I critiqued a novel for a new author last year. It was military science fiction, which I read steadily but not frequently, and had some unique attributes. The author was enamored of these unique elements, so much so that - while the first chapter opened with battle - we spent several pages watching his gaze drift lovingly over the individual parts of his war machines. In a movie, this would have been a musical montage laid over scenes discolored to indicate they belonged to someone's memories, and would have taken 10 seconds. It takes significantly longer than 10 seconds to read three pages, especially when they are laden with layers of minute detail.
This battle scene was told by a single perspective, a commander dealing with strong emotions due to something bad happening in the past and then - after we see a fight but have no idea who is battling who, or why, or whether this is a daily skirmish or The Final Battle - more strong emotions after a few of her troops are killed.
I advised the author that, while there was some tension and drama, the opening was not engaging. I didn't know this person, and while I made polite, sympathetic noises in my head, I didn't care about what she was going through. And the disproportionate way in which he'd focused on his mental inventions made me feel as though we were seeing the full footage for an upcoming advertisement, before it was edited down to a sleek, sexy 30-second spot.
He dismissed my comments, saying that, because I didn't read more in the genre, I couldn't understand and therefore wasn't a useful beta reader*.
My comments weren't critical because I was giving him a didactic assessment. They were the criticisms of someone who likes to enjoy what she reads, and there were ways to make it more enjoyable. Hundreds of thousands of books are published in the U.S. each year. That's new books, adding on to the MILLIONS already available. How do readers select their next read? Sometimes by word of mouth, purchasing a novel because a trusted source suggested they do so. More often, the reader picks a title up or clicks on it online, opens it and reads the first few pages.
My takeaway from the first chapter I read? Something happened featuring unique machines and it upset a character.
What I wanted to find? Something happened and it upset me.
Not that I'm going through life looking to be wounded by fictional people, but I want to engage. I want to be drawn in and made to care. And yes, I want that from the beginning. Even after I've purchased a book, I am so busy that if something inside of that story doesn't plant a hook and maintain a connection, I might never pick it back up. That's even easier with an e-reader where there's no physical reminder that pages await. And that connection is independent of the genre. I often give books outside of my go-to genres more time to grab hold of me, because the fact that I'm stumbling is generally due to my lack of experience, not poor writing.
Sometimes stories aren't engaging through no fault of the author. Reading is entirely subjective. One reader might be on their third copy of a book since they re-read the first two until the binding surrendered and the pages fell out. Another might not be able to remember if she even read the book collecting dust on a shelf.
But, dear aspiring authors of the world, please don't refuse to give readers a chance to fall in love with your stories. That leaves us all poorer.
*Someone who reads in order to give constructive feedback rather than a pleasure reader.