Getting it right

As I have mentioned a time or two, I have been reading paranormal romances in an effort to get a feel for the field since I’m developing a story concept for one.  In particular, I’ve been reading the finalists for the most recent “Rita” awards.

One thing I’ve noticed is a decided lack of concern for “fact checking.”  In one, we have a person doing a “practice form” with a Western style sword that is apparently a long sequence of moves against notional (imaginary) opponents.  There’s just one problem with that.  The use of long, stylized forms like that are an Asian approach, not one used in Western swordplay.

Another writer had an extremely experienced diver apparently confused between air embolism and the bends (two different problems that can occur from among other things, ascending too fast) and got durations and the like wrong.  A more subtle error was someone suddenly appearing having been “swept” there from a just sunken boat when no such boat was within sight beforehand.  But how far could the person have been swept while still being not only alive but conscious?

The same thing happens in the “traditional” SF and Fantasy genre too.  One writer recently had a ship leaving a station apparently in Earth orbit and taking weeks to return to Earth (the journey was interrupted before completion but the expected duration was weeks).  Even if the ship was as far as the moon it would take less than 5 days on a minimum energy orbit.  Anything longer than that would take more energy.  There are reasons why the outbound leg might take that long (high efficiency, low thrust engines) but they won’t apply for a vehicle that returns from high orbit and reenters the atmosphere.

These things dropped me right out of the story for at least a moment.  I managed to get back into it but I should never have been dropped out in the first place.

A lot of people will say “but it’s fantasy” or it “uses future tech” or something like that.  And that can be the case if a fantastic element is involved.  If, for instance, the story is in an alternate world where Western martial arts took a different turn becoming more Asian in approach, that’s fine.  But that needs to be explicitly part of the world and not “it’s a world identical to our own except some short time in the past people became aware of the existence of ‘supernatural’ creatures.”  But the existence of the supernatural or “future tech” just increases the need to get the parts that aren’t part of that invention right.  By showing the reader that you get the “mundane” aspects right you give them confidence to accept the fantastic.

Perhaps you, as the writer, think you can just get away with it. “Nobody will notice.” And there’s some justice to that.  After all, these writers did get away with it.  They were all finalists for a major award. (The non-romance in the above, was not only a finalist for a different award but actually won it.)

But somebody did notice.  I noticed.  And if I were not particularly motivated I might well have not taken the effort to get back into the story after those glaring (to me) errors.  How many other people did stop after seeing those errors?  How many people put down the book and wrote that author off?  How many sales did the author lose?  We’ll never know.

Now, on the other hand, whatever you do, you’re going to make mistakes.  That’s part of being human.  And maybe, someday, when you’re famous (or not so famous) you’ll get a letter from a reader saying “you got xxx wrong in your story.” It happened to me in my story “EMT” (Analog Science Fiction & Fact, December, 1993).  It involved an ambulance service on the moon.  For that story I spent a lot of time researching how ambulances operate, the effects of severe blood loss on the body, how CPR is performed and, especially, under what circumstances professionals performing CPR say “we’re done.” Despite all that effort, Analog forwarded a letter from a reader to me from a physician who, basically, said “you got that wrong.”

Does that mean one shouldn’t try?  Of course not.  You’re probably not a professional in every field you might have a character engage in.  You do the best you can and realize that it won’t always be perfect.  But you can hope to get things close enough that when a professional in the field calls you on it he qualifies things with “although it’s unlikely, I suppose it could happen” and “or course, protocols might change in the future.”

And the fewer and smaller mistakes you make, the fewer readers will lose that Willing Suspension of Disbelief that allows them to enjoy your work.

And that’s what it’s all about.

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Getting out of the slush pile

At a recent con I met a fairly big name science fiction writer–multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and a publication history that goes back to when I was . . . very young.  We did a panel together and, some time later, met in the Con Suite (a room at most science fiction conventions, usually with drinks and snacks, sometimes real food, where folk can relax, meet, and talk) where we chatted.  One of the things he did was give me some advice on advancing my career–what cons I should attend in order to meet editors and agents in the hopes of doing business, that sort of thing.

One of the things he said was that if I wanted to be successful I had to “get out of the slush pile.” (the “slush pile” being that gigantic stack of manuscripts that people send in hoping to be published.) As he explained it, first readers have to reject some large number of manuscripts per hour (this is forced by the reality that a very large number of manuscripts are submitted but only a few can be published).  Now, while most stories submitted can be easily rejected (bad manuscript format, poor spelling and grammar, that sort of thing) even on the “possibles” (which includes your story, right?  You’ve cleaned up the spelling and grammar?  You’ve made sure to put it into proper manuscript format?  You’ve done all that right?) a decision has to be made quickly.  And in that rush it’s entirely possible for good stories to get overlooked.  In fact, good stories are going to be rejected because there are more good stories than there are slots at any paying publishing house.

If I understand what he was telling me, the best chance you have, if your story is any good, is if you can avoid the “slush pile” and get directly to an editor who might buy your work rather than being handled by a first reader whose job is to reject as much as he can as fast as he can.

