Highlights

  • How we can use “change” language to engage our readers.
  • Writing young adult fiction and garnering more readers for our work.
  • How to make our writing stand out from the crowd.

I avoid using the passive voice (was taken). I work to steer clear of the past perfect tense (had given).

Welcome to the twenty-fourth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process and their approach to the craft.

In this episode, I chat with writer Katherine Karch about her blog and her unique approach to writing.

Arthur: You have a very cool and unique approach to the writing craft on your blog. In your recent article, “Writing That Hooks Readers,” you discuss the neuroscience behind engaging our readers. As writers, we’re often looking for that great first line and struggle with figuring out how to keep our readers engaged. How did you discover this neuroscience hack? How do you try to hook your own readers?

Katherine: I’ve always been interested in neuroscience. My background is in science, specifically in biology. After listening to a podcast in which Joanna Penn interviewed Lisa Cron, author of “Wired for Story,” I became interested in the neuroscience of reading and writing.

The proverbial “hook” is a complex notion, particularly in literature. A lot of different elements are involved, but engagement ultimately starts in the limbic system. That’s the emotional center of our brains, made up of a bunch of different regions. I sometimes call it the” deep brain” or the “old brain” to keep the terminology simple. In any case, I work hard to stimulate that part of my readers’ brains when I write. I avoid using the passive voice (was taken). I work to steer clear of the past perfect tense (had given). I include lots of strong action verbs that are goal oriented (he kicked with his legs to break free of the woman’s grip). And I make sure there are lots of multi-sensory descriptions on each page. All those techniques live at the micro-level of my writing. The macro-level—where I develop character arcs and weave thematic elements and shape linguistics—is equally important.

I include lots of strong action verbs that are goal oriented.

Arthur: Do you think modern writing – including books published in the last 20 years – has changed, in that we don’t see a lot of “change” type of language to engage the reader? If it isn’t change, what is it that does engage the reader?

Katherine: I actually think an opposite trend from what you’re describing has been happening, at least in popular genre fiction. The classics are great because of the rich characters, the intricate relationships, and the important themes. However, I struggle to read them because—from a neurological standpoint—they’re written in a way that is just not very engaging. I don’t want to make enemies by dumping on Dickens, Hawthorne, Austin, or Thoreau. It’s no accident that people continue to read their books, but it’s not because they tumble into those stories and viscerally live out the events on the page.

Literary fiction aside, and I must confess that I don’t read much literary fiction, the best sellers in modern genre categories are the book versions of a virtual reality ride. They are loaded with elements that stimulate readers’ limbic systems, and that includes lots and lots of changing circumstances. Change is a big attention grabber for our brains, which evolved primarily to detect change and assess its meaning from a survival standpoint. A novel that always comes to my mind when I think about effective use of change to hook readers is Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE. Whether or not you like that book, it sold millions of copies around the world, and part its success lies in the fact that it is loaded with elements of change that just keep grabbing and grabbing at its reader’s limbic systems.

Change is a big attention grabber for our brains.

Arthur: Do you think the current changing of language (abbreviations in text messages, for example) will impact how us writers can grab our reader’s attention?

Katherine: Good question. It’s a worry I hear over and over again, and it’s something I’ve wondered about, too. Truth be told, there’s little evidence to support the notion that communication technologies such as texting and various social media platforms have drastically altered the way readers interact with long form written material (books), especially at the level of vocabulary and language. Kids are just as nuanced at interpreting meaning through context as they ever were. BRB, OMG, GTG and all the other slang that is evolving to enable faster messaging isn’t dumbing kids down.

Those messaging platforms are changing expectations, however. Texting and Twitter and Snapchat—those platforms give readers small but frequent dopamine dumps.  Dopamine is a feel good chemical our brains release when, among other things, we investigate something new. It’s a reward system that encourages our brains to pay attention to change. A bing from a device signals new information. Something has changed. Better pay attention and check to see what’s up. For us long form (and short form) writers, that means our younger readers’ brains are being groomed to need lots and lots of stimulus. Lots of change. If you give it to them in your writing, they’ll be more likely to stick with you and enjoy your book regardless of what words you’re using.

