Weekend Edition – What Readers Really Want Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

A Case Study in the Power of Wonder

strandbeests

A photo I snapped on our way home

We were still four miles from the beach when the traffic slowed so much that cyclists and pedestrians easily outpaced us. Thankful we’d made a pit stop at Zumi’s coffee shop, we sipped contentedly on our caffeinated beverages – coffee for him, chai for me – and whiled away the wait with comfortable, Saturday morning conversation.

As my trusty, old Pathfinder crept down the winding country road, we marveled at the intensity of the traffic. I’ve lived nearly my entire life in this small town, and I’d never seen the road to the shore backed up so far or filled with so many walkers and bikers. Despite the nuisance of the traffic congestion, there was an air of excited anticipation as we all made our way – slowly, oh so slowly – toward our shared destination.

After taking nearly an hour to travel a mere mile, we finally passed the stable where my daughter and I ride and approached a critical juncture in our journey. Ahead, the blues of a police car flashed at the intersection with Northgate Road. This was the spot where, when perfect weather caused the beach lots to fill up early, local law enforcement would set up their roadblock and turn people back. But this Saturday morning wasn’t anything close to perfect. It was overcast, damp, and clammy. But, still, the line of cars pressed ahead, determined to run the gauntlet if they could.

We were almost to the cruiser when we saw cars being turned away, rerouted down Northgate and away from the beach. My heart sank. All this time waiting, the anticipation building, and now we’d have to give up? I had already texted a friend whose house was beyond the roadblock and not such a bad walking distance from the beach. I hoped that if I told the officer I had a parking destination other than the beach lot, he’d let me pass. Turned out I didn’t even have to plead my case. When we reached the intersection, the cop saw my beach sticker and waved me through. “It’ll be a long wait,” he said, “But you should get in.” It was a good day to be a resident.

For a few minutes, we had clear road ahead of us, but we soon caught up with the rest of the local contingent and had to wait patiently (again) in the still impressively long line of cars that snaked gently past beautiful marsh vistas toward the beach gatehouse. We noticed there were more pedestrians and cyclists passing our car. Many of those on foot were practically speed walking. Sweat ran down their backs, leaving dark streaks on t-shirts and dresses.

It took us nearly another hour to travel the three miles beyond the roadblock, but we finally pulled into the lot. Rummaging in the back of the truck, I found a stray long-sleeved shirt and pulled it gratefully over my tank top as we hurried towards the boardwalk against a chilly sea breeze. Just before we crested the dunes, I overheard a guy who was walking back from the beach say to his friend, “Wait until they get out there and realize how unimpressive it is.” My heart skipped a beat.

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What was it that I, my beau, and hundreds (if not thousands) of others were so anxious to see? What attraction could possibly compel so many busy people to put their usual Saturday morning plans and duties on hold to wait in interminable traffic or hoof it three miles through roadside brush and bracken? It was Strandbeests.

Strandbeests are the creation of Dutch artist Theo Jansen who blends art and engineering to create self-propelled “beasts” out of PCV tubing, simple gears, and sails. Jansen considers his creations a form of artificial life, and he hopes to one day “release” herds of them to “live their lives” on beaches around the world.

The local appearance of the Strandbeests was part of a traveling exhibit coordinated by the Peabody Essex Museum in nearby Salem, MA. The event was well publicized via a campaign that blanketed local news outlets and online networks with images and videos of Jansen’s fantastic creatures. The public’s imagination was clearly ignited.

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The man on the boardwalk was right. When we finally navigated our way to the front of the large crowd that was milling about at the ocean’s edge, what we saw did not resemble the fascinating, bus-sized pieces featured in the promotional videos. Instead, there were a couple of squat, car-sized units that lacked the scale and grace of creatures like the Animaris Percipiere.

Despite the obvious disconnect between what people had expected to see and what they found there on the sand, the crowd still seemed fascinated. Children and adults maneuvered for a place up front from which to gain a clear view of the beasts. Film and sound crews from local news and radio criss-crossed the small, cordoned-off area trying to capture snippets of video and audio as the contraptions lumbered (with some help from the Strandbeest team) haltingly up and down the small stretch of sand. A drone hovered a few feet above the spectacle, beaming images to who knows where.

