No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft. H.G. Wells
Sometimes, we’re simply too close to our own work to see it objectively.
I have experienced this, both as a writer who has looked at something until my eyes burned and the words blurred, and as the reader who has been asked to offer feedback, only to find what the writer really wanted was praise.
I was asked to critique something once, and I won’t use that specific example here. But I’ll use a comparable one.
Imagine a seventeen-year-old Amish girl who’d left her community to live in the big, bad world. She has a contact, a friend who left before her, that knows a person that can teach her how to drive a car.
Only when she goes to meet her friend, he’s on a stretcher, being lifted into the back of an ambulance. The scene is a mess of vehicles – none damaged – blood on the pavement, stressed onlookers and cops in uniform taking statements.
The person who was supposed to teach her how to drive a car approaches the Amish girl and she asks what happened.
He says, “Can you keep a secret?”
“It was a 480.”
WTF? Okay, if you’re a cop, you should know what that means.
If you’re an Amish girl and have just moved to the city, that moment of profound revelation falls flatter than a camisole on an undeveloped girl’s chest.
And it is a line just like that that can pull a reader out of the illusion and kill a story for them.
This is trickier than it might seem. We think we can make everything up, but there has been a push for realism in fiction, for writers to make their world seem believable. Readers are increasingly critical, down to nitpicking over historical accuracies, use of proper police procedure, the month of a year that an item was invented or a coin was released… I mean, damn, sometimes writing non-fiction is a lot easier.
This is why it’s important to find people you trust who can look at your work with a critical eye – people who know nothing about it. In the case of the work I referred to, I knew what the phrase used at the end of chapter 1 meant because it had been explained to me. But putting myself in the protagonist’s shoes, there was no way that character would have understood what the term meant, or the significance.
That bothers me more than nitpicky research. When something said in the story is supposed to have significance and yet it contradicts what the character should legitimately know or understand, then I have a problem. It throws the character into doubt for me. Are they really a naïve Amish girl who has just moved to the city, or are they a street-wise punk that’s been studying law enforcement?
One of the most interesting things for me was to research a dog search for Echoes and Dust (or Terms of Redemption). I thought I understood how it was done. I’ve read an extensive amount about dog training and have some limited experience.
And I was wrong.
If I’d set the book in the US, I might have been right. But I wasn’t. And the top dog trainer for the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) not only called me to answer questions but read that portion of the manuscript and then called me again, to tell me what I got wrong.
I had to rewrite the entire scene.
First of all, the RCMP don’t use a scent item for tracking. They don’t stick a shirt under the dog’s nose and tell him to search.
The dogs are trained to search for a general scent trail in the area. This is often more effective, for a variety of reasons.
One is that items of clothing or possessions are often contaminated by other scents when handled. Another is that if a person has fled a murder or robbery, they’re usually running.
Which means sweating.
Which means they leave a strong scent trail, the one the dog is most likely to pick up.
The next thing I’d gotten wrong was that nothing was going to stop this dog from running for hours, certainly not the piddly river I had running through my scene that stopped the search in the story.
Geographically, I needed a wall of rock going up or a Grand Canyon, or an act of God to stop that dog. These dogs are hard-core.
It was a phenomenal experience. It isn’t quite the same as correcting a fatal flaw, but it is a critical piece of research that, neglected, would have jeopardized the believability for some readers.
And you know what the great thing was? Revising the scene not only made it believable, it made it a better.
I'd also made the mistake of writing in a highly trained husky - not in the same scene. No matter how much I read about husky temperaments, it wasn't until a few months after draft 1, when we got Chinook, that I understood just how unbelievable a highly trained husky that could go off-leash and always respond to his owner was.
Anyone who has ever owned a husky would laugh at me.
Oh, it's possible. I've talked to some husky owners who say their dog will always come back. We used to say that about Nootka, that he'd never run off...
The bottom line is, it pays to get your facts straight, and I’m really glad I didn’t shrug off the research.
Writers always need to consider that readers may not understand something in our work. We know the story and the characters, but we do not always convey everything precisely in our work.
Read my interview with Cornelia Read in the Spring 2006 Issue of Spinetingler, and hear how a pro dealt with revisions. The attention to detail, to accuracy, is staggering.
Because great authors try to get things right.
And they understand the value of feedback.
Here's something from someone who never included me and evilkev in their study.
Because he shops more than I do.
Now, about that pesky contest, if you didn’t check out the website yet, visit Sandra Ruttan.com and at the bottom of the front page there’s a link to the Quill Review.
Yes, that’s right, I’ve been interviewed. And this time not by the police.
And the interview may, or may not, help you with tomorrow’s trivia contest and question.
Yes, the prize is a copy of the 2005 Spinetingler Anthology, BUT if you have a copy already (Stuart) then a substitute prize may involve alcohol.
Check back tomorrow for the trivia question.
Which may be as simple as, “What is Sandra’s nickname for her husband?”
Or then again, maybe it won’t be…