The statement above doesn’t refer to me. The gist of it appears in the first sentence of Chapter 1 in my new metaphysical fantasy novel, The Just Beyond. Its appearance there exemplifies my philosophy of writing.
My first year at the University of Washington, where I majored in Communications, I took a required English course. On the first day of class, the professor read aloud a beautiful-sounding descriptive scene. When he finished, he asked for a show of hands by students who felt it was excellent writing. Almost everyone signaled that they did. Then he executed his counterpunch. The paragraph he had read was written by Mark Twain as a deliberate example of what is called “florid”. As detailed and sugary-sweet as it was, Twain felt the passage was inane, unnecessary, and irrelevant to the central plot. I thought the professor’s tactic was underhanded, but the lesson stayed with me. And my perspective on it grew.
I believe that respect for the reader should be paramount among a writer’s priorities. Specifically, I believe a book should “hook” the reader’s emotional investment immediately. I believe the first chapter, the earlier in it the better, should create hope for a general outcome (defined well enough to articulate, but not so specific that it depends on information the reader doesn’t yet have). I believe each chapter should end with a cliffhanger, as was required of the Hardy Boys books (a series of youth detective novels ghostwritten by dozens of authors). And I believe that by the end of the book, it is the author’s sacred duty to deliver the kind of outcome that was primed at the beginning.
I call this respect for the reader because everyone’s time is precious. Here is a person with enough interest in your work to give you their money and devote hours of their time reading it. You should be humbled and flattered that they are engaging your work instead of the myriad other things they could be doing. The least you can do is to put every effort into fulfilling the book’s promise, which I consider a solemn pact between writer and reader.
I went on in that time period to sell two science fiction pieces to small magazines. I almost had a third. A “men’s magazine” wanted one of my stories, actually one of the few real life pieces (not involving sci fi or fantasy), but they asked me to spice it up with a little sexual content. Call me noble or stupid, I’m still not sure which it was, I declined.
I completed my first novel at age 23. It was a 400-page science fiction story that never sold. It was before publishers were taking electronic submissions, and the cost of having it printed and then shipped was for me close to prohibitive. As a result, I gave up after only six rejections. But the experience was invaluable: it taught me that I was capable of completing a long form work despite all the normal life circumstances militating against it. And that confidence made writing The Just Beyond much easier when, after a lengthy hiatus caused by the intervention of Real Life, I decided it was time to write again.
A maxim I had not previously come across that I found inspirational for The Just Beyond was: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” As obvious as that sounds, I had never thought of it in that particular way, and I immediately took it to heart. It was one reason I wrote The Just Beyond instead of one of my other book ideas. Among my nascent concepts, this was the story about which I felt most visceral. And I did cry while reading back many of the scenes.
While writing The Just Beyond, I used a readers group of about a dozen friends, family, and colleagues to critique each chapter as it came out. It was extremely helpful in identifying what was working and what was not. Admittedly, my main reason for starting the group was to stroke my ego as a means of sustaining my enthusiasm for completing the book. It delivered that and more. The most common feedback from the readers group was “I couldn’t put it down.” No other reaction could delight a writer more.
Now I have an even larger readers group, comprised of the people that matter most — the ones willing to buy the book. But my greatest hope is not that the book will sell well, justifying a paper version and possibly being made into a movie. All writers aspire to that. My greatest hope is that readers by the end feel satisfied that I have made good on our pact. I’ve certainly striven to do so.
More information about The Just Beyond and the sequel in progress, along with my personal blog, can be found at http://www.thejustbeyond.com. – Mark