Okay, so in Part One of this post, my agent Oli Munson offered his thoughts on determining whether an author is a safe pair of hands, when reading their work. In this part, I’ll give you my own views. What makes me shut a book on page two? What makes me keep my eyeballs glued to the pages, all the way to the end?
To sum it up: what makes me place my wholehearted confidence in a writer and commit to their book, despite life being short? And how can we writers inspire that confidence in others?
For me, the number one thing when determining, consciously or otherwise, whether a writer is going to take me all the way (so to speak) is a strong sense of authority.
Which is a fairly nebulous thing to pin down. And yet I must.
We can take as read, the fact that a writer needs to be able to string a sentence together – many thousands of them, in fact – and please you with their descriptive imagery, turns of phrase, ear for dialogue and general all-round linguistic competence. These things are obviously a big deal, but in themselves they won’t convince us to sign up for the long-haul of a written story. So let’s set them aside and dig deeper.
A writer’s authority shows in the way they choose to feed you the story, piece by piece. They feed you each tasty morsel in a way which always leaves you hungry for the next. This, they achieve by raising questions in your brain as quickly as possible – ideally during the book’s opening line or paragraph.
If you reach the end of the first page with no questions or curiosity in your head, your faith in the writer’s authority wanes. Sure, they might have gone to great pains to describe the weather, not to mention the amazing landscape above which that weather is taking place, but who cares? I’m all for a little scene-setting and a little mood, but questions are key.
Yes, the writer may well have devoted considerable effort to vividly describing their lead character waking up in the morning, yawning, brushing their teeth and then going about their normal daily routine. But then my only question is, “When’s the story going to kick in?”
Here’s a useful exercise: imagine reading the first few pages of your story to a group of story lovers, then asking, “Any questions?” Would those queries come thick and fast, or would you just see a whole bunch of blank faces, mentally searching for something to ask, apart from, “When will STUFF HAPPEN?”?
Often, a writer will demonstrate their safe hands by throwing you directly into the middle or even the end of the story, right at the start. It’s dizzying and thrilling, but never confusing in a bad way. You immediately get the sense of something crucial happening here. Of depth waiting to be plundered. As if this whole story already exists, like Stephen King’s On Writing analogy of a huge half-buried fossil, and you’re being flung against a small portion of it like some bamboozled lab rat. You know there are multiple holes in your understanding and, by Christ, you want them filled. You also know, by the teasing way the writer feeds you stuff, that they will be filled. All you have to do is read on.
A writer demonstrates their safe hands by leaving gaps in your knowledge, while slyly conveying that those gaps are supposed to be there. It’s a complicit nudge-nudge, wink-wink situation, as the writer effectively tells you, “You know how I just casually mentioned Mr Richter’s vast collection of terrible things, along with his unfortunate death? That’s the first time I’ve mentioned him, but you’ll find out more later, oh yes. Here, let me sink this big iron hook into your soft grey brain meats and gently tug…”
(Yes, I too now quite want to know more about the late Mr Richter’s vast collection of terrible things. *Makes note*)
The writer’s authority also manifests itself in their ability to create characters which you believe actually exist. The writer sheds light on these characters overwhelmingly through their actions. While one of prose fiction’s unique selling points is being able to spend time squarely inside characters’ heads, we don’t want to loiter in there unduly. Otherwise, we might find ourselves floating in an infinite expanse of nothingness, while listening to a disembodied voice express thoughts. So a safe pair of hands introduces people doing things which are motivated by who they are. These things get the story rolling, dovetailing as invisibly as possible with the grinding machinations of plot.
Right now, I’m reading and loving Claire North’s latest novel Touch (Orbit), which asserts its authority from Page One. Crediting you with intelligence, it plonks you at the scene of a shooting in a train station, then feeds you the story, piece by tiny piece. As the narrator tries to distance themselves from a gunman, we’re forced to work out what’s going on, often by trying to decipher things which don’t make immediate sense.
In the fast-paced pages of Touch which follow, it becomes apparent that this character has a unique power, but this is not laid out for us on a boring old silver platter. We have to work for that information by reading on. And read on we do, because we immediately want to know so much more about this character. How long they’ve had this power, for instance. How they discovered they had it. What they’ve been through to get here. The events which led up to the train station shooting. Are they an alien? The questions tumble out and fall over each other, from Page One onwards. Even if I hadn’t already read Claire’s masterfully mind-boggling debut The Fifteen Lives Of Harry August (Orbit), I would have known I was in very safe hands.
For me, it all boils down to a writer’s choices, in those first pages especially. Those choices speak volumes about a writer and how much faith you should place in them.
Safe hands will almost nonchalantly handing you pieces of something much larger and utterly compelling. The author will often talk to you as if assuming you already have the big picture, while slyly and knowingly neglecting to offer more than tantalising glimpses of it.
It’s very much about a narrator striding confidently ahead while you scurry in their wake, desperate to catch up. Hungrily devouring the pieces of narrative they sporadically toss back over their shoulder.
So how you achieve that, as a writer? How do you become that safe pair of hands and convince the reader, up front, that everything’s going to be great?
For starters, you work hard on your big picture, regardless of whether that work takes place mainly up front during endless outlines, or you wing it from the very beginning and up retro-fitting like crazy, rewriting that first chapter over and over to reflect where the story ended up going.
You examine that big picture of yours, then you think hard about which piece to break off first and hand to the reader.
You think about what matters. About what this story really is.
Then you think about what will constantly motivate the reader to follow in your wake, while you stride confidently on, leaving that trail of appetising story-chunks behind you.
For the next 349 pages (or 89 script pages) you may be the all-powerful god of this world you created, but you’re also a considerate one. Because you never, ever take the reader’s attention for granted, in this world crammed full with ten billion other things for them to do.
When describing your world, you focus on salient points, rather than the whole shebang. Instead of slavishly listing the contents of every room, or a step-by-step account of trivial actions, you hone it down to what matters.
And you never stop raising those questions. You never stop sinking those hooks into their brain. Or making those intriguing, oh-so-real characters reveal themselves through action. Or unveiling the rock-solid architecture of your story, one sexy beam at a time.
Ideally, too, you’ll also create the impression that this story is about something. Regardless of whether the theme only ever manifests itself almost subliminally, or it’s all up in yo’ face, this book has meaning, dammit. And that meaning should somehow radiate from your book from the very beginning, like the words which run throughout a stick of Blackpool rock.
All in all, without wanting to stretch that God analogy to breaking point: in order to inspire unshakeable faith, you must leave clear irrefutable evidence of design behind you, as opposed to a whole flabby bunch of meandering chaos.
Sounds like quite a lot of work?
For most of us, it will be a lifetime’s worth.
Now, over to you. What do you look in an author’s work, to convince you to keep reading? And/or conversely, what makes you shut their book, vowing never to return? Let me know in Comments.
See Claire North's Touch at Amazon UK | Amazon US
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