That mean’s our younger readers’ brains are being groomed to need lots and lots of stimulus. Lots of change. If you give it to them in your writing, they’ll be more likely to stick with you.

Arthur: You’re a teacher. It’s one thing to teach ourselves something, such as the hacks above. How are you able to teach this and share the knowledge with others? Do you find it harder to teach others than it is yourself?

Katherine: It’s always harder to teach something to someone else than it is to teach it to yourself. Teaching to another person is a form of translation. I have information, and I understand it, but I need to re-frame it in such a way that this other person with different life experiences and different neurological wiring can understand. That’s a real challenge, and I love it.

I’m forever telling my students that there is a huge difference between understanding something and being able to get someone else to understand it. But again, neuroscience is at play here, because our brains are set up to seek out face to face social interactions. We hunger for human contact, for conversation, for discussion. In my classroom, I present as many opportunities as I can for my students to talk through the topics we study in small groups. It’s during those face to face conversations when deep and genuine understanding occurs.

We hunger for human contact, for conversation, for discussion.

Arthur: You have chosen young adult as your writing pursuit. Given that it is indeed such a popular genre, how can we make our writing and stories stand out?

Katherine: I have some pretty strong opinions about this, but the advice I’ll give is true for all popular genres of fiction. If you want your writing to stand out, it needs to be fresh. Look at the top selling books that have come out in the past one or two years. What are the common themes and tropes in those books? A few that jump to my mind for the YA genre are: teenage love triangles, dystopian power structures, vampires (still), and Celtic Fae in urban environments.  Identify the trends and then write something different. Something you haven’t seen yet.  One of my mentors at Lesley University, YA author Jason Reynolds, gave me this piece of advice as I was heading out of the program: “If the stuff you’re writing about scares you, you’re doing it right.” There’s a tremendous amount of wisdom in that.

If you want your writing to stand out, it needs to be fresh.

Arthur: In your article, “Why Write for Kids,” you note that young adult fiction and children’s literature are the most important books we can write. I love this statement and believe it deserves more attention because of its validity. The first books we read are the ones we remember the most. Aside from perhaps the lack of curse words, what differentiates young adult from adult fiction?

Katherine: You’d be surprised how many times folks ask that question. I’ve met more than a few curmudgeons who grumble that, when they were kids, there weren’t any young adult novels, even though they were reading J. D. Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (classic YA) and Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET (another amazing YA novel). The term “YA” is pure marketing, as are all the genre categories. However, age of the main characters and theme tend to be what separates a “YA” story from an “adult” story. YA novels usually star characters between the ages of 14 and 18. They also tend to be coming of age stories in which the main character finishes his/her transformation from passive, dependent “child” to active, independent “adult.” YA novels also tend to contain lots of “firsts.” First kisses, first heartbreaks, first time living away from home (and the parental safety net), first time facing mortality, etc. Exceptions exist, of course, but I think more writers of YA would agree with me.

Oh, and because I know a few folks might get their hackles up over the notion, I’m going to have to dispel the myth that a lack of curse words is a differentiating factor between YA and adult fiction. It’s not.

YA novels also tend to contain lots of “firsts.”

Arthur: If we write adult fiction, do you believe we can reach a larger audience? I’m thinking of Harry Potter in that it is read not just by young adults, but by everyone. Are there certain elements of the story that everyone can relate to?

Katherine: The thing I love so much about YA novels is that they are often big, walloping Hero’s Journey tales.  If you’ve ever read Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH 1,000 FACES, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Campbell argued that the hero’s journey is rooted deeply in human psychology. Because we all go through the journey of transitioning from dependent, selfish child to independent, selfless adult, any story that is a hero’s journey will resonate with us. Harry Potter is a quintessential example that fits so perfectly it transcends age and touches us all.

A hero’s journey is rooted deeply in human psychology.

