A Creative Covenant: The Writer and the Reader, part II

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Today, I continue my series of posts on the relationship between writer and reader.  I don’t intend any of this to be prescriptive — in other words, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write his or her books, and I’m certainly not telling anyone how to read a book, or more specifically, my books.  But I do believe that in my role as writer I have certain responsibilities to my readers.  Readers who pick up one of my books should expect certain things of me, things I ought to be doing to make my stories satisfying and enjoyable to read.  At the same time, I believe that when I pick up someone else’s book to read, I also assume certain responsibilities.  Fiction is not a one way street.  A reader does not simply receive a story passively from an author.  Rather, writing and reading are two sides of an interactive — some might even say collaborative — process.  I will elaborate on this relationship further next week, but for now, let me talk about what I call “The Creative Covenant.”

So what do I feel that I owe my readers?  Really, most of the items on this list fall under the heading of commonsense rudiments of good storytelling.  For instance:

1.  My readers have every right to expect that my worldbuilding, including my magic system, will establish and maintain certain rules that I will not break later in the series in order to facilitate a plot point.  If I have a magic system that requires water to make a spell work, and my character winds up at the end of the book battling the bad guys in the desert, she can’t suddenly learn that sand works as well as water.  In my opinion, that’s cheating.  Now, if she can draw her own blood and use the water content in her blood, I’m fine with that.  If she manages to find a cactus and gets water from that, more power to her.   But I can’t suddenly change the rules because my plot demands it.

2.  My readers also have every right to expect that I will do my homework when it comes to research.  For example, if I portray my world’s horses as being basically just like earth’s horses, then I had better learn how horses behave and what they are capable of doing.  My horses shouldn’t look and act just like earth horses, but then carry my lead character two hundred miles in a single day or go without rest and water and food for hours at a time without dropping dead.  If, on the other hand, I have horses that can do these things, I had better establish early on that these are magical horses and are NOT like earth horses at all.

3.  I believe I owe it to my readers (as well as to myself) to know as much about my world and my characters as I possibly can before I start to write my book.  My readers might never see all the preparation I’ve done; I may not convey all the background information I’ve made up, but just by having it, simply by knowing my world and my characters so intimately, I am able to convey the substance and richness of both.  Call it the Tip-of-the-Iceberg theory of writing.  If I lay the groundwork properly, there will be a sense of depth to my worldbuilding and character development that goes far beyond what my readers see.

4.  This is a personal preference:  I believe that I should not begin a multibook, extended story arc without knowing how and when the project is going to end.  Now I’m making a distinction here between an extended story-arc like my Winds of the Forelands series — a sequence of books that tells one overarching story — and a true serial, like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series.  With the Dresden books, each story stands alone, and if at some point he chooses to end the series so be it.  His choice.  And if he chooses not to end it, also his choice.  But with an extended story arc, I believe that there should be a definite ending point in sight, rather than simply an open-ended sequence of books that might never end.

5.  A corollary to this:  Even if  a book is the second volume of a three or four or five book story arc, it should have some resolution at the end of it.  Readers should feel that they have accomplished something by reading the book.  The series plot should have been moved forward a bit; the book should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And I, as the author, should give my readers small reminders so that they know who each recurring character is and where the plot has been before.  That said, these reminders should not overwhelm the new plot line.  There is a balance, and I ought to be able to find it.

6.  This may sound too basic to warrant being included in this list, but I don’t believe it is:  I owe it to my readers to work from the beginning of the process to the end to make my book as good as it can possibly be.  This means not only writing the best story I can, working to make my characters compelling and realistic, creating a world that is interesting and unique.  It means thinking about every element of my storytelling.  It means looking for new and powerful ways to convey emotion, to describe people and settings, and to propel my narrative.  And it also means paying attention to the little things, like taking the time to write a clean manuscript and approaching the copyediting and proofreading phases of the process seriously.  It means no shortcuts, no laziness; it means taking nothing for granted.  My readers are paying for a product; I should take pride in how I create it.

As I mentioned before, though, this is an interactive relationship.  When I read I book, I believe that I bear certain responsibilities as well.

