Over at the Nathan Bransford writing forums I’ve been participating in a “sharathon” (as the person who started the thread called it), a sharing of the first 250 words of your WIP. The opening words I posted were from my as-yet untitled novel #4, rather than from Magestone, because I knew the opening to Magestone wasn’t the sort that would hold up well to a 250-word excerpt (I don’t think that makes it bad, however, just not the sort of hook that’s expected from these sorts of contests/sharathons/whatevers). It got generally positive feedback.
I’ve also been trying to offer a short three- or four-line critique for the other openings people have posted. I’ve been really quite impressed with the writing level of the contributors; there’s very little (no?) truly bad writing. But there did seem to be a number of confusing openings, openings where I had to read it once or twice to get what was going on. There were also a couple of openings where I wasn’t sure of the motivation of the character, or I mis-interpreted what was going on. I mentioned this in my critiques when I encountered it.
Some of the authors responded to my critique, thanking me for my feedback and explaining what was actually going on in the scene, clearing up my confusion. My first instinct was to give them the benefit of the doubt – ah, okay, I guess I needed to read more of the chapter; or, I suppose those 250 words don’t work as well taken out of context.
But then I thought, wait a minute. If you have to explain to someone what’s going on in a scene, especially one that’s at the very opening page of your book, you’re not doing your job as an author. Because the author isn’t normally going to be able to explain to the reader what’s going on. Usually, the book is all the reader has.
It’s so easy to get defensive about these situations. I’ve had a couple of critiquers make comments that indicated they’d been confused by something I wrote, and because I as the author know the story inside-out I feel like saying yes, well, ur readin it rong. Except when I let the comment sit for a day or two and come back to it, I realize it’s actually Im writin it rong. (This is why I try not to let myself respond to these things right away.)
Anyway, whether or not these particular excerpts function better in the context of the full story, or maybe were intentionally confusing, it did set me to considering our role as storytellers and the importance of making sure everything’s clear to our readers.