If you’re a writer, you were probably a reader first. Odds are you read all the time because you’re in love with the printed word. You’re so in love with it that reading it isn’t enough…you need to write it too.
So you’ve read hundreds of novels, maybe even thousands. But how many of them do you remember? How many can you name? How many can you cite, years after you read them, and tell me something about the plot? Probably not very many. And it’s the same with me.
We’ve all read books that entertained us for a few hours, but a week later we really couldn’t remember them. We moved on to the next novel, and the next, and each one briefly did its job-to entertain us-but then we forgot all about it. I’ve come across used books that look interesting and sometimes I’ll start to read one, only to discover after a few chapters that I’ve already read it-years ago! In an age of mass-market paperbacks only a very few rise to the level of “memorable”, but when we do find one we recognize pretty quickly that…this one is special.
What Makes It Special?
Different people may have different opinions on which novels are special, but we all have read novels that stuck with us. To Kill A Mockingbird; Silence of the Lambs; The Godfather; Stranger In A Strange Land; Gone With the Wind…whatever your particular brand is, these are novels you will never forget. In your entire lifetime you may only read a dozen or so such books and you will treasure them forever. (Every two years like clockwork I dig out Starship Troopers and read it again…the movie was silly and fun, but the book-that book is a classic.)
But what is it about these particular novels that make them stand out from so many others? Literally hundreds of thousands of novels have been written, all designed to entertain, but these few rise above them, visible from shore to shore. Why?
I believe the answer is simple-the book grabbed our emotions and jerked us into its pages. We formed an emotional attachment to the story, the characters, and even the author. That’s why we still love it years after we read it.
So What Makes the Difference?
Novels that form an emotional attachment with the reader don’t do so by accident. Novels like that were written with passion. The author had an emotional attachment to the story when s/he wrote it-had to-or it would never have that kind of impact on you, the reader. Such passion begins with the author; because the author loved the story so much-because s/he poured heart and soul into the story-it overwhelmed you when you read it. And you still remember it to this day.
As a novelist yourself, your best work will be the book(s) that you loved writing. We all love writing-writing is fun, even the light-hearted stuff that will be read and forgotten. But those that will be remembered are the ones we labored over, the ones we slumped from exhaustion when we finished them. When you, the author, care that deeply about the story and its people-when you literally shed tears over a character that died-the reader will feel that too. The passion you pour into the page will reach out and lock onto the reader, drawing his emotions into the story.
How Do I Become Passionate?
A novel isn’t written in a day. At full speed it takes several weeks, and usually longer. Some novels take years to write, so how can you build up and maintain the passion required to make it memorable? Well, if you’re just churning out escapism, you don’t need to. Escapism sells very well if it’s written well. But if you really want people to remember that book, you need to get yourself into it, make the characters real to you, and make the plot as life-threatening as possible.
I wrote the Joseph Lexxus youth novel in two weeks, for my son and his best friend (who designed some of my covers). I had no emotional attachment to the story, it was just a fun story to write, and it got me writing again after a 15-year hiatus. Then I started what became A Vow to Sophia, and that was entirely different. The universe for that story had been cooking in my head for decades, literally since high school, and it was a story I wanted to tell. The best way I could define it when I began was “a war in space”-I didn’t have much planned beyond that. But I set out, and defined the characters as I went along.
A Vow to Sophia is more than just a war story-it’s a book about love, hate, fear, and courage. The setting is dark and terrifying-the Federation has been sneak-attacked by a former colony, caught off guard, and the enemy is winning on every front. Facing them is an untested military comprised mainly of young, hastily-trained recruits who would rather be making love than making war, but their very survival is at stake. To maintain the emotional pitch I needed, I resorted to…music.
Yes, music. Have you ever noticed in the movies how music manipulates your emotions? You can watch a scene, even a battle scene, in an unedited version of the film and it doesn’t do much for you. But once post-production is finished and a soundtrack is added, you will be sucked into the action. The music will make your heart pound; you will be on the edge of your chair. Music is a powerful emotional manipulator.
I wrote the entire Fighter Queen saga with headphones on. I used different music for each novel. Vow was written with a combination of Blondi, Rod Steward, Roseanne Cash, and Johnny Lee songs (different songs for different moods in the story). I even threw in a little Top Gun for the early battle scenes, because it gave me a sense of speed in aerial combat. I used different music for The Fighter King, and still different music for The Fighter Queen.
Star Marine, the largest of the FQ novels (and according to some critics the most memorable) was written to the soundtrack of ABBA Gold. To this day, when I hear Dancing Queen or Waterloo on the radio, I am transported to the streets of Periscope Harbor where Rico Martinez and his squad are fighting for their lives amid the skytowers of Beta Centauri. Something about those songs emotes urgency, and just a little wistfulness for a young Star Marine far from home, who may never see home again.
Give It a Try
George Lucas, in a documentary about Star Wars, said that he also writes to music. When I heard him say that, I was already doing it, and it was working for me, as it did for him. I think it might work for you, too. May I recommend that you pick a few songs or albums that fit the project you’re working on, slip on the headphones, and see what happens. You’ll want to use different songs for different scenes-something fast and snappy for action scenes, something slower and more mellow for love scenes, etc. Try different combinations and see what works for you. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised…and so will your readers.
John Bowers is a very prolific science fiction author. His first published science fiction novel, A Vow to Sophia, became a 5-story series called The Fighter Queen Saga. He then published the 3-book Nick Walker, UF Marshal series followed by the 5-part Starport series.
He’s also published a mid-grade novel, Joseph Lexxus and the Drug Runners of Altair.