Keeping It Real

As everyone (!) knows, I’m both an addicted reader and cheap.

No, this does not mean I can read highly complex books all the time, much less books for critique, because those require brain space and thought.  So if I say I haven’t had time to read this or that (and that some of my favorite authors) it’s because it takes more brain space than what I call Popcorn reads: stuff I read while writing intensively

These reads are rather like pacifiers, something to calm the impulse to read when no brain space is available, and I often fill-in with re-reads. Or I read inoccuous, simple stuff.

The thing about the simple stuff, lost in publishing’s obsession with “big reads” and “blockbusters” over the last couple of decades, is that it’s not necessarily bad.  In fact, that sort of stuff that is successful is often quite good, and a display of the best in craft.  But it is to an extent formulaic and/or short and lacking in subplots.  It also often has continuing characters a “repeat feel”.  Examples of the greats of this used to be midlist are Rex Stout, Earle Stanley Gardner, and the various authors of episodic fiction.  In the same vein, there is say Time Wars by Simon Hawk. These were not isolated “great fiction” examples that could be pushed to one-time success, but reliable reads, which, once you were into the series, split the difference between new reads and comfort reads.

(A digression: Entire careers used to be made this way.  In fact, it was what the so called midlist was supposed to be, before it became “books we’re not going to bother promoting because we don’t think they’ll make a million dollars.” And properly managed the midlist is the backbone of a publishing business.  Make no mistake, part of the reason publishing is in trouble is because it neglected the vital business of feeding the addicts.  This is important because those of us who are super-readers are ultimately self-medicating for something and if we can’t find enough fodder for our “medication” in books we start looking elsewhere.  I find that nature and historical documentaries can achieve the same result, and other people go to games.  Once they make that their main form of palliative for whatever drives them to do it, they’re not going to come back to read the “big, overly promoted blockbuster.”  They have found other forms of entertainment.  So when you stopped publishing a quality mid list and viewed the midlist as a place to dump books aiming for blockbuster that you didn’t think deserved the same push, you failed.)

Anyway, after this lengthy digression: what had me thinking about making fiction “real” is that I’ve been reading so much of it that just falls short.

Now, we’ve agreed fiction isn’t the real world, and I’ve taught you guys to try not to strive for “real” because real life is eternities of boredom interspersed with moments of utter panic.  And that doesn’t make for very good reads.  Also the plot of real life is chaotic and there are way too many subplots to make sense.

But that doesn’t mean that your books should at no point impress the reader as being real.  In fact, your challenge is to convince the reader that your made up world, your made up characters and your out-of-whole-cloth story is real enough to affect the emotions.  That which our backbrain doesn’t see as real, it won’t care about.

Which brings us to the books I’ve been devouring back to back, between writing jags.  Most of them are the opposite of what you should be doing.  I’ve found that Regency Romance is truly the place where that big dump of bad the traditionals expected when indie opened has gone to die.  When reading science fiction or mystery I often can’t tell if the book is traditionally published, except that there’s more diversity of world view in indie.  In Romance I usually can tell, but the caveat here is that one of the very worst things I’ve read is reissued indie after being published traditionally and is published by a “NYT bestseller”.  So, you heard it here first: Romance is so big it supports even bad writing.

However, imagine how much better it could be if you wrote well.  How many more people you could reach.

So, to begin with, what are the elements of “real.”

1 -The first one is easy: do your fargin research.  There are books out there that will bullet proof your book to anything but experts (nothing will bullet proof it to experts.  No seriously.  Most of them don’t agree with each other.)

This is important for historical and science fiction, of course, but DO NOT think this means your near future or even present story doesn’t need research.  One of the questions that took me the longest to resolve, for a book, was “Does an oxygen tank need to explode when pierced.”  (I outsourced it, but it took my researcher a while to figure that out.)

Yes, it’s more “fun” to build your book with no regard to objective reality.  It will also cause you to lose readers not just of that book but of all future ones.  (Except me.  I have lousy memory for names, unless I LOVED your book, and even then usually only by the second or third.  So you get near infinite chances with me.)

2 – Do not obscure the writing with a lot of your opinions, philosophies and views of life.  Save that for the blogs.  Okay, this is not true.  You can do it, if it fits the character voice, which is what I try to do in DST and Earth Revolution, and which Heinlein did pretty well.  BUT do not do it as an omnipresent, omniscient, not-in-the-story narrator.  The more you do go on, the more we get tired of reading unmoored stories.

