Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.

 

You Don’t Have to Share Everything

I’m reading a mystery series right now that is both addictive and fails me as a reader. And it was put on hold after the fourth book in the series, so I’m pretty sure it failed other readers as well. And I’m pretty sure I know why:

Great idea, bad sub plot that then shares way too much information.

Some of you will recognize this series, but I’m not going to specifically call out the author here because that’s not the point of what I want to discuss.

So the novels are mysteries. The main character travels the country and investigates various disappearances. All good so far.

But she travels with her brother. (Well, as it turns out, not her actual blood-relative brother, but her stepbrother that she spent the last decade thinking of as her brother.) In book one there are enough overly-intimate moments between them that it’s pretty obvious they’re going to become a couple at some point in the books.

As a reader, not something I would seek out. (Although there was a very big erotic romance trend around stepbrother romances about five years ago, so obviously many readers would.) So not my cup of tea, but I was willing to let it happen in the background so I could read the mysteries because I liked the premise of the books.

And then I got to book three and they finally got together and that relationship took over the books. There were sex scenes in book one but they were either alluded to without giving details or taken care of in a paragraph or two.

This time…

The author included more than one very detailed sex scene of the two of them together, one of which included the main character comparing the shape and size of her “brother’s” privates to those of other men she’s been with.

Ew. (It did not help that the main character continues to think of her new lover as her brother on a regular basis.)

But really. Any shift like that, without the relationship between the two to complicate it further, would be off-putting to a number of readers. You thought you were reading a gritty mystery and now you’re reading erotica.

I think this series highlights an issue many writers face when writing first-person novels. Because there’s no doubt that in new relationships that are sexual that the level of thought someone gives to sex and the amount of sex that happens become pretty central to that person.

So if you were really living in someone’s head there would be a lot of mental space given to sex and thinking about sex.

But it doesn’t have to make it onto the page. A novel is not a detailed accounting of every single thought a character has or of every single thing they do in a given day. That would make it incredibly long, incredibly boring, and provide way too much information about the character’s life.

As a novelist you have to pick and choose what you show to tell the type of story you’re trying to tell.

(By the way, book four was even worse. I had to start skimming. One because there were still these I-did-not-need-to-know-that sex scenes but also because the novel made the reader sit through the reactions of three sets of family members to this new-found forbidden love. Completely irrelevant to the plot, whatever the plot of this one actually is. I’m halfway through and still not sure at this point.)

This is a trade-published book so you’d think they’d have caught this issue. But no. The editor failed the author in this case, IMO.

So, to turn this from rant to writing advice…For all the authors out there, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here? And does it need to be here in that level of detail? Am I keeping a focus on the story I’m actually supposed to be telling?”

(Especially when you take a left-turn from genre expectations like this one did.)

We Are Not All The Same

It seems I’m always blogging when I should be writing. But yesterday I figured out that the 13K words I’d written on the new cozy needed to be set aside because the book I was writing needed to be book three in the series, not the book two I was supposed to be writing. (Good news, it’ll take less time to write that third book.)

So this morning because I’m not in the flow yet on book 2 I was catching up with some old blogs. And I saw that an agent I used to respect had said something very disappointing. (After this comment and a post a few months back which caused me to stop reading their blog regularly because it was so full of vitriol towards self-publishing, I can’t say I do anymore. Which is sad to me. Because this person seems to be getting more and more narrow in their views. Or maybe it’s just showing more as time moves on.)

Anyway.

The comment was along the lines that anyone who writes three novels in two years must obviously be writing crap. It wasn’t quite that rude, but it was there. The post also included some comments about what a writer’s process is, like there can be only one writing process for all of us.

I have to say, as someone who has always worked faster than those around me, that I find that opinion very narrow-minded. My two hours of time is not someone else’s two hours of time. There are those who can work and create much faster than I can and those who need much more time. To say that the only thing that makes a good novel is the amount of hours spent with your butt in the chair is wrong.

We are not all the same.

And that comment forgets that different people have very different lives. That person this agent puts on a pedestal for taking five years to write a novel may have only spent a hundred hours on that novel over those five years because they had a family and a day job and other hobbies.

If someone has none of that, they could put in those same hundred hours in a few months. And that with downtime to think between drafts.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about how long something took to write. It should be about whether the story in question meets the needs of the audience it’s meant to sell to. And different audiences have different requirements. Some people want the language to be as much a part of the experience as the story. Some people (like me) want the words to get the hell out of the way so they can enjoy the adventure without being distracted by the author.

