Telling Tales


Pandora Hope|4 December 2014

“A truth hidden in plain sight is this—the primary purpose of writing is to be read. Your words, however persuasive, bedazzling, enlightening or life-changing,  serve no purpose until they are read. The job of the writer is to use all the arts at her disposal to seduce the reader into her work. There is little disagreement about this. Vigorous debate, however, continues about the methods of seduction.”

When I first read this quote I thought what you’re probably thinking. Well, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? But the ‘truth hidden in plain sight’ got me thinking. However brilliant your writing is, if no one is going to read it…well, it’s pretty pointless, isn’t it? And guess what, I had to admit I was usually too busy trying to create awesome/clever/sizzling words to focus on the ‘hidden in plain sight’ question: “How do I get people to read this?”

It was a moment of bitter enlightenment. I’d gotten my chickens and eggs mixed up. Because whether I wrote an email, a letter, a story, an advertisement or a job application, I certainly wanted it to be read. It didn’t matter how ‘awesome’ I thought the piece was if no one read it except me, congratulating myself on my lonely awesomeness. Mulling about lonely awesomeness got me seriously focused on the seduction bit of the quote. It takes two to tango, right? Writer+Reader. Or hopefully, many, many readers. So if there is a class going in ‘word  seduction’, I am definitely signing up. Until there is, though, I’m going to try out a few ideas.

Let’s start with the tantalising hint about ‘methods of seduction’. How do I prevent the reader from casting a glazed eye over the first sentence and then flipping the page? What’s the secret? Is it sleight of hand, a magical incantation or years of reading ‘How to Write Books.’

The prevailing wisdom seems to be ‘read every day, write every day.’ Okay—tried that one. The ‘read every day’ bit was great fun, but I had problems with the second part. Is great writing really the product of simply ‘writing every day’?  In my case, sadly, it wasn’t. Sure, I could manage the quantity, but as for the quality…eek! I pumped out the paragraphs dutifully, but something terrible was happening. They weren’t getting any better.

So it was brakes on, and thinking time. This is what I came up with. It’s a bit like spelling something incorrectly. Unless you recognise that the spelling is incorrect—that something is WRONG—you will continue to spell that word incorrectly for all the days of your writing life. The repetition of a technique that doesn’t work will not improve the technique by some ‘mysterious redemptive quality of repetition’. In plain English: Repeating bad just gives you more bad.

And it gets even worse.  Like any bad habit you persist in repeating, the habit becomes entrenched. (Horrible word, ENTRENCHED.)  Is this why some people give up writing, sick of pumping out the same tired words days after day?

Thinking of all those dusty, abandoned manuscripts, my brain’s creative solution centre was kicked into action with massive doses of caffeine. If there’s a will, there’s got to be a way. The brain came back with this advice: Sure, practice is essential, but it’s got to be the right sort of practice…

Aha! All is not lost then,  even for those of us who have papered our walls with rejection slips and ‘No thank you’ email replies. There is a way to get yourself back on track and out of the Mirkwood of words. Here it comes:

Think of what you’re writing as a story.

Even better, a fairy story. No one can resist those. You know the thing: it starts with ‘Once upon a time’ and before you know it have to keep reading, because you’re hooked. And you know you’re hooked, because you start asking yourself—AND THEN WHAT HAPPENS?

Apply that question to your own writing: read a paragraph and ask yourself, “Do I care what happens next?” Be honest or this doesn’t work:)

Hopefully, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’  If not, it’s back to the draft and try another approach. Once you, and of course the reader, are thinking those magic words—AND THEN WHAT HAPPENS—your first battle is won. Not the war, not yet. But you’ve got your reader hooked, and that is a major achievement. A hook? you ask (or if you didn’t, you should have). Yes, the all-important hook…the device that gets the reader asking, “and then what happens?”  And that’s coming up in the next post. See you there :-)


5 thoughts on “Telling Tales

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