And that was when we got to talking about conventions.  A bit later I mentioned a book manuscript I was shopping around and mentioned that I was limited because only a couple of the major publishing houses accepted unagented manuscripts.  He promptly named two that I had missed and mentioned that the editor of one of them had recently won a major industry award.  I took out my iPod Touch and quickly noted this information down, asking the writer to repeat the name of the editor so I got it correctly.

When I got home, I mentioned this to another writer I know and in an email I laughingly said I should submit the story saying “Author XXX suggested I send this to you.”

My friends reply was a single line: “Author XXX recommended you as a possible contact.”

Oh.  He was serious.

And so I sent off the manuscript (that publisher takes submissions via email) with a cover letter starting exactly as my friend suggested.

In a matter of a couple of hours I got a reply that said “I’ll take a look on XXX’s recommendation.”

Wow.

So two days later I get another response. “Thanks but no thanks.”

Sigh.

Well, I got out of the slushpile but, in this case, it was just to get a faster rejection.

Oh well.  That’s the way the game is played.

Sex in fiction

In a recent discussion on Facebook, I made a tongue-in-cheek reference to a writer friend of mine’s book and the supposed “explicit sex” in it.  The joke was to apologize for calling the sex explicit when, from the romance novels I have been reading (I have a story concept under development for a paranormal romance and am familiarizing myself with the genre) it was hardly explicit at all.

The book, by the way, is Freehold by Michael Z. Williamson and is an excellent read if you like books about successful Libertarian societies with lots of military action and a moderate amount of sex. (I happen to like those kinds of books).  You can buy it on Amazon as well as other places:

Well, in comments on the thread, some folk mentioned how they didn’t like to read about explicit sex with the statement that “Sex is not a spectator sport.”

Well, when I read, what happens on the page is not a “spectator sport” for me.  I tend to identify with one or more of the characters and essentially live the story through them.  My “identifier” is quite flexible and I’m fully capable of “being” for the course of the story, folk as diverse as Miss Marple, Herald Mage Vanyel, Kendra Pacelli, Bernie Rhodenbar, or Frodo.  If you don’t recognize all of them, that’s okay.  You can Google them if you want.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Back?  Okay, that said, when sex happens in a story I’m not watching it, I’m living it through the character.  Let me hasten to clarify that I’m living it in my mind.  This is purely an intellectual and emotional exercise.  There’s no physical involvement except my eyes moving down the page and my hands turning those pages.  Okay?  That clear?  Good. 😉

So, when the sex in the story has no significant impact on the character development or story progression, that’s one thing.  George sleeps around a lot.  He stops off at Jill’s and, some time later, leaves while zipping up his pants.  The sex is part of George’s character but the sex act doesn’t affect his character or move the plot.  In this case, little more is called for than the bare fact that George and Jill had sex.

In other stories, however, the act of sex does have a significant effect on character development or plot.  In those cases, I believe the sex does need to be “on screen” and told in exactly the same detail that any other plot mover/character development scene would be told.  Sex with Jill didn’t mean anything to George but with Ellen?  Wow.  There was something different about that, something that made all others pale into insignificance.  Maybe it was because Ellen was the only one who really knew George, who knew the secrets George kept hidden from the world, understood him in a way that no one else can.  That scene needs to be shown because that scene marks a change in George’s character and to not show it is to give the reader no more reason for George’s change than “because the author said so” (which rarely works).  And when writers elide over those kinds of scenes (as was the case in many romance novels of a few decades ago–yes, this isn’t the first time I’ve researched the genre) I find it jarring.  It tends to throw me out of the story and I have to spend some effort getting back in.

Writers have no problem writing grisly murders, horrible tortures, and many other things when they are important to the development of the story and its characters (and even when they are not, but more on that another day).  But a lot of writers and, apparently, a lot of readers (which gives an excuse for the writers) seem to shy away from presenting this one aspect in the same detail that these other things are shown.  To some extent that has changed–particularly in the Romance genre if the paranormal romances I have been reading are any indication–but the stigma about explicit depictions of sex still seems to be there in a lot of fiction.

Not every story needs to have sex just like not every story needs to have a murder or not every story needs to have someone lose their job or not every story needs to have Timmy fall down a well, but it is, or should be, just as valid in a story as any of those other aspects.  And if it is there, I believe the writer should be able to show it on the same footing as any other plot/character motivator.  If the murder matters to the story, you describe it in detail.  If the sex matters to the story, that, too should be described in detail.

Stories are about people.  People, among other things, have sex.  Sex is one of the more powerful motivators in life.  That large numbers of people think that such a powerful motivational factor needs to be avoided or hidden in fiction has always struck me as odd.  And while the taboos are breaking down, they are still there.  And while they are there, I guess, writers will have to deal with that reality one way or another.

Notional cover design

While I’m shopping around my novel “The Hordes of Chanakra” (and also considering the possibility of self-publishing) I thought I’d amuse myself by creating a notional “cover” using public domain artwork (in this case a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky “The Battle of Sinor” painted in 1853).

Note however that the book has not been published.  This is just an artistic exercise at this time.

Thoughts?