Writing these days presents writers with a particular challenge because, well - we’re all gonna die and 24/7 news and climate change and Tik Tok and stuff. Who has time to read?
I'm being a little facetious but there's no denying that we humans are at an inflection point.
The delightful thing for writers - and readers, if truth be told - is that we need stories now more than ever. (For a deep dive into the psychology of trauma and stories, read this article.)
But here's the thing. There is so much competing for our attention that it's really hard for stories to be heard above the noise. In an era of content saturation and predominantly visual mediums how the heck does a writer rise above the fray?
It's hard enough to come up with a truly unique premise, with unforgettable characters and a sound narrative - much less to have a book cover that is de rigueur and oh-so-trendy, much less to ensure that readers go bonkers and Netflix calls you because they want to make a series out of your story. All of that stuff is putting the cart way, way before the horse. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
First, you have to GET the attention of readers. Then you have to HOLD it.
Here Are Five Tips for Writing to Get and Keep Attention
PUT YOURSELF IN THE SHOES OF A READER. Too often, writers get so immersed in writing that they forget that they are, at the end of the day, competing for the attention of someone just like them. What grabs and holds your time and attention? What was the last book you could not put down, or series you binged on? What was it about either one of those things that kept you glued? Can you make a list of five books (at any time in your life) that you couldn't wait to pick up again? What do those books have in common? You're not just a writer, you are also a content consumer. So what's more fascinating to YOU right now than Instagram or Tik Tok?
CONSIDER THE"HOOK" OF YOUR STORY. What is centrally unique about your story? What would the elevator pitch be? Imagine that you are pitching your story to a literary agent or film producer. What was the “hook” of Eat, Pray, Love? Well, it’s right in the title, isn’t it? The basic narrative, of a post-divorce woman who travels in order to find herself, is not in itself all that unique. But Gilbert divides the story into three different themes to match their locations. And that was a hook. What if you wrote a book called Amorphous Anxiety, Disturbing Realizations and Misbehaving Cats? Well - I mean - that sounds kind of funny but you couldn’t really say that you had such a unique hook, now could you? Unless you worked to make that a hook; it’s like Eat, Pray Love with cats, and nobody has fun. You might be able to work with that but there are more variables to add to this - is this fiction or non? When is this set? Is this a female main character or male? Is this post-divorce or post-marriage or… in other words, you’d have to really build on this idea for a hook via doing a whole lot of brainstorming to find more unique angles to it. This is a process of noodling with ideas and being willing to toss them out. Obviously, doing this with an editor who has had more exposure to material, past and present, offers you some muscle in brainstorming but even on your own - it’s fun. In Hollywood, a great jumping-off point for this type of brainstorming is to say okay so my story is like this meets that - on the sun.
YOUR READER SHOULD CRAVE FINDING OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. Make sure that every chapter of your book ends sooner than the reader would like. Wrap up your chapter but also add some new information. As a writer, your goal is to keep your reader absolutely addicted to turning the pages of your book. Think of it a little like a commercial break on a network television show. You know - before we had streaming. Why would someone sit through several ads in order to get back to the story? Because they can't wait to see what happens. Cliffhangers are everything.
JUMP IN LATE, GET OUT EARLY. This is one of the most common axioms in Hollywood. All too often writers new to the craft find themselves writing in painful detail - a blow-by-blow of how the character woke up, brushed her teeth, had coffee, and got dressed. THEN the character gets a shocking email and the scene progresses. As a writer, you get to play with time and space. Your character sips from her coffee mug blearily and reads her email. Her jaw drops. The reader can surmise that your character just woke up, that she is still sleepy, that she has some kind of routine (or not.) Creating tension in your scenes and in your writing full stop, is crucial and it means giving yourself permission, as the writer, to jump in and out of moments at the most interesting moments.
WEAVE A SPELL. Engage the senses of the reader. Have you ever seen a film adaptation of a book and felt disappointed because you had imagined the story differently? The imagination of readers is a powerful thing. As you write, you are a magician, weaving a hypnotic spell. Choose language, as you write, that does more than inform us what is happening but how it's happening and what is happening all around it. Your character doesn't just walk down a street. What else is happening? Are there HONKS and SHOUTS? Are there cafes? Is there music drifting from the park? Think about what you read that makes the rest of the world fall away. Think about that special magic that words on a page can conjure. That special "something" is what great books manage to pull off - page after page. And you can too. With practice.
Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat and hat, opened her book and forgot the world again. ~ Maud Hart Lovelace.