Thursday, July 5, 2012

Readers and Writers

A writer's job is to tell stories, to capture some piece of human experience with words and do it in such a way that other people want to read it. Really good stories open our minds to a deeper understanding of our common humanity. Really bad stories are so bad they make us want to cringe, even if they sell fifty million copies, which just proves that humans are about as diverse a bunch as you can find anywhere in the universe.

WARNING: Cliché Alert
Everybody has a story.

Ants don't tell stories. It's a human thing. The essence of storytelling is its humanness. Somehow a successful story taps into the reader's story. Since a writer doesn't know the reader's story, the challenge is to write something that strikes a chord with the reader, something that taps into the reader's real or imagined or possible human experience. Marketing and demographics try to pin down the reader's story, but that's not what I mean.

I have read many thousands of stories, books and poems. They ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, in every genre, from the earliest epics to the latest wave of eBooks. I've gotten really picky about what I like. I am no longer engaged simply by plot and setting, although a good plot is essential and the right setting helps the book come alive in my mind. What engages me is something which resonates inside and puts me in the characters' world, a world different from the one I'm used to. I'm not a cop, but I love characters like Harry Bosch, Michael Connelly's very human detective. I'm not a semi-literate criminal but I love stories by Elmore Leonard, who brings his characters to life with brilliant dialogue that makes me feel like I'm a fly on the wall in the motel room listening to these morons plan a heist.

Thrillers? Come with our heroes into dark and dangerous places, confront ruthless and terrible enemies, overcome life-threatening challenges, dodge flying bullets and against all odds make the world a temporarily less dangerous place.

Romance? Be transported into the arms of the ultimate lover, travel to distant and exotic places where you find hot love with someone who satisfies and exceeds your inner fantasies.

Mystery? Follow the puzzling clues, put it all together, escape danger (kind of like thrillers) and engage with dark and psychotic people you probably never want to meet in your real life.

Sci-Fi? Explore the dangerous and unknown universe where anything can and possibly does exist.

History? Ride with Stonewall Jackson and General Lee through days filled with senseless death over the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.

The reader doesn't have to be similar to the characters. One reason people read is to become someone else. I write thrillers, but most of my readers don't carry a gun. They're not familiar with high-tech explosives. They don't jump out of helicopters armed to the teeth or find themselves trapped in an ancient crypt filled with bones while bad guys try to kill them. The folks who read my books may never do any of those things in real life, but through the magic of words they can. A manual of how to jump out of an airplane at 22,000 feet won't do it, but a story that successfully makes the reader feel the experience as the character jumps into danger certainly will.

A scene like that would include the feelings and thoughts of the character, the sound and feel and look of the aircraft, the kind of weather, air, temperature, time of day, the feeling of the air rushing by, the snap of the chute opening, the hard contact with the ground, the way everything smells, the way the harness grabs you in the groin, the smell of everything and more, all done in a few sentences or paragraphs.

Good writers allow the reader to enter the character's world so completely that it comes alive in that reader's mind. Good writers make the reader forget it's a book. Good writers make the reader want to keep turning pages.

Want a challenge? Become a writer.


  1. I have read more books than the sands upon the local beachfront... Well not quite that many, but a multitude.

    I write short stories and have just committed to a novelette series. I'm sure I can do that but time will tell, and if I commit, I surely will give it the old college try.

    I agree with your assessment of making it real - walk the walk before you talk the talk.

    I write stories for children and my cartoon pack of rescued dogs have live counterparts who talk through action, action I put into words for the ones on the page.

    In one assessment I need disagree in as much I humanize my dogs. I really hate to say that because dogs are the only creatures I've seen so far that will forgive in any situation even when it takes time learning not to flinch when a hand descends or not gobbling food because it survived near death through starvation.

    Or even learning to walk down stairs they are deathly afraid to approach but will because they must be near the one they see as a savior.

    So, if one of the pack has a friend that is an ant, it shall surely speak. First I must live in the character's world so completely that I will be able to transport my reader into believing. My readers tell me it is so.

    Excellent article.

    1. Great comment, Paula. I can picture what you do and it's good work. Ants can tell stories if humans put words in their (what? Antennae?) mouths. I still have a children's book from the early 20th C that features ants.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Alex,
    we must be nuts to constantly put ourselves through the mental wringer to get that next story out there don't you think? And yet, I would not wish to be doing anything else, would you?

    To all the people out there who decry us for what we do I just say this - put up,or shut up!

    Great article. :)

    1. Hi Jack, I agree, "nuts" descibes it well. I find I need a week or two of mental recuperation aided by various legal medications , before I can take on the next book. Like voluntarily entering the asylum. I mean, maybe it's a healthy adaptation. All those voices in your head, clamoring for expression and life...


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