“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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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.

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.