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With Great Authority Comes Great Responsibility

Today I'm going to talk about a subject near and dear to every academic librarian's heart: authority.

Now when librarians talk about "authority," we don't mean the word in the common sense of "the power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge." We use it in the context of evaluating sources, i.e., "Does the author of this book or article have the authority to write on the topic, or is he a random Joe Schmoe with no claims to expertise?"

What is "authority" in publishing?

The concept of authority is difficult for students to grasp because it's not "real." It seems to be completely arbitrary. College students know they're supposed to use academic journals instead Wikipedia, but why? Who says this stranger with a PhD must be more trustworthy than this other stranger with the screen name scienceguy1985? The information from both strangers is the same anyway!

Authority seems arbitrary...because it is somewhat arbitrary. The truth is, authority isn't actually a question of whether a person is qualified to write about a topic. It's a question of whether other people will believe this person is qualified to write about the topic.

"For example," I tell the classes, "If you say to your friends that you read on Wikipedia that sugary snacks worsen symptoms in kids with ADHD, they might say, 'Oh, that makes sense!' But if you write that in a paper, your readers will tear you apart. Readers, especially ones who disagree with you, are always on the lookout for weaknesses in your sources. They'll scoff, 'Well, that's just some quote from Wikipedia. Anyone could have made it up.' But if you can find that same quote in an article by researchers at Harvard Medical School, they'll say, 'Well, I guess that must be true. People at Harvard know what they're talking about.'"

In reality, the anonymous authors who contributed to the Wikipedia article might know more about ADHD than those researchers at Harvard. People at Harvard have published just as much nonsense over the centuries as people from anywhere else. But what's important, when picking sources for an academic argument, is that your audience will believe Harvard studies are always reliable.

"Authority" is the reason why people in the publishing world talk so much about platform. Having a platform is especially important for nonfiction writers. Even if an amateur historian/psychologist/etc. has the same knowledge as an Ivy League expert, if she can't put "Dr." in front of her name and wax at length on her accomplishments in the field, nobody will buy her books. It's not fair, but it's true.

In fiction, an author's platform is slightly different. Potential readers don't look for PhDs from fancy universities, but they do look for literary awards, celebrity endorsements, and other evidence of "quality." People are much more likely to take a chance on an author with a dozen critically acclaimed books and a "bestselling" label to her name than on a newbie with no apparent credentials.

The essence of authority is trust.

Authority is something we, as a society, give to people because we trust them. We trust researchers from Harvard to write medical articles with solid data and flawless reasoning. We trust people with "Dr." in front of their names to tell us the truth about history/psychology/etc. We trust people in police uniforms to enforce the law fairly.

So we're outraged when scientists publish lies, when police murder innocent citizens, or when high school teachers prey on impressionable young students. If an inner-city gangster lies, kills, or rapes...well, that's horrible, but we don't expect any better. But the scientist, the cop, the teacher? We trusted these people, and they broke our trust and stomped all over the brittle fragments.

Writers, even in fiction, have more authority than many realize. Simply by being authors we have authority. (Who'd-a-thunk?)

When a reader picks up a book, she basically hands her heart over to the author on a silver platter, saying, "Do with it what you will." She trusts the author to do great things with her heart, to make it race and stop and soar in an unforgettable experience.

And that's why, when a novel doesn't deliver that experience, readers are infuriated. They wouldn't get angry about a $15 lunch with a disappointing dessert, but they'll storm and rage about a $15 paperback with a disappointing ending. The author beguiled them into handing over their hearts, and then she just dropped them in the dust and walked away.

Never break a reader's trust.

After I wrote my previous post, "In Defense of Telling," my mother emailed me with a comment on my complaints about "bait and switch" openings. She was recently certified to teach cycling classes, and the award-winning personal trainer who led her certification course said, "Never trick your trainee. Build trust and follow through with your word."

In the past few months, I've read a couple of books that "tricked" me as a reader. The author set up expectations in the beginning, but then she didn't follow through with her word.

One of them was a YA fantasy, the sequel to a bestselling novel I thoroughly enjoyed. When I finished book #1, I thought I'd found a new favorite author to add to my ever-growing list. I was excited to learn it was the first of a trilogy, and I eagerly downloaded the audiobook of #2 from my local public library and listened while sewing.

The book is about a teenage girl who can control minds. If she desires, she can force anyone in the world to love her, to tell her all of their secrets, to do whatever she wants them to. Everyone fears and distrusts her, especially the prince of the kingdom. The heroine's father, who had the same ability, used it to lead the king down the path of ruin. The prince despises him for it and would never, ever trust her, a monster like him.

