Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Irresistible Novel

with Guest Jeff Gerke

Hacking Your Reader’s Brain

Do you remember when you weren’t a novelist? Back when you had never heard of point of view or dialogue attributions or show vs. tell? Maybe back when you could enjoy a novel just because…well, maybe you didn’t even know why you enjoyed it. You just did.

Back then, what was it that made you love a novel? Was it seriously that it had strong verbs or very few –ly adverbs? Was it that the author didn’t bury her dialogue? Was it truly because the book had no prologue or that the writer found a number of alternatives to “said” and “asked”?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about strong fiction craftsmanship. I am a big believer in how the art and craft of the novelist can strengthen a novel, and I not only use them myself in my fiction, but I have made a living teaching great fiction craft.

But I have never read an Amazon review (by a non-novelist) that said, “I loved this novel because it had no gerunds!” Or “I would’ve given this novel 5 stars except the author used the word ‘that’ seven times in the opening chapter.” Or “What made me love this book was how the author refrained from referring to floating body parts, maintained a consistent POV throughout, and made effective use of beats to simulate the passage of time.”

Uh…not so much.

What do thrilled readers actually say? They say, “I couldn’t put it down!” and “I felt like I was in the middle of the story” and “I worried about the characters when I wasn’t reading” and “It swept me away” and “I stayed up all night reading it.”

Did you notice? Not a craft comment in the bunch.

The typical reader of fiction doesn’t know—or care—about to-be verbs, weasel words, or whether or not the author introduced the inciting event within the first two pages. The typical reader of fiction wants to be thrilled, carried away, and utterly engaged.

She wants to not be bored.

And if you can remember back to before you knew all those fancy fiction craft terms, you might recall that you wanted that too. Still want it.

It used to baffle me that so many of the novels that became blockbuster sellers were so terribly written. In craft terms, they were junk. I recall throwing a bestseller across the room because it was so hideously crafted. And yet novels with high fiction craftsmanship most often sell poorly. Most often, but not always.

Then it dawned on me: It’s not that novels with low craft are embraced by the typical reader and novels with high craft are disliked by the typical reader. It’s that a book’s success actually has nothing at all to do with its level of craftsmanship.

That’s a hard pill to swallow for a guy who gets paid to teach craft.

So if high or low fiction craftsmanship isn’t what makes or breaks a novel, what is?

To quote the movie I, Robot: “That, detective, is the right question.”

In The Irresistible Novel, my fifth craft book from Writer’s Digest, I tackle this very question. In Part 1, I look at over 100 fiction craft “rules” and discuss what they’re good for, how to use them, when to break them, and how to not be paralyzed when they directly contradict one another.

All of that is setup for Part 2, wherein I look at the only rule of fiction that merits paying attention to much at all. It’s so essential I promoted it from rule to commandment. Indeed, the Great Commandment of Fiction is this: You must keep your reader engaged from beginning to end.

Your reader, you recall, wants to not be bored. Said another way, she wants to be engaged from start to finish.

How do you do that?

Our answer comes from a surprising quarter: neuroscience.

As I researched The Irresistible Novel, I encountered the work of Dr. Paul J. Zak, Professor of Neurology at Loma Linda University Medical Center. Dr. Zak studies the brain chemistry of reader and viewer engagement.

In other words, he studies what makes people become engaged with stories.

It turns out that the brain is doing one thing (or, really, almost nothing) when it is not engaged with a story, and it does something very different when it is engaged. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline and GABA are flowing through the brain of an engaged reader. These are the brain chemicals the reader is craving. It’s what we feel when we’re loving a novel and it’s what we don’t feel when we’re not.

The key brain chemical involved in reader engagement is oxytocin. It is the neurotransmitter responsible for empathy. When you’re watching a video of a baby’s first steps and the baby falls and cries, you might say, “Aw!” and make a sad face out of sympathy. That’s your brain on oxytocin.

Your reader wants to feel connected to your protagonist. More than that, in fact. Dr. Zak says, “Your job as the writer is to make the reader become the character in the book.”

You can do that intentionally. You can trigger oxytocin in your reader’s grey matter. Along with adrenaline, testosterone, glutamate, and the rest. All on demand. All in coordination with your story.

You, my friend, are going to hack your reader’s brain.

All of Part 2 of The Irresistible Novel explains how to do this in full, but I’ll give you one key right here.

You connect your reader to your hero by showing the hero being vulnerable. It’s no mistake that almost every Disney child hero is missing one or both parents. When you see a child without a daddy or a mommy, you lean forward in sympathy. You say, “Oh, come here, honey, I’ll take care of you.” You see the person in need, your brain releases oxytocin, and you connect.

Show how your hero is likable. Show how he’s admirable. Show him being generous and standing up to the bully and feeding the kitty. Show how he’s similar to the reader. Show him in hard situations nevertheless trying again and again. Show him being nice to an old lady. All of these endear your hero to the reader.

