Several years ago, a writer/friend invited me to join a monthly writing group in Albuquerque. This writing group has a long history, originating with Tony Hillerman when he was teaching at the University of New Mexico. He gathered a number of newspaper and magazine writers, publishers, and editors who had similar interests in the publishing business and began getting together to discuss their mutual problems, solutions and insights.
Some decades later, the group still has a definite bent towards not the craft of writing but with getting books out and sold. There are people who self-publish paperback and electronic books (with a major emphasis on science fiction), a few writers for magazines, a couple of publishers, an editor or two, a bookstore owner, two translators (including a lady who has been knighted by the King of Denmark), and writers like myself who use traditional publishers.
I am, as one might guess, the novice of the group.
I did once have an opportunity to talk to the group about an initial draft of a book I was working on. My draft didn’t yet have much plot but the story, as I expressed it, would be “interesting” to the reader.
That earned me some criticism, most of which was provided by my friend. His exact words were “interesting means boring” and the sentiment was echoed by others. I felt squished.
After the meeting, as was our custom, my friend and I went to eat at a close-by Japanese restaurant. Talking with my friend over lunch was the real reason that I joined the group; discussing books and writing one-on-one with him was a treasure. He continued his “advice” and I understood what he was saying. Internally, however, I wanted to make an argument that readers wanted “interesting” and that any book that didn’t have something that was intellectually engaging would be missing a large connection to the readership.
A couple of months ago, I found someone who explicitly supports my side of the argument. The following is from The Wave of the Mind, by Ursula K. Le Guin, one the finest writers the world has produced:
“Most best-sellers are written for readers who are willing to be passive consumers. The blurbs on their covers often highlight the coercive, aggressive power of the text--compulsive page-turner, gut-wrenching, jolting, mind-searing, heart-stopping—what is this, electroshock torture?
From commercial writing of this type, and from journalism, come the how-to-write cliches, “Grab your readers with the first paragraph,” “Hit them with shocker scenes,” “Never give them time to breathe,” and so on.
Now, a good many writers, particularly those entangled in academic programs in fiction, get their intellect and ego so involved in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it that they forget that they’re saying it to anyone. If there’s any use in the grab-‘em-and-wrench-their-guts-out school of advice, it’s that it at least reminds the writer that there is a reader out there to be grabbed and gutted.
But just because you realize your work may be seen by somebody other than the professor of creative writing, you don’t have to go into attack mode and release the Rottweilers. There’s another option. You can consider the reader, not as a helpless victim or a passive consumer, but as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. A colluder, a co-illusionist.
Writers who choose to try to establish a mutual trust believe it is possible to attract the readers’ attention without verbal assault and battery. Rather than grab, frighten, coerce, or manipulate a consumer, collaborative writers try to interest a reader. To induce or seduce people into moving with the story, participating in it, joining their imagination with it.
Not a rape; a dance.
Consider the story as a dance, the reader and writer as partners. The writer leads, yes, but leading isn’t pushing; it’s setting up a field of mutuality where two people can move in cooperation with grace. It takes two to tango.
Readers who have only been grabbed, bashed, gut-wrenched, and electroshocked may need a little practice in being interested. They may need to learn how to tango. Once they’ve tried it, they’ll never go back among the pit bulls.”
My “interesting” book did make it to the bookstores. I worked on the plot and the scenes and gave the “interesting” aspects more context of how they played in the novel. I did put in a couple of near-death experiences for the hero, but it all worked out fine. It is, indeed, an interesting story that invites the reader to imagine what they would do if they were the characters, and requires them to grapple with moral questions, and it makes their reading experience far more engrossing and memorable.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.