Friday, September 11, 2009

Learning on the Job

First, let me offer honors to those who died and suffered on September 11. You know which one. I arrived at work that day with no knowledge of what was happening, but my secretary had a TV and was watching the news. I’ll say no more than that it was heart wrenching, and if you want there are many, many fine blogs focusing on that event today. I’m going to talk about something different here.

Most, if not all, jobs require some learning on the job, but some types of work require more than others. Teaching is a prime example. I lament at times that the field of psychology continues to change at an incredible rate. It would be nice once in a while to teach the same facts in the same class for two years running. Of course, not every fact changes from year to year, but enough new and revised information is introduced every year to keep me hopping. Even though I’m simply unable to keep up with all the new information, I like the fact that my field is not static. It’s dynamic and exciting to discover new things, and to anticipate the discovery of more.

Unfortunately (sometimes), my second job is worse than my first. Writing fiction as a field dwarfs the learning requirement for psychology, and I’ll bet for most academic disciplines. Yesterday, because of writing projects I’m currently engaged in, I had to learn about wombats, badgers, and digging animals of all kinds, about river cane, bamboo, and sugar cane, about moonlight and werewolf mythology, and about child development, childhood aggression, child soldiers, and symbolic intelligence. My brain was pretty tired by the time all that was done.

To write convincingly, even if you’re writing fantasy, there is a tremendous amount of information and detail that you need to know. But correct details are not always enough. I’ve found readers to fall into three general categories where story details are concerned. First, we have the largest group, who merely want the facts of the story to sound plausible! These folks read for the story and as long as you don’t have any glaring errors you can get away with little twists on detail.

For example, take my question the other day about the age at which a boy might successfully sneak a dagger out of an unsuspecting enemy’s sheath and stab that enemy. I got a variety of answers, ranging from 5 all the way up to about 12. This told me a couple of things. First, the actual age at which a boy might carry out such an act is undetermined. Second, whatever age I choose, I have to make it sound plausible that “my” youthful character could do it. If I achieve plausibility, then probably 90 percent of the readers aren’t going to care about whether I’m absolutely correct or not.

The other two groups of readers are much smaller. One group actually ‘knows’ the absolute details. They are experts or well educated in that particular field. For example, if I get a gun caliber wrong in a story, most readers won’t care, but this second group will care a great deal and will be irritated with me for the mistake. This group can only be responded to by making your story facts as true to real life as can be. And I think that is a good thing. Although most novelists will occasionally take “liberties” with true events or facts in order to craft a compelling story, we certainly need to know the facts before we manipulate them.

The third group of readers, also small, is the hardest to please. These folks believe themselves to be experts but, in fact don’t know the true details. However, and I think many historical novelists will agree, this group can be very vocal in pointing out what they see as wrong. (Even if it’s correct.) I’ve been lucky that I’ve only had this happen to me a couple of times. It can be frustrating, however. I work hard to get the reality straight in my stories, but I have made mistakes and, although I feel chagrined, I don’t get upset when someone corrects my mistake. It’s the non-mistakes that are called mistakes that get to me.

So what kind of reader are you? Do small inaccuracies bother you? Is story more important to you than 100 percent factual accuracy? Do errors in some fields bother you more than in other fields? Just curious.



Spy Scribbler said...

I'm very accepting and really don't care. I never mention it to the writer. There are a few things, of course. I really hate the whole storyline when they put a rock-singer/ballet-dancer/artist in a conservatory and she/he "shakes" up the conservatory and earns their respect with her contemporary twist. That's just stupid, impossible, and foolish. Why would a student want to go learn in a school where the teachers know NOTHING about what you want to study? And they'd never accept a student who wanted to learn something the school didn't offer, anyway. Just stupid.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't mind about facts that I don't know anything about!

I did get very irritated with Sebastian Faulks' 'The Girl at the Lion D'Or', when he started talking about 'the veins pulsing in her arm'. I mean, everyone knows that it is arteries that pulse, not veins- don't they? Sloppy, very sloppy. It quite spoiled the book for me!

I am part of 2 reading groups- a real one and a virtual one (see my blog- I am shamelessly trying to promote it). In the real one we have fantastic discussions/arguments about whether we like/don't like the book in question. All opinions count. I always try to look for the things I like in the book, rather than those things I don't like ( unless it is something as glaring as pulsing veins!). I know that writing is an extremely difficult art and I appreciate all forms of it.

Anonymous said...

ps perhaps we should read The Swords of Talera at the VBC ???

G. B. Miller said...

I say about 98% of the time, I read for the pure enjoyment of the story.

