When Research Isn’t Enough

Okay, first of all, don’t research aviation the way I did, it’s really expensive.*

But sometimes book research isn’t enough. I was writing a scene where characters were uncoupling a train once, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the Janney coupling system worked from all the pictures and descriptions I found online. I trotted off to the local train museum and when I told them what my main mission for the visit was, they were kind enough to let me past the ropes  to get a good close look at one from all angles. They’re actually rather ingenious, incidentally – it’s no wonder they’ve been using them for over a hundred years.

So anyway, I was writing about aeroplanes and if you’ve been following for any length of time, that research resulted in me getting a commercial pilot licence.

But obviously it’s not practical for every author to either restrict their writing to topics they’re intimately familiar with. Neither is it practical for every author who wants to write about a profession to spend thousands of dollars on a professional level of training on the subject.

Recently I picked up a book because it had a plane on the front, because that’ll totally sell me a novel. I got to the flying parts, and I could tell the author had done *some* research on aviation, but it was also obvious that the author was not a pilot.**

There was some talk about crosswinds, and such, it was going fairly decent, and I was willing to overlook the comment about three hundred feet being really high. There was terminology, and it was being used mostly correctly. The fact that he wasn’t going into too much detail, calling it gas instead of fuel, being an idiot who didn’t plan the flight ahead of time, I could chalk all that up to the author not wanting to bore the reader with technical details, and the main character being an inexperienced pilot.

But then the main character was taking off, and halfway through the takeoff roll, he was worried about not having enough runway left. So the character gives it more gas.

And this is just one of those little mistakes that a non-pilot will never pick up on, and an author might not ever even think to look up. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” situations. How many people who aren’t pilots would even think to look up how much power to use on take-off?

And yet, this is something covered in the first flight lesson – there’s never any reason to ever initiate a take-off roll with less than full power.

And then the plane became more and more heavily featured toward the end of the book, and the aviation elements took a turn for the worse. The location of the fuel tanks became relevant to the plot, and it became clear that the author had no idea the fuel tanks in a metal skinned aircraft are typically inside the wings, and had the main character specifically states that the fuel tanks in a small GA Cessna are in the tail section. At one point the main character used full power and stick back to counter a spiral dive, which is literally the opposite of what you do in a spiral dive.

The pinnacle of it all was when they were doing a pass “low and slow” and the narrative described how dangerous it was to fly near stall speed at low altitude. Which it is. And it’s great that the author threw in the mention of stall speed at an appropriate time. But then the narrative explained why it was so dangerous – close to the ground, he wouldn’t have time to attempt to restart the engine if they stalled.

Yep; author is conflating an engine stall with an aerodynamic stall, and thinks when you get close to stall speed, the engine quits.

And the rest of the book was mostly good, and that’s the most frustrating thing. None of it was so bad that the plot didn’t work if it were revised for accuracy. If the author had got a pilot to read it over, none of this would have got past a pilot. It would have been so easy to fix.

And again, I wouldn’t say that authors shouldn’t write about topics they’re not experts in. But it’s things like this that show how important it is to have expert beta readers. Not just consultants, because instances like this show that something can slip in so easily without the author realizing it’s a mistake and thinking to ask about it.

There’s a lot of resources out there – some places you may even be able to find expert beta readers in forums or such deigned specifically to match up experts with authors who need them. Don’t be afraid to write about interesting and exciting things and professions, but if you do, do it right, and do it justice.

*Just kidding, do it and if you love it, go for it!
** I’m not going to name the book because I hate being mean and writing negative reviews, I just want to use some of the content as an example.
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Different Types Of Critique Groups

There’s a lot of different ways of conducting a critique group. The standard format seems to be that members show up and read a piece of their work no longer than X. Once they’re done, the other members take turns delivering critiques verbally. Usually there are rules about no one being allowed to interrupt a person delivering a critique.