"Ooh!" I thought while ripping out tangled stitches. "This is gonna be amaaazing!" Just imagine it: the girl struggling with the temptation to use her ability, trying to remain a good and kind person even though victims of her evil father want to kill her and powerful royals want to use her for their own ends. The handsome prince, falling in love with her but resisting it every step of the way, because he can never tell if his feelings are real or if he's being brainwashed by that wicked siren. The conflict! The heartache! Bring it on!

And then...nothing.

The author did absolutely nothing with this amazing setup. That heartbreaking romance? After one minor act of kingdom-saving by the heroine very early on, the prince feels bad for saying mean things and decides to treat her better. They get to know each other during long walks in the moonlight. They become best friends and eventually lovers. End.

And that internal struggle to be a good person? Well, after some nice people in the palace convince the heroine she can use her powers for good, she thinks quietly for a while (and by "a while" I mean many, many chapters) and decides to accept her power and herself. She helps the royal family put down rebellions and soon everyone in the kingdom worships her. End.

The book was very mature, very realistic, and mind-numbingly boring. I listened to all twelve hours of the audiobook on principle, wondering all the while how the same author who wrote that wonderful book #1 could turn out a dud like this.

Writers say conflict drives plot. While that's true in essence, it's not the whole story. Conflict, by itself, doesn't drive anything. It's only a setup, a promise of exhilarating scenes to come. What really drives the plot is how characters react to conflicts: fighting, fretting, trying to fix problems only to create more of them.

So it's not enough to say, "The prince and the heroine hate each other but they're destined for each other. Isn't this exciting?" If the conflict doesn't put the characters in painful situations, doesn't force them into ugly confrontations with each other or themselves, the story will still be a dud.

Setting up a conflict, but then doing nothing with it, is breaking a promise to readers. So is hinting at a romance that never blossoms; or introducing a villain who doesn't do villainous things; or portraying the heroine as a kick-butt warrior on page one, only to have her spend the next 300 pages wallowing in self-doubt and pining for hot guys. Like the personal trainer said, you have to follow through with your word.

In Defense of Telling: Orienting Readers and Respecting Their Time

I recovered from my crisis of confidence, but I still have yet to begin Rainie Day #2 because of matters of life and death. Literally. In the past month, I attended two conferences and a funeral. (Not quite as catchy as Four Weddings and a Funeral, but believe me, it's been just as manic and emotionally fraught around here as that movie.)

I have many things to write about, but I'll save the heavy subjects for another day. Today I want to talk about that ubiquitous and well-intended, yet ultimately reductive "rule" of writing, "Show, don't tell."

The morning after I came back from the funeral, I dragged myself to work and opened my email accounts to find a rejection from a literary agent. She thought there was "too much telling rather than showing in the opening pages."

This email was upsetting for many reasons, and only one of them was the agent's accidentally horrible timing.

  1. The agent misspelled my name in the salutation. I don't care how many emails she sends in a day; that's just plain sloppy.
  2. There is no such thing as "too much telling." A writer might bog down a story with irrelevant telling, or tell when showing would be more effective, but she can't tell "too much." There is no hard-set maximum of telling allotted per novel.
  3. I'm a meticulous writer. Every sentence I type, I choose after carefully weighing it against the many other sentences I might type instead. And then I revise, revise, revise. So it's infuriating when someone dismisses all of that careful thought with a blanket statement like, "there's too much telling."

I wrote those pages the way I did for a reason: they do what opening pages ought to do.

What Opening Pages Ought to Do

After looking up some of the novels this agent recently represented, I can see that she likes fast-paced action right out of the gate. These novels begin with startling dialogue and dangerous confrontations. They drop readers head-first into adrenaline-pumping action. Another cozy mystery writer commented on Query Tracker that the same agent rejected her manuscript because the murder occurred too late...on page 12!

Many times, in many places, I've read that the opening pages of a book need to "grab" readers and "suck them in." Writers (and agents, apparently) often interpret this to mean they need to stuff page one with thrills and chills. They write prologues showing the last terrifying moments of a victim's life, or a grisly crime from the perspective of the unhinged serial killer. Or they write a short teaser of the life-threatening climax of the novel, and then they fly back in time to start the story properly at the beginning.

This approach can suck readers in, but it can also push them away. "Bait and switch" openings can come across as cheap and manipulative. Readers get invested in the characters on page one, only to see them bite the bullet on page three. Then they have to start over and get to know the real protagonists.

Most importantly, dropping readers in the middle of Crazy Town with no context is disorienting. When I skimmed the first pages of those fast-paced novels, I didn't know who these people were, or what was going on, or what the heck these stories were supposed to be about.

