“I’m crying, your book is so great.”
It was one day since I’d sent my manuscript out to a round of beta-readers. I was nervous. Then I started getting real-time updates from people as they read my book.
“I have SO much to do this weekend, but I can’t stop reading your book!”
And I realized, I had written a page-turner. A 120,000-word, historical, literary fiction page-turner! Talk about an oxymoron.
It hadn’t even been my goal to write a big, fat, Chinese family saga that readers would eat up in two days, although I was very (cautiously) flattered when feedback started rolling in sooner than expected. My goal was just to write really well, to cleanse my manuscript of the most pernicious mistakes that writers make. However, in retrospect, I learned from writing Trixi Pudong and the Greater World that to create a true page-turner, you need two things.
The first is Suspense. That’s a no-brainer and it’s pretty easy. Most authors who have completed a manuscript already do this. Basically, it’s a natural law that readers want to know “What happens next?”. So you toss in a dead body, a mysterious new-comer in town, or a missing family member and the reader flips pages to know more. But suspense isn’t enough. Sometimes the reader still doesn’t finish the book, no matter how many loose ends you lay at their feet.
You need the important second element of a page-turner: Clarity.
While I was writing Trixi Pudong, my editor made a comment which I’ll remember forever. It pertained to “Edwin’s Story,” the longest chapter in the book. She had circled a minor character’s name in red ink and written:
“Who is this man again? I had to go back and re-read a few pages to find who this guy is. Be more clear. Don’t make your readers go back. After a while they’ll give up.”
Thus it clicked. Clarity is the real hidden secret to writing a page-turner. You need clarity on every page about who the characters are, where your story takes place, and what the motivations are, otherwise your readers will have to “go back and re-read.” The opposite of page-turning is page-turning backward. This makes a book seem like a slog. I notice this often when I read self-published books that haven’t been properly edited. Inevitably, I find myself asking at regular intervals:
Wait a second, where are we again?
Um, who is this person?
Why does he/she care?
Who’s talking again?
What does he/she mean?
Excuse me, but what’s the big deal again?
So I repeat: Do NOT make your readers go back.
A page-turner flows forward, quickly.
Novel writing is like stage acting. You must exaggerate. It’s not enough to open a chapter with “Wednesday in the car” and then expect the reader to remember this while your characters have a conversation that could’ve taken place in a kitchen, a school, or a train. Um… no. The reader has to feel the time and location, because in real life, we talk differently if we’re in a car, a night club, in an igloo, or in a room with a sleeping baby. We whisper, we yell, we misunderstand each other, we’re distracted. The location and time of the scene has to come across on every page. Same for characters: Their unique voices and motivations have to come across on every page. How is the sister different from the aunt? What’s the difference between the Sergeant and the General? I don’t want my reader to “go back and re-read” to remind themselves why it’s important that Whatsherface said Whatever.
Like many of you, I’m a writer of #DiverseBooks. It’s a huge risk to write a long Chinese family saga that no agent or publisher anywhere would want to represent. And that few readers would relate to or even want to buy. So I’m up against many odds. Therefore, the greatest feedback I have yet received came from the American Midwest, from readers who have never left the country:
“Your book is so exotic! I couldn’t put it down. I had no idea that I’d learn so much about China.”
Very interesting. I just sent my reader on a trip. That was an unexpected mission, accomplished.
And I hope readers also take a page-turning trip to all sorts of new places, with your books.