But your secret weapon is vulnerability. When the girl is standing there in her new dress with her new haircut and her mother’s pearls and she’s ready to give her first kiss, and the boy finally shows up and says, “Seriously, that’s what you’re wearing? Whatever. Get in the car,” you feel it.

You feel her humiliation and disappointment and anger. And you are instantly in with this girl. You will seriously go with her to the ends of the earth in this story. Why? Because she was vulnerable and you leapt into that space of hurt, and now the two of you are one. When she’s holding onto the top of the train for dear life, your palms will sweat.

That’s called transportation, and it is one of three core ways you must hack your reader’s brain and cause her to be engaged with your novel from beginning to end.

To learn the other two core ways, and to find an entire brain chemistry story map, pick up The Irresistible Novel from Writer’s Digest. (Click here to find on Amazon.)


Missy Tippens, here. Y'all chime in and let us know what you think! As a reader, what makes you really feel for the hero? What makes you go all in?

Today, I'm giving away a surprise package to one lucky commenter! To be entered in the drawing, tell me who's one of the most memorable characters you've read and why (and also  let me know you'd like to be entered).


Bio: When you’re truly ready to make your fiction publishable, it’s time to call Jeff Gerke. Jeff trains novelists how to better do what it is they’re trying to do. He trains through his books for Writers Digest: The Irresistible Novel, Plot Versus Character, The First 50 Pages, Write Your Novel in a Month, and The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction. He trains through the many writers’ conferences he teaches at all over the country every year. He trained his authors when he ran Marcher Lord Press, the premier publisher of Christian speculative fiction, which he sold after an award-winning 5-year run. And he trains through the freelance editing he does for his clients at www.jeffgerke.com. Jeff is known for his canny book doctoring skills and his encouraging manner, which leaves writers feeling empowered and like they really can do this thing after all. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and three children.


  1. Oh wow, what an awesome post! Love the girl dressed up example. Love that when I slip up and use the word WAS my reader won't trash my book.

    Most memorable characters. I think the heroine's name was Kelly. It was a Dallas Schultz novel. I remember her because she was so used to being mistreated that she couldn't believe someone would love her.

    The other is Petra in The Heart of Petra by Hillary Johnson. There is a scene where she, the perfect littl church girl, is at a communion service with an ex-drug addict, a man guilty of vehicular homicide, an ex-stripper and the man stupid enough to marry her and Petra realizes she is the one unworthy of taking communion. A very powerful scene. I didn't even stop to count LY words! :-)

    1. And Jeff, you're so right, I was invested in that girl. My mind is screaming at her to get out of that car and ditch him.

      Missy, please include me in all the giveaways!

  2. Fabulous thank you.

    Having just re-read LORD OF THE RINGS Frodo comes to mind. I was with him on his entire epic adventure.

    Count me in thank you.

  3. I think I need this book! Reminds me of an article I read about scans they did on horror readers as they read a Stephen King novel. They described themselves as feeling "fear" but the areas that were lit up were actually "reward" and "pleasure". The article author posited that it was because the reader was thoroughly enjoying the story while being perfectly safe.

    Also, I thought of all my favorite writers. Holly Black, Jonathon Stroud, Suzanne Collins, Scott Westerfeld, Neil Gaiman... I think they ALL do this right away. The hero/ heroine is vulnerable within the first few pages, if not the very first page. But making your heroine vulnerable without making her weak is where true skill comes in, right?

    Great post.

  4. What a wonderful post Jeff. There is a lot to digest here. Thank you.

    I think one of the most memorable characters for me is Sarah/Angel in Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Besides the fact the character was so well written, I think she has stayed with me because she is the epitome of everything we all are as sinners and then through God's grace we are saved. The salvation theme is so strong in this book.

    Missy, I would love to be entered in your giveaway.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  5. Welcome to Seekerville, Jeff. I have your last craft book and can't wait to grab this one.

    But I'm not so sure the reviews aren't based on my decision to switch POV in the second chapter of my last book. Must think on that one.

  6. Welcome to Seekerville, Jeff. I can't wait to get your book and read it.

    Missy, I still remember your heroine in The Boy Next Door (might not be exactly right).

    I felt her vulnerability. I rooted for her through the entire story.

    I'd love to have my name in the drawing. Thanks!

    (For movies, While You Were Sleeping. One of my favorites...and like Disney movies, Lucy's parents are dead.)

    Great post!

  7. First, I love Jeff Gerke because he was sincerely interested in contracting me back in the day... and I knew we connected, so of course, I LOVE JEFF GERKE!!!!

    Second, because he is so doggone right here, I mean RIGHT as in Correct, Very Correct and On the Mark, that I'm in danger of cheerleading right now.

