Do you have books that have grabbed your because of one line? A scene? The way an author depicts a setting? Those little gems are what keep you riveted in the story and keep it on your mind day after day, month after month. Damon Suede comes to us with a fascinating discussion on how to make this happen. Welcome Damon!
What is special about your writing?
Seriously: if someone cracked your most recent book open to any page, what would grab their attention and make it stand out from every other author working today? This subject keeps coming up in convos with colleagues because all of us know just how much competition and noise has exploded in the romance genre. Often this topic gets umbrellaed under the rubric of “breakout” novels or “bestseller” rules, but I think those are dopey oversimplifications.
When does a book generate dazzling word of mouth in unexpected audiences? Why do some characters electrify readers? How do I know that a story will take me somewhere astonishing? What makes a series an autobuy? Why do I stick with an author even when one of their books falls flat? Which writing excites me and what’s a snoozefest?
Often one line, one moment, one kiss will bury itself in me so deeply that I don’t want to remove it. Enough of those glittering moments and a book owns me forever. They are buried treasure and I enjoy finding them as much as I enjoy experiencing them. The stories we love come down to powerful, unforgettable specifics.
With RT looming a month away down in New Orleans, I’ve also been thinking a lot about growing up in the Gulf. Though I grew up in Houston, I have a tons of family all over Louisiana, in New Orleans especially. I learned to party at Halloween and Mardi Gras. It sounds like a cliché, but southern childhoods can seem freaky, abusive, or pagan. We come by it naturally because the South is a bizarre hodgepodge of cultures, cuisines, and immigrant groups.
Anyone who spent a chunk of their early years in the Deep South drinking iced tea in buckets and eating moon pies will know what I’m talking about. Holding doors, ma’am-and-sir, June bugs, four hour dinners… no matter how far we run, that stuff never washes out. I have family in two Mardi Gras krewes, so parades and balls taught me how to party. Sweet hurricanes and strip clubs are for the tourists. I’m all about the King Cake.
Now, King Cake migrated by way of French Catholics. Traditionally, it’s served after Epiphany up till Fat Tuesday, but over time it’s evolved into the kind of big tacky, colorful carbo-nightmares of which kids dream. Baked into the batter are trinkets (aka fèves), which turn every King Cake into a fancy Cracker Jack box. Though it was originally a bean or a coin, the fève became a little porcelain baby/king, and whoever found it was crowned for the day and got to pick their consort.
Over time, the little prizes have multiplied because everyone wants their shot, right? A modern King Cake might contain a king, a baby, a dragon, a coin, a kitten… you name it. Likewise, these trinkets have crossbred with wedding shower “charm cakes” and the pudding dolls in English Christmas puddings. Some fèves have acquired little predictive meanings. The King-finder often has to bring next year’s cake, the coin means wealth, the heart means a flirtation, etc. Curiosity and the primal human urge to discover things create a little sizzle of suspense as people hunt for the prize.
So what does that have to do with romance or publishing?
One of Agatha Christie’s central rules was that every page in a story must reveal a new piece of information that changes everything that has gone before. By default, this creates page turners because readers learn to expect these little nuggets of suspenseful goodness. Christie might have one dazzling payoff in that novel, but ideally each chapter, each scene included a charm to be discovered. Mystery addicts the world over can attest the compulsion of the “one more page…” insomnia created by that kind of precise craft. In essence, Christie baked a specific fève into every page.
Want to know why people get bored with blockbuster movies but kids keep buying tickets till they wise up? New dogs, old tricks. The same damn Cracker Jack prizes show up every damn time: dudes fighting over stuff until it blows up. Fart jokes and fat shaming. Splatter movies with snark. Sex scenes in slo-mo. Bad guys who fall down and underwear models who get hitched. Snore.
When I was still scripting full time for film/TV/theatre, I knew that the only way to hold producer interest (and by extension actor and audience interest), was to insert little sparkly treats that kept folks in their seats. I deployed all the whammies and razzmatazz I could muster and changed the tune as often as I dared, anything to keep them excited and curious.
As I transitioned into fiction, I tried to do the same thing: salting my wordcount with dialogue, images, and situations that escalated the story. And since each work is its own beast, I had to invent new sparkly trinkets for each project. I sat and chewed on the charms, to get at what made them work.
Above all, fictional fèves are unforgettable and specific. They escalate. They charge situations; they incite action and inspire transformation. They hint at a larger, unseen picture. As a set, they show variety and scope. These are the moments we recount when we’re recapping a story we love. Don’t take my word for it! Think about the movies, the books, the anecdotes you love. Try to pinpoint the tiny shiny details that make them stay with you.
In the past couple years, my process of burying little treasures has become more conscious, not in the sense of predetermined bon mots or nonsensical eye candy, but looking for the specific charm in every page, every scene, every chapter of a book. Hey: a Cracker Jack box without any prize pisses people off. Language, imagery, detail, and research can all become little treats for your reader that drags them under and won’t let them go. Can I always manage it? Oh hell no… but I try.
I’ve started actively mining the little gems that readers want as conscious part of my drafting process. I find them in exercises, research, and free writing. I hunt down clichés and hammer at my habits. And because they are shiny trinkets, I never need to get precious or defensive about them. Some will get cut so that better ones can take their place.
By little treasures, I don’t mean the ugly, clever darlings that we must kill pronto for everyone’s sanity, but rather the miraculous bits that feel like they’ve come not from us but through us, that stick in the mind like dazzling burrs. Even the most formulaic plot, the most generic situation becomes incandescent when we charge it with unforgettable specificity.
Pacing and spacing matters! Piling a bunch of whammies on top of each other numbs the reader. I’m always checking to see where the fèves land and if they’re spaced and placed for maximum effect. Nobody wants the King Cake prizes in one lump because everyone misses out. Best part: these little fictional prizes are completely idiosyncratic and personal. My charms and yours can never and will never be the same even if we were crazy enough to try.
I don’t want to repeat myself let alone someone else. If I’ve busted out some freaky/dazzling bilingual banter, then next time out that’s off the table. If I unleashed a crazy orgy in a gummi bear factory, then I’m not likely to revisit the fruity goo anytime soon. If I want to shock folks, I can’t regurgitate the same shocking reveal ad nauseam. M. Night Shymalan had this exact problem and it ruined him: he baked the same creaky, crummy fève into every one of his cakes, even when no one would cut into them, let alone eat them. Very quickly, his charm stopped being charming.
When I’m in edits, I make sure that those fèves are pulling their weight. Like the different charms, I let these bits do the work of foreshadowing and texturing, and punching deeper into characters. Again, because they are by definition small, they can pack a real wallop without wasting wordcount. Even if I fail, I’m trying like hell to dig deeper for the stuff that sparkles. You know when you’ve found one. We’ve all written a smile, a line, a description that anchors a beat or nails the emotional truth. We defend them life and limb. Rightfully so!
So, the next time you’re baking, think about how your King Cake slices. Consider what charms you choose, how they work together, and where you’ve folded them into the batter. Look for the things that sparkle and polish like hell.
We all have our beloved desert-island keepers that keep us sane and save our lives, and I’ll bet you a zillion dollars that all your faves come down to fèves.
So what little gems do you put in your book? What are ones that have stood out to you in other people’s work?
Friday – Handsome Hansel is back at RU!
Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com .
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- Weekly Lecture Schedule for September 19-23, 2011 
- Readers’ Choice: On the Power of Set Pieces and Whammos by Damon Suede 
- Romantic Nature and Sub-genres by Damon Suede