I’m Not the Reader You’re Writing For

Readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble.

–The Kill Zone

This is only the latest place I’ve read this analysis/assertion. And this has never been true of me.

(I don’t think it’s a small thing to observe that I’ve only heard this assertion either from men or women quoting men.  Men think knocking heads together is funny — this is science, not sexism– so the concept of pain = entertainment is already established. And should not be heresy for me to question.)

Just this weekend I put down another book because for me, the writer was too good at her job of conveying intense emotional distress.

I opened a novel that was play for the Jane Eyre governess/romance genre published by Bethany House, which gave me the hope of a clean play on the theme (in general I’m afraid to invest in such stories, so a Christian publishing house is a nice safety net).

The prologue (yes, there was a prologue) opened with the heroine at age 12 hanging out with her drunken papa at the local pub.  She’s done this all her life, whiling away the hours by counting, which grew into a precocity at math.  On this particular day a Rich Man and his Son enter and Drunken Papa sees an easy mark, challenging Rich Man to set his boarding school educated son against a village Girl in a test of mathematics.

The emotionally astute Girl recognizes the Son’s agony at the prospect, interpreting it both as his lacking in that subject, and the familiar fear of losing a demanding father’s approval.  Drunken Papa offers a 10-guinea wager on 3 math problems (“Best two out of three.”) and Rich Man construes it as 30 guinea, which 12-year-old Girl knows her father cannot afford.

I got through her first (and correct) response to the first question, and her interpreting its affect on the stricken boy before I put the book away.

There just was no way for that to end well.

I gave that much to my husband the same night I read those pages, and he was really annoyed I couldn’t even remember the name of the book.  Said he was ready to go back to the store so I could track down the book and he could know how it ends.

I was *grabbed* emotionally, even intensely, but I wasn’t invested enough to feel these characters where worth the angst I would share for a few hundred pages.  I assumed that the inevitably agonizing ending wouldn’t be fully salved until the happy ending of the whole novel, and I couldn’t see enduring the knot that long.

Really, it was a brilliant opening.  Everything I’ve ever believed an author was supposed to do (not the least of which being establishing an *observant* POV character, which will be very useful in the course of the longer story).

But it was nothing I can feel peace about.

I’m not that kind of writer, and I’m not that kind of reader, either.

This is not the first, or second, time this has happened to me.

Can I learn from this?

  • Quit angsting so much over the first line.
    • I never quit (and rarely feel hooked) after just the first line. I’m here for the premise, and that’s going to hold me for a while.
    • Despite all the advice, I am not going to get every sentence I write to be THE MOST EXCITING you’ve yet read, grabbing readers by the throat and dragging them, panting to the end of the story.
    • Which means I’m not likely to make it to best-seller level
      • which I’m okay with, because I’ve found about… 3? best-sellers that I actually enjoy, and only two I’ve read more than once.
  • Expect the concept of my book have more pull than the first page — but get the concept into the first scene.
    • I understand this is the problem with prologues in general, but I started reading because I was curious about what “secret she tried not to overhear” that could get her into a working situation.  That intrigued me, but I never got past the boy-I-assume-grows-into-love-interest-or-else-is-hugely-irrelevant.
    • And like I said in the first point, I give my experimental reads more than the first line or even page (assuming there’s no sex or gross-out for the hook), since the reason I picked it up was for the concept.
  • Intensity without meaningful connection is like watching the ubiquitous train wreck.
    • “Can’t look away” is one response, the one you hope for, but there is also, “too horrible to look.” And, apparently that’s me.
      • And since I watch Bones— which is all about seeing the intensity of the train wreck– I can also attest that intensity won’t drive you away if there is an established connection with the character(s)
        • In my own work, the most intensity happens– not at first with planning, just my own rhythms playing out– after the character is established.

The same post closes by saying, “The opening page of a novel has to draw the reader in with an indication of trouble to come.” Which I heartily concur. But if a 12-year-old having to choose between bankrupting her father or dashing a 14-year-old boy’s hope for his father’s illusive approval, that’s more tension than I want to enter into, for a moment or for a novel.

I appreciate an opening indicative of the whole story, because it allows me to test whether I have the emotional stamina to invest.

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