The Promises An Author Makes: 5 unspoken promises an author fulfills in a story
Have you ever heard someone say the book didn’t fulfill its promise? Coming from a publishing professional, these can be difficult words to hear. But this feedback can be invaluable in understanding how a manuscript needs to improve in order to be marketable.
No author writes “I promise to….” on the back of the book. But in every book the author makes an implicit pact with the reader about the story ahead.
It’s as if the author and reader are going on a journey together although the author is present only as the words on the page, like a soul that has traversed this trail previously guiding someone for the first time. Without explicitly using the words “I promise,” the reader knows that the author has made promises about what will happen in the story based on the type of book, premise, and opening pages. But, what are those promises?
The author’s promise about new places is: I will take you somewhere you have never been. A new place will be enticing to readers. Readers wonder what it’s really like there, and they want more than a tourist view. In order to make it worth the time and effort of reading a story in a particular setting, the author needs to depict a place that the author believes and can construct fully in the imagination. When the author fulfills the promise of going to new places, readers come away feeling as if they were in a specific place, different from anywhere they’ve been before the story.
The author’s promise about new experiences is: I will guide you through experiences you’ve never had. Readers enjoy stories because they imagine facing an obstacle or living through a situation that they haven’t or can’t have. Readers want to know the details of the experience at each step as the tension mounts to the climax, not just the end result of what happened. When an author has fulfilled the promise of new experiences, readers come away with a nuanced understanding of the experience despite going through it vicariously.
The author’s promise about familiar places is: I will show you a familiar place so you see it with fresh eyes. If a reader picks up a book set in a place they’ve lived or visited, they want to revisit that place. The author’s depiction of that place allows the reader to recognize it and to remember the good and the bad about being there. But, the author’s promise goes beyond that. No matter how much the reader knows about the place, after reading the story, the reader will know even more details about the flora and fauna, architecture, history, and people. If the author has fulfilled the promise of returning to a familiar place, the reader reframes their own understanding of that place to include this new knowledge and vicarious experience of being there.
The author’s promise about familiar experiences is: I will help you relive a familiar experience in a new way. When a reader picks up a book that includes an experience they’ve been through already, they’re looking to relive it all over again and to be in each moment along the way. When readers put themselves in familiar situations, they can face them with 20/20 hindsight (and no risk). After riding a roller coaster, the immediate response is to do it again and relive the thrill. But, after having the same experience a few times, the thrill feels ordinary and the search begins for a roller coaster that is faster, goes higher, falls harder, and spends more time upside down. In a story the outcome might be the same like riding a roller coaster again, but the reader might also find out that story’s the outcome is different than it was in real life which might feel like a more intense roller coaster ride. The author facilitates the reader going through the emotional ups and downs of the experience and helps them to contextualize the experience. The author fulfills the promise of revisiting familiar experiences by allowing the reader to remember past experiences and be prepared to think and act in new and different ways when faced with them again.
The author’s promise about the people readers will meet on the page is: I will introduce you to new, intriguing characters, and I will help you understand why they act the way they do. Why do people do what they do? What makes us human? Readers choose books to meet unique characters who enrich a connection to people and the world. Some characters do things exactly the way the reader would and some would face the same challenge in completely unexpected ways. If done well, a character’s culture, heritage, upbringing, environment, and identity all make the reader’s experience of identifying with the character unique. The author fulfills the promise of introducing new characters if the reader comes away from the story having internalized a new understanding or perspective usually from the protagonist and perhaps from the narrator or other characters in the story too.
For an author to fulfill the promise of a book, the story must provide an immersive journey for readers emotionally and intellectually. The elements must fit together so that the story belongs to the protagonist in a way that would be different with any other character. And, the story must present something unexpected or fresh and different so that readers reflect about what they’ve read, something that makes the characters, the places, the events, and the voice memorable long after the last page.
The author’s overall promise is that the story will take a reader somewhere dark or uncomfortable. But, that’s ok because the corollary to this promise is that the author is the guide who will bring the reader out safely at the end. This promise creates the reader’s trust in the author.
by Jennie Dunham
1. What inspired you to put your story on paper in LIFE B?
It started with an idea for a personal essay – and when that essay, published on Elle.com, went viral-ish and I heard from scores of readers about their struggles with treatment-resistant depression, I knew that my story might help some other people. Those readers are the ones who inspired me to write my memoir.
