Don’t Lose Your Readers!

Reading & Writing

Stacks of books

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.

11 comments on “Don’t Lose Your Readers!”

  1. Linda ayres says:

    I usually give a book four chapters, life is too short to continue reading anything that hasn’t grabbed me by then.
    I came to the Bryant and May series via the digital book service from my local library.Had read the synopsis of The Victoria Vanishes several times and dismissed it as sounding a bit silly.Eventually I decided to try it and was hooked immediately.
    A TV series, hmmm perhaps only suitable viewing for those who are not already familiar with the books. Can only imagine Mr Bryant’s reaction to seeing someone playing him on screen.

  2. Jo W says:

    Good grief,Christopher! When did you pop into my living room and take that photograph of my pile of books ‘to be read’?
    Thoroughly enjoying Wild Chamber, with all the new? words to look up in the OED. More especially relishing Arthur’s new range of ancient epithets! Priceless. 😉

  3. Adam says:

    Lazy writing doesn’t help. I recently started a thriller by a famous author which had the typical ex navy seal hero. I was already losing interest when this macho fitness machine went out for a ‘hard 10k run’ and took an hour. Might not mean anything to non-runners, but my 12 yr old daughter could run quicker than that without breaking sweat. Put it down after that, which shows that even small details can derail readers (especially if the initial premise wasn’t that strong to start with).

  4. Vivienne says:

    Obviously if it’s supposed to be a pacy, thriller-type book, I would expect to have my attention grabbed pretty quickly – but I also had to delete a Kindle book recently that was so badly written I found I was groaning all the time. But, there are books that are on my Must Read Before I Die list that I am partway into and feel I need to get stuck into properly (Count of Monte Cristo comes to mind here) and my determination to tick them off my list helps to keep me going. Sometimes I resort to 50 pages a day for manageable chunks. Do NOT need this strategy for B&M!

  5. Steveb says:

    I like using words that may be unfamiliar to some readers

    Absolutely the right decision! A little bit of learning and challenge is part of the fun of reading. Reginald Hill was another favourite author of mine, and he did the same

  6. Wayne#1 says:

    Something I always find myself wanting to do while reading one of those “real” books is put my finger on that new, unusual word that Chris has used, so that I can get the definition up on the page. I think that is the one single advantage of using a kindle over that of a real book. I always buy Chris’s books in either hardback or paperback and you just don’t have that choice so like Jo W its out with the OED. Its part of the fun learning what these new words mean, it also enriches the story in many ways.

  7. Jan says:

    Am always in two minds about these new words you throw in. I had one of your books out on loan from the library can’t remember which one but remember the word “Burdon”. Which might be some thing to do with humming engine noise – or might not. A reader who had borrowed the book before me apparently had similar misgivings re these proposed additions to his/her vocabulary and had made a few succinct comments in the margin. Now they were very much to the point. You could have added a couple to Arthur’s new craze for insults through the ages.
    Which is a device I’ve found really entertaining

  8. davem says:

    The comment from Wayne is very apt … I find the opportunity to just touch a word, to find the meaning, a very useful tool on a Kindle.

    And I have, more than once – stupidly, tried this on a real book.

  9. Chris Webb says:

    Just picked up a new word – tatterdemalion. Might apply to Mr B himself.

    As for writing in books, I bought Strange Tide and when I got home I found that some bloke called Christopher Fowler had scribbled his name inside it. Disgraceful behaviour.

  10. Jan says:

    They can’t be returned to publishers then! I swear that man go’s round scribbling in every copy of his latest at every bookstore in London!!

  11. Helen Martin says:

    tatterdemalion! a blast from the past! That was one of my favourite childhood words. Don’t remember where it entered my life but I’m sure it was shared around, a great sound like that.
    A kids lit prof of mine said that if you weren’t hooked by the end of the second para it was probably a loser. He also taught us to sort of read a page in a Z shape, which I said took all the pleasure out of reading. He told me we didn’t have time to read every word and I replied that if I told a student/parent that I had read the book I wanted to have actually read it – all of it. I’ll admit there were books that I knew had a readership, just not me and I Z read them.

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