Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reader Trust

Sometimes you hear it said, "Sure, Author X can get away with that because he’s already established. No new author could get away with that."

I sometimes feel like the assumption is once you get your foot in the door, it’s not so hard, or maybe you get extra freedom or lenience. But I’m not convinced that’s the whole story.

Take, for example, the first sentence of Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens.

"It was a nice day."

If you stripped away the author’s name and analyzed that first sentence with today’s standards of first sentences, you could call it one of the worst first sentences ever. But if you attach Neil Gaiman’s name to that first sentence, it takes on a whole new meaning.

First, it fits his voice. Neil Gaiman’s voice is nothing if not understated and humble, and that sentence matches. His characters are just ordinary guys thrown in weird situations. Knowing the author’s other work, a reader understands that "It was a nice day" is the understatement of the century. As a reader, I not only trust that this is going to get good, really good, but I also feel like I’m in on the secret. Because I know Neil Gaiman’s work, I know that such an understated beginning is just the beginning of a huge day of twists that will be fun and delightful.

And take John Irving. In A Widow for One Year, he says this about his protagonist, a children’s author:

"It was a Ted Cole story; you always see what you’re supposed to be afraid of; you see it coming, and coming. The problem is, you never see everything that’s coming."

Although John Irving doesn’t write stories you’re supposed to be afraid of, he does have a tendency to tell his stories by giving the ending first. And like he says about his character, you never see everything that’s coming.

Irving writes whole novels that way, whole scenes, whole parts of the book. He’ll tell you up front what’s going to happen, but we know his writing. We know his style and we know that when he says something that’s going to happen, we know that’s not the story. The story is going to be in the twists and details to come. The suspense is not in what will happen, but how it will happen.

I believe it all boils down to reader trust, to the relationship you’ve developed with a reader. It’s like a guy. My husband can smack me on the butt and I’m going to giggle and start kissing him and feel all good inside. If any other man dared, well, let’s just say I’d be kicking and punching and yelling and hissing.

It all boils down to the relationship, to knowing someone.

I’ve heard some writers say they can write a crappy synopsis because they’re established and because they’re proven. I think they miss the point, too. I can write my editor and say I want to write a story about a purple people-eater, and that’s all I say. They understand, not because I’m any good, not because I’m anything. It’s only that they’ve read my other stuff, and they understand that Me + X twist equals something they can envision. That’s it, nothing special.

I’m a big believer in the fact that we have to understand how our words are going to affect a reader. We not only need to take in account our story as it stands alone, but our story as it is seen by the colored glasses of those who know us and know our voice, style, and other stories.

You’d be surprised how much a reader who’s read a good portion of our work knows us. Like, really knows us. Pretty damn scary when you think about it. And also pretty cool. I always feel so weird with reader email, because they know so many intimate parts of me, so well that they could easily call me a good acquaintance or friend, but I know nothing of them. It’s a weird thing and it makes me kind of sad.

I suppose it’s not like that with all authors. We all bare varying degrees and parts of our souls in our stories.

The problem is, almost all of us need to find more readers, which means they’re coming to the story brand new. So we have to consider those readers that know us and give them something special, and those readers who don’t know us and will need to be seduced by cover, by blurb, by first sentence, and by first page.

Just some rambles today, no conclusions. What do you think?

16 bonus scribbles:

Bernita 11/28/2007 12:15:00 PM  

Very good points about the "familiar" factor and it's seductive influence.

One should always be aware that some readers are coming in "cold" to one's work and do not share the history of nuance and style.

Erica Orloff 11/28/2007 12:37:00 PM  

Hi Spy:
Hmm . . . yes, I think you raise some good points. On the other hand, the idea that no new author could get away with something is often not valid. I think that a new author who tried something audacious or different might be embraced--because editors get tired of copycat novels, lack of originality, etc. Give them something fresh and daring and they might sit up and take notice.

spyscribbler 11/28/2007 12:51:00 PM  

Bernita, good point. Very good point. I was just reading about how Nora has to balance a series throughline in her JD Robb series, with the pressure of making each one stand alone. So many things to think about.

Erica, I completely agree! Actually, I meant a new author trying something old ... I hear them complain that Author Y gets to use that tried and true convention, why can't they? And I think it's not just because Author Y has the foot in the door, but because Author Y has proven they can make the tried and true interesting, and because Author Y has readers who trust the tried and true will be interesting.

I didn't do a very good job of explaining what I thought, did I? LOL. :-)

From what people seem to be saying, trying something audacious and different is almost a requirement these days if you're trying to break in. I love fresh and different and original, definitely! Actually, I have a tendency to believe that new authors push genres forward more than established authors, in general.

The Killeryear authors, for example, all blew me away in very different ways. They gave established authors a run for their words, and took us a few steps forward in whatever direction the genre is going.

I love new.