The other 2% of the time, I fall into the second and third group of readers. If I'm reading something historical or a piece of non-fiction, creative or otherwise, then I expect that the story to be factually accurate. More so if I actually know what the topic of choice happens to be.

Steve Malley said...

I believe I'm in the 'stumble but not fall out of the story' category. I was happy to finish Stephen King's CELL despite the cartoonist getting a six-figure (SIX FIGURE!) advance. I've managed to get past countless moments where detectives use safeties on weapons that do not have them, and am able to enjoy that final confrontation in Natural Born Killers where Mickey and Mallory work the choke on their shotguns so many times they'd have completely unloaded their weapons.

I can even, sometimes, almost endure the way tattooists are portrayed in movies. Sometimes. Almost. :)

Lisa said...

Dan Brown wrote the most unplausible stories that he made plausible.

As a writer, you could not please everybody.

I had not finished reading many good books by good authors just because "I" had lost interest half-way.

What worries me now is if I am being psycho-analysed :)

laughingwolf said...

i like a good tale as much as does the next reader, but i'm also a bit of a stickler with some details, especially when it's something i KNOW to be untrue, just thrown in cuz the writer thought it SOUNDED good to throw it in, assuming using a term most are unfamiliar with will fly... it won't... just like your reference to the wrong caliber for a gun, or some electrical reference, cuz someone will catch it, and it'll jar them, like cin sez...

Johnny Yen said...

I read mostly non-fiction, and am okay with small details being wrong, but go apeshit when big ones are wrong. I guess it's the historian in me.

Travis Cody said...

For me, it depends on the type of story I'm reading and the set up.

If it's historical fiction, then I want it to be reasonably accurate. I'm not an expert in all things, but when I do know something and the writer makes a mistake, it can be annoying. It's also troubling when a fictional character must interact with a real historical person, and the writer gets things wrong about that person. I'll accept some poetic license, but some things have to be correct.

For example, if you story is set in WWII and you have your character meeting with FDR, it's not plausible to stage the meeting with them playing golf.

If it's science fiction, I'd like the science to be plausible. But I'm no expert, so I likely won't know for certain if something is a mistake. My reaction is most likely to be "Wow! That's cool!"

Cloudia said...

"What is truth?"


Comfort Spiral

Randy Johnson said...

I read for the story. Exact details aren't important(If you were doing a Civil War story and threw in a jet fighter I might protest). But if you're reasonably accurate, I could care less about the small stuff. Most of them might slip by me anyway.

A story with some kind of sense is the important thing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Natasha Fondren, there are definitely some kinds of plots I don’t like, but I typically avoid those books from the first and never read them to find out if other details are OK.

Cinnamon, I always find it interesting what details bother certain readers. I think we all have our pet peeves so to speak. Pulsing veins probably wouldn’t bother me, although you are right about veins versus arteries. But I tend to get irritated when folks get gun stuff wrong. I’m sure we all have something. As for Swords of Talera, well, I know the guy who wrote it and he recommends it highly. ;)

G, yeah, nonfiction is a different ballgame. I really can get upset with nonfic writers taking liberties, or people like the Million shattered pieces guy who pawn off fiction as NF.

Steve Malley, oh yeah, that’s a bit of a pet peeve for me, pumping a shotgun repeatedly, and no shell (empty or otherwise) comes out. But I’ll usually let it slide with the words, “it’s only a movie.” As for the Cell, I know you’re just trying to cover up all the six figure advances you’ve gotten!

Ocean Girl, certainly true that writers can’t please everybody. Probably if we tried to please everyone we’d end up pleasing no one. As for psychoanalysis, I’m a biological psychologist/ experimental psychologist. I don’t know much about clinical type things, and I think of Freud as only of historical interest to the field. Thus, you’re safe here!
laughingwolf , yeah, it’s always kind of hard to overlook a clear and egregious error, especially if a little research would have uncovered the truth. But most of the time I won’t let a single error bother me too much. If it’s a pattern, then that’s just poor writing.

Johnny Yen, I’ve been surprised sometimes at how big errors can creep into nonfiction. I’ve also found, in reading some anti-evolution literature of late that some supposed nonfiction can have some pretty blatant lies in it.

Travis, I’m pretty lenient with SF, but I’m harsh on historical fic when real people are introduced. I don’t like to see the historical person messed with too much, although when there’s very little knowledge about their life I don’t mind some plausible inventing.

Cloudia, I tend to accept the truth as determined by our current state of knowledge of science and history. I know, of course, that that truth might change at some point. But I don’t want writers to change it arbitrarily.

Randy Johnson, I’m mostly the same. Occasionally I’ll be a bit harsher on the writer. But mostly I want the good story. I don’t mind minor historical errors typically, although nothing big and glaring, as you say. Unless it’s alternate history!

