I have reviewed over five hundred stories in the last two years and one of the most common mistakes I think most aspiring fiction writers make (including myself) is we sometimes forget about the reader. We get so caught up in the writing that sometimes we forget who we are writing for.
Many authors I have spoken to said they write for themselves. Others, like myself, strive to have our works read by others. If you are in the latter category, then I think it is important to understand the huge difference between writing to please oneself and writing to please our readers. We may like our flowery prose and be impressed by our own loquacious vernacular, but if we can’t touch our readers on a personal level, if we lose them in the first line, then what’s the beauty of having written all those words?
If you are writing for yourself, there is nothing wrong in writing the way that suits you. In fact, it is very therapeutic. But if you’re a writer looking to capture an audience, then knowing how to write to capture your reader’s attention becomes very important. Once it becomes clear to the writer that (s)he is writing for an audience, editing and writing becomes more focused and rewarding. Happy readers make happy authors.
As a reader, I know what elements I look for in books and if I don’t find them, well, I don’t read them. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn (and am still learning) is how to incorporate those elements into my own writing. What are those elements? The following is a list I made for me that I feel are important to having a successful story your readers will love.
Believable characters. In my opinion, strong characters are more important than almost anything else in a fictional story. The main character has to be compelling, so compelling that your readers believe the character is real. This applies to both protagonist and antagonist. It may help to write down character attributes before you start. Know your characters inside and out. You may not have to tell the reader about every single nervous habit they have, but if you know all fifty of them, it will show in your writing and the characters will come across as real and imperfect.
Simple sentences. Have you ever read a short story or a passage from a novel that was vague or so ill constructed that it seemed to ramble on for ever and a day (cliché, I know)? If so, try to remember how it felt to read those lines and try to avoid them in your own works. I think one way an author can do this is by staying away from passive sentences (The sun was shining.) and focus on active verbs and direct language (The sun shone.). Avoid overuse of adjectives and purple prose, i.e.: (She rested her head on an expensive, big, long, blue, cotton pillow tucked inside a perfectly beautiful beige, silky soft, and positively exquisite satin pillow case.) Sometimes short and sweet is better. Remember, you don’t want to insult your reader. Instead, give them a picture to hold in their minds (She rested her head upon the plush pillow, its satin case soft and cool against her skin.)
A theme. All remarkable works of fiction have a theme. My fantasy novel, In the Shadow of the Dragon King, (as well as the subsequent two novels in the Chronicles of Fallhollow series), explores the theme that no matter who we are or where we are from, no matter how different we are, we all love the same, we all hurt the same, we all make tremendous sacrifices in our lives, and with those sacrifices comes great honor. No matter what your theme, try not to preach to your audience. Instead, try to leave your readers feeling they’ve read something memorable, something that touches them, and something they will want to revisit again and again.
A believable, coherent plot. Have you ever written a story and all seems to go well until your character and/or story hits a roadblock and you don’t know what to do or where to go with them? This is where having plot outlines and/or a road map can be very beneficial. I’m not one for long, drawn out outlines like some authors do, but I do have a general idea of what I want to divulge in each chapter. Know where you are going with your story and if possible, ask for feedback to spot plot gaps. Also, if you are dealing with different times (past, present, future), it is good to create a timeline. The last thing you want is for a character to be pregnant for 19 months or to shut a door that was never opened.
A good story. Sometimes we get so caught up in the technical aspects of writing that we forget we are, first and foremost, storytellers. Some stories, even if they are not perfectly written, are more interesting than others. Why? Because those stories touch us on a personal level. That’s not to say we shouldn’t worry about our grammar or punctuation, but none of that matters if you don’t have a great story. No matter what you choose to write about or in what genre you write, strive to give your reader a remarkable story, and one that will leave your readers asking for more.
A final note that I found has helped me: if you ever find yourself stuck in your writing . . . read. Read the stories you loved as a child. Read Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, Hawthorne, Poe, etc. Read what’s popular now and read in the genre you’ve chosen to write. Once you have done this, go back to your own work and read it as if you were picking it up for the first time. If you’re like me, you’ll see the flaws and beauty of it and you will know what to do next.
I hope this helps you. Happy writing. Until next time . . .