How to Captivate Readers

Small Child Reading


Children’s eyes

See marvels,


Born anew,


In each small


Give me, Lord,

A child’s view.

©Janalyn Voigt

The cup of tea at your elbow grows cold.The dryer buzzes, but you hardly notice. The clock ticks past the time to make dinner, but you turn the page and read on, captured by the author’s creative world.

When they can make readers forget they’re reading, books rank high on purchase lists. Figuring out how this happens is well worth the effort. Can such a thing be identified? Bringing the reader so fully into a story would seem to take an elusive blend of mastery and pixie dust. Besides, don’t readers’ preferences dictate which books will draw them in?

I would have agreed to this idea a week ago, but not any longer. You see, the book I’m currently reading for a literary contest is a young adult story. With my teen years forever behind me, I am not a target reader for this book. In fact, when I first picked it up, I groaned inwardly. While being required as a literary judge to read a slew of books might seem an envious pursuit, the bare truth is that sometimes I wind up stuck with a book I’d otherwise never open. It would be arrogant of me to judge another author’s writing without actually reading it, and so in a fit of fortitude I slog doggedly onward until the merciful end.

If that had been the case with this particular book, I wouldn’t be writing this post. It wasn’t. I did have to push past a slow start, but then the story enveloped me like a warm shawl on a chilly evening. I read late into the night, turning pages in a way that would have gratified the author. As I mentioned, I am not this author’s target audience, so I may never crack one of her books, but the next day I found her Goodreads page and became a fan. Why? Because her writing transported me in a way few books have. And I read a lot of books. If my experience is anything to go by, preference has little to do with captivating a reader.

What does, then? I asked myself this question with an interest not in the least academic. I want to apply this writer’s secret sauce to my own writing. I read the rest of the book with that goal in mind. What I discovered rocked me to the core.

Apart from the necessities of craft and mastery, two distinct factors elevated the story: a unique writing voice empowered by a vivid imagination. The author’s strong sense of self expressed without reserve resonated within her fully imagined story.

In these days of rapid writing, let’s not forget to add art to craft. The demands on you to produce and promote can steal the soul from your writing, if you let it. Feeding your inner artist is the only way to tap the wellspring of creative life within and produce enduring works. That will look different for each of us, but one thing remains true for all. The way forward is backward. At least mentally, let yourself step backward into childhood and discover the world with fresh eyes.

What books have you read lately that have surprised you? Transported you back to your childhood?

18 Replies to “How to Captivate Readers”

  1. I was surprised by Julie Cantrell’s “Into the Free”. It didn’t remind me of my childhood, but that of my father. It took me back to stories told on my grandmother’s knee, to the old log house that still stands down the old dirt road, across the creek, where electricity lines don’t dare to snake.

    1. What beautiful memories you have, Melissa. How wonderful that a novel could return you to them.

  2. Janalyn, What you say is quite right in all respects. If a work of fiction doesn’t take you away into the story then maybe it has failed? I am reading on my kindle right now a book about reading and the qualities of the great writers. It’s called ‘Through The Magic Door’ written by a master, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I recommend it highly.

  3. Thank you for your thoughts … I attended the Clarksville Writers’ Conference in the last few weeks. I was struck by the weaving in-and-out among each other of poetry, songwriting, and fiction-writing. Each one can contribute beauty to the other. Now I have added ‘read more poetry and song lyrics’ to my long list of to-do’s as a writer!

  4. Good post. Thanks! I have found the same thing. There are several genres I don’t care for, in general, and yet, I am often surprised and sucked in when I’m forced to pick up a book in one of those genres. Any genre can grab me if the writer has voice and imagination.

    1. So true, Sally. It’s well known that a good writer can write anything, so success is not really about genre choice. That should be liberating to those of us who write in currently less popular genres. Good writing does stand out.

  5. Thank you, Janalyn, for your poem and post. Your poem reminded me of a line I wrote after my third child was born: “Jay Daniel Logan~A wide-eyed wonder with wonder in his eyes.”

    Some years back I reread one of my favorite childhood books, “Summer of Little Rain” by Aileen Fisher. It’s a tale about beaver and deer families, struggling to survive the challenges of a dry summer. This wonderful tale fueled my interest in the natural world.

  6. What distinguishes a “young adult book?” Is it the vocabulary level? The “interest” level? What? I dealt with this issue once when I was paid to write a novella for young adults who had reached college with a third grade reading level. [I’ll pause here a moment and let you get past the shock of that statement. Okay, here’s one even worse. A college professor told me he had post graduate students who were similarly handicapped. More pause…] But, I digress. It seems that third grade reading level books exacerbated the problem. Ultimately, I had to write a story with young adults doing young adult-like things, but speaking and acting within the confines of a 1,200 word vocabulary. I think I’ll stop there and let you imagine that for a day or two.

    1. Thanks for providing your perspective, Jack. Young adults who reach college level without reading well, unless they suffer from learning disabilities, have probably never been exposed to books such as I describe.

  7. Thank you, Janalyn, for the encouragement I received from reading your post. It was exactly what I needed to hear. I also love to write about nature woven in with childhood memories of growing up on the very rural Delmarva peninsula during the 60’s. My writing style is lyrical and literary. I was once told, “We’re writing for the ADD generation now. People aren’t interested in and don’t have time for long descriptions of the scenery.” That was disheartening because that is how I write, so that the reader is transported back in time as they hear, see, and smell their surroundings. That’s my voice. It’s what my heart speaks. Perhaps the greatest compliment on my manuscript, “The Trees Will Clap” came in the form of an agent’s rejection, when she said it brought back a treasured childhood memory which she shared with me. I could only have been more delighted if her letter had been an acceptance. Thank you so much for the encouragement to stay true to my own unique voice.

    1. Bonnie,

      Thanks for letting me know how my post touched you. Like you, I love writing descriptions. Through edits for DawnSinger, my upcoming epic fantasy release, I’ve learned some things about use of description which I’ll share in a later post.

  8. Janalyn, this is a wonderful post, and you’ve gotten to the heart of good writing. Blessings on your upcoming book release and may you touch readers in all the most magical ways!

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