Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ten Tips for Engaging Your Readers by Carla Stewart

Annette and I have attended the American Christian Fiction Writers conference for years and have enjoyed Carla Stewart's gentle presence as another attendee. We’re thrilled that her debut novel, Chasing Lilacs, releases this June. She’ll return to Seriously Write this Friday to share her journey to publication.


When asked for advice on writing, Elmore Leonard once said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” Ouch. I don’t want people skipping over the words I’ve so carefully written and poured my heart into. And you don’t either, so assuming you have great characters and a plot to die for, here are ten tips to add pizzazz to your prose and keep your readers engaged all the way through your book. Here’s the challenge: See if you can employ three or more of these elements on every page.

· Engage the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Smell, in particular, is a powerful “hit” as it is the only sense associated with memory. What do you think of when you smell cinnamon? New rain? Honeysuckle or lilacs?

· Emotions. Allow your readers to experience your character’s rage, fear, sorrow, a tender caress or being green with envy, victorious, joyful, betrayed, doubtful. How? Showing, of course. Hurl those vases through the picture window and portray your hero’s sagging shoulders when shunned by the girl of his dreams.

· Engage your reader’s imagination by taking them to another galaxy, the Amazon jungle, a musty bookstore, a saloon in the 1800s. Treat them to the haute couture of Fifth Avenue or the inner workings of veterinary clinic. Sprinkle the details in gradually and avoid information dumps (one of the parts people skip).

· White space. Have you ever come upon a long stretch of narrative or internal thought and found yourself skimming? Break up these passages by tossing in some dialogue or two-word paragraphs.

· Speaking of dialogue—make it snappy. Whether fun and sassy, with a touch of irony, or filled with an ominous threat, keep the story moving forward with careful attention to the unique way your characters speak.

· Teasers for what lies ahead. How about that unplanned child? The big dance? Dreaded lab results? Does your character have a secret? Sprinkle hints throughout your novel to make your readers squirm.

· Information nuggets: aka known as “factoids” which make the reader feel smarter than a fifth grader. Examples: Secret ingredients, how to spot counterfeit money, the difference between a rifle and a shotgun.

· Give ‘em the old Razzle-Dazzle: Craft poetic or insightful metaphors and similes that bring fresh perspectives to your prose. Avoid clich├ęs and worn out phrases that make the reader yawn.

· Micro Tension: In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass advocates moment-by-moment tension to keep the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen not in the next chapter, but in the next sentence. In dialogue, this is often found in subtext: words not spoken, but that carry an undercurrent that sizzles.

· Hooks: These don’t occur on every page and come in many shapes and sizes. Whether you use a cliff hanger, an upset in status quo, slip in a tidbit of new information, or stop in mid-scene, don’t overlook a great hook.

There are other techniques, but if you start here, you’ll give your readers a reason to keep turning the pages. Try it on your current manuscript and watch the magic begin! I’m pulling for you.

A two-time ACFW Genesis winner, Carla Stewart is a Guideposts Writers Workshop alumna and has been published in Guideposts, Angels on Earth, and several regional magazines and anthologies. Her debut novel, Chasing Lilacs, releases in June 2010 with FaithWords. Carla enjoys a good cup of coffee, weekend getaways with her husband, and the antics of their six grandchildren.

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  1. Thanks Annette and Dawn for having me here today! Joy to you and your readers in your writing journey.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Carla! I love the tip about leaving out the parts that readers skip. Wow. And I have to say how attractive your book cover is! The colors, the design, even the fonts. Can't wait to read it. All His best,

  3. Words of wisdom from a real pro! Thanks for the reminders, Carla!

  4. I agree with Annette. Your book cover is beautiful. Love it! :-D

    Thanks for joining us.

  5. Thanks for sharing the tips, Carla, and congratulations on your new book. It certainly is beautiful!

  6. Thanks, Annette, for your kind words. My publisher gets all the credit for the beautiful cover - it captures everything I envisioned.

    Myra, you should know I struggle ALL the time with getting the words right (she's my crit partner, folks - the all-knowing one). This post is for ME, too.

    Dawn, thank you for inviting me to Seriously Write. Y'all have an incredible wealth of information on here. I'm a regular visitor!

    Connie, thanks so much. Isn't it fun that we're all on the learning path?

    Alice, my friend. Thank you. You're a great example of keeping your readers turning the pages.

    Joy to you all in your writing.

  7. I'm printing off these tips to keep next to me Carla. Thanks. You practice what you preach about engaging the senses, particularly the sense of smell. The Lilacs on your book cover bring a flood of memories back. I will insist on something smelly on the front covers of my books!


  8. Thank you so much, Ann! I've had a lot of people who really connect to the cover. I can't wait for my naked lilac bushes to bloom so I can get a whiff this year :-)


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