There’s something every aspiring writer is guilty of doing at some point on their journey, and it’s writing something that sounds like a writer wrote it.
I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe what this sounds and feels like, and the best analogy I can come up with is listening to a little kid reading aloud from a storybook. They’re saying words, but they aren’t words that child would naturally say. They’re not ordered the way that child would normally speak. They’re saying full sentences, but it almost feels like those sentences don’t belong in their mouths.
That’s what reading some books feels like. A writer has read so much written by professionals that they model their style, their structure, their word choices, after someone else’s writing. On the surface, it sounds smooth, well thought-out — nice, even. But it doesn’t match how that writer, if left to their own devices, would usually write.
I can vividly remember doing this on purpose, when I first started writing stories. Writing was still uncomfortable, so I leaned on others’ writing to get out what I wanted to write in a way I felt made sense. We all do this — it’s part of the learning process, kind of like how you learn to trace or copy the letters of the alphabet before you can write them on your own, or how you use training wheels on a bike before you can keep your balance on two wheels instead of four.
Eventually, most of us grow out of this habit. We break away from copying other writers’ way of writing. We remember how to write letters, the training wheels come off. We develop our own style and our own voice. It might take years, but eventually, it happens.
Do you ever notice, when you’re reading, that a writer seemed uncomfortable while writing a particular sentence, chapter, or entire book? I do. Because no matter how much I might want to, I can’t fully immerse myself into the story. The writer wasn’t comfortable writing it, so I’m uncomfortable reading it.
When I’m reading, I want to forget that another writer sat down and wrote that paragraph I just finished. I want to forget that these are made-up characters and what’s happening isn’t real. I want to feel like I’m part of the story, even though it’s fictional.
Not all books can accomplish that. Especially since so many of us have such a hard time paying attention for long periods of time. Figuring out how to grab hold of your reader and drag them deeper into your story than they originally intended to go is hard. It’s different for every genre, every writer has their own strategy for making it work, and the only way to learn how to do it is to try everything until something works.
Readers need to feel the same emotions your characters do. They need the characters and narrator to work together to invite them into a story and show them around. Exactly how this happens can’t be answered or explained in a single blog post. It’s a combination of a number of factors — where the story begins, how backstories are told, how relatable the characters and dialogue are — how interesting the plot is as it slowly, or quickly, unfolds.
The most effective way to tell if you’ve hooked your reader is to determine if you’ve hooked yourself. Not everyone will be as deeply interested in everything you write as you will be, but the more involved you are, the easier it is for you to forget you’re writing a story, the more likely it is your reader will forget they’re sitting on their back porch reading a book.
We don’t always read to escape the present, but we do read to absorb a story. Make them want to keep reading. Find a way to catch their attention, and make sure they don’t look away until it’s over.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.