‘Trust me’, said the author

Image: Pixabay

I asked my kid to pass me a newspaper, you know, that trusted repository of information about the current affairs of the world…

I got a long-suffering sigh. And handed an i-pad.

You know, that’s the problem with progress. It’s all very well, sleek, convenient, etc.

But it can’t be trusted soak up puppy-puddles like a newspaper did.

But they’re pretty good for swatting flies, and lining parrot cages.

I hear in rural parts these days you can find a pile of old i-pads in the dunny. Avoid the ones with cracked screens.

Seriously, the days of newspapers being a trusted source are long behind us. Which – if you’re one of the staff being laid off at HuffPo or Buzzfeed to name two sets of recent casualties – is hard if you relied on that trust for your livelihood.

It’s all very well saying these writers brought this on themselves.  This may be correct. They may, in fact probably did do this willingly and eagerly. But of course, not doing so would have got them fired earlier, as their employer wanted only certain version of ‘truth’ (in which truth features only according to Snopes, but complies with their own narrative). They were between a rock and a hard place, and the fact that their boss told them to go there, and they wanted to go there – doesn’t change the fact that they’re now unemployed, possibly looking at using their skills and training to write fiction. The major difference being that it actually may be called ‘fiction’.  The point remains: they lost trust (reporters are now down near the level of car-salesmen and politicians) and this has spilled into the way they earned their livelihood.

The trouble with trust is that it is slowly won, very valuable, little valued, much abused and… once lost, very very hard to regain. That’s as true in a marriage, a business, a newspaper, an award… or an author’s career.

“An author’s career? Dave you’ve lost your mind, not that you had much to lose. We write _fiction_. That means it’s NOT true, dude.”

Correct. Fiction has a serious disadvantage over fact. It has to be plausible. Facts merely have to be true. And you’re entering into a ‘compact’ if you like, with the reader: they suspend their disbelief while they’re in your book-world. That’s actually a very big ask, which is why logic, internal consistency, and not stretching the plausibility too far.

“Too far? Ah come on. We’re talking FTL and Aliens here, Dude. Bigfoot is more plausible.”

Correct again. I could trust you to right at this rate. This is a WILLING suspension of disbelief. Not they believe you. But to maintain that stance requires a very fine line from the author. A McGuffin that allows a ship to fly faster than light… allowable. Sort of possible especially if the reader is neither a physics nor maths aficionado, and anyway they WANT to suspend disbelief about that.

The same goes for aliens. It’s the things they don’t want to suspend disbelief about that are death traps. Guns. Horses. Boats. To name three ‘never get it wrongs’ and duh, the people and the relationship between them. That’s one of the biggest ‘trust losers’ of following the PC character checklist. The checklist could exist in a setting, could behave according to narrative, with the strong independent woman and her gay sidekick and his black friend, and the rest of the checklist of various intersections, kicking the ass of the inevitably bad middle-aged conservative Christian white male villain… but you’re going to have to devote a lot of time and effort into building that into half-way remotely plausible to a lot of the audience, even the ones who want to believe.

The reader may well not even realize why they suddenly thought they’d go and check on facebook. You’ve been there yourself, I suspect. You’re enjoying the story… but something is irritating you. Stopping you reading until 4 AM and being late for work the next day. It’s not the big McGuffins – it is the little details. Even if they don’t make you TBAR the book, they keep that author from the ‘must buy’ list we all want to be on.

But it is more than that. The reader is trusting their mind to you for at the very least a few hours.  Maybe even weeks, depending on how fast they read. And if immersed in a book – that’s actually a very high trust relationship. They want –and expect—certain things from you: just as the guy who once avidly consumed his morning newspaper – disappoint them, and they’re not coming back. First not to you, second not the genre, and maybe even to the entertainment that is reading itself.

Most readers have a fairly straightforward set of expectations from a book. I’m sure there ARE a handful who want to be made uncomfortable, or ‘be educated about the latest fashionable 0.0001% of the population’s intersectional victim points’ or even have a sermon about the evils of the cause du jour – I think it is ‘toxic masculinity’,  at the moment. And if that’s what they want, and expect from you, woe betide your future sales to them, if the book is entertaining escapism. On the other hand… those are not most readers.

