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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Thoughts on Receiving Critiques

With critiques coming in, and one beta reader nearly finished reading the novel, I’ve been thinking about how I receive critiques. Partly because I’ve also been watching others receive critiques, in various face to face groups or partnerships. Some people handle negative feedback better than others.

The way I look at it, is the whole point of this is finding out what’s still broken that I can fix and make the story better. In which case, the negative feedback is useful and much appreciated, and I try to let my critiquers know how much I appreciate it. Because getting the feedback is a means to an end – the point is making the story better.

It’s different from a review – a review is when you get the book published and people say what they think sucked and what was good and whether or not other people should bother spending money on it. It’s a reflection of what someone thinks of your writing skill. A critique, on the other hand, is not supposed to be a reflection of your skill, but a tool to improve. A stepping stone to better writing, so that when those reviews come in, they won’t be as disappointing as they could be.

One big factor in how I see people receiving critiques is the writer’s perception of how good they are. Most people in critique groups think they’re a lot better than they are. I won’t say most writers, because the writers who think they’re worse than they are, generally are too embarrassed of their work to join a critique group. But, especially with a newly formed critique group, with members who don’t know one another well enough to want to spare one another’s feelings, there is often that first time critique that’s received with a disappointed frown.

Sometimes the person has had much more positive feedback from a more supportive, but possibly less honest environment (my mom says she liked it/my fanfic is well received by my following).  It can be hard for those people to hear a more honest opinion from a less invested stranger.

I find it’s never a good idea to have close friends or family critique your work. I did give my novel to my mother in law to read, but I didn’t expect her to offer a lot of negative feedback with the honesty of an actual critiquer – she just wanted to read it. The reason family and close friends are a bad idea is because the relationship will get in the way of the feedback – the person giving feedback will be afraid to hurt the writer’s feelings, and if they value the friendship, they are very likely to hold back. On the other side, if the writer values the friendship, their feelings are likely to be hurt even more than if the feedback were to come from a stranger.

I do have one very close friend with whom I trade critiques, and we are brutally honest with one another. When we started trading critiques though, we weren’t friends yet – just fellow writers who met at the day job and who made a mutually agreeable arrangement. The friendship grew out of that, but the brutal honesty in critiques remained, because we both know the other has a very thick skin and can handle anything we say.

We also know that critiques are only opinions. She’s a great copyeditor, but every once in a while, she makes a suggestion of a style change that would change my style to hers. I just ignore those. I appreciate the suggestion, and sometimes her more formal style would suit the character I’m writing, and I’ll make the change anyway, so I’d just as soon she point it out as not, so that I can make a choice. But we have very different styles, and not everything I suggest is going to be something that works for her either, and we both respect one another enough to not get hot under the collar if we disagree on a point.

But in closing, if you’re one of those people who’s heartbroken at receiving a critique that points out weaknesses in your work that you didn’t realise were there, don’t be. It’s not a review – the work isn’t published yet, and it doesn’t have to be perfect yet. No one expects brilliance in a critique group. Take that feedback as it’s intended – as a tool to help you become a stronger writer.

General update and thanks to Beta Readers

So, the big revision has been done for a bit, and I’m going over beta reader critiques. There’s definitely stuff to be touched up on, but it’s very close to being done an this is by far my best work yet. Of course though, it must be shiny as shiny can be before I want to send it to editors. I may start sending out queries to agents though – it’s at a stage where I don’t think the touching up I have yet to do is going to change an agent’s answer. It’s mostly fiddling at this point. Possibly adding one scene, but I have to figure out what’s to be in that scene. I might have it though, just involves some rearranging, which may even make another scene run a tad smoother.

And thanks to my beta readers giving me valuable feedback. There will always be things I don’t pick up on myself because I know what I’m trying to say in my head. I think writers will always need a second set of eyes to keep them honest.

But there comes a point when the author needs to decide how much fiddling is enough, and send it out into the world to fend for itself. I’m edging towards that point. I’m sure I want to have at least one person finish the novel (besides the mother in law, who’s biased :P) to get feedback on the ending. There’s one other point in the ending I may change, and the more I think about it, the more I think I’ll need to change it, because it’s just not as meaningful if the character making the decision hasn’t got anything left to lose.

That and one other scene might need some delicate treatment for potentially triggering subject matter, and a minor character’s dialogue needs to be completely rewritten so that he doesn’t sound uneducated because when I originally wrote the character, he and another character weren’t brothers, and there was no need for them to have similar backgrounds in education.

Down to nitpicky things, mostly though. And then, copyediting for flow – I have a friend who’s really awesome at that.

And I have written a query letter, and said friend has gone over it to beat the lumps out so it reads smooth and makes sense. I will touch up my synopsis too, since it’s a 1 and 1/2 page synopsis, and I should be able to get away with two for most queries.

Then, out into the wide scary world with it!