It’s time for me to come clean about something. I’ve lived half of my life on this earth as a secret writer. Well, okay so it’s not so secret, but I’m willing to bet a few dollars that a lot of people don’t know that I’ve written about seven novels, and so many vignettes that I lost count a long time ago. I’m currently culling these things together because I am moving my old LiveJournal information to a new server (three guesses who! It starts with a Dream…). Why in the world have I written so much material that I am being slightly vague about? Well, I spent my free time in high school and college writing fanfiction. And yes, I have been known to still write some– however, my projects now mostly result in a novel length story about once a year.
Everyone is entitled to their own views on fanfiction, and I can only speak for my own experience. For me, it helped me immensely in finding my own narrative voice. It also helped me learn how to successfully plot out a story that is gripping for the readers. Think about the nature of fanfiction: a writer creates a 2K+/- chapter for free every few weeks or so, growing an audience of readers who will either watch for updates, or never be bothered to come back again. You have to grab the attention of the audience and keep it in the palm of your hand. End that chapter with a bang, and you will get more comments than you can handle demanding updates. End that chapter with a fizzle, and you’ll lose your readership will drop. It’s a cruel existence, but it trains you to how to approach a story in such a way that you leave your readers panting for the next chapter. It can also show you just how angry people can get if you abandon an unfinished project.
To this day I get what I call “happy-angry comments” from people who couldn’t stop reading one of my five or six-year-old such-and-such 40K+ stories until the very end. And while I cackle evilly at each of these comments, they tell me that I have achieved exactly what I set out to do. My first, second, and last goal in anything I write, is always engaging the readers to the point where they cannot stop reading. The moment they think about what they will make for dinner, or need to check their Tumblr dashboard, or whether they should see that new Ben Affleck movie or not, I’ve lost. They may come back to my story, they may not. After all it’s just fanfiction, right? Which is why I have to do everything in my power to stop them from closing that tab short of popping through the computer and taking the mouse away from them.
Really good novels (comic or lit) are built around this goal as well. If people will sacrifice sleep in order to find out what happens, you have a winner. Each page in a narrative needs to drive the story forward, making the reader need to know what comes next, and makes them powerless not to turn the page. But in order to do that, you need to start with a good base for your narrative. You need to get the show rolling, and be concise. The more you wander, the more likely your readers are going to think about if they need to go to the bathroom or not.
Say what you want about the quality of the Twilight books, but one thing they have going for them is you can sit and read 500+ pages without even realizing it. If you stop reading your mind will just race thing about what will happen next. Will Edward turn Bella? Will they finally be happy together? Does Jacob really need to even wear a shirt? I read the original novel in a day. A day. I enjoyed it, in fact. I didn’t join a Team or anything, but I didn’t regret that time spent, and have spent further time reading it again. Is it high-brow literature? No. But it’s easy to read, flows well, and is completely engrossing. The Harry Potter series is this way as well. From chapter 1, Rowling has you and she knows it. She crafts each chapter to a climax so that closing the book at the end of the chapter becomes painful– because you just have to know!
But then you have the “slow starters.” This summer, I read the entire Millennium Trilogy start to finish in about a week’s time (I first became obsessed with the US movie, but that’s for another blog entry). Now, while I enjoyed the novels immensely, I can tell you honestly that I almost gave up reading them because of the first novel– and I truly think that had I not seen the movie and been so interested in what happens in the universe, I probably would have stopped reading because I just was not getting engrossed. I need to have a novel suck me in whole from the very start, or, as a writer, I start to worry if the novel will ever grab me. It’s the “really good book, but it’s hard to get into” syndrome. For Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I really couldn’t give a crap about Mikeal. He’s an awful person who is incredibly bland. And guess what? He’s the focus of the beginning 50 or so pages of the book. Smartly, Larsson gives us glimpses of Lizbeth, who is far more interesting. And in the following books, she becomes the main drive, as most of the events follow around her and then you feel like you are over taken by what happens (finish book 2 and TRY not to read the first chapter of book 3 I DARE YOU), and Mikeal kind of goes to the sidelines where he belongs. You don’t want a slow start, you want a fast start that throws you into the story and doesn’t stop until the very end. (And yes it could be argued that if Larrson had not died before the publication of all three novels, he might have had more time to edit the beginning down, as he does not suffer from this same predicament in the other novels– I’m not knocking him or his writing style… just the beginning drove me nuts).
There is no secret trick to successfully grabbing your audience. Not a word you can write, or a card you can play. Storytelling is about pacing the build up to the inevitable climax and how you deliver on the things you’ve setup during the story. If you are having problems, look at your first paragraph. Are you bored reading what you wrote? Then others will be too.
It won’t come the first time. Or the second. Probably not even the third. But just like in art, you need to keep at it! Creativity works the same way in every field. You didn’t learn every skill you know in art in one day. You practiced. Tried things you didn’t like, found things you did. Writing takes the same amount of effort!