1.  When I buy a book to read, I should understand what kind of book I’m buying and what this means in terms of tropes and customs of the genre.  For instance, I as a reader should not buy what is quite obviously the first book of a fantasy series and then complain because the story arc doesn’t resolve at the end of that first book.  When reading SF or fantasy I shouldn’t complain because “that science doesn’t exist yet” or “magic isn’t real.”  I shouldn’t buy a media tie-in and then complain that the characters and universe aren’t original.  I shouldn’t buy romance or mystery and complain about plot devices that are commonly used in those genres.  I should know what I’m reading, and adjust my expectations accordingly. 

2.  Starting a book isn’t easy, particularly in fantasy/SF/horror, where authors have to establish certain ground rules and bring readers up to speed on where we are.  As I reader I believe that I owe the author a little leeway.  If it’s a four hundred page book, I usually give it 100 pages.  If I’m not engaged with the story or the characters by then, I’ll consider setting the book aside (I don’t have enough reading time at my disposal to read a book I don’t like).  But not before 100 pages.  I’m the same way with a movie.  I’ll give a director a bit of time, too.  Art is hard and often a complex story line takes some time to unfold.  I feel that I should be tolerant of that.

3.  If I finish a book and I love it, I tell people.  I know all too well how hard it can be to gain readership and sell books.  If I can help out an author whose work I’ve enjoyed, I’ll take every opportunity to do so.  What about books I don’t like?  I’ll talk about those, too.  But I always try to keep in mind that sometimes my dislike of a book is a matter of my taste rather than the fault of the author in question.  There’s a book that came out several years ago that enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial success.  Everyone loved it.  I didn’t.  Doesn’t mean the book sucked.  Nor does it mean that my taste is terrible.  It simply means that the chemistry between writer and reader didn’t work.

Next week I’ll post a bit more about that last point.  For now though, what elements of the creative covenant do you bring to your writing or reading experience?

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://magicalwords.net
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
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15 comments to A Creative Covenant: The Writer and the Reader, part II

  • Thank you for a very informative post for both the writer and the reader. I think that, as a reader, I sometimes forget a couple of those points.

  • Gwendolyn Borgen

    I wish everyone would abide by this list. I am especially disappointed if an author drags on a work without any feeling of accomplishment simply because it is part of a series.

    Except this part:
    QUOTE: “My horses shouldn’t look and act just like earth horses, but then carry my lead character two hundred miles in a single day or go without rest and water and food for hours at a time without dropping dead.”

    But I love Krull! ;p Just joking, I agree with you all around. 😉

  • David, As usual a great post. It makes me look at my reading experience with authors I follow.

    I try to give a series author the benefit of the doubt. If I like a series and the author well enough to read several books (and talk about them and share the reading experience with other reading friends as part of my covenant) I try to be faithful to the author and wait out storyline trends I may not like. Not forever, mind you, but for a while.

    That said, I read a book by a famous author that read differently from his other books. The POV character’s voice was sloppy, the plot was haphazard. In the front, the author’s note stated that his editor sent him a letter saying his storytelling had improved to the point where he no longer needed editing. Wrong. He needs an editor. Badly. To extend your analogy, he broke covenant with me, and it felt like I lost a friend. Thanks for this. It was fun.

  • Thanks for the comment, Becky. Glad you found the post helpful.

    Gwendolyn, I know exactly how you feel about an author dragging a series out. There is an Australian writer I like very much, but this person refuses to end a series. The author seems to reach a point in the series where s/he loses interest and then moves on to a new project. Nothing is ever finished, and I can’t read this author’s work anymore. As for the horse thing, I kind of learned that one the hard way, having given my horses a bit too much stamina in my first book. I dialed it back a bit in rewrites, but not enough….

    Faith, first thanks for finding the typo. I’ve corrected it. I tend to be very forgiving of writers, mostly because I know how hard it is to produce a novel. But maybe I need to add point 7 to the first list in the post.

    7. As an author, I will always listen to my editors and readers and take to heart constructive criticisms of my work. I’m human, and, as such, fallible. Nothing I write will ever be perfect and to the extent that I stick to rule six above (write the best book I can) part of that will always be listening to those who wish to help me improve my work.

  • Great post! Excellent points from both Writer and Reader perspective.

  • Emily Leverett

    Can we go back to the “This is supposed to be FUN!!” post? :) (Kidding).

