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Engaging a Reader in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better


Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
William H. Coles

Engaging a reader is crucial for a good writer.  It is a complicated process with different levels of engagement that require different skills and talents.  A story about a truck running through a guardrail and caught so it is suspended above a concrete slab two-hundred feet below, with driver and passenger trapped in the cab and bleeding from wounds, grabs the attention . . . a level of engagement.  There is curiosity about the outcome . . . a level of engagement.  For some readers, there might be fear when imagining the worst outcome . . . also a level of engagement.   This engagement is responding to circumstantial information about an event.  The prose is a description of what actually happened.  The engagement is similar to a comic book or graphic novel.  Images are stimulated by prose.  There is intellectual curiosity about what will happen and how the dangerous predicament will be solved.

In addition to images formed, engagement in this scenario may also be dependent on syntactical dramatization within the prose itself, clear transfer of ideation from author to reader, and the degree of importance to the reader about the information delivered.  It is journalistic in the sense that the reader is being told what has happened.

In writing a memoir, this journalistic type of engagement and reader responses are much the same.  A memoirist is intent on describing people who lived and experienced events and felt what they felt.  It is historical information described and positioned so drama is created by description of conflict and the positioning of information, so tension is generated when story information is presented to the reader.

In great literary fiction, reader engagement is different from journalistic (creative) nonfiction and memoir prose.  Fiction may be stimulated by past events and characters who lived; but the story-prose of literary fiction is created to engage the level of the responsive reader to lock the attention with minimal deviation, and to stimulate the reader to sympathize with characters, and at times be involved emotionally to a degree beyond the emotional involvement other types of fiction elicit.  The reader who enjoys literary fiction wants to know what will happen to a character they know well through intense characterization.   Involvement is less description of what happened and more what might happen.  And although there are created, journalistic-style circumstantial events in all fiction, the elements of created emotional conflicts and advancement and resolution of feelings have the prime impetus to move plot in literary fiction.

In addition, to achieve maximum engagement of a reader, characters must be credible; they must seem real; all happenings must be logical for story and plot; and all information about the story and characters must be reliable, or if not reliable, the reader must be aware of the unreliability and not puzzled or unsure.  Level of achievement of these goals in the story writing is proportionally related to engagement and satisfaction of a specific reader.

Engagement of a reader at this level also demands meticulous narration so the reader is always aware of who is telling the information and that the narrator is consistent for the context so the reader engagement of attention and emotion in the story is not broken.

Nonstory-related ideas and opinions must also be eliminated from the prose to prevent breaking the dream of involvement that fiction can evoke.  And errors in writing, such as wrong word choice, fuzzy or inaccurate metaphors, or grammatical errors must not be present.  Equally important for great literary fiction, the story and the characters must seem real–that is, to exist or be able to exist in a reader's mind–the very reason that book covers often contain the blurb "based on a true story" or "based on the life of ———."

John Gardner popularized the idea of a fictional dream into which the literary reader is immersed.  It is valuable, but only partially true to the involvement that certain readers have in great fiction.  Great fiction provides new perspectives — like looking into a stereoscope and discovering a three-dimensional change in the photo; being caught in an unsolvable,  dangerous dilemma . . . between a rock and a hard place and the space is closing in; in need of resolution of a longing or desire; and almost always in need to solve something–a puzzle, or a mystery, or an enigma.

Engagement of a literary reader by a literary author in a great literary fictional story is extremely difficult to do and is rarely achieved by the millions of writers who attempt it in various degrees.   Most writers default to nonfiction or genre fiction, often with impressive successes.   Unfortunately, great literary fiction cannot be created without adherence to the basics of what literary fiction has accomplished through engagement in the past.  Even more significantly, writing good genre fiction and memoir and thinking it is, and promoting it as, great literary fiction will fail to meet the expectations of the literary reader, and the writing will come off as inferior and boring.

The goal of agents and publishers is to make money.  Great literary fiction well written does not have blockbuster potential in today’s marketplace of diminishing serious readers of great literary stories for engagement and enlightenment.  Wouldn't it be great, for those readers still enjoying great fiction, if one or a few publishers were to emerge who are willing to accept reasonable profits and publish accomplished writers writing great literary fictional stories that engage readers with intensity and emotion?



Publishers: Gorging on Authorial Hope Editorial Opinion


Friday, February 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

If you write a great literary fictional story, and if you're not famous or infamous, your chances of publication are minuscule.  Remember when writers sent their best to a publisher, waited three to six months for the usual rejection, and then sent the same work out again, and again, and again . . . always with the expectation that someone would some day believe in their talent?  There were galaxies of hope and expectations.  Besides, it didn't cost anything.  These writers believed they were being judged on quality . . . if they worked hard and learned their craft, they would be rewarded with publication and the possibility of recognition.  There were a few slicks (Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, for examples) that published a new writer occasionally, and many small, usually university, presses that had a few slots, but published infrequently, and had a tenuous circulation.  But, in reality, these were at least publishing resources  available where writers had a fair chance of a fair read and a fair reliance that some threshold of quality was being applied to the possibility of acceptance.  But that life is almost gone.  Authors have been slow to realize it, but both print and online publishing have shifted; literary magazine publishing is killing it's life source–good writers with talent who write imaginative fiction–by charging fees for submission cloaked in the guise of contests.

