Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Readers Only

by Rel Mollet

I'm forever thankful that I don't have the compunction to write a novel! That's best saved for people way more talented than me. Somewhat selfishly, I'm more than happy to sit back and delight in the experience of reading a tale borne from someone else's blood, sweat, and tears, rather than my own!

While most readers are not writers, most writers are readers, or at least they should be if they are pursuing their chosen career effectively. Over the years of working with novelists, discussing book preferences, and talking about stories with readers, bloggers, and writers, it has become clear to me that the reading experience often differs between people who are reader/writers as opposed to those of us who only read.

The lovely Dorothy Adamek mentioned to me, after one of our Book Club meetings, that it was valuable for her to hear the way readers discussed books, and how surprised she was over the things that were not important to readers, things that as a writer she thought might have been.

So, here's my view, for what it's worth, on what readers like me (not every reader, I know) are looking for in their stories.

Readers love character engagement - they want to become invested in the protagonist's life. To connect, by way of common ground or common interest, in what the character is feeling, seeing, experiencing. Nothing will draw a reader in more quickly than a character who touches a chord in their own life - the heroine who feels alone and isolated, the hero who has a weakness that he is trying to overcome, the child who longs for their mother to pay attention, the woman who relies on her best friend to tell her the truth.

Readers love a setting they can see, taste, or smell. Descriptive words that enhance without falling into clich├ęs, word pictures that evoke the atmosphere of places they have been or only imagined. They want to be transported to medieval Italy, World War II France, or the streets of Melbourne, by the clever use of words.

Readers love stories that evoke an emotional response. If we're reading a suspense novel, we expect our heart rates to rise. If it's a romance, then we want to have sigh-worthy moments when we actually sigh aloud. A heartbreaking story needs to cause tears to form and a comedy needs to have us hiding our laughter from other commuters on the train!

Readers love authenticity. Realistic characters, genuine relationships, accurate descriptions. While the stories may not be real, we readers want reality in our novels. Rich guy meets poor and beautiful girl? Sorry, so over it! Flawless characters? Not interested. Everything tied up with a neat bow? Please, no! Be real with your readers - most will appreciate the bumpy roads, the poor choices, and the consequences that result. Life is messy - let's not pretend differently.

Generally speaking (yes, I know there are readers out there who think they are experts at writing, having never put pen to paper), readers are not so concerned about the technical details - was the right tense used, could another word have supplied, did the author tell rather than show? Now, don't get me wrong. These things can jerk readers out of the story but we are a forgiving lot if the author has managed to tick the boxes of the four things mentioned above - stellar characters, evocative writing, the ability to generate a physical response, and authenticity. As Dorothy said to me, "Readers don't care for mechanical super tricks if the story works." She is so right!

Naturally, reader/writers have a tendency to read more critically, to identify where they could have written a paragraph better, would have never given the leading character that personality, or used a different plot twist altogether. Writers have difficulty turning off their internal editor. I get that. Be sure you are writing novels that readers will love - not just ones your crit partners agree have technical merit. I think there is value in having a "reader only" cast their eye over your manuscripts because they will have important feedback to give - feedback that you consider along with the feedback of your writer friends and critique partners, of course, yet remembering it is readers who you are ultimately wanting to satisfy and engage with your stories.

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Rel Mollet founded her book-reviewing blog www.RelzReviewz.com in 2006, which is dedicated to showcasing Christian Fiction and its writers by way of reviews, author interviews, character spotlights, and more. 

Rel is a contributing writer at NovelCrossing.com and FamilyFiction.com, and an Advisory Board member of the INSPY Awards.  A book club co-ordinator for over a decade, Rel resides in Melbourne with her family.

45 comments:

  1. Fantastic post, Rel. :-)

    I'm not just loving the book selections at your book club, but as you mentioned, the opportunity to listen to readers unpack a book and share what worked for them.

    Thanks for the reader perspective, today. So valuable. :-)

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    1. Thanks Dorothy - we love having you in our book club for the same reasons. Love getting your writerly perspective (readers are allowed to make up words!).

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  2. Excellent insights, Rel--I'm passing this on.

