“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.

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.

Gearing Up for Keycon

I can usually only manage one con a year, and last year I hit When Words Collide in Calgary, but this year I’m broke, so hometown con again this year.

The good news is I’ve been emailing back and forth with the programming committee, pushing for more serious writing related programming. There was some talk of not wanting to get too technical and have the panels end up not being of interest to non-writers.  I pointed out that the two need not be mutually exclusive, one can have the fluff panels and fan panels for non writers, and the nitty gritty technical panels for the writers. I also mentioned that there have been complaints about there not being enough serious writing panels in previous years, as well as the amount of positive feedback programming committees have received in years when they have had a good amount of serious writing panels. They were easily convinced and literary paneling this year is looking fantastic.

So, the panels I will be on:

Religion and SF & F with Lindsay Kitson, Sherry Peters and Daria Patrie: From Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality to David Webber’s Honor Harrington Series, from Michael Carpenter in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files to Bobby Dollar in The Dirty Streets of Heaven, and many more novels, religion has played a key part in SF&F literature. What part does religion have in the world building process? How has religion been used as a central theme or as an allegory in SF&F? How are religions portrayed? Should writers and readers alike be concerned about cultural appropriation when some religions are used in a book?

Alternative Aviation in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn: From Autogyros to Zeppelins: a catalogue of unusual aircraft past, present and future. A look at the strengths and weaknesses of each, plus how much technology is needed to build them, and how well they fit into different sub-genres of SF. Examples from noteworthy fiction, and how they played a role in plot or worldbuilding. Do you need air transportation in the age of steam, or on an alien world? Alternative aviation may hold the answers you’re looking for. Remember: getting there is half the fun! (I’m not so much on this panel, as manning the projector and heckling.)

How to Edit Your Own Work, and Why You Need an Editor with Lindsay Kitson, J. Boone Dryden, Diane Walton and Daria Patrie: The trick to writing is re-writing. Our panelists will share a few tips on editing your own work, and will go over what an editor will do with your work. Also, is the editor always right? What happens if you disagree with your editor?

Point of View with Gerald Brandt, Melinda Friesen, Lindsay Kitson, and Daria Patrie: What writing point of view is most often found in SF&F literature and why? How does point of view change the narrative or style of the story? Is it more difficult to write a certain point of view?

Women in Speculative Fiction with Kelley Armstrong, Tamsen McDonough, Lindsay Kitson, and Van Kunder: Join our panelists as they explore how female characters have been portrayed in books and on film in the past and present, and how women have been involved in their respective fields over time. Is Speculative Fiction on the leading edge of equality? Or is there still a long way to go?

Critique Group Survival with Lindsay Kitson and Daria Patrie: So you’re ready to share what you’ve written with others and get feedback on it. How do you find a critique group? How do you know if you’ve got a good one? How do critiquing meetings go, and how to you contribute effectively? And when is it time to move on to a different group? Bonus content: How to start your own critique group!

Aviation and Believable Airships and Aircraft in Science Fiction with Timothy Gwyn and Lindsay Kitson:. An interactive session with two pilots who are also writers. Lindsay Kitson and Timothy Gwyn tackle the credible and incredible in aviation fact and fiction. Learn how getting aviation right can enhance your story. Some pointers on how to keep it real with aircraft and airship scenes that actually work. (This one’s going to be fun, and there will be at least one signed pre-release copy of Tim’s book, Avians, as a prize for whoever gets the most questions right!)

The timetable is tentative and incomplete so far, but this is the earliest I recall them ever  having it available before the con, so that bodes well for how organized they are this year. What they have so far can be viewed here. Looking over it, I can see some other panels already that I’d like to hit.

Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

When Words Collide 2016

Aside from going to Keycon every year since I moved to Winnipeg, except this summer, the only big writing do I’ve been to is the Surrey International Writer’s Conference, and that was the last trip anywhere I went on since I started flying.

So, I passed on Keycon this year and decided this year would be the year I attend When Words Collide instead. I’ve got plane tickets booked and hotel room and membership all taken care of on time and I’m set to go months ago, which is good because the last two months I’ve been very much focused on getting my multi engine rating.

I booked vacation a long time ago for this, so I have three weeks off in august, and am looking forward to being able to dick off and indulge in writing related endeavors for a few days in between working on my IFR rating.

It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be the first time since I got my private licence that I’ll be on a commercial flight. I remember the last time I was on a commercial flight and how a felt on takeoff, when I realized I actually really do love flying more than normal people. The flight to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference was a triggering event on the road to me pursuing a pilot’s license, and for that, I thank Rebecca Sky and Erin Latimer for pushing me to come. Especially when I’d at first said no, Lindsay doesn’t do scary things like travel alone.

Lol.

Anyway, I’m going into this convention pretty blind, so if anyone has recommendations, I’m happy to hear if there’s a particular editor who’s open to dieselpunk aviation related novels that I should track down and pitch to, or panels I shouldn’t miss.

Or for that matter, as has happened before, if I have blog followers I have not met, if you see me and recognize me, I’m usually open to people saying hi in the hallway, just be prepared for me to be an Aspie level of socially awkward as I try and figure out if I should know you or not. I’m really just stumbling into this con completely unfamiliar and ready to have a good time with whatever friends I know will be there.

