Why? It’s the most important question in writing; the one I hear most during the run-up to a conference. Usually it’s about material going to advance submission readers. “Why can I only submit the first 10 or 15 pages of my manuscript?” I’m asked. “Why not more?”
Fair questions. Warrants an honest answer. The answer is this: Because no matter how good your book may be beginning page 11 or 16, if the previous pages don’t compel me (or anyone else) to turn beyond the cut-off page, who cares? Every agent, every acquisitions editor has plenty other submissions to read that will.
Consequently, it’s not uncommon for writers to try and sneak in an extra page or two beyond a reader’s stated cut-off in effort to ensure s/he (the reader) absolutely knows just how good their book is—if only they’d read just a smidge more to discover it.
But that’s the problem. The commercial writer—that is, the writer who’s writing for publication and monetary gain–understands the intrinsic value of questioning why. We do so daily: Why does this particular story idea warrant a book? Why does this story start where it does and not later? Why does this character do this and not that? Why should anybody even give a shit about the book I’m writing?
Thing is, it’s not about The Why of the Writer. It’s about something bigger.
The Why of the Reader
Rousing readers’ expectations is the aim. Delivering on expectations roused is the game. In fact, it’s the endgame.
I’ve read many books over the past year, mostly novels and narrative nonfiction, acclaimed and not, traditionally published as well as those with which the authors elected a more personal path to publication. What I found was an overwhelming number of them to be shockingly uninspiring. Frankly, as a reader, I simply didn’t care about the vast majority. Didn’t even finish several—and I’m talking even the easy peasy, now-norm 200-pagers flooding e-book markets. Not a big investment of time, true, but time still invested.
Thing is, I don’t care how craftily the plot is constructed. I don’t care how beautiful the prose plays out upon the page, the quality of verisimilitude or precision of historical accuracy. What I want, expect and demand as a reader is a story rife with characters caught up in a combustible situation, with an unpredictable outcome, that I can invest my time in and genuinely give a shit about.
Failing that, the author is wasting my time. Money I can spare. Time? Not so much.
Writers must give a shit about readers because readers do give a shit about what they’ve invested in time to read. Fail to deliver on the expectations of your reader and you fail as a writer.
Too many writers start their stories too early not because they’re writing for the reader but because they’re writing for themselves to discover where their stories start. Recognize that. Lop off all the stuff you were writing for yourself in search of a beginning and start your story just past its start and you’ll likely be golden. (Presuming, of course, you’ve written a story worth telling, told well, blah, blah, blah.)
But back to readers. Or, more important, back to me as a reader. Why do I not care so much? It’s been nagging me hard. Is it that the writer’s not telling a story worthy of a book? Is it that the writing is pedantic? Is it that the “hero” is unsympathetic? Is it that the stakes are never raised high enough to evoke concern of the outcome?
Time and time again; page after page again; book after book again … I just don’t care. I don’t feel.
Because, as a reader, I have expectations. You, the writer, roused them. You did so with the title of your book, the summary pitch of your book, the blurbs selected to qualify the merit of your book, the author’s bio evincing why you were uniquely qualified to write this book and, finally, the explicitly implied assurance that you would indeed place me in the hands of a quality storyteller who understood and respected my needs as a reader of a book. Yet given all that, you didn’t care that I needed to care about … something, someone in your book.
If you don’t enable me to care about something of consequence or someone in a jam pretty damn quick in your book, believe me, I won’t give a hoot how richly woven the tapestry. I’m moving on to the next tent, where maybe I can cozy up with someone who does.