Often after my group’s meetings there may be a flurry of “Okay, now that I’ve had time to think about it,” emails. Also, like I said in a previous post, our group hasn’t needed to be strict about the no-interrupting rule, but only because we’re all friends and the interruptions are generally constructive.

Sometimes groups will have a deadline to submit material, so that it can be distributed to other members and be read before the meeting. This is great if everyone can actually get the reading done, and everyone can submit something beforehand. I’d love to do this, but our group is full of people with busy day lives and, we didn’t want the less prolific or less serious writers to stop participating due to it being too much fuss. We do still have a dropbox folder where we share copies of our work and we can post it ahead of time, but reading ahead is not required.

Another thing I’ve seen done with more serious groups is a format where they would focus on longer submissions – parts of a novel, several chapters at least, distribute them to be read before a meeting, and only be reading one member’s work for each meeting. They would take turns from one meeting to the next being the writer who’s work up to be read.

Another major variation is membership and attendance. Most groups meet on a specific day of the month, or every X number of weeks, and whoever can make it comes. Of it’s a little more formal, there might be emails sent out to confirm who’s attending, so that no one ends up showing up and being the only one there. My group has a fairly small number of members so we try to make sure we have everyone for each meeting, so we email back and forth our available days each month to figure out a day when we can all be there.

Membership wise, some groups have an online space where people can discover the group and join to find out when meetings will be, and membership is immensely casual. I’ve also been to some groups who weren’t so hungry for members that I learned about through word of mouth, where I showed up unexpectedly because it was a public place, convinced them I wasn’t an asshat, and they let me stay.

One the one hand, the openness can attract new members more easily. On the other hand, one group I was in eventually had to ask one member to stop coming because he was disruptive. I’ve also stopped going to others when a disruptive member was not managed. It was with this in mind that we’ve kept my current group membership by invitation only, and our meeting locations are discussed in private emails.

Another huge advantage of the membership being more private, is if you know there’s not going to be strangers show up, the meeting doesn’t need to be held in a public place. We have held meetings in members’ apartments at times. For a long time, one of our members who lived in a retirement home had a lovely library she would book for us.

Next in the Critique Group series: how to put together your own critique group.

Trying On Clothes: A Metaphor For Rewrites

I sit in my critiquing meeting as my best friend furiously draws huge X’s through entire pages of my manuscript. I laugh because I know she means well, and she may very well be right – the entire scene may need to go. It may need to be rewritten, or split into pieces, or placed elsewhere in the story.

I’m an outliner, and I am writing to an outline, but as I tell anyone who tries to feed me the bullshit line “Outlining takes all the fun out of things, there’s no surprises!”, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. If I agonized over what order scenes were going to go in, and whether or no every single scene needs to be there, I would freeze up and never get anything done.

So even though I have an outline, stuff doesn’t always flow out onto the page smoothly. But you can revise what you haven’t written, so this bunch of scenes, I just went ahead and banged them out. There’s some repetitiveness in them, because there’s a couple of different ways I could reveal plot points, and I ended up writing more than one version.

It’s like if you need a dress for an event, and you have a pretty decent idea of what you want – you have a picture in your head. You have a favourite colour, a style, maybe you know you hate princess bodices (princess bodices look terrible on me) and you like lace but not sequins, chiffon is great, etc.

But you don’t show up at the store, grab a dress off the shelf that has all the right stuff and take it to the counter. You try it on, because sometimes the way a dress fits, it may be made to flatter one body type and not another. Sometimes it turns out that’s not your colour. Or you have these fantastic shoes you want to wear, but they don’t match the dress, and you find a good dress, but you have to choose between the dress and the shoes – the two don’t go together.

And writing is just like that. I always tell newer authors starting revisions not to be afraid of rewrites because sometimes you don’t know a dress is going to look awful on you until you try it on. Sometimes that scene both needs to be written, and needs to be cut. Sometimes you have to bang it all out onto the page and piece the fragments together later. Sometimes there’s a plot twist that could be executed three different ways, and you have to write them all before you know which one works best.

