Why no one is reading your work

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I was terrified. I was ecstatic. Sending my novel – my brainchild – out into the world for the first time. By “the world” I mean, to a few of my closest friends. My brother and best friend finished within a week. Probably due in part to a feeling of obligation. “It’s great!” they said, “Wouldn’t change a thing.”

Months went by. I checked in with my other best friend, who hadn’t gotten past chapter seven. “I’ve been busy,” she said. “That’s fine,” I said lightly, but felt hurt.

Years later, she (and the few others I sent that draft to) still haven’t finished reading it.

Oh, I was hurt for awhile. Angry. I distinctly remember telling some of them off in a forum message about eight months after that draft went out.

See, I had poured my soul out into that book. My soul. And my soul wasn’t interesting enough to even tempt the attention of my closest friends? I told myself the writing wasn’t the problem – after all, no one could tell me a thing that needed changing, aside from a typo or two. No, my friends just didn’t understand how important this was to me.

Awhile later, I realized chapter seven was possibly the worst combination of English words ever typed on paper, and I began a complete overhaul of the novel (one of countless overhauls). It occurred to me that the people close to me are naturally going to look at my book differently from one they’d pick up at Barnes & Noble – they’re not going to notice much wrong with it, specifically. But if they can’t finish it – that’s a sign it ain’t too good.

I started to realize that the problem was the writing, not my friends.

But I didn’t fully realize what that meant until a few years later, after I had been in marketing for awhile. You see, if an advertisement doesn’t get any attention, nobody blames the audience. It’s not a shortcoming of the product advertised, either – it’s a shortcoming of whoever created the ad.

If people aren’t reading your stuff, it’s not because your soul is boring.

It’s because your writing is boring.

There, I said it. Don’t get offended; I’m in the same boat.

It doesn’t mean we have to get depressed and self-deprecating. It just means we have to get better.

See, I discovered something copywriters use, that few aspiring novelist even think about.

Strategy.

An example: What do most novelists think about? Grammar. Punctuation. Plot. Character development. Poetic descriptions.

Copywriters, on the other hand, are asking: Who is the target audience? What part of my message will resonate with them on the deepest emotional level? What’s the quickest way I can convey that message? How can I grab their attention and keep their attention? How can I make them feel a certain way? How can I make them take action?

Funny how a lot of those questions could be applied to a novel, huh?

Oh, we’re told a lot of the same things copywriters are told. Show, don’t tell. Create relatable characters. Keep the action moving. But if you’re like me – if you’re experiencing the same kind of thing I described at the beginning of this post – you’re just not getting it. Not really.

So I propose this: we step back and look at our work from a different perspective. From a marketing perspective. In the next few weeks, I’ll share some of the things I’ve learned, some of the things I’m implementing in my own novel right now – all while digging deeper into how basic marketing principles can be applied to fiction. We’ll learn together.

You see, I want to write a novel that no one can put down.

Who’s with me?

UPDATE: READ THE WHOLE SERIES

Attention

Interest

Desire

Action

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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34 Comments

  1. Kenneth Jacob Johnson

    I think it is as simple as the reader needs to be able to suspend disbelief. If they can’t they wont finish or at least wont want to. Thanks for the read, I enjoyed it.

    • That’s definitely a big part of it – unfortunately it’s usually up to the writer to HELP the reader suspend disbelief. Thanks for reading – and thanks for pointing that out!

  2. The first manuscript I wrote last year I sent to a close friend whose writing I respect. She started it and then put it down to write her own stuff. I’m still hurt over it a little because it felt like she didn’t care. When I sat down to write the second I realized the first was so outrageous that it’s almost cringe worthy. My other friends told me he liked it, but I realized that it first needs heavy edits. I can’t say I’m not still at little hurt, but I understand why she put it down.

    So, because this post hit me in a place close to my heart, I’ll probably be looking out for said tips. :)

    • That’s tough. I know – even friends who write can’t (often) be counted on for an opinion, and that hurts. I can’t even really trust myself to offer feedback to a friend, because I know I’m starting out biased. It’s a rare person who will commit to reading the whole thing AND who can give a straight up, honest, harsh critique. Most of us just have to kind of feel their way in the dark. *sigh*

  3. I’ve often worried about having people I care about read my material for feedback. Can I really expect mom to say anything other than she loved it? No I can’t. I’m thinking maybe I should have some people who are more acquaintances than family or friends read my book first. They are less likely to lie because they love me and if they remain silent then I will have that as a review as well

  4. Great way to face the truth. I haven’t been brave enough to share a rough draft of my book yet. I’ll remember that if they don’t get around to finishing it, that it needs an overhaul.

  5. First draft is written for the writer. Second draft and subsequent drafts are written for the audience. Great post.

  6. I think we expect alot from our friends, better to test it out on someone you dont know as well. Most friends dont want to tell you your story’s not interesting.
    Thankyou for sharing these comments. Makes me feel normal. I feel my husband likes my work because he is married to me rather than in its own right.

