Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Getting Over The Truth In Fiction

“It has always been desirable to tell the truth, but seldom if ever necessary.”
- A.J. Balfour

One of the fine lines that writers have to balance on is the line between creative license and reality.

Since I was on a Star Trek kick yesterday, why not carry on with it? I remember hearing about criticism of Star Trek because the ships made noise when viewed externally from space and in space there would be no noise.

My eyes have crossed just thinking about it.

As a reader and viewer, I’m pretty forgiving. The fact that the Enterprise’s engines hum doesn’t bother me much. It is, after all, sci fi. Just a TV show.

But as a writer, I have to make a diligent effort to walk the line and do my homework. Then decide when to use the truth and when to bend it.

We’ve all heard the saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and indeed it is. I’ve heard writers say on numerous occasions that if they wrote the truth about something, it would be so far over the top nobody would believe them, and I can think of an easy example. During a visit to the ME’s office, I was amused to learn what a pair of pruning shears can be substituted for, in lieu of far more expensive “medical” equipment, in order to perform an autopsy.

And I’ve never exactly looked at our gardening tools the same way since.

But if I wrote that in a book? Forget about it. People would never believe it.

I’d started thinking about this because of a recent forum discussion about what turns people off a book. For some, tattooed characters. For others, swearing. (Guess that person doesn’t read my blog.)

For me? What will make me put a book down? Two things, I guess, and they’re nebulous.

The first thing? Characters I don’t care about. It’s pretty subjective, isn’t it? Even if I don’t agree with a character, I need to feel like I’m beginning to understand them, that I want to take this journey with them. What springs to mind for me is Simon Kernick’s Dennis Milne.

Now, I’ve had a love of British police procedurals, and for a long time read a fairly narrow selection of crime fiction. 16, 17 months ago, when I first read The Business of Dying, which precedes A Good Day To Die, the book challenged me. I felt so guilty for liking someone that was, well, wrong. But that’s the beauty of it – Kernick created a character that did things that I would never normally condone, but made the protagonist real and sympathetic enough for me to want more of him.

Conversely, I read a book that I won’t name, by a well-known author who I also won’t name, that had a protagonist on the right side of the law that drove me up the fucking wall. I couldn’t relate to this person in any sense, didn’t care about their life, almost wished they had bought it in the end… And have never read another book by the author. But I’m not someone who goes on forums and bashes authors. So the book didn’t work for me. Big flippin’ deal. Multi-published author, this is a series character, so obviously, there are plenty who disagree with me.

So, it isn’t about morals, or seeing eye to eye or even necessarily having a lot in common (although I prefer screw-ups so I don’t feel so hopeless about myself). It’s just about whether or not the character engages me. And there are no formulas for that.

The Second Thing? Well, believability. Now, we’ve established that I can be pretty forgiving. But what will make me put a book down?

It’s a tricky one, but for me, it boils down to personal experience.

I tried to read a book once, set in a real location. Unfortunately, a place I used to live. References to real streets and real places. And a real hospital. Unfortunately, there were two things about the hospital the writer didn’t know or chose to disregard, I don’t know which. One was that this hospital had no emergency room, performed no surgeries. It was a long-term care hospital for elderly and infirm patients, a large number of whom would never leave the building while still drawing breath. Even the patients there that did require surgeries were transferred down the road, to another hospital, had surgery and then were transferred back.

The other thing was that the hospital was closed several years before this person’s book was published.

Now, there had been other things, little things, minor bugbears. One of them (a religious issue) was grating on me a bit, but I was still reading. But the hospital was, for me, the straw. I couldn’t take it.

Because my best friend had worked at that hospital until it was closed down. And all you needed to do was type the name of the hospital into google and top ten hits were all about the closure.

I know other people who’ve read the book and enjoyed it. But I had a hard time with this.

