All. Those. Books.

Princess in a Bubble: Sander van der Wel from Netherlands

Princess in a Bubble: Sander van der Wel from Netherlands

Recently I totted up that, of the eighty or so college students I’ve taught this year (only about a half of whom were creative-writing-emphasis English majors), a good dozen have written novels. That’s a fifteen percent. They’ve completed novels, they tell me. A couple of them have written more than one.

I haven’t read any of these novels, so I can’t say if they’re any good. Judging from the student-novelists’ writing in other contexts, they’re probably not much worse than a lot of what gets published these days, but they’re probably not masterpieces.

Whether their novels are good or not, though, it seems important that there’s all this fiction-writing going on these days beside and beneath and perhaps instead of all the assignments and tests and papers and other writing that comprise a college education. I certainly wasn’t completing novels—not even short stories—back when I was their age, and I can’t think of a single classmate who was. I’ve been speculating what all these budding—nay, blossoming—young writers might mean for the state of literature in our time and for the writing community at large.

One thing that occurs to me right off is that young people these days must feel more invited and encouraged and empowered to write and publish novels than I ever was. That’s perhaps to be expected of the self-esteem building curriculum promoted in the generations between mine and theirs. I once had my seventh grade teacher’s Little Brown Handbook thrown across the room at me for chewing gum. They, on the other hand, were told they could do pretty much anything they wanted. Consequently, not a few of them went ahead and did that—which is sort of exciting, when you think about it.

Students these days are also very motivated to write. By what? one wonders. One incentive would surely be the myriad publishing opportunities available to writers these days. Several of my students have published their work online and two have paid to have their work published by what we used to call a vanity presses. Publishing has become something anyone can do, at any stage of life, often with little or no investment of resources beyond the time it took stole from a few games of online poker.

Due_sportelli_di_libreria_con_scaffali_di_libri_di_musicaAnother motivation could be the greater variety of subgenres popular with kids nowadays. When I was young, girls read Nancy Drew as tweens, then progressed directly to the classics (Austen, the Brontës, for me Defoe and Dickens); boys who read mostly read adventure or sci-fi then stopped; and everyone liked the odd fantasy stand out like J. R. R. Tolkien. Nowadays, bookstores and libraries have separate young adult sections with whole shelves of mystery/thrillers, even more shelves of fantasies, plus equally popular subgenres we never heard of in my day: apocalyptic, dystopian, historical fiction, alternative historical fiction, cyberpunk, steampunk, contemporary, Christian contemporary, romance, LGBT romance, Amish teen romance. . . The world of fiction these days is like a map of the brain: so much stuff going on, so much new vocabulary you need to even talk about it.

Then there are the novel-writing success stories: J. K. Rowling and her napkin, Christopher Paolini writing Eragon at fifteen, the almost immediate transformation of their and other books popular with young people into big screen movies. It looks so easy nowadays, writing a book. A flick of the pen and you’re there.

I guess the thing that fascinates me most about the novelists among my students is not their license and motivation to write or even the astounding investment of time involved but the enthusiasm they must bring to the fiction-writing enterprise: to prefer it over other more age-appropriate entertainments—such as, for me at their age, hanging out with friends, cooking, reading, learning aikido, making ceramic pots, scavenging my natural and suburban surroundings for sea urchins and kumquats, sewing.

(For them, playing video games, watching YouTube, poking their cellphones? Maybe it’s that. The screen-squinching narrowness of their entertainment alternatives. Writing has become their life before they’ve even had lives, I’m supposing. Although I’d have to read their books to know for sure.)

From everything I’ve heard in the news lately, reading’s on the wane, but writing sure isn’t. Either that or the students at Christian universities like mine are way different—more creative and prolific, harder working, more hip to the possibilities out there—than their secular peers. I’m guessing they’re not all that different, though. I’m guessing my anecdotal fifteen percent of kids these days—perhaps more!—are writing books in lieu of reading them (or maybe in addition to reading them, since somebody’s got to be reading all those cyberEpiscopalian dystopian romances) and will soon be filling the shelves and movie marquees with their opuses.

It’s becoming my new writerly nightmare. Used to, bookstores scared me. All. Those. Books! All that competition for readers. Now it’s them. My students. Our kids. Our kids’ kids.

This isn’t a very encouraging post, I fear, for fellow writers—especially those of a certain age—so let me just close with a little remediation in the self-esteem training some of us missed out on: Don’t. Give. Up. If they can do it, we can too!

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How to Captivate Readers

Small Child Reading

Wonderment

Children’s eyes

See marvels,

Creation

Born anew,

Wonderment

In each small

Everything.

Give me, Lord,

A child’s view.

©Janalyn Voigt

The cup of tea at your elbow grows cold.The dryer buzzes, but you hardly notice. The clock ticks past the time to make dinner, but you turn the page and read on, captured by the author’s creative world.

When they can make readers forget they’re reading, books rank high on purchase lists. Figuring out how this happens is well worth the effort. Can such a thing be identified? Bringing the reader so fully into a story would seem to take an elusive blend of mastery and pixie dust. Besides, don’t readers’ preferences dictate which books will draw them in?

I would have agreed to this idea a week ago, but not any longer. You see, the book I’m currently reading for a literary contest is a young adult story. With my teen years forever behind me, I am not a target reader for this book. In fact, when I first picked it up, I groaned inwardly. While being required as a literary judge to read a slew of books might seem an envious pursuit, the bare truth is that sometimes I wind up stuck with a book I’d otherwise never open. It would be arrogant of me to judge another author’s writing without actually reading it, and so in a fit of fortitude I slog doggedly onward until the merciful end.

If that had been the case with this particular book, I wouldn’t be writing this post. It wasn’t. I did have to push past a slow start, but then the story enveloped me like a warm shawl on a chilly evening. I read late into the night, turning pages in a way that would have gratified the author. As I mentioned, I am not this author’s target audience, so I may never crack one of her books, but the next day I found her Goodreads page and became a fan. Why? Because her writing transported me in a way few books have. And I read a lot of books. If my experience is anything to go by, preference has little to do with captivating a reader.

What does, then? I asked myself this question with an interest not in the least academic. I want to apply this writer’s secret sauce to my own writing. I read the rest of the book with that goal in mind. What I discovered rocked me to the core.

Apart from the necessities of craft and mastery, two distinct factors elevated the story: a unique writing voice empowered by a vivid imagination. The author’s strong sense of self expressed without reserve resonated within her fully imagined story.

In these days of rapid writing, let’s not forget to add art to craft. The demands on you to produce and promote can steal the soul from your writing, if you let it. Feeding your inner artist is the only way to tap the wellspring of creative life within and produce enduring works. That will look different for each of us, but one thing remains true for all. The way forward is backward. At least mentally, let yourself step backward into childhood and discover the world with fresh eyes.

What books have you read lately that have surprised you? Transported you back to your childhood?