Viewing entries tagged


Leveraging Curiosity

I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold. 

The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it,  but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:

 “I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”

It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”

Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”

Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.

This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing.  They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.

If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….    

“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”

…the reader  would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.

We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.

You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.

A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:

Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.

What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:

  • Why did he decide to write about his own death?
  • Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
  • Why did his wife agree to that?
  • What did it feel like to make that decision?
  • What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
  • What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?

I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis.  This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.

He writes:

“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”

The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.

But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.

In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.

  • It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
  • It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
  • It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why

Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.

I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.



Seventy Seconds to a Sale: How to Convince Your Reader to Buy Your Book


About a week ago, a writer friend of mine mentioned the title of a book I had never heard of before, and she indicated that it had shot to the top of the amazon bestseller list – the list that tracks all books sold on the site, not just the sliced and diced amazon categories that let practically every writer claim their book is a bestseller.

I was immediately struck by the title – When Breathe Becomes Air.

A good title grabs hold of you and won’t let you go. This one was poetic and mysterious – a kind of Zen puzzle. What did it mean? It intrigued me. It pulled me in. I scribbled it down on one of the 3x5 yellow pads I keep on my desk.

I kept glancing at the title and finally decided to go learn more about it – and at that moment, I also decided to chronicle my reaction to the book and how fast it would take me to decide whether I would buy it or read it, or not.

Like you, my days are crammed full. A thousand things vie for my attention. I don’t have time for much of it, or interest, or bandwidth to process it. I wanted to do a mini study of what it would take for a book to get through the noise – and because of the title of this one, I had a feeling it would get through.

When I went to Google, I had invested all of about 5 seconds in the book. That’s how long it took me to hear about it to write down those four words. I knew nothing about it other than the title and its status on the bestseller list. The fact that a trusted friend has mentioned it to me carried a lot of weight.

I Googled the book and was hit with a barrage of entries – ABS News, Katie Couric on Yahoo, The New York Times, Brain Pickings. I picked a review by The San Jose Mercury News because it was on the top of the list and that newspaper has always had excellent book reviews.

I was now about 10 seconds in.

I scanned the piece and learned in another 10 seconds that the book was about a young accomplished neurosurgeon chronicling his own death, and so I kept reading.

Why? Because this is a topic I love to read about. I have a shelf full of books about death -- How We Die, Kitchen table Wisdom, A Grief Observed, The Rules of Inheritance and its follow up After This, Being Mortal, H is for Hawk – the most recent one to earn a place in my living room bookcase. I am a cancer survivor (breast cancer, 16 years ago), and death is of great interest to me – how it happens, how absolute it is, what it tells us about living.

I do not, however, blindly going buy and read any book on death. I passed on the recent Gratitude by Oliver Sacks (another neurosurgeon), even though it got rave reviews. I have never loved Sack’s work, I wasn’t drawn in by the title or the cover or anything I read about it, so I passed.

But When Breath Becomes Air drew me in. I read further in the newspaper review and got to these words:

What follows is a poignant account of his life, his quest to find meaning, his efforts to retain his humanity in the grind of becoming a doctor and, ultimately, his thoughts on dying.
As he and his wife, Lucy, grapple with whether to become parents in their remaining time together, she asks him: "Don't you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?"
He replies: "Wouldn't it be great if it did?"


At that point, I was sold.  Because being a mother is both a wonderful and a terrifying thing, and I would like to learn from someone who so clearly embraced the wonder over the terror, because I, frankly, have not always been very good at that.

So 50 seconds into knowing about this book, I clicked over to amazon and saw all the praise for author Paul Kalanithi, all the critical reviews, the extraordinary book jacket copy – and I put the book in my Wish List.  I have 12 other books on my bedside table, plenty to read. I didn’t need this book any time soon.

But the day after I put it on my Wish List, I kept thinking about that book – the title, the conceit, a man who had a child knowing he was going to die because he believed that strongly in human connection. I typed it into Google again and found the video that was going viral of the Katie Couric interview.

While I waited for the ads to spin through their cycle (I hate those ads), I read the piece by Brad Marshland and came across these words:

 Paul wrote in When Breath Becomes Air that if he could have some sense of how much time he had left, it would be easier to set his priorities. “If I have two years, I’d write. If I have 10 years, I’d go back to surgery and science.” Living his values, he went back to practicing neurosurgery for a time — and he wrote a book. As it turned out, he had 22 months.

And that was it. Those words that were all I needed because now I saw that this was a book about death and writing and life and how we make meaning, and I was desperate to read it. 70 seconds into knowing about it, I bought the book. It is winging its way to me even as we speak. (I know, I know – I should have gone to my local independent bookstore. I am a sucker for instant gratification when it comes to books.)

I went back to watch the Katie Couric video with Kalanithi’s wife –- and here’s what I saw in her: courage, intelligence, generosity of spirit, grace, humbleness, love, and authenticity.

I saw in her what I had glimpsed in my 70-second encounter with the book – a rare chance to learn how to live in the way that I would like to live, an opportunity to stop letting fear get in the way of wonder.

Books do that to us. They elevate us. They lift us out of our simple existence.  They make us want to be our best selves. And all books have the ability to do this, not just books about life and death.

A dear friend of mine recently had a baby and I sent him a copy of the sweet little board book, Owl Babies. It maybe has 75 words total. It’s a little story about three who are afraid their mom won’t come back, and at the end, she does. I love that book. It, too, lifts me up. I also sent Goodnight, Gorilla, about some animals who outwit the zookeeper. It has no words. And it never ceases to make me smile.

We buy the books that make us feel something, that tap into something deep within us, and we know almost instantly that they are going to do that – by the way our friends speak about them, by the way others write about them, by just a few sample words about what riches they contain.

All of which makes me wonder: am I pouring enough courage, intelligence, generosity of spirit, grace, humbleness, love, and authenticity into the book I am currently writing?

Are you?