Tips for Writing a Page-Turner – Guest Post by Audrey Mei

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“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.

Many thanks to Quanie for setting up my blog tour, for hosting me, and for being an all-around wonderful, supportive, and inspiring fellow author. 
———————-
Trixi Pudong and The Greater World
Trixi Pudong and the Greater World is currently a top-selling Asian American Literature ebook on Amazon.
Find out more at www.trixipudong.com.
You can purchase it on Amazon.
Twitter: @TheGritlands
Bio:
Audrey in Oslo PicAudrey Mei was born in California. She studied in Boston, where she graduated from New England Conservatory with a BM in cello performance and from Tufts University with a BA in biological psychology. In 1996, she received a Fulbright Grant to study cello at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. Although her field was music, the Fulbright Committee was deeply impressed by her writing and greeted her with the question, “When will your first book appear?” Audrey would like to thank the Committee for their enthusiasm and apologizes for the 20-year delay.
Audrey’s writing as appeared in Gangway Literary Magazine and Glimmer Train, among other publications. She spends her time between Berlin and San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and black Havanese dog.

12 thoughts on “Tips for Writing a Page-Turner – Guest Post by Audrey Mei

  1. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t ever thought about how important clarity is to keeping a story moving and to keeping readers interested, but I’ve read quite a few books where I had to look back and check one thing or another. And you’re right – none of those were books I really loved, and some I didn’t even finish.

    The book I’m working on has a whole lot of odd places and bizarre beings, so I’ve made sure over and over to really describe what’s going on and where they are. Sometimes I think I’ve overdone it, but this has me thinking I’m doing it right. Thank you. ^_^
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    • You’re welcome, Mason, and I’m glad you found this helpful. I think you are on the safe side by maybe over-doing the clarity; you can always tone it down later. It makes me think of what Stephen King says about pronouns, something like “I hate an mistrust pronouns,” so for the sake of clarity he literally knocks pronouns out of the manuscript and just uses the character’s name a lot. Yet we don’t feel like he’s overdoing it when we read his stuff.

    • Thank you, Claudine! I’m honestly surprised by the response so far and am extremely grateful, while anxiously waiting for the other foot to fall… I don’t think I’ll ever know 100% for sure how to keep readers flipping pages forward. It’s a balance between clarity and not explaining too much.

  2. Thank you Quanie for hosting me! My internet is spotty this week so I’m commenting here to make sure I get notifications. Be well, and I hope your family and other loved ones are safe and healthy with the weather situation in Louisiana.

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