Sunday, February 12, 2012

Keep It Suspended: Why Authenticity Keeps Readers With You by Heather Cuthbertson

The beauty of readers, among so many great qualities, is their ability to suspend disbelief. It’s automatic and they do it without question: “Okay, we’re in a Zombie Apocalypse, I can go with it.” In the author/reader relationship, the reader brings this to the table every time and if the author appreciates the value of his or her reader, then they will work to suspend the disbelief long after the first few pages. The longer the reader’s belief is suspended, the deeper they get into the story and the author/reader relationship blossoms from an initial courtship to a life-long marriage.

Maintaining that sense of disbelief is done through the use of authenticity, which includes using authentic details, dialogue, and characters. For instance, if you’re writing a piece about the Old West and your character says, “That was totally lame,” then you’ve just broken the spell. Do this in the first few pages and you’ve lost your reader completely. Do this after the first 100 pages and you “might” keep your reader, but you’ve made them skeptical of your authority as an author. On the flip side, if you maintain the authenticity throughout, you’ve got a believer for book after book.

Allow me to demonstrate the power of authenticity:

When I was fourteen or fifteen (not quite sure exactly when), I had this major, major crush on Eddie Furlong. I was obsessed. I would read every article that he was mentioned in, stared at the posters I had of him on my walls, and re-watched Terminator 2 and Pet Cemetery 2 over and over again (even though Pet Cemetery 2 actually was really horrible).

The only person I could fully convey my undying love for Eddie Furlong to was my friend, Sarah, who had to listen to my fanatical ramblings during countless phone calls, lunch breaks, notes passed in class, and sleepovers.

Finally, after much deliberation and consultation with Sarah, I decided to take my crush to the next level and write Eddie a letter. I fully expected a reply. I mean, why not? My letter was witty and articulate, I refrained from saying, “I love you, I love you, I LOVE YOU!” and, instead, I commented on his movies, I asked what he did when he wasn’t acting, if he had any hobbies, you know, the usual.

I sent the letter and waited, and then I waited some more, and then waited even longer until life was becoming unbearable. I didn’t understand what was taking so long and I couldn’t vent to Sarah because she was visiting her grandparents in California. I was alone in my panic and doubt.

Then one day, I checked the mailbox and there it was: a letter from Eddie Furlong.

Time slowed. The world stopped spinning. My heart sped up. It was like every cliché imaginable as I stared down at the letter addressed from the love of my life. I couldn’t even read it. I just held it as I walked up my massively long, uphill driveway. I was nervous about what he had to say, but excited to know what he had to say. Would it be bad? Would it be good? Maybe he gave me his phone number? If he did, would I have the guts to call? Would it be too soon to call tonight? All these thoughts sped around my mind like a maelstrom.

About halfway up the hill, I couldn’t take it anymore, and tore into the letter. I think I read the whole first page, past the “Ha, ha, ha’s, I totally got you, I had my grandpa address the letter, and my visit is going good, I went to Sea World,” literally still believing that it was Eddie Furlong writing that. I was confused and checked the envelope. It wasn’t until I reread the letter that the realization dawned on me, slowly and painfully: Sarah had just played me.

Here’s why it worked:
1) She knew I was obsessed with Eddie Furlong,
2) She knew I had been waiting on a letter from Eddie Furlong,
3) She had her grandpa address the letter from Eddie Furlong,
4) She knew that if it looked like guy’s writing, I’d believe it,
5) And I did.

To be honest, if she wanted to take it all the way, she could have had her grandpa write the letter and I would have believed it was Eddie Furlong the whole time. If she had done that letter after letter, I would have been so hooked that even if Sarah tried explaining she was behind the gag, I wouldn’t have believed it. My suspension of disbelief at that point would have been so suspended, it would have probably taken Eddie Furlong himself to say, “Uh, listen, those weren’t my letters, like, seriously …” to finally realize. And even then who knows.

That’s how authenticity leads to the continued suspension of disbelief by the reader, which will ultimately lead to the author/reader relationship going to the next level. When you go back to edit your manuscript, carefully scrutinize those details for their level of authenticity. Would you believe it if you were reading your own work? Does it feel real to you? Luckily, readers will give us that benefit of the doubt from the start, but it is our job to keep them in the story. If we can’t hold up our end of the bargain, then our reader will move on to someone who can, as in the case with my crush on Eddie Furlong. It never was the same after that. He never did write me back and if you’re reading this Eddie Furlong, I’m so over it.

Heather Cuthbertson is the Editor-in-Chief for Gold Man Review. To read more about Heather, go to http://www.goldmanpublishing. com/heatherCuthbertson.html

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