Outlining can help, but it doesn’t eliminate all rewrites. Unpredictable things happen as words flow onto the page and your story takes on a life of it’s own, and outlining doesn’t stop that from happening. And just because something comes out crap the first time you write it doesn’t mean you’re a shit writer, it’s often just part of the process. So go fearlessly write crap, and when you think you’ll just be cutting it later, don’t let it paralyze you. But don’t let it stop you from cutting it later either.

Writing a novel is a lot of work, don’t try to cut corners or let your novel be less than the best it can be just because you don’t want to rewrite something that needs rewriting!

4 Things Not To Do On The NaNoWriMo Reference Desk

I’ll get back to critique groups, but the NaNoWriMo site has rebooted and of course that means there’s a slough of new posts on the reference desk forum.

Which also means, all those annoying people who post annoying things are back.

So, here’s a few of the things that drive your fellow knowledgeable writers nuts:

Vague Post Titles: So you go to post a question and it won’t let you hit post without putting something in the title. Do you A) title it something descriptive so people who might have an answer can tell by looking at the post title without having to click on the post and read it – or B) title it “Question”.

*squinty eyes*

Yeah, I have some specialized knowledge about some specific stuff, namely aviation, bees, autism, African violets, and maybe a few other scattered things. I’m not going to click through to every frelling post that has no indication of what it’s about in order to see if maybe it’s one of those things that I know stuff about. If you do this, don’t be surprised that you have next to no replies.

Questions You Could Too Easily Research Yourself: Sometimes people post questions and you look at them and think, “Did they even try?” Like, I’ve taken some people’s questions and copy-pasted them into google and the first result gives them their answer.

I’ll pick on one recent one – someone asked how and when the United States acquired Alaska. Like, this is the easiest thing in the world to google, and find trustworthy sources, but you’d rather try your luck with randos on a forum who are literally just googling it for you.

Questions Too Broad To Answer At All: “Tell me everything you know about _______.” People will post this, and it won’t be something like “Tell me everything you know about the mating habits of swallowtail butterflies.” It’s “Tell me everything you know about Russia.” That’s an actual one I remember.

I just wonder what these people are thinking. Like, what kind of answers are they expecting? Do they not know that there are actual Russians out there, reading this forum and going “What…what do they want to know?”

I got nothin.

Questions That Assume Everyone Who Could Be Reading The Question Lives In The Same Country As The Person Posting It: Americans are the worst offenders here. Someone posts a question where the answer will be vastly different depending on where the story is set, but the questioner assumes everyone knows they’re talking about the USA, because where else would it be. This is common with questions about adoption, laws governing this or that, police procedure, school related things.

I run into it a lot when trying to answer aviation related questions, because air laws are similar but different between the US and here in Canada, and some of the hugest differences are due to how much more radar coverage there is in America compared to Canada.

Replies I Could Have Googled Myself: Okay, so when I post a question myself, I’ve usually googled it pretty thoroughly. Like, my google-fu is pretty damned good, so if I’m asking a question on a forum, I need an actual expert on the subject.

And yet, even when I end my post with “Please don’t just google the topic and post your search results, I’ve already googled the topic extensively, and I need someone who actually knows what they’re talking about”, I still get dudes doing this. Like they think I’m stupid, even though I’ve explicitly worded my question, and none of their search results or answers composed based on their search answered the question I was asking.

And these people can get arrogant and authoritative on their googling. There was once I saw a question about bees and beekeeping, and pointed out the fact that beekeepers wear white because bright colours excite the bees, and dark colours trigger them to become defensive and sting. This guy insisted that I was wrong, colours had no effect on bee behavior. Why? Because even though my dad has been a beekeeper all his life and I’ve worked with him with the bees and among beekeepers this is common knowledge, this guy couldn’t find anything confirming it in his googling, therefore I had to be wrong.

