Don’t Lose Your Readers!
A friend wants to write fiction. She has an idea, but I pointed out to her that this is just the start of the process, and next you need a story. I used the example of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, in which Danny has a paranormal gift – the idea – which comes to the fore when the family move to caretake an old hotel – the story. Okay, that’s simplification in extremis, but an idea is never enough by itself. The problem with teaching writing is that the advice tends to teach you to write from your own perspective instead of the reader’s. You can see why; no teacher wants to stifle a writer. ‘Be free,’ they say, ‘think outside the box.’ But if you lose the reader along the way you have nothing.
So how do you know when you’re losing a reader?
Readers don’t think like writers. I think of myself as a chap of middling erudition, moderately well-read but lacking quite a lot of key texts. I like using words that may be unfamiliar to some readers, and fight to retain them through the editing process. I know that if the reader’s attention cannot be held (and it gets harder all the time in our cluttered, fragmented world) they will not read on, which is why I usually start the Bryant & May novels with a sort of recap in the form of Raymond Land’s memos.
Yet it’s amazing how many books I read which set out their stall at an outrageously leisurely pace. I love stories; I’ll hang in there longer than most. But there comes a point where I want to know what the book is about, whether I care for the characters, what will happen next.
I recently ordered a book on Kindle that had an intriguing subject, and an interesting take on it, but when I tried reading it I found myself 20 pages in and still nothing happening to engage me, so I deleted it and wasted a fiver.
Some authors can do this and I don’t mind. I’m reading quite a bit of Brigid Brophy at the moment, and she’s exhausting, demanding, all over the place, but thrilling enough from one page to the next to take you with her on the journey. Sometimes, though, the most wonderful people write leaden books. Something happens between the keyboard and the page to flatten out their ideas and make them prosaic.
One of the main reasons why Bryant & May have never been transferred to TV is that TV scriptwriters flatten out all the quirkiness and turn the stories into standard police procedurals. I’d love a writer to take one of the books and do the complete opposite; raise the bar and make them fast, quirky, tricky to keep up with. Viewers, like readers, are often one jump ahead of the scriptwriter – they should be fighting to keep up!
Readable writing is not a crime. Evelyn Waugh, Alan Bennett, Roald Dahl, Daphne Du Maurier – they’re all naturally readable. And I wonder if this is the part no writing course can teach; communication.