It's the start of a new year, and with it I'd like to introduce a new topic to consider, a theme that I plan to continue in future columns. And that is the "satisfied reader experience."
However, I must begin with two caveats. First, the satisfied reader experience is not, as far as I know, a technical term that you're going to find in textbooks on writing. It may be there; it may not. The phrase may be used by other writing folk but with a different meaning. My apologies if I cause confusion.
Second, I can't claim that I've mastered the art of creating a satisfied reader experience. Nevertheless, I think it's extremely important so I'd like to forge ahead, even though I may be groping in the dark.
A satisfied reader experience is one where the reader closes the book with reluctance. A satisfied reader experience is one where the reader looks for more books by that author, buys copies of the book as presents for friends, talks about it enthusiastically and recommends it to others.
Think back to your own most satisfied reading experiences, and how you behaved. I remember how, when I was a teenager many years ago, I picked up Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Fortunately, it was the summer vacation and I was too young to have a job, so I could read straight through. And read straight through I did, finishing the book in three days of virtually non-stop page-flipping, reaching the end while straining the limits of my physical endurance. I skipped meals, took no exercise, and I spent all my time with my nose in the book instead of bothering with the basics such as showering and dressing and sleeping. I truly read myself sick.
I think one way to identify a satisfied reader experience is by the behavior of the reader.
Hopefully you have all had satisfied reader experiences. If you yourself have never experienced one, then I don't understand why you're looking at this column. For, if you don't love reading -- at least reading sometimes, there's no need to feel passionate about all literature -- perhaps you should not be writing.
Still, it's one thing to be able to identify a satisfied reader experience, and a completely different ball of wax to be able to create one. This little article won't even scratch the surface of the how-to aspect. In fact, in this article we're not even going to get through each of the terms: "satisfied," "reader," and "experience." Instead, even though this means going out of sequence, the rest of this column will focus on the "reader."
Now, be honest when you answer these questions. Are you writing for yourself, or are you writing for your audience? What is it that you're trying to accomplish? When you think about writing, do you fantasize about how your name will appear on the book jacket, and how readers will come up and tell you much they enjoyed the book? Or are you so caught up in your characters and their lives that your heart and mind dwell inside the book? Or do the words which you weave together speak to you; are they enabling you to mine your innermost thoughts and secret memories, to understand the crevices of your soul?
I'm not passing judgment on your answer. Writing for yourself can be of enormous benefit; journaling has tremendous therapeutic value. Furthermore, journaling can benefit the rest of humanity, too: think of how much the world has loved and learned from reading The Diary of Anne Frank.
There are other reasons you could be writing. Perhaps you are writing to persuade someone -- for example, you may be writing something political. Perhaps you are writing for the sake of the story. There is a story that you simply have to tell -- true or fiction -- and you are writing so that it will stop tormenting you. If you are writing to make money, well... making a lot of money through writing is not impossible, but there are many surer ways to do it.
So: for whom are you writing and why? Answer as honestly as possible, for then you can direct your efforts in the most efficient manner. If, after serious searching, the goal of writing for others still remains, then you need to consider your audience.
Assuming that you are not writing for yourself, consider your audience. What will make them happy? What will satisfy them?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer. Readers differ from each other. Heck, readers even differ from themselves. You've probably all had the experience of picking up some book and not being able to get "into it" -- and then, days, months or even years later, stumbling across the same volume again, and having it speak "volumes" to you.
Still, what do you know about your readers? Have you listened to them? How are they different from you? For example, if you're writing for children, do you have more to go on besides your memory of your own childhood? The last may be enough, but it might be a good idea to see what they're like today. And even if you have children of your own, spending time with kids who are less under your personal influence could give you additional insight.
Assuming your readers are not you, here are a few things you might want to consider:
I once read a lovely little piece (unfortunately I've forgotten where, so, alas, I can't give credit) about how a young woman at a dinner-party told everyone the most lurid details of her love life -- at which point another at the table asked her if she might be over-sharing. Evidently the woman flushed red. Well, I think it is possible to over-share on the dullness scale, too.
Great storytelling may overcome all these hurdles. Some masters craft sentences so marvelous that millions would pay to read what they have to tell us about laundry lint. Still, I think it behooves to ask yourself if what you want to say is truly worth the precious time of those you perceive as your readers
The "satisfied reader experience" is a concept I'll touch on occasionally in these columns. In fact, I already have -- the piece on the changing experience of reading with e-readers focused on "experience" and the piece on satisfaction through frustration considered the "satisfied" past of phrase. And, for the beginning of 2014, even if you have a resolution to write two thousand words per day, I'd also like you to take time to recall what it's like to have a satisfied reader experience. If you haven't had any recently, perhaps it's time to pick up a few books, read them, and see how you feel.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.