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    1. Thanks Candace - love that you dropped by and took the time to comment :)

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  3. Hi Rel,
    I so appreciate your telling us that overall emotional and evocative tone covers a number of technical and execution blunders. Encouraging for those of us who are authors and may get bogged down in the latter while editing.
    I've loved both writing and reading for so long, it's sometimes hard to separate them :)

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  4. Hi Rel,
    I so appreciate your telling us that overall emotional and evocative tone covers a number of technical and execution blunders. Encouraging for those of us who are authors and may get bogged down in the latter while editing.
    I've loved both writing and reading for so long, it's sometimes hard to separate them :)

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    1. Hi Paula, I imagine it must be very difficult to separate the two voices in your head! I have some feel for it in that there is a difference when I read a book for review and when it is just for pleasure :)

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  5. Rel I so agree as a reader only. I have been on a couple of online book clubs that are more writer/reader than just readers and its interesting the difference. As a reader we know what we liked and don't like more so than why sometimes.

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    1. They make for interesting conversations, Jenny, that's for sure. I like your last line, too!

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  6. My writing stops at blogging. A book, no patience or whatever is needed. Glad to know I'm not the only one!

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    1. Yes, I'm with you, Sonja - I write for my blog and nowhere else!!

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  7. Thanks Rel for an interesting insight. Even as a writer/reader, I'm willing to forgiven technical blunders for an engaging story with wonderful characters and evocative setting. However, editors and publishers are not so forgiving which is probably why we writers obsess about these things. It's a good reminder that the techniques are not for their own sake, but ways of achieving the emotional engagement you mentioned.

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    1. Yes, Jeanette, it's easy for me to say that some of the hiccups don't matter to readers, but when you have a publisher's requirements in the back of your mind, it's not such a simple thing :)

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  8. Rel, excellent post! I have a lovely group of beta readers who read my mss before I submit them to my editor. Their feedback is really helpful because they can identify problem areas and tell me what isn't working for them. As Jenny has mentioned, they may not know the technical terminology for why, but they do know if they like or dislike a certain aspect of the story.

    Being a writer can ruin your reading experience. If the characters are engaging and I'm absorbed in the story world, I don't usually see any technical problems or mistakes. But, if the writing and/or story is poor quality, any writing craft glitches can be like flashing neon signs that pull me out of the story. I may very occasionally read past chapter one to analyse why the story isn't working for me, but I won't expect to enjoy reading it.

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    1. It's a shame writing can spoil some of your reading experience, Narelle, especially as I imagine most writers were avid readers before they put pen to paper.

      Beta readers are an excellent source of input, I agree, and I'm glad it is working for you.

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    2. Rel, it's not all bad :) The plus side is I now enjoy nearly all the books I buy and read for pleasure. I can usually discern from the first few pages if I'll like the book or not. That's a handy skill I've learned from being a writer, and I'm sure many reviewers have also honed this skill through analysing the books they've reviewed.

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  9. I enjoyed this. What you said explains how such poorly written novels can become popular. I can't even force myself to read some popular novels, and it is easy to wonder, How can anybody like this crap?

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    1. Well, Lelia, I'm not sure I want to be responsible for explaining why poorly written books are popular but I guess there is some truth in that. Savvy "readers only" will not enjoy drivel but will forgive some hiccups if they are truly engaged. Funnily enough, for me as a reader, the more "wildly" popular the book, the less likely I am to read it. I may be a bit odd in that way ;-)

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  10. As always, what a wonderful post, Rel. From the perspective of both (a reader & writer), I can appreciate these points you share. In particular I like what you say about letting a reader read your new work to open up new perspectives - I think I'm always more "concerned" with letting a fellow writer read my stuff (maybe because no one else in my family is a writer) as opposed to a reader, but what you say makes excellent sense. Thanks for sharing your insight and wisdom on an important topic. :)

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    1. Hey Rissi, thanks for dropping by. Love that! Writers need that balance of quality writing, plus real reader engagement but I think sometimes the focus on "technical accuracy" can take some of the heart out of a story. It's a fine line to walk, that's for sure.