(I used to love China Mieville and still love his ideas, but I stopped reading him after a novel that involved some very very specific word related to giant squid. It wasn’t the only word like that in the novel and I thought to myself as a reader, “Do I care enough to go look this up in a dictionary?” The answer was no. I could figure it out from the context. But for me each time I ran across a word that was one I didn’t know–and I know a lot of words–it threw me out of the story and stopped me cold. I’m sure there were other readers who thrilled with excitement to see each of those words. For me it was a “not my author” moment just like for many authors you have to say “not my reader” when someone hates your book.)

So anyway. After seeing that agent’s commentI figured it was time for a periodic reminder to write however you want to write and take as long as you want to take. It’s the end product that matters not how the sausage is made. IMO, of course.

(I will add that ironically this same agent made another comment around the same time that authors should be able to write the second book in their series in six months. It seems you’re a hack if you write your first novel in eight months but you damned well better be able to write your second in six. Seriously.)

Study Success Not Failure

In a recent post, Dean Wesley Smith made an excellent point that I wanted to highlight here as well. And that’s that if you want to improve your writing you don’t study someone else’s failures, you study what they did right.

I recently ran across this same concept with the reading I did around CliftonStrengths. In a book called First, Break All the Rules--which is an excellent book that’s well worth reading IMO–they explore this concept and give a few examples from Gallup’s research.

For example, in that book they talk about the difference between successful and unsuccessful nurses.

Unsuccessful nurses become too emotionally engaged with their patients and are overwhelmed by their emotions and can’t help their patients effectively.

What do you think the best nurses do?

If you studied just the nursing failures you’d probably assume that they keep an emotional distance from their patients to protect themselves. You’d be wrong. That’s what average nurses do.

Successful nurses become emotionally involved with their patients, too, but they use that to help make the patient’s experience the best it can possibly be.

Same with salespeople. Bad salespeople hate to cold-call. And if you just looked at your worst salespeople you might think that what you need are people who don’t have that reluctance to make cold calls. But you’d be wrong. Average salespeople will just go through the motions and not care. Good salespeople will dread making a call, but they’ll persevere and win over the customer despite that.

As the book says,

“[E]xcellence and failure are often surprisingly similar. Average is the anomaly.”

Now apply that back to writing. Think about the best stories you’ve ever read. Or watched. Were they safe? Were they vanilla-flavored? Or were they bold? And different? Did they take risks? Did they choose to be their own unique experience instead of one of a hundred just like it?

And what do you think most writing rules aim to do? They aim to curtail the bold failures. But what makes one book horrid, can make another awesome. It’s sometimes a matter of degree. Maybe a book was just not quite over the top enough to pull it off and the answer is not to dial it back but to ramp it up.

Which is why you can’t look at what made a book bad and try to avoid that. You’ll never get anywhere. You have to look at what made a book great and find a way to leverage that for your own writing.

I’ll tell you that I stopped listening to most writing rules after I read some Stephen King with my “these are the rules” hat on. Because that man? He’s fearless. He writes what he wants and in the way he wants to write it and to hell with anyone and their rules. (He may be one of the few highly successful writers I’ve seen using parenthesis in his fiction writing.)

When I saw that, I thought to myself, “If he can do that and be that successful, then anything is on the table.”

It’s not about how many adjectives or adverbs you use. Or how long your chapters are. Or how long your paragraphs are. Or even whether or not you use info dumps.

It’s about finding a way to tell an engaging story that pulls your reader through from start to finish and makes them want more.

If you want to learn how to do that, how to make the equivalent of book crack cocaine, don’t study the hundreds of people who’ve failed, study the few who’ve succeeded.

(You could also just sit down and try a couple hundred times until you come up with your own unique formulation, too, but that’s a lot of time wasted learning lessons others could teach you in a few minutes or hours.)

Anyway. Something to think about as we head into the new year…Enjoy!

Writing Books Available in KU

I forgot to mention that my general writing advice books are now available in KU, so if anyone had wanted to try one but wasn’t sure about shelling out the cash, now would be a good opportunity to do so.

Writing for Beginners, Excel for Writers, and Achieve Writing Success are all now available via KU.

Enjoy.

On Writerly Differences

I think I mentioned to you before the Write Better-Faster course, which I loved. I’m currently taking a more advanced version of that class and an interesting topic came up in the discussion for the class.

So what I loved about WBF was that it confirmed for me that we are all different and have different strengths and approaches as writers. I’d always done my own thing and just shrugged off what didn’t work for me, but that class gave me the supporting evidence for following my gut the way I always had.

What this new class has brought home for me is how fundamentally different some of our views of the world are. I’m over 40 at this point and coming to grips with the fact that others don’t experience the world the way I do has probably been one of my biggest struggles in life. One I still am working on.

