Or, how to get your reader to take your book to bed with them
Once you wrote the great pick-up lines, hooked in the reader and got them to shell out money to take you home with them (through your book, of course!), what’s next? We’ve all read books that began well, but after a while we started yawning, our eyes glazed over, and we began to make excuses. ‘I just don’t have time right now.’ ‘I’ll read a chapter after I’ve washed my hair…’
How to keep them reading, then? It’s all about pacing. And I don’t mean non-stop action. Be aware that there are patterns, to really good, well-constructed books. A peak, a valley, a rest moment and an exciting, edge-of-your-chair scene. Take a few of your favorite books and diagram this, if you don’t already have an idea in your head of how it works. (I realize I am probably the youngest person living (not homeschooled) to have diagrammed sentences, but it is the same principle)
Now, you have a template. Like a recipe, you know you should have a cup of tension, a dollop of humor, leaven with some tenderness, and the result will feed your reader. Learning what genre cues are, and how to use them effectively, will help as well. I’m not saying you can’t write something fresh, original, and stunning, you should do that. But there are millions of written stories. Someone out there has done your premise before, I guarantee it. But you, my friend writer, are the uniqueness in your story. Find your voice, tell the tired old tale in it, and you will help your reader fall in love with you.
Tension is your best tool, and foreshadowing along with it. Keep your reader guessing what is coming next, with hints and clues that something IS coming, and they won’t be able to put the book down. Likeable characters are also important. You really really don’t want a reader to keep reading because they are hoping you will kill your protagonist vilely. When you send your manuscript to beta readers, ask them if there were any falters in the pace, or places where they set the book down and had trouble coming back to it. If at least three indicate problem areas, take a closer look.
Resist the temptation to write out every detail and every step the characters take. If you’re bored to tears writing it, chances are it will put your reader to sleep. Now that you’re in bed with them, you want them to stay up to the very end, don’t you? You don’t want to be the tome they keep on the nightstand to ward off insomnia. You want to get fanmail cursing you for giving them a sleepless night and circles under their eyes at work the next day.
It was easy, with opening lines, to give you examples. It’s a lot harder to look into a book and say, ‘here’s a line from the middle that will keep you going.’ I picked up Witches of Karres by James Schmitz, because it happened to be near the keyboard, and flipped through.
“The key word was prohibited…” begins Chapter 3, but the goings-on of the brave Captain Pausert who nobly rescued … nah, he stumbled into rescuing three girls who promptly and sweetly took over his life, getting him into so much trouble that he feared he’d never get out again. And I, the reader, with amusement following their shenanigans and wondering what’s going to happen next.
A book like Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia is easier to figure out: it’s action, all the way. Except the places where it is training, and figuring-out things. about a third of the way into the book one character points out to another, “your temper will get you killed in this job. It only takes one stupid decision to get you or your team killed. You need to keep your emotions in check.” And here is something you must give your reader. Characters who grow, learn, and behave in real ways. Cardboard cutouts who only pose where you the author put them, doing what you tell them, are not going to remain attractive to most readers.
One of my favorite ‘growing up’ books, and then series, is the Vorkosigan saga. Beginning with The Warrior’s Apprentice, we watch Miles Vorkosigan grow from ‘hyperactive git’ into a wise, compassionate being, who is finally granted great things in life (like love, and family) but not before this “He was sinking in a black and sucking bog, gluey viscous terror sapping his vital forward momentum. He waded on, blindly.” Miles isn’t in physical trouble, but mental, responsible for other lives and terrified he will mess it up. Giving your characters responsibility and nobility of purpose will give your readers reasons to care for them, and follow on toward the end.
I don’t always know what books will suck me in and keep me up far past my bedtime. Some I can predict, coming from authors I know and trust to give me a good time. Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, Mackey Chandler, Terry Pratchett, Pam Uphoff… to name a few still writing, off the top of my head. I’m very much a mood reader, so if I am looking for a fresh new mystery, I go to Dana Stabenow. For a urban fantasy, Jim Butcher or Amanda Green. Science Fiction? Drake, or Ringo, or Chandler. Westerns take me back to Louis L’Amour, since I don’t know any current authors I’d trust like I do his consummate story-telling and wonderful characters. Who are your go-to authors, and why? Think it through, and distill that for your own work. Write what you want to read, and you won’t go far wrong.
Next week: Giving your reader a satisfying climax.