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Writing Techniques that Appeal to the Modern Reader

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Most of us want to write what’s in our hearts and express ourselves with our unique prose without worrying about what anyone else thinks. And we can. . . if we don’t care whether our writing makes it to publication or appeals to readers.

In the last post, we talked about the importance of creating saleable books. If we want publishing houses to take an interest in our books and if we want our words to reach the largest audience possible, then we have to pay attention to what readers want and that may require us to adjust our writing techniques.

Of course no one can predict what readers will want next. All we can do is study what they want now. And of course all writers should strive to have their unique voices, special flare, and push the limits of creativity. We should write with all of the passion inside of us. But we can't ingnore the modern reader because. . .

Ultimately the reader determines what sells, not publishing houses. We often wag our fingers at agents and editors and accuse them of being too picky, of being closed to so many kinds and styles of writing. But in my experience with my agent and in-house editors, they're constantly asking questions like “will the reader like this?” or “what will most readers buy?” They make the readers' desires top priority.

As much as we may resist the idea, maybe we too need to take a closer look at what appeals to readers, particularly modern readers.

If you’re like me, when you read a classic book, you find yourself stopping and saying, “That technique would never work today.” For example, in Chapter One of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott brings the story to a grinding halt when she says, “As young readers like to know `how people look', we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters.”

Alcott goes on to write a LONG paragraph about the appearance and personality of each of the March daughters. Alcott could have eliminated all of the description because later she brings each character to life so uniquely.

What worked for authors one hundred, fifty, or even ten years ago, won’t necessarily appeal to readers today. We don’t hang on to our outdated computers or cell phones, and we can’t cling too tightly to our writing methods either. We have to be willing to change with the times and meet the needs of the modern reader.

So, what are some of the needs of today’s readers? Well, I’m the first to admit, I’d much rather read a 21st century book than a classic. So I simply have to start by asking, what do I like in a book? Here are just a few considerations.

1. Fast pace. Most of us are living incredibly busy lives. We often go from one activity to the next with hardly a chance to breathe. We grow impatient easily, and because we don’t have time to waste, we demand that our entertainment be equally fast-paced.

And how can we make our writing fast-paced? First we can make sure our plot doesn’t drag. But in addition to that, we can stick to shorter sentences, break up our paragraphs, keep the scenes succinct, and ruthlessly eliminate unnecessary description and internal monologue.

2. Action-packed. Not only do we live with a fast-pace, but we’re also a culture that thrives on action, danger, suspense, and high adrenaline rushes. We want adventures and entertainment that take us into the wild and thrilling 3-D.

No matter what genre we write, we have to ask ourselves how we can raise the stakes, increase the conflict, and add more tension. We need to eliminate the static and replace it with action that sweeps the reader into a new dimension.

3. Emotionally charged. In a culture obsessed with reality TV shows, we long to connect with the raw emotions of everyday problems. We have our own unique joys and pains, and somehow getting a glimpse of what others are going through helps us put our own issues into perspective.

In our writing, we need to pour our hearts and souls out onto the paper. We have to bring readers into the reality of our characters lives, give them real problems and vivid emotions to which readers can connect.

In summary, I can’t help but quote James Scott Bell’s The Art of War For Writers. In reference to writing a saleable book he says: "It’s useless to be a creative original unless you can also sell what you create. . .Does this mean not writing what you love? No. But write what you love with eyes wide open.” (p. 10)

Any other needs of modern readers that I missed? Do you think it’s important to write for the modern reader or do you think it’s more important to write the way you want? Is it possible to do both?

This article originally appeared in a guest post I wrote for Author Culture.

61 comments:

  1. I think we NEED to do both. If we don't write the way we want, our writing is going to lack depth and emotion.

    We as writers need to be in love with our writing in order for our readers to fall in love with it too.

    So we definitely need both. We somehow have to find a way of writing that we and our readers can be passionate about.

    I never thought it could be done, until quite recently, actually. But I see now that it can work after giving up being stubborn and rewriting my book in a commercial style. Now I LOVE it even more than I did before.

    It pays to let your guard down.

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  2. I think both are important, because you won't have the passion for what you write if you don't love it.