The opening pages of a novel should answer three basic questions for a reader.

  1. Who is the hero, and will I like him?
  2. What is the setting, and will I enjoy it?
  3. Where is this story going, and will it be interesting?

Simply answering these questions satisfactorily will "grab" readers who will enjoy the story. You don't have to dangle the heroine off of a cliff on page one, you just have to give readers an accurate idea of the reading experience they're in for.

Telling Orients Readers

Below are the first 300 words, thereabouts, of the manuscript for Whacked in the Stacks. Arr, there be telling ahead!

I'm not a superstitious person, but the morning of Friday, March 13 nearly turned me into one.

First I ruined my best skirt. That was my fault. I should know better than to read emails on my phone and eat strawberries & cream oatmeal at the same time.

Then my cat, Mr. Rochester, coughed up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. That was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

After I changed my skirt, scrubbed my shoes, and jogged through the freezing rain to my car, the engine wouldn't start. That wasn't my fault. I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy disagreed. She grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I petted her dashboard and gave her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

At 8:47 I turned onto Duvall Street, the main thoroughfare for Downtown Sea Breeze. At 8:49 I passed the Rocket Burger, where a five-foot plastic astronaut named Buzz All-Beef saluted me with one hand and held up a giant double cheeseburger with the other. At 8:51 I reached Fields Park, a.k.a. "The Fields." The magnolia trees stood with buds at the ready, itching for the go-ahead from the sun to burst into bloom. As I imagined the lighter skies and pink flowers soon to come, my blood pressure lowered a bit. If nothing else went wrong, I'd arrive at the library a few minutes before nine.

Of course something else did go wrong. Very, very wrong.

Looking at the list of questions opening pages ought to answer, I hope it's obvious why I wrote mine this way.

First, I aimed to give the reader a general picture of my heroine in the short space of one page. She's humble and readily admits her faults, she's modern in her habits yet conservative in her dress, and she responds to problems with patience, not tantrums. Also, she's highly educated and bookish, as one must be to name a cat after a classic literary character.

Second, I aimed to root the reader in the setting of the stormy Oregon coast. The freezing rain, the quirky seaside resort town, the hint of spring in the air.

Third, I aimed to signal to readers that the upcoming pages hold conflict aplenty. My very first sentence announces that many things are about to go wrong. Not only is my heroine about to meet disaster head-on, but more disasters await her when she arrives to work late.

Now, here's how I might have written the opening pages if I believed showing to be universally better than telling.

The oatmeal fell from my spoon in slow motion, pink and shimmering in the fluorescent light of my kitchen. Plop! The warm glob of strawberries & cream landed right in the lap of my best navy pencil skirt. Dry-clean only, of course.

"Nooo," I moaned. "Not today!"

I put my phone down on the table and grabbed a napkin to wipe off the oatmeal. It was my fault, I knew. I should know better than to read emails and eat breakfast at the same time.

As I was scooping up the last oat flake, I heard a suspicious hacking noise behind me. My heart sank even lower.

I turned just in time to witness my cat, Mr. Rochester, cough up a hairball on my favorite Mary Janes. I swallowed my irritation. This was also my fault. I should know better than to leave my things on the floor, where Mr. Rochester can and will destroy them.

I sighed and rose from the table. I grabbed my Mary Janes and headed to my bedroom. I scrubbed my shoes in the bathroom sink and dug through my dresser for a clean skirt.

Ten minutes later, I jogged through the freezing rain to my car. I rubbed my hands together to warm them and slipped the key into the ignition.

The engine wouldn't start.

I dropped my head onto the steering wheel. Why today, of all days? I'd taken Cindy the Civic to a service center just the weekend before, and the mechanic had said there was nothing wrong with her. Cindy clearly disagreed.

Taking deep, calming breaths, I tried again. Cindy grumbled and screeched when I turned the key. I tried again, and again, petting Cindy's dashboard and giving her compliments until she started up begrudgingly.

I checked the clock compulsively on my way to work. With every minute that passed, my blood pressure rose. It was the worst possible day of the month to run late.

This isn't a bad opening, but it doesn't do what the real one does.

First, I cover much less in these 300 words than I did in the first 300 words of my manuscript, because "showing" takes up a lot of space. I don't even get to the setting. This could be any woman in any city in an English-speaking country. Readers won't know where they are, and they won't see anything that might entice them to stick around.

Second, this passage gives readers no reason to care about the heroine, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere. So she had a bad morning and she's running late for work. So what? Why should anyone be interested in a glob of oatmeal falling from a spoon, or a cat hacking up a hairball? As I wrote in "Show, but Sometimes Tell," the purpose of showing is to get readers emotionally invested in a scene. Only the most melodramatic of fashionistas would be emotionally invested in an oatmeal-stained pencil skirt.

