The Beginning of the Affair: What the US Review Sees in Book Starts

Again and again, we notice a pattern at the start of a successful book. Great nonfiction, a genre designed to inform, employs a compelling narrative to connect with the reader, while great fiction, a genre for storytelling, informs the reader about life. Each genre delves into the others’ skill set to engage and teach with equal measure. The nexus between the two is universal truth, and after only a few pages, the reader must desire to uncover the truth in a book.

“With the truth, you need to get rid of it as soon as possible and pass it on to someone else.”Jean Baudrillard

The question in any book is equally about what the author has learned as much as what the reader needs to discover. If the author has done the work, both aspects are featured up front—as in immediately at the start of the book. A successful nonfiction effort presents the lesson plan and suggests what the reader will take away, while fiction launches the journey and hints at a possible ending. For both, the essence of the book is either overtly mentioned or found in the subtext (i.e. tone, setting, pacing, etc.). The author is in control from the start—not the second, third, or fourth chapter. This might seem obvious, but too often while reading a book for review, we encounter directionless narratives. While we’ll eventually uncover its main thrust, the average reader will not, having moved on long before it reaches that point.

“Life will not bear refinement. You must do as other people do.”Samuel Johnson

Every book has a singular purpose. This is why editors, booksellers, and the media are constantly asking for a tagline: What is the single sentence description of the book? They know that a reader won’t pick up a book unless it is well defined and promises the aforementioned truth. The book’s opening pages affirm that this truth will be fulfilled. By this point, the reader has traveled a long way on the journey and is probably hooked. Whether it’s an excellent biography on Benjamin Franklin or a tawdry human-dinosaur sex romp—yes, those books exist—the purpose and direction are established with lightning speed and often within the first few paragraphs.

“There is no such thing as chaos. It’s just a pattern you haven’t learned to recognize yet.”Albert Einstein

The complexity of an opening narrative widely ranges from genre to genre and from author to author, but the work required from the author hasn’t changed in centuries. Readers, who comprise the most intelligent segment of society but are overwhelmingly not writers, have been trained to sniff out the truth or utility of a book in short order. A book that quickly establishes its predominant narrator, tone, and story question/thesis holds the reader for the duration, as well as the next book by the same author.

“[Writers] achieve clarity in a preponderance of words, as opposed to the poundage of the pages. Smart writers are greedy with words.”Write to Publish, Christopher Klim

The Importance of Finding a Mentor

Two decades ago, years before my first novel was published, I discovered the man who would change my writing life. I’d been thrashing around with a few novel submissions, limited short story success, and a pile of neatly printed form rejections from Manhattan. I was in the pool with a million wannabe writers, who talked the talk and walked the walk but got virtually nowhere.

Then I made a fateful decision. With my latest rejection, I had received a handwritten note of encouragement from a New York editor. He didn’t want my bad novel, but everything I’d been told in writing groups, conferences, and the endless volumes of guidebooks was that a personal note was unusual. I shot back a letter of thanks for the feedback and asked one simple question: Any suggestions?

Weeks later, that editor wrote that there was an author/friend in Delaware who occasionally took on emerging writers. He was moderately expensive, and I had to audition first. No promises were made, but I was excited. I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. The author took me on and eventually dropped the per page charge. He became the most influential person in my life—the writing mentor who coached me to publishing my first novel and guided my career for decades.

My mentor began by showing me what I did well and how to feature it within my writing. That understanding still effects my work today. He also pointed out my deficiencies and showed me ways to strengthen them. As a sounding board, he shaped every one of my novel concepts. I’m not sure I even understood what a novel was before I met him. I was too much raw talent, rolling around aimlessly through words. With my mentor, I discovered both the joy and responsibility of writing a novel. He taught me how to focus and raise my profile as a writer.

At some point in your career, you’ll seek a mentor to get you to the next level. A mentor is someone who has gone ahead of you on the journey, knows the pitfalls, and can provide timely advice. You have to find a mentor. He won’t find you. In my case, I’d experimented with writing teachers and groups, hoping to make a helpful connection. For the most part, it was a waste of time when I should have been reading or writing, but I was putting myself out there and asked questions. Eventually the right mentor crossed my path—a bestselling author at the end of his career who wrote the kind of books I’d like write and had accumulated priceless wisdom.

Today the world is bigger than hit or miss hometown connections and the cruel realities of pub row in Manhattan. There are industry-specific mentor groups, which are accessible on-line through a variety of social media platforms. In the writing world, don’t be a pest. Don’t send unsolicited manuscripts to authors. Don’t corner them at conferences. Connect with them on-line. Ask a question. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee. The majority of the time, you will be ignored. Everyone is busy. But eventually you will connect with the right person who will help you in unimaginable ways.