I’m a layers kinda gal. I like layered clothing – because of my constant hormonal battle between depths-of-hell-hot and holy-mother-of-gawd-turn-up-the-heat. Ain’t menopause grand?
But like clothing, each layer of a story is representative of a message. Your jacket is your general theme – a woman who skateboards across the US. It’s general. It is NOT your plot. Then you strip off a layer [cue striptease music, please] and discover that she’s blind. Now you have the beginnings of a plot.
The next layer exposes that she was constantly protected and told that she’d never be able to do anything “great” due to her blindness. She set out on her quest to prove them wrong. Her main problem was finding people who believed in her enough to help her in her quest. Now we’re talking plot, complete with conflict and all the trimmings. Great wardrobe, I’d say, and plenty of layers to strip off.
But wait, there are more layers, and this is where I feel the differences between a good book and a great book exist. I’m talking about message. It’s that underlying tidbit that scratches the zing to a reader’s zang. It’s one thing to simply tell a good story. But it’s quite another to make impact or influence a reader. It’s that idea of, “Yah, my book is about ABC, but it’s so much more, so much deeper than that.”
For me, a book with a strong underlying message is what makes books marketable on many different levels. For example, Kim Petersen’s book, Charting the Unknown, is about how after many years had passed since college, she found her “bucket list” in her abnormal psych book – the irony still makes me giggle – and on that list was living on a boat. So she and her hubby chucked it all and took their two kids aboard their homemade boat to sail 4,000 of the Atlantic. Ok, forget Dr. Fraud, get a straight jacket. Of course, I kid because who of us hasn’t dreamed of escaping the rat race and simplifying our lives in order to find personal equanimity?
The main course of this book will appeal to those who also live on boats – of which there are many. But for me, the real charm and gut-wrenching clincher is Kim’s underlying message about daring to be more than you ever thought possible, in spite of tragedy and fear. This goes way beneath the surface of living with two teens aboard a boat – which, in reliving my kids’ teen years, would have me heading straight for nuclear weaponry. It goes to the very foundation of who we are as human beings who populate a fabulous planet that offers all kinds of lessons, both inner and outer.
[Shameless plug: Fez author, Suzanna Clarke, told us the biggest complaint she had about Kim’s book is that it encroached on her life because she couldn’t put it down.]
And aren’t we all looking for something that pushes us to the outer limits? By golly, I can sell that. And that’s my point. If Kim’s book were simply a boat story, I’d have passed on it. But her story has layers that strip all the way down to the Victoria Secrets and leave the reader pondering a lot more than just living on a boat.
And it doesn’t matter if it’s nonfiction or fiction. Everyone has something to say, yanno? It’s those underlying messages that give a publisher some extra oomph to sell your book.
So why don’t you check your own literary layers and see how far your literary striptease goes. Are we talking taking off the jacket, shirt, and pants, or have you barely taken off your gloves and hat? Consider whether it digs deep enough to be more than good – but great.