Keeping the Covenant: It Takes Work

There’s one reality we cannot repudiate. Without a steady diet of well-spun stories, without examples of both fine word craft and cringe-worthy phrases, we can’t understand what makes a story work.

Glance over your bookshelves… you do have multiple shelves, don’t you? Which books do you hoard to savor multiple times? I’m betting they’re the ones that grab you by the throat and pull you into the story from the first page. The ones so well written, so cleanly edited that nothing disturbs the flow of the story. The books that elicit the strongest emotional response – whether good or bad.

Now think of the books you read once and passed on to someone else almost as fast as the story fled your memory. Are those the books in which you found errors in word usage, factual discrepancies, or no discernible plot?

I don’t sit down to read every book with an editor’s eye, nor do I want to. However, when I find myself mentally replacing incorrectly used words, or jotting notes about plot continuity problems, the author has lost my trust.

As writers, we create a covenant with the reader. Our story is a promise to provide entertainment, enlightenment, encouragement or escape. The reader makes an unspoken promise to appreciate the tale we have spun, to suspend belief in order to live for a while in the world we have created with our words.

In our role as readers, we usually choose books or stories we have reason to think we will enjoy. I know I don’t browse the shelves of the local bookstore deliberately looking for a book with subject matter I hate, written in a style I don’t appreciate.

Books are just too expensive to waste time and money on something we are not going to enjoy. No, we check out our favorite authors, we browse our favorite genre, we look for a title or plot device that fascinates us into making a purchase. With that attitude, the reader is most often not the one who breaks the writer/reader covenant.

However, in our role as writer, we can easily breach that connection if we don’t take our craft seriously. If we’re not willing to learn, to grow and improve, the reader is off like a shot to the next book in their pile, the next hot new author. There are too many writers, too many of them very good writers, in every genre, for us to take for granted that the reader will cut us some slack if we don’t do enough research, if we don’t edit and then edit again – if we don’t get it right.

I’m always working on getting it right. It’s not easy. But if I expect someone to read my stories and books, then I owe them something worth reading.

Leave a comment and tell us what can break the covenant when you are the reader. How well do you think most current writers/authors are holding up their end of the writer/reader covenant?