When I pointed out that google wasn’t the end-all authority of beekeeping, especially since beekeepers tend to be a bunch of old guys who can’t be bothered with the internet, his reply was “As a matter of fact, my google-fu is exceptional.”

*headdesk*

So yeah, don’t be those people. Happy Wrimoing.

Critique Groups

I’ve been a part of a number of critique groups over the years, and the one I’m in now is by far the best. We’re a pretty relaxed group, can be honest with one another, handle the truth, and we all get a fair bit out of the critiques.

So for Keycon this year I did a panel on what makes a good critique group. Because I’ve been in some less good ones.

One thing that I really value in this group is the fact that we don’t obsess over spelling and grammar and line edits, to the exclusion of content analysis. When we go over a submission, we start looking at the flow of the scene, character motivations, pacing, the emotional arc, etc. I’ve honestly never had a group that focused so much on that and it’s great. Because anybody can nitpick line edits, but when you’re at an early draft stage, that feedback is so much less useful.

I’ve had groups that obsessed over a specific quirk – one was cliches, and often I’d leave the meeting with nothing but line edits and such and such a line is a cliche, you’ll want to change that. I think part of where the obsession with edits on phrasing and such is because amateur authors, that’s often all they know how to do, and they’ve never had anyone go tear their work to shreds to show them how it could be reconstructed better.

And then there’s groups that don’t follow the standard rules of not interrupting a critiquer or telling them their opinion isn’t valid. I attended a few meetings of one group that the meeting would go on all day because they would spend an hour arguing back and forth, telling one another they were wrong and their work was fine as it was, the person critiquing them just didn’t understand their genius.

That said, the group I’m in doesn’t follow those rules of never interrupting either, but that’s because we follow more of the spirit of the law, to an extend that the letter of the law is less important. If we interrupt one another, it’s usually more along the lines of “Ooh, I didn’t notice that, you’re right!” or “Ooh, I have an idea how I could fix that would X work?” You know – constructive conversation.

This particular group has developed a culture that allows that though. That same constructive culture of the group allows us to get away with being pretty blunt sometimes when we’re delivering honest critiques. We don’t feel the need to coddle one another, and I think the knowledge that we’re all here to help one another turn our work into the best it can be. We all know nothing anyone says is meant to tear anyone else down, but also, we’ve seen our own work evolve through edits and recognize that an early draft is going to have things that can be improved, and the rest of the group is just a second set of eyes for when we’re too close to the material to be objective.

How did I manage to find such a fantastic group?

I didn’t.

I built it. And I’ll go into more detail on that in another post.

A Little About My WIP

I recall seeing a presentation by Robert J. Sawyer about “Writing in the Zeitgeist” at Keycon one year, and I was really glad to hear his thoughts on the subject.

The dictionary definition of Zeitgeist is “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.” In his presentation, Sawyer encouraged writers to write about things that are relevant in the here and now of modern day – things that people feel passionate about, have opinions about, etc, and that doing so would help them find an audience of people who will enjoy the book.

I got thinking about it and how I’ve tried to follow that advice in my current work-in-progress lately for two reasons.

First is the obvious political climate. The rise of hatred we’re seeing right now is frightening, and unlike many previous generations, we have enough global awareness and memory of the last big time it happened that it’s disturbingly familiar.

So I’d been wanting to make a point of writing something that had more diversity in it than what I’d written before, so I came up with a black main character. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be taking over black people’s stories and telling their stories for them, so it wasn’t going to be a story about what it was like to be black or anything like that. I still wanted to be saying something about my feelings about racism and discrimination and such, though, so I thought a while about what I, as a white woman, had to offer.

And sometime around when I was coming up with the world my story is set in, Folklorama was on again. I hadn’t always realized it, but Folklorama is apparently, quite literally, the biggest multicultural celebration in the world. And I stopped to think about that, realizing that I live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, in a country that has an official policy of not just tolerance of multiculturalism but embracing and celebrating multiculturalism as something that makes the country stronger.

