by Olive Balla
Telling stories is great fun. But writing those stories in a way that will attract readers is a whole different stratum of the art. It’s a bit like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole. The mole pops up and invitingly taunts the player. But just as the player takes aim, the mole disappears and the player’s mallet smacks air. It’s the same with writing. Just as the writer thinks he has a lock on what the reader wants, the reader moves on.
What can a writer do to set his work apart from that of the hundreds of thousands of other wannabes striving for recognition? What strategies, what tricks make one story shine brighter than the tales of all the rest of those yearning to become well-paid, or even moderately-paid authors? The problem of capturing the attention of today’s reader is a tough one, and the blame may not rest solely with the writer’s commitment and level of skill. It may boil down, in part, to recognizing and capitalizing on the continual metamorphosis of today’s reader.
Only since about 1840 has public education as we know it been available to the children of the poor as well as to the scions of the wealthy. As a result, the skills of reading and writing have become common to not only society’s scribes, but to the hoi polloi. And that’s a tremendous thing. It enhances the quality of life no end. But it doesn’t end there.
Thanks to the explosion of technology, thousands of storytellers are investing in laptops, blogging their pithy reflections on life, Facebooking, Tweeting, and working through their choices of hundreds of social networking sites. Tens of thousands of Baby Boomers are clacking out memoirs and novels of every description and genre. Websites dedicated solely to the preparation and presentation of self-published works are blossoming like my mom’s lilacs in May. We’re witnessing a supernova in the numbers of storytellers demanding our attention. So why is it that such a statistically few of us make it to press?
The answer to that question isn’t merely a matter of the writer’s aptitude for showing rather than telling, or his ability to resist the urge to explain everything, or his deft crafting of supercharged, vibrant dialogue. Nor is it a matter of simply offering a great three-arc plot and tightly-edited, attention-grabbing first five pages (thank you, Kirt Hickman). Of course, those are important precursors to publication. But today’s writer must do more—he must appeal to two generations of children raised on television shows of the Sesame Street ilk. And he must find a path to the growing numbers of readers with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Today’s reader is more sophisticated, more world wise than her seventeenth or eighteenth century counterpart. And as a result of the growing numbers afflicted with ADD and ADHD, the same reader has a short attention span.
But beyond the increasing ADD and ADHD phenomenon, the research literature indicates the passive act of watching television actually rewires the brain, especially of those under 5 years of age. Since Sesame Street’s first showing in November of 1969, countless millions of children-now-adults have spent hours each day passively watching television. And that means there are tens of millions of folks with altered thinking processes out there trying to find something interesting to read.
A suggestion: Spend a day at Barnes & Noble scanning the bestsellers in various genres. Take a pad and pencil, and jot down your reactions to what’s hot in today’s market. Read the first two or three chapters. Open the book to the middle and read a couple of chapters there, and then read the last two. What immediately catches your attention? How many paragraphs must you read before action kicks in? Is the dialogue always grammatically correct? Is word usage up to par with your high school English teacher’s expectations, or does the author douse the pages with artistic license? How long do the sentences tend to be? Are there lots of words longer than two syllables, or few to none? How much backstory do you see in one place?
Although the answers to those questions depend entirely upon the author and his genre, paying attention to these details might help zero in on a few techniques to grab the target reader.
I’ve heard more than one published author intone the benefits of never giving up. But I’ve heard just as many admit that success is a mixture of hard work, persistence, and dumb luck. The latter is kismet, but the former two are up to the writer.
According to Andy Griffith, “Ain’t nothing easy.” Hang in there.
Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at omballa.com.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.