Do You Engage Your Readers?

I have one writing rule: If it works, it works.

The only thing that should matter is whether what you wrote works for your readers.

Did you convey the story to them? (For fiction) Did they learn what you wanted to teach them? (For non-fiction)

Those are the ideals.

Often readers will read a different story than you tried to convey. And they will learn a different lesson than you tried to teach.

(For the record, I do not ever recommend using the automated keyword setting for a new AMS ad for a new book, as an example.)

But if you want a chance to get to that ideal you need to do one thing first: You need to engage your audience. You need to draw readers into your book and you need to keep them there.

This is where some of the one-size writing advice comes from like: Start with action! Have a clear conflict! Skip the prologue. (I actually agree with that last one 99 times out of 100.)

Those are all tips to help make a story engaging. But they aren’t requirements to make it engaging.

All you need to do (and I say this like it’s easy but it is not) is find a way to grab your target reader, bring them into what you’ve written, and keep them there until the end. How you do that is entirely up to you and who your target readers are.

So when you start to panic about “I write like this and it’s wrong” stop. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s the exact right way to engage your readers.

Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.