That’s happened with very few books. Even the odd legitimate blunder I can overlook it the story is good, well-written, the characters engaging. For example, I watch The Wire, and they reuse license plates on it. So the license plate for a car first season for a drug dealer’s “friend’s” car becomes the license plate later on some police vehicle. Sure, I’ve noticed. If getting the plate number hadn’t been a plot point in one episode, I probably wouldn’t have. But do I look like I care?

My friend Steve Mosby recently wrote about an experience he had, when someone found a mistake in one of his books:

“It got me worried and it got me thinking. By the end of my book, the guy had gone straight past the idea of living texts, the impossible architecture, the bizarre characters - all of that - until, finally, it was a small detail about a pistol that floored him. Fiction is a weird thing. People will happily read about characters, places and events that have never existed and never will, and yet in some instances the tiniest deviation from reality will be a deal-breaker. There's a fine line to tread. How realistic do you have to be?”

I’m not sure I have the answers on it, because I think for everyone, it’s different.

But one of the things I’ve noticed going through Suspicious Circumstances, entering the home-stretch with edits, is that my research wasn’t what it should have been. I’ve found myself questioning things, double-checking them, in a few cases tweaking them.

I’ve put the pressure on myself to be as accurate as possible about ‘big things’ anyone could know or discover easily. Beyond that, I’m trying not to worry about it too much.

In Steve’s article, he goes on to say that he doesn’t “believe you need to get everything right, but it's important you don't blatantly fuck up. It doesn't have to be accurate and it doesn't need to be true, but it does need to be convincing. If a nurse in your story is going to swab a dry wound, I don't think it really matters whether she moistens it first with water, saline or a 0.6% solution of pholiochlorine, so long as she doesn't just spit on a tissue.”

Sometimes, the inconvenient truth that will read like info dump, or that you can’t confirm precisely, can be negated by lack of specifics. We’ve all seen IV bags. We know there’s something liquid in them. Steve’s example is brilliant. I’m not a nurse – obviously my good friend is, so I do have a source who could give me the precise mix – but do I care? Does the reader?

Likely only if it’s going to be important to the story later.

The truth is, you can’t please everyone. If there’s one thing that forum discussion about what turns people off has proven to me, it’s that there will always – no matter how well you research your book, how hard you work at plotting it, or how real the characters are to you – there will always be someone who will put your book down for what might seem to you (or me) to be a ridiculous reason.

Rule #1. Do the best job you can to please yourself, your agent and your publisher.

Rule #2. Learn from your mistakes but don’t let them undermine your accomplishment. If you get to the point where someone is razzing at you at an Orion book launch party because of a mistake in your novel, just remember they wouldn’t have had a chance to do that if you weren’t published.

I’m not saying you should blow it all to hell and not give a damn. Just don’t sweat the small stuff. I have to smile. All Steve needed to do was say ‘gun’ or ‘revolver’ instead of ‘pistol’ and the complaint was gone.

Just like all the author of the book I was talking about had to do to make me okay with it was not name the hospital. Such a simple thing…

But if a book has kept you reading to the end, the author’s done a number of things right, a number of things very well. Truth is, at any given job we might only put in 98% on our best days. The thing with being an author is, your product is there for people to scrutinize at leisure, so a lot of authors don’t get praised for the 98% dead-on excellent work. They get hate mail over the 2% that could have been a bit better.

That’s one of the differences between readers and authors. Readers have all the time in the world to nitpick a book to death if they want to and find fault with it.

And authors have to deliver their work on a deadline, which means sometimes, a word or a detail gets overlooked.

“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matt. 7:5

What’s the one thing I can say about that book I had a problem with, that I stopped reading, now that I’m working on edits to my own?

I’m cluing in to how hard it is. Now that I can imagine life in the author’s position, under the gun on deadlines, I can see how someone would make a mistake about a hospital. Yank out a map, look around, pick one and not even think to question if it’s still open or has a special designated purpose. And if you hadn’t lived there, like me, chances are you’d never know.

At least there’s a bit of good news when the problem with your work is a question of research. Research is a lot easier to address than a character that fails to engage the readers.

