My core belief is that everyone should enjoy reading. At the beginning of my career I would have said kids who don’t like reading either a) have a difficulty/disability with reading or b) haven’t found the right book. A difficulty could be as simple as having English as a second language or as complicated as any of the various learning challenges, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder etc.
In today’s reality I would probably add a c) they may have too many distractions to develop the love and fluency for reading.
Still the core of writing a “reluctant reader” as they can be called or hi/low (high action, low vocabulary) remains the same. Right from the opening sentence the writing must grip and compel the reader to keep going.
Well, now how does that differ from writing any other book?
If you’re writing for a lower attention span, beginning with description may not work; description is often what a less able reader will skip over to get to what’s happening in the story. (Although I have a couple of writer friends, Rachael Preston and Jennifer Maruno who write incredible description that sets a scene and creates drama) I personally like starting with dialogue because who doesn’t like eavesdropping on a stranger with a strong problem.
Dialogue does jump the reader into the middle of something and with reluctant readers a straight linear plot can be key. No flash backs or even too much back-pedalling to explain said dialogue. So the talking and the action must compliment each other and tell the story together in a very clear forward moving fashion. My upcoming YA novel Best Friends Through Eternity will compel my audience but there are some complex time switches that could confuse a weaker reader.
When I write a reluctant reader, it’s in partnership with a publisher who has strong structural guidelines and I will confer on topics first. Hi/low books are shorter, as are their chapters. I would aim for a uniform word count in the chapters where possible and stronger end hooks than I might in a regular novel. Once my reluctant reader puts the book down for a rest, I need to be able to pull him back to my work. I have no magic formula for syllable count or sentence length but I myself suffer from “clause-trophobia”–whichi is an aversion to sentences that have so many modifying clauses they force you to re-read them several times to figure out the main subject and action and therefor the true meaning.
The publisher may run a readability check on the work. In Survival, my recent plane crash story, a major medical drama occurs with words like intravenous, tracheotomy, epidural layer, artificial resuscitation and I worked with a medical doctor as well as the publisher to come up with the best way to simplify procedures and cut down on multi-syllabic words.
Survival also includes very real looking black and white drawings–Greg Ruhl did a fabulous job–which will give my reader a visual break. By the way, a dialogue driven story as mine often are, provides the reader with much more white space on the page, another visual break. The pace becomes quicker. The reader will feel more successful.
An interesting fact about Survival is that I pitched it as a regular read to my Norwegian publisher. What needed to change to secure the deal was more of an maturity of topic issue rather than word or syllable count, a simpler shorter plot can be easier to translate after all. The Norwegians want stories for 10 year olds rather than the 14+ that HIP asked for this time. Less on-page graphic medical detail (blood squirting on to the snow for example), a happier outcome, (spoiler alert, no death) and I added an emotional subplot geared at the female readership the Girl-It bookclub targets.
So really I don’t struggle to write differently for reluctant readers. First and foremost I write the best story I can and then I think about how it should differ depending on the target audience. Mostly the target audience is me. I have to like the book I work on because I will be with it a long time.
Now what about all those distractions our readers face? I’m going to have to turn that problem back to parents and educators to tackle.