While I was not impressed by the beasts themselves, I was captivated by the fact that all these people were so enthralled by the idea of these creatures that they put the rest of their lives on hold just to catch a glimpse of them. Clearly, there was something at work here that bore further examination. What made the Strandbeests so appealing, and how might the phenomenon apply to a writer’s life and work?

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The question came down to this: What did people want? What were they hoping to find at the end of their long, arduous journey out to the beach?

My beau and I had plenty of time to ruminate on this question as we made our slow way back toward town. Amazingly, rather than tapering off, the traffic had actually increased and was now nearly at a stop in both directions. In particular, the number of pedestrians had grown so much that the scene looked like some kind of mass exodus or evacuation. A steady stream of people three or four deep lined both sides of the road. Even when it was clear that the people on foot would never reach the shore before the event was over, they still pressed doggedly forward. Clearly, these people were looking for something bigger and more profound than a grown-up Erector Set toy.

I have no hard evidence to support my hypotheses, but I think that what people hoped to find was something that would jolt them out of their everyday existence, something that would amaze them and make them feel something akin to wonder. I also think that, once people were in the experience, there was the added attraction of being a part of something bigger than themselves. Simply by participating in the mass migration toward the Strandbeests, they had become part of a collective who were, as the saying goes, “all in this together.”

But, how do these ideas apply to the relationship between writers and readers?

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Stories have the power to transport and transform. They can whisk us away to another time and place, or an entirely different reality. They can turn our perspective on its head and give us a whole new way to see and experience the world and our place in it. The best stories reach into our hearts,  touching us not only intellectually, but also emotionally. They change not only what we think, but also how we feel.

Though they didn’t live up to expectations, Jensen’s Strandbeests seemed to offer the same kind of experience our stories should promise:

An Escape from the Usual:

We had never seen or heard of anything like the Strandbeests. The very idea of them was unique and intriguing. The creatures featured in the promotional videos appeared to be partly prehistoric and partly alien. We weren’t sure what they were, exactly, but we knew we wanted an up-close-and-personal look. Based on the turn out for this event, lots and lots of people are clearly hungering for the new and strange and exciting. Going to see the beasts represented adventure and exploration outside the bounds of our daily rounds. Seems that people are looking for a chance to experience something different.

How might your writing offer that kind of experience? Do your stories take readers on a journey to someplace they’ve never been? Do they help them slip into a life completely unlike their own? Does your writing offer readers an immersive experience that pulls them completely out of their real life and into a life of your imagining? Even if you’re writing realistic fiction or essays, how can you incorporate the element of “other” into your work? What new perspective can you offer?

A Taste of Wonder:

More than just experiencing something different, people are searching for experiences that inspire wonder and awe. They want to be amazed. They want to feel something – a tingling in the spine, a thrill, a deep emotional reaction. They want to catch a glimpse of and be persuaded to believe in magic and miracles and endless scientific possibilities. When readers pick up a story, they are hoping to be wowed.

Wonder is something that we associate mostly with children. It is the state of being pleasantly surprised by the unexpected in a way that makes you feel like the whole world has just opened up in a new way, revealing spaces and ideas that you didn’t know existed. Unfortunately, as we grow older, it’s more and more difficult to find experiences that inspire this feeling. We become numb to much of the world around us. We feel like we’ve been there and done that. We get cynical. Seeing something “different” is only part of the equation. We want to see something different that brings us back to that childhood state of believing that there is still so much out there that we don’t understand – so many possibilities.

How does your writing expand your readers’ ability to feel wonder, to believe that there is still plenty that they don’t know. How do your stories peel back the layers to reveal some previously undetected piece of reality or potential for magic? Your stories don’t have to be fantasy or science fiction, but I think that our human hunger for wonder is a big part of what makes those genres so popular on such a large scale.

A Chance to be Part of Something Bigger than Ourselves:

We often talk about how, as writers, one of the driving forces behind our work is our desire to connect – with the world, with other people, and with our own hearts. The stories we read, like the experiences we choose, help us define ourselves. Our reading choices express our values and beliefs as well as well as our artistic tastes and entertainment preferences. And when we are able to share our reading experience with a community of like-minded readers, we discover that we are not alone.