Anonymous,  11/28/2007 01:39:00 PM  

Interesting and thought provoking blog, Spy. I do tend to forgive mediocre starts of authors that I've read before. I'm not a huge believer that the first line needs to hook you in just as I don't believe you need to mercilessly torture your hero throughout the book. But that's just me. LOL.

Liz Kreger

Anonymous,  11/28/2007 01:40:00 PM  

Incidently, I generally post to Blogger "anonymously" because for whatever reason, it never lets me go through despite the fact that I'm signed up with Blogger.

Liz Kreger

Edie 11/28/2007 02:32:00 PM  

Blogger stopped working for me last week, and I had to sign on with my gmail addy instead. So that's a little more typing I have to do when I blog.

I think when writers complain that "no new author could get away with that", it's when the book isn't that good. Maybe they didn't have time to write a better one and they have a big reader base so the editor sends it through, but it's just not good. I can forgive a ho hum first sentence if it leads into something wonderful.

You’d be surprised how much a reader who’s read a good portion of our work knows us.

I wonder if that's why we love writers like Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jayne Ann Krentz and Nora Roberts. We feel we know them, assuming they're like their heroines. This is an interesting blog!

Angie 11/28/2007 02:54:00 PM  

I think that's part of it, that we know our favorite writers well enough to trust that they can handle something that we've seen too often before, or that we've seen horribly MIShandled too often before.

But I think the other part of it is that there are plots and gimmicks and devices which are incredibly problematic in less than spectacularly skilled hands. I have a short list of writers whose work I'll always at least try, people who've never let me down, who always managed to make even plot devices or settings or whatever that I'm usually completely uninterested in, interesting. WWII stuff bores me silly, for example, but one of my short list writers wrote a WWII story a year or so ago and it was great. [muttergripe]

Maybe that brand new writer could handle the story about a guy who gets pregnant well. But I've seen it grossly mishandled way too often to give her or him a chance. Sorry, that's life. If I hear from someone I trust that it's great, I might go back and try it. But if one of my short list writers does it, I'll dive right in and trust that they can turn it into something stellar. Because usually they can, and usually the newbies can't.


Bailey Stewart 11/28/2007 03:48:00 PM  

I'm with Angie. I'm more likely to try a new "gimmick" with an author I trust than someone I don't know.

Karen Olson 11/28/2007 04:23:00 PM  

My readers don't really know me. When you write in first person POV, readers think that it's really YOU, not just a character. I had a woman in a book group once say upon meeting me, "Oh you look so NICE, not at all what I expected." Which was what? That I'd be all four-letter words and sarcastic?

I'm not baring it all for readers. I'm creating a world that doesn't exist but I hope is believable. I'm supposed to be invisible; I like it that way. (I also don't want to write the same book twice, and so far I've succeeded...)

spyscribbler 11/28/2007 05:32:00 PM  

Liz, good point. I don't need a great start from someone I trust has written a good book.

Weird about Blogger! I'm glad you stop by anyway, Liz!

spyscribbler 11/28/2007 05:53:00 PM  

"I can forgive a ho hum first sentence if it leads into something wonderful."

So true, Edie! I love that. I suspect you might have a point with the "just not good" bit, too. :-)

spyscribbler 11/28/2007 05:54:00 PM  

Angie, the skill of it is a good point. I didn't think of that. Some writers are just so good they could make the telephone book a fascinating read, you know?

spyscribbler 11/28/2007 05:55:00 PM  

Bailey, I'm the same way. (And do you know that every time I see your avatar I grin? Or have I told you that a million times already?)

spyscribbler 11/28/2007 05:59:00 PM  

Those are admirable goals, Karen! That's a great point. I try to fictionalize everything, but I think certain themes and tendencies leak through over time, not so much that my characters are me.

I've never had anyone assume my first person stuff was me, though. That would make me feel a little weird, I think! Or, at least, they haven't told me that to my face! Yikes!

Liz Wolfe 11/28/2007 06:57:00 PM  

Yeah, I've heard that new authors can't get away with anything. I don't believe it. But unfortunately a lot of aspiring authors probably do believe it and are reining in their creativity because of it.
But an author has to be aware that a lot of readers (that are new to that author) are making the decision to read or not read the book based on the first sentence or page. Maybe on the first few pages if you're lucky. So even if you're established and have a reader base, it seems you need to be attracting new readers all the time.
I'm brain dead from writing copy all day and can't remember exactly where I was going with this.
Except to say, I regularly throw out the first chapter of my books. I guess it's just a form of warming up...LOL.

StarvingWriteNow 11/28/2007 07:33:00 PM  

Frankly, I think it totally stinks that the entire "value" of a book will often rest on that first sentence/paragraph. I'd love to start a story with "It was a dark and stormy night" or "It was a nice day" but no... I have to hook the bejeezus out of a reader for even a hope of publication. Can I stamp my feet and throw a hissy now?