Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What readers want

The last few days I have been talking about what editors and agents want when they look at your manuscript. Let's spend a little time talking about what a reader wants. I wrote down a fantastic quote that will make a great point here, but I was in such a hurry to get it all, I forgot to write who said it. Sorry about that but hopefully you'll still get something out of it.

"I write for the lady on the bus. She isn't my mother so she doesn't have to like what I write. She isn't my friend or my sister or my boss, so she is not obligated under any circumstances to like what I do."

Keeping that in mind, how can we please this reader?

The two questions you never want you reader to ask is:

1. Huh?
2. So what?

To avoid the first question, we must write clearly. I hate reading a book where I cannot see myself as the main character. Call me an egomaniac but I need to feel as if the story is happening to me. If I can't put myself into your setting and feel the wind in my hair and smell the coffee on the stove, I won't be satisfied with the story.

Another "Huh?" moment comes when you try to impress the reader with your brilliant prose. KISS. Keep it Simple Stupid. We know you're smart. You wrote a book, for crying out loud. Must you bore us by cramming your wit and brilliance down our throats. I'm not the dullest tack in the box, but I actually had to get a dictionary out to read the first page of a novel once. This novel wasn't one of the classics or an post-graduate thesis. It was just written by someone who had swallowed a Thesaurus and then vomited the words back onto the page. It didn't take me long to stop reading. I was exhausted and a little insulted. Just tell your story the way only you can.

The "So what?" question answers itself. Coming in at a close second to writing with a unique voice like we discussed yesterday, I believe the second most important ingredient in powerful storytelling is characterization. No matter how brilliant your storyline, if the reader doesn't care about who your conflict is happening to, she isn't going to make it to the end of the book. As writers we must create characters our readers love--or hate.

Create believable characters. People are flawed. No one is completely good or completely bad. Give your villian likable qualities--at least one. Make him be kind to animals or protective of his mother. Your heroine doesn't have to be five feet, seven inches with perfect teeth, flowing blond hair and an IQ of 140 for us to love her. In fact I hate her already.

Make her real. Maybe she can't digest dairy, the color red washes her out, or she thinks Michael Moore is insightful. Give her some flaws your reader can relate to. The reader must experience a strong emotional reaction to your characters and setting or we won't continue reading.

We will discuss strong emotional reactions more next time. Until then, keep writing.

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