This phenomenon happens over and over again with books, movies, and TV shows. When a story captures our collective imagination, an entire community springs up around the experience of that story. People bond over this shared experience. The story provides an easy context for conversation, giving us a chance to connect with others. The Harry Potter books and movies are a perfect example of this kind of community, but there are many (many!) others. Think of any popular TV show or movie, and I guarantee there are a ton of people who experience those stories as part of a community of fans. Star Trek, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, and (hearkening back to an earlier, simpler time) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends, Cheers, and so on.

How do your stories help your readers identify as part of something bigger than themselves? What themes and beliefs are woven into your work that attract a certain kind of person? How are you creating an experience that is both shareable and worth sharing? Beyond the writing of your story, how are you creating a community for your readers?

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In my work as a marketer, it’s critical for me to have a deep understanding of audience needs. Whether I’m writing website copy to help a software company reach small businesses or putting together an eBook to help a venture capitalist firm educate their portfolio companies, I have to uncover and clearly identify not only the obvious, tactical audience needs, but also the unspoken and intangible emotional needs. In fact, it’s this second set of needs – the ones that I have to dig for, the ones the audience may not readily admit to – that are the most important.

It’s the same with readers. You may know, for instance, that your readers want an exciting adventure story that has an element of mystery and magic. But those are just “surface” needs. Go deeper. Ask yourself what your readers really want.

In marketing, we talk about features and benefits. Features are the “what” of a product; benefits are the “why.” Scrivener, a fabulous writing software, offers writers many excellent features including the ability to edit multiple documents simultaneously, a cork board view for organizing outlines, an in-depth file structure, broad exporting and printing capabilities, and much more. These features are not, however, why writers buy Scrivener. Writers buy Scrivener because of the benefits it delivers: the ability to create order from chaos, write faster, and be more efficient and productive.

Features are a means to an end. Benefits are that end. In the Scrivener example, all those feature-driven bells and whistles ultimately enable you to reach your writing goals. The benefits you experience include greater ease in your work, less stress, greater sense of control and accomplishment, and finally finishing that story/novel/screenplay/dissertation you’ve been working on.

It’s not so different with stories. Your readers may pick up your book thinking that they want adventure, mystery, and magic; but what they really want is the chance to experience something different, be wowed, and find a community of people with whom to share a little piece of themselves in the context of your story. The benefits of reading a story include things like a restoration of faith and hope in humanity, the ability to laugh at ourselves, or a feeling of being understood. Once you understand what your readers really want, you’ll know just what to do to win their hearts.

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What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

old mapBecause of my impending move (and the facts that a) we’re still only about halfway through pre-move mini renovations and b) I haven’t packed a darn thing), I have had precious little time to write anything except the things that absolutely must be written: client documents, my bi-weekly column, and my blog posts here at Live to Write – Write to Live.

As my time gets more and more crunched, I’m leaning more and more heavily on my pre-planning process to streamline my writing. I cannot stress enough how much time it saves me if I outline a piece before I sit down to write. I rarely come to the screen without a mind map to guide me, but when I do find myself in that uncomfortable predicament I know I’m in for a long haul.

The beauty of mind mapping is that it helps me figure out what I’m really trying to say. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have to stick to the plan 100%, or that I can’t make some unexpected discovery while I’m writing and pull a 180. Even if the piece I write ends up being wildly different from the mind map, it still helps me immensely to have that jumping off point.

If you don’t typically do any pre-planning and feel like you’re struggling more than you should have to when you sit down to write, you may want to experiment with outlining, mind mapping, or whatever process helps you organize your thoughts. Even if you wind up going in a completely different direction, I can guarantee you that the time you spend planning won’t be wasted.

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 What I’m Reading Listening To:

magic lessons podcastI’m about a third of the way through a (so far) fabulous novel, but I won’t share that until I’ve finished it. In the meantime, I’ve been listening to the new Magic Lessons podcast from author/speaker Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Love, Pray fame.

I have not read Eat, Pray, Love. I had a copy once, and I tried to read it several times, but I just couldn’t get into it. Despite not being a fan of her most well known book, I have enjoyed several of Gilbert’s talks, including this interview about creativity, writing and saying no, and her conversation with Oprah about why curiosity trumps passion.

