Monday Writing Motivation: Give your readers a bonus
Let’s fantasise for a moment. You’ve finished your book, you’ve secured an agent (you only had to write thirty-seven emails to do so), and they’ve managed to place your manuscript with a publisher. Not one of the big four, more’s the pity, but a publisher nonetheless. You figure that small publishers, although they lack the clout of the industry leaders, will put more effort, and not less, into marketing your book.
Your novel is now in the bookstores. People are actually buying copies! A few reviews (not in the national press, naturally, but a review is a review) suggest that some people at least are enjoying your wry tale.
The question you might ask yourself, as you stand on the cusp of a literary career, is this: Your readers have paid good money to buy this modest creation of yours, but what are you giving them in return?
Well, that’s easy, you say: the book. They give me their shekels, I give them my book.
Fair enough. But you want to do everything you can to encourage them to buy not just your next book, but the constant stream of novels that are sure to follow thereafter. And to do that, you want to give them a little more than 248 pages of narrative.
And that elusive bonus, that “Thank you” for having supported your literary endeavours, is respect. And perhaps, subtly, a touch of flattery. An acknowledgement of their tastes and their intelligence.
How do you do that, you ask.
And the answer is simply: Don’t foist your conclusions on them. Allow them to draw their own. This calculus lies at the heart of that old compositional rallying cry: Show, don’t tell.
Your character conveniently discovers he’s left his wallet behind when it comes to paying for the restaurant meal; that he has to rush off before it’s his turn to pick up the tab at the pub; that he’s known (and derided) for giving his family the cheapest gifts he can find. You don’t need to tell your readers that he’s got a mean streak.
Don’t tell your readers that it’s autumn. Describe the crunch of dry leaves under your character’s feet…
Don’t (necessarily) describe a homicidal maniac laying about his victim with a double-bladed axe. Rather track him making his way to the barn, axe in hand… And, perhaps, later, washing that lethal blade at the tap in the backyard.
I’ve always believed that writers should invite their readers to play as active a part as possible. Give them the evidence and let them make up their minds that this character is well-meaning, that one, unreliable, and that George’s generosity is a mask for a deeply manipulative approach to friendship.
Allow your readers to develop hypotheses: that a conspiracy’s afoot, that the president is in league with the Mafia, that Eileen is deeply in love with her married boss. Encourage your readers to judge your characters and their actions.
This implies that you, the author, who, after all, is in the best position to explain and to judge, should do neither. We are not moralists. We don’t have any more answers to the great questions of life than anyone else. What we can do is lay out the evidence as even-handedly as we can and allow our great jury of readers to reach their own conclusions.
They’ll relish the job, they’ll appreciate the respect you’ve given them, and they’ll be back for more of the same when you release your next novel.