We’ve all had the experience of reading a book about which we’d developed some expectations and being unpleasantly surprised by the content and/or outcome, like reading Hansel and Gretel and being shocked when the children killed the kind, old woman who had given them shelter and food. This after they destroyed her property by licking the frosting off her windows. Ungrateful snots.
One of us had a similar experience lately in reading a biography of a woman who played an important role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. The book covered her childhood, political activities in China and the aftermath of her flight and development of a new life in the US. And spent several chapters promoting a non-profit she founded, stopping just short of: “Join now! If you call us in the next 15 minutes, you’ll also receive a gen-you-wine turnip twaddler – absolutely free! Call 1-800-POORSAP! Operators are standing by.”
A detective-centered mystery by a grande dame was similarly disappointing when the conclusion, supported by 150 pages of development, proved not to be the correct one. The last forty pages revealed a different solution supported by facts the reader couldn’t possibly know – like the poison was a type found only in a remote part the Congo where killer’s plane had made an emergency landing ten years earlier en route from Cape Town to London. Puhlease! (Besides, with the Internet, everybody knows you can order murder material online from untraceablepoisons.com or bluntinstruments.com.)
Then we have the “more than you really wanted to know” read like the 700 page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of a person who really wasn’t worth more than 350 pages, especially when the writer devolved into “Noted Biographical Subject had a cup of tea at 11:35AM. He added a second lump of sugar at 11:43AM. He washed his cup at…”. TMI and it’s enough to make you wish Noted Biographical Subject had kicked the bucket 20 years (or the aforementioned 350 pages) earlier.
The point of these ramblings is about how easy it is as a writer to forget the reader’s perspective and thereby deliver a rotten reading experience. We’re all familiar with the parable of the six blind men, each feeling a different part of an elephant, coming to divergent conclusions on what it was. The one holding the tusk thought it was a spear, the man at the tail was sure he had a rope, and the blind man feeling the leg thought he had a column in his hands, and so forth. From a different vantage point, we see that the creature is an Indian elephant. As with a story, one needs to ensure all parts are covered, and that the whole presents a coherent story, consistent with the various parts. And in our case, consistent with the Miss-Information Technology Mystery series.
How do we do this? Once way is to have early readers. In a draft of Denial of Service, we’d included some profanity. Not by Emma, of course! She’s limited to “gosh darn,” “by our lady,” “goldurns” and the like. This profanity was limited, and fit the character and or situation in the book. Still, it was negatively commented on by someone who read the draft, the implication being that our readers expected not to see any profanity. Consequently, we removed all the profanity and merely implied or mentioned its use by the character. While a mantra for authors is to “show, don’t tell” this was the time for the opposite approach: tell, but don’t show.
Other expectations that we believe we’ve set with our readers are that the books will be humorous, the mystery will be solved with the help of friends and family and technology will play a part in the story if we don’t get too far into the nerdy weeds. Also, we don’t do serial murders, the victim isn’t entirely a nice person and the murder is not a beloved character, either. Most importantly, no animals are harmed in the telling of the story. (Seriously, one of us will not read books where pets get hurt. Except perhaps a rap on the nose after being told for the eleventieth time Don’t Chew Mommy!)
As we labor away on the third book, we are conscious of what our readers expect, and yet, also concerned about not becoming formulaic. Okay, not entirely formulaic. We’ve added a few twists:
- Characters revealing new facets of their personalities
- The victim is not someone Emma knows
- The murder weapon is a laser-guided pterodactyl
- Emma becomes engaged and Stacey becomes pregnant
- The locale for most of the action is Hawai’i, not San Francisco
Okay, not all of the above is true; we have to have a few surprises, don’t we? First Clue for Our Devoted Readers: we can state categorically that no actual pterodactyls will be harmed in the writing of this book.