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Marissa Lingen

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Dealing with the potential wrongness [Oct. 20th, 2013|08:36 pm]
Marissa Lingen

I was out with a few writer friends having tea yesterday afternoon, and I mentioned my unexpected pirate story from years back. And one of my friends, who is pretty new at writing, said, “See, that would scare me, because I would think, what if someone who knows a lot more about pirates than I do read it and said I got it wrong?”

And the more I thought about it, the more I had some responses to that question.

1. Yep, that’ll happen. Let’s say that you’re one of the very very most knowledgeable people in the world about something. Pine forest ecology. The role of George of Denmark in the reign of Queen Anne. Pirates. Whatever. If there is knowledge, you know it. And you sit down to write a story that prominently features your area of Rully Great Knowledge. What happens?

Kate happens. (Unless you’re Kate. Then That Other Kate happens.) Who is Kate? Kate is one of the other Rully Greatly Knowledgeable people in your field of expertise. And Kate disagrees with you. She thinks that you’re weighting various factors a little off, or that you trust a source that is not quite trustworthy or don’t trust one that is quite trustworthy, or something. Or Kate is your closest colleague and you trust her opinion on work–but when it comes to translating this field into fiction, she thinks you’ve changed something important, where you think it’s something trivial. Or that you haven’t explained enough for the layperson.

Kate is not wrong. She’s not always right. But she’s not wholly wrong, either, because this is not arithmetic. You can both be wrong and both right.

And then there are the people who know less than you do about whatever you’re putting into your fiction, but they think they know more, or it just doesn’t feel right (see the Tiffany Problem), or another thing.

Point is, yes, it’s important to get stuff right. But it will not save you from people looking at your story and saying, “You did that wrong!” Because nothing will save you from that except putting it in a drawer and never letting anybody see it. So you have to come to terms. Comforting, I know. But seriously: come to terms with people thinking you did stuff wrong. Learn to listen and occasionally say, “Oh gosh, you’re right, I screwed that up, I’m sorry,” or else, if you don’t feel that you screwed that up, provide a discreet bibliography on your webpage for your story, then go write something else.

2. Kind of story matters. My friend has not read my pirate story, or she would know that it is not the kind of story that leans heavily on accuracy. (Heh. Heh heh.) It is…a bit gonzo. But also it leans on what kinds of things have been legends of piracy over the ages rather than actual piracy, and it’s structured so that that’s clear.

Obviously not every story can be like that. Or should. You want to leave your comfort zone sometimes. But sometimes–especially if you’re just starting out and crazy amounts of busy–using the stuff you know really really well as a springboard into the unknown is fine, actually. Or using one of the styles that does not invite biographical criticism. Daniel Pinkwater, for example: I expect Daniel Pinkwater gets letters from time to time trying to correct his books, monkeys being what they are, but most people know that they are wacky, zany, and not attempting to provide a road map to reality. So if somebody says to him, “You know, there isn’t actually any poultry themed restaurant in Weehawken,” well, was that his point? It was so not his point. So onwards, Daniel Pinkwater.

3. Steep yourself like a fine tea. To tell the truth, I read a lot of nonfiction because I like reading a lot of nonfiction, and also because I like reading a lot, and leaving out nonfiction cuts my potential reading list significantly. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s good for me. Blueberries are incredibly healthy stuff. They still taste like blueberries, which is to say: awesome. You don’t get negative health points because they taste good.

Recently a young friend told me that she was trying to increase her vocabulary to impress people with (I paraphrase here) her erudition. And I did not tell her, “Honey, nobody will be impressed by you knowing big words,” even though that’s true in my experience–the people who don’t have large vocabularies themselves do not tend to value it, and the people who do often take it for granted and cannot always identify which words they use are the “big hard” words–because I couldn’t really conceive that she would look back and say, “Darn it, I wish I had a smaller vocabulary! Knowing a broader range of ways to express myself is such a waste of time.” She’s not doing anything crazy like spending hours a day drilling herself on it. She’s just trying to pay a bit more attention.