    BUT, I think Bell's right. You can write what you love, but that doesn't mean it is marketable. I wrote what I love (medieval) knowing full well it was not marketable. But, it was my first, so I knew it would never see the light of day anyway, so I figured it was good to write what I love FIRST. ;)

    Now I just have to find another "love" that is more marketable. lol

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  3. I think authors need to pay attention to the gender of their characters. Especially female authors writing male POV. Sometimes the men in contemporary romances are well, girlie and the women are "Mary Sues"

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  4. In regards to fast-pace. I'm not so sure I agree with "fast-pace" as much as "page-turning", but that just might be a matter of semantics.

    For example - I LOVE literary fiction (I don't write it, but I love it). And fast-paced it is not. Literary fiction has a slow pace to it, but the really GREAT literary novels still make me want to turn pages. The characters grip me.

    I think the key to writing page-turning fiction is to write in scenes (I have a post scheduled for Monday which discusses scenes and what exactly they are and what they aren't).

    Basically, I want the author to bring me into a scene. I want to WATCH the movie, I don't want somebody to tell me about it. Regardless of the movie's pace.

    I don't want to read words on a page. I want an experience.

    If that makes any sense.

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  5. LOL. It's funny, I was cheering when you talked about being fast pace because I am so very, very not a literary book reader. So I think that particular point, like Katie pointed out, differs depending on your reader base.

    For me, I am definately fast-paced, because that's what I like to read. But, when I write, I tend to overlook details in my hurry to get into the plot. SOmetimes that is good... I rarely use too MUCH description, but I also forget to describe a character as much as I should or a setting. I think there is a balance where there can be too little or too much. I tend toward the too little:-)

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  6. I think it makes a difference which genre we're writing in.

    Blog writing is a great example. There are things readers want in a blog post that they would not be looking for in a novel.

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  7. I think you can do both.

    I don't think I agree with the word useless in that sentence you quoted either.
    ~ Wendy

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  8. If we're writing for a career,then yes, I think we need to pay attention to what reader's want and then somehow blend that with what we like to write.
    Great post, as usual. :-)

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  9. I think it's very possible to write something I am passionate about but I that I also think is for today's reader and market. There are definite ideas that I've put aside because I know it's not strong enough. I don't mind slower novels but the character has to be incredibly 3d and believable with some tension built into the story.

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  10. Good post. You're right - what sold 150 years ago wouldn't sell today. That may even be true about what sold ten years ago.

    When I first started writing seriously, I didn't understand about hook, fast pace, show - not tell, and voice. I had much to learn.

    Now I'm a better writer, but creating a salable book is another story. Without feedback to tell me that my manuscript isn't unique, it's difficult to know. I write what interests me, while what will interest teenagers is in the back of my mind.

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  11. When I first wrote, I poured out the stories of my heart. It wasn't that I didn't care what others thought. I was simply uneducated. I hadn't taken time to study craft. I hadn't devoured countless books in order to see why those published stories worked. I hadn't found my Voice.

    I'm over four years into my journey, and I've come to believe that in order to write a marketable book I have to consider what readers want. They want the things you've listed. And, guess what I've learned? I want them too.

    I recently read a book by an author whose earlier stories I'd thoroughly enjoyed, but her latest one didn't work for me. It was slow moving, and I didn't feel an emotional connection to the characters. I felt let down.

    That said, I do think it's important for a writer to put his/her heart into a story because that's what makes it unique. I attempt to do that, but since I want to sell what I write, I keep the reader in mind.

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  12. All the things I've written so far have come from my heart. I can't imagine writing any other way. Having a marketing background, I understand the need to think about the target audience if we're to be successful, but I'm finding I can't think about that too much while I'm writing.
    Karen

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  13. You always have something brilliant and eye-opening to say about selling your book. I love the list you made that touches on what modern readers want. I'm gonna have to print that off and post it on my wall to read again when working on my WIP. Thanks so much.

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  14. The thing that fascinates me, is that we are still reading the books that contain passages "that wouldn't work today." In some regard, these books are timeless--I suppose because they tell such wonderful stories. How do we make sure that what we write is timeless too?

