Luring Your Readers

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Almost sixty years ago I was a five-year-old hunched precariously on the high dirt bank of Herb Den Dulk’s pond. My line was a stick yanked off a tree, my line a white string, and my hook a safety pin. The lure? A worm dug from our back garden, now limp and lifeless after the half-mile walk in my sweating fist.

As I sat watching the lone goldfish drift a few feet from the bank, I believed mightily that fish love worms and that one would be biting the safety pin any minute now. Faith dies hard in children, and I held onto that pole for three hours in the relentless California sun before throwing it down and heading home.

I still believe in the power of lures, however. A good lure, well crafted, draws readers into your story like fish gathering around a bit of sparkle, feather, and fake eye bobbing in front of them.

And—as any avid fisherman will tell you—making lures is fun.

Story lures derive their power from what’s left off the page, rather than what’s added. They are holes of missing information, shadowy bits of backstory, mere hints of future catastrophe.

Lures are a discipline every growing writer needs to master. Because your first inclination as a writer will be to tell the reader all—splat! A hefty scoop of information ladled out in the first pages. Won’t the readers be pleased, you think. All the information they’ll need for the rest of the story: not only the protagonist’s age, date of birth, shoe size, and favorite chewing gum, but also his childhood trauma, family secrets, problems at work, and hidden vices.

Unless you’ve got a voice as entertaining as Twain or compelling as Tolstoi, however, you’re going to lose your readers right there. Right at the >splat<.

So learn to leave holes. Dig one on every page. Even your opening line can be a lure, as in this famous one: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Right away, the reader’s ears prick up. What made it the best? The worst? A lure draws them toward the hook.

As Diane Holmes, author and pacing guru, says, “Lures are about the desire to know more.” That’s what you want to stimulate in your readers. When you hint that one of your characters is telling a lie, keeping a secret, or discovering a new clue; when you bring readers to edge of a cliffhanger; when you make them shiver at a foreshadowing of evil things to come—these all make them want to keep reading.

You know you have a great lure when it generates questions not only in your character but also in your readers, when the readers feel such anxiety for your character that they experience stress and worry, feeling driven to in some way help the character survive.

Planting lures on each page isn’t a cheap literary trick. It’s how life works. We’re all trying to figure out this mystery, whether a dream will live or die, how a relationship will thrive, or even how long we’ve got yet on this planet. How will these things end? We’re constantly trying to read the signs: stock market reports, the six o’clock news, our boss’s next evaluation, our partner’s tone of voice. Which of us has the entire picture at any time in our life? When you plant big holes of the unknown in your story, you’re giving your readers a slice of real life.

Next time you feel compelled to bare all for your reader, remember that the Victorians had something going. They were mostly covered up from head to toe. But just the flash of an ankle, the white skin at the throat, a soft and tiny wrist—these excited imagination and desire more than does the vast expanse of skin we see today.

So cover up. Let just a little of the bare truth show through—with the promise that if readers keep going, you’ll reveal all just at the right time, and with so much more pleasure!

The Reader’s Work

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What happens when readers open your book?

If your opening pages captivate them, their brains get to work on the story’s outcome. They don’t want to be spoon-fed Pablum, to be told everything at once. They want to take the lures and cues in your first chapters to build anticipation for the kind of complex, well-seasoned feast you’re going to give them, culminating in the final delicious page.

In other words, they’re on a hunt to discover the unknown: “How is this girl going to get out of that blackmail trap?” “Who could have carried out this bizarre murder? And why?” “Why doesn’t this boy speak up about the abuse?” “This man is so quiet, so passive—what secret in his past made him that way?” “What makes this woman’s relationship with her mother so controlling? Will she ever escape? How?”

Readers want a story to love, yes. But they are most delighted by stories that keep them guessing, that invite and push and coerce them into becoming storytellers themselves as they keep trying to envision the outcome of a conversation, a decision, a risk taken, and of the story itself. Readers’ minds will take all your authorial cues and hints to create possible backstories for a character who’s acting strangely.

Every time you throw them a curve, the brain program running in the background will be reevaluating what they thought of a certain character, reorganizing their hopes for story outcomes, redirecting the path of the character’s growth arc.

In other words, their brains are working overtime trying to figure things out. And they’re delighted when they can’t, as long as you’re creating a logical outcome (even if it’s a big surprise).

Your job is to be smarter than they are. To keep one step ahead of them. To tell your story in such a way that they keep asking questions—and keep generating answers of their own, trying to guess where the story is headed next. To remember that readers LOVE IT when their guesses are wrong, when you surprise them with logically believable but unpredictable characters, outcomes, and results.

