance with their demons. The way forward is murky, as it is in our own heads, but there are insights here that light up the page. We see Sasha, who works for record executive Bennie and is in secret a kleptomaniac, standing by her pile of stolen objects with “a tenderness that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life.” Egan’s postmodern techniques of fragmentation and ever-changing perspectives only make us more determined to hunt for these treasures of truth – to seek for answers to how and why people change. We get the sense that even in this vain, selfish world, there are people fighting to be honest with themselves, if only for a moment, people struggling to learn. We find ourselves caring about them, often in spite of themselves.

For writers: If you wonder what agents mean by a literary novel with a commercial hook, here is one answer. Don’t be fooled by Egan’s breezy postmodernism: this is a serious book. Her restless narrative techniques complement the edginess of her chosen milieu, and the prose at the heart of every perspective is powerful and lucid. The insights she achieves come from connecting deeply with her characters and staying with them – from the hard work of laying down character-specific actions and details that lead to discovery and truth. And even though the narrative devices vary all over the place, each is chosen with a distinct character in mind: Sasha is revealed through a reluctant close 3rd; naive Rhea through uncensored 1st; egocentric Lou through distant, ironic omniscience; celebrity Kitty through a crazed interview. Near the end, a child obsessed with the pauses in music only lets us peak in through her charts. But there we glimpse one of the most startling insights of all: pauses are a gift, because you’re afraid the song’s about to end, but it doesn’t, not yet. You still have time left for more.