Friday, October 2, 2009

Trust . . . between humans and strays and writers and readers . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

This is a picture of trusting relationship in the making. On the left is Blackie, who used to dash for safety at the very sight of us. On the right is Hubby, working to earn Blackie's trust. It's taken Hubby several months and quite a bit of milk to coax Blackie this close to either of us.

We refer to Blackie as "he" but we aren't sure of gender. Blackie did some roll-overs on this same sidewalk recently, in order to persuade me to pour more milk into the milk bowl. the ploy worked for the cat, but I still wasn't able to judge gender during the roll-overs. Blackie does respond quickly to that name as well as "come on" knowing that those words mean food.

Blackie showed up in our yard quite a while ago, wandering by the bird feeder, but like I said, dashing to safety at the mere sight of either of us. Hubby, who is NOT a cat lover, felt sorry for the stray and began putting out small bowls of milk. Blackie responded by drinking the milk once we were safely back inside the house. That wasn't good enough for Hubby, so he started sitting on the steps, softly talking to the cat. The cat decided the milk was worth the conversation, not to mention the risk. We also provide cat food, in case you were worried, but Blackie goes for the milk first, and the food reluctantly, only when no more milk appears in the bowl.

Blackie recently reached such a point of trust (or hunger) with Hubby that he actually rubbed against Hubby's pant leg while the milk was being poured. He's not quite on that level with me yet, despite the fact that I put out the morning food as often as Hubby.

What does this have to do with writers and readers? I'm glad you asked. Writers have to earn the reader's trust, perhaps not as carefully and over such a long period as Blackie seems to be taking, but trust, indeed, must be built if a writer is to stay alive in this business. Most readers, myself included, have read enough bad books over our lifetimes not to want to read any more of them. And most of us have reached an age where we no longer automatically obey our mother's commands to clean our plates or finish our books. If a book doesn't catch our imaginations early on (50 pages for those of us with a smidge of our mothers' voices still echoing in our brains and 25 for the very brave who learned to ignore Mom at an early age) the book gets tossed into the "not to be finished" pile. And if the book is particularly bad, it might even be tossed against the nearest wall. I'm not a book-to-wall tosser, myself, so I admire those who can. I was raised with far too much respect for the written word by my step-mom who was also a teacher.

So how do writers earn the trust of readers? First of all by writing the best book possible, one that comes from deep inside us, and is just about as pain-free as giving birth to our first child without benefit of pain killers. That can be a *very* painful process, (book or baby, take your pick.) Writing from the heart, that's what matters to the writer (and the reader), not what's popular or what's selling, because by the time the book is published, something else is popular and thus, selling. And once it's written, we have to put our new baby out there, for public consumption, and listen to either oohhhs and aahhhs or icks and acks. It takes courage.

Second, the writer must do his or her homework, meaning research. LOTS of research. Research that probably won't even show up in the book in total, because if it did, it would become a lecture, not a leisure read for the reader, and we don't want to be guilty of that. Proper research means the author gets the facts right and slides them in without the reader being made aware. Because readers are very savvy and they can spot a one-way street the writer has going the wrong direction or is misnamed, if the writer is brave enough to set the story in a real city. And readers not only spot locational errors, but historical errors, behavioral improbabilities on the part of characters, misplaced commas, misused words, you name it, they spot it. AND they let the writer know about it. I'm still smarting over putting the wrong year on an antique car in one of my masterpieces, which car didn't debut until the NEXT year after the year I used. Sigh. Not enough research done on my part.

Readers also trust writers to treat the characters as if they were real, because they ARE real to the reader. (And to the writer too, if the writer is smart.) Kill off a favorite character and lose lots of readers. Kill off a child or a dog in a story and risk having your home pelted with rotten eggs. If you don't believe me, do your own research as to what happened to a couple of world-famous authors who tried to kill off their main characters. Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It wasn't pretty. Readers expect the writer to kill off bad guys or at the very least, small, unimportant characters off but not touch a fictional hair on the protagonists popular head.

