How to Engage Your Reader: Guaranteed!

Karen Ball has been blessed to use her love of words and
story during over 30 years in publishing. Karen built  and led successful
fiction lines for Tyndale, Multnomah, Zondervan, and, most recently, the
B&H Publishing Group. As a literary agent at The Steve LaubeAgency, she’s had the honor of discovering several best-selling
novelists, including Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, Sharon Ewell Foster, Liz
Curtis Higgs, and, most recently, Ginny Yttrup, whose debut novel Publisher’s
Weekly declared “a masterpiece!” Karen has also worked with numerous
top authors, including Angela Hunt, Robin Jones Gunn, Robin Lee Hatcher,
Brandilyn Collins, and many others. In addition, Karen is a best-selling,
award-winning novelist and a popular speaker. She lives in Oregon with her
husband, father, and two four-legged, furry “kids.”

* * *
I have been a fiction fan for a lot of years—basically, as long
as I’ve been reading. But lately, the books I’m drawn to are more memoirs and
what I’d call creative nonfiction. Nonfiction message in a creative, unexpected
format. As I’ve read these books, I’ve been asking myself why I’m drawn to
them. No, more than that… Why I’m drawn into them.
Lately I picked up another memoir, whose title shall remain
nameless, and opened the cover, expecting the same rush of anticipation, the
sense of being transported inside someone else’s life and mind and skin.
It didn’t happen.
Oh, I stuck with the book for about 35 pages, but life is just
too short to stick with a book that doesn’t speak to you. So I closed the cover
and tossed the book into my “At-least-I-can-give-it-to-charity-and-claim-a-deduction”
bag. And I started to wonder. What made the difference? Why was I left cold by
that book?
The answer was actually pretty simple: The author wasn’t sharing
his (which I’m using here just to avoid the dreaded his/her or painfully
incorrect thus utterly unusable their, but I’m not saying the author of
this book was, in reality, a him-person) story. He was, in fact, reporting it.
From a distance.
I wasn’t engaged because the author wasn’t engaged. He
wasn’t in the story. No, I don’t mean his name wasn’t in it. It was. But
there was no sense of him, or of any of the people he mentioned, or of the
place… He wasn’t close enough, so I didn’t care. He talked about
people, but didn’t show them to me. He mentioned events, but there was no sense
of how those events affected his heart or mind or soul. He just gave the
information, as though that was sufficient and the reader would be transformed
by it.
But having a strong message is only one part of the equation.
Connecting with your readers is as much about HOW you share the message as
anything else. In fact, I believe it’s the most important element of writing a
book that will astonish, entertain, enlighten, and change readers.  All
writers, fiction or nonfiction, need to be storytellers. We need to get into
the heart and grit and emotion of what we’re writing, sharing our stories in
such a way that the reader sees, feels, smells it, hears, and tastes it.
“But my message is hard,” you say. “And those experiences that
taught me about it were even harder. The things I saw, the things I did…I don’t
want to go through them again.”
Well then, don’t write a book about them. Because if you’re not
pouring yourself, heart and soul, into what you’re writing…if you’re not
willing to, as they say, cut a vein and bleed on the page…if you’re afraid to
dig into the dark places as well as savor the light…then friend, don’t write a
book. Give a report. Share an account. Make a chart. Pin it, Tweet it,
Instagram it. But don’t, for the love of Poughkeepsie, write a book. Because
what’s the point if it’s not going to change you as well as your readers?
Years ago I wrote a novel based on the struggles my husband and
I had experienced in our marriage. When I was ready to write, Don and I were in
a good place. We’d been through years of counseling and were becoming friends
as well as spouses. As I contemplated writing the novel, I admit I was afraid.
God had brought us through so much. We’d had some terrible times. Dark times.
Angry, spiteful, bitter times. It was only God’s work in our hearts that saved
our marriage. And frankly, I didn’t want to go through all that again. What if
it made me mad at Don again? What if it set us back? I took those fears to God,
and He did two things. Reminded me that I really wanted to encourage people
struggling in their marriages, to speak truth to them in the face of all the
non-truth the world spouts. And then He gave me the idea to put together some
picture frames with pictures I loved of Don.
You know what? When I dug into the writing, it was hard. And
yes, I felt a lot of those emotions again. But every time I did I looked at
those pictures, and what I saw wasn’t the bad times, it was the miracle of
redemption and restoration. And when I finished the book, I was more in love with
Don than ever. That novel, The Breaking
, debuted on the bestseller list. I’ve received
letter after letter from men and women thanking me for being willing to write
such an authentic story, letting them know they weren’t alone and that God
could heal what seemed irrevocably broken.
So that’s my challenge for you, writers. Especially for you
wonderful folks crafting nonfiction. Get closer. Dig deep. Open up. Let it pour
out of you, splashing on the page in all it’s glorious messiness and reality. Feel
as you write. Be invested. Be in your words.
Then let me know when your book is done. Because that’s a
book I want to read.