Next Wednesday, voters will choose a new winner of the “American Idol” singing competition. I’ve tuned in every season– not so much for the singing which over the years has ranged from very good to abysmal–but for the contestants’ personal stories, and for the judges’ comments. This season I’ve thought quite a bit about how those comments might apply to writers of fiction. Singing after all is telling a story. Here are three lessons from the judges that apply to writers as well as to interpreters of song.
“To connect with an audience, you have to find a personal way into the lyric, to make the audience care about you, and about the story you are telling.” Jennifer Lopez to contestant Hollie Cavanaugh. Hollie, only 18 years old, had just performed Bonnie Raitt’s torch song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Jennifer pointed out that since Hollie had not experienced lyric personally, she should have figured out a way to make that lyric applicable to her own life. So it is with our stories. If we don’t connect with our characters’ struggles, if we don’t leave little pieces of our hearts on the page, it’s harder for a reader to care about us and our stories. As the poet Robert Frost once said, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” What is your personal connection to the story you are currently writing?
“You know who you are, man, and we love it!” Randy Jackson to Phillip Phillips, one of this year’s finalists. The running joke all season with Phillip is that he rarely sticks to the original melody of any song he performs. He puts his own interpretation on each song, and it’s always consistent with how he sees his music, and with how he connects with an audience. In the publishing arena, we talk a lot about “branding”–creating an expectation for our readers that is consistently fulfilled with every book. In my case, it’s Southern historical fiction that includes a little romance, a little mystery, a dash of humor. How about you? Do you know who you are as a writer? What kind of reading experience do you want to deliver to your audience, time after time? Last week, I exchanged emails with a prepublished author who said that when it comes to defining her stories she is “all over the place.” I think this is a mistake at the begining of a career. Take a lesson from Randy Jackson. Know who you are. Your readers will love it.
“If you don’t have a dream, man, it can’t come true.” Stephen Tyler to the top three contestants. When he first uttered this, I thought “huh?” It sounded like another of Stephen’s quirky, off the wall comments that are hilarious, even if they don’t provide much guidance to the contestants. But the more I pondered this, the more I think that what he meant was that we need to have a clear vision of what we want to accomplish, whether it be on the stage or on the page. What is your dream for your writing? What do you want to accomplish? Set some goals. Shoot for the stars. Aim high.
Connect with your material. Know who you are as an author. Define your dream. And then, as Randy Jackson says, you ‘ll be “in it to win it!”