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.

Seasons in the sun

Leaves on the cherry tree changing colour

Leaves on the cherry tree changing colour

Over the last couple of days the wind has shifted direction and the weather has altered.

Now instead of a breath from the Sahara that actually brings sand with it, we have pure air blowing from the Alps.

It may well mark the end of our wonderful Italian summer, although we’ll probably have an Indian summer.

For some, the change brings unwelcome reminiscences of the end of the summer holidays.

For me it has a challenging feel, as if my soul were being cleansed and hollowed out – similar to when I hear church bells.

It’s what I call a ‘wolfish’ sensation – a pleasurable thrill of fear.

Ideally anything I was writing would have reached this time of year in its plot because I so enjoy directly incorporating observations and details.

However I’m revising a novel at the moment so I’m out of step almost all the time.

Something out of nothing

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Don’t bother me unless it’s good news

If you tried to push a deal on someone whereby they got money for doing precisely nothing, they’d (quite rightly) be very suspicious. Why then, why, do writers think that it is acceptable to create a mystery around a non-event?

Let me explain using two particularly popular examples.

We’ve got a ‘whodunnit’ style of story (this could be anything where one of the main protagonists is being sought out by the other characters), and the author needs to describe the ‘Mystery Guy’ (MG henceforth) doing whatever MG does. In order to preserve the secret of MG’s identity, the author writes in the First Person (as MG) without mentioning anything identifying about themselves. Analyse this and it becomes very silly as it seemingly presumes MG doesn’t know who he or she is. Unless they have amnesia, that’s not a likely eventuality.

The answer is to either describe MG’s actions through ‘discovery’ by the other characters or to attach a name to MG in the same way as newspapers love to label serial killers or bank robbers. If it works for them, it can work for you.

The other popular application for ‘something out of nothing’ is in the writing of a twist-in-the-tail story (some people use ‘tale’, I realise). The ‘twist’ frequently turns out to be an ultimately trite ‘If only I’d known’ type of solution. Again, analysing the story only leads to dissatisfaction with the author as the twist is really not a twist, just a case of the author playing games with their readers by choosing not to reveal a blatantly obvious fact until right at the end.

These are just two of the aspects I look at when assessing the plot and story quality of a submission.

Tone and flavour

Autumn roses 1Tone and flavour are two words which don’t seem to belong to the world of writing. The first could have been taken equally from the worlds of music or painting, and the second is definitely culinary.

They are, however, very important concepts in writing; in fact they’re sometimes so important that like the ‘elephant in the room’ they’re too big to be seen properly.

Strangely enough, tone and flavour are very close in meaning; in fact one could almost consider them to be synonymous. They stand for the bias in the book’s choice of setting, plot, characters and language which, as a whole, elicits a reaction in the reader, whether it be one of sympathy and attraction, or one of repulsion.

Let me take 2 examples. One novel is set in the back streets of London. The only weather ever described is rain, and the whole environment is bleak and ugly. The characters are miserable and depressed, they don’t enjoy their jobs, and they have unsatisfactory relationships. When they go to a café, the food is unappetising, the cutlery is greasy, and the service is grumpy.

The second novel takes place in a jungle. The author is at great pains to describe the heat, the humidity, the smell of the damp vegetation and of the various types of flowers and fruits. The rain patters on the leaves. Everything is in abundance, even in excess. The characters are full of life and sexual fervour. Their bodies are smooth and tanned. They eat fruit and edible shoots. They are improvident and happy-go-lucky.

Obviously these 2 books represent extremes. But they are each unified in their representation of reality and they will each evoke a response in the reader. The first novel may come over as boring, samey, depressing or, conversely, as realistic, gritty, grass-roots. The second novel may be seen as oppressive, over-exuberant, alien, or alternatively colourful, exotic, dreamy.

Some readers, if questioned, might pick on one aspect of the book as having elicited their response – setting, plot, outcome, for example – but others are likely to be less articulate and say they just ‘liked it’ or ‘didn’t like it’. In many instances they will have been affected by the book’s tone or flavour.

Authors who are wise to this audience reaction may deliberately create a tone or a flavour by means of introducing more restricted but repeated devices such as smells or perfumes (diesel oil, roses), or sounds ( water, traffic). They may stylise the dialogue or the descriptions.

Naturally, some authors aren’t conscious of introducing tone or flavour to their books. Perhaps, in some cases, it goes naturally with the subject matter, or issues from the writers own innate character. But it pays to be aware of the possibilities.