Learning Curves

Or, How hard are you going to make the reader work for the story?

One of the interesting things about hanging out in a group that crosses a lot of genres and watching writers put up snippets is watching the rest of the group trying to give feedback in isolation. Quite a few times, they start by guessing which genre it is, and then giving feedback based on that. Sometimes, “I don’t know what genre this is, so I’m confused.” Or the only feedback is: “I think you’re writing horror? Or maybe fantasy? But is it scifi?”

By the time the reader gets to your book, they’re usually well cued into this by the cover and the blurb, both enticing enough they just bought it. Although, I’ve seen some books sticking the blurb on the first page you see when you open the ebook. Which is really annoying for a lot of readers who are saying “I just bought this! Why do they have the blurb again?” And is really helpful for people going back to their electronic TBR file and going “Interesting cover, but no clue where I got this or when. What is it?”

That said, readers will still have a learning curve. Whether regency romance or milscifi, they still have to learn the characters, the problem, why the characters matter, what the stakes are, and what the setting is like. Oh, sure, Regency England may be a well-defined time and place… but *this* house and town and the neighbors and the country estate are different from that other book, possibly even by the same author. (Writers note that not having to make all this up afresh is one reason series are easier to write than standalones… it’s also one of the reason many readers like reading series instead of standalones.)

Interestingly, this is one of the reasons middle-grade fantasy is often starting in the real world: it’s a familiar setting, with unfamiliar characters. Once the reader has the characters down, only then do they move to an unfamiliar setting.

Moving up in grades, we still have learning curves. Interestingly, when I read through a lot of romance-scifi, looking at how it was different than scifi-romance, one of the things that stood out was a much softer learning curve. In a lot of scifi, a concept is presented, and then played with under “if this goes on…” and all the consequences are extrapolated. In romance-scifi, it’s much more “here’s the setting, the characters, now here’s a story with that setting and characters.” There may be more exploration of the world, but the focal point is on the romance, and anything else like politics, economics, ecology, biology, meteorology, physics… that’s often handwaviumed away unless it’s developed to move the plot along… and then it’s usually dropped after that.

Then you get to epic fantasy, and hard scifi, both of which love throwing the reader an unfamiliar world full of new things, and letting the reader struggle to make sense of it all as the story rolls right along. (There are readers who love this sort of challenge, just like there are readers who hate it.)

Take Chapter one of the Way of Kings (Though to be fair, it is set after a prologue that gives an epic feel and scope, before you’re plunged hard in:

4,500 years later

Szeth-son-son-Vallano, Truthless of Shinovar, wore white on the day he was to kill a king. The white clothing was a Parshendi tradition, foreign to him. But he did as his masters required, and did not ask for an explanation.

And then contrast with Monster Hunter International:

On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening, I had the chance to live the American Dream. I got to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from the 14th story window.

…I deliberately took these from two extremely well-selling books with big fanbases so you can see that there is no one right way here… both can be highly successful, if that’s what your audience wants and is expecting.

But that’s the text itself. Let us turn our attention to the blurbs, which set up the reader expectations before they buy and crack open the story.

Monster Hunter International has a whole cat of creatures from B-movie reels, from familiar things like werewolves to Native American boogeymen to creepy stuff that I’d have to ask a serious horror aficionado to track down other references or origins. How many New Terms To The Audience ended up on the blurb?

Three. Owen Zastava Pitt (the protagonist), Monster Hunter International (the business, and the title of the book), The Cursed one (the arch nemesis.)

That’s a pretty easy learning curve to get into, and promises it’s going to be a pretty easy read with a gentle learning curve.

The Way of Kings has a completely alien environment and ecology, and, being epic fantasy, has multiple protagonists in multiple plotlines that the readers trust will eventually all weave together. How many New Terms ended up in that blurb?


That’s… pretty hefty. The rule of thumb in marketing is that the customers will stop listening after the third unfamiliar term. The blurb is really long, as well. On the other hand, it’s selecting for people who want to have a steep learning curve thrown at them quickly, so when they hit the text itself, they’re expecting the challenge instead of floundering.

So consider how hard you want to signal to your readers that they’re going to have to work for it if they download the sample or buy the book. If it’s a short romp by one or two characters through a fairly traditional urban fantasy setting, maybe don’t throw in every proper noun used in explaining your worldbuilding in the blurb. But if you’re doing a truly alien world or a complex multi-threaded tale, you don’t have to stick to “max three things spellcheck wouldn’t recognize.”

3 thoughts on “Learning Curves

  1. On the other hand, “Monster Hunter International” is all terms that the average reader knows, arranged in an order that makes sense.

    I ponder this for the blurb of A Diabolical Bargain, where Nick Briarwood grew up next to Wizards’ Wood. He’s unfamiliar, but most readers will guess what Wizards’ Wood is approximately like.

  2. In some ways, the sales copy echoes the writing style. Epic fantasy tends to have a slower, more elaborate writing style, perhaps because of Tolkien’s model. Other genres use terser, more direct and simpler language. So the sales copy fits the stories that way as well. (Not always, but the bulk of the time.)

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