Third, and most important to my mind, the humorous voice of the heroine is now buried under all of the showing. She seems to take herself and her apparel much too seriously. Imagine if The Wonder Years had no witty voice-overs, and it was simply a drama about a cute kid growing up in the 70s. The tone of the show would be completely different, right? Similarly, the way Rainie tells the story says as much about her as what she does and how she feels.

It is possible to orient readers through showing, but telling conveys much more, much faster.

Telling Respects Readers' Time

As I read some of those fast-paced novels, I was irked by the authors. They seemed to purposely withhold crucial information, forcing me to dig through their words for clues about the characters and the events taking place. Here's the first page of one of them.

Every Southern belle knows it's not so much what you do, but rather what you're wearing while doing it. And when in doubt, always apply more lipstick.

Good thing Sandy had never been mistaken for a belle, because there was no shade of lipstick in the South that matched grand theft auto charges while wearing ducky galoshes.

"Either get on or get out of the way," Sandy said to the stubborn male standing between her and freedom.

Diablo had mammoth thighs, a trunk for a neck, and as Mr. Ferguson's contracted stud bull, horns that could tear through a steel wall. And right now those horns were pointed at Sandy.

But she wasn't about to let some misinformed male with caveman tendencies and bad breath stop her from doing what was right. Even when doing what was right sucked. Even when it accompanied a brutal summer storm, interrupted the only solid sleep she had gotten in weeks, and landed her smack dab in the middle of trouble.

Even then. Because Sandy could live with trouble. But regret was something she never wanted to feel again.

So who exactly is this woman, and what's going on? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the heroine lives in the South and her situation involves grand theft auto charges, ducky galoshes, a bull, a thunderstorm, and sleepless nights.

Not only does the page not tell me what's going on, beyond vague hints of "trouble" and "regret," but it plays with readers' heads. When someone writes the word "male," a reader images a human male. I formed a picture of the scene in my mind based on what the author told me was happening. Then she tore the picture up and made me rebuild it from scratch, mid-sentence, by revealing that the "stubborn male" is a completely different species. I was left disoriented and very annoyed.

This author must have been under the impression that if you confuse readers, they'll be intrigued and feel compelled to keep turning pages to figure out what she's trying to say. I know from personal experience that readers have the exact opposite reaction to muddy writing. If they can't tell where and when they are, and who exactly they're reading about, they get angry and put the book down.

In my early novels and short stories, I tried to be fancy. I tried to show everything in creative ways instead of telling people point blank what was happening. The comments in the margins from critique partners frequently looked like this.

  • "I was confused about who said this line."
  • "I can't really tell what just happened."
  • "Wait...how much time has passed since the last chapter? Where are we?"

And then they would stop critiquing after chapter three and never contact me again, because I had committed the unpardonable offense of wasting their time.

Being fancy forces readers to put time and energy into interpreting scenes. This is a good thing for creating emotional investment, but a very bad thing for conveying simple concepts. There's no point in making readers work hard to determine...

  • Who is acting or speaking
  • What the actors are doing
  • When and where the scene takes place

In other words, you shouldn't show readers what's going on. You tell readers what's going on, and what's going on shows them more complex ideas.

Sewing Projects

I haven't written a word of fiction since I finished Whacked in the Stacks. I haven't even outlined Rainie Day Mystery #2 in detail.

To be frank, I've been battling a crisis of confidence in my writing. The query process is long and psychologically draining. As the form rejections pile up, I start to wonder if I was naïve to write a low-concept, character-driven cozy mystery. I wonder if I should have written something "sexy" instead. Rainie Day doesn't live in a lighthouse-turned-bookstore off the coast of Scotland. She doesn't explore ancient ruins for a living while doing aerial acrobatics for spare change. Evil wizards won't destroy the planet if Rainie fails to find the killer before he strikes again.

But then I remember all of the Betty Crocker baking mix novels out there. I'm sure the authors of those books didn't set out to write bland, formulaic paperbacks. They set out to write great books, but then they caved to real or imagined commercial pressures.

Every year, thousands of writers turn out sexy high-concept manuscripts that never see the light of a literary agent's bedside reading lamp. Even if I were to stick my heroine in a Cirque du Soleil costume and set her loose in the evil-wizard-infested ruins of an ancient city underneath a Scottish lighthouse-turned-bookstore, I might never sell the book anyway. I might as well write the books I want to write and let the chips fall where they may.

