When I was young, there was nothing I loved more than to disappear into the world of books. I would bike down to this magical place called the library and come back with a backpack of books. Then I would curl up in my room and disappear into Wonderland.
I loved all books, but some were especially marvelous. They captured the imagination and did not let go. They introduced ideas or painted images unlike anything I had conceived before. These books moved into the secret place of my heart and stayed.
For years, I thought this was done by some kind of magic. These authors that I loved had some secret, some mystical insight, that let them express amazing concepts through their books, and no one who did not have their spark of genius could ever understand what they had done.
Then, one day, I had an amazing insight. It occurred to me that each of these books that I loved—every scene that moved me to joy, or tears, or to think new thoughts—they all had one thing in common, one unbelievably simple thing.
They were just words on a page.
No psychic power reached down from heaven to strike the idea in to my mind. (I make an exception for the Bible, which many people feel is a Living Book that does talk to you.) No magic conveyed the images directly into my emotions. Each scene, no matter how extraordinary, was conveyed in its entirety by words on a page.
If we took a passage from the book and copied it in our own handwriting (or typing), it would say exactly the same thing—with the same brilliance—as when the author wrote it.
This was borne home to me one day when I talked to a dear but mentally ill relative who began to tell me what he has ‘sensed’ about the characters in my story.
He would say, “I can sense that Mephisto is such and such a type of person.”
And I would say, “Yes. That’s because I went way out of my way to carefully convey that impression.”
“No, no,” he would say, “I am sensing this about him. And I also sense that Theo is like such and such.”
I could not convince him.
But, of course, I had done it on purpose. He was picking up on subtle clues I had placed into the story using words on a page.
Now that I had discovered this mind-boggling amazing secret, what to do with it?
I began to apply this grand secret to critiquing. So often, we read something that we do not like or that seems not quite right, and we do not know why. But now I knew the secret. I was just reading words on a page. The answer to whatever it was that was disturbing me had to be in those words, right? I would think: “Okay. All that is here is words on a page. Which words are creating the impression I don’t like?”
The more I tried this, the easier it became. Once I could identify the exact words creating a certain impression in others’ work, I found I could do it for myself, too—read a passage I wrote and pinpoint the exact words that did not convey the impression I wished.
This has been so useful, not only for me, but also for friends. It is heartbreaking to read something a friend wrote and not be able to give them any useful guidance. At least this way, I can tell them exactly what troubled me. If it does not trouble them, they can ignore it. But I have often had friends thank me for my insights, so I like to think that someone is benefiting, at least some of the time.
If all impressions in reading come from words on a page, then by understanding which words created any given impression, we can learn how to create the impressions we wish to convey. We can learn how to locate the words causing impressions we do not like. And, we can learn how to identify what exactly creates an effect we like in another author’s work, so that we can learn to do something similar ourselves—not by copying the other person, but by understanding the principle that let them do it.
Basically, this one insight can help us write a better book.
So there it is. The great secret of the literary world.
I am sharing it with you, but do not spread it around too widely. For one thing, no one would believe you.