Especially because a lot of things come to me very easily. So when my very intelligent friend in high school just could not get Geometry, I didn’t understand. You just flip the triangle in your mind, right? I mean, it’s not hard. Just mentally line up A with A and B with B. (But it is hard for those who don’t see spatially.)

One of the tests we take in WBF is called the DISC assessment. And one of the components of that assessment is Compliance.

Now Compliance is my highest of the four, so I’m motivated to see things done right, essentially. I will put in the work to make something a good product. That need will drive me to work until the product is good. Not just done, but good.

But I’m not really high in Compliance. So when I noted an extra space at the beginning of an entry in a numbered list during the formatting of my latest ebook and fixed it, I didn’t write that down to make sure I’d also fixed it in the print version. Because it was just one little space and I’d already submitted the file for review.

(Now, turns out I found a few other errors that needed fixing, including a horribly misused word. When that happened then I did update the print file and did actually scan through all hundred pages to find that missing space. Because if I was going to fix those other issues, then I did feel like I should fix the spacing issue, too. It’s just that I would have been willing to let it slide before even though that meant the book wasn’t perfect.)

What’s been interesting in this latest class is seeing how others with different levels of Compliance talk about writing and writers and what a book requires. And also the way our instructor has broadened that discussion to cover readers, too, and to help us understand that some readers are high in Compliance and some are not.

Let me give you an example.

Last month I was at a conference where someone mentioned pulling Patrick Rothfuss aside and giving him the rundown on how he’d messed up in his books by referring to both linen and cotton in his character’s wardrobe. This person could not believe an author would that kind of mistake. (They’re an editor so at least they’re in the right job for their level of compliance.)

At the time I thought, “Seriously? That’s what you got from his books? That he used the wrong kind of fabrics in someone’s clothes? You are so not my reader.” Because even knowing how much that person cared about that fact I knew I would never take the time and energy to learn that much about every detail in my books. Not gonna happen.

But that’s how someone with really high Compliance views the world. And writing. And their fellow writers.

Those very precise details matter to people with high Compliance.

I’d never notice something like that. But if I somehow had acquired that knowledge, then I’d get it right when I used it or be annoyed at myself.

For some writers, even if they knew this issue existed, they wouldn’t care if they got it wrong.

And the key here is to realize that there are readers who fall into all of these categories, too.

For me, high high Compliance readers are “not my reader”. It’s why I’m not writing PhD-level papers on my non-fiction topics. I will never be that precise a person that puts in fifteen footnotes to explain something exactly. 95% is good enough in my book.

But it’s also possible that low low Compliance readers are also not my reader. Because I will want a certain level of logic and coherence and accuracy in what I write and that means there are certain crazy, fun stories that I am incapable of creating. I would have to break too many rules to write a story like that so I literally could not force myself to do so.

A reader with really low Compliance will choose a book with a crazy, fun plot and horrible grammar over my more coherent, more grammatically correct book every day of the week.

For my fellow writers I think the lesson here is that a well-written story is not a singular thing that can be defined and put in a box. If you were to sit all readers down and asked them about their favorite story of all time and their most hated story of all time, the same books would be on both lists. Not because some readers have trash taste (which is what people often think to themselves), but because we are not all the same. So what we each want in a story will also not be the same.

I would add that this is why I really don’t like critique groups, because I have yet to see one where the other participants said, “I see the type of story you’re trying to write here and I’m going to set aside my preferences and help you to make the story you’re trying to write the best story it can be of its type.” Usually those groups act as if there is one correct way to write each sentence and one correct way to tell each story. There isn’t.

But maybe they work that way because it’s not actually possible for us to set aside who we are when we read. I personally can’t read a story that has tense issues. I just can’t do it. But some readers? Don’t even notice. Blow right past the fact that we just went from present to past and back again in two paragraphs.

So I personally will miss what’s great about a story that has tense issues because I can’t set aside my belief that a story with tense issues is poorly written.

What I conclude from all of this is this: Be careful how you tear down your fellow writers over these kinds of things.

I’ve for years had issues with the way people criticize Dan Brown and E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer. Because those criticisms miss the fact that those writers do something very right for their readers.

After learning more about personality types and how different we all are, I’m tripling down on that view. Instead of saying “That really sucks.” Practice saying, “Yeah, that just wasn’t for me.” It might make the world a nicer place.

(And I know those high Compliance types are shaking their heads and saying. “No. There is one right way to do things and they are not doing it that way.” But that’s okay. You be you.)

 

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)