Arthur: BRIDGE OF TERABITHIA “marked your soul” as a child. What was it about the book that drew you in? Why was it one of the most important books you’ve read?

Katherine: I vividly remember the moment that book marked my soul. It was eleven o’clock at night. I was ten years old. Without spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it (and if that’s you, please do yourself a favor and read the book; it will catapult your understanding of children’s books to a higher level), that story introduced me to the intimacy of love and loss. It broke my heart. Imagine my parents’ surprise when I woke them up, pounding on their bedroom door, balling my eyes out, my heart shredding itself with the emotional agony of loss. My mother swept me into her arms and held me until I calmed down, and then she told me something I also will never forget. My visceral anguish was the biggest compliment I could ever pay to its author, Katherine Paterson, because it meant she wrote a story that touched my heart. Wow, did it ever! That might have been the moment when I began to want to write stories of my own.

My visceral anguish was the biggest compliment I could ever pay to its author.

Arthur: In your article, “Making the Writing Happen,” there’s a photo of your computer and a notebook. Joseph Pascale and I geeked out about pens and notebooks in his interview. Do you have a pen and notebook of choice? When do you write by hand versus writing on the computer?

Katherine: I write by hand almost every morning, and I definitely have a set ritual. After putting the kettle on and brewing some coffee, I like to sit down and capture my thoughts in a journal for about 30 minutes. I need the right pen—my gold-bodied Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen (medium nib) with black ink. I need the right notebook—a cheap, one-subject, spiral bound, college-ruled, Staples brand. Something about the paper is perfect for fountain pens.  I also insist on writing in cursive. Research has shown that writing in cursive activates regions of the brain involved in creativity and problem-solving.

Beyond writing in a journal each morning, I keep pocket-sized notebooks… everywhere. Another of my mentors at Lesley University, YA author Chris Lynch, urged me to always keep a notebook handy, no matter where I am or what time of day it is. I have pocket notebooks in my car, next to my bed, in my backpack, even in the bathroom (that one’s kind of a joke, but hey, you never know when a great idea might strike, right?).

When I write by hand, it’s stream of consciousness stuff that allows me to explore ideas without worrying about “if it’s right.” When I’m ready to sit down and advance my current work in progress more intentionally, I put my fingers to the keyboard and type things up in Scrivener.

Research has shown that writing in cursive activates regions of the brain involved in creativity and problem-solving.

Arthur: I’ve asked a number of writers in earlier interviews about their productivity and how they make time to achieve their writing goals. How is your morning writing routine goal for 2018 coming, now that we’re halfway through the year?

Katherine: It was going great until I submitted my creative thesis on May 7th. Then? Well, my brain kind of melted into a puddle at my feet. MFA fatigue is a real thing, apparently.  I wasn’t expecting it and got a bit blindsided by it. For over a month, I couldn’t will myself to even look at my manuscript. However, as I knew it would, the exhaustion lifted and now I’m back to writing regularly. The routine I set for myself back in January still feels good, so most mornings I’m up between 5:00 and 5:30. I journal for half an hour, and then I sit down and work on my current project until my kids wake up. That’s somewhere around 7:30 now that we’re on a summer schedule. Summer is a great time for me as a writer.

Most mornings, I’m up between 5:00 and 5:30.

Arthur: In your article, “Write in the Morning to Maximize Productivity,” you have a great technique with The Power of Habit and instant rewards. Do you do this when you travel or you’re on vacation also?

Katherine: To be honest, I don’t do a whole lot of traveling or taking of vacations. As a high school teacher, I have summers off. It’s one big vacation for me. It’s my high season for writing. I get up, journal, do some work on my current project or maybe work on a blog post. Then, I tend to the business of feeding my kids, shellacking them with sunscreen and getting them to camp. Once that’s finished, I’ve got six hours to tend to the yard, keep the house clean, and write before I have to go and pick them up.  It’s pretty great. But yes, during the summer, I do continue to nurture a consistent writing habit and back it up with instant rewards. Habits can be beautiful, powerful things.

