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An open letter to authors

By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 18 August 2012

Dear Authors,

While this is just a complaint from one reader, know that for every person who speaks out there are 100 or 1000 who have the same complaint but don’t voice it.

I’m middle-aged, so purportedly my memory is declining. But I have always had a process-oriented memory which means I have to catch a smell or taste of a past event in order to remember it. This permeates stories which don’t get finished in a single sitting.

I have a life, so I read in spurts, sometimes going days before I can pick up an ongoing book. I read a lot though, so sometimes wonder if I’m trying to fit in a plot thread from a different book. Also I read at night when I’m tired and have enjoyed a glass of wine.

What does that mean? I won’t remember earlier plot threads of your story. Or, to phrase it better, I won’t remember enough about the plot threads to enjoy the current writing. Sometimes in continuing to read, eventually some of the story will revive, but I lose a lot of nuance that you’ve worked for months to get into the story. Lately, I’ve just quit reading the story altogether. While some of this may result from poor writing craft, mostly it’s not your fault.

But, you want me to be satisfied having spent money on your books and I’m not. As a matter of fact, it makes me angry. Why? The problem is UNNECESSARY. Because you CAN do something about it. For every author who has control of their book's content and layout (self-publishers and established authors), please add Reader Tools: a CAST OF CHARACTERS (Dramatis Personae), a MAP, a FAMILY TREE, a TIMELINE, something for the reader to hang the bits of the story on while you unfold it. Any reader who’s not interested in these items can skip them. For the rest of us, these are tools to help us savour your story.

When I am Queen I will produce software which pays attention to where one is in the story and allows one to check back on prior events. Authors who use a format which pays better attention to (some of) their readers’ needs will be read more frequently than others.
[/end soapbox]

There is some good news. Because I read a great many ebooks, a DNF just hangs around in my library. If I come back to the book in a month, I might have more ease piecing the events together, and the story will be fresh. Some books have taken me five tries to get through. I now have 36+ DNFs just waiting for me to be in the mood to try them again. Of course, I also have 200+ unread ebooks to choose from.

Edit: As of May 2014, I have 600+ unread ebooks to choose from.
Edit: As of May 2015, I have 900+ ebooks in Calibre without knowing exactly how many have been started and abandoned, never started, or started and completed.
Edit July 2015: Thanks, Larry, for the title "Dramatis Personae". I've now updated to Android o/s and am using Calibre Companion. Wonderful software.
Edit: As of Sept 2016, I have 926 unread, 60 started and quit ebooks in Calibre.

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Good idea about using tools to help jog the readers' memories about the plot, T de V. Just like books published decades ago with a cast of characters. My Mom writes down a character list for herself as she reads. I'll try to do that in future books; its a gracious touch.

Theresa de Valence's picture

And you know, Cathy, it makes me so mad that your Mum and I have to write down those characters! Why? Why is it so prized to confound us readers?

Er—I already said all this. Rant over.

Thanks for your comments.

If you were reading a "mystery" about the House of Representatives and they
all were persons of'd need a cast of characters. Otherwise
w/ series books you pretty much known the characters except, maybe, the new
bad guy.

Stand alones...are like...being introduced to someone for the first'll either remember them or not.

Now if you're bad w/ names...that's a horse of a different
could probably use a cast of characters. Okay, I could probably use a cast
of characters.

My problem is more w/ pronunciation. (I could never announce a hockey game)
If an author is going to give me a cast of characters...could you, please,
include the pronunciation?


Theresa de Valence's picture

Good idea, Del! I've gone through the entire Deborah Crombie series (16 books now?) without having any idea how to pronounce the protagonist's name (Gemma James).

Gemma James's first name is pronounced JIM-ma.

Theresa de Valence's picture

Thanks, Sandy! Though untraining my brain to say (Diamond)Gem-MA may take some time.

Thanks for this suggestion! I saw your mention of the issue on the Dorothy-L list. I do try to limit the number of characters (a cast of thousands is hard for the author to keep track of, too!), and am only on my 3rd book in my pet-centric suspense series. While I try to ensure each book can stand alone, there are times characters or story lines from previous books get a mention, or there are a few chapters between character appearances. I'll make a note of this issue going forward.

