In Which We Try To Keep the Reader's Attention

April, 2021

In my old gig writing technical manuals, we didn’t worry about keeping the reader’s attention. Our readers were motivated by trying to make their new machine work, or fix their old one. It didn’t matter if they stopped reading. It mattered that they got the machine working. In fact, the fewer words they read before the machine worked, the better job we had done. This novel writing gig is different. I have to grab and keep the reader’s attention, and its not always obvious how to do that.

A lot of aspiring writers assume it is about keeping them in suspense by withholding information, but for that to work the reader has to care about the information, and care enough to spend hours of reading time to get it. Or they could buy themselves the Cliffs Notes version and save a bunch of time. No, the reader has to want to spend the time, to take the slow road. Unlike in technical writing, they are not motivated simply by lack of information. They want an experience.

If you travel across the country to attend a wedding, you do not do so because you are in suspense about what is going to happen. You know what is going to happen. You want it to happen. You will be disappointed if it does not happen. You go because you understand the significance of what is going to happen, you are emotionally invested in it, and you want to be there. Reading a novel is the same. You keep reading because you understand the significance of what is happening, you are emotionally invested, and you want to be there. People read favorite novels, and watch favorite movies, over and over again, despite knowing exactly what is going to happen, because they understand the significance of what is happening, they are emotionally invested, and they want to be there again.

I raise this because my progress on the third book of The Peaceweaver series, The Needle of Avocation, was stalled for a week or so this month when I began to have doubts about the significance of what was happening in the story. It is tricky, because you can have a full outline of a plot that looks great on paper (as I did) and still have missed that element that gives the story and its incidents significance. It’s a scary feeling when this happens, because if you can’t find it, the whole story might go out of the window. Thankfully, I did find it and got going again. (Hopefully I am right about it this time!)

Found things

Stuff I found that interests me, and may interest you.

The problem of truth in history and fiction: a speech by Richard Lee

Richard Lee has an excellent essay on the relationship of historical fiction to history, and the problem of truth in each of them. The subtitle of the essay sums it up admirably: “History is but a fable agreed upon.” History, Lee shows, is a matter of fashionable interpretation of what are very incomplete and often highly misleading records and other evidences of the past. To criticize historical fiction for not being scrupulously true to history is not only to mistake the kind of truth that fiction is concerned with, but to greatly overstate the quality of truth that history provides.

The deficiency of evidence and the prevalence of interpretation over fact in history is nowhere more evident than in the study of the Anglo-Saxons. Documentary evidence is fragmentary in the extreme and the archeological evidence, which has grown considerably of late, is far from representative, favoring as it does, the artefacts of the rich over those of the poor and artefacts made of durable materials over those made of perishable materials. Thus, for instance, we have brooches, but not the clothes they were attached to. The result is that the histories of the period seem like you are reading all footnotes and no text. It is literally all about what the minute pieces of evidence available might suggest and how different scholars interpret them. No reliable narrative really emerges for much of the period.

I just wrote an historical note for the first book of The Peaceweaver series, The Rules of Trade, trying to show how much was based on established fact and how much was invention. The fact is that for someone like my heroine, the daughter of a minor Anglo-Saxon thegn, we know pretty much nothing of how she would have lived, thought, acted, spoke, dressed, or occupied her time. My portrait of her is based on selecting those interpretations which best suited my dramatic purpose, borrowing things from later times and other places, and making stuff up to fill the gaps. Lee’s article explains why that is, and why it’s okay.

Marinas.com

More than ever in pandemic times, novelists rely on the web for research purposes. When you are writing about a particular place, and your characters are travelling around that place, Google maps can be very useful. Not only can it give a sense of layout and distance, you can use satellite view and street view to see landscapes and natural features. Sometimes, however, it does not give you the detail you want. And sometimes the web can turn up hidden treasure troves. In this case, it is Marinas.com, a resource for boaters.

I stumbled on it because I had my characters in The Needle of Avocation visit Inner Farne, the island off the coast of Northumbria on which St. Cuthbert lived as a hermit for many years. I wanted to detail their landing there, so I wanted pictures of the landing place. The Google Maps ones don’t quite have the right angles. But those on Marinas.com are perfect. Essentially, Marinas.com provides high-resolution multiple-angle aerial photographs of harbors and and landing places all over the globe. Useful if you want to land your characters on some distant shore.

The Bayeux Tapestry Online

The Bayeux Museum has made the entire 70 foot length of the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, available online. I saw someone on Facebook describe the Bayeux Tapestry as reminding her of a comic. Well it is a comic. Scott McCloud, in his excellent book, Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art, uses the Bayeux Tapestry as an early example of the comic form.

As noted above, we don’t know a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, but one of the things we do know is that they drew — or stitched — comics and cartoons. When I was creating the banner for my website, I assembled bits of Anglo-Saxon art that reflected elements of the story of The Rules of Trade. A friend that I showed it to hated them because she said they looked like comics. Well, that is just what they are. I like it, personally. Those illustrations (they are included in the banner for this newsletter as well) would not look out of place in the funny pages today. After all, these people knew about Thor long before Stan Lee discovered him.

From the Blog

Just some notes on some recent posts from Stories All the Way Down.

I did not add a lot to the blog last month. Writing a first draft is not an activity that goes well with other creative pursuits. There is a kind of momentum to the storytelling that is hard to restore if you take too many breaks or go off and think about other creative things. But I did published two more excerpts from my evolving travel diary of the Grand Tour that my wife and I took in 2018, which started with a trip down Route 66. I also realized that the titles for my previous entries seemed to have come from the technical writing side of my brain, since they methodically gave the starting and ending point of each days journey instead of highlighting the most interesting topics in each day’s entry. So I went back and retitled the whole series. Anyway, here are the most recent entries:

Grand Tour 7: The Best Museum on Route 66 is About Barbed Wire

The main subject here is our visit to the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. It is a museum of barbed wire. Take how boring you think that sounds, on a scale of 1 to 10, and that is how fascinating it actually turns out to be.
Route 66 is itself a kind of museum, with a very democratic approach to curation, and there are Route 66 museums in every town and hamlet you pass through, including McLean. I’m not sure if it is anything but a coincidence that the Devil’s Rope Museum happens to be on Route 66, but it is simply the best museum on the road. Go there.

Grand Tour 8: A Church Should Look Like a Church

Taking a road trip means, among other things, attending Mass in many different churches. In some places this is a happier experience than others. The Mass I attended in a suburb of Amarillo was the trigger for a rant about church architecture. And no, it is not simply a complaint that modern churches are ugly, though many of them are. There is more too it than that. A church should look like a church. I would prefer a ugly church that looked like a church to a beautiful church that looked like an auditorium.

Questions? Thoughts? Any links to suggest that might be of interest? Write to me at author@gmbaker.net. Thanks!