2. What is your creative process/What does your creative process look like?
The hard truth: Writers write. For many years, I wanted to call myself a writer. . . but I wasn’t putting in the work. My life and my process changed when I committed to a daily writing practice. For me, in the past decade, that’s meant writing morning pages first thing (if you’re not familiar with “morning pages,” see Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”), then writing for 3-4 hours, depending on deadlines and meetings. I always get those hours in, even if it means I have to set aside time in the afternoon. However, like many of my fellow writers, my best creative work happens in the morning. And with coffee.
3. What do you think draws readers to your work?
I’ve done many different kinds of work over the years, including blog posts for myself, blogs for other people and institutions, book reviews, author profiles, book-industry reporting, designed books for National Geographic, an anthology, a broadcast author-interview show, designing launch publications, more. . . and the thing that ties all of that together with my creative work (essays and memoir and more in the future, I hope) is my commitment to authenticity and connection. I truly want to engage with writers, authors, creatives, and anyone else who is interested in my work. I’m not in it just for myself and I hope I say that with intentionality and humility.
4. How do you organize your research?
The answer would be I’m working on this! All the time. I know some writers loved Scrivener, for example, to organize projects and manuscripts. I haven’t gotten on that train yet. Something that works really well for me is using specific subject lines for emails and other messages, and specific file names for various stages of a project, whether in drafts or first-pass pages. I try to maintain paper files for financial documents and all I can say about that is I’m glad I have a spouse who is detail oriented.
5. Outside of writing, what do you like to do? (personal life outside of writing)
I started life as someone enchanted by stories (thanks, Mom, again and always!) and continue to be the most avid of readers – as well as someone with remarkably broad and deep reading taste. I do not judge forms or genres that people love. We all read what we need to read, and thank goodness for librarians, who help many many people , children and others, discover the books that unlock a lifetime of reading.
But I do have a life outside of books! I’m long married to my best friend and (at this point) lifelong love; he and I have two grown daughters and we love to spend time with them. The surprise is that they love to spend time with us! We’re all very happy on trail walks (the three of them hike; I’m a little less intrepid), trying every kind of cuisine, visiting museums, you name it. We have a miniature schnauzer who walks with us at home. I love to swim, anywhere, anytime, the colder the water the better, and have swum in an Adirondack lake in late September, the Baltic in May, and at the Cape Cod National Seashore in October.
Speaking of museums, I just returned from Los Angeles and took my first visit to The Getty Museum. Its location, grounds, and gardens were stunning. I’ve made a few dozen trips, now, to The Cloisters in Manhattan. I studied medieval literature in grad school and will maintain my Metropolitan Museum of Art membership forever just so I can sit in those cloister walks whenever I’m able to visit.
6. How did you initially get into writing?
Like so many of my friends and colleagues in the literary world, I’ve always considered myself a writer. Are you born a writer? I don’t know. But it wasn’t until I’d had quite a few life experiences that I was able to write consistently. My way in was through book reviews, since I’d done so much reading.
7. What is a cause you care about?
I care deeply about removing the stigma around mental illness and in improving mental health awareness, so one organization I support is the National Association for the Mentally Ill (NAMI).
I believe strongly in reproductive rights for all and have supported Planned Parenthood and NARAL since college.
While we have freedom to write and publish in the United States (as of yet), that’s not true in all parts of the world. PEN America and PEN International support the rights of creatives everywhere and keep watch over changing social and political conditions.
8. Could you tell us about authors who have inspired you?
And now this questionnaire becomes a manuscript. . .
Joking! I’m joking. But I *am* known as The Book Maven for a reason, and that’s because so many different books and authors inspire my work and creativity.
There are two books from 2021 that I am still talking about in 2023 and will probably still be talking about in 2029, so I’ll start with them, because they’re so different.
The first is THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DUBOIS by Honorée Fannone Jeffers, an important poet. Her debut novel tells an alternate history of the United States, by which I mean a different history. The contemporary narrator, Ailey Pearl Garfield, delves into her family’s history to learn how to cope with what DuBois called “double consciousness” for Black Americans. It’s fiction – but it’s based on fact, based on the people whose lives were ignored, suppressed, eliminated, by the Western European patriarchal structure that came to power. It’s long (816 pages) and rich and thoughtful and sweeping and necessary.
The second is ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS by Rebecca R. R. Donner, the biography of her aunt Mildred Harnack that challenges the strictures of the biography genre and pushes it almost into memoir territory – to magnificent effect. Harnack was the only American woman involved in the German resistance movement during World War II. She was executed in 1943 by direct order from Adolf Hitler. Many surprises await the reader, but what makes the book stunning are the surprises that awaited the author during her research.
