Tuesday, 30 November 2010


I'm currently reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farell which I've been enjoying until...There I am, reading away when, whoosh, she's gone too far and put in something improbable. It shot me out of the book world and into the cold reality of my world. It wasn't a nice feeling at all.

I'm back reading again, but with a wary eye. Will she do something unbelievable again? In a strange way, I now distrust the author, and the wonderful suspension of disbelief has vanished.

It's a funny thing, the contract between author and reader. We give them our time, and they give us another world for a few hours. Seems a good swap to me, and it's what I certainly want from a book, that sense of being absorbed into somewhere else, someone else.

But the relationship is fragile. A clumsy phrase can break it, a thoughtless shift in point of view, an improbability. The writer in me knows why she's done it - on a practical level she needed to shift the story to the next phase and didn't want to spend more time on the build up - but without the build-up it's improbable, and - there - she's lost me.

That's why your first three chapters need to be as perfect as possible. There must be no impediments along the way of getting the reader absorbed into your world. You want the reader to be reluctantly dragged away from the world of your book. Typos fret us. Grammatical errors do it too. The relationship is at its most fragile at the beginning.

I'll be carrying on with Esme Lennox because the improbability has come in the middle. I've already invested quite a lot of time in this relationship; I'll see it out to the end. But earlier on? That's when books get discarded.


Anonymous said...

Awesome blog post and wonderful insight. This is so true about believability. Makes me rethink my first 3 chapters for sure...

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks! And good luck with your first three chapters.

Jan Sprenger said...

I know what you mean! I once read a very sloppily edited novel by a well-known writer. I imagine she must have written it some years before it was published because, although brought up to date with references to email and mobile phones, all her other references to the heroine's teenage years were the likes of David Cassidy, Neil Sedaka and Hughie Green on Opportunity Knocks (to name just a few). Most contemporary women wouldn't have a clue who some of them were or would at least wonder why the heroine was harking back to such a distant era.

I found myself reading the book with gritted teeth and wondering how she got away with it. It wouldn't have taken much for the writer or editor to go through and change names to more relevant ones.

Sarah Duncan said...

Heavens that must have jarred. It would have been better to have not updated it at all - Hughie Green really dates it.

I've now finished Esme Lennox and I'm afraid it never really recovered itself.