Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Why Should We Care?

It's kind of an evocative title considering my post last week of a letter I wrote to the BC government of Canada.  I could easily write another one this week and go really politically based for my post today, but I'll refrain from doing that.  The letter is now a page as well for easy access for anyone who wants to read it.

Instead, I have been considering an interesting question with one of my writer friends.  Why should we care? When you pick up a book and start to read, that's often the unacknowledged question in the back of your head (feel free to disagree with me, but I feel that's accurate).  You want to know why this story, why these characters, why should I choose this book over that one?  Basically, why should I care?  Story is important, the way it's told, the people it's told about, all that stuff (which will lead to another one at some point about plot vs. situation that was sparked by another blog post from someone else which I have sadly misplaced).  But when we talk about "pulling the reader in", it's more than story.

A truly talented writer will be able to pull the reader so far into the world, the characters and the story itself that when they finish reading it you get Memes like the ones that say "I finish a good book and the rest of the world goes on, not knowing that it just ended".  it's suggesting that the story, the reason that we care about the book and the people it's writing about is so strong that when it ends it carries over into your real life.  Some readers don't want the sadness as an ending (of course there are a variety of different endings to leave you with joy as well as sorrow), but to some extent they need to care about the people and the world to care about the book and to pick up the next one.

As much as we might not like to think about it as writers, our job besides telling story is to draw the reader in and make them are about the book.  If you can't answer "why should I care" with something besides "because" you've got a serious problem.

A good start to judge this is if you as the writer care about the story.  The more you care about it the more time and effort you're going to put into it and the better final product you often end up with.  Sometimes it doesn't work the way we plan, but quite frequently this factor helps a lot in the actual writing and completion of the novel or story that is being worked on.  Sometimes there are other factors and we care so much that we overlook things, or we overemphasize or under emphasize or any number of other contradictory thoughts to the story, but in the end it comes down to that for whatever reason, the reader just doesn't care.  Sometimes it's something as simple as the opening of the story not being strong enough to motivate the reader to keep reading.

I had that problem with a book in high school.  I unfortunately don't remember the title or the author and have no way of finding it easily again.  (All I remember is that it was sci-fi and had "green" in the title somewhere... I think.)  It was a slim little book, adult, not youth, and was in the science fiction, paperback section.  I picked it up and looked at it several times before I actually borrowed it from the library, and then ended up borrowing this thin little book another four times just to try and finish reading it. I still had not finished reading it when I found it for sale at a library book sale, but the dang thing kept popping across my path so I kept picking it up and looking at it.  Here's a book that had done well in the sale.  The cover art made it look interesting, the synopsis on the back made it sound interesting enough to open, but the book itself could not hold my attention.

At that point I had no idea why this book was so hard for me to read, let alone finish.  I was a very fast reader at that age (have been pretty much since I started reading) and it bothered me that I had met a book that I simply could not finish!  It became a challenge, I had to finish this book.  Not because it was a particularly good book, and not because I was invested in it (which was what made it so hard to read, but I didn't know that), but because it was a challenge and I simply had to work my way through it.  I have a suspicion that every time I started reading it I read to about the same spot and lost interest for something shinier.

Looking back at it now and thinking about that book (the challenge of which has stuck in my head more than the book itself), I realize that I couldn't finish reading it because the author hadn't done their job in holding my attention.  The world was pale, the characters not quite as interesting or dynamic as they could be, and it could not hold my attention away from its competition except by pure stubborn determination to keep wandering across my path.  Now though, i couldn't tell you what it was about, but I remember the cover, and I remember that it was science fiction.

I have a lot of books, well over one thousand, packed into boxes in my mom's basement (which we intend to unpack the moment we have space for the shelves), and there have been more than one that I never finished reading for one reason or another, but usually they sag in the middle, even if they should be interesting and I just never finish them.  One was so badly written (that, and I wasn't expecting erotica as it was not properly labeled which was another story), that i couldn't make it past the first 20 pages, which is too bad since the free short story that made me buy the book was pretty good when taken alone.  Fortunately it wasn't very expensive (though when I finished I felt it wasn't even worth that price).  Another one wasn't bad, and the story concept was really interesting to me, but the story itself wasn't executed well enough to hold my attention (I do remember the title but can't find the author and it's not even listed on the bookstore's webpage to give you an idea...).  That one made me very disappointed by the end.

So when you're writing your book, working on your novel ask yourself with each scene.  "Why is this important"?  Because that question can help you with the reader's "why do I care"?  If it's not important then why are you putting it in?  Why waste the time and energy with a scene that doesn't move the story forward, doesn't reveal something about a character or a situation or would not make a difference to the rest of the story if it was cut?  (important scenes make a difference, I promise).  The only thing including unimportant scenes will accomplish is losing your reader.  If you're having people not want to read through, or struggling to continue, or who only read it because they know you, you have a problem.  I just hope your friends are nice enough to tell you the truth and not do the "oh, yeah, it was good." thing.  That just sucks and makes you feel like you're on American Idol finding out your friends have been lying to you.  I know I expect the truth from anyone I send my work to, if I don't get the truth I can't make it better, even if it's hard to hear.  If you have trouble with criticism go take an art class, that's about the hardest critique you're going to get.

Good luck and don't forget to make your readers care by asking yourself why is this important?