Can you imagine?
Standing in front of an audience of thousands, broadcast on national TV, a man stands in front of a microphone and just begins to read his novel/poetry/essay.
What would it take to keep the judges and the audience entertained? How would America be persuaded to call in and vote for the writer to move on in the competition?
While it seems extremely unlikely that a writer could compete head to head against someone who juggles chainsaws while riding a unicycle and singing opera, the concept is compelling. After all, the writer is competing against the operatic chainsaw juggler every time someone chooses to turn on the TV instead of reading his book.
I wrote a post a while back about how the show The Voice made me think about the writer's voice. Well, America's Got Talent had me thinking about what the contestants who do well have in common and if that can be applied to writing.
- Do something risky - One of the main elements of what I call "side-show" acts that keeps people hooked is the element of danger. Apparently we all like to watch the gladiators in the arena, at least a little bit. What does this mean for a writer- no tags after dialogue? It means get your reader's heart racing. Have the lovers in the heat of the moment realize someone unexpected is in the room with them. Take the crisis your character is in and crank it up by a factor of ten. Johnny has to escape before his house burns down - okay. Johnny can only get two of his four children out of the house before the fire consumes the whole thing. He rescues the second child, tells him he loves him and goes back into the inferno - now the heat is on!
- Do something unexpected- If Mr. Stern feels like it has been done before, it's the red X and bye-bye stardom. This one is not easy. I guarantee you that the unexpected is not the first thing that comes to your mind. By it's nature, it will come up on you in the middle of the night when you can't sleep because of a bad burrito from the local Texmex cantina. Now, I'm not advocating a diet of cheap Mexican cuisine and insomnia. I'm just trying to help you recognize those really cool ideas. If it sends a shiver down your spine - that's the one you want to track down and hold on to. One other thing I want to clarify here, and this is crucial Unexpected implies that there was an expectation. Read that again. The key to making the unexpected potent is to understand what the expectations were. A unicorn cooking you pancakes in the morning is not unexpected. It's completely random and nonsensical. Having the loyal and family oriented wife slip rat poison into the pancake batter - that's unexpected.
- Dazzle 'em - If your idea of risk is eating last weeks leftover's or that little unexpected idea never comes to visit, you aren't out of luck. You can still get ahead by being ridiculously talented. (Talent alone isn't enough, though, see the next point for more on that). This is a hard one to do with text. Study quotes and what makes them stick. Think about passages you've underlined in books. Present the words with a voice that nobody has heard before. Pack more punch in a sentence than most authors do in an entire novel.
- Work harder than anybody else - I think this quality makes the show so compelling for me. When I think about how many hours it took of training, stretching, and perseverance for someone to be able to fold their body into a shoe box, I am totally humbled. I am also a bit concerned. People put so much into their acts that not making a cut is a blow to their identity as human being. It is emotionally devastating. I think there is an important line to draw to make sure that not every failure makes you feel like jumping off a bridge. However, it is important to take an honest look at how much you have invested in your writing life. What's at stake. How hard are you working at it?
- Evoke an deep emotional response - This may be the amalgamation of all the other things, but it is worth its own discussion. A cat that can do karate is pretty awesome, but it doesn't make you feel any deep guttural emotion. For me the ticket for any emotional response is authenticity. A singer can do a hell of a rendition of Celine Dion, but if she doesn't feel the lyrics, it's just another nice performance. It's scary to put your heart on the table, but holding it back will only hold you back. Bring your audience to a place you know, where they are reaching for the tissues because they are right there with you as you walk them through your writing