And if you do that on the larger scale with fiction, there’s more stuff that will be in the comfort zone I mentioned in #2. The novel I’m working on* has a setting I’ve been getting background on since I was, oh, six. Or possibly since I was born, depending on what you want to count as background. So even though this is the first time I’ve written something in this particular setting, when I have to describe a detail of what someone is wearing, it feels a lot more like, “Please tell me how your grandparents dressed when you were a child” than like “Please make up a thing completely from scratch and then keep track of the thing you made up,” just in terms of how I process it. Not everything is going to be like that. But eventually you’ll get comfortable because you’ll have added a particular area to your wheelhouse. The details will just be there when you reach for them. Then when you do get an idea that works with the setting or concepts, you won’t have to be looking up every last little thing and worrying about it, because you’ll have at least some of a knowledge base to work from. A knowledge base is a very, very nice security blanket.

*Not the same as the novel I wrote in September. You gotta move with the times; it’s not September any more.


[User Picture]From: rezendi
2013-10-21 04:32 am (UTC)
Even if you do get things somewhat wrong, that's not necessarily such a disaster. I've received email from people involved with the Special Forces who said they found the internal secrecy level at the end of INVISIBLE ARMIES implausible, for instance, but hastened to add that they enjoyed the book nonetheless. Or my all-time favorite: a semi-throwaway line in NIGHT OF KNIVES

"Then there's Mozambique, Samora Machel shot down by the South Africans, deny it though they try." (here)

A year after it was published, believe it or not, I received this email:

I enjoyed 'The Night of Knives' immensely. Particularly so, as I flew for many years, in the areas of Africa you describe so well. However, I wish to comment on your conclusions re. the Samora Machel accident (page 270). I was a member of one of the accident investigation teams from the USSR, Mozambique and South Africa. At the conclusion of the field investigation, there was general consensus that there was absolutely no evidence of the aircraft either being sabotaged or shot down. Ref. to the aircraft's cockpit voice recorder also indicates that nothing of that nature occurred. This was a controlled flight into terrain accident.

I think the moral is that as long as you make a genuine effort to try to get it right, the people who actually know it will respect that and let minor peccadilloes slide.

Edited at 2013-10-21 04:32 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-21 12:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, very much so. And also: how cool.
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[User Picture]From: columbina
2013-10-21 08:35 pm (UTC)
What worries me is Certain Fans, more specifically Certain SF Fans, more specifically Alfred ....

[No, no, wait, that's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Let me start again.]

I am not particularly good on my astrophysics or even my astronomy. If I had written a book where getting those things right was crucial to the plot of the book ... well, I wouldn't have done, because I know my limitations. The book I actually DID write is basically a hard-boiled detective story with a string of interesting corpses. It HAPPENS to be set on a sort of space transit station that can create an aperture to enable short-cut passage for starships across great distances.

I'm HOPING that the reader will gather that, under the circumstances, I'm likely to be playing fast and loose with galactic math, and accept that (in this case, not as a General Principle) getting the math right is not really important. And, in fact, every beta reader so far has been willing to accept the handwaving (or at least they didn't gripe to me about it). They have realized that this is a device to get a lot of traffic in and out for Our Heroine, including some non-human species, and nothing more.

The question is, do I assume I am writing off the sort of hard SF reader who either cannot or will not suspend disbelief in that particular direction? And are they a large enough component of the potential audience that I should worry about this?

That was two questions. Sorry.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-21 09:23 pm (UTC)
The less math you show, the less math they can criticize. Jim Macdonald told me--and I took it to heart--that you only ever tell the reader one of distance, velocity, and time. One is actually the maximum. Hard SF readers will get that. Just move forward with it.
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[User Picture]From: teleidoplex
2013-10-21 10:02 pm (UTC)
Whenever this worry blindsides me--and it does. Orphan--I misquote Nietzsche to myself because I can never remember the actual quote. But for this post, I actually went and looked it up.

“Good writers have two things in common: they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
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[User Picture]From: teleidoplex
2013-10-21 10:04 pm (UTC)
The complement to this is that I try not to be a knowing and over-acute reader.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-10-21 10:05 pm (UTC)
And I mean. I am a knowing and over-acute reader. But I try not to be a jerk about it.
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[User Picture]From: teleidoplex
2013-10-21 10:06 pm (UTC)
Heheh. Our replies passed in the night. Yeah... I think I fall more in the 'not being a jerk about it' camp :D
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