    This is a great post about what writers should do, and I appreciate your comments about readers, too. I very rarely refuse to finish a book. I stopped one book in a series because it was simply too viscerally violent for me. I knew it was horror going in, but it was just too much. That, of course, had nothing to do with the skill of the author. (In fact, if the author had been less skilled, I might have been able to get through the scene.) I stopped one other because made me angry. Again, it wasn’t a skill issue. And I don’t like James Joyce. :)

    I admit, as a reader, I don’t like when politics overtakes a story. But that’s just a small pet peeve.

    Thanks for all the advice!

  • Sarah Adams

    Hear, hear, especially point four. I don’t mind a long series, but an interminable series is just self indulgent. When that happens I get the feeling the author just can’t bear to leave the world. Either that or he’s writing in search of an ending and is subjecting his readers to what is essentially a draft. I can sympathize with writing scenes in search of a point. I do it too, but I don’t expect that to be a publishable stage.

  • Thanks for the comments, Emily. Like you, I very rarely give up on a book, but sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me, and I’m very protective of my time. That said, if you don’t like politics in your fiction you might not like my books!

  • Gwendolyn Borgen

    I do not mind politics as long as it does not detract from the book. I cannot stand when I am in the midst of a good story and suddenly the author sidelines to a social/political commentary that has absolutely nothing to do with the story and does not serve to further the plot or characters. I also dislike reading if the author seems preachy about what is right/wrong… I read to hear the character’s voice & story and not the author’s opinions.

    I hope someone got my reference to Krull above. :)

  • Gwendolyn–That’s exactly what I’m talking about with politics. I’ve encountered it and it bugs me. It also depends on genre. Some are more inclined to be political than others. And I got the Krull reference. It made me laugh.

  • For the record, I don’t think the first of the Forelands books had too much politics in it. It did have a bit, but I don’t think it ever went off track to the story. And the thing that was mentioned in another blog about the racial intolerance bit wasn’t as strong and jarring as they said either. Certainly not bad enough for me to toss the book in a corner. I did have some minor quibbles with the story, but overall it was a good start to a series that’s what 5 books and running?

    Here’s one of the responsibilities I take on when writing. I need to hook the reader as soon as possible. I need to draw them into the story, the action, the world quickly. If they’re not gripped enough in chapter 1 to keep reading then I don’t feel I’ve done my job as a writer, whether they give me the benefit of the doubt or not and give me that 50 or 100 page leeway before making their decision. I’ve nearly always got something in my first chapter, heck, my first couple paragraphs, that is meant to be a hook to catch the reader’s attention and get them sitting up and reading more. Of course, the trick after that is to keep it going and not lose them once I’ve got ’em.

    Then again, the real trick is getting finished…That’s one of the reasons why I say that I’m so practiced at writing story beginnings that I can set up very gripping beginnings, but it’s the follow through that becomes the trick for me. But, I’ll soon have my latest finished, which should break that cycle. 😀

    And hey, Krull may have been a little silly in places, but was still a fun film. 😉 One of my favorite sounds I can emulate is the sound of the Slayers when they die. 😉

  • Gwendolyn and Emily, I agree with you completely on that aspect of the political thing. Emily, I thought you were saying that you didn’t like political stories — my novels have lots of castle intrigue and politics in them, but they are all central to the story and indigenous to the worlds I’ve created. Those tend to be the types of stories I enjoy writing and reading. As for Krull, I never saw it, so I’m afraid the reference was lost on me. Sorry.

    Daniel, thanks for the comment and the kind words about Winds of the Forelands. It is five books long, but it is complete. No more books in that series.

  • Cool, well, I’ll be reading the rest as time permits.

    And Krull had fire steeds that looked like regular horses with very furry fetlocks that could travel hundreds of miles very quickly without tiring and I think, if memory serves, run across the sky, they run so fast. My biggest thought on that was that if they run so fast why didn’t they just run away from the silly humans trying to grab them. 😉

  • Sarah, your comment just came to my email. Sorry for not commenting earlier. I do think that sometimes authors stay in a world because they fall in love with it and don’t want to let go. In a way that’s kind of cool. But then come up with a new story arc and set it in that same world, as Katherine Kurtz and Katharine Kerr have done in their worlds. But I’m with you — just keeping the story going isn’t right.

    And Daniel, thanks. Thanks also for the explanation of the Krull horses.