    You all know I don't read craft books, but I would read this, I would urge others to read it, because it comes down to the heart of the matter which is (ironic, right???) the heart.

    Grab the emotion, forget the verbs.

    Have fun, stop over analyzing.

    Love what you do. Love it and share that love.

    Jeff, so good to have you here!!!! And congrats on this book, I hope your sales ROCK!

  8. Recently a friend asked me what I thought about a book she had insisted I read. I told her I loved it! And I really did. The book ignored all the rules I'm trying to learn!! The author is published with one of the big publishing houses.

    But the book was hard to put down when the dryer buzzer went off . . . I can tolerate a lot, everything except head hopping. I only want to read a sentence once. When I have to keep backing up to determine who's speaking, I lose interest.

    I guess the idea is to write a book the reader can't put down because of good craftsmanship.

  9. Welcome to Seekerville, Jeff! Thanks for this post. Craft matters, but my focus needs to be on creating likable characters and then putting them in situations where they're vulnerable so readers will bond with them and can't turn pages fast enough.

    I know your book will be valuable. I attended your workshop at ACFW last year and I'm still referring to your notes.


  10. What a wonderful post, Jeff Gerke. I might have to print it off and add it to my Seekerville article binder. Then buy your book. Anyways, a character who stuck with me is Edmund Dantes from Alexandre Dumas' literary masterpiece The Count of Monte Cristo. I felt so bad when he had everything going for him, being a captain of the Pharaon with the most beautiful woman in town about to marry him, a loving father, and the respect of important figures in town. But then, a couple of men became jealous and wanted to hide their secrets, so they shamed Edmund and stuck him in prison for 17 years before he got out. I'm not going to tell you how he got out. Everyone should read this book. It is a book I return to every year. LOVE it!! This story keeps me engaged. God bless.

  11. Coffee's on!! And tea for our non-coffee drinkers. :)

    Terri, those are great examples! I haven't read those books but just from reading your comment I can imagine them. Definitely makes them vulnerable.

  12. Mary P, thanks for sharing one of your memorable characters! I can imagine a good many people might say the same. :)

  13. Virginia, that's so true! It is a tough balance to make him vulnerable but not whiny or wimpy or weak. :) I've found I tend to so that sometimes on the first draft, like I'm trying too hard to make the character sympathetic.

  14. Cindy, that's a good one, too. I need to re-read that book. It's probably been a decade since I read it. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Tina, now you've got me wanting to go read your book to see what you're talking about. :)

  16. Jackie, thank you! I'm so glad you remember my heroine from The Guy Next Door! You know, I really had to work on that opening, trying to go for a balance (like Virginia mentioned). And my editor had me make changes as well. I'm glad it worked for you!

    That's a great movie mention as well. I loved it!

  17. This post is so true.

    I used to read a lot of books written during the '80's. Many authors didn't start of with a bang. One author in particular had a habit of starting from wide-view lens of the country-side, to the estate, to the house, to a room in the house, and finally to the characters in first couple of pages. I loved this. As I settled down in the my chair to read, I was able to orient myself w/the environment right off. And I loved the book. It never crossed my mind that they should jump into the action and describe estate later.

    But I would notice it now because of the rules.

    One of my favorite books is The Raider simple because it's a fun story.

  18. Ruthy with a craft book in her hand, I want to see that!! Send me a picture. :) :)

  19. Mary Hicks, it's amazing how a good story can suck us in and make us turn off our writers' brains. I LOVE that reading experience. And, like your friend, those are the books I email friends about to recommend they read it. :)

  20. Janet, you've made me want to go digging through all my old workshop notes! :)

  21. Kelly B, I've always heard of that book, of course, but have never read it. Thanks for suggesting it!

  22. Connie, that technique you described sounds like a movie technique. :) It's so true how popular fiction has morphed over the last few decades.

  23. Hi Jeff,
    As a reader I can attest to the truth of your words. I have to like the main characters, feel their vulnerability and be able to identify with them.

    Like Cindy, I think Redeeming Love is a novel that accomplishs these goals while paralleling the greatest love story, the one God has for us.

    The ending scene is simply breath-taking. Sarah, Michael's former prostitute wife, who's been gone three years and found God, returns to him. He sees her coming across the field. "With trembling hands, she removes the trappings of this world". One by one as she walks across the field she sheds her clothes, symbolic of shedding all that she once was. She's laying down all her anger, fear, spiritual blindness and pride. She drops down before him weeping, "Michael, I'm so sorry.."
    What does Michael do, he puts his hand on her head and says, "My love..I hoped you would come home someday". He takes hold of her and draws her to her feet. He takes off his shirt and puts it around her shoulders.

    This is what Christ does for us when we come to him exposing all our sin. He loves us and tells us He was hoping we'd come home. And He covers us, our sins forgiven and shame no longer our identity.