And readers like the characters to grow, meaning learn and probably grow UP over the arc of the series. A character who keeps making the same dumb mistakes over and over (such as going blissfully into a dark basement during a horrific storm, without a flashlight or a weapon) soon wears on the readers' nerves, and then readers quickly jump from the writer's ship in virtual droves, taking lifeboats to the nearest next author.

Readers like writers who keep interesting stories going. There are only about seven basic plots in the world, but there are zillions of ways to write them. To make them different, and therefore new to the reader. Readers like writers who play fair with them by sprinkling plausible clues and red herrings along the way so the reader has a chance to figure out whodunit. But readers LOVE it when they don't figure it our and are surprised at the end. Just not a surprise they didn't have an honest chance of figuring out.

Readers like writers who don't have a soapbox to preach from, who present both sides of an issue fairly without suggesting that anyone who takes position A is brilliant and anyone who takes position B is stupid. That can really drive readers off. I know because as a reader, these same mistakes make me stop buying a writer's book, and as a writer I *try* (really, I do!) to avoid them.

As a Kindle owner, I now have access to samples for thousands of books. I can download, read, and either buy the book right then, or hang onto the sample and buy later, OR dump the sample because I hated it. Even with samples, sometimes a book looks like something I'd love to read, but turns out to be drivel. If it's a freebie (and there are tons of those available) I simply delete it without a backward look. If I paid for it, my finger tends to hover over the delete button, but then I dump it. I can't afford to keep books on there that I didn't enjoy. And now that I own a Kindle, I tend to load books on it that were written by authors I'm not familiar with. That way, if I hate it, I don't have a physical book to dispense with (or toss at the wall, if I had the nerve.) I just hit the delete button. There are a few authors I buy automatically on Kindle simply because I want to know I have books on there that I'll enjoy. Agatha Christie is one of those notable exceptions. I'm currently reading Hallowe'en Party. But I reserve buying hardbacks and some paperbacks written by authors I adore and books I know I'll want to hang onto.

Once a writer violates the reader's trust, it's about as easy to win that reader back as it is getting Blackie to let us actually pet him/her. Best to earn that trust first and keep it later on with the best writing the writer can write.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Terrific post, Lonnie. My only "yes, but" is the point about showing all sides of an issue. My new book, for example, deals with domestic violence. Somebody's gotta be the bad guy. In such a case, the way to win the reader's trust is the First Commandment of those of us who write about social issues: Thou shalt not be preachy.

signlady217 said...

My mom tamed two different strays(at different times)when I was a kid. They were both female tricolor (white, gold and black) short-haired calicos, and because we lived in the same neighborhood for years, we think maybe the second one was somehow related to the first. There was also another cat around that we called a "wanderer" not a stray. This was a beautiful long-haired silver-grey male (yes, we figured that out when we saw them together!) Anyway, we ended up with some gorgeous, medium-to-long haired kittens; one all gold, two grey/white and another one that I think died at the beginning. But it took my mom a while to earn the females' trust, but once she did, those cats never left us.

Pattie T. said...

Cute pic of hubby and "Blackie." I tamed a stray once with deli turkey. She found it quite irrestible and ended up living on our back porch. (I enjoyed the rest of your post as well from a reader's standpoint.)

Sandra Parshall said...

Bless your husband for caring about Blackie. I hope you can get him in the house, or some kind of shelter, before winter sets in. I've been through this with a number of cats. They all seem to know which house the easy mark lives in. :-) I could no more let an animal starve than I could let a child go hungry.

Good analogy re: writers and readers. We have to write what feels right to us, but we also have to remember that we aren't writing in isolation; other people are going to read our words. If we knowingly violate the readers' trust, we shouldn't be surprised by the consequences.

Julia Buckley said...

A very sweet story, Lonnie. :)

Ann Littlewood said...

Loved the article! One quibble--milk is not good for cats. The lactose isn't digestible and they can get diarrhea from it. Go with real cat food! Trust me... :-)