I do include "fact or fiction" section at the back of the book for those interested in discovering if a plot point is a real life issue or total crappiocca. And since not everyone is familiar with some terms I use, I wonder if it would be helpful to have a vocabulary list, too, of dog and cat terms or other glossary? Hmnnn. Sort of a built in readers guide?

amy s.

Theresa de Valence's picture

The big trouble, Amy, is that you, the author, have no idea when I'm going to have to put down the book: the kettle's boiling, the house is on fire, I have to get ready for a party I'm having in three days. I'm not going to break at the end of a logical stopping point, like a story thread. I'm just going to put down the book.

It might be days before I pick up the book again. How do I figure out where I am? I am left with two choices: keep reading from where I am with significantly less involvement with the characters or put the book down permanently. Can either be a good choice?

In the non-fiction world (where I've spent my career), I'd go to the index or, if I wasn't very sure, then the Table of Contents. Not very modern, but tools which have existed for dozens and dozens of years to help people find their place in the book. I suppose if I didn't use these resources so much in other reading matters, it wouldn't make me so annoyed.

Yes, glossaries are useful. The reader needs to be informed at the front of the story if your glossary is placed at the end.

I'm very grateful that you've included "fact or fiction" sections in your story. I'm one of those who read fiction to learn things about the world!

Thanks for your reply.

These are interesting points to me both as a reader and as a writer. As a reader, I dislike long lists of characters at the beginning, partly because they're hard for me to navigate back to while reading on a Kindle and partly because they make my brain fog over. Guess we each have different perceptions.

As the author of a long series, Safe Harbor Medical romances (17 books), which I'm spinning off into a new Safe Harbor Medical mystery series, I'm very aware of the importance of paring my cast list (as much as possible) and identifying everyone. I try to write each book as if it were the first, because I too sometimes pick up a book in the middle of a series. Also, as a reader, I sometimes put a book down and resume reading later.

Back to the writing side: I try to drop in little reminders along the way about who and where people are, along with descriptions. It's extra work but only fair to readers. To me, this seems better than a list at the beginning, which really isn't a substitute for clear writing and might invite laziness by some writers (not me!).

Theresa de Valence's picture

Hi Jacqueline,

First, thank you for commenting, I'm grateful. I think this is an important issue.

Funny though, I have a kneejerk reaction to "As a reader, I dislike long lists of characters at the beginning of a story" because (I feel) statements like these are a vote against character lists, which is unnecessary. In an ebook, there need only be a link which says "skip to the start of the story" and the reader could skip past Cast of Characters, Table of Contents, maps, Acknowledgements, etc. So there's no skin off your nose for other people to have these tools.

As for your reading an ebook and being unable to find the Cast of Characters or Table of Contents——that's about you and your software usage limitations, not something you should be deciding for all readers (or even all of your readers). Being able to zip back to the Cast of Characters or Table of Contents is just a trick about using your ebook reader which you need to learn. Which you would have to do once, and then you'd be enabled from there on out.

So these particular arguments against Character Lists are non-arguments––they're specious––but what they might do is convince other authors and publishers that there are valid reasons for not including Cast of Characters in books.

Some readers need Character Lists and maps. You may skip over the character lists if they don't interest you. We are not comparing equivalent issues.

In spite of your carefully adding reminders about who and what and why into the body of the stories you write, there will still be many people who can't follow the story closely, for many many reasons. (I could list dozens). You, the author, have a list of who all the characters are, so it's a reasonably easy task for you to make a list. How can it be appropriate to force readers unfamiliar with the story to slog through creating a list of who's who? For what purpose? To make readers really appreciate how much work they had to go through to read the story? Why?

If this makes the issue more comprehensible to you: think of it as a disability. (I think of it as "differently abled"). You don't expect someone in a wheelchair to pick your book off the top shelf in the bookstore, do you?

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