    A great fictional story revealing a Biblical Truth. As you can see, this story did for me all the things you talk about in your post, I get choked up every time I read it.

  24. Hi Missy,
    I got myself in such a state I forgot to say throw my name in the dish, lol

  25. Oh my, I love this post! I have 8 books I "wrote" before I knew any writing rules. I wrote them for the sheer pleasure of writing. I love those books even though they are hideously crafted. I so get Jeff's point. I have long been fearful that adhering to all the writer's rules can actually interfere with one's natural voice, or worse, make them lose it entirely. I really want to read Jeff's book. My most memorable character (of recent reads) if Tina's Bitsy Harmony form Safe in the Fireman's Arms. Bitsy wasn't the main character, of course, but was she ever memorable. I still can't decide if I want to be like her or make sure I'm very different. I think what makes me love a character is when they're totally unpredictable. I also love to be captured by a story to the point where I don't care how well it's crafted, only about turning the page to find out what happens next.

  26. I guess I need to share an example off my most memorable list. The first book that came to mind was Dandelion Summer by Lisa Wingate. It's been years since I read it but I still remember being sucked in and not wanting to put that book down. It's on my "Made my cry because I can't write like that" list. :)

  27. Tracey, yes, if a reader still gets choked up thinking about a book much later, then the author has been successful! You also made a good point about a story being strengthened when it ties in to our own journey in life and in faith.

    I got you entered. :)

  28. Cindy Regnier, thanks for pointing out unpredictability! That can make a story fun. Do you think it works as well with the main characters as it does with secondary ones?

  29. Thanks, you guys! It's great to be here with you today.

    Ruth, it's awesome to hear from you again. Love this from your comment: "Grab the emotion, forget the verbs." That's so right. Of course, we're speaking relatively. I still believe in great craft, but if I HAD to choose between something that would please the stern critique group leader and something that would more fully engage the reader, I'm going to go with the latter.

    When I present this material, I often hear this feedback: "You say typical readers don't care about craft, but I say they do care and the they do notice, they just don't know how to articulate it. They're being put off by too many to-be verbs and gerunds and head-hopping, but they don't know the terms for it. They put the book down because of craft, but they never realized that's what they were doing."

    I understand that perspective, and part of me wishes it were true, but I do not think it is. If it were, the most poorly written blockbusters we can all name would never have become blockbusters. People would've put them down because of the bad craft, and yet of course that is not what happens.

    It grieves me to say it, but I think fiction craftsmanship simply isn't the issue. Reader engagement is the issue. And that can be done with low craft or high.

    But because reader engagement CAN be done with high craft, why not do both? Plus, there are many aspects of craft that directly support or prevent reader engagement (like show vs. tell, imo), so I personally apply every one of those.

    But it's as if I have a new moral compass when it comes to fiction craft: If an issue of craft directly and materially supports reader engagement, I call it a good thing; and if an issue of craft does not directly and materially support reader engagement, then I don't care about it one way or another.

    You must engage your reader from beginning to end.

    Jeff Gerke (signed in as Jefferson Scott)

  30. I will have to admit that all the heroes are memorable. I have so many at the moment and the list keeps growing. Especially the more I read Seeeker books.

    However I have a few books on my kindle I am not sure I will ever finish. One was just plain boring. A couple others I just got in a facebook party that was for another author who writes clean books. I was upset and shocked when the first chapter was full of swear words and sexual hints and language. I need to contact these authors and let them know. Because of this language I will never know whether they are written well or not. I find myself embarrassed to have to do this. Any helpful hints as to how to go about this.

    I have put this craft book on my wish list.

    Please enter me for the surprise package.

  31. I love this post. I think that it must be why I almost always love (and usually write) such wounded heroes - because some part of me feels compelled to make the terrible past go away. (Whether that's only maternal or all around female, who knows - heh.)

  32. Welcome, Jeff! It's great to get your perspective on reader engagement and how we can make it happen with our own stories.

    It's absolutely true that after I started learning the craft of writing, my pleasure reading suffered because then I could see the craft problems in the novels I read.

    But you're also right about how craft doesn't matter nearly as much if the author can successfully catch me up in the story. A perfect example for me is Mary Higgins Clark. I get so immersed in the story and characters that I can overlook the head hopping and other little craft details that I personally work hard to avoid.

  33. Great post Jeff! As a reader, I enjoy characters that I can relate to, that are vulnerable and go through a growth process in the story. Please enter me into the draw.


  34. This is absolutely fascinating, Jeff! Who knew it was brain chemicals that engage a reader?! And to know how to kick those chemicals into gear? I love this. Getting a reader to feel for my characters has always been a goal of mine, but I never knew the art and science behind it. I loved this post.