And at the same time, Winnipeg also holds the title of the most racist city in Canada.

So when I thought about that, then I knew exactly what I have to bring to this conversation – it’s my experience living, not in a utopia of multiculturalism, but in a place that’s at least trying. A country and a city where that utopia of Star Trek’s Star Fleet is kind of the goal, but it’s a work in progress.

So what I decided to portray was just that – a society with government policy supporting multiculturalism, but people who are still struggling with it. A government that inconsistently applies those policies, governing people who disagree on how and to what extent those policies should be applied.

Sometimes the utopia seems like it’s just hopelessly far off. But I hope there’s room someday on the shelf in between all those dystopian YA novels, for a utopia in progress.

Artificial Intelligence And Gender In Science Fiction

I didn’t get to doing a Keycon recap this year, but one of the panels I was moderating was Women in Speculative fiction, and that was the panel where I had the main guests of honour. One of them was Tamsen McDonough, who is the voice of the ship’s AI in The Killjoys.

I watch the show, so I was familiar with the character, and was terribly amused to learn that the ship’s character was originally written to be a motherly, caring sort of character, but Tamsen thought Aaron Ashmore was hot, and got flirty with him in the ship’s dialogue, and the director ran with it. The ship, Lucy, likes her female captain less, but they avoid the jealousy trope by not having the ship get jealous when Ashmore’s character gets a girlfriend, and by giving her some girl chat mutual compliments moments with another female character, Clara. Those happen in season two, so it seems the writers made an effort to adapt the character dynamics in a positive way, which is one reason I love the show.

But since I had her on the panel, I brought up the gendering of artificial intelligences.

My main observation is that when you have an artificial intelligence that’s supposed to provide information or assistance to the human characters – who plays the human’s servant – the AI is typically voiced by a female, or otherwise gendered female. Lucy from the Killjoys is only one example – there’s also Romy from Andromeda, ship’s voices from star trek, hell, the maid in The Jetsons.

If it’s an AI who’s created to be some kind of enforcer – a police or soldier robot who’s intended to be obeyed by human characters – then the AI is voiced by a male. Examples include the combat droids in the Star Wars prequels, the I-robot AI’s, and the police bots from Chappy.

This is also a real-life phenomenon. Siri is voiced by a female. Most GPS devices are voiced by a female, though other voices are now available. Studies were done and they found that both men and women preferred a female voice.

In an aircraft, systems that provide information to the pilots typically have a female voice deliver that information. If a system needs to deliver an instruction that the pilots need to follow, the instruction is typically delivered in a male voice.

But it goes further than that. If an AI is supposed to be a character we sympathize with, if the writers are trying to make us see the character as human, and worthy of human rights, then the AI is gendered male. Examples – Data from Start Trek, the child AI from AI: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man, and the titular character from Chappy.

There’s less of the converse, but the example that bothers me the most is the AI from Ex Machina. Spoiler alert: I’m not sure if the writers intended to dehumanize the female AI character or not in turning her into a human murdering robot in the end. It feels like they were trying to warn the audience of the dangers of AI’s getting out of control, but what I saw was an AI reacting exactly as one might expect a severely abused woman suffering from PTSD might react when she’s reached a point of no longer being able to discern ally from abuser. I think that’s what the critics were picking up on when they said the ending felt muddled – it’s hard to tell who the sympathetic character was supposed to be.

Of course there are exceptions. C-3PO and Jarvis are gendered-male servant AIs. Cameron from the Sarah Connor Chronicles also breaks the mold, being a badass fighter robot with a female outward appearance, and the android from Dark Matter is a gendered-female android being humanized.

And you’ll hear the anti-SJWs whine that they’re machines, what does it matter what gender they’re made to look? Well queue my eye roll, because humans make the robots and the AI’s and it sure as hell matters to us. I always enjoy seeing stereotypes busted – it makes a story more interesting than seeing the same old same old all the time.