A US agent called Nathan Bransford has a blog which follows in the stiletto-heeled footsteps of the late and much lamented Miss Snark. Among other things he posts and critiques submissions (with the writer's permission), for the enlightenment of aspiring and wannabe authors. In a recent such post here he said something which got me thinking.
...one thing I never realized until I became an agent and began reading so many books is that it takes a great deal of mental work just to start [reading] a novel, because it takes a lot of brain energy to get your bearings. Every detail you read in the beginning establishes where you are, who the characters are, what they're like, etc. and your mind has to piece things together, which isn't always easy... So it's extremely, extremely important to get the reader on very sound footing as soon as possible and to ease them into a new world... and to begin teaching them the "rules" of the world...
And yet as the writer you have to do it all without the reader noticing, because you want them to be reading, not puzzling. Yes, dialogue feels like a good lively way to start a novel, but you have to be a very, very good writer of dialogue indeed to be able to lead the reader in gently but clearly into that world by such means. My mental label for how not to do it, at the beginning or anywhere, is Ah Wordsworth!. As in 'Ah, Wordsworth, have you met Keats? A rising young poet, of course, but they tell me he's consumptive, so it'll be Mr Southey for Laureate if it's true that Sir Walter Scott won't do it...' And I think we've all had our attention caught by a really arresting opening paragraph which makes us long to know more, only to be either baffled when things don't start to fall into place soon, or bored when the story promptly grinds to a halt against a slab of backstory. As Nathan says, all that working-out is hard work for the reader because you've got no knowledge of the book yet, or engagement with the characters, to colour in the picture and fill in the gaps.
And perhaps the writer's the worst possible judge of this kind of thing, because we know it all too well. Each word conjures up the world of the rest of the novel for us, but not for anyone else. We know how the characters are dressed, what the different voices sound like, how to pronounce the names. The obvious example of this problem is in science fiction and fantasy, but historical fiction has its own equivalent. It isn't just any old ship, its size and capacity matters, but will my readers see the carrack for what it is, and know what it says about the voyage that opens the story? Should I explain, or make a character explain, or just hope readers will put two-and-two together as we set (all three) sails and make for the coast of Africa?
Readers vary, of course. A friend couldn't get beyond a first page of a manuscript of mine because she didn't know what 'a bolt of kerseymere' was - why should she? - but couldn't just ignore it and move on either. As the writer you're always having to guess what readers will know, and what they won't, whether they'll mind, and whether you mind changing it if they do. Which is where your trusted readers - editor, writing partner, tutor - are so essential. Editors in particular have to try to read through the eyes of as many different kinds of reader as they can. Of course I didn't have to say 'a bolt of kerseymere'. Maybe it really would have been the straw that broke the back of the hard-working reader of that first page. But I wanted to use the phrase because 'a roll of cloth' was so much less vivid and specific, and it's the dull and generalised that doesn't so much kill a book, as mean it's never born at all in the reader's mind.