    Missy, only one memorable character? That's hard. I loved Corina Del Rey from Rachel Hauck's recent, "How to Catch a Prince." Her vulnerability as she dealt with the death of her twin brother and works through that and some other things from her past? She engaged me. One hero I still think about is Jake Woods, from Randy Alcorn's book Deadline. :)

    Please enter me into the drawing. :)

  35. Hey, Jeff, WELCOME TO SEEKERVILLE -- it's a pleasure to "hack YOUR brain" via this very interesting post!

    First of all, let me say THANK YOU because you confirmed something I've suspected for a while now. You see, I've recently read (or started to read) about five top-selling novels that shot to the bestseller list and was truly shocked at the lack of craft that I saw. And in most of them, the story didn't grab me either, but they all had two things in common: 1.) They were one of three, four, or five books that author had put out in the last year and 2.) They were either 99 cents or free. Right then and there I made up my mind that craft, indeed, does not necessarily sell books and you don't have to be a great writer to garner a following, just a very productive one.

    Secondly, this same mindset was reinforced when I spoke with a publicity person at a top publisher while I was at an ICRS convention. I remember remarking what a great book the Christy winner was and what a well-deserved boon this award was sure to be to her sales. "Not necessarily," this person said, telling me that unfortunately, the really well-written books usually don't sell like you think, and that it was often the poorly written ones that took off. I believe he ended his statement with something to the effect of: "You don't have to be a great writer to sell books."

    Believe it or not, for a Queen of Anality like me, that was actually good news because it meant I could stop beating myself up and just crank the suckers out, flipping them out there like pancakes. ;) Unfortunately, I am also anal about my pancakes -- taking great pains to make them perfectly round and perfectly golden -- not burnt. Which means I'm still too slow to be a short-order cook!

    Great post, Jeff!


  36. Jeff, someone told me that anyone could learn craft but you couldn't teach the gift of storytelling. I assume that involves creating characters readers like and root for. But does it involve something intangible, some gift of stringing words together that grab readers? Maybe voice? Any thoughts on what makes a storyteller?


  37. Janet, while I understand what the person is saying, I'm inclined to call that advice by a bad name. [grin]

    Such a statement is death to the writer who wonders if she really does have the gift of storytelling. If she thinks she doesn't, then why learn craft? Why write at all?

    If a piece of writing advice makes you feel you CAN'T do it, it's [bad name].

    I am friends with more than 300 multi-published Christian novelists, and of all of them, I would say only ONE actually has a talent for writing and storytelling, in the sense of something approaching a spiritual gift. (Not going to tell, so don't ask. And it's not ME.) But even this author expends tons of energy honing his/her SKILL.

    Fiction writing is for broken people who aren't awesome at much but who want to tell their stories. That's you and me!

    Jeff Gerke

  38. Wilani, I think it would be fine to write that author and tell her that she might want to consider only including sweet books in her next giveaway since most of her readers prefer those genres. She may not have realized it!

  39. Hallee, I love to write wounded heroes too. Maybe after raising two sons I have more compassion for young men. :)

  40. Good morning, Myra. Yeah, some of that is style from pervious decades like Connie mentioned.

  41. Jeanne T, thanks for sharing your examples! I have Rachel's book and need to move it further up my TBR pile! :)

  42. Caryl, yes, that character growth is important. I think readers sense that even if they don't totally understand that's what's happening.

  43. Julie, best quote of the day!!! LOL

    "Unfortunately, I am also anal about my pancakes -- taking great pains to make them perfectly round and perfectly golden -- not burnt. Which means I'm still too slow to be a short-order cook!"

  44. And just saw Jeff's great answer to Janet's question! I love that.

  45. Good heavens, this is exactly what a friend and I discussed yesterday at lunch! Must share this post with her. Thanks, Jeff!

    Nancy C

  46. Wow, Jeff, you took me right back to my college chemistry course on the brain. That's the only science class I've ever enjoyed, and now I'm really looking forward to reading your book! Thanks for your time and efforts here today!

    Missy, I adore Anne Shirley. She is vulnerability incarnate. How can a reader not identify with her need simply to be loved?

  47. I've been trying so hard to get my craft right that it's hindered my story telling. When they say just write the story first and go back later, they really do mean it. I've always gotten so much great stuff out of Jeff's other books on writing, I'm looking forward to reading this new one.

  48. Fascinating concept!

    One character I will never forget is Haddassah from Francine Rivers' Mark of the Lion series. The story opens with her family starving as Jerusalem is under siege. Then, as an orphan she's taken and sold into slavery. Her initial fear of "God letting something happen" to her family, then her kindness and resilience while serving cruel aristocrats endeared her to me.

    Thanks for being here today!

  49. Nancy C, I'm glad! I love when that happens.

  50. Meghan, I can still hear Anne Shirley in my head! I loved the books and the TV series. :)

  51. Suzy, I think what you're talking about is exactly what Jeff had in mind while writing the book. We need that first draft to be written with no internal editor!

