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