Finally I decided, yesterday, that I'm going to forge ahead with Rainie Day #2...as soon as I can pull myself away from my shiny new sewing machine.

Brother CS6000I Sewing Machine

While doing battle with my confidence, I found an outlet for my creative energy in sewing my spring wardrobe. Tired of hunting through the stores for hours for attractive clothing that fits me, only to return home empty handed, I dusted off the Kenmore sewing machine I bought in college and started stitching away. Then a crucial part of the machine broke, and the local repair shop said they would charge $125 to service it. Sears doesn't carry Kenmore sewing machines anymore, and the part that broke was discontinued years ago.

So I wheedled Sweetie into paying a teensy weensy bit more to get this super-cool computerized wonder instead. It has an automatic needle threader! And it adjusts stitch widths and lengths on its own! And the stitches it makes are so pretty and even...I was appalled when comparing them to the valiant efforts of my poor old Kenmore.

Below are my creations so far, modeled by Missy Mannequin.

Missy is my birthday present from Sweetie: an adjustable dressform configured to my basic measurements. She's not a perfect replica of me, but she's pretty close. Our biggest differences are in the neck (mine is a bit smaller), the arms (mine are much smaller), and the slope of the shoulders (mine isn't as steep).

My hips also don't flare out in a bell shape like Missy's, but that's not her fault. She was designed to have a more balanced waist-to-hip ratio than I do. I'm Chinese on the top and German/Irish on the bottom. When configuring Missy, we had to keep the top and waist at the near-minimum, then crank out the hips to the near-maximum. So some things hang a little oddly on Missy, but they look fine on me.

First I made a purple dress out of Sew Classic Knit Ponte from Jo-Ann Fabrics. I hadn't sewn with knits before, so I chose this thick polyester fabric with a two-way stretch because it would be easy to sew. I made my own pattern, because that's how I roll. (And because I've used patterns in the past, and they always required major adjustments. I might as well draw the pattern from my measurements to begin with!)

Purple Ponte Dress - Front
Purple Ponte Dress - Side

Emboldened by my success, I then tackled a long blue dress made from the lightweight Jet Set Knit from Jo-Ann's. I like the flowy feel of this fabric, but it is very thin. Even with a lining, every bump and wrinkle shows through. I have to be very careful about what I wear underneath, lest I end up looking like Missy here.

Blue Jet Set Knit Dress - Front
Blue Jet Set Dress - Side

This is my sewing buddy, the panda. He chews on his plastic bamboo while watching me repeatedly unpick seams and try again. I bought him at Uwajimaya when I went to Portland for a workshop last week, along with a month's worth of frozen udon and miso. There isn't a single Asian market in the entirety of Central Oregon, so I have to stock up when I can.

My Sewing Buddy, The Panda

Finally, here's an A-line skirt made from a fabric by Art Gallery, "Yinghua" from the Pandalicious collection. The pattern is the same one I used for the curtains in the background, though those are made from a cotton in the "rainwater" color and the skirt is a jersey knit in "cherrylight."

Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Front
Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Side

I took a few photos of myself wearing the skirt. I'm glad my garments always look better on me than they do on Missy, instead of the other way around!

Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Front, in Mirror
Yinghua Jersey Skirt - Side, in Mirror

Under the skirt I'm wearing a pair of white leggings made from a Robert Kaufman Laguna cotton jersey. It's made of 95% cotton and 5% lycra spandex, which makes it very soft, very stretchy, and very prone to snagging. I disliked the fabric at first because it kept getting sucked down into my machine. Then I tried sewing through a strip of tissue paper on top, and now I'm snag-free.

I can't wait to sew more leggings, pajamas, and exercise pants for myself. The ones in stores are all too long or too short, too big at the waist, and too small in the thighs or calves. Since I'm short, one pair of pants requires a little less than one yard of fabric. The cotton jerseys cost only $5-$10 per yard...so making them myself will be cheaper, too.

Not pictured is a failed project: my first attempt at making a qipao, a.k.a. a cheongsam. Qipaos are close-fitting dresses typically made from stiff satin brocade, with mandarin collars and frog closures. This is what it was supposed to look like, but with plainer fabric so I could wear it to work.

Qipao Contest by David Yu

Photo: "Qipao Contest" by David Yu (from Flickr)

The stiffness of the fabric and the body-hugging nature of the style make qipaos very difficult to sew. I tried anyway, using a cheap satin from Jo-Ann's. The result was close, but "close" doesn't cut it for qipaos.

I'm going to try again with a stretch satin. It might be "cheating," but that's fine with me. The stretchy fabric will be more forgiving to minor imperfections in fit, and it will be more comfortable to wear.