I keep saying this. And people keep ignoring it:  Use your book cover and blurb and indeed first few pages to effect. Let the reader KNOW what sort of book, what genre, and what ‘feel’ and ‘voice’ to expect, and then be true to it. Yes, that muscular bare torso headless man (where do romance authors find all these beheaded models?) may get a whole bunch of eager romance readers to buy your gritty techno-thriller… once.




  1. (Nods) Thing is, a certain amount of discomfort in a book can be a good thing, but it needs to be the kind of discomfort you get from a good run, not the kind you get from a poorly-designed chair.

    Also, it would help if “challenging” didn’t carry a parenthetical “to the stereotypical views of old conservative white men.” I have yet to see a book that disagreed with gentry liberals labeled “challenging” by the literati.

    1. There have been a few variations in history about who is the target, but it’s always a figment of the challenger’s imagination.

    2. Unfortunately, pour epater les bourgeoisie has, like all shock-based or subversion-based aesthetic approaches, a profoundly steep curve of diminishing returns.

      Hence the Onion headlines, “Madonna Shocks Seven” and “Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People”.

  2. “But it can’t be trusted soak up puppy-puddles like a newspaper did. But they’re pretty good for swatting flies, and lining parrot cages.”

    Seriously, what am I going to put under a door for a quick coat of paint after all the newspapers go out of business?

    (Free painting tip for y’all, put the newspaper upside down so you don’t stand there reading it instead of painting.)

    As for the staff at Big Lefty Media being laid off: if coal miners can learn to code, so can a bunch of Lefty English majors who took Liberal Arts in university so they wouldn’t have to do math.

    1. I dunno… I’m thinkin’ a better response mighta been, “Learn to mine coal.”

      And as to being “fired” and hurled into the financial void — my grok is that most Huffpo and Buzzfeed writers are paid only in internet cred, so they already have some other source of income… most likely daddy’s trust fund, or perhaps disability payments due to mental illness.

      1. The absorbent properties of those pages has been maxed out, I’m afraid. If you squeeze them the bullshit leaks out a bit.

    2. I started saving newspapers about a year before we canceled our subscription. I don’t know what I’m going to put on the work table to soak up spilled dyes when these yellowing papers are gone.

      1. See if your city has a free weekly paper?
        Buy an occasional Sunday paper? (Are those still stuffed with ads?)

      2. Need newspaper near a city? Head to the arty part of town and pick up the free paper that exists mainly for ads on “cool” places for college kids to spend money and concert listings 🙂 Often found a trendy, yuppie, and punk places, as well as coffee shops. Just ignore the opinion masquerading as news about how terrible it is that all the stuffy old taxpayers won’t pony up more funds for the latest hot dream.

      3. Many of the grocery store ads around here are still printed on the good old fashioned newsprint. For as often as I need them, I’m usually covered pretty well so long as nobody else gets the mail and throws them straight into recycling.

        (Discussion on language over at Sarah’s place. It just struck me now – why do we call the blank paper “newsprint” and the dirtied up stuff “newspaper”? Gah. Fifty-five years of not ever wondering about that is a record for me…)

      4. U-Haul sells boxes of blank newsprint sheets. It costs half as much per sheet as a newspaper, and it doesn’t come with malicious nonsense written on it. I expect any place that sells packing and mailing supplies will have them too.

    3. Yeah, they could. But they won’t think of it for themselves, and it’s now officially ‘badthink’ to give them a hint.

  3. Betraying your audience is the worst thing you can do. If a plot twist is so distractingly out of left field that every detail afterward becomes utterly lost in a negative “what. was. that?”, then you’ve screwed up.

  4. I’ve done that once. I got partway through page one of what was supposed to be a good sf novel, reached the excessively graphical — so far as I am concerned — fornicatory act, and tossed the thing.