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  12. Great article, Rel. It is so true.

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    1. Appreciate that, Andie - with an 'e'!!

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  13. Great article, Rel. I look to my reader comments first, before I worry too much about other writers thoughts. I feel justified in doing this hearing what you had to say. Thanks for the encouragement!

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    1. I think that is a good plan, Catherine :) That said, I'm not discounting what fellow writers can offer, only that it is work utilising feedback from both reader/writers and readers only.

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  14. I actually put a book in my top ten books of the years a few years ago and then had people ask how I could put such a badly written book in my top ten. (these people were writers). One I didn't see the issues they did. 2 thought this book was so thought provoking and a very relevant story as it dealt with an issue that at the time was very timely and still is today to a big degree and it actually helped me understand how someone could get pulled into the life style and under the control of a person and how hard it was for them to break clean. I may have noticed a few errors but the story was to me so powerful I found it to be one of my top reads and that year I did read over 100 books. It was given to me by a friend who knew the author and I didn't like the cover so was resisting but then once I started couldn't stop reading.

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  15. Great to read this perspective, Rel.

    One of the things we authors can risk becoming is a "craft nazi" and as evidenced by so many popular novels that succeed due to their story & engaging characters the average reader isn't as well trained in being able to catch glitches.

    Having reader-only Beta readers is sound counsel.

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    1. Craft Nazi - LOL! Thanks Ian :)

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  16. One of the things that makes a book a (rare) five-star read for me is the hard to define "wow" factor. I say hard to define, but I think you've got it: it's about the engagement with the characters and the emotional response. If I'm able to relate to the characters, I can forgive not-so-good writing, because I'm engaged in the story.

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    1. Yes, Iola, it's all about engagement, isn't it?

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  17. I've had one book's first print run released by a publisher that needed editing rather badly. A long story how that happened, but I was horrified and ashamed of it. However, it has never ceased to surprise me that quite a few readers I've spoke to about that book may have spotted a couple but not a major one I was really concerned about. Even had readers who never noticed any at all. Relieved for them but still wondering if that first print run stopped some readers buying my second book in the series!

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    1. That's really interesting feedback, Mary - I hate typos so I understand! In fact, a dear friend of mine found one in this article which I promptly rectified and after thanking her profusely for pointing it out, she responded with this gem - "It's the writing version of a lowered zipper. Good friends tell." Love it!

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  18. Thanks for this invaluable information, Rel. Unfortunately any readers I've tried to engage before sending to a publisher have just "liked" the story when I really need input. Still, I get that from having my manuscript assessed (waving to Iola here) and that to me is essential.

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    1. Ah, yes! It is a matter, as in all things, choosing wisely in both crit partners, editors, and readers. Finding "experienced" readers and ones willing to provide solid input can be hard. Sorry it hasn't worked out for you to date, Rita.

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  19. Great post - agreed with everything you said!

    I have a group of 'Book Buddies' who read my MS. Except for my critique partner, they are readers, not writers, and their comments are invaluable! Couldn't do without them.

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    1. Yay! Good to hear you find your Book Buddies so helpful, Andrea.

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  20. Seems to me writers who are avid readers love the same things you have mentioned. If I am emotionally involved in reading I tend not to notice mistakes. It's only when I am not involved totally that I start seeing them in books.

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    1. Yes, I'm sure that is very true, Dale - thanks for sharing :)

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  21. Thanks for the great post, Rel.

    When I'm judging contests my highest scores always go to the entry that have me so wrapped up in the story that I totally forget to take notes for judging and have to go back through a second or third time to look a the "technical" elements.

    I've judged a lot of stories that while technically very proficient in the "craft" of writing just didn't engage me as a reader and then others that may have had some weaknesses on the craft side but had story X-factor. For me the second will always win. Writers can always improve their craft, but it's very hard to teach X-factor!

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    1. Yep, the old X-factor! Sometimes I think you have it or you don't...whatever it is :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kara

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  22. FabYOUlous post, Rel. And great insight. Makes me appreciate my lovely beta readers all the more.

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    1. Thanks, Tamara - lovely to have you drop by!

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