Do I Have Your Attention Now?

Let’s talk about penises.

(Everyone awake? Okay then.)

Doing a completely unscientific search of the blogs and twitterers I follow, I note that Getting the Reader’s Attention is a top priority. If you don’t get the reader’s interest early, they are going to put the book down and never look at you again.

I wanted to hop on this Attention Getting bandwagon and talk about how to capture your reader’s attention today, and as I was reading The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine the word ‘penis’ was what captured my attention.

At first I thought this was because I was immature. But it turns out, upon closer inspection, that the reason this word made me wake up and pay attention was because it served a few different purposes – all of which are key to getting a person’s attention.

Here is the passage – on the first page – in The Hakawati that caught me:

[It opens with the story of an emir who longs for a son, and he’s talking to his vizier – bold is mine]
Each of my twelve girls is more beautiful than the other. They have mild-white skin as smooth as the finist silk from China. The glistening pearls from the Arabian Gulf pale next to their eyes. The luster of their hair outshines the black dyes from the land of Sind. The oldest has seventeen poets singing her praises. My daughters have given me much pleasure, much to be proud of. Yet I yearn to see an offspring with a little penis running around my courtyard….”

Why did that catch me?

1. It doesn’t fit the tone. The tone of the story has been set – this is a fairy tale time and place. It’s reminiscent of 1001 Nights. Throw in the word ‘penis,’ which is a matter-of-fact word,  in a world that’s more in tune with the romance-genre language of ‘manhood’ or ‘member’ and you’ve made the reader wake up. Sometimes it’s a game to make the reader think: what doesn’t fit? something’s off? which one of these doesn’t match?

2. It is reductive in a buildup situation. This is a little trickier to explain. If you look at the sentences preceding the introduction of the penis, it’s a building sequence: each daughter is more glorious than the last, each trait more impressive, more beautiful, more capable, more more more! And then you get penis. That seems to be all the father hopes for in his next child. It’s made even more reductive by the word ‘little’ right before it. So immediately the reader starts questioning: Why is this so important after all? And the reader will read on to find out if there is something more…or if maybe the emir is just kind of off.

3. Sex. I don’t think I have to explain this one.

4. It brings in a conflict. Gender conflicts are the oldest in the book – who has rights? Who is in charge? Here is a ruler who apparently loves his daughters (though all he looks at are their looks), but who can’t leave his kingdom to any of them, no matter how competent, because they don’t have the genitalia designated as the ruling genitalia.

When you want to grab attention in your writing, it’s important to look at things like this. If a section isn’t keeping your readers it could be because there is no change of tone or direction to emphasize the important bits or add conflict.

(Shakespeare knew this pretty well – whenever he wants to call attention to something there are breaks in the iambic pentameter…and he makes a sex joke.)

Sometimes the answer might be as simple as one word.

Also: sex.

The Road Trip Story: Kerouac is Not a Beginner

On the Road is a road trip story.

(Any objections?)

I’m sure the influence of this experimental novel, with its meandering structure, has been the bane of many a writing teacher’s existance. I’m basing this assumption on the fact that my writing teacher, David Keplinger, took the time during a class to discuss road trip stories and the dangers of them.

It boils down to this: very rarely do road trip stories have a point.

Keplinger talked about how the story often followed similar lines.
A.) troubled boy/girl begins adventure by leaving college/family/social structure behind
B.) troubled boy/girl has adventures with random people (promiscuous sex, drugs, car breaking down, some scene where people are stuck in the rain)
C.) troubled boy/girl has some epiphany that leads them to realize they’ve left their true love/future/hopes somewhere 
D.) troubled boy/girl manages to get to the home of true love/future/hopes and goes to knock at the door
E.) dramatic moment: troubled boy/girl knocks on door…and rest is left up to reader’s imagination

Keplinger’s argument was that the story started with the knock on the door. That’s where the conflict comes in. Sure, the story had some events and some really trying moments…but episodes and conflicts are not the same thing.

On the Road definitely is episodic. But Keplinger’s argument is intended for beginning writers who have all the subtlety of jackhammers. Beginning writers don’t understand what conflict is, don’t understand how to resolve it, and don’t know how to tell something in a scene.

Kerouac, when he wrote On the Road, was not a beginner. It’s clear in his prose alone and it becomes clearer when you see how he handles the novel as a whole. Episodic? Yes. But that is part of his point. The episodes, if you look at them, become the conflict itself.

Sal goes off on his own for trip. Sal and Dean go off on another trip. Sal and Dean go off on more trips. Trip, trip, trip. Episode, episode, episode. Readers get irritated; they go What Is The Point Of All This?

The point is just that: this is an exhausting lifestyle. This is an exhausting pace. Cars run out of gas. Wives get fed up. Eventually, Dean will go off on his own, leaving the lout, Sal, behind…which was Sal’s greatest fear in the opening of the book. In the scroll version of On the Road, Kerouac says that had he not been married, he would have gone with Dean again — but instead goes to a theatre show he doesn’t want to go to, with his wife. That shows a shift in Kerouac/Sal’s attitude…even if all he wants is to go with Neal/Dean and live that exhausting lifestyle.

Kerouac didn’t need a knock on the door to end the story. The road keeps going, but the story is done.

Stories like that are not for the faint of heart and they are not for beginners, like I was (and still am…) when Keplinger talked about what not to do.

Well, I say, if you want to write a road trip story — try it and see what happens. Just be aware that for a road trip story to work, the conflict, the real conflict has to be worked out on the road.