Give your reader HOPE. Your reader will love you

by Ksenia Anske

Photo by Patty Maher

I'm on page 143 of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and I'm so depressed that I had to write this post. One reason being, just a few minutes ago I was terrified to the point of crying that my book will turn out as depressing as this one and people will want to put it down (suicide is a hard topic). Another reason being, I think depressing books are a good way to remind us of all the things that suck in life, so we'll be motivated to change them for the better, yet the only way to do it is to give us, readers, hope. I keep circling back in my head to The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowing, her non-Harry-Potter endeavor that many frowned upon and that I loved. Contrary to Gone Girl, which received such praise and I seem to not care much about. My first thought, of course, is, what is wrong with me? My second thought is, wait a second, maybe there is something to learn here. As grim as life has been painted in The Casual Vacancy, it's also full of desperate love. I have yet to find love in Gone Girl. I think this is the key to a curious pattern.

Love. All stories are about love. The rest is simply layers. I think I've said this in some other blog post and am repeating myself, but I don't care. The more I read, the clearer I see it. It's all we really care about as human beings, all we want to live for, for love. Unfortunately, in real life it's not always pink fluffy unicorns and lovely smiling baby koalas. In real life, to borrow from Monty Python, it's more like dead parrots and dead crabs. Pick one. Either way, it's dead. Where do we turn to survive it? Love. What if there is none? Humor. Until we can get some love, we will laugh about our pains, to make them pass. One very clear lesson I learned when listening to Chuck Palahniuk on his book tour was, make your reader laugh, cry, and feel sick (or, afraid to the point of being sick). Why do we cry? Because it's how we show our pain or happiness. Why do we laugh? Because it's how we show our joy and how we live through pain. Why do we feel disgusted or afraid? Etc, etc, etc. It's how we bond, by expressing our emotions, and that's why if a reader doesn't cry over your book, or laugh, or feels disgusted or terrified, there will be no bonding. But one of these is not enough, more and more I see all three at work, and that's the key difference between The Casual Vacancy and Gone Girl. The first one made me cry YUCK! in disgust, made me laugh and made me cry. Te latter one so far is only YUCK! with a few smiles and a chuckle, and no crying.

There is a reason fairy tales stood the time. We all grew up on those stories, and they are still a standard for any book, any novel you pick, they even teach them at those novel writing seminars. You know the ones I'm talking about, the knight goes out on his white beautiful horse and slays the dragon. Oh, and he snatches away a beautiful maiden to be his bride. Basic story "plots" in literature, in other words. Why do we love them so much as kids? Why do we still gravitate towards these types of stories? Because they have happy endings. We all want it to end on a good note, since real life rarely gives us gifts of happy endings. This doesn't necessarily mean there can't be books without happy endings, there are a ton of those, and really great ones, The Great Gatsby comes to mind, for example. Why do we read those? Because they still have a promise of great big love, even if it all ends badly. It's what makes us say AWWWWW... and go dab at the corners of our eyes with a tissue when nobody is looking. For example, if you've read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, you'll know the agony of rooting for the main character, wanting her to survive, not knowing until the last moment if she will or not. MAJOR SPOILER! She faces a bear at the end and wins. Oh, how would we've been pissed as readers if she didn't! Absence of this is precisely why I'm struggling with Gone Girl. There is love, but not much of it, and I want more. I want at least something to hook my inner slobbery romantic on, then I would love to sail through the disgusting parts, no problem. (I haven't finished the book, so perhaps I'll find it still.)

It's not about facts and puzzles, it's about emotions. The other night I watched Memento, in an effort to steer my mind away from Gone Girl, and saw a similar paradox in the movie. It was a very interesting puzzle to solve, and its one of those flicks you want to watch again when done to pick up clues, but I didn't care for the characters. Same with Gone Girl, I'm interested in the whole treasure hunt concept and the clue finding and all that great stuff, but I don't care much for the characters, and that's why it feels like it's easy to put the book down. In fact, today when I picked it up, I couldn't remember what happened last time I read, and had to reread a few pages back to reorient myself. Now, I feel horrible about trashing this book here in such fashion. PLEASE, don't listen to me, read it, and judge for yourself. Like I said in a previous blog post, there is not such thing as a perfect book for everyone. I'm merely using it to illustrate the point, and who would I be to have a solid opinion since I haven't even written a single one yet? But as a reader I want to feel the book I'm reading, and I'm sharing my doubt here with you inhopes that this can help us all be better writers. Helps us write better books. Helps us change this world, one book at a time.

Call me a dreamer, call me crazy, tear me apart. Tell me what you think. Have you had similar experiences with reading books? Yes? No? Care to share titles and blurbs in the comments? I'd be most curious to learn. Meanwhile, I'm off to reading Monty Python, for some good old much needed laughter.

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Pacing and point of entry

by Ksenia Anske

Please welcome David Vinjamuri, contributing writer for Forbes, Adjunct Professor of Marketing at New York University and author of Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands (2008) and debut novel Operator (2012).


One fatal flaw can kill your readership. No matter how elegant, beautiful or profound your writing, it will fail commercially if readers do not engage with it. Blame it on eBooks, television, or our ‘desire on demand’ culture in general. It doesn’t matter. Pacing matters. Especially at the very beginning of your work: be it a novel, novella or blog post.

Here is my disclaimer: I’m not qualified to tell you this. I have just two books to my name. John Wiley & Sons published my 2008 business book ‘Accidental Branding’: it was decidedly mid-list. My thriller ‘Operator’ is just two months old. I also write a column for Forbes online – but only for the past year. This advice doesn’t come from a bestselling novelist. Continue at your own peril.

In medias res – translates to ‘into the middle of things.’ It means that you start the story in the middle of the action. Sometimes, though, writers take this as permission to plant a hook at the beginning of a story and then bore the stuffing out of readers with lengthy digressions and flashbacks. The Kindle reader will have none of this. Even if you’ve concocted a snappy first paragraph, she’s gone by page three if the pacing lags. Then she’ll get a refund on your book and write a scathing one-star review.

Instead of thinking of the ‘middle of the action’ try thinking about ‘point of entry.’ Where is the most accessible point to enter your story? What moment or incident reveals the central tension in the story most efficiently? Find that and start the story there. 

Then add context instead of digressing. The difference is important. Good context consists of the details and stories that matter, told when they need to be known and not a moment sooner. Handled appropriately, dropping contextual details when they become critical to the reader creates narrative tension and suspense. If you don’t believe me, read Gone Girl.

With this technique, your point of entry becomes the real anchor for the story rather than a simple rearranging of the narrative sequence of events. Focusing on the right point of entry also helps you scrub your backstory clean until the critical details are the only ones left.  

If you use this technique of picking the right point of entry for every single chapter of your book, you’ll find it much easier to identify the most important structural elements of your plot and focus the story on them. A tighter story makes for better pacing. Good pacing keeps your readers reading. That’s what I’m looking for, anyway. I count every hour of sleep lost to my writing as a personal victory.

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