Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Magic of Context

Writing Wednesday

For good or ill, the way you introduce a manuscript creates a context against which people judge a manuscript.

I've come across several comments from agents and others in the business about how they would jump at the chance if a manuscript of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman came across their desk. The reason is that those authors come with a tremendous amount of context that practically guarantees wide interest in their next project. (I wonder how well The Graveyard Book would do as the début novel of an unknown author.)

Put another way, (and not to excuse the numb commuters who wouldn't pause for beauty) the virtuoso violinist in the subway was ignored in part because of the context. If Mozart were dropped into the middle of the pygmy jungle would he still be a genius or would he be an entrée?

Context helps us determine why we care.

As authors, we create two kinds of context that (borrowing from economics) I'll call micro-context and macro-context.

Micro-context is what we generally call "good writing;" it is all the internal details--beginning with the well crafted first sentence and running all the way to the satisfying conclusion--that collectively give us reasons to care about the story when we're reading.

Macro-context might be called "good presentation." While it might correctly bring to mind marketing and promotion, I think it is a broader notion that helps us decide why we should care about the book.

Image: Simon Howden /

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