As well as being the title of an amazing book by Joyce Carol Oates, this is the unwritten invitation from writer to reader at the beginning of every novel.
From the moment the reader opens the first page, the writer undertakes to transport them to a different place. It might be somewhere exotic, or somewhere very ordinary. It might be to another time or another universe. It might not be to a different physical place at all; it may simply be to a different state of mind. In some form or another, the experience of reading the novel will lift the reader out of their everyday existence or, at the very least, re-position them so they view it with a fresh perspective.
We read novels to go somewhere else. This does not make reading fiction an exclusively escapist activity (although, nothing wrong with that). We may read to gain a better understanding of ourselves. Or to face issues in fiction we find too hard to face in fact. It is the writer’s responsibility to take us on a journey, be it out of ourselves, into ourselves, or, in the best works of fiction, both.
As the reader progresses, expectations will be raised by the writer. If a murder takes place in chapter one, the reader might reasonably expect someone to try and solve it. If there are five girls born to a country gentleman in nineteenth century England, the reader might expect the parents to try and marry them off. If the hero finds himself serving in the trenches of the First World War, the reader might expect there to be dark times ahead.
The laying down of expectations can be a fun part of the novel, both to read and to write. I’ve had a good time laying down mine. My protagonist has arrived. She has a family. She has a back story. She has problems. She has a significant encounter. As sure as night follows day, there are going to be consequences.
Now I have to meet those raised expectations. I have to take the reader to the end of the line. Or I have to deliberately thwart their expectations – but that’s for a different kind of novel, far cleverer than mine. The one thing I cannot do is just bail out and pretend the expectations never existed.
You know, this place I’ve promised to take the reader – this garden path I’ve been leading them down – I’m not all that comfortable going there myself. It’s not that it’s too scary, or too depraved or too distasteful. It’s simply that it might be too difficult to pull off. It might be too clichéd. It might be too absurd. It might be too melodramatic. In other words, I might fail.
Have you ever read a book where your expectations are raised only to disappear into nothing? Have you ever felt cheated? Were you ever hung out to dry? It is possible the writer did this to you in deference to some high-brow, artistic principle. Or it could be they were just running scared.
The old adage, ‘write about what you know,’ is fine so far as it goes. But if you are to take the reader to a place worth exploring, the chances you, as a writer, will have to broach new imaginative territory also. Can you make it convincing? Can you achieve a suspension of disbelief? Can you deliver?
At this point, I turn to a quotation from one of my favourite writers who, whilst grappling with a far higher order of work than mine, came up with words that apply across the literary spectrum:
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
– Sylvia Plath
So there you go, Claudia. Crack on.