  52. Natalie, thanks for that example! I have that book but haven't read it yet.

  53. I meant to say I have that series.

  54. Woo hoo!!! We have another Seekerville friend who sold to LI through the Blurb2Book contest!!!! Annie Rains!!! Congrats, Annie! We're thrilled for you. :)

  55. Yes, this is it for me and all readers far and wide...

    She wants to not be bored.

    Thanks, Jeff, and welcome to Seekerville!

  56. Jeff, your answer to my question is encouraging. We all have stories to tell. Stories God can use. I have a publisher and books on the shelves, yet on those days when the writing is a struggle, I wonder if I'm a real writer.

    The last sentence of your response especially encourages me:

    Fiction writing is for broken people who aren't awesome at much but who want to tell their stories. That's you and me!

    Thank you.

  57. Congratulations Annie!!! Hope you stop by and tell us more!


  58. this was the perfect day to visit Seekerville as I try to find my way back to writing. First- Thanks Jeff, for plot vs. character. I don't write like a girl.
    Second- we all hear that story trumps all, but it doesn't always sink in.

    I think most of us read along, mentally flagging 'mistakes' until we either stop reading or we forget and enjoy the story for the story's sake.

  59. Deb, it's great to see you!! I'm so glad you're writing again!! :)

  60. Deep insights, Jeff. I needed this post today as I resume work on my WIP after two weeks away. I'll be rereading this over and over.

    The character that replays in my head is Wyatt from Tamara Alexander's The Inheritance. He does something in that book that 99 percent of men would shirk. It's powerful. That has stuck with me for many years after reading it.

  61. Great post, Jeff. Yesterday we talked about using the correct words and not overusing, and today you are reminding us that in the end it is the story that matters. Just focusing on craft is not enough. I am trying to flesh out the characters in my novel to make them truly engaging.

    Missy asked for a memorable character in fiction. Since I just reread To Kill a Mockingbird and now reading Go Set a Watchman, the character of Scout comes to mind. Harper Lee truly takes us into the mind of Scout in Mockingbird. However, not so much in Watchman. I know that she wrote Watchman first and then Mockingbird because the publisher wanted her to tell about Scout's childhood. The two books are so different. To Kill a Mockingbird is truly a masterfully written book.

    Please enter me into the drawing.

  62. Fantastic post, Jeff. I've printed it for my Seekerville binder. I have craft books coming out of my ears. I find, when I turn on some music, sit down with a fancy pen and tablet, the words flow from my heart and onto the page. After that, I can go back to check the "rules" I've broken. Thanks for your words of wisdom. I'd love to read your book.

  63. How fascinating!
    Thanks for being in Seekerville today, Jeff!

    GREAT information.

    My edits are back and I'm working through them (entirely too slowly... I digress...)

    You're hitting on some of the issues she has recommended I re-work.
    So this is quite timely. Appreciate this!

    Missy... Wow - so many!
    Not sure why, but Scarlett O'Hara springs to mind.
    And probably because she's downright tenacious... A real Steel Magnolia.
    She's knocked down (many times of her own choosing) but she gets back up again, and again.

    We learn, as readers, through her decisions good and bad.

    Thanks. Would love to be entered but either way - terrific post!

  64. I like 'vulnerable'.
    I think it's another way of saying 'put emotion on the page.'
    If a character is vulnerable we care, we feel, we are in the book.
    Same with emotion done correctly. If THEY feel and it's OUR feeling, then you're hooked and the oxytocin is pumping. :)
    Great to have you here Jeff.

  65. Oh MEGHAN, Ann Shirley! How could I have forgotten her? Or Jo March from Little Women. Of course, this one may be coming to mind because I'm listening to the audiobook right now. ;)

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  67. I love Ann Silver from Dee Henderson's "Full Disclosure." She's so accomplished and beloved by the people around her, yet she's quiet, often prefers time alone and places value on the little things in life (like a baseball game with a girlfriend) and the BIG things (like trust) without concerning herself with the middle-ish stuff. I fell in love with her as I read the novel for the first time, and as I reread it currently, I'm falling in love with her character all over again. She is a deliberate person, carefully choosing her words and who to trust as a friend. Yet she gives herself completely to those she cares for. She is tough as a cop and when it's needed in her personal life, but stunningly vulnerable at times in more private moments. (Plus, you know, she's a writer! :) )

    Missy, I would love to be added to your giveaway drawing today!

  68. Missy Tippens, LOL! "Ruthy with a craft book in her hand!"

    Hey, chickie, chickie baby, soccer players don't read about the game...

    They play it.


