Acquiring Author Credibility

Credibility

Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.

Authority of the Author—What is it?

authority

Authority of the Author—What is it?

Sounds a little New Age, doesn’t it? Authority of the Author.  It is, kind of. I think the best way to start is with an example.

As always, I remember reading this but can’t remember the source so you’ll to have to take my word for it.

In her earlier writing, Margaret Atwood published a short story about girls at a summer camp who collaborate on writing a novel. A bad, clichéd one as it turned out. The humor is in how inept it is.

But what would have happened if the writer herself had been a bad writer? The joke would fall flat or disappear because the reader wouldn’t see a difference between the quality of the writing of the novel-in-progress and that of how the story itself was being told. For the short story to work, Atwood had to establish that she herself as a good writer before she introduced the girls’ efforts.

She does this by her vivid description of the setting and the dialogue through which she introduces the idea of the group effort, among other ways. Atwood has established her authority to tell the story.

What is this authority of the author?

The Atwood example is the clearest I’ve found where a lack of authorial authority makes a difference. But it gets murky beyond that. Honestly, there’s not even unanimous agreement on what it means.

Brooke Warner in her Huffington post article believes “getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority.” That doesn’t quite sit right with me as I’ve read plenty of unpublished pieces which have authority.

The blog Wistful Writer comes closest to a definition I agree with:

Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.

However, the blog then gives an example which doesn’t actually capture the concept for me.

Memoirs should have this power

Memoir writers presumably have this completely covered. They certainly are experts on their own story. They have sort of spontaneous authority, no?

But even with this presumed knowhow, memoirs can also be seen as self-serving, light on truth, or verging on the unbelievable. So they don’t automatically get a free pass into being trusted.

Defining authority primarily as a writer’s expertise on the topic of the narrative doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree a writer needs to know what he’s talking about in both content and craft, I think authority encompasses a realm which I may not be able to adequately define but will nevertheless give a try in the next post.

But for a final word:

Why does it matter?

Really, who cares if you have authority? Big deal.

But actually, it is. If you do, your reader will relax into your story and go willingly where you want to take her. You have put her in the continuous dream state.

Authority has another, practical advantage. With it, you can probably rely on your readers to stick with you through bumpy/puzzling plot bits or necessary but slow scenes. So they can experience your dazzling ending.

 

Feedback Defensiveness

defensiveness

You have asked a good friend, Marina, to read your manuscript. Here’s how defensiveness can steer a feedback session wrong:

Marina:
Sorry to take so long to get back to you. It’s been crazy at work and I wanted to do your novel justice.
You:
That’s okay. Thanks for taking the time.
Marina:
I liked the premise a lot—a young woman who inherits a company and has to learn how to run it.
You:
Yeah, I thought it introduces a young character into an interesting situation.
[Marina will likely tell you other things that she liked. But eventually, she will move on.]
Marina:
There were just a couple of things—I mean, they’re just my opinion.
You:
I’d be interested in hearing them.
Marina:
Your main character—I started disliking her—she was so ruthless.
You:
But she had to be in the situation.
Marina:
Yeah, but that dirty trick on her old boss—that seemed pretty mean.
You:
No, you read that wrong—it wasn’t dirty; it was justice.
Marina:
Well, that’s not the way I saw it.
You:
I don’t think you got the intent. She has to take every opportunity to succeed.
Marina:
Maybe, but it’s how it struck me.
[Marina makes other suggestions but YOU don’t find merit in any of them.]
You:
Well, thanks for reading it.
Marina:
I guess I wasn’t much help.
You:
Of course you were but I think I’ll ask Bernice to read it, too.

Conversation aftermath

You end the conversation dissatisfied. Marina just didn’t get it. It was a waste of time. But in fact, the problem wasn’t with Marina but with your defensiveness. Here’s how:

  • You commented on the good feedback. Yes, you need to acknowledge the positives but not give the impression that she got the correct answer as you sort of did.
  • You justified your view of the character. You discarded the feedback even though it’s important information about how some readers see the character. Might not be everyone but she might represent enough of a minority to worry about. But you were justifying more than listening.
  • You decided her opinion was incorrect. In fiction, it’s hard for anybody’s opinion of a character to be wrong. You may not feel the same way and that’s okay, but she’s still entitled to her opinion.
  • You decided she didn’t get your intent. Doesn’t matter what you intended—what’s on the page is the only thing Marina has access to. If she didn’t get it, you need to pay attention.
  • You probably burned a friend who was willing to give you feedback. By dismissing everything Marina said, you signal that you didn’t value the time and effort she put in. You don’t have to agree with the feedback but you need to make it clear you value her contribution if only so that sh will be willing to do it for the next manuscript.

So, how do you avoid defensiveness in feedback sessions and still keep your vision, whether it be fiction or memoir? In the next post, let’s discuss that.