I was at the hair salon this week getting my hair cut. Lynn, my hairdresser, was blow drying my hair and chatting to me about something or other and then she cut the blow dryer. In the fresh silence, we both heard the woman in the chair behind me say to her hairdresser, “and then the nurse just took the baby away.”
I gasped and gaped in the mirror at the person who had just spoken these words. Totally rude, I know – we’re supposed to pretend we don’t overhear conversations in public – but I couldn’t help it. Within seconds, based on just nine words, an entire story had formed in my head. I pictured a maternity ward at a hospital. I pictured some gut-wrenching scene involving a mother who had to give up her child. I suddenly had to know everything. Was the baby going to be okay? What about the mom? And where was the dad? And was everyone OKAY with the nurse just taking the baby?
Lynn looked at my shocked expression and at the speaker, who had also heard or seen my reaction and stopped mid-sentence. “It’s a book,” Lynn said, figuring out what was happening before I did, “She’s talking about a book, right?”
The speaker laughed. “Yes, yes,” she said, “We’re reading the same book” – here she indicated her hairdresser – “and I didn’t want her to spoil anything so I told her where I was in the story.”
I laughed at my mistake -- I had absolutely thought she was recounting a real story – and everyone went on with their haircuts and their lives. But I learned three big things from this small moment:
- We all bring our own biases and prejudices to everything we hear. If you are a writer telling a story and you want to direct your reader in a particular direction, you better direct her there. In the absence of information – if things are too vague – your reader is going to fill in the blanks with their own stuff. In this case, I went to tragedy in a maternity ward because I have a client writing a story where this exact thing happens and it is much in my mind. Someone else might have thought something completely different – maybe in their scenario based on these nine words, the mother died. Or maybe the nurse was stealing the baby. If you are in charge of your story (and you are), don’t let them guess. Give them a complete picture so they are following the same story you’re telling.
- Make your reader hang on your every word. Nine words, and I was dying to know what happened. Nine words, and I was in. Make at least SOME of your words count like that – especially the ones that come at the end of chapters. This is what keeps readers turning pages. We want to know what happens next, and so we read on -- just one more page before we turn out the light, just one more page before we get off the couch, and before we know it, we've gobbled up the whole book. The point here is that curiosity drives story. At the end of your chapters, get to a crossroads, a turning point, a moment of decision, a test of character -- SOMETHING that will make the reader say, "Well NOW what?"
- Books sell by word of mouth. Books catch fire when one friend tells another that they have to read it. Books go viral when someone sits down in the chair at the salon and instantly begins to tell her hairdresser where she is in the book – and to beg for her not to give anything away because she’s at the place where the nurse just took the baby away. Books sell when people talk about them. Case in point: In all the hilarity over our misunderstanding, and our apology for eavesdropping, I forgot to ask what the book was. And I’m now dying to know – and I will be asking Lynn to ask her colleague. I will, in other words, be going out of my way to track down that book. It’s something to think about as you write your book and dream of a thousand raving fans.
Photo by Luz Adrianna Villa