Of course it's true that it's not just contests that kill fiction.  There is the trend to publish memoir and nonfiction as "fiction."  But the need for income from submissions has significantly changed literary fiction.    In the past, magazines that published quality fiction encouraged submissions.  Most of what they published was agented fiction, or from famous authors, friends,  or celebrities.  Still, there were always a few slots for the undiscovered writer of literary fiction.  Now, even those few slots have been diminished by dangling the carrot of possible publication before authors in undisguised manipulation for profit.  Publishers are using competitions and contests to encourage volumes of submissions, both commercial and "nonprofit" presses, to simply make money.  The contest prizes are paltry, often less than what a magazine would pay after acceptance before the contest mining of fees of  fifteen to fifty dollars per submission was instigated.

Every publisher seems to reflexively say they receive ten thousand submissions a year.  Wow.  You can make $50,000 per contest.  Let's do more contests! Have a contest for under thirties, stories about dogs, tell us about your  family, or most recently a contest for six-word stories that will cost you $15.00 bucks per submission.  If it takes less than five seconds to read six words, that's a profit of about $10,800 dollars per hour.  Why not have a six-word story contest every month?  Forget the 5000 word limit and literary fiction.  Forget about traditional literary fictional stories of quality.  To what avail?  All this bloated submission activity fills the same number of limited slots available prior to contests (which skyrockets the odds against an author winning and/or getting published).

The  impact of these new contests on the great literary fictional story are more than transitory misdirections.  Consider the multiple groups that relate to the publishing of fictional stories in general: the publishers, the readers, the submitters of work to be published, and the subscribers (and donors) that represent a source of income.  Until now, publishers covered operating costs with subscriptions and gifts from donors, and to varying degrees, advertising.  Until recently, submitters were not paying to be read.  Now operating-income sources have shifted to what  have become  more dependable  and profitable submitter fees.  Subscribers and donors to magazines that published literary fiction were diminishing in numbers anyway.  So who cares?  No one but a few of the submitters and, with less intensity, the rare careful reader.   But the readers should recognize the effect on the publication of a great fictional story.   As publishers work to increase their revenue through submissions, they are openly trying to attract any style of writing, and have been willing to publish any style as fiction.  Specifically, memoir and "creative nonfiction" writing is sought and published as fiction, along with genre-based story writing such as mystery, sci-fi, and romance, partially in the belief that this is what will attract readers, but mainly because it makes a profit.  The effect on the literary fictional story writer is severe.  Well-written literary fiction with dramatic conflict and character based plot is not valued.  And with the new ways magazines fund themselves, good fiction has little chance of competing with contest winners who have been wooed with themes that work against the creation of great literary fictional stories.

This publisher effect on literary fiction has a painful irony; there are a significant number of readers who crave literary fictional stories as an art form who are ignored.  Almost surely, publishers could make profits by maintaining standards and morality to attract writers capable of creating these stories.  Such an effort would keep people reading for enjoyment, especially the serious reader.  It seems so necessary with the tidal-wave trends for story to be delivered on TV, film, and the switch of many former readers to methods of story telling like sporting events, where conflict and resolution, as well as the unexpected injury, defeat or death–are delivered for satisfaction without the use of prose media.  Yet prose remains, for some stories, especially those with significant meaning, the superior way to deliver the story.  Isn't it reasonable to ask publishers to resist the trends that story telling are taking, and support the quality of writing and story telling that talented literary fictional writers can deliver?

With equal impact is the loss of readers seeking great fiction.   The readers of magazines who want literary fiction have realized that present day fiction is not what they seek (they have to rely on the classics) and they have stopped buying subscriptions or reading publications that claim fiction but don't deliver.  This affects writers too.  Even for a good literary fiction writer who occasionally will get a significant fiction story published, the chances the story will find a significant readership have mostly disappeared.  And so the publishing industry is in more ways than just contests is extinguishing the literary fictional story as an art form.

It's a wonder these contests that require these veiled fees for submission survive.  They blatantly mine the endless hope of a writer.  And it demeans those writers who succumb to what could really might be classified as a scam.  Writers feel foolish reading the winners of contests they've submitted to for a fee.  They feel humiliated when they discover that most contests are not anonymously read; judges are unknown and may not be consistent; there are no criteria for what is acceptable and what's not; there is no guarantee of being read, even briefly;  that there will never be oversight of the contests that should be provided by government; and that friends and  associates can (and do) win.

This is mining the lodes of hope buried in every writer.  Oh, those dreams of being interviewed on Oprah, those visions of royalty checks, those expectations of readings in Barnes and Noble with attentive listeners.  This is taking money from the addicted gambler yearning for a quick, but almost impossible,  reward  . . . money needed for food and housing, and to dress the kids warmly for school.  Fading reality.  Why is there not outrage from literary writers at this publisher behavior?

Publishers are losing any aura of altruistic professionalism.  If there were only some justice for all those writers affronted.  Certainly refusal to submit could trigger financial loss as justice for publisher's greed.  Maybe the Internet will develop ways for writers to be recognized without having to participate in lottery-like schemes.  It's the hope for the future, something that all writers should work to create–a system to connect writers with their readers without unfair financial loss to both.




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