It’s Your Book, but Don’t Leave the Reader in the Dust by Katherine Dean Mazerov
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is forgetting about the reader. While our lives and interests can certainly provide inspiration for a book or short story, we as writers often become too immersed in our own narratives or research, going down deep rabbit holes or diverging into the weeds of technical, overly academic subject matter that leaves the reader struggling to “get into” the story. What you, the author, finds interesting and compelling may not be to the people you are trying to reach.
Whatever you’re writing – a book, a short story, article, blog post—it needs to do at least one of three things:
- Entertain: Aim to evoke emotion in your readers. Make them laugh or cry. Send chills up their spines. Help them escape from the stress and problems of the real world;
- Resonate: Present a story where your readers can relate to or recognize the characters or plot in a meaningful way;
- Enlighten: Educate your audience about an important issue, societal trend, or period of history.
As a career journalist, I have spent most of my life writing and editing newspaper and magazine articles, always with the underlying objective of giving people something they want or need to read. When I expanded my horizons into fiction, with a suspense novel partly inspired by events in my own life, I felt liberated by the opportunity to use my imagination to create my own colorful characters, comfortable, realistic dialog, and vivid scenes. I had fun with it. But in the back of my mind, I pondered the same “so what” question I’d asked as a reporter and editor: why would anyone want to read my book, and what will keep them engrossed in it?
For me, writing is equal parts art form and craft, a construction project that starts with that basic idea or vision—a strong foundation or premise that will provide the basis for a good page-turner. I love this process. Outlines, storyboards, even diagrams provide a roadmap for charting the story. I devote a lot of time thinking through an idea, then sharpen it with a basic outline that guides the storyline with a clear beginning, middle and end. There is no hard and fast rule on how to embark on a writing journey. Do what feels comfortable and enables you to write and tell the story. But know where you are going.
Then, hit the ground running with a first sentence or paragraph that immediately piques the reader’s interest, makes him or her hunger for more. In the world of journalism, that’s known as the lead; In fiction, it’s the grabber. This is no small feat. Whether you’re a seasoned, award-winning author or an aspiring writer, staring at that blank page can be daunting.
Start with a gripping scene, event, or key character using descriptive words that will capture and transport the reader into the story. Verbosity is not your friend here. Keep it simple but powerful. Use rich and scintillating words that will create a mood, conjuring up vibrant emotions and bold visuals that tell people your book is going to be a good read.
As your story unfolds, go back and review what you’ve written. Multiple times. Refine it. Perfect it. Writing is a fluid process. Look to your favorite authors or successful books to inspire empathetic characters, ambitious prose, and authentic dialog readers can identify with. And it doesn’t have to be fiction. In the 1960s and ‘70s, a literary movement known as “The New Journalism” emerged that combined research and investigative journalism with the techniques of fiction-writing to create powerful, descriptive prose, with detailed and riveting scenes and strong character development to tell stories about real-life events. The non-fiction novel.
One of the most iconic examples of this style of writing is Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood, the true story of the horrific, senseless slaughter of a Kansas family by two ex-cons. Capote, of course, did not witness the crime, know why the killers did it, or what they did afterward. But his detailed reconstruction of the events and dialog from countless hours he spent with the killers in prison, exhaustive research of the crime scene, and retracing of the trail the killers left behind resulted in one of the most memorable crime books ever written. Here is his description of the hotel where the two killers ended up after traveling across the country following the slaughter:
In Miami Beach, 355 Ocean Drive is the address of the Somerset Hotel, a small, square building painted more or less white with many lavender touches…It is one of a row of little stucco-and-cement hotels lining a white melancholy street.
Instead of simply dismissing this destination as a seedy hotel in Miami, Capote took the time to flesh out the scene and describe the place in vivid, intricate detail, allowing the reader to really visualize and experience that setting and step into the story.
Good writing requires good organization—presenting the story in a coherent way that is easy for people to follow and understand. Which does not mean the narrative must be linear or chronological. That’s where transitions are so important. Authors need to employ problem-solving skills that enable them to figure out those all-important transitions that seamlessly take their readers from one scene to the next, present-day to flashback, character to character.
If you’re writing a crime, mystery, or suspense novel, it’s imperative to incorporate the right amount of foreshadowing, clues, and red herrings into the narrative that keep people engaged, allowing them to use their own imaginations and critical thinking skills to try and figure out the whodunit aspect of the tale.
And finally, combining all those elements to fit the story together so that it flows at a pace that keeps readers intrigued.
Ultimately, it’s your story. Your book. But keeping your readers top of mind throughout the process helps you move forward and stay focused on what’s important, creating not just a book, but an unforgettable literary experience.
KATHERINE DEAN MAZEROV is an award-winning journalist and the author of Summer Club, a suspense novel with a comedic twist where poop in the pool meets a body in the river. The former newspaper reporter and editor has been a magazine writer, worked in corporate communications for a Fortune 500 company and has written extensively on trends, market outlook, and emerging technologies for the global energy industry. She is passionate about writing, expanding her horizons along the way as a wife, mom, tennis player, skier, cyclist, and world traveler. She can’t imagine a world without dogs.