9. What advice for do you have for aspiring authors?
I just tweeted about this! The Serenity Prayer. I don’t do the 12 Steps, but The Serenity Prayer is for us all. I’m not joking. If we really think about what we can’t change, what we can change, and the difference between them, we can take the next right steps on our journeys.
Along with that, if you truly want to be an author? Either get a ghostwriter – or become a writer. And the latter choice will take the time it takes. We can’t change that! What we can change, as aspiring authors, is how much we learn about the process of moving from manuscript to finished book. Education is something no one can take away from you.
10. What does your working space look like? What do you need in order to be productive?
People who speak to me via videoconference see a serene (if varied) set of bookshelves filled with galleys, ARCs, finished books, paperbacks, hardcovers. Sometimes they also see a lovely vintage writing desk and a chaise longue (which is where I do a lot of reading). What they don’t see is my “working” (writing) desk, which is not a mess, but does have a great deal of stuff on it, from my favorite Uniball pens to a photo of my family to colored pencils to a giant pinboard covered with things that include one daughter’s nursery-school art, an Electric Lit “Read More Women” postcard, and notes from my favorite book publicists.
11. Talk to us about music. What are your favorite songs for writing? How do you switch it up? Do you have a theme song for yourself as a writing professional?
I’m currently writing up a Largehearted Boy playlist for “Life B” so this is a question very much on my mind. I write in silence a great deal of the time because my brain pings around a lot when there’s music playing. When I do listen to music it’s often Baroque/classical, the kind that encourages productivity and stability, to keep me going as I finish the day’s word count.
When I do need something more energizing, I listen to a lot of African pop, from Nigeria and Ghana specifically. My spouse is a huge blues/soul/R&B aficionado and we share a longtime love of Fela Kuti’s music, which is what has led me to learn about Amadou, Davido, Femi Kuti, so many more! And the women!!! Fatoumata Diawara from Mali is one of my new favorites.
Speaking of world beats, have you listened to ADG7, the Korean shamanic pop group that plays on traditional instruments? Holy shit are they great.
Now back to my usual nerd content: I love, love, love Early Music. Medieval and Renaissance. Said spouse, who does NOT love it the way I do, takes me to several Folger Consort performances each year (we are so fortunate to have that group associated with DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library). I’ll talk to anyone about Early Music, plainsong, Monteverdi, any time.
12. What has it been like working with Dunham Literary?
Seamless. Jennie Dunham is a true professional and a lovely person whose ability to keep an author calm in any crisis cannot be praised highly enough. I’m looking forward to our next projects!
13. How do you celebrate a book release?
Eeeeeek. I had the best party for my first all-me book in 2011 for “An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy,” sponsored by National Geographic Books and catered by a local restaurant owned by a former French Embassy chef, held at One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia. It was truly special. For the anthology I edited, “The Books That Changed My Life,” I had a launch at Book Court in Brooklyn. . . that was, sadly, the wonderful bookstore’s very last event!
This time around my launch will be at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, in conversation with Alexandra Zapruder, and I’m still trying to decide (at the eleventh hour) what kind of celebration will take place. There WILL be cake and Champagne.
Add anything else that might be interesting or fun:
1. I lived in Berlin for 3.5 years and will talk to you any time about that city, especially as it was my first “home” after college, my first home after marriage, etc. I don’t return as often as I should and might have to make the trek soon. If anyone is heading there in 2023 do not miss the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, even if you think you’re not into modern/experimental art. There’s a lot to take in as you explore the “tracks” galleries. It also holds one of the most wonderful Viennese restaurants outside of Vienna.
2. Another thing I’ll talk about any time: Writing groups. Get into one. Stick with it, but also pay attention to when you might need to find a new one, whether because your goals have changed or your writing has. Getting regular supportive and constructive feedback is great, but even greater: PROVIDING supportive and constructive feedback. It’s how we grow as writers.
3. I created the #FridayReads hashtag/meme in 2009, when Twitter was still an exciting new phenomenon, and all these years later to see it still being used, and being used by individuals, libraries, bookstores, institutions of different kinds. . . is amazing. One thing I do like to share: for a few years we tracked the #FridayReads metrics, and even when we had as many as 10,000 people sharing their current books, only a handful would ever be reading the same book. We don’t all have to read the same things in order to connect through stories.