For me, it started two months ago when I got my kindle fire and started browsing the kindle store. I was excited about my new toy, and eager to load it up with fresh titles. I went straight to the fiction lists and started browsing sample chapters. But one after another, every sample chapter I read failed to capture my interest as a reader.
I thought maybe it was a genre issue -- I read across genres, and sometimes I'm just not in the mood for one or another kind of book. So I started browsing other lists. Mystery, scifi, fantasy, genfic, romance, litfic -- no matter where I roamed, I failed to find anything that screamed, "Read me now!" I did download a few titles, but none of them felt so compelling that I had to keep reading right then and there. Most of them felt vaguely familiar, competent but not entirely fresh.
This went on for weeks. Of the hundreds of books I sampled, I've probably downloaded no more than twenty. I really thought it was just me, but then a friend of mine, Tracey Devlyn, handed me an ARC of her first book (A Lady's Revenge, out last week). I've read this book several times in the past few years, so the characters and plot were already familiar. Yet when I started reading the first page again, I was just as hooked as I had been the first time I read it. I gave it to my mom (anything but an avid reader), and she stayed up until three in the morning reading it. She described the first chapter as "almost too scary." That book has spark, and it reminded me of what all those other hundreds of titles had been lacking.
What makes for spark? This gets to what Alicia and I have been discussing. We've been trying to decide whether it's possible to teach spark. I think (and I suspect Alicia agrees) that spark comes naturally to some writers, and others have to fight to find it. And maybe you can find it, but maybe you can't. It might be innate. I don't know -- I'm sort of undecided on that, because I think we can identify aspects of spark and figure out how to incorporate those.
So what are those aspects of spark? Just brainstorming a list here, spark is --
- But not silly or contrived
- Lots of sentence-level tension
- Strong, clear character emotions
- Those emotions make sense and are in proportion to the events
- Obvious external problems to solve
- Unambiguous world-building, in the sense that setting details are relevant
- Occasional surprises in the way details are presented
- Active text without a lot of "telling"