Habits can be beautiful, power things.

Arthur: Tell me about your current works in progress? How far along are you? What are these stories about? Will you self-publish them?

Katherine: At the moment, I’m finishing up a YA feminist fantasy that pushes a lot of social boundaries. I won’t say too much about it beyond the fact that I was partly inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER. If all goes well, I’ll have that finished by the end of July, at which point I plan on returning to a YA dystopian survival story that I’d set aside for my current project at the urging of my fourth semester mentor at Lesley University. How to describe that story… it’s a bit of Rick Yancey’s THE 5TH WAVE mixed in with Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD and Jack London’s short story TO BUILD A FIRE. Right now, it’s a structural mess and there will be a lot of tearing apart and putting back together again before it’s finished, but when it is, I’ve got a third project on the back-back burner—a middle grade steampunk pirate adventure.

The presence of an external viewpoint allows great cinematic flexibility.

Arthur: How did you decide on your point of view?

Katherine: When it comes to choosing a POV, I rely on my instincts. A POV will usually present itself when I touch my fingers to the keyboard or put pen to paper, and that’s how I’ll start writing. It’s often third person limited and close because the presence of an external viewpoint allows great cinematic flexibility, and that can be important when writing stories set in fantastical worlds (including science fiction settings). First person inherently limits the scope of how much of a world the readers will ever be able to see, so it’s more difficult to employ in secondary world fantasies. I’ve seen it done, but I’ve yet to see it done in a way that I, personally, have found satisfying.  That’s not to say an incredible epic fantasy told in the first person POV has never been written. I just haven’t yet found it.

A POV will usually present itself when I touch my fingers to the keyboard.

Arthur: What kind of experience are you trying to create for your readers?

Katherine: First and foremost, I want to take my readers on an adventure. I want to pull them into my story so deeply that they lose track of time and forget where they are in the real world. I want to leave them breathless and excited, but I also want to give them a story that—once they’re finished—lingers in their thoughts, leaves them question things, causes them look at societal “norms” in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t have otherwise. And last but not least, I want my stories to make readers feel empowered, more confident in themselves and their ability to effect change.

I want my stories to make readers feel empowered, more confident in themselves and their ability to effect change.

Arthur: A lot of writers are trying to build their audience as they work on their books. You have a significant number of blog followers. How do you market your blog and get readers to sign up? Do you have any suggestions for other writers trying to build their audience?

Katherine: Oh, gosh. I don’t really have any suggestions for building an audience. It’s a bit of a mystery as to how so many people have stumbled upon my blog.  When I started the project a year ago, I had no strategies for marketing, no plans for content delivery. Truth be told, I still don’t. When I write a post, it’s usually spur of the moment and about a topic that randomly pops into my head. I throw it out into the digital void via my Twitter feed, my Facebook feed, and LinkedIn. I don’t even have a separate newsletter for my followers.  I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone, so there is zero product promotion on my site.

Maybe that’s the draw for people who follow my blog. It’s just me, blogging about my personal journey as I write stories and live a creative life, which in this day and age and in this country is no easy feat.

For reasons too numerous to list, we’ve become a consumer driven society. My site might be a respite from all that. In my posts, I’m open about my process, the difficult moments as well as the moments when things are going well. When I learn something I think others might find helpful, I share it. And always, always, always I try to imbue my posts with positivity, optimism, and an underlying message that the act of creating art in any form is something to be valued.

One day, I plan to have books available for purchase, but my goal is to work with a traditional publishing house rather than self-publish (although never say never). When that happens, I hope an in-house marketing strategist with help me be more intentional with promotion campaigns and whatnot. The blog, however, will always be about writing and creativity and encouraging other like-minded creative folks to keep fighting the good fight.

I try to imbue my posts with positivity, optimism, and an underlying message that the act of creating art in any form is something to be valued.

Thank you so much, Katherine. Such an awesome interview and you’ve shared incredible insight with us. Make sure to subscribe to Katherine’s blog for more interesting approaches to the writing craft and engaging your readers.