Again last night, I tossed aside a book after reading a couple of chapters and flipping idly through the ending to see if it turned out as I expected. The book seemed pretty well written, the setting was clear, characters were individuals, direction a bit unusual. But the author failed to perform her first duty: she didn’t make me care.
The more I read (and write) the more I have come to believe that the most terrible thing you can say about any given work is, “So what?” It doesn’t matter how well described a scene might be, how awful the circumstances, how fearsome the fate the protagonist must face–if the reader doesn’t care. Oftentimes, we can see why we are *meant* to care, why the author expects us to do so, and it some ways, that’s the worst. Must I feel heartless because your unwed teen mother is in such dire straits, and I have no sympathy for her? Yes, I can see that’s sad–but also distant. Many millions of actual people lead sad lives every day–what makes this fictional person deserving of my concern?
When the author sets up a situation like this–one that is meant to tug on the heartstrings–he or she often neglects the greatest burden borne by fiction: that of engaging the audience in the problems faced by people who don’t exist. In fantasy, this burden is compounded by the fact that, often, even the places they live and the conflicts they face don’t exist. We underestimate the difficulty of overcoming the reader’s inertia and making these imaginary people and places worthy of attention.
Let’s face it, the most limited commodity in the world is our time, in this case, the time of our readers. They don’t want to waste it. If they’re not captured by your story–and quickly!–chances are they’ll ditch it in favor of something else. There are plenty of ways to capture that reader: by your vivid world-building, by creating a distinctive voice, by showing an interesting person in pursuit of a goal. I suggest looking over that first chapter and asking why should the reader care? Hopefully, there are several reasons.
Next, ask some actual readers to look it over, and move beyond “should care” to find out if they do. I’m not talking about your writers’ group–they are meant to read on whether they want to or not, and to analyze the complete work. Some are able to ease back a little and give an honest gut response to those first few pages, but many will sink easily into editor mode without considering the impact of the opening on their reading sympathies. This may be a time to be blunt and ask them: would you read on past page 10? ’cause if you haven’t got that–you haven’t got readers.