    I would lik to paint what I see in my mind with words. Maybe one day I will, maybe its a dream. I wont know unless I try.. but now I have a thesaurus, anything is possible…

  7. Meredith Rose Ashe

    This is great advice, particularly for me at this time as I’m about ready to start finding beta-readers for feedback. I’ve reminded myself countless times that any advice I get back is not mean or depreciating. In fact, it will only make my work stronger. Yet, I’m scared silly! I’ve spent most of my life writing and these works are the fruits of those long, labor-intensive years.

    I love the questions that you’ve posed from the copyeditor’s prospective. I am going to keep them. Look at them as I go through my rewrites, joining the advice my dream agent writes in The Breakaway Novel (D. Maass, in other words…he’s fabulous). Thanks for the great insight.

    • Another thing I heard someone say about critiques – and I can’t remember who it was (but probably some lit agent), and I can’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like: if someone tells you something specific that’s wrong with your work, they are usually wrong, but if they say “this passage just isn’t working for me,” they’re usually right.

      That sounded like sound advice to me. Something to keep in mind for your beta readers. : /

      Donald Maass – I know (of) him. I think I might have queried someone from his agency. Haven’t read his book, but I’ve heard good things about it.

  8. Pingback: My Manuscript Is Terrible! « Honesty

  9. Great post–editing should be a compulsory act for writers. Many people think that their first (or second) draft is sufficient. Many people also believe that they are great writers. At the expense of sounding harsh, I will adamantly say that a person who believes these two things about himself is almost always wrong counts.

    I’m not saying that this hypothetical individual can’t be an excellent writer (that would be unnecessarily mean). But this person would find himself flailing to obtain a strong audience who consistently enjoys his work should he decide to start producing long-form content.

    Most professional writers will tell you that, as you learn to become a better writer, you don’t write more efficiently: you write more slowly. Excellent writing is almost always the product of criticism and revision. There are no short-cuts, and no exceptions.

  10. Occasionally, the content of an article, post or story is engaging enough to pull a reader through a story. But it’s very important to differentiate between excellent writing and interesting content. Coupled, both have the potential to affect audiences tremendously. But if a writer’s work isn’t exceptional, the content may or may not be enough to pull readers through its language for whatever end-goal the author desires.

    On another note, your commentary on reader engagement raises an interesting question about contemporary literature: who are we writing for, and what constitutes a great novel? Some of the “best” novels of the 20th century were not the most accessible. They were brilliantly written, but their writing was aimed at a “writerly audience”–those who really want to engage in a struggle with an author’s challenging implementation of literary devices and techniques. Faulkner and Pynchon are two examples–their stories are still read today. By contrast, many novels that attract larger audiences today are written for “readerly audiences” who would prefer to casually flip through pages on the beach or bite into a juicy story than fight to understand challenging and opaque literary themes and subtexts. If you had to choose an audience, which would it be? Interesting to think about…

    • You make two excellent points. We can never please everybody and it would be foolish to try.

      I would never have made it through a Tale of Two Cities had it not already been a classic, and therefore proven through history to be worthy of my time – and it’s brilliant, despite the fact that Dickens is endlessly wordy and seems to chase boring rabbit trails. And there are huge audiences that will simply never have the guts to tackle the authors you’ve mentioned. But I think there are a few basic rules that can be applied to any writing style to make it more attention-grabbing, etc, without resorting to writing thin, sensational, commercial fiction.

  11. Oh man can I relate… this is one of the things I love most about your blog. It hits me right in the gut, hard enough to hurt, but gently enough for the pain to motivate rather than discourage me. It’s good to know I am not alone in these thoughts or experiences… and even better to know that there are people like you in the world, who have a gift for ordering their their struggles with writing into coherent thoughts.
    Bless you for this.

  12. Very good post :). I can relate. My hubby gives me the same flat answer every time he reads my work “it’s good” and it annoys the heck out of me. My mom on the other hand can be critical….sometimes it hurts….esp since she generally doesn’t read my genre anyways…..but after I lick my wounds and calm down usually I see she has alot of wisdom. Then it’s time to edit.

    The hardest time for me was when I spent almost two years writing and then I put my book baby in the grave for about 6 months. When I got over the slump I realized my plot was flawed and the book was just bad. Thankfully I kept the world and the characters….I just had to change the plot a bit…make it simpler. Before I was trying to reinvent the wheel. I’ve gotten alot of help, reading Kristen Lamb’s blog.

    God bless!

    • Out-of-genre critics can have their own advantages – they can help you write a book that will appeal to a wider audience, and suggest useful techniques that may not be used much in your genre yet. It can help you to stand out.

      Glad you could keep the world and characters! It’s funny how things work like that sometimes…

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  14. In the past, I’ve found two challenges. One, finding beta readers who will give you and tough and honest critique. With some, even after giving them reassurance that “I can take it,” I think with friends and family, it’s still a tough job. Second, if anything, I over-edit. I’ve found that letting my manuscript sit for a period of time, at least a month, is the best way not to keep from editing over and over and over while I’m still too close to it.

    Great post, and I’m looking forward to following what you learn on this challenging path.

  15. Pingback: Should you write for yourself, or for other people? « BeKindRewrite

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