Connect, Then Blow Them Up

BOOM! Goes the book.

Last week (possibly the week before — life seems to be moving at the speed of light these days) I attended Cindy Pon’s Diversity Tour in Cambridge. I learned several things, the first being that Cindy, no slouch herself, rolls with some amazing authors.

The panel discussed, among other topics, how to get YA readers to look at books outside their comfort zone.  One of the authors noted how, growing up, she never read books with heroines that looked like her – they simply didn’t exist then.  What made her continue reading certain authors and genres was that the writer managed to make an emotional connection – a point of contact — that stretched across physical and gender characteristics.

Simple and elementary, but it struck home with me.  As a kid, I loved Robert Parker’s novel Ceremony. (I still do.) I read it somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, when a friend whose father ran a Woolworth’s gave me a copy as a birthday gift.  If physical similarities were all that mattered to readers, I would have identified with the misguided April Kyle, a pretty blonde teenager from suburbia.  But of course, it was Spenser the wise-cracking detective who captured my heart, who made me think about honor and codes of conduct and the value of loyalty and love, important stuff for an evolving pre-teen.  The point of contact Parker made with my then-self lasted until his death this year, and I still can’t bring myself to read his most recent book, knowing it is the last.

The second point, made by author Malinda Lo, was that YA authors don’t have the luxury of starting their novels with backstory.  They need to get right to the story — BOOM — and keep it moving. Otherwise they’ll lose their readers.

I love stories that take their time unwinding, but ya know what?  Lo is right, and not just for YA authors.  Here’s how I know:  I’d planned to buy only Cindy’s fabulous new book Fury of the Phoenix, but the signing line was long and I found myself browsing.  I picked up The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, read five pages, and was completely hooked.  I bought it, read it in a night, and wound up downloading the second in the series the next day.

Will I be starting my next novel with a car crash or demon attack?  Probably not.  (Though you never know.) But will I be reading each and every word to make sure it grabs my reader by throat, and keeps her turning pages, maybe even skipping them, until the very end?  Abso-stinkin-lutely.

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Liz Michalski


  1. Lynn on May 24, 2011 at 10:28 am

    So true- a book that pulls me in instantly and keeps me going always makes me feel a little more connected to the characters than a story that slowly unfolds- I so need to get to the end to find out what happens to them. (Also, it makes me ignore everything else that needs to get done, so it is always a little vacation from laundry and dishes, which is never a bad thing!)

    • liz on May 25, 2011 at 2:06 pm

      Lynn, I’m amazed you get to read AT ALL with everything you do. You are pretty impressive!

  2. Rosemary on May 24, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Re: identifying with MC’s–I’m hardly the shy, retiring type, but I identify strongly with Anne Elliot in Persuasion. More than any of Austen’s heroines, I feel as though I am in her skin and inside her head. Sigh.

    (Maybe it’s time for that yearly re-read.)

    • liz on May 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm

      Oooh, I love Anne too — I think because she’s so resigned to her fate at the beginning, and is so wonderfully happy at the end.

  3. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on May 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    There were a few books I read as a child that featured characters of a different race. They made a strong impression on me, usually because they were stuck in the role of outsider and had to be unusually heroic to cope. I’m thinking of BLACK, LIKE ME or TO SIR, WITH LOVE. Also, of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Oh, and it’s been years, but I loved Pearl S. Buck, Laurens van der Post and Jan de Hartog.

    Ha… Thank you for this reminder. For years everything I read had an exotic locale. I’d forgotten.

    Re YA: my son is a reluctant reader. To pull him in and keep him, the books must have accessible language, begin with action, remain fast paced, and generally feature a male protagonist. Humor is always a bonus.

    • liz on May 25, 2011 at 2:09 pm

      van der Post wrote some of my all time favorite books — starring my favorite breed of dog. (I SO wanted to rename Harley Hinza, but got talked out of it.)

      In honor of Towel Day, I bought the BBC version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m trying it on the kids this weekend — not sure if my six-year-old will get the humor or not, but it is worth a try…maybe your son might like it!

  4. cindy on May 25, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    thanks so much for this post liz! it was lovely to
    meet you finally. and it was ME who said i read all
    these stories of characters who didn’t live or look like
    me but connected. it’s all about tapping into the Human
    Experience. it’s what we do in fantasy writing all the
    time, work it down to the raw emotions of being human
    and living.

    and so happy to nab about sarah rees brennan fan.
    she is amazing!

  5. liz on May 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks for stopping by, Cindy! It was an awesome night on all counts!

  6. cindy on May 26, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    man, my brain doesn’t work. i’ve been making up words these past two days for what should be there. i meant, so happy to nab *another srb fan. =) and i’m going to link this on my own post today!

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