Kind of like real life.

Let’s pick a genre that doesn’t always do this well: romance. Hero meets heroine, they eventually fall in love, then overcome great obstacles to their blissful union. Standard format for romance stories.

It’s okay to pick a genre where readers know the ending’s happy. Some of us need that happy ending. But don’t bore your readers along the way. Challenge, delight, and out-maneuver them. Keep them saying, “OMG, I didn’t see that coming!” and “I can’t believe that happened. How will this ever get resolved?” They’ll bless you for it.

An example: A wealthy but lonely widower advertises for a respectable woman to become his wife. They meet and—after some obstacles—find true happiness. But here are the twists: The widower doesn’t expect to fall in love; he just wants companionship, someone to share the empty house. But he surprises himself by falling in love, only to find out that she’s been partnering with his son to kill him slowly, with poison. The kicker is, he now loves her, and accepts this progressive poisoning as a trade-off for her presence in his life. She begins to realize that her feelings for him are changing, even as she continues to administer the poison. Now what do they do? How will they resolve this odd turn of events? Read the book: A Reliable Wife by Goolrick. You won’t be able to foresee the outcome of this unusual romance.

Does your story take predictable plot turns? Do your characters simply meet readers’ expectations, or do they confound them?

Captivating and delighting your readers means keeping their brains busy with the lure of the unknown. As long as they can’t see around the next bend, they’ll keep reading, keep guessing at and creating new possibilities, new outcomes. That’s their work–and their addiction.

(I should know, having stayed up till 3 a.m. last night to finish An Ember in the Ashes,  the first in a great YA fantasy trilogy. Check it out.)

Writing with the Eyes of a Reader

Conceptual Books

Are you writing a story? Remember this: your readers have different eyeglasses than you.

You might be all about making a point, creating lush settings or new worlds, exploring humorous side alleys, drawing eccentric characters, delving into backstory. In other words–describing and explaining. Expressing yourself.

Your readers are looking for an immediate pull into someone’s life. They desire lures that create hunger to know what’s going on. They want to slip into someone else’s skin and mind, to feel an insatiable itching that won’t let them put the story down until they find out what happens next.

Okay, you’re stuck with author’s eyeglasses in the first round of your writing. Just get the story down. Get to know your characters well. Discover–if you don’t know it already–the theme and deeper meaning that drives your story. Create an awesome, satisfying ending. Toil and sweat. Have fun!

But at some point you’ll need to rewrite, revise, rework. This is a good time to take off your authorial eyeglasses and put on those of your reader: at the end of your first, messy draft. Or your second draft, if your first was particularly awful.

Why are those reader’s glasses so important? They’ll help you to cut scenes that meander and lead nowhere. To replace trite images with fresh. To create a razor-sharp focus on your characters’ pain and yearning. To inflame readers’ curiosity with lures and delight them with game-changers. To slough off tedious backstory and plunge readers into the immediacy of your character’s experience. To push your protagonist into hardships you never dreamed possible.

In other words, putting on the reader’s glasses will help you write a story your readers can’t stop talking about (instead of forgetting it a week after it’s finished). A story that readers keep mulling over (instead of closing the cover, getting up to make tea, and wondering what’s for dinner).

Author and teacher Diane Holmes is putting together an online writing course that teaches you how to look at your work in progress through ten different lenses. Lenses that are vital to your readers but that many writers seem unaware of. I’ve been privileged to participate in a trial run of that course. I’ve rarely encountered writing instruction so enlivening, stimulating, and empowering. Immensely challenging, and thoroughly invigorating.

In further posts, I’ll describe a few tidbits from Diane’s course as an exercise in solidfying these concepts in my own mind. And as a way of encouraging you to look for her excellent course online, starting in 2016.

Good and Evil in Antagonists

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Almost every great work of fiction has an antagonist. A person who gets in the way of the hero or heroine. A person who often embodies evil–or leans heavily in that direction. As I create my antagonists, I need two things: (1) a moral compass that informs me when something that looks good on the outside is rotten on the inside, and (2) an understanding of why the villains acts as they do, and how they would justify their actions to the reader.

One thing that I find refreshing and surprising about Shakespeare’s plays is not only his complex portrayal of evil but his antagonists’ capacity for regret and repentance, rooted partly in the Elizabethan practice of the confessional. Shakespeare told his audience something they already knew: within us all are the seeds of murder, self-aggrandizement, adultery, abuse, greed. I suspect, however, that his audience was much more unified in their view of what is right and wrong.

