What Is Shiny

Despite weightier claims about the advancement of civilization, novels are read because they are entertaining. That description is not limited to the usual genre fare of romances, mysteries, and the like. Even literary novels need to intrigue the reader—through the characters’ observations, asides, or complex situations. “Would the reader know that?” should be a motto every author posts on their bulletin board.

If an author goes on too long explaining stuff, such as tech, or autobiographical information, the entertainment aspect is dulled. Part of what makes books sparkle is their constant infusions of new ideas. Everywhere you turn, look, here’s another rabbit out of my hat. Betcha didn’t know that.

Lest the serious reader pooh-pooh any such notion, I’ll point out that literary novels tend to have the most infusions of new ideas. Not only is a factoid introduced, but wrapped around the novel fact is the writer’s implicit attitude toward the fact. Infusing the revelation, for example, of a town’s secret cemetery for African American victims of violence is the observation that violent perpetrators always hide their crimes.* Outward shock at the notion of a secret cemetery is combined with insight into an American tradition, making for a doubleheader. No extra words are expended, because the attitude is baked into the telling.

That is why a novice writer cannot settle for what lies within their grasp, however wide or long that may be. Paraphrasing from a history book produces what often reads like a bastardized internet article. What’s more, I as the reader didn’t seek out the topic; it was foisted on me. So if you’re going to natter on and on about your precious discovery (I won’t even go into autobiographical minutia), you will have to forgive me for skimming ahead.

Being a showman carries the connotations you confer on it. You could bring the razzle-dazzle of plot twists, or you could delve into a simple conflict—between a teenage bookworm and a delinquent—to glean new meanings. You take a fact peculiar to a region and a time period, and think, “The reader won’t know that.” But then you take the time to place the fact in the context of the character’s personal life—that is, their inner life. The search need not require fantastic concentration. You can start by thinking of an analogous fact in your own life. How do you feel about that? Then take the next step: how would I feel about the fact if it played a role in my life?

Exercise: Once you have discovered a cool period fact, start asking questions. How does the character feel about it? Who in their family has used it, and what was the occasion? Once you have set forth a micro narrative in your own mind, hopefully writing it down on paper, you can then distill it to its essence. Maybe Auntie didn’t like that bee salve because it stained the collar of the expensive gown she wore to Mama’s wedding.

“When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.”
—Anne Lamott

*The root idea for the example can be found in Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys.

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.