Trust

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.

Image by Sven Lachmann from Pixabay

25 comments

  1. I try to be truthful.
    Mostly because I’m too lazy to keep a bunch of stories straight about things I can’t be bothered to remember.

    It’s amazing how many people feel differently.

    Where I get myself in trouble, is that I rarely do something for only one reason. (Evidently, this isn’t very common.) So if I cycle though reasons in the explanation, depending on which was most relevant, people jump on the “contradiction”, even though all are valid and none mutually exclusive.
    Drives me nuts.

  2. Sticky thing about trust, too: it’s soooooo easy to lose, and soooooo tough to regain. We as human beings are just wired like that. It’s probably a defense mechanism. Credulity kills, and so forth.

    What makes me itch to decorate lampposts these days are all the many and sundry authority and so-called “expert” figures who loudly command us to trust them — at the same time their unknowingness, hypocrisy, and flat-out untrustworthiness has been on full display for years.

    No, I am sorry, you don’t get trust just because you have a wall filled with framed pieces of paper behind your Zoom or Teams picture. And you especially don’t get trust if you’ve been caught violating your own rules over and over again.

    For fiction, I had it drilled into me fairly early that keeping your fingers crossed behind your back — with the readers — was the kiss of death. Having invested in your book or your story, your readers want it to count. They want it to be an honest exchange. They are depending on you to have not fibbed to them at any point.

    Readers like consistency. And reliability.

    Sacrifice that? You won’t keep them. In fact, they may even savage you with unkind reviews. And rightly so.

  3. Another aspect of “Loss Of Trust” is that if “you” believe nonsense and repeat it, then the people who know that it is nonsense will not trust “you” no matter what else “you” say (true or not).

  4. 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

    Worth noting that in trad publishing, this loss can happen through no fault of your own. I can think of several books that I liked where if I’d chosen them based on the cover, I’d have thrown the book across the room. Why the publisher decided that a near-future sci-fi novel about telepaths should have a cover with a wizard and three women in togas is a mystery for the ages.

    As an indie, you have control over this, but you have to use it carefully. Your cover MUST convey your genre accurately; just because your dragon romance contains a space battle doesn’t mean that you can put a space battle on the cover. Similarly, the blurb needs to do that. I’ve seen a number of people omit critical information because they “don’t want to spoil the surprise” and thus don’t mention the presence of banshees in their spy novel. Fair enough, but you’ve got to warn people that the supernatural is coming, otherwise you’re going to have a lot of pissed off thriller readers and none of the modern fantasy readers who would have actually enjoyed your story.

    1. So true! We came across a paperback of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links. It’s Poirot’s second outing. He’s barging into a fetching, partially-dressed young lady’s dressing room. You could say this scene occurs in the novel but it lasts about 1/2 page and has very little to do with the story as a whole.

  5. It’s easy to move from a high trust society to a low trust one. It is very difficult to go the other way. Nobody takes the bars OFF their windows once they’re forced to put them on.

  6. I find myself wondering, were they looking for useful input, or only filling a check box that such input had been solicited, fully made up in their minds aforehand?

    Seems to me, they might have not wanted such input…

  7. Friend Dave, given your interaction with that council worker and her duplicity it might be worth a follow up to check that she did not make up an input and slap your name on it. Given that she is a liar and a pitifully poor one who prevaricates for her own immediate convenience about things she could easily be caught out on.

  8. This was timely, since I have been dealing this week with grief. I’m grieving the loss of a relationship I thought existed, which never really did. I found out about it through a stupid lie they made, which when the person was called out on, they doubled down on. I’d trusted them, and it turns out they were untrustworthy, and they don’t even want to try to regain that trust. Instead, they will accuse me of what they were doing, rather than do the work to admit they lied and hurt someone.

    1. Yeah, that’s a thing. Disgusting, isn’t it? I often wonder how those people get through life. Every time I come across this thing you describe, it amazes me. I have enough trouble getting by telling the truth. (I don’t do it because I’m a super moral person, I do it because I have a bad memory and I suck at lying. Plus most people are just not worth the effort to make up a lie and keep track of it.)

  9. One memorable time I was outraged by an author breaking my trust is when J.K. Rowling killed Cedric Digory at the end of Goblet of Fire. Four books of the series in, and she drops a graphic murder at the end of a KID’S BOOK with zero warning. Like finding a cockroach in your soup at a high-end restaurant.