  69. I've tried to teach myself how to be aware of what a reader feels, how they react, by how I react.

    The most memorable character I DIDN'T write was Hush MacMillan Thackery in Deborah Smith's "Sweet Hush"

    Now here's the thing (Deb's not reading this, I'm sure.) There were a few mistakes in the book (like in any book) and I read right past them because the STORY WAS SO GOOD.

    And that's the crux. If the story is so good that you can shrug off a couple of errors, then YES!!!! That's the kind of story I want to write.

    Reader identity/identifying with the character has got to come through emotion. Circumstance too, but I think more the emotion that develops because of the circumstance.

    A dog is lost in the road, a wretched accident. The dog, lying dead, the guilt of the driver, the anger of the owner, the grief of a child, watching... but then the reaction of the person who left the screen door unlatched... who heard the dog scratching and didn't stop weeding the garden or milking the cow or making love to take care of the dog...

    And now the dog is gone and heartbreak, guilt and anger ensues.

    The reader will feel all of these, but they'll absorb that guilt connection because we've all ignored things now and again.

    Now substitute a child for the dog... and now you've got gut-wrenching, can I get through this ever guilt... and the longing for forgiveness goes deep because you can buy another dog.

    You can't buy a child.

  70. JEFF, I wonder if we threw the same bestseller across the room? The author shall forever remain nameless.

    As editors we can be pretty anal about the picky craft stuff, but if a story doesn't engage a reader right away, it doesn't matter how well the author followed the rules. Those are the books I stop reading after the first page.

    MISSY, I guess my heartthrob of a hero right now is Ross Poldark. Okay, I'm in love with the actor Aidan Turner. One cocked dark eyebrow can make me swoon. I really do plan on reading the books the TV series is based on. Really. Soon. Unless they kill my hero off at some point. The writers left him in a real pickle in the last episode and now I have to wait until next season to see what happens. I hate that!

  71. Barbara and Jeff. What you're talking about, a great book with maybe not the best craft is what I call The X Factor.
    When I'm judging a contest and suddenly I'm DONE with an entry and I didn't even check for any of the mistakes I'm supposed to note to help the writer get better, THAT is The X Factor.

    Just plain great writing.

    It's rare and wonderful when you find it.

  72. Hate it and love it at the same time! That's brain hacking, Barbara!

    One of the other core things you have to do to engage your reader is grab her attention. And brain science comes to our rescue there, as well. Suffice it to say that many readers put a book down if the first LINE doesn't tell their brain there's something to see here.

  73. Lyndee, thanks for sharing that! I haven't read that book of Tammy's. I'll check it out!

  74. Mary, "The X-Factor". I knew there was a name for it. You're absolutely right!

  75. Sandy, yeah, we have to worry about craft. But we can't let it stifle our creativity. I used to do that when I would get critique too early. It would stall me for weeks. I finally learned I did better having critique of the full manuscript.

  76. Jill, we're still celebrating with you on your sale to Love Inspired!!! I'm glad you shut out the rules and let the writing pour out of you. You must've created a great story! :)

  77. Mary, that's true. I love brain science. I would love to study it someday (she says, in her 50's). :)

  78. Sarah, thank you for describing Dee's character. I love the details you mentioned. It makes me want to go back in and make my characters fuller, deeper.

  79. Ruthy, I loved Sweet Hush. All of Deb's characters really come to life for me.

    And now you have me nearly in tears writing of the dog…and then the child. YOU'RE GOOD AT THIS. So ignore me when I tease you about not reading craft books. :)

  80. Barbara, I keep hearing about that show! I'm dying to see it and get caught up before the next season. Is it on Netflix??

  81. Mary, I've seen that X factor in judging contests, too. I always go back and study those again to see what the author did. Most of the time, it's deep characterization that really made me care.

  82. Jeff, your comment about the first line made me nervous. LOL I need to go check my WIP. :)


  84. Missy, Dee's characters always stick in my mind somehow. Even if I haven't re-read one of her books in a few years (YIKES! Just realized that...my TBR list is growing even when I'm not looking!), I could still tell you the heart of almost each and every main character and what makes them "them." Several other authors' books tend to do that for me too, but Dee was my example of the day ;)

  85. Missy, would you believe that I am SO picky about my pancakes, that years ago some friends we always went camping with made absolutely perfect dollar pancakes and framed them in a picture for me with some snide slogan beneath (can't remember what it was now). Of course, these were the same friends who exchanged the spoons with butcher knives in a game of spoons once when I went to the powder room, so they definitely liked to tweak me. :)


  86. Missy Tippens I can never ignore you.

    I love you too much.

    But that upped the stakes exponentially, didn't it?

    And that's what "Poldark" did, every week... just when you thought things were better, disaster struck, but the beauty was that the disaster was skillfully foreseen, so it wasn't like those books/stories that throw everything at the hero from left field.

    So beautifully done!!!

