Who is your reader?

I have a ton of books I want to read. When I was a teenager, I would obsessively read everything by a favourite author. Nowadays I recognise it’s just not possible to read everything. There is not enough time.

Knowing this, what is it that we want for our readers?

Our readers are strangers, yet for a brief moment, they are also our friends. In many cases, they will come to know us better than we know ourselves.

So what do our readers expect from us?

They want to be entertained, to be immersed. They want to be drawn in with anticipation. They will follow you where ever you go. Your job is to do everything you can to help.

They are predisposed to trust you. You don’t have to tell them everything. Curb your temptation to over-narrate, over-describe, over-interpret, and over-signify.

Trusting the reader lets you share the burden of comprehension. This is part of the constant negotiation between you will have with your readers.

Find the resonance

So what happens when someone reads your words? Neurons fire in their brains. Some people call these mirror neurons. These are the neurons that help us to empathise. They fire when we see, hear or read something. For instance, we wince when we see someone stump their toe. Motor neurons are part of what neuroscientist call the “resonance circuit.” When you create resonance in your reader, you allow them to adopt the story as their own. In other words, our words light up our readers imaginations.

Know yourself

You can’t trust the reader without trusting yourself. Writing works best when you are confident about what you write.

When in doubt, assume the reader knows nothing. But never assume that the reader is stupid. In other words, don’t overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate what the reader understands.

She may not know it herself, but your reader will want the answers to three questions:

Why here?
What is happening?
Why now?

So don’t disappoint her. Deliver the goods.

Why buy and read your book when there are so many others on the shelves.

Buying a book is a contract between the writer and the reader. The reader expects to be entertained, to be informed. Your book is a proposal to the reader. You ask “Does this mean something to you? I find this interesting, and I hope that maybe you will too.” And often the answer is ‘No’ and if that happens, and they don’t buy your book, then maybe you are alone with your obsession.

What readers want

They want to be immersed in new worlds. They enjoy the rhythm and vividness of words. Problems and conflicts also grab their attention. The more difficult the problem, the greater the hold the story has over them.

Who are you writing for?

Are you writing for everyone? Half your audience are men, and the other half are women. Isn’t that too general? Too vague. The whole world reading your book. Is it believable?

Pick one person you know and write for them. When we were at school, we wrote for teachers who marked our work. Who was your favourite teacher? Or write wholly for an imaginary friend with similar tastes.

You, the writer are the director

You are the director, not an actor in your story. Keep your story visible on stage and yourself quiet. You are the conduit through which the story is told. People aren’t buying you; they’re buying the story. You want your story to become their story.

There is only one sin

There are no rules out there, but there are sins, and the cardinal sin is boredom. Robert McKee

The only time the reader felt obligated to read was at school. In their free time, they read what they want.

Authority rests with the reader. They have total control over your story. They control when they start to read and when they stop. You cannot force them to do anything. This is their choice, and they exercise their authority when they put a book down.

Why did they stop reading? Possibly we grew enchanted with our powers of description and failed to keep the ball rolling. Characterisation, theme, mood; none of these stand for anything if the story is dull. If the story grabs the reader, all else can be forgiven.

How to keep their attention

  1. Make things clear, don’t over explain. Let the reader work things out for themselves. Explaining can reduce the idea and make it smaller.
  2. Make the character somehow out of the ordinary. She may wear the mask of the common woman, but underneath this mask lies a true hero.
  3. As long as the character wants something, the reader will want it too. As long as the character is attempting to get something, the reader will wonder whether or not he’s going to succeed. Few things are more intriguing than the desire to succeed against impossible odds.
What to write about

What to write about?

Last night at the Original Writers Group we talked about that difficult subject of finding a story.

I asked who carried notebooks and was surprised at how many writers didn’t. Ideas can come at any time, anywhere. They are inspired by the world around us. Usually, they happen at the most inconvenient time, like when you are out jogging in the park or drinking champagne at a party or shopping in the supermarket with a kid hanging off the trolley.

Develop the habit of writing down your ideas. Most ideas will disappear in three seconds. Hold on to them while you get your small notebook out of your pocket.

Know yourself. Use your obsessions, infatuations, and confusions in your writing. What interests you? Write a list of all the things you believe and those things you don’t. Once you know this, you will know where to look to find your stories.

Writing should never be an obligation. Let it be your passion. If you are passionate about your stories, you can live with them as the months roll by and the seasons turn from autumn into spring and through summer to autumn again. Sometimes it takes years to write a story. Be a long-distance runner. Be prepared for the long haul.

Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures used to ask his scriptwriters one question when they presented a new project: “So what?” by which he meant “Why should I care?”  Everything should pass the Harry Cohn test. Ask this question about your idea. Ask ‘Why is this idea special?’ In every story, something of consequence has to happen.

There will be times when you lose interest in your story. It will be like falling out of love. Divorce yourself from the idea. Take what you can. Chairs, sofas, tables – scenes, descriptions, characters. Put these in a folder and move on. You never know. Someday in the future, these might become useful again.

Where are your stories?

There are stories in the discoveries you made, the truth you saw, the tales you overheard.

There are stories about the people you love and hate.

There are stories about the things that make you angry, the things that make you laugh.

There are stories in jeopardy when people have something to lose: family, friends, ideas, opportunities, reputations, dreams.


Write about the memories that haunt you.  Maybe a person you once knew, a story you read or an event that changed your life.  We all have experiences we can use in our writing. Look for those moments when your world was threatened. Memorable moments when you overcome obstacles. Use your memories creatively. Take stories from your life and the lives of your friends. Graham Greene said when asked about using memories in his stories, that they were ‘yours to remember and mine to forget.’

Reconstruct events and dialogue.  Take a slice of life and ask ‘What if?’  ‘What if’ drives everything when it comes to writing stories.

Build lists in the back of your notebooks

A list of interesting things and subjects and topics.

A list of your obsessions. Obsessions make great stories.

A list of your fears.

A list of those things, people and places you love.

A list of those things, people and places you hate.

A list of the times when something memorable and interesting happened in your life.

What to write about Writing

Write the truth as you know it.

Truth is grey, not black and white. What we believe to be true can change over time. There is an inscription above a door at the German Naval Officers School in Kiel that reads:

Say not ‘this is the truth’ but
‘so it seems to me to be as I now see things I think I see’

There will always be someone who believes the opposite to what you know to be true. Don’t let this stop you from writing what you believe. Truth is strongest when time is spent to investigate, explain and verify the facts. The problem is that sometimes it is easier to come to a conclusion by distorting, hiding and twisting facts.

So what to do? Be honest. Don’t pull your punches. Don’t worry about being blunt. Tell us the truth as you know it.

Outlining Plot Writing

Writing Backwards

In 1842 Charles Dickens, in correspondence with Edgar Allan Poe, noted that when the author William Godwin wrote ‘Caleb Williams’ that he wrote backwards. He started by ‘first involving his hero in a web of difficulties and then casting about for some mode of accounting for what had been done.’ (The Philosophy of Composition 1846)

Likewise, Pierre Boulle who wrote Planet of the Apes as well as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, started by writing the final chapter of his books and then working backwards.

Try writing your story from end to beginning. Start at the end, then ask yourself ‘How did I get here?’ Picture the action and choices that led you to this moment and watch as your story emerges. (This technique also works with individual scenes.)