The Magic Lessons podcast is part of Gilbert’s promotion for her new book, Big Magic, due out on September 22nd. The book promises to deliver “potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration” and crack open “a world of wonder and joy.” The podcast is her continuation of the conversation around the book’s themes of creativity, inspiration, and how to balance live our most creative lives.

I have to admit that I’m curious about the book, but a little on the fence about the podcast. I am inspired by and agree with much of what Gilbert says, but the delivery involves a few too many “honeys” and “sweethearts” and an overriding flavor of art-as-therapy that kind of turns me off. Though she seems empathetic with the artists she speaks to on her podcast, there is something the way she addresses them that gives me a sense of condescending coddling.

That said, I think my reaction may be due to my baggage about my own creative life; but that’s another conversation for another day.

Despite my mixed feelings about Magic Lessons, I encourage you to give it a listen. I’d be very interested to hear what you think, and – if you’re so inclined – I welcome any amateur psychoanalysis of my knee-jerk aversion to the character of the conversations.

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And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

From littlethingsstudio on Etsy

From littlethingsstudio on Etsy

Here’s to wonder and awe and figuring out what we (and our readers) REALLY want. Have a great rest of the weekend! 
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Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Old Map Photo Credit: nefotografas via Compfight cc

14 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – What Readers Really Want Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

    • I’m so glad if it helps you. 🙂

      And, remember – wonder is always there. We just need to be open to it. I saw two little boys crouched in the dirt path at a flea market earlier today. They were marveling over a “roly poly” bug (a potato bug). Precious.

  1. I always look forward to your good reads and writing tips, so thanks for your weekly posts! I did listen to the first 2 podcasts of Elizabeth’s–the first one I really liked, but probably because I really identified with Erin when it comes to writing and “duty”. However, I was starting to get the same knee-jerk reaction as you toward the end of the 2nd podcast with Cheryl Strayed. The “we need to get together, we never see enough of each other”, etc etc was a bit too much for me.

    • Hi, Anna. Thanks! It’s so nice to be “looked forward to.” 😉

      Special thanks for sharing your thoughts on the podcast. Glad to know I’m not alone.

      And thanks for the condolences on having to pack. I was just sitting here looking around and thinking, “Where the heck do I start?!?” You’d think after four moves in seven years I’d have this operation down to a system, but – no. It still feels like reinventing the wheel every, single time.

      Onward and upward, right?

  2. I’ve been trying to get here for days, and finally, here I am 🙂
    From the bottom up – thank you for sharing Steven Pressfield’s article, I loved it. I question whether anything is worth sacrificing your marriage and sanity for (we don’t have to be that radical to be creative!) but I loved it anyway :).
    I am also listening to Magic Lessons, and I really enjoy them. I’m a huge fan of Gilbert; I expect to like everything she does, so I do. I know what you mean about the darlings and honeys, but I expect Americans to talk in an exaggerated way so I just accepted it. Maybe I have you guys all wrong! There is no way I am going to psychoanalyse the resistance of your creative self to this podcast lol 🙂 Maybe you just don’t like it! Good on you for questioning yourself though, I love that about you.
    Lastly, I loved your first piece on what the reader wants. I have to write a travel piece for my major writing assignment this month, and I found your ruminations very helpful.
    Good luck with moving…
    Xo

  3. I’ve heard about that artist and seen a few pictures. Would like to see for real.
    Like you say, people always want a “new” experience and the brain loves to experience something unique.
    (All those people – a little like the Pied Piper had tuned up for humans?)

  4. First off what a great analogy! That beach story and that dude’s comment! Whoa! Totally bringing back to center while I’m editing my book. A great point to focus on, as well as a great moment to reflect on tiny moments of gratitude, because the beach is something that never lets me down. It always has wonder 🙂 but I’m from California so maybe it’s just a California thing 🙂 Oh! Soooooooo glad you posted Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast. I don’t know how I found those, I think she posted it on her Twitter and it was the one time during the week where I decided to check on that account and BAM there it was 🙂 such a great series. I’m really enjoying the conversation. GOOD post!

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