“99% of Readers Won’t Know Better”

I was reading a story someone had posted online for feedback once, and pointed out to the author that Pawnees and Shawnees are already names of existing aircraft, and they are not the aircraft that he was describing in his story. The author, responded by telling me his audience wasn’t going to know better.

To an extent, he may be right about the majority of his audience.

But think about it. How many times have you heard horse lovers rant about how horse books and horse shows get horses all wrong? Or doctors face-palming when they see doctors on TV pull out the defibrillators.

And then think about your potential audience. Do you really think that if you’re writing a book with aeroplanes in it, where the main character is a pilot, that a reader who’s a pilot isn’t going to be the number one most likely person to zero in on the aeroplane on the cover of your book and yank that puppy off the shelf? That reader is also the number one most likely person to return for more and become a devoted reader because they love the thing you’re writing about, and there aren’t that many people writing about their specific interest.

I’ve read from some successful writers, the key to making a living as a writer is to develop a dedicated following of faithful readers who will buy everything you write, not to rely on the random whims of readers browsing shelves. That if you can get a few thousand dedicated readers, your income can be stable, and your sales numbers predictable, rather than all over the place.

Do you want that reader to be the one who’s most disappointed by your lack of research The one who’s most likely to be forgiving of other flaws in your book because it contains their particular brand of crack? Do you want the reader who’s most passionate about the topic you’re writing about to be the one who throws your book against the wall because you mixed up an engine stall with an aerodynamic stall?

I’m speaking more as a reader, here, than as a writer when I say for the love of whatever god you worship, have respect for your readers and don’t assume they’re ignorant.

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Book Review: Updraft by Fran Wilde

Spoiler alert: I freakin’ loved this book. Secondary world fantasy is my go-to subgenre, and anything to do with flying, even if it’s not explicitly aeroplanes will capture my interest, so I was already interested. When a friend read it and said it was amazing, I bumped it to the top of my reading list, and do not regret it.

It’s a fantastically imaginative world – there are towers that rise above the clouds that people live on, made of bone, and to move about, people fly on wings made of silk and bone. The clouds, as far as I can tell, never disperse, and no one flies below them on purpose – in fact, their methods of exacting capital punishment is to strip someone of their wings and drop them into the clouds. Their mythology is all about how they rose above the clouds and how terrible it was before that, and their religion uses the threat of stopping a tower from growing taller to keep it above the clouds to keep it’s people in line.

I’m a sucker for imaginative worlbuilding, so all of this drew me in. The main character is also dark skinned, so POC representation there. The original cover didn’t show the main character’s skin colour so much, but the newer cover that I got did, and I like that cover a lot better.

Plot wise, character wise – everything was great. I was thoroughly enthralled by the world, the characters, everything.

The other thing I wanted to mention is I have a sneaking suspicion that the author has at least some little bit of aviation experience. I can’t tell how much, and I haven’t been able to find anything in any of her bios that mentions aviation involvement. But there was little things – the sort of things that creep into my own writing because I can’t stop it, having the background in aviation that I do. The one that stands out was a mention of the rules of right-of-way being part of the flight training. But the whole idea of flight testing that comes up in the opening made me feel like even though the flight testing in the book doesn’t go the way flight testing does in aviation, the worldbuilding might have been guided or inspired by some knowledge of it.

But anyway, it was fantastic, I loved it, and you should definitely read it, and I’m really excited to start the next book.

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.