Upcoming: Avians by Timothy Gwyn

I’ve been waiting until I had a little more to link to, but I’m super excited to announce that one of my critique group is getting his novel published!

Timothy Gwyn is the pen name of Tim Armstrong, a pilot who flies out of Kenora – about – well, okay, I’ve never driven to Kenora, but it’s about 45 minutes in a Cessna 172 – east of Winnipeg.

I met Tim at Keycon – he had found my blog fairly close to the beginning of my epic journey into the world of aviation, and he introduced himself to me at my home sci-fi/fantasy convention. I think he was the first pilot I met and got to know that I didn’t meet outside of my flight school. And he was there because he had a novel he was working on.

He offered to take me on a tour of one of the King Airs he flew, and I took him up on it – that was the day I made a kick ass landing in 9G17 straight across the runway in Kenora and naturally no one ever sees when you make a good landing.

Anyway, we had a fun chat about writing and flying, and I was intrigued by his worldbuilding, so we traded novels to give one another feedback. I really enjoyed it – I mean, I’ve said this before about my fellow local writers, but you read a local writers work ready to sift through and find nice things to say, but the local writers I’ve read, I’ve been pleased to find I don’t have to look hard.

The planet his story is set on had an atmosphere so dense that  it’s uninhabitable at sea level, and the human life exists only high on the mountain peaks. Which are mostly volcanoes. Can’t think of anything that could go wrong with that? Neither can I. (/sarcasm)

Society wise, he’s got what would normally be considered an iron age, except that for reasons you’ll have to read the book to find out, there is next to no metal available to the inhabitants of this planet. Their coins, instead of copper and tin, are made of glass.

Between the sparsely situated volcano peaks on the planet, is a trade network of mysterious airships. Communication with the airships is strictly limited to accounting and commodity availability, and the closest the planet’s occupants ever get to these ships is the glider pilots that deliver goods to the ships. Glider pilots like the main characters.

I think I read the original draft in two days – it sucked me in in a way few books do, to be honest. It’s young adult fiction, and that’s definitely something I enjoy, and it was the sort of thing I’d be happy to give to my young cousins or if I had kids myself, to read. I can only imagine it’s gotten better since he’s revised it himself. When my critique group lost a member, we invited him on my recommendation to join our group, and he brought a few scenes in to us. He mentioned in a blog post when my best friend and I went over his opening thirty pages to help him get them ready to present to the editor in time. But we were really just excited to be a part of a novel that we could see was worthy of publication, and we were over the moon to hear a contract was the result.

It’s set for publication in August of 2017, from the sounds of it, and you can be damn sure I’ll remind you all.  So if aviation, and in particular alternate aviation and it’s convergence with science fiction intrigues you as much as it did me, keep your eye on his blog, where he’s posted a blurb to taunt you. He’s got a informatively created planet, with aviation focused exclusively on women pilots, and a story that more than passes the bechdel test. This novel is gonna kick ass, and I will be plugging it in the future closer to the publication date, be prepared!

Ode To A Vegetable Steamer

We used to have a vegetable steamer. I think it was my Dad’s and he never used it so his girlfriend-at-the-time gave it to us. We used it all the time, it made the best vegetables and didn’t cook all the flavour out of them. We loved it. We loved it to death. One day, the timer stopped working, I still steamed the vegetables though, so we kept using it and just used the oven timer to time it. Then the element stopped working, and it didn’t steam anything anymore. It died. It was an ex-vegetable steamer. And I’m a flight student and starving writer, kinda too broke to get a new one.

Technically I’ve been paid for my writing before. It was nanofiction–tweet-length stories–and the transaction fees to claim the payment would have been more than the payment itself. Athena’s Daughters 2 was the first time I was going to be paid more than the price of a cup of coffee for my writing. I was pretty excited. It wasn’t quite pro rates, the original $100 per story the submission guidelines stated, but $100 was good.

But that was an advance against royalties. And the Kickstarter (thanks to all you people) was a smashing success. So when I got my payment from the publisher, the success of the sales pushed it past the $100 and started paying me royalties, bumping it over pro rates. And then some. And then I realized the amount was in U.S. Dollars, and with the current exchange rate, in Canadian dollars it was even more.

I think it was Jim C. Hines that I saw say in a blog post, that first time you make enough money from selling a story to pay a bill is a big deal. I think he might have said that’s the first time you feel like a real writer. There’s lots of landmarks to hit as a writer and this is definitely one of them.

But it’s not just that that floored me. I was expecting one amount, and ended up with three times that amount. It’s not just enough to pay a bill, it covers more than a third of our rent for the month. Or three hours of flight instruction. Or cat food, groceries and the phone and internet billls together.

I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying this so that you understand I’m not just being sentimental when I say thank you, and tell you all that you made a difference in my life and did something that matters to me. Because that extra cash was because of all the people who contributed to the kickstarter and bought the anthology, and all the people who shared the word on social media to get more people to back the kickstarter.

So thank you for the cat litter, and the cat food, and the internet bill and the phone bill. And for our new steamer.

You guys all rock.