Earning a Reader's Trust


When we read something, anything, we want to know that we can trust the author. If we trust that the author knows what they're doing, we'll give them more grace when they make "mistakes" like using unnecessary adverbs or telling when they should be showing. We trust that eventually they'll explain whatever we don't understand.

If we don't trust the author, those mistakes will stick out like they were written in sparkly red ink. If we don't understand something right away, rather than say, "I'm sure that's there for a good reason," we say, "That's stupid. It doesn't make any sense."

But trust is hard to come by, and worse, it's subjective.

We trust authors whose work we've read and liked before. We trust authors sold at Barnes & Noble more than self-pubbed authors peddling their works online. We trust authors recommended by friends.

We trust authors that we know personally. This is why referrals work. This is why agents and editors are nicer if you've met them in person. This is also why it's so hard to get honest criticism of our work, and why agents don't care if your mom and ten of your best friends said the manuscript was "better than J.K. Rowling."

So if you're unpublished, unknown, and you don't know the reader personally, how do you get the reader to trust you? All you've got left, then, is your first impression.

Your first impression is your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and in many cases, your query letter. This is why it's so important. It's not that the agent/editor won't read on if they suck, it's that they decide -- often subconsciously -- whether you're an amateur or professional based on the first thing they read. Everything they read afterward is colored by that.

If they see amateur mistakes straight off, then the fancy prose they see later might be seen as "trying too hard" or at best "potential." On the other hand, if they decide they're in the hands of a soon-to-be professional, then occasional sloppy prose they see later might be interpreted as "mistakes I can help them fix."

So don't tell them what your mom and ten best friends thought. Don't tell them you're the next Stephanie Meyer. Don't infodump. Don't try to describe every single character and subplot in a 250-word query.

Do find a critique group. Do read Nathan Bransford's comprehensive FAQ on publishing and getting published. Do read as many of the posts as you can at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Miss Snark, and any number of other agents' and editors' blogs around the web. Do whatever it takes to find out what first impression you're making.

Then make a better one.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Such very good advice! This is one reason I think face-to-face crit groups, or reading to your target audience, (while horrifically scary) can be a great thing. Sometimes, you can tell much better in-person what someone's reaction to your work is (regardless of what they actually say to your face). Are they captivated? Are they playing with their pencils? Do they have a dreamy look, already lost in your story?

Capturing a reader is tough work, but it's what both reader and write want to happen. :)

Matthew MacNish said...

Amen. I often talk about how much it matters to to come across in such a way that people will want to like your work. You just said it far better than I.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Very, very true, Adam. I never thought about it this way. I guess one of the reasons I give up on certain books is because I don't trust the author ... hmmm. Something they wrote in those first pages made me doubt their capabilities. I never thought about myself as untrusting before! I think I'm just scared of wasting my time!


Keriann Greaney Martin said...

Sparkly red ink doesn't sound so bad because it has SPARKLES. (I know, I'm easily amused.) I agree that having a solid critique group is essential before submitting something to an agent. Almost nothing is perfect the first time through, or even without another opinion.

If I haven't said this before, I'll say it now. You're blog is full of awesome :).