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I am not usually bothered by small inaccuracy if the fiction is compelling.

The ultimate tool for research is the internet though, isn't it? I can't imagine what people did before that? I would have spent days in the library doing the research for my current novel. Thank god for Google's street view which took me places so I could see the places I was writing about and experience what my characters might experience.

Also, I am writing a short story about WWII and found myself able to do a virtual tour of a ship of that era. That allowed me to have tremendous authenticity and accuracy for the tale.

j said...

Small inaccuracies sometime make me feel a kinship with or closer to the writer. And sometimes they make me feel smug for catching the inaccuracy to start with :)

Have a relaxing weekend Charles.

ivan said...

...Forget what German cat said it, but only the deeply reseached is truly interesting. Otherwise, it comes off sort of like Conan O'Brien making a mauve out of himself during the monologuke. Self-conscious and too facile..

Charles Gramlich said...

Stewart Sternberg, yes, the net has made gathering facts and especially getting visuals so much easier. It's realy nice, although I sometimes get distracted by the wealth of stuff available.

jennifer, there's a well known concept among fiction writers that it always helps to make your reader feel a little smarter than the writer. ;)

ivan, I don't always want a lot of depth, but mostly I do and at such times the facile certainly doesn't do it for me.

sage said...

Didn't Mark Twain say something about not letting the facts ruin a story? As for that 3rd group, ignore them the best you can. Along with the poor and wars and rumors of wars, the other constant till the end of time is that jerks will always be with us. (sometimes I'm one!)

Rick said...

What a cool question.

There are some writers who are so good that while reading the story I think, "Facts? What facts?"

It's like reading dialogue from Elmore Leonard. He writes dialogue so well that I forget there is a story, if you know what I mean. He wrote this story where the main character was one of those guys at the circus who climb this incredibly high tower and then jump into a bucket of water. It's filled with Civil War re-enactors and a yardfull of bizzare characters, and the only reason I kept reading was because the dialogue was so great. I don't know if there even was a verifiable fact in the story.

Short answer is: if a writer is good enough, the facts should be tossed in the back seat unless, like Randy Johnson said.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's surprising sometimes when a small thing does bother me. But I hate going to movies with people who fixate on trivial things. And I hate it when people in my writing group question whether Bonanza was in color in 1963. (I do check such things). And try hanging out with historians. They are the worst.

jodi said...

Charles, I like to let the author tell his story his was and trust that it will all make sense to me. As long as it's not to unbelievable. It's kind of a subjective art anyway, isn't it?

Charles Gramlich said...

sage, I've probably been a jerk myself at some point. But I don't remember it. :)

Rick, Yes, sometimes it's just fun to see a great writer at work and you stand back in awe as he or she spins their lies! I love Bloch's title for his book, telling lies for fun and profit.

pattinase, I know. We all do have our pet peeves. I'm never quite sure about why I have some and not others. I know of what you speak regarding historians.

jodi, definitely it is. It would have been a longer post but I was thinking about addressing the whole issue of facts. There are facts and then there are FACTS. I may do so later.

Merisi said...

I love contemporary authors like Antonio Tabucchi and W. G. Sebald, I love how they write and what they write about. Could itl be that I love them because they know how to never make me think they don't know their facts? ;-) I much prefer to belong to the first group of readers, but when I feel let down by a writer's sloppy research, s/he risks losing me as a reader, forever.

Angie said...

Small mistakes bother me, I'll admit. It takes quite a while for me to bail on a story, or swear I'm never buying a book by this idiot again (although that's happened a time or two). But a secondary effect is that a writer who makes a clear mistake in some area I know about suddenly becomes suspect in areas I don't know about.

Usually I'm willing to give the writer the benefit of the doubt when they're talking about some area where I'm not particularly knowledgeable myself. So usually, if a writer tells me that the Blah-Blah Whatever pistol has a thirteen-round magazine, I'll just accept it and keep going. If, however, five chapters before that they repeated the old saw about how anyone over thirty was considered "old" in the Middle Ages, I won't automatically trust them anymore. I've never heard of a thirteen-round magazine, and at this point I know that this writer is capable of making dumb mistakes, so I'm wondering. Even if all it does is pull me out of the story for a moment, that's still a bad thing.


Gabby said...

As a proofreader by profession, and recently having ventured into proofing books (fiction, so far), I have a unique perspective. I have to have two minds when I read. When reading for pleasure, unless it's glaringly wrong (and since I mostly read fantasy, I'll usually let a lot of things slide), I just shrug and move on, even if I think things seem a little weird.