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  15. This is great, Jody. I've never been one to buy into the idea that as writers, we can creat whatever our inner artist feels passion to create, unless, like you said, we have no desire to see our books on shelves. At the end of the day, publication is a business, and if we want to succeed we must combine that artistic passion with a sound knowledge of the industry and what might sell.

    I agree with your assessment of what writers need - page turning, emotionally charged prose. I would add that readers also want a different world from their own to escape into, whether it's a far away setting or a different type of life circumstances to live for 300 or so pages.

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  16. Jody, Great post! You've given writers a great list to ponder. I think a mix of passion, talent, marketability, and hardwork are essential ingredients for anyone traveling the path w/the goal being publication.

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  17. For me, fast-paced, page turner is a must! But often a fast-paced read isn't necessarily a page-turning deep read. I just put down a best-selling author's book because it dragged! And for me as an unpublished author with an agent, it's all about finding the balance between writing what I want and what others want to read. I'm still searching...

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  18. I agree people want page-turners, they want to be emotionally invested.

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  19. Great thoughts! I love that quote at the end. It sums it up nicely.

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  20. I write for myself first, then show it to my critique group and reevaluate the parts they unanimously loathe.

    I think I'm a pretty standard reader for the times, though. Like everybody else, I'm all about immediacy and lots of tension. I like action-packed in a literary sense (not the blockbuster sense). So, I'm crossing my fingers that my taste is current.

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  21. I can't wait to read The Art of War for Writers! Every snipet you provide shines a light of understanding.

    For me reading that is emotionally charged is the biggest key. I want to feel the lives through the pages!

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  22. You are SO right! Some of yesteryear's classics wouldn't stand a chance today because of the pace. I think part of what plays into keeping a story at a good clip is plenty of dialog. I love love love when there's lots of meaningful talk.

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  23. The thing that really draws me into a story and makes it enjoyable is a character I can relate to. It doesn't matter if I'm reading genre or not, I want to connect with the story through the one who's living it.

    I think we, as writers, have to do both. We can't turn a blind eye to the people who will read our book, but we have to do what we love or it won't have meaning for us.

    Great post, Jody!

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  24. I have just bought ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, and look forward to reading every single page!

    Yes, it is important to keep in mind what readers want. A writer who writes the very best book possible, and with an "open eye" to what the market expects will find that many times, the needs of both can be met successfully.

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  25. I just bought The Art of War for Writers, too! I'm reading something else right now, but now I think I might just have to start reading it today.

    Love this post, Jody. Writing is such a solitary, self-involved job that it's easy to forget there are others out there. Writers must be true to themselves and to the story, but they also have to be willing to listen to what the readers want, too.

    As life in general moves so fast with emerging technology and information overload, who knows, maybe in the future readers will want to savor the story and not have it end so quickly. Next year you might be blogging three different points about what readers want!

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  26. I don't need "fast paced" when I'm reading, but I understand that's something today's culture encourages.

    When I'm writing I dive into a story, oblivious to what the market might want. The time for me to consider saleability is before I start. When I get an idea for a story is when I plan how to best present it, what aspect of storytelling such as pace or characterization should be emphasized. I can imagine that consulting with one's agent would be a great help at that point. Without an agent's guidance, however, I'm likely to write the story in a way that reflects the personality of the main character and I realize that may limit its reader appeal. That's a privilege of being unpublished. Once I step into the next realm I expect a lot may change. :)

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  27. I think you can still ultimately write what you love and keep the modern reader in mind. If you don't write what you love, then is it truly worth writing?

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  28. I'm a big believer in white space. I hate really long paragraphs. I also agree with everything else you said.

    I also think that CMOM has a point. As you know you're with a book for a long time so you really have to love it.

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  29. Excellent post... I so agree that we need to look at what today's readers want and try to supply it. That's the only way to have a successful, saleable book because after all, we are writing with an audience in mind and we should make sure that the audience would enjoy our work. You had a great point with Louisa May Alcott! Her books are also extremely preachy and moralistic - it's great to show good values and strong lessons in a book, but she was very in-your-face and lecturing about it sometimes.