    It pissed me off so bad I wrote a snail-mail letter to the publisher on real paper and spent a buck-fifty for the stamp. Which they ignored, obviously, but I wanted to let them know that I, the Reader, was not amused.

    This is probably why no named character ever dies in one of my books. Sometimes they find dead people, but there is never a time when one of the people “on screen” as it were gets killed. Or tortured for that matter, that’s another disgusting thing that’s become virtually obligatory. If there has been torture or mistreatment it occurs elsewhere, off-screen, and characters are the ones cleaning up the mess.

    Characters do go into danger and -almost- get killed of course, but by means of decent planning, absurdly effective technology and overwhelming firepower, they survive. What’s the point of having a giant tank for a girlfriend if she lets you get killed by a two-bit zombie?

    1. Have to disagree here Phantom.

      While I haven’t read the Harry Potter books and I don’t know “how much” Rowley showed of Cedric Digory’s death, I see nothing wrong in an author having a named-character killed.

      Now I don’t like graphic details of a character’s death but the fact that a named character died isn’t a major problem for me.

      In David Weber’s Honorverse, part of his showing that Honor (and other characters) were going into danger was having named-characters die (and yes these were named-characters). Side note, when Eric Flint wanted named characters to use in his books in the Honorverse, he was somewhat annoyed by David killing off named minor characters. 😉

      It is unrealistic for an author to only kill un-named mooks.

      Yes, the author can stack the odds highly in favor of his characters but in Real Life it would impossible for the characters to never suffer deaths in combat.

      Mind you, if a powerful and careful character get killed by a two-bit monster, then the author goofed.

      1. This killing off of characters is something I don’t even pretend to be reasonable about. Other people can do what they want, creative freedom is free, but I don’t do it myself. Somebody gets a name in my book, they are alive at the end. Even the bad guy. A foible of mine, I do admit.

        “While I haven’t read the Harry Potter books…”

        Yes, therein lies a problem. The death of Cedric Digory at the end of Goblet of Fire, -to me-, seemed discontinuous with the rest of the series and the rest of Goblet of Fire. After Goblet of Fire she kills people off left and right, but before that she doesn’t. At all. Going further, it -felt- to me as the reader that the brutal and pointless murder of a schoolboy had been dropped in without supporting features because an editor (or other publishing company stiff) told her to. The murder of the boy, coming as it did at the very end, did not change anything substantial about the story at all. Could have been left out. Indeed, should have been.

        Following that breach of trust, I read the rest of the series with a very different feeling about the books. No longer innocent wacky fun, now the usual murder/death/kill thing I was used to reading in fantasy. Lost opportunity, IMHO. I liked the wacky fun a lot better.

        1. This killing off of characters is something I don’t even pretend to be reasonable about.

          And I’m not going to attempt to change your mind about this.

          YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) is something that I believe always applies with liking/disliking stories.

          Note, I think if a writer is going to kill off a character, there should be some fore-shadowing of it and from what you said Rowlings didn’t.

          Oh, concerning “killing off characters” (and away from Harry Potter), the one thing I disliked in Comic Book reading was “the character is dead on the cover or the character died on the last page” but the character didn’t die and/or the character turns up alive the next issue.

          Of course, there were plenty of jokes that nobody in the comics Really Dies.

          If the author/writer is going to kill off a character, then that character should Stay Dead.

          1. “If the author/writer is going to kill off a character, then that character should Stay Dead.”

            Our Champions GM was SO fond of that trope that the players quickly adopted the “smoking DNA” option with his nastier villains.

        2. I didn’t mind it. I found the series was distinctly escalating and that was part of the escalation.

          It did, after all, start with the murder of the main character’s parents.

    2. Well, I don’t mind a named character getting whacked, but preferably a relatively minor one – like the original Tom Clancy novels did. He would give you enough of a minor character’s back story that you were enraged at their senseless death by villain.

      1. This type of thing is expected in genre novels like Tom Clancy spy vs. spy stuff. That’s why one buys those books. If nobody got killed there’d be no tension and no real plot.

        Contrast with a romance. Everything is going along, all romantic and smoochy, then the boyfriend’s ex shows up and guns him down gangland style in front of the nice romantic restaurant where he just popped the question to the girlfriend. There will be readers all over the place yelling in outrage and throwing the book at the wall.

        For me, in an SF that has the main plot problem something like ‘evil forces of evil are threatening to crash the moon into the earth ‘ then having random named characters get killed off “to raise the tension” seems needlessly harsh. I say let the heroes win. Good Guys 1, bad guys 0.

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