What Every Book That Matters Must Have by Shutta Crum
My friend, Shutta Crum, has written a wonderfully insightful article about what a book should have. Having authored many popular children’s books, Shutta knows what she’s talking about. My delight is that she has hit the nail on the head for me as an adult writer of stories. She takes me deeper in my motivations to write. Thank you, Shutta.
Whether it’s a 100 word picture book or a 100,000 word scholarly novel. To create a book that matters for any age reader—from 2 to 92—there are four things it must include. I call these the 4Hs of writing: heart, hurt, hope and humor. Let’s look at each one.
By heart I don’t mean sweetness or love. I mean a revealing and reveling in what it means to be human. Heart is the stripping away of artifice to see our frailties, our faults, our foibles, our falling-downs and getting ups. This is the truth of the human condition. And it’s as vitally important in a picture book for preschoolers with animal stand-ins for humans as it is in a door-stopper novel for the most erudite of readers.
A book with heart engenders a tightness in the chest. Often heart comes via sacrifice—a sacred act. When we make a sacrifice, we proclaim our humanity. Think of Boromir’s last stand in The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien. Boromir gives up his life so the Hobbits can escape. This happens immediately after we have seen his lust for the ring—and he realizes his own weakness. In the classic children’s picture book Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, the proud and friendless rainbow fish gives his beautiful scales away to the other fish and gets, in return, many friends.
We can’t forget the second aspect of heart—the reveling in it. That means we need to spend some time with all those sad/happy aspects of our being. Not only is it something we want to find in what we read, I would argue that it should be one of the major threads in any fictional, or non-fictional work.
Once you’ve found the heart of your book, you need to hurt it. (Cringe!) It is through hurt that our vulnerable souls are laid bare to our readers. Hurt is the vehicle that helps propel the plot and grabs our readers to say—this! This happens in life—a sucker-punch to the heart.
What’s vitally important when writing hurt is that we need to see it—clearly. That means taking your time with it. When something is critical in your story you slow down. When it’s unimportant you can speed up, even skipping whole years in your character’s life. In an illustrated book that hurt must be seen on the character’s face as well as in the text. In a longer work we need to spend time revisiting the hurt. And don’t underestimate understatement. There is power in simplicity.
Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that uses simple words, yet it hurts our hearts so much.
I loved my friend. He went away from me. There’s nothing more to say. The poem ends, Soft as it began— I loved my friend.
The amount of hope needed for a book is defined by its audience. The youngest readers and listeners want to know that the world is fair (though we know it isn’t). For these young devourers of our art there needs to be a certainty in justice, kindness and fairness. Bad guys get what’s coming to them, and kids get what is most wanted by their hearts—not always the same as what is asked for.
As our audience gets older, hope can become tenuous. However, it still needs to be there—even for adult readers. Think of that famous last line of Gone With the Wind. (The book, not the movie.) “After all, tomorrow is another day.” It caused a furor in its time, as it was one of our first bestsellers with an unresolved ending. Yet, hope is firmly there. We know Scarlett’s determination and grit. She’ll get Rhett back, if it’s the last thing she ever does.
Hope is especially important when dealing with darker subjects like those we find in young adult books. It is our responsibility to let our readers know that this, too, shall pass. And things will get better. Why? Because when teens feel passionately about one of our books—they fall in love hard and unreservedly—that is one of the wonderful things about teens. A teen’s heart is so exposed to hurt, and so hopeful for love. This makes our message to teens crucial to their well-being.
Some might be surprised that humor is one of the 4’Hs. However, it is fundamental to what we writers want to express, because it is not an afterthought in human maturation and in learning to empathize. Humor is part of what makes us so human. And it has its hand firmly clasped with hope.
Shakespeare—or whoever wrote the bard’s plays—knew this. His tragedies contain humor. Why? Because humor heals. That’s honest humor—humor that laughs at ourselves and is not vindictive. It allows us to stand outside of ourselves for a bit of objectivity. And isn’t it ironic that something so subjective as humor facilitates objectivity? With humor, hurt can be soothed and hope has easier access to our hearts.
Humor is the handmaiden of hope. It services our lives. When we laugh, we more clearly see what it is that matters—and why it matters.
So that’s it—when you write a book that matters take the writer’s 4-H pledge and go for it!
Courtesy of FLORIDA WRITERS ASSOCIATION 31 Jan 2020 Writers Helping Writers