I once belonged to a book group when I lived in Austin. We took turns recommending books. When it came my turn, I recommended a then-recently released book by Pat Conroy, one of my favorite authors. I looked forward to the discussion and wrote down a list of stimulating questions. While waiting for the rest of the members to arrive, one woman pulled me aside and asked if I’d ever skipped over parts of a book. I wasn’t sure if her question was sincere, or if this was her subtle way of telling me she thought the book was boring. My answer was no and that I read every word. If the book is not to my liking, I just don’t finish it. I’m not sure if that is the writer in me, or if I’m an obsessive reader. When I read, I hear an inner voice reading the words aloud to me. If a sentence or paragraph does not sound right, I reread it until it does; until I hear the voice clearly. But skipping over parts of a book seems sacrilegious. What if you were reading a mystery and missed a vital clue? What if character planned to dress in drag as a joke, and you missed that part?
You might not write like Pat Conroy or Anne Perry, but here are a few clues to keep readers engaged:
Hook them immediately. Don’t bog them down in unnecessary background information. If you’re writing a biography or memoir, start with a compelling anecdote. There’s no rule that says you have to write the story in chronological order. The day your subject was born is usually not significant unless she was born in the middle of the Kalahari Desert and her mother left her to the jackals.
Everything you write has to move the plot forward. Sprinkle in bits of background info or humor, but keep it short. A writer friend who was in my critique group went on a ten-page tangent about searching for a buried treasure on some forested mountain even though the book was about sailing through the Panama Canal. I asked how this section fit the plot. He said it didn’t—he just thought it was exciting and he needed to increase his word count and he was serious.
Connect with your reader by developing a voice that tells them you are on their level and you have an exciting story to tell. Don’t try to impress them with expert knowledge or big words. Once I questioned a writer’s overuse of medical terms. His response was that he wanted his lazy readers to look up the definitions. My response was that I also hated footnotes.
Don’t editorialize. Writing about a topic you’re passionate about is one thing; lecturing your readers is not. Allow them to contemplate your views, even sympathize, and come to their own conclusions.
Make ‘em laugh, even if you’re writing a sad, fearful, or thrilling story. Comic relief adds balance and keeps your reader from becoming emotionally exhausted.
Finally, end each chapter with a cliffhanger. The best compliment a writer gets is that the book was a page-turner.
Kathleen Kaska, Marketing Director