  87. Very interesting post! One of my favorite characters is Adam from a 1972 Anne Stuart romance "Barrett's Hill". Quirky, not your typical hero. And also Travis from Janet Dailey's "A Land Called Deseret". Not your typical alpha hero from that time frame. Please enter me in the drawing!

  88. Thanks, Missy, for hosting Jeff. His new book sounds irresistible. Yes, characters need to be vulnerable. And flawed. Love it!

    Also love the brain reveal and the oxytocin connection. Too bad we can't bottle it...or sell it as a spray to be used when reading Seeker books! :)

  89. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing. I need this book. I'd love to be entered in the drawing. One character I think is very memorable is Scarlett O'Hara. When things happened, she handled them. I liked her sassyness, fortitude, and tomorrow's another day attitude. Another memorable character is Logan Sackett. I grew up reading Louis L'Amour's westerns. This character was strong, not afraid, and believed in doing right.

  90. Debby, I actually said that to Dr. Zak when I was compiling the book. He said we could package a vial of artificial oxytocin with every novel and have the reader inhale it half an hour before reading. LOL.

    In fact, they actually did an experiment very much like that, and they found that inhaling artificial oxytocin increased volunteers' willingness to give to charity as compared to volunteers in the control group.

    So if you see me researching how to steep book pages in oxytocin before binding, you'll know what I'm doing!

    Jeff Gerke

  91. Loves to Read, thanks for sharing your favorites! I got you entered.

  92. Okay, so Debby and Jeff are now in charge of coming up with a way to insert a burst of oxytocin with each new book. :)

  93. Sally, thanks for those recommendations on characters!

  94. Thank you for this thought provoking post!

    I love books on the craft. The Irresistible Novel looks irresistible!

    Please enter me!

  95. I've had fun interacting with you guys today. Thanks for the warm welcome! And let me know when you're ready to have me edit your stuff! www.jeffgerke.com

  96. "Fiction writing is for broken people who aren't awesome at much but who want to tell their stories. That's you and me!" That goes for memoir writing as well!

    Would love to win your book!

  97. Aw...thank you, Missy! I'm very excited. :)

  98. Great post. Hard to hear when you are slavishly trying to improve your craft, but if you read reviews, you know it's true.

    Memorable character - not an original, but Scarlet O'Hara.

  99. That unforgettable character? In a quick review of my tired computerized brain, the first to come is the doctor in "Christy". And that goes way back. When my oldest daughter was a teenager we disagreed on WHO was the right man for Christy. She said it had to be the minister (David was his name, I think), but as a mature romance person, I insisted it was the doctor (Neil). Strange? No, but before the movie came out revealing which man won, my daughter had grown up enough to marry her first and only true love, after which she decided the man had to be Neil. Yes, please enter me in your drawing. It was a relief to know what really holds the reader's attention as Jeff so aptly caught mine. Good editing cuts the booboos, not the story.

  100. Jason Bourne. The abilities and sophistication I'd like to have, and the intriguing life would be a bonus. I think his amnesia was a master stroke by Robert Ludlum to counter the surprise ending of the Cold War. Amnesia is such an open ended feature in a character because anything can be added to the plot, anything "remembered" from the memories of a previous life.

  101. I felt sorry for Scarlett when she couldn't get Rhett (I was 16 at the time of reading) & it had a big impact on me.
    Please enter me in your draw.

  102. Great Blog post!!

    I think one of the characters I really connected with was Anne of Green Gables. At one point in time I was a hopeless romantic! :)
    Please enter me in the drawing!


  103. I'd like to win!

    I connect to a character who is like me, so usually a female, either a mom or a teen, since those were hard days! Or a character that the writer has me asking so many questions about that I just want to know more about their background and life experiences! Erin Healy's Never Let Go did that, and Susie Finkbeiner's Paint Chips.

  104. Hi Jeff!
    Jen Dornbush here. Great, great, great post. And so timely for me. I just finished penning my first novel and my agent's biggest note after the first draft was she wanted my protagonist to be more vulnerable. After 3 drafts, I think I managed to do it. Now, the big and wait and see as she sends it out.

    One of my favorite protagonists is Amadeus Mozart in the film, Amadeus. We normally think of him as just this savant musician, but the film portrayed him as so human and vulnerable.. he was self conscious about the quality of his work, his father, and his love life. He remained vulnerable that fragile from beginning to end of the movie and my heart just went out to this man. I saw this movie for the first time at age 17 and just wept for him when he went to his pauper's grave still a young man!

    Sign me up for the drawing, please!

  105. Jeff - so I'm fairly certain you and Randy Ingermanson were separated at birth because you're both into brain chemistry and other things I can only spell. But you also preach that it's all about the gut - the emotional response of the reader triggered by said brain - and you are spot on. Thanks for making the connection.

  106. I see more of you dropped by! Thanks for sharing your favorites. Now I'm ready to go watch some more movies and read some more books. :)