This is not even just for politics, morals, etc.  I’ve found the main difference between Heyer and modern regency writers is that Heyer never felt the need to talk at LENGTH about how her characters felt about each other every minute.  Yeah, sure, she gave us hints, but most of it was showing not telling.

We’ll discuss how you can be fooled into thinking telling is showing, how to port-in your telling when absolutely needed, etc.

3- Those touches of grace that make a completely unlikely story sound real are mostly grounded on empathy and things we know to be true about ourselves, and therefore will know to be true about others.

But, say you, how can I write planet conquering, or death of a baby, or… when I’ve not experienced that?  Part is research.  Part is method acting.  I’ll try to give you tips and tricks and, in this case, there might be homework.

So – Next week: Researching to the Book, or the techniques of targeted research.

*I do not charge for these mini courses.  You are of course free to sashay over to my blog and send me $5 on paypal, for kitty kibble.  Or, if you enjoy my other writing, you can buy something of mine.

Recently I removed all my short stories from sale on Amazon.  I had probably 50 individual stories (which don’t sell very well) and I thought my timeline would be too clogged for people to find the novels, which meant I was underperforming my friends with less stuff out.  My experiment proved right, because my income about doubled.  However, I don’t believe in having stuff in the drawer and not earning.  SO I’m assembling those into collections, and putting them out.  Every collection contains a “new” story at least — meaning stories that might have been published in an anthology or a magazine, but which I personally haven’t put out — and it collects them all in a convenient place, without the distraction of dozens of titles.  This weekend I assembled the one below (and there will be a paper book as soon as I stop arguing with Createspace.  The same for the other books I put out without a paper version. And because I keep getting this question: Yes, I made the cover.  The main woman, the background and the wings are different images that I got for free (I THINK Pixabay, though the wings might have been renderosity.)  I then ran it through filter forge.*



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39 responses to “Keeping It Real

  1. A large part of “real” is “internally consistent.” If you have a character suddenly behaving contrary to previously observed behavior, you’d better have a reason that isn’t “because the plot needs it.” If your world suddenly has a flaw, you need an explanation for it. And if you have a zombie apocalypse, please do research how epidemics build and set your story in a reasonable time frame for the level of activity you want.

    • Yep. And “he went nuts” is insufficient explanation.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      Nancy Kress uses the term “Mimetic Science Fiction”, of which hard science fiction is just one variety. The two elements of that are plausibility (not so improbable that the reader simply cannot accept it) and internal consistency. Whatever your strange world’s rules are, they must stay that way.

      I like to call Larry Niven a master of ruthless consistency: once he establishes his rules — even in a prior story in the same universe — he’s stuck with them, and he has to find the story within those rules. I aspire to that standard.

    • aacid14

      On that though, you have to recognize where truth is more likely to hurt reader. Someone brought up on popular TV may have misconceptions burned into them wrt what actually happens when something is not dramatized for camera.

    • Just keep your explanations until you need them! Just-in-time, and done right, makes the reader eagerly lap all that backstory up. Thrown in as an info dump in the beginning, it stops the story cold – and requires the reader to remember all that stuff.

      Even if the plot needs it.

      That’s craft.

      • *Know* everything, but don’t tell the reader unless it’s necessary. If I make up a language I’ll make a grammar so that it has some plausibility, but I wouldn’t dump that on the head of a reader. See Tolkien. He made up half a dozen languages, wrote a story that used a fraction of them, and stuck details in the appendices for linguistic geeks.

  2. And as you research, nibble the edges. I’ve read a lot of focused monographs about the topics I write about. But I also try to read, or at least find solid reviews for, things tangential to my story or topic. That can knock loose ideas, or provide a fascinating tidbit that gives the story just the “zing” that makes it real. For example, the next book, _Carpathian Campaign_ is not set in Budapest. But I was reading about the city in 1900, and several of the chapters gave information about weather and storms, things characters might comment on later and that give some reality to the alt-history/secret-history world. Or I think they do. We’ll see what my readers say after the book comes out in December.

  3. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I just sat on a bunch of panels, and a recurring theme I had was the cardinal sin of knocking the reader out of the story. My primary argument for getting it right — whether geography, religion, mythology, astronomy, hard science, or just human behavior — was that every time you got it wrong WITHOUT A REASON, you risked knocking knowledgeable readers out of the story, and they might never come back.