    1. The story is always about the audience. That’s what makes it a story. Social justice howler monkeys think a story is an opportunity to lecture, hector, and harass the reader. Even worse, the lecture is invariably about how the reader is an evil little shit who needs to be enlightened by his betters. Much, much betters.

      Imagine someone standing in front of you, blocking your way to the fun books and wagging its finger in your face with snide little remarks about your immoral, disgusting, inferior character. Do you appreciate this? Or do you feel a powerful urge to slam a punch right into the schnozz of the creepy goblin with the snotty attitude?

      I know my own answer to that question. Only instead of a punch, I’d personally prefer something more kinetic with a high density. Lead, say, but tungsten will work. Pow! Instant satisfaction, and then on to the fun books that show respect for the reader.

      That is all.

  5. I was in a discussion of Zelazneys’ Doorways In the Sand once. In which book, two alien cops go undercover as a wombat and a kangaroo. Much earnest discussion of whether it was plausible that professors would really mind a perpetual student.

  6. Great advice. I’ll add two more that are closely related.

    First, do you best to come up with a scene that hits life at its essence. There’s such a scene in the movie Predator. They’ve just discovered that they’re being hunted by something terrifyingly powerful. Schwarzenegger pulls out a wicked knife and approaches their captive. She looks frightened. Is she excess baggage to be discarded? Instead he cuts the rope that binds her wrist. The message is powerful. What we are facing is so deadly to all of us that we’re no longer enemies. Work marvelous, exceptionally realistic scenes like that into your plot and you will delight your fans. Show them that you understand life.

    Second, never redefine your plot and characters afterward to make them more pleasing to some particular clique. In particular don’t try to make your story more politically correct than it was. That’s a mistake that J.K. Rowling’s has made with Harry Potter. It has outraged even her most die-hard, politically correct fans. You can see that in this YouTube video, which has had over 800,000 views. Having created a Hermione much like that in the movie, don’t make remarks like: “Not once did I ever say Hermione Granger was white.”

    1. It is also weird and perverse. Everybody knew that Hermione was Rowling’s self-insert, everyone knew how she was drawn by Rowling — and everyone knows that you can cast anyone to play anyone. Nothing stopping anyone from recasting Harry to be played by Jason Momoa, or Samuel L. Jackson, if you think you can pull it off.

      But lying about it — that is what people dislike. Othello can be played by a white guy or as a Martian, but his original character is that of a black guy. Hermione is such a white girl that she glows in the dark, although you can reinterpret her character outside the source material.

      1. That said, there was nothing stopping Rowling from revealing the self-evident fact that a lot of whitebread middle class English people have exotic ancestors, and that Hermione might well have some black or other minority ancestors. There are some English icons who have really startling diversity among their recent ancestors, because the English traveled and did Empire.

        I suspect Hermione would have been happy to tell us all about it. And being a little bit SJW, she could have started wearing dreads or pillaging African magic, or even altered her appearance magically, and not have been out of character.

        1. Actually, I myself feel the urge to write old-fashioned fiction that has all-white characters who look down their noses at people of color, who are always lowly servants or disposable red shirts. Perhaps an Asian character or two could provide the wise old operator of an obscure curiosity shoppe with oddly magical objects plus one comic relief who supports the lily-white hero in his quest to save America from the teeming hordes that want to destroy it. The screaming from the SJWs would be high and piercing. That’d be a pantsload of laughs!

          And I’d bet on building a rabid fanbase of politically incorrect readers who are sick unto orbit of the finger waggers. Muahahahah! Sardonic laughter rings out across the hills and the shining seas!

          Is it illegal to have that much fun?

          1. Not yet, but it’s probably fattening. I’m told that schadenfreude tastes like a really good steak, followed by the best medium-dark chocolate money can buy. So I’m told.

  7. No matter how bad the first part of a book is, while I am reading from KU, I will almost always read until I reach the 10% mark just so the author gets something.
    That does not happen very often, only occasionally. As Amazon’s recommendations are pretty good as to what I like to read. It is the first time I read a author where this happens most often and even then I will try another of their books, just to see. Twice and that’s about it for that author though.

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