So take heart, writers. No, not everyone will like what you do. Just focus on finding the audience that will appreciate your work, learn from your mistakes and move on.

It’s really all you can do.

More Spinetingler News
Over 1700 downloads on Monday, putting the three-day total at over 2700 downloads. Thanks for spreading the word, everyone.

And thanks Bonnie for the joke.
A woman decides to have a facelift for her 50th birthday. She spend $15,000 and feels pretty good about the results. On her way home, she stops at a newsstand to buy a newspaper. Before leaving, she says to the clerk, "I hope you don't mind my asking, but how old do you think I am?"
"About 32," is the reply.
"Nope! I'm exactly 50," the woman says happily.
A little while later she goes into McDonald's and asks the counter girl the very same question.
The girl replies, "I'd guess about 29."
The woman replies with a big smile, "Nope, I'm 50."
Now she's feeling really good about herself. She stops in a drug store on her way down the street. She goes up to the counter to get some mints and asks the clerk this burning question.
The clerk responds, "Oh, I'd say 30."
Again she proudly responds, "I'm 50, but thank you!"
While waiting for the bus to go home, she asks an old man waiting next to her the same question.
He replies, "Lady, I'm 78 and my eyesight is going. Although, when I was young, there was a sure-fire way to tell how old a woman was. It sounds very forward, but it requires you to let me put my hands under your bra. Then, and only then can I tell you EXACTLY how old you are."
They wait in silence on the empty street until her curiosity gets the best of her. She finally blurts out, "What the hell, go ahead."
He slips both of his hands under her blouse and begins to feel around very slowly and carefully. He bounces and weighs each breast and he gently pinches each nipple. He pushes her breasts together and rubs them against each other.
After a couple of minutes of this, she says, "Okay, okay...How old am I?"
He completes one last squeeze of her breasts, removes his hands, and says, "Madam, you are 50."
Stunned and amazed, the woman says, "That was incredible, how could you tell?"
The old man says, "Promise you won't get mad?"
"I promise I won't." she says.
"I was behind you in line at McDonald's."


Andrea at Lochthyme said...

There's not much that will turn me off a book except bad writing. I'm pretty forgiving so as long as the storyline and characters are engaging I'll forgive just about any errors of fact. I wouldn't know the difference between a pistol, gun or revolver anyway. So as long as they aren't shooting someone with a knife I'm good. :0 Now I'm off to find my canoe since it's raining to beat the band. I came back a drowned rat after putting my daughter on her bus. And my poor garden is all falling down...the flowers are kissing the dirt. Yuck!

JT Ellison said...

It's amazing that we put so much work in and something little will turn the reader off. Like the tattoo thing, or the character smokes, or has a cold. Or we mention the weather, kidnap a child, committ adultery, hurt an animal, spell coulour wrong... well, you get the idea. If it's a real life situation, it's bound to upset someone. And if you make a teensy tiny error, you're doubly sunk. Do your homework!

JamesO said...

You can't please all the people all the time, sadly. There's always some anally retentive freak out there who knows exactly why your hero couldn't use his own discarded fingernail clippings and a bottle of prussic acid to escape from the sinister overlord's dungeon of doom. And he will track you down across hell and high water to let you know. He'll probably also expect you to publish a detailed apology and explanation, along with an acknowledgement of his brilliance in your next book. Such people should be ignored whenever possible.

On the other hand, if you're finding little things annoying with a book, like using the wrong hospital for instance, then chances are there's something else wrong with the story too, that stops you from engaging with it properly. I can forgive a whole host of factual errors if the story is well-written and the characters interesting.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Andrea, I'm pretty much with you. Well, actually, I think James nailed it. A number of things have to be factoring in to make a book not work for me, and as I said, there had been some minor bugbears with that book up to that point. One of them bordered on really pulling me out of my ability to buy into it (a religious issue) and then there was the hospital thing. So it wasn't just the hospital. But without the hospital, perhaps I would have kept reading and found it improved. Who knows?

JT, exactly. If it's real, it's bound to upset someone! What can you do?

