As I’ve already mentioned, I’m a little obsessed with Pinterest lately – as in, I get cranky when people pin boatloads of things in a day, because then it takes me forever to catch up with it all, and I’m a little OCD about catching up (I seem to be terrified of missing something, even though 80% of the pins seem to recirculate every few days). Anyway, I recently repinned a list of ‘First World Problems‘ that was not only hilarious (‘I forgot to bring my phone in with me when I went to poop and I was bored the entire time’ – said EVERY GUY EVER) but also contained some hard truths, namely this one:
I didn’t have a crappy childhood, so I can’t turn my pain into art.
Now that is truly one of those ugly thoughts we’ve all had but probably shouldn’t admit to. Of course nobody really wants to have had a shitty life, but I doubt many aspiring writers/filmmakers/artists have never had a variation of this thought: that lucky git, getting abused by his parents at a young age so he could grow up and go to Harvard and become an example of the American Dream, then write a best-selling book about it.
When my book is published, I suspect some people will think that about me: lucky bitch, having weight loss surgery and then writing about it just when it’s becoming well-known in the UK.* And I would agree that there’s something lucky about the book that burned to get out of me being born into a willing market, but I would also retort that it was extremely unlucky that I needed to have the surgery in the first place (okay, it’s not all about being unlucky, but that’s a very nuanced topic and if you want my full opinion on culpability you’ll have to read the book).
I would also argue that the success of a book is not all that dependent on what you write about – I suspect everyone has a story inside him/herself that would be interesting enough to write a book about, if s/he can only find a captivating way of telling it. Take Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, or Intern, or even Call the Midwife (which made such a great miniseries) – none of these books is about a unique experience. How many people across the world are allergic to a boatload of foods? Tons, but Sandra Beasley took her own personal stories of life as a severely allergic person and made them funny, affecting, and relate-able. Sandeep Jauhar did the same thing with his experiences as a junior doctor in the US medical system, something thousands of young people are dealing with right now. And Jennifer Worth wasn’t the only midwife working in the East End in the 50s; she was just the only one who wrote down what she experienced in a way that captured people’s attention and made them care about her characters.
And that brings us to something I was trying to explain to a group of students at Roehampton last week, and which I’m hoping I can articulate better here: the sweet spot.
If you have a story you want to write, and you want people to want to read it, you need to find the sweet spot between interest and relate-ability. Your story has to be unusual (or just un-mundane) enough for people to want to read it – this doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be unique, as we’ve seen with the examples above, but you do need to put a unique spin on it or show it from a new light, or just write it extremely well. Secondly, your story has to be relate-able on some level – if you write a fascinating tale of a dangerous journey but your main character (usually you if you’re writing memoir) isn’t someone readers can relate to, then you’re likely to lose their interest. The story alone shouldn’t be entirely relate-able (ie just telling the reader about doing something everyone does, like commute to work, for 300 pages) because why would we want to read about something we experience every day? But it needn’t be something nobody has been through before; there’s something comforting and fascinating about seeing something you’ve experienced from a different perspective. Most importantly, the characters should be people we see reflections of ourselves in, even in teeny fragments, just enough to keep us either on their side or interested enough to wish them harm.
I really believe that any story can be interesting and affecting if it’s well enough told, but of course it helps to have something to say that will resonate with readers. My advice to the students I spoke to was to think back to times that they’ve told personal stories to friends or groups of new people: what got the most interest? Was there one subject to which people most often responded with their own similar tales? If so, that right there is your relate-ability. If they were truly interested in your story but equally eager to answer with theirs, then you’ve got yourself an interactive audience right there.
And that’s the best kind of sweet spot, as far as I’m concerned.
*the flipside is that it’s kind of old news in the US now and it’s difficult to find a publisher who’s willing to take the chance on marketing it.