We writers have a different audience today. The confessional is tucked out of sight in North American culture, as is an agreed-upon baseline of morality. Morality and political correctness do not often run on parallel tracks, and this is confusing to a lot of kids who are searching for a solid place to stand and view this amazing but turbulent and broken world. Stories can give them glimpses of what it’s like to do battle with evil—whether in a fantasy world or in the classrooms of their own junior high.

Not morality tales, but stories about hard choices, confusing and conflicting points of view, and an understanding of good and evil that transcends our current culture’s confused perspective and rises to touch something eternal, a place greater than simply the current view of what’s acceptable behavior, the place of mystery and virtue at the core of this life.

My antagonist makes his first appearance as a vague, boogeyman figure—the shadow of two booted feet standing on the other side of a flimsy door, his daughter clutching a knife and waiting to see if he will break in. My challenge is to slowly reveal this abusive father to my readers as a man driven by his desire to control others, addicted to anger—and yet a man who has at times tenderly touched his daughter, who at one time felt at least a faint tug of compassion for his wife and son. Not sure if I want to do that, but truth calls me to it.

Faceless Men

I cannot find the words to describe this pain.

Today in Gaza

I’ve tried, but cannot find the words to describe this kind of pain.

Anyone?

(One week later…) All week I’ve been glancing at this picture, which lies on the counter in a small room between our kitchen and dining room, called the butler’s pantry. The picture has been set next to a bag of chips and a bowl of lemons. Just below is the potato drawer, a deep pullout drawer in which potatoes sometimes roll out of their bag and hide at the bottom until I can smell their deterioration, and have to go burrowing to find the stinking, soggy mess. Few things smell as foul as a rotten potato. Once the feculent odor reaches you, your memory retains it.

I glance at the photograph several times a day as I pass through the butler’s pantry. Each time I feel sick. I feel as though I’m smelling something putrid. Aside from the “normal” reaction to violence, here is what troubles me the most about this scene.

If these three victims were being shot in the heat of anger, in a street fight, in self-defense, or as they were trying to escape in the middle of the night, I could comprehend and even connect with the humanity of the person doing the shooting. Not here. The three men with guns are leading their victims out onto a street sidewalk with people passing by, pushing them down to kneel against a wall in full daylight. It’s casual. It’s almost suggestive of apathy. It’s a photograph of the rotting of the human spirit.

It’s that stench that cannot be ignored or forgotten.

Hot Peppers and the Art of Description

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This afternoon I’m cutting up a jalapeno from the farmer’s market and touch it to my tongue to find out how hot it is before adding it to hummus. Ah, a nice, strong tingle of heat. I toss it into the blender and turn to the sink to wash my hands, but my eye itches, and without thinking I rub it.

It’s as though I’ve stuck a knife directly into my eye. Not just any knife, but one with serrated edges that is sawing back and forth along the tender surface of my eyeball’s orb. White-hot pain that makes me gasp and clutch, turning in circles in my kitchen.

With my one good eye I find the sink and begin splashing water with the desperation of one plunging into a river when one’s clothes are afire. My hands can’t move fast enough, trying to drench the flames that have overtaken my right eye. My hair, my shirt—everything is dripping.

No! No! Water’s making it worse! The knife is getting bigger, hotter, cutting through my eyeball and getting closer to the retina. If anything, the pain’s intensifying; my eye feels like a piece of meat thrown onto the grill for searing. The flames are licking up into my forehead.

At that moment my brain dredges up a piece of information I’d long forgotten: drink milk, not water, to disperse burning oils. I rush to the fridge, choosing—being even now, in excruciating pain, an economical Dutchman—a small open carton of 2 percent milk from the back of the fridge, rather than opening a new gallon container.

Aargh! The small carton has soured and congealed! I rush back and tear the lid off the new gallon container, splash some into a mug, and fling it into my eye.

Instant relief. The flames are out, with just little wisps of smoke coming from the charred flesh that used to be my eyeball.

****

The point of this descriptive exercise, besides getting the word out about milk, is to get you into my skin for a moment, so that you can vicariously experience hot pepper juice in your eye.

And if I can get you to feel that, then perhaps I can also get you to get into my characters’ skin for a moment (or longer), to feel different kinds of pain: the entangling barbs of a divorce, the sting of humiliation, the frustration of voicelessness, the bottomless, starving ache of loneliness.

Some advice on how to do this, from one of my mentors, C.S. Lewis:

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words ( horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘Please, will you do my job for me?’”

Listening to Each Other

On my journey to write my faith and to write well, I get lost and confused. Some encouragement from other writing friends:

“If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”

— C.S. Lewis, letter to a young writer

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

“Yet we must say something when those who say the most are saying nothing.”

— Augustine, The Confessions

And another from Lewis:

“The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”