Six Ways to Lose Readers Fast

Photo by cristiano_betta on Flickr.

Authors! Tired of positive reviews? Want to lose your audience fast? Here’s a handy guide to ensuring readers will put down your work and never pick it up again!

1. What’s the rush?

There’s no need to introduce the central conflict of the story for at least seventy pages. Readers appreciate “immersion” in your world, so include several chapters of the characters walking around, greeting people, showing up places, and describing their own environment to themselves — maybe even out loud. Set your opening in a tension-free environment, like a nice country fair or a drama-free family dinner. Also, make sure the main character gets in touch with his or her feelings about the things that aren’t happening.

2. Lose the plot.

If the central conflict of your story suddenly becomes muddled and unclear, just have characters talk about it. A lot. Speculate about possible futures at length. Don’t introduce any new stimuli, just let the characters hash it out over coffee. Make sure your readers don’t miss an instant of their painstaking discussion. Make sure you create a situation where there’s no ticking clock or external pressure — that’ll just get in the way of your character’s conversations. Don’t stop until you’ve covered every possible permutation of the emerging circumstances. Readers love that.

3. Exposition. Exposition EVERYWHERE.

There is nothing a reader enjoys more than a juicy twelve-ton slab of description. Go on, give that sunrise a page and a half all its own. You’ve earned it. Catalog the entire contents of your protagonist’s room. It reveals character! Relate the entire history of the characters’ home town. Stephen King would go on about Maine for a thousand pages at a time, and he’s a zillionaire. And if you need to set up a relationship, make sure the reader knows the entire history of each character, preferably starting with their childhood or even their birth. It’s all about context. Don’t get all breakneck like Dostoevsky or Dickens. Those guys were crazy.

4. Don’t answer premise.

First, establish the theme of your story and the narrative question you intend to answer. Then, halfway through, quietly forget about it. Readers will praise you for your cleverness. You’re defying expectations! So your protagonist just sort of forgets about his goal. So a looming threat kind of fizzles out because it was too complex to try to resolve. So a burgeoning romance vanishes without a trace because you lost interest. Whatever! It’s all about the journey, so who cares what the destination might have been?

5. Preach it!

Your book is important. It has a serious message, so make sure people don’t miss it. Get out that bullhorn and blast your pedagogy from every chapter heading and conflict resolution. Turn those who disagree with the political or cultural views of the protagonist into one-dimensional idiot monsters. Gloss over any inconvenient flaws in your protagonist’s ideology. Your goal is not entertainment, but conversion. You’re enlightening the ignorant masses!

6. Grammar? This isn’t school!

Editing is for squares and people who don’t have a style. You’ve got a style, man. James Joyce made up words willy-nilly! e.e. cummings didn’t capitalize the letters of his name, so why should you capitalize anything? Spelling is just The Man telling you how to arrange letters — plus, there’s that one study showing how you can scramble up letters in words and people will still understand them! Surely no one will think you’re an obnoxious dolt if you do that. You’re a rebel iconoclast and you’ve got no time for apostrophes.

Yes, I am in a sarcastic mood today. So, readers. Anything I missed?

The Lurking Fear

Not a book review, nor an amazing facsimile.

Among the many stops on what I call the Road to Getting Serious About Writing is a frank conversation I had with a close friend many years ago. He had just finished assembling materials for a book idea he’d been kicking around for years, and admitted to me that he was nervous about starting.

“Why?” I asked. “You’ve obviously got the knowledge, you’re passionate about the subject, you’re a skilled writer. What are you worried about?”

“Well,” he said, “this is my life’s work… what if I put in all that work and it isn’t any good?

I winced because I’d felt the same way, many times. This particular fear often comes to haunt me in the wolf’s hour, when it’s three in the morning and I can’t get to sleep because of the parade of morbid thoughts stomping over my ribcage. It rears its deformed head when I’m in the midst of an editing problem of Gordian proportions. It bites my ankles in the evening hours when I’m behind deadline and my inspiration has gone as limp as overcooked linguine. It peers over my shoulder and paraphrases the bitchy girlfriend from Happy Gilmore: “All you ever talk about is being a writer. But there’s a problem. You’re not any good!” This is the worst of all, because apparently my taunting psychopomp enjoys Adam Sandler movies, and therefore so do I. If that’s not an eldritch blasted heath of the soul, I don’t know what is.

This fear is not only natural, it’s fairly endemic to writers in general. I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t white-knuckled their way through spasms of self-doubt at least once. But ultimately, it’s like any other psychological terror: you either let it stop you, or you work through it. Here are some things to keep in mind that might help you banish the lurking fear back to the unholy terror dimension from whence it came.

You’ll fail for sure if you don’t try.

This is so obvious it circles the drain of empty platitudes, but it’s true enough that it bears repeating. If you write a bad book, then you write a bad book. Or short story, or screenplay, or whatever. But if you write nothing, then you’ve got nothing. Whenever I start thinking about giving up because trying’s just too damn much work, I recall a favorite quote from Al Pacino in Glengarry Glenn Ross: “In this life, you regret the things you don’t do.” Granted, he was a crooked real estate salesman trying to hoodwink a potential mark, but… well… shut up! It’s motivational, okay?

“Not any good” isn’t an ending, it’s an obstacle.

dArKwHiSpEr420 gave our book one star on Goodreads. Our lives are over.

Life isn’t like a movie. In real life, couples who finally get together after a series of hilarious misunderstandings have to learn to get along. Likewise, giving up on your book isn’t going to end with you laying on the floor in defeat and the camera slowly zooming out while the theme from Requiem for a Dream swells in the background. You’re going to have to live with yourself for the full run, so you might as well learn from your mistakes and get back in the game.

A bad book can be fixed. You can learn craft. You can learn to edit. You can get better. You have awesome opposable thumbs and the capacity to absorb new knowledge. Expecting perfection the first time around is a rookie mistake, Millhouse. Get shut of it and embrace the joyous torment of revision.

Maybe this isn’t your life’s work.

The very words “life’s work” can carry a heavy load for a writer. Certainly you have to invest emotionally in your work to get to the finish line, but it’s easy to get overly invested and start defining yourself by the quality of your prose. All the passion in the world won’t do you any good if you spook yourself into never writing again.

Accept imperfection as inevitable and don’t raise the bar so high for yourself that you can no longer spot it in the clouds. Chances are you have many more stories in you, so don’t hang the world on this one. I used to think every writer out there just polished their first book until they sold it, but a lot of them don’t. Some have written as many as twenty books before making a successful sale. So don’t write off the rest of your creative future just yet.

Like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, the lurking fears of writing can never truly be defeated. They await, dead but dreaming, for the moment when the stars are right. And when “the stars are right,” I mean when you’ve run out of coffee and you’ve been staring at the blank page for an hour and listening to the sussurrus of your hair falling out. But you can dispel these fears long enough to get your work done.

Fortunately, that’s all the time you really need.