Keeping Your Promise to the Reader

Forget-me-notI’m currently in the midst of a fantasy novel I’ve been wanting to read for years, and I have to confess that I have mixed feelings about it. I try to avoid naming and reviewing books I have yet to finish, but I will allow them to inspire a rant or two about how to treat your readers.

In general, I’ve found that the casual reader is a very forgiving person. They want to like your book; once you have convinced them of its entertainment value or academic worth, they tend to go into it with a certain willingness to believe that it’s really very good. However, you need to remember that you only have so much reader goodwill to work with. It might be fifty pages in, or it might be a hundred pages in, but it will happen eventually: that ‘new book smell’ will wear off, and the reader will start expecting you to actually deliver what you promised on the back cover.

“Don’t mess around with your reader’s expectations” sounds much more basic than it is. It requires you to look carefully at your work every so often and ask yourself how you’re delivering what your reader wants. For every section (and what these sections are depends on your story), there needs to be a ‘payout,’ and all of these small ‘payouts’ need to eventually come together to produce the grand prize that drew your readers to the book in the first place.

At my current place in the novel I’m reading, I have found these ‘payouts’ to be few and far between. The language is lovely, the jokes (when they’re made) make me chuckle, and I get the sense that something might actually start to happen if I’m good and patient and stick with it for just another fifty pages. Trust me when you say that you do not want to hear this about your novel – particularly if you’re trying for a commercial success. Your readers are generally kind and patient and willing to believe in your premise; however, if you fail to deliver on that premise, you will eventually lose their interest.