Lately I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends and acquaintances about books, but not in a good way.
These women echoed themes I’ve heard over the years–that some people have an adversarial relationship with books.
Last night, for instance, I was talking to a woman when I dropped off my girls at their activity. “You’re the author,” she said. “I’ve given up on books.”
Excuse me? “What do you mean? You mean writing them or reading them?”
“Both. Well, I mean reading them.” She explained that she is so busy with her job and her role as a mother and so forth, that reading a book stresses her out. Instead, she has to turn on the TV to spend time with her husband, at which point she falls asleep. (This might not be the most healthy situation for many reasons.) Books just make her feel guilty.
Then there was another conversation with my very energetic sister-in-law (who has, case in point, just finished chemotherapy and then planted a vegetable garden larger than a football field.)
“I have got to finish this book,” she said. “I’ve had it checked out from the library so long they’ve sent me a letter.” She checked it out in January. “I’m probably going to get prosecuted for theft.”
I asked her what the book was about, and she didn’t quite know, but she knew it was going to “be good for her” if she read it. Later, she came by for an afternoon while something was going on at her house, and she brought the book in case she got a chance to read. “I’ve just got to finish this,” she said again. When I glanced at where her bookmark sat, I saw it was on page twenty or so. Page twenty!
Sigh. It made me sad to see this–because there’s something big going on here I think they don’t understand yet. It goes something like this: there are some books I stop reading and chalk it up to, “I’m just not the audience for this book.” It’s why I didn’t finish reading some of the more popular and famous fantasy series floating out there. I’m just not the audience for that series. I read the first two or three installments, but I didn’t let guilt force me to finish reading seven books I found too dark for my taste. Other people can read dark stuff. Fine! Do! No problem! I like cotton candy reading. So be it.
If something I write is not the audience for a particular reader, that’s fine with me. Set it aside! I’d never want my book to be a chore or a source of guilt for anyone. If it’s not for you, stop reading it! I don’t care! I’ll never know! The truth is, I’ve written for 13 year old girls. I don’t expect my husband to take a lot of satisfaction in that book. I’ve written for 30-something women. I don’t think my 11 year-old son will be interested. Why should that bother me? Every book isn’t meant for every reader. If you find you’re not the reader for a particular book, that should not make you feel like you’re less of an intellect or “not a reader.” Find a book written for you. Chances are, there are quite a few that would be if you just keep searching. I liken it to trying on shirts. The first one you get off the rack in a nice color may not be the shirt for you. There’s no need to keep buttoning it different ways to force it to be the shirt. Just go get a different one.
Meanwhile, I told my sister-in-law my oft-repeated maxim: Life’s too short to read (for pleasure) books we don’t want to read. (Corollary: it’s not too short to watch dumb movies, however. It’s only an hour and a half investment.) If a book doesn’t grab me by page 50, I let it go. (Unless it’s written by Jasper Fforde. His last book grabbed me on page 136. That’s fine. I’m in love with Jasper Fforde’s books.)
This illustrates the responsibility I have as a writer. One, I need to make sure that I give a reader a reason to keep reading as early in the story as possible. There are a few ways to do this–and I’ve heard it called “hooking the reader.” One, make the *voice* as fresh as possible. For instance, put it in first person and give the main character some odd viewpoint up front. Another is to introduce the main character as someone compelling from the get-go–with a problem to solve immediately. The sooner the reader can see a character with a daunting task, especially a likable character (i.e., with a good voice or who has “saved the cat“) the sooner the reader will care. And the sooner the reader cares, the more likely I am to be keeping up my end of the storytelling contract.
What’s the storytelling contract? According to William Noble, there’s an unwritten contract between reader and writer. The reader asks, “Tell me a story.” Then the writer does.
A good concept is not enough. There has to be plot and conflict and pacing. These are learnable skills. We as writers can study and improve on these. I hope my skills are improving all the time as I study how to write and as I attempt to implement the things I learn in my work.
Those sharks in Finding Nemo said, “Fish are friends, not food.” (Except stinking dolphins.) Readers (including me) ought to find a book that can be a friend. So-called friends that lay a guilt trip on me all the time, I should cut out of my life. I’m keeping the books that take me out of my doldrums or out of my ignorance or apathy or boredom, and losing the ones I’m “not the audience for.”
Meanwhile, I hope these women soon find a book that hooks them and can enjoy the love of reading again. Fiction is a great escape. It’s an activity we can enjoy all our lives. Non-fiction can edify and educate and inform and challenge us. Scripture can change our very souls.