When I was small I remember my mother introducing herself as Mrs Fiddimore until the relationship had got to the point, after considerable contact and a moment of laughter or intimacy, when she would smile warmly and say, "Oh, call me Shirley!" and the acquaintance would be promoted instantly to a friend. But now, to the receptionist or the doctor or even the OFSTED inspector I am, without preamble or the tiniest bit of what I call warm-up-socialising, Deborah. And why not? Why should I mind? After all everything is less formal these days. Surely it's a good thing we don't need to trawl through the old preambles any more.
Interestingly enough the old premables don't seem to have changed much in the written form. When I first received an email from the editor I'm now working for at Macmillan, she started with, "Dear Deborah Jenkins" and finished "With best wishes," I dutifully replied the same way. Her next email began, "Dear Deborah" and concluded "Best Wishes". I was careful to use the same form, as you do (I am the kind who always responds to a three-kisses-text, with three kisses back. If I know the person, that it.) Then we progressed to "Hi Deborah" and "All the best" followed by "Hi there" and "Best". These days we are emailing a lot so now we don't really bother to address each other at all but launch straight into whatever we're emailing about. W have met once.
I find these developing levels of informality in the written form fascinating. Perhaps it's the very fact that the impersonal nature of it (no visual cues etc) mean those preambles are more important in terms of developing the relationship, and avoiding offence along the way. Not that this always works. We've all had those emails in response to our "Dear So-and-so, I trust you are well. Hope you don't mind me asking but..." which are direct to the point of rudeness - "Dear Deborah, No I can't help with the stall Sorry. Jane". Then there's the ubiquitous "Many thanks" often coupled with an impossible request from management, "Dear Deborah, Please could you prepare the Literacy Progress data and email it to me for tomorrow evening's governors meeting, Many thanks, __________(insert name of Headteacher).
What about our writing? If the relationship between two people who are communicating on a two-way basis can be tenuous and fragile, what must it be like when it's only one-way? Some books dive right in, as does Markus Zusak near the beginning of The Book Thief ("Here is a small fact, you are going to die.") Others are more circumspect, as in "He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale , dusty air" James Dashner's The Maze Runner. Some are more personal. "I remember lying in the snow, on a small red spot of warm, going cold, surrounded by wolves" (Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. All great lines and likely to hook different readers. I read to escape reality so I would be most inclined to read the middle one. The Book Thief line is too direct for me. I haven't read the book - that line, however true, makes me feel uncomfortable and I'd always be worrying there'd be discomfort to come. It's not just the beginning of a book though, is it? I often stop reading books (life is too short). If I compare books to, say, emails, this is why I'd stop reading: -
Things that stop me reading a book
1. There isn't enough description (the writer's too direct)
2. There's too much description (the writer's not direct enough)
3. The plot unfolds too slowly (the writer won't get to the point)
4. The plot unfolds too quickly (the writer gets to the point too quickly)
5. There's a lot of swearing (the author is rude)
6. I feel patronised by the author (the author is insulting)
7. I don't care what happens (the subject matter is inconsequential)
So how do you treat your reader? With respect or familiarity, or like a friend with a developing sense of intimacy, so by the end of the book, you're curled up on the couch together gazing at stars? Or are you unpredictable, unfolding your tale gently and then dumping on them like a badly planned boss?
Our relationship with the reader seems to me a complex and fragile thing. With the potential for great beauty, but difficult to get right. You are reading this on my birthday. As I look back, I see it's taking a lifetime...
Please click on the link to see the book.
Deborah Jenkins is a primary school teacher and freelance writer who has written articles, text books, devotional notes and short stories. She has completed a novella, The Evenness of Things, available as an Amazon e-book and is currently working on a full length novel. Deborah loves hats, trees and small children. After years overseas with her family, who are now grown up, she lives in south-west London with her husband, a Baptist minister, and a cat called Oliver.