However, when proofing, I have a critical eye about almost everything, but it's usually with good measure. For example, earlier this year I read a manuscript where a female Air Force Officer, in uniform and "on the job" was tapping her "long, red fingernails" on a desk, and also a few instances where she would flip her long blonde ponytail out of the way. No, I'm not in the military, but I've seen enough shows, movies, etc. where military is portrayed to make me arch an eyebrow, and then proceed to look up a military handbook regarding the dress code. (Sure enough, if hair is long, it needs to be up above the collar (I think most women wear it in a twist), and garish nail polish, like red, is not allowed. At least, according to this handbook I found on a military web site.) However, as a proofreader/copy editor, I personally can't change things like that. I can merely "suggest" (and sometimes heavily) that the author "consider revising." (That's my nice way of saying "ya better change it, cuz it's wrong!" But, if they decide to leave it, hey, I did my job, right? ^_^

Lana Gramlich said...

Your brain's not's sess. ;)

the walking man said...

If it were an error concerning mechanical operations of a machine then it would nag me because I know machinery. But beyond that i just want a story to take me to places that at the least seem there is plausibility in their existence. I do not like stories that force me to suspend all belief in order to get them.

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, there's something similar in teaching. Students will sometimes say "that teacher really knows their stuff," which sometimes means the teacher presents his/her info in a forceful confident way that makes the student think "it must be right."

Angie, that's definitely true. Once your confidence in a writer takes a hit, then you can begin to doubt in other places. This is especially troublesome in historical fiction where it's supposed to be good history.

Gabby, I've worked around the military enough that those things probably would have bothered me too. a lot of it seems to depend on how many facts we as readers know about the subject or story we're reading.

Lana Gramlich, only because it contemplates you, my dear. ;)

Mark, I do like a lot of fantasy stuff and in that field we have a particular problem. We know the facts aren't real, but they have to sound plausible. And, there has to be internal consistency within the story on the facts. They can't change 'em arbitrarily. Their made up facts have to stay the same.

Chris Benjamin said...

Great post. Generally I'm a reader who is willing to make a willful suspension of disbelief, as long as the writer is consistent, so what is possible and impossible on page 10 remains constant with what is on page 210.

cs harris said...

Yeah, I fall into the irritated by errors category. Especially if it's a fact that's easy to verify or that is critical enough to the story that the author should have made the effort to do his research. I also get irritated when authors boast about their research but make so many mistakes it's obviously they really didn't do nearly as much as they should have (for some reason this seems to be particularly common amongst those writing historicals). That said, everyone makes mistakes--including me--so I try to just smile (smugly, of course) when I see little slips.

Charles Gramlich said...

Benjibopper, that is definitely a very important element. Internal consistency. I hate when fantasies don't maintain that.

Candy, at some point I may post about factual mistakes, such as dates etc, as opposed to the larger issue of "societal views." For example, if you try to accurately portray the role of women in history. There wasn't just "one" role, although there were general tendencies.

Mariana Soffer said...

I guess I am mostly a reader of the first type, but I have cases in which I can be considered of the second one. For example once I read a book from isabel allende, who I dislike even dough she went trough the military government stuff and all that, because she wrote a novel, which I can not remember the name now, in which she talks about the paintings that van gogh sold while being alive, which is an aberration, because he did not preciselly sold many art works then, I was indignated, I do not understand how this woman would even dare to write a book without knowing the minimum needed for that, or at least pay somebody to do the research about it.

Nice post, take care.

Vesper said...

It would bother me if the error were really blatant, no matter how "good" the story is. I would feel disrespected by the writer who couldn't take the time to verify the facts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mariana Soffer, I believe that would tick me off as well. That should be one of the first and simplest things to check. Some proofreading should have caught that.

Vesper, really well known facts are a particular problem. Or ones that are easy to get the answers too. That kind of carelessness does bother me.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

I'm kind of an easy going reader if I like the voice. If the voice sucks, then I notice everything wrong. Also pace is important. I try to be accurate in my fiction, but I don't get neurotic about it because it slows me down. I call this kind of research "rapture of the deep" where you get so entranced by facts that you never start writing. It has happened to me so I'm careful!

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, yes, there's always a bit more we "could" learn, but we can't make a life stuff of the info needed for any one story.

Mary Witzl said...

Details matter to me if they happen to be ones I care about. Asian names and facts about Asia -- I go wild when people get them wrong, as though they just want an Asian-sounding phrase or idea, but can't be bothered to take the care to get it right. For instance, a book I read once had a line about the Japanese custom of foot-binding. Argh!! Foot-binding was practiced by the Chinese; the Japanese never had that custom. Or another book I read recently talked about the Japanese concept of 'giri' (duty), but they got it down as 'geri', which means diarrhea. Messed-up details like that really get to me.