As a reader for a literary agent and a reviewer for a book review web site, I read about 2-3 manuscripts and books a week. All of the manuscripts I read for the agent are unpublished, and many of the books I read for the web site are self-published. There’s a certain ruthlessness in reading these projects. Most manuscripts are not ready for publication, or even representation. Most self-published books couldn’t attract traditional publishers for a reason – even if that reason was a too-small market for an otherwise good book. It’s hard to get lost in a book that you’re reading for an evaluation; even while you’re trying to lose yourself in the story, half of your brain is keeping a checklist about what works and what doesn’t.
I only have the same 24 hours a day that everyone else has, and I found myself no longer having time to read for the simple pleasure of it. This was ironic because the reason I wanted to work for the agent and the web site (other than being a writer myself) was because I loved reading so much. So I decided to “cleanse my palate,” as it were, and read a few books that has already been vetted by other professionals – in other words, bestsellers that had been well-reviewed.
It was a well-timed break. Not only did I fall in love with the stories, but without having to catalog a writer’s strengths and weaknesses, my mind was able to wander the way an every day reader’s mind does – wondering about the characters and plot. What’s going to happen next?
The two books I chose were Liane Moriarty’s “The Husband’s Secret” and Taylor Jenkins Reed’s “Forever, Interrupted.” It was a highly scientific decision based upon the fact that both books had gotten positive press and they were both available at my local library. “The Husband’s Secret,” obviously, is about a woman who finds a letter written by her husband and the fall-out of his confession; “Forever, Interrupted” is about a young widow dealing with the mother-in-law who didn’t know she existed.
It was pretty obvious, due to the novel’s multiple points-of-view, exactly what the husband had done. But I was still engaged by the question as I read the book. Similarly, while reading “Forever, Interrupted,” the question, “Why wasn’t the mother ever told about the marriage?” nagged at the back of my mind as its narrative unfolded. (And yes, the questions were answered by the books’ endings.)
What is the question you want readers asking while they read your book? Do you even have a question? Plot springs from a character’s goal and the actions the protagonist takes to reach that goal. Most readers will be asking the question, “Will she achieve that goal?” In “Forever, Interrupted,” the protagonist wanted to have a relationship with her mother-in-law, and that question stood in the way.
Questions of motive are also intriguing. Perhaps your readers know what happened, but not why. Keep them guessing. Keep them asking. Draw out the clues. Deliver the answer in the end.
The purpose of story, no matter what form it takes, is to elicit emotion. What emotion do you want from your readers? Keep them engaged, questioning, laughing, crying.
A surprising number of unpublished manuscripts that I’ve read do not attempt to engage the reader in this manner at all. There’s a popular saying among writers: Show, don’t tell. This usually means writing out a scene rather than describing what happened in it. That’s also the best way of engaging the reader emotionally. A summary just doesn’t elicit emotion the way “showing” does.
If a reader isn’t asking questions, there’s no reason to keep reading the book. Give her a reason.