Today, what’s on my mind is the ‘why?’ factor. I’m wondering about why people keep reading – what grabs and holds their attention, and what makes it impossible for them to stop reading until they’ve finished the story. I’d love to know why a person picks up a book in a bookshop, or wherever they buy their books, and reads the blurb, or the first few pages, and decides – ‘yep, this is the book for me’. I’m also interested in thinking about the things that keep a person reading – what do readers look for in a book? What sort of things does the story have to deliver for them to keep turning the pages?
Perhaps I’ll never know the answers to these questions. If I did, I’d probably feel like a superhero – certainly, the ability to write books people want to read is the only superpower I’ve ever wanted! I’m not very good at writing blurbs – sometimes I do it as a writing exercise, in order to help myself to focus on what my current project is about, but I’m aware that, in the future, perhaps a lot will depend on my being able to write a compelling synopsis. It’s something I need to think about. Blurbs are interesting – a lot of the time, when I bring a new book home, my husband will pick it up and have a look at the back cover, and he’ll hand it back to me with a bemused look on his face. ‘I’d never have picked up that book,’ he’ll say. ‘It just doesn’t grab me.’ So – how to ‘grab’ the most people (in a strictly bookish sense!)? And how, once an innocent reader has been hooked, do you keep them interested in your story?
I guess these questions are on my mind because I’m currently within 80 pages of being finished with my final (FINAL) draft. I don’t care what happens, I’m not going over it again once I’m finished with this draft. I’ve reached the point where I’m entirely sick of my book and can’t bear the sight of my characters* – admittedly, I’ve read and re-read this book more times than anyone else ever will, but still. It’s got me panicking about whether the book has any merit, whether the story is interesting enough to keep someone reading to the end, and whether anyone else will ever love my characters. Have I created a proper, fleshed-out protagonist, complete in all dimensions, believable and interesting? Have I put her in a scenario in which a reader will believe her struggle to save her father’s life, where they’ll travel with her to a foreign country to will her on as she fights her way into a fortress in an attempt to find him, and her brother? Is she ‘real’ enough to withstand the pressures of battle, brave enough to conquer her terror of heights, clever enough to save her friend from death, strong enough to bear deep sorrow? As I’m not a reader of this particular story, I don’t know the answer to these questions.
In a book, I look for several things. I need a protagonist I can engage with – not necessarily like, but it helps if you like them – and a set of characters who seem real. I’ve tried to do this with my characters; as far as I know, all of them have flaws, as well as strengths, which should allow a reader to get a grip on them and believe in them. Maraika (my protagonist) is brave and clever, but she’s also naive and impulsive. Her father has a dark past, but has tried to raise his children well and leave it all behind him. However, his inability to understand his oldest son, and his reluctance to take the issues in his family seriously, cause a lot of problems for everyone. Jan Polico, a young man living in his father’s shadow, is fun-loving and generous of spirit, but bears a sorrow so deep that he can’t admit it, even to himself; Vik, a freedom fighter, is a fearless warrior, but is driven by pain and loss. I think my characters are interesting. They all have motivation for their actions, and they all do their best to do the right thing – but I created them, so it’s hard for me to see them clearly.
Secondly, when I’m reading a story, I need the world the characters inhabit to make sense. I hope I’ve done this with my own book – I spent a lot of time thinking about the world my characters live in, and the systems, society, history, laws and (most importantly, for my story) religions that are found there. Spending a lot of time thinking about something, though, doesn’t mean that the resultant world is watertight and ‘real’, especially when you’re trying to do something complex with the structures you’ve created. I’m still not sure I did the right thing in changing the setting from a pseudo-medieval to a pseudo-nineteenth century steam-powered, proto-Industrial world, but I can’t imagine them living anywhere else at this stage. I’m worried that, if this book was put to the reader test, that they’d see a giant hole in the fabric of this world, one that I’ve managed to entirely overlook. I’ve done my best to avoid that, but one never knows!
Another thing I need in a good book is a gripping story. If you care about the characters, then the story is bound to be gripping, but I think my favourite books are ones where both the characters and the story are unforgettable. I don’t want my characters to be like paper-people, whose only function is to move a story along; I’d like them to be interesting no matter what they were doing. I hope I’ve managed this. Maraika, as well as being the heart of her family, is also a young woman with dreams and plans for her future, someone who likes to explore her city and who longs to find her place in the world. Her younger brother is a mechanical genius, and her older brother has a world-changing talent of his own. They’re all caught up in the crisis which threatens not only their family, but their whole existence, and none of them end up exactly where they’d planned to be. I hope that their journeys don’t feel ridiculous or contrived to a reader.
I know, I know – the only way to find all this out is to let someone else read it! I am aware. I’m working up to it. It’s difficult to open the cage around your heart and let it out! But that’s what I’ll be doing, in one form or another, over the next while.
I’m glad to note that writing this post has given me back some of the love I’d lost for my story and my characters – that can only be a good thing. Hopefully, the last stage of edits will go quickly now. While I’m doing that, I’d love to know: what makes you keep reading? What do you need for a story to hold your attention? And what’s the one thing which would make you give up on a story?
Happy Tuesday. It’s the birthday of both David Bowie and Elvis Presley today, so I hope you’ll celebrate appropriately. Thanks for reading!
*Not really. I love them, but it’s a case of needing my ‘dance space’ back. My brain needs to think about something else for a while!