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  30. My huband and I were talking about this last night. Novels have to be written more like screenplays now than ever before. Attention spans seem to be shortening and it takes more and more conflict and tension to grab and hold a reader's interest. Authors are competing with ever-increasing options for readers' attention.

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  31. I think it's very important for new or unpublished writers to follow these guidelines. I wonder, though, if a commercially successful writer might be able to break a few sometimes ... done thoughtfully and with intention and craft.

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  32. This is one reason that all writers should be avid readers (particularly of current fiction) because I think then we tend to internalize those elements of modern fiction that make a book compelling and readable. I say this because sometimes I worry about overthinking when writing fiction.

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  33. I agree: both factors are essential to selling books.

    I do the same thing with older movies, thinking "this is too slow" or "there's not enough dialogue here."

    Trends and peoople change. Fast.

    Excellent post, Jody.

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  34. Oh yes! Give the reader what he/she wants and hopefully they'll be back for more. If not, hope fades quickly.

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  35. My agent Natasha hammers these into my skull at every opportunity.

    Right on for capturing the elements that have always made a compelling story. Surely we can each season and spice the "formula" to create delicacies that satisfy our own creative palates!

    Usual wonderful post.
    Patti

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  36. Great post, thanks! I think you can do both. However, if you want to get published, you'll have a better chance if you think about the reader. Love James Scott Bell’s quote!

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  37. I'd like to think that I can write the way I want AND appeal to the modern reader. I'd also like to think that the authors I'm reading wrote the way they wanted, which is part of their appeal. Does that make sense?

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  38. Great post, Jody, and terrific reminders!

    I think Katie also has a point. Pace is crucial, but there's more to it than breakneck plot speed.

    My editor hammered it into my head that conflict is what kept those pages turning: be clear on the problem, and keep the reader wondering, "How on EARTH will they ever resolve this?"

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  39. I always put myself into the situation. "Wow, that could be me".... I think that's why, the Twilight series did so well, Bella was not "special" in any way just average like me. :O)

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  40. I remember watching The Sixth Sense DVD commentary with M Night Shyamalan and one of the other producers. They talked a LOT about some of the decisions they made and every single question came back to what would work for the audience. They made the movie they wanted, and used their creativity and knowledge, etc. But when it came to what to leave in and what to take out, they ultimately thought about their audience and created a movie that their viewers would enjoy.

    Learning that balance is a developed skill and it's one that we can't do on our own.

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  41. I like your list, Jody. All of them are especially true in YA literature, where the readers don't seem to have the attention span of a gnat.

    I think something else that is worth mentioning is authenticity. To a gender (I've read so many male MC's who sound like girls), a race, or to the target audience.

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  42. Hi Jody -

    Like you and the commenters, I'm looking for that right balance.

    It surprises me how many readers will abandon a book if the first paragraph doesn't grab them. I guess in a texting, twittering world, a book is a big commitment.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  43. Another helpful and thought-provoking post, Jody. In addition to what you've listed here, I look for stories that leave me hopeful about being human - even if it's a curl-up mystery.

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  44. This is a great post, and very true. It sticks in my throat to write mostly/completely happy endings, personally, but after nearly a year of American Literature I know readers are quite fond of them... and I am more than I thought ;). It's very true that people like the emotional, action-filled stories... good thing to keep in mind when you're plotting!

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  45. This is very true. Sometimes we risk everything by being too stubborn. That is, we cling to what we want, rather than learning, evolving, and just being a tad more flexible.

    I do believe we can still write what we want..to a point. It kind of depends on what your natural style is.

    Besides, we can always indulge for ourselves. I write heaps of stuff that will never see the light of day simply because I made that choice. I didn't want to be bound by any rules so I went ahead and experimented with my words, indulged with description, tried something whacky...and got it out of my system ;)

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  46. I want to write for the modern reader. Sometimes it's hard because my taste is a different. But I usually go through and "modernize" it all. After all, I want a saleable book!

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  47. oh I really think you mostly need to write for the market -if you want to sell your work.

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  48. Phew! So glad you mentioned at the bottom that this was originally on Author Culture, I thought the deja vu was all in my head for a moment there!

