Trust is a valuable coin. One we seldom think about when we have people’s trust, until we don’t. Regaining that trust is very, very hard task. All too often, too hard. And even if you regain part of it, well, doubt remains, and you’ll lose even that trust, really quickly. The second time… it’s like a weakened trip switch. It’s harder to reset, every time, and the smallest thing will make it fall over.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given (which I have repeated in several books) was from an elderly gentleman who said: ‘Never lie. That way when one day you have to, everyone will believe you.’ True. If you’re lucky you can go to the grave without needing to. There is another corollary to this – if you screw up, admit it fast and first. These, besides good life lessons, are essential parts of your writing, as I will explain.
I had an incident the other day where a young council worker and the hired consultant were supposed to be available in one of their chambers for certain hours, for the general public to make their input. I got there, fifteen minutes before closing time. The door was locked. It’s a glass door, so I could see no one was there. I went to see a man about a dog, came back tried again, took a photograph on my phone of the empty room – through the glass door, and went home. The next day I tried again, and there they were. “Where were you yesterday?” I asked.
“Oh, we were here,” says the woman from council.
“No, you weren’t, I came in at 11.45, this room was locked and empty.”
“We just went to get a cup of coffee. We hadn’t had anyone all morning. I’m really sorry,” says the guy.
Now that’s fair enough. “Next time leave a note on the door,” I say.
“Oh, we did,” says the woman.
“No, you didn’t,” says I.
“Yes, we did!” she insists.
“I took a photograph of the door,” I say. Sudden silence, into which the consultant steps smoothly asking how they can help. Actually, I had come to help them, at their request to the public.
Look, It was a trivial, irrelevant matter. Hell’s teeth, I’ve done many worse things before breakfast. Twice. But the end result was that after that she could have said it was windy on Flinders Island, and the building process here was a bureaucratic nightmare – both things I hold to be true, and I would have been wondering if somehow I was wrong. If they’d just ‘fessed up – I would have been a lot less critical. They were asking for local input to support their position – and I could make quite a valuable (to them) input. I went home, still irritated, and decided I wasn’t going to, because it would take an investment of my time, which I could no longer be bothered to make.
Writing for an audience is something that rests on trust. Oh, not just journalism – which is in dire trouble for exactly this reason. Eventually, even the dumbest of us figure that’s not just yellow rain running down our necks – and the admitting it fast and first lesson seems to have bypassed these people. I’m a little tired of what they loudly call ‘conspiracy theories’ which then prove to be true… and then they’re deadly silent about, for starters. That aside, trust is much a part of writing fiction as ‘news reports’.
“Dave, it’s fiction. You know, ‘fiction’ which is ‘made-up’ stuff. You should know, because if you think the stuff you write is real and true, I need to know what street corner you’re buying on, so I can avoid it.”
I know that. But I also know I deal in trust. The audience – let’s say the ones who have never read an author’s books start with a little trust and a lot of doubt, and if that trust is betrayed, you’re in trouble. Let’s say they thought by the cover it was a space-marines Milsf, and the first paragraph is about the twoo romance between two pink dragons, paragraph two (which may explain that this was just the book the ruffty-tuffty space-marine was reading – as they do) is unlikely to be read. The reader has expectations, they trusted you, you betrayed that trust. What’s worse, is they are unlikely to trust you again. You’re asking them not just for their money, but also their time.
Now, if you have a track-record with that reader, he or she enjoyed your other books, you delivered what they trusted you to deliver, reliably, in the past… they will give you a little more of their time to see just why you had two pink dragons entwined in their space-marine book’s first paragraph. I can think of several possibilities, which would not have betrayed the reader’s trust.
The reader also trusts you to have done your homework. Let them catch you in something wrong ‘a lie’ if you will – say about guns. They won’t believe a word you say after that – even if the other facts are all dead right. ‘Fast and first’ – in your intro or foreword, is good, if you don’t know a lot about the subject. Say who you consulted, show you made the effort.
And also in my case ‘fast and first’ means that I make sure the reader who picked up the book based on my name knows exactly what they’re getting, as soon as possible, up front. I write all over the place – from High Fantasy to hard sf. I have readers who are hard-core fans of one series or type, and will be furious if they paid for another. There are others who will read it if I write it – they may prefer my Rural Fantasy or Space Opera – but so long as I don’t try to fool them will have either, just as sausages and mash, or hamburger would do for supper, even if you really love hamburgers – so long as you weren’t expecting the other.
The only deceit – if you can call it that – you can get away with and still keep that trust is to give them what they wanted – but extra. Bacon too.
And the one thing you cannot afford is to lose that trust. They expect certain things from your book. Give them at least that, or they’re unlikely to give you a second try, after that. And the third is right out of the question. Dogs do that better than people, but most dogs don’t buy a lot of books.