Trust and Grace

— October 21, 2009 (4 comments)
Gosh, that title sounds like it belongs on my other blog. Anyway...

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.

Conversely, 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 Dan Brown."

So if you're unknown, unpublished (or self-published), and you don't know the reader personally, how do you get the reader to trust you?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 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.

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  1. Ah, trust. I think you covered about all of them, save the revisions test, in which an agent see "potential" and then asked for a revision to test your abilities...that is the scariest test ever. But gaining revision trust is awesome.

  2. I wouldn't know, Natalie :-) But I look forward to finding out.

  3. Interesting post, Adam, and all very true!

  4. That first line is LOL funny!

    Query letters? Be concise. Be objective. Don't make promises. And whatever you do, make yourself familiar with the agent's requirements and either follow them to the letter, or know the good reason that you're not.