5 January 2019

Don't Mess With The Reader: 1 Openings

Oh, Horror! And for all the wrong reasons.
The turn of any year sees me catching up on my reading. Usually I am deep into researching a new project, therefore the content tends to be factual. This year, however, I’ve been reading fiction. Against expectations, this has led to an unreasonable amount of eye-rolling and a fair bit of muttering beneath my breath.

Has my reading been indie fiction? Normally it's my biggest percentage, but this bunch was a mix of mainstream, small press, and indie, and it was the mainstream which made me stare. Were these novels signed off while the editors were on sick leave?

The point, of course, is that the problems I shall focus on in the coming weeks should never have made it as far as a publisher’s editor; they should have been picked up by the agent lauded in the Acknowledgements, better still the author’s beta reader/s before it reached the agent’s desk.

The bottom line is that these problems should have been noticed by the author during the writing, and corrected. It is the author’s name on the cover; it is the author’s responsibility.

To kick off, let’s start at the very beginning, with openings.

The normal system of choosing a novel by a writer unknown to the reader is:
– to be enticed by the cover
– to be intrigued by the back blurb on a paperback or the product description on an ebook
– to decide if the conveying of the fiction suits, to read a few pages

It’s those few pages which make or break a sale. The decision isn’t so much dependent on price, as on the amount of time to be invested reading and whether the reading experience is going to be worth it.

An opening has to achieve four main aims, and near enough in this order:
– set the time
– set the place
– introduce the lead character
– indicate a problem pertinent to the lead character

The first two are about releasing readers from their normal reality and re-anchoring them in the fictional reality. Usually the cover image, and nearly always the blurb, have already pointed the way. How often have you seen an SF novel with a spaceship and planets on the cover? A Historical with people wearing period clothing and using horses for transport?

The lead character might be introduced alone or in a group, in an ambience of calm or of threat, but the writing has to mark him/her/it as the lead. Often this is by making the lead the point of view character, meaning readers are party to the lead’s internal thoughts and no one else’s. 

Make it easy. The reader is settling in to a new reality, picking up from the words used and the structure of the sentences the tone of the story, the atmosphere of the scene, whether the conveyance of the entire novel is going to be told to them and from what distance or shown so as to become an immersive experience. An occasional mismatch can be glossed over later in the book, but not during the opening when the reader can unintentionally be sent in a wrong direction.

So when I read that the named character looks out of a window and sees a car in a street I expect that character to be in my time looking at a modern vehicle in a modern street. Why? Because I’ve not been advised otherwise and it’s what I’m expecting from the cover image. My anchors are in place and I’m investing emotionally in the story. I do not expect to be cast adrift twelve pages later when I find that the time is the 1950s, and the character a mid-teen and not the adult I’d envisaged from the language used. It made me re-scan the opening to find where I’d miss-stepped. When I realised I hadn’t…

Novels have been dumped for less.  As it was, I wished I had dumped it. Certainly, I’ll not be reading another by the author. Make sure that author isn’t you.
Next time: 2 - A Sense of Place

Starting out? Reading A Writer’s Mind… covers everything from plot elements to the use of alliteration, rhythm and subliminal detailing. Paperback or ebook. Gain an insider’s view:

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  1. A useful and informative piece and a warning for all authors. Thabk you, Linda.