Tuesday, February 19, 2019

How to Write a Real Page-Turner

By Laurisa White Reyes, @lwreyes

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: No matter what they write, I think every writer hopes for a book readers can’t put down. Please help me welcome Laurisa White Reyes to the lecture hall today, to share some tips on how to create a page-turner.

Laurisa White Reyes is the Senior Editor of Skyrocket Press & Author Services. She has published sixteen books, including 8 Secrets to Successful Self-Publishing and the SCBWI Spark Award winner The Storytellers. Laurisa also provides personal coaching for writers. To connect with her, visit Skyrocket Press.

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Take it away Laurisa…

What Is a Page-Turner?

This term is one of the most sought-after compliments authors can receive about our books. It means we have succeeded in keeping our readers engaged from the first page to the last, and that they have connected with our story in a way that is both satisfying and energizing. Books like that are never forgotten and are the ones readers will rave about to their friends.

Here are some reviews we authors all long to hear about our own books:

“I just couldn’t put it down!”
“I have to know what happens next.”
“Kept my attention to the last page.”
“A book I would definitely read again.”
“Holy Moly! Read this book now!”

You may be thinking that writing a page-turner applies only to specific genres like thrillers, action-adventure, or horror. If you think that you could never write one because you write romance novels, kidlit, or even non-fiction, think again.

Page-turners transcend genre and target audiences.

The Da Vinci Code, an action-packed suspense/mystery, is definitely a page-turner. But so are Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen, a non-fiction narrative about the history of the 1898 World’s Fair and America’s first serial killer; The Hunger Games, a young adult dystopian about kids who kill each other in an arena; Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a contemporary middle grade novel about a boy with a facial deformity; The Help, a historical novel about the racial tensions of 1960s south; and If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, a picture book about a very demanding little mouse. In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of book you are writing or who you are writing it for, you CAN write a real page-turner.

(Here's more on pacing your novel)

Not every book has to be a page-turner, of course. There are plenty of wonderful, slow-burning books out there, and many readers enjoy the kind of tomes they can snuggle up with in front of a cozy fire, or pace their read over several weeks or months. If that’s the sort of book you want to write, then read no further. But if you want your readers to gnaw at their fingernails late into the night because they can’t wait to find out what happens next, then this series of posts is for you.

I’ll be sharing my tips on how to turn your book into a real page-turner. To begin with, the two most important elements your book should have are:
  • Compelling Writing
  • Clean Writing

A compelling piece of fiction or non-fiction means that the narrative has a fluid feel to it that pulls the reader along, like a raft floating down a river. One sentence naturally leads to the next, and so forth. What makes one book so gripping and another dull? It’s hard to nail down, especially when readers’ tastes and writers’ styles vary so greatly. It may be easier to explain what compelling writing isn’t than what it is. 

(Here's more on understanding and controlling your pace)

Think, for example, of a book you may have opened with good intentions, but somewhere along the line you lost interest and set it aside for good. Why? Maybe the characters were two-dimensional or cliché. Maybe the plot was too simplistic. But more likely, it was the writing.

So, how do you make sure your writing remains fresh and engaging? To begin with, look for these four lead weights bogging down your story and eliminate them:
  • Awkward wording (syntax) – the written word should flow as smoothly as a spoken conversation
  • Excessive adverbs – delete all but those your story can’t live without
  • Lackluster verbs and adjectives – your thesaurus is your best friend, but don’t go overboard
  • Unnecessary detail – give readers just enough to spark their imaginations but not so much that they lose track of the story

Genre, pacing, and voice will naturally differ from author to author. Some books will have short chapters, others long. Some will be written in first person, others in third. There is no specific kind of book that is guaranteed to hook readers. What is important is that you write your story, whatever that entails, but once it’s written, it’s essential that you take your manuscript through an intense revision process to make sure it isn’t drowning in humdrum writing.

(Here's more on fixing your pacing problems)

What Do I Mean by Clean Writing?

I’m not talking about making your book ‘G-rated’. Rather, a clean manuscript means it is free of typographical errors: spelling, grammar, missing words, capitalization, punctuation, etc. Far too many otherwise good manuscripts end up in agents’ recycle bins because the authors skimped on the proofreading process.

The most common problems I see are:
  • Homophones – words that are spelled the same but have different meanings (ie. two, too, to)
  • Commas – master the rule of comma usage, and your editor will love you
  • Hyphens, en dashes & em dashes – Each has its own purpose
  • Tense – past or present, be consistent

If you think you’re a good proofreader, think again. I am a college English instructor and a professional book editor. I have been editing other people’s work for many years, but I never rely on my skills to proofread my own books. I always hire a professional. Why? Because by the time my book is ready to be proofed, I have read the manuscript dozens of times. I’m too close to it. I simply cannot see the mistakes anymore.

Our brains have the uncanny ability to fill in the blanks, so to speak. When we read something with which we are familiar, our brains know what the words should say and what the sentences should look like, even when they don’t. Our brains actually “fix” the problems, and we are not even aware of it.

Whenever I reach the point where I feel like my book is finished, I print it out on paper and read the entire book out loud – with a pen in my hand. As I read, I make revisions in the text. I’m listening to make sure each sentence reads smoothly, that the dialogue sounds natural, and that there are no spots that would trip up a reader.

Another technique is to have someone else read the text to you. However, you might be hard-pressed to find someone willing to do this. So, an alternative is to record you reading the book and then play the recording back to yourself.

So, step one to creating a dazzling page-turner is to make sure your writing is compelling and clean. My next post (in May) will be “5 Sure-fire Fun-Suckers” (say that ten times fast), the most important things you should avoid while writing your book.

About The Storytellers

12-year-old Elena Barrios' father has AIDS, a new disease in 1991 with a 100% fatality rate. Rather than face certain ridicule and ostracism, Elena tells her friends anything but the truth, fabricating stories about her father being a writer and researcher. But the reality is that Elena resents her father’s illness and can’t face the fact that he is dying. When she is befriended by a woman named Ang who tells stories about her own father, Elena is transported into these stories, allowing her to experience them first hand. With Ang's help, Elena gains the courage to stand up to the bully at her school, mend her relationship with her father, and finally say goodbye.

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