Amra Pajalic said...

I'm usually pretty forgiving too. Not fussed about the writing not being perfect as long as the story has heart. The one thing that turns me off is predictability. I read the first four books in a series and didn't read the last two because they had a blurb which basically told me where it was going.

I also started reading a book the other day where a parent dies and the last thing the kid remembers is that they had a fight and she wished her Mum would die. So done.

Also the back blurb told me exactly where it was going and couldn't keep my attention.

Eileen said...

The Star Trek noise thing always drove my husband NUTS. I believe it comes down to what your experience and knowledge level would be. The more you care about a certain topic the less tolerant you'll be of an author taking liberties.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

I totally agree with James on this one. When I give up on a book, it's never for one reason. There's a boatload of them!

What is fascinating to me is how it will drive me nuts, but another reader won't find it the least bothersome. Since my blog is all about being a reading journal, I do end up naming names, but it's not done with a malicious intent. Last year, I tried to read Elizabeth George's A GREAT DELIVERANCE. A friend of mine recently read the book and enjoyed it, but I couldn't get past the first eighty pages (for a boatload of reasons... hehe). I pretty much expect any book I manage to get published to receive a similar reception, so I suppose I don't over-worry about it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, I would agree that I don't like a predictable story. Even if an author covers something that has been done before, if they bring a fresh spin to it, I can be good with that.

Eileen, I live with one of those techno-know-it-alls. Well, he's not so bad, but sometimes, I just say, "SHHHHHH! Let me watch the damn show!"

Bill, there's a big difference between saying a book doesn't work for you and calling the author names, saying their stuff is shit, etc. I'm really careful about it, because as much as I find the usual crew 'round here to be wonderful, sometimes what I say gets misconstrued and then it blows out of proportion.

Plus, I might meet the person this year, and I'd rather not be on the record about it. It didn't work for me. Clearly, it works for others.

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

Hubs and I are such opposites - details like the Star Trek stuff would make me go nuts, but for hubs? He just stuffs food in my mouth so I'd shut up during the movie!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

The only time I give up on a book is if I've been reading it for a week and I'm only to chapter three!

I just can't read things that move slow!

And fact is always stranger than fiction...because fiction has to make sense!

E. Ann Bardawill said...

For YEARS everyone recommended that damn Highlander series by Diane whatserface, so I finally plunk down some hard cash at the Used Book shop and lug the tome home for what I have been repeated told will be a great read.


So far to the end it's fair to middling... And then I get to the part where the heroine fights the a huge male wolf and kills it.

After I stopped laughing so hard that the tears leave salt stain on my living room rug, I lugged that stupid book back to the store, traded it in for something by Ruth Rendall and the next time someone told me what a great read Highlander was I just winced.
Full blooded wolved are ENORMOUS! They can bring down a moose.
So a 5 foot 4 inch nurse from the 1940's shouldn't be much of a problem. Even if she sticks it with a sword, all that'd do is piss Wolfy off.
Completely ruined the story for me.

Mary R said...

Ooh! Ooh! I know the answer to the license plate one!

Basically, just like you can't use a real phone number in a movie/TV show, you can't use a real license plate. So each state has a certain number of non-valid numbers for movie/TV crews to use.

So, either Maryland doesn't have enough numbers for THE WIRE to always use unique ones and they just had to let it go, or their continuity person was not checking against previous episodes.

I don't know why people try to be detail-specific in modern settings. Things change and the book is sure to feel out of date very quickly to people who know the area. Didn't Raymond Chandler say not to use actual slang, because nothing dates a story faster? I think keeping the major streets and altering some names makes the most sense. Call the hospital St. Anne's instead of St. Agnes. Everyone who really knows the area will recognize the original. Also, no one really notices the streets and buildings of the neighborhood they live in, or have the names running through their head as they drive by. It invariably starts to feel forced in a novel, especially one not in first person.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree about the directions thing Mary - that's the kind of paragraph I'll skim. Not enough to put a book down, but I'll definitely skim over it.

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