    It's a good post, worth reposting. Thanks!

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  49. You always need to consider your audience, so, yes, we need to write to the modern reader/audience. And, yes, we CAN do it by writing what's in our heart.

    And, I agree with your assessment of Little Women. I said the same thing when I picked it up again a couple years ago. I DID read it as a teen, though, and loved it.

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  50. Great post. To get into the skin of the reader is important, though we write with passion, with what is in our heart/s, the passion has to appeal and strike a chord with an audience.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  51. Hmmm...interesting post. It raises some random thoughts in my mind, both as a writer and as a reader.

    In my graduate school writing classes, we were challenged to find our voice, and write our story, and it will find its market. Meaning that there is a market for every kind of story. What you write may not be defined as a cultural, commercial success, but success can be defined in many ways.

    Say what you will about the classics, but they are classics for a reason.:-) Something about those stories has staying power, and people still enjoy reading them. We're reading the "Little House" books at home right now, and they still have the power to captivate and enthrall. The same is true for books like the Chronicles of Narnia, in which C.S. Lewis does NOT write down to an audience of children who have little or no attention span. Yet today's children still love them.

    Along those same lines, some modern authors have challenged the norm with great literary AND commercial success. We do not read the Harry Potter series, but I do find it interesting that J.K. Rowling offered today's high-tech, past-paced, short-attention-span children a series of books that numbered 700 pages or so each, and children gobbled them up and lined up for more.

    Last random thought...perhaps the power and purpose of a writer is not so much to feed his current culture, but to shape it. Homeschooling leader Gregg Harris once said that he did not want his children to be merely counted among the Reformed...but to stand with the Reformers. I find this an admirable ambition for a writer, as well as a great responsibility.

    ~ Betsy O.

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  52. What a great post! Thanks for summarising all the things we need to remember if we want to write for an audience.

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  53. Oh, I relate! I just attempted Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. At 892 pages, it fit what readers of that time wanted--a long book to read through a long winter. I, however, want something I can finish in a few evenings.

    But I have to say, Mr. Dreiser gave fascinating (if extremely wordy!) character analysis, conflict and motivation for the actions.

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  54. I think I write pretty modern because I read a lot of modern. It's such a quick pace society now. Nobody wants to wait for anything, but I do still love an occasional slow-paced classic. :)

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  55. I think both. Another thing the modern reader (or just me) loves in a story is when the protagonist changes from the beginning to end. If he/she is the same as she was during the first sentence, then it's just not interesting for the reader.

    I also think it's important to write what we want. For example, the whole vampire theme is very popular among young adults these days. Although that's what the "modern reader" enjoys, I'm not going to force myself to write a book about vampires when I have absolutely no interest whatsoever, and I cannot connect to my story personally. How will the readers connect to the story if the author himself can't?

    Thanks for a great post! =)

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  56. That was very good advice for writing a modern book. I love the paragraph about shorter sentences and paragraphs. I do enjoy that type of reading and writing.

    Could I write a modern fiction and still love writing it? I don't think so. That is my problem. I know I am "old." I don't care to read the action focused books. I enjoy characters, setting, and dialog much more. I just feel stuck in this dilema.

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  57. I agreee with the person who said earlier that we need to do both.

    When I read your write-up, the first thing that came to mind was Moby Dick and all of the tips on whaling.

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  58. EASTER GREETINGS FROM THE OLD GEEZER

    I PRAY YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY CELEBRATING RESURRECTION SUNDAY.

    HE IS RISEN!

    GOD BLESS YOU, RON

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  59. What a great list to ponder Jody! I always enjoy lurking on your blog! So much to know!

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  60. I think it makes a difference which genre we're writing in.
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  61. Jody, your post and insights are excellent! Though some of us (me for sure) don't personally enjoy the frantic pace of today's society, our reader audiences should be the main focus of our writing.

    I write equestrian fiction, complete with the heartaches and joys that come with owning and loving horses. I make every effort to see that the reader can identify with that lifestyle, while still moving forward in the plot.

    Thanks for your post, and I enjoyed reading everyone else's comments too.

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