Why? Because reading takes effort.
The plight of the writer, and especially the novelist, is that the rewards of good writing cannot be experienced all at once.
Good music grabs the listener with its irresistible rhythms; a master painting dazzles viewers with vibrant colors and a dynamic arrangement of shapes. Both forms can be taken in all at once. In seconds, someone can like it or hate the experience.
But reading means digging for rewards; to even begin, readers want assurance that their time and effort will not be wasted.
What this means for the novelist is that the harder she works to be prolific, the more resistance there potentially is to reading the novel. The great benefit of building a name for yourself is that your readers can expect to enjoy the experience before they commit to it.
If you are Stephen King, you can write an 800 page book and still sell it because readers know that the whole 800 pages are likely to whisk them away to a place where they want to be. The length of the book means more reward.
There are few things more enjoyable, after all, than reading a great novel. That is why many people become writers. They have been captivated, and want to captivate others in the same way.
However, the products of their labor may end up in something called a slush pile – the unloved mound of manuscripts on the desk of a publishing house, the kind where the brave dreams of thousands go to die.
This is tragic because the aspiring novelist puts time and care into writing fiction. It begins with a vision – a rush of excitement.
A novelist may overcome many obstacles to shape words to this vision: under-confidence, abusive self-censorship, creative drought, technical problems, motivation dry spells.
Finishing a novel is a triumph. Praise is expected. Roses perhaps. A parade with fireworks. Dramatic band music.
But what you soon realize is that presenting your opus to certain readers is on the same level as requiring them to dig ditches.
The response you expect: You have written an entire novel? How exciting. Hand it over! I can't wait another second to see what has been going on in that head of yours!
The response you may get: Does it have pages? Will I have to turn them? For the love of God, no!!!
Even family members are often reluctant. My brother took over five years to read my first novel, even though it had gotten a four star rating on Amazon.
In response to shifty eyed, guilty family members who keep promising to read my work, I have adopted a style with simple direct language and short paragraphs. I always try to create an irresistible hook in the first few sentences.
My brother finally read my book and gave it his stamp of approval. But it emphasized to me how much writers have to overcome to get readers to finish, or even begin, their longer works. If your own family balks, how can you expect to entice strangers to enter your fictional world and stay there?
One answer is to be good. So insanely, absurdly, mind-blowingly good that no one can resist you. The other answer, which I avoided as long as I could, is that you have to persuade readers that your writing is good. Otherwise readers will never see your suspenseful dramatic hook in the first paragraph. Somehow, you have to tempt and entice.
A great example of this is the Twilight novel series. A lot has been made of the writing by both critics and fans. However, what drew me in – besides the praise by fans of the series – was the cover art.
Something about the cover seduced me. It was dark, slick, and shiny. It reminded me of chocolate. Dark chocolate with a wayward bitter hint.
Lit against this chocolate background was a bright red apple. Maybe the dark and crimson cover meant death, but the artist could have gone for a grisly dramatic horror scene to convey that better. No, it looked more like a Valentine.
Since eating the cover was impractical, I opened the book hoping for the verbal chocolate the cover promised. I am a girl. I like chocolate. What else was I going to do?
What I found was more like butterscotch – the hard candies in plastic wrapping that taste alright only when your tongue is bored. But I kept reading, expecting more. Why? The cover said chocolate.
To generations of young female readers, Twilight was chocolate. The writing was easy to read and digest. The fantasy appealed to large number of a girls. Twilight was rewarding, and the cover said so.
However, many critics panned the novel as superficial. Twilight illustrates to me that the goals of attracting a wide readership are not always the same as those of good writing.
Bad writing can still reward a reader. Readers read for titillation, scandalous news, and validation of beliefs, among other things. As long as writing does the job of getting the reward across, it does not have to be good – or even true – to sell.
However, I want to be good, so I have been asking myself: how can I achieve what the Twilight series promised but, for me, failed to deliver? How can I write like chocolate? Not butterscotch, and not the cheap bars that are mainly wax, but the gourmet kind.
What makes reading rewarding? What novels inspire and make me want to imitate certain qualities in my own writing? What books leave a lasting impression?
What comes to mind is the Harry Potter series. What made it work? J. K. Rowling did. Her humor, imagination, and her love for what she was writing made the text crackle.
Her point of view was original. Her characters were compelling, her plot suspenseful, and her richly detailed setting of a school of magic was wildly and irresistibly imaginative. Rowling was excited about what she was writing – and it showed.
Her style is what I strive for in my own writing: playfulness, vivid imagery, action verbs, rich sensory details. The writing was both rewarding and good.
However, beware of thinking about writing only as a way to reward the reader. If you do, you may end up scanning bookstore shelves to see what is “selling these days,” and end up catering to an imaginary audience who only cares about fads.
Good writing, not trends, wins out in the end. Greatness does not arise from catering to market demands, although an extreme effort to do this can have some amusing results. The thought process goes something like this:
How to reward. Hmm. I know. Tell reader he is a good reader and everyone else is stupid! And sprinkle in some zombies! Zombies sell like hotcakes these days! And how-to books are always a safe bet. How about a chapter on taxidermy? And a monkey! People like sex too. And religion! My main character can be a dominatrix nun! Hotcakes, I tell you! I am going to make millions!
Soon you have a whirring, rattling, lumbering mechanical monster that spews flattery and is composed of generic things readers like: a chattering monkey for a hat, a zombie skin of necrotic flesh, driven forward by a whip-snapping nun, and in the paw of the monster, a dry manual on taxidermy.
And here is the crazy thing: it just might sell. It might even work brilliantly as satire. But, despite some zany details, the work is likely to fall apart and be meaningless if there is too little of you in it.
Make every effort to overcome the reader effort resistance barrier. Create suspense. Begin with a dramatic hook. Create unforgettable characters. Make your prose sing. Tease. Entice. Write like chocolate.
But be yourself.