    How many readers are knowledgeable? That’s hard to guess, but I don’t want to take that chance.

    • I think you need to make a story as accurate as you can without fretting over it.

    • To expand on the previous comment. If – for example – you have a story where at one point only a firearm is used and it isn’t particularly central to the plot then as long as you aren’t egregiously wrong (e.g. someone firing his Colt 1911 machine gun) then a vague mention that the shot was fired is OK. But if you’ve got a squad of marines invading one place, then defending another etc. then you need to get their equipment right and named correctly.

      I also think it is fine to be vague in certain areas as long as you are absolutely precise (and correct) in others. So if your story is set in London name those streets, describe the buildings and the inhabitants and the food and get it all right for the period. But if you’ve got that background right then you can get skimpier when they story moves to Bath or Alpha Centuri

      • You can still use generics as long as you use the right generics. You can say ‘their rifles’ rather than ‘their m-4 carbines’ (or M16 or…). You can have the marine throw a grenade and not have to list out the nomenclature. If you want to use an incendiary, it might be an idea to check with a marine to see if it’s semi-common for them to carry such things. But the Gun Porn isn’t necessary unless the book’s core audience expects it.

        Likewise on ‘get the streets right’, someone mentioned (don’t know how accurately) that Butcher deliberately doesn’t write Chicago accurately, because he doesn’t want the more um… enthusiastic… of his fans going out and making pests of themselves to the locals. It still has to be internally consistent so it looks deliberate rather than ‘didn’t do it right’.

      • It’s surprising, though, what pops out. Knowing I had some night scenes early on in the kid’s book, I carefully noted the phase of the moon. I did not want a convenient full moon every time they needed to be out at night.

        Alas, I was reading a book on medieval fortifications and realized some battle scenes in the second book wouldn’t have happened that way. Things like these makes me anxious about publishing them.

        • I got to rewrite the major part of a chapter because I was thinking late 19th century firing by ranks, not Napoleonic firing by ranks. Ramrod, muzzle-loading, not breech-loading, duh!

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Problem with get their equipment right and named correctly. I’ve seen people try and infodump this stuff on the first scene, or infodump when it is not important to the story. This is hyperbole, but if I hear about factory tolerances of the firing pins, it had better be pretty important for the plot.

  4. Mike Glyer

    I really enjoyed this column.

  5. It’s often said that if you describe a brick well, you don’t have to go into detail about the wall. Verisimilitude is like that. You don’t have to know everything if you choose really good strategic details. You don’t have to detail your character’s whole life and personality if you can tell or show the reader a few really evocative things.

    • Pretty much, yeah – just describe enough in small yet vivid detail: impressionist, rather than exacting photorealism,

      As a side note, when it comes to characters, motivation and plotting, I really am enjoying working with my daughter on the comic contemporary series. She has a very good sense of what the various characters are like … and we work together on working out “What happens next” with total faithfulness to the characters.

  6. mrsizer

    This is why I moved the setting from New York to Denver. Denver is not implausible as a corporate headquarters and I have no idea what New York is like – except for TV (I’ve visited twice). The story is set about 50 years from now, so the basic structure of the city will be similar (most likely). I don’t want to annoy people who do know what New York is like and I don’t want to do the research to figure it out. Moving everything was much easier. I also needed a remote location and I’m far more familiar with southern Wyoming than upstate New York.

    I will finish this [string of expletives deleted] thing for NaNo.

  7. Albert

    Okay, here’s a short story question about Amazon.

    If you’ve got some short stories that you want to put together into a novel-length offering, is there any way to automate ‘I see you already purchased X of the Y stories in this collection. Here, have a free copy!’?

    • I haven’t specifically hunted for such a thing, but I suspect about all you can do is list the stories already published, and the new material, in the description and let the readers decide if two new stories are worth the cost of the collection.

      Now Amazon does sell entire series, and will sell just the ones the purchaser hasn’t yet bought. But I’ve never heard of it for stories in a collection.

  8. That’s a heck of a revelation about the short stories keeping people from finding the novels. Sounds like Amazon needs a better way of displaying an author’s stuff on their author page.

  9. Sam L.

    I compliment you on that drool-worthy book cover. It’s an eye-catcher, YES, it is.

  10. Apropos of nothing, I just found out that the Cornish word for “hello” is pronounced “yo!”, and the Cornish words for “yes” and “no” are pronounced “yah” and “nah.”

    And here I thought Cornish had had no influence on English.