Writing a piece of fiction is such a multi-faceted process. You need a plot, relatable characters and vivid setting. You need to pace things right, build up tension and resolve the story in an unexpected yet satisfying manner. Writers agonise about all sorts of things — whether the chapters are the right length, and if they’re putting the crisis in the right place. In the whirlwind that writing a novel ultimately becomes, it’s easy to forget about the most fundamental question of all: who is this for?
Let’s put on a reader hat for a minute. You’re browsing in the bookshop. Thousands and thousands of books fill the shelves from the floor to the ceiling way beyond your reach. You pick a few off the shelf, read the back cover copy, then put them back. When you’ve made up your mind, you take it to the till to pay for it with your hard-earned cash. Back at home, you spend days or weeks reading it. But why?
The consensus these days seems to be that we read books for one of two reasons: to learn something new and to be entertained (broadly). Of course, those two mean different things to different people, but you can’t expect the reader to read your book just because you wrote it. So what’s in it for them?
Why should someone (not everyone) pick your book over the thousand others? We all strive to tell a great story, but what specifically makes your story enjoyable? What makes it better or different from the other stories?
The reader comes to the bookshop with at least a vague idea of the sort of experience they would like to have. They might head to the romance section for some steamy love stories or to the fantasy department for dragons and epic battles between realms. How well does your book deliver on the promise that its cover and genre categorisation make?
In a way, as writers, we are in service of our readers. We have to give them what they’re looking for. That doesn’t mean stitching together set-piece scenes into bullshit commercial narratives. This damn thing needs more explosions!
It means considering your future reader throughout the process of writing and revising your book. Who are they? And why will they be reading it? Important ideas and difficult topics and good intentions are more than welcome, but you can’t expect readers to pick your book just because of that.
Imagine yourself in that bookshop, holding your own book in your hand, reading the back copy. What would it have to be to make you take it to the till?
What I Am Reading?
I started reading The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker this week. It’s one of the books that Tim Ferriss routinely recommends on his podcast. The title sounds hardly appealing, but the book isn’t about shiny suits and playing golf. It’s about having an impact and doing work that matters.
I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump over the past few months. There’s so much going on and finding a quiet moment to sit down with a book has been hard. But it still isn’t a valid excuse. I want to focus on this more going forward.
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