Last night, my first chapter was read in a writers' critique group. The result was not pretty. At the risk sounding like one of those writers who blames the reader's lack of understanding on the reader rather than the writer, I do think that this was less a problem with the chapter itself and more because I didn't give the readers ANY framework before we began. I said 'This is the first chapter of my novel, which is commercial fiction' and then the reading began. At the end, the first comment was "I didn't know where you were going with this." Consensus ensued. At the end of all comments, I gave a quick blurb of the book (like what I would put on jacket copy). Suddenly, there were smiles and nods. They could picture it, they liked it. The foreshadowing made sense, what I was building up made sense.
This made me realize that as a reader, I NEVER read a book without knowing something about it. I either look at a review, or at the very least, the inside flap or cover copy. If it is a recommendation, there is always a brief description. Does anyone just pick up a book, open it and start reading?
A reader needs some sense of where the journey is going to take them. One reader last night said "I didn't know whether this was horror or romance." Big difference. Imagine you are traveling: how disoriented would you be if you didn't know whether your plane was heading to Africa or Amsterdam (both very nice places, but requiring very different mindsets).
The trick, of course, is how much information to put out there. Enough to get the cerebral juices flowing but not enough to spoil the story. I once read in a great post (have to try to find it so I can link to it here) that when you write a novel, you need three synopses. You should have a synopsis that is 1-2 pages (for queries -- think of it as a detailed map), 1-2 paragraphs (also for queries and where a bit more info is needed -- sort of like driving directions from the internet), and 1-2 sentences (for telling someone -- like pointing a tourist in the right direction). Great advice.
So now I'm off to fix some things from last night (see, I know my writing is not perfect and that I will always learn something from a critique, whether or not I agree with it). And then I'll get started with my maps.
Have a great writing day!