The Plight of the Thinking Writer

So, in my testing life, I ran across a forum piece the other day asking whether people could be taught critical thinking. Opinions are divided: some say it can be taught, others say not so much.

Me, I figure you can teach the skills, but you can’t make someone use them. And one thing that I’ve seen over and over again is that most people will do anything including lose it completely and scream at you in preference to thinking.

That means that those of us who think about what the hell we’re doing and try to reason out the worldviews and cultures we’re creating are actually doing it wrong, in a sense. We’re adding stuff that makes us happy (waves in Sarah’s direction – thanks for sending me off on this tangent) even though realistically most of our readers won’t care and won’t want to.

Now I’m the kind of person who will go and look up some odd tidbit I found in a novel somewhere – and if I find that the author got it right I’ll be even more impressed. But I’m an eensy minority, and I’d guarantee most people don’t do that kind of thing. I’d bet most people don’t even notice the things that send the likes of me or Sarah or Amanda or Dave on a tearing rant if we don’t just wall the book and look for something else.

I’ve seen enough of Sarah’s rants about highly ranked historical romance that is really costumed fantasy romance using historical place names and some historical people names. Hell, I’ve seen enough alleged science fiction where the science in question appears to be highly advanced bullshittium and the laws of physics bear no resemblance to the poor abused laws we know. And that’s not going near the festering swamp of undead porn, dino porn, space raptor porn, (whatever else Chuck Tingle does or did, that piece was actually decent science fiction with a lengthy sequence of one-handed typing) and all the other forms of porn masquerading as erotica or even romance.

Not that I have anything against any of this. I reserve the right to mock all of it without mercy should I ever be gulled into reading it, but I’m not against people writing it or publishing it. To some extent I wish I could. It sells a crapload better than my weird stuff does, and I have issues trying to write anything that I can’t trace through mentally and figure out the rules. Alas.

Which means that if I ever wind up appealing to the masses who don’t want to think for themselves about anything it’s likely to be a fluke.


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74 responses to “The Plight of the Thinking Writer

  1. paladin3001

    Joys of writing. Trying to create something that doesn’t make the readers mind snap. Come across that “fantasy” stuff while researching a few things and trying not to use fantastical elements in a setting. Know how hard it is? Mind you the tangents I have discovered, and things I have learned are in of themselves rather fascinating.

    • Kate Paulk

      Those tangents usually are fun – then you have to dig out of them and get back to work.

  2. When people say “critical thinking” they usually really mean “critical theory”, a creation of the Frankfurt School of Cultural Marxism:

    Quickly stated,
    “Critical theory, says Horkheimer, is ‘suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as those are understood in the present order’. So if you liked ice cream better than cake, or thought a hammer might be more useful in a particular situation, you were speaking on behalf of the status quo. The real idea behind all of this was to make society totally unworkable by making everything basically meaningless. Critical theory does not create; it only destroys, as Horkeheimer openly stated, ‘Above all…critical theory has no material accomplishments to show for itself.”

    Why worry about critical theory? Because the Frankfurt School of thought was embraced by the progressives in America and it lives on today, in academia, in the media, in our culture and in our politics. If we use our critical thinking skills, I think we will recognize critical theory in practice and note the way it is being used to make so many former common sense ideas no longer make any sense. Hopefully we can spread the word that we are at critical mass when it comes to the importance of understanding critical thinking and critical theory.

    • Kate Paulk

      I actually meant critical thinking. As in evaluating the data available on its merits, researching further if there’s missing bits and looking for flaws in logic.

      Of course, I am sufficiently perverse as to think that kind of thing is fun.

      • Yeah… thank you. This is what I remember critical thinking to be. It’s not as impossible as a lot of people seem to believe it is.

      • dakorillon

        That is what my husband is trying to teach at the high school level, the Historical Method of Critical Thinking. Some of them were starting to get it. But, it’s not something that they had been taught up to that point.

  3. That’s twice. If I’m stuck in spam, please pick one of the two attempts…

  4. Thanks to Sarah, I can’t look at romance covers, especially Regencies, without picking them apart. (One from Kensington especially caught my eye. Wrong underpinnings, wrong fabric, and if she’s showing him that much leg and they are not married, she’s his mistress or his lady-for-the-evening, not a potential bride.) I didn’t even bother with the interior, since I’ve got a “few” other things to read right now.

    • In fairness to the author, if it’s a tradpub house she probably didn’t get much say in the matter of the cover.
      OTOH, that’s not your problem, that’s the publisher’s problem.

    • I can’t even watch Westerns any more – not without mentally picking apart the plot, the costumes, the setting, the filming location, and the props ,,, not to mention any free and easy way of mutilating historical facts in service to the whole plot.
      Something like Texas Rising would make a wonderful drinking game for Texas reenactors. Drink a shot for every gaffe and inaccuracy – guarantee everyone would be paralytic by the middle of the second episode.
      No, the Alamo does not have a crypt…

      • Kate Paulk

        Heh. Yes. If they lasted that long.

        I can’t watch most TV for reasons like this. And since my medications don’t play nice with alcohol, I can’t even do the drinking games.

      • Re: the Alamo not having a crypt:
        You have to give them credit for realizing it is or was a mission church. Or do they? I haven’t seen the show in question.

        • Yes, I’ll give them credit for noting that it was a church for an established mission before it became a presidio (fortress and military garrison.) But that it doesn’t have a crypt or a basement is almost a running joke, in Texas.

          You haven’t missed much – we watched the first episode and it was so awful that I wished for that hour and a half of my life back. They filmed the whole thing in Northern Mexico – very rugged, craggy countryside … nothing like where the Texas war for Independence actually took place. So – inaccurate from the opening shot. The pity of it is that the story could have been downright amazing, just sticking to the straight historical accounts, but nooooo…

    • Oy vey, yes. While doing some random research on the question of How to Know If That Professional Book Cover Designer You’re Thinking of Hiring Is Really Going to Do a Better Job than You Could Yourself, I read of a particular artist who came highly recommended. I clicked over to her portfolio page, and right there on top row were two or three covers for “historical romance.”. Please, no. The models were dressed in the most godawful, era-inappropriate, cheap-assed, ahistorical fashion. I mean, your random high school mounting a production of _Oliver!_ would do better. Sorry, no, check that designer off the list!

      If the thinking people here want to get an idea of what’s authentic re: historical costuming, check out the offerings over at https:// redthreaded .com/ (mind the gaps. And gentlemen, you might want to avert your eyes). Izabella at http:// www. uk/ does wonderful work, too.

  5. Kate said: “But I’m an eensy minority, and I’d guarantee most people don’t do that kind of thing.”

    Doesn’t -everybody- go look stuff up while they’re reading? No, they don’t. Apparently, most people use the Internet for pr0nz, cat videos, Pewdie Pie and on-line poker.

    Like Kate, I’m three sigmas off the curve one way or another. I cannot write for those people. I don’t understand them. At all. I don’t know what they like or why they like it.

    Truthfully, I don’t even try. This is a thing I do for myself. Characters are doing interesting things in my wildly overactive cranium, so I write them down sometimes and try to put them in order. Eventually there’s enough to call it a book.

    We shall see how well it plays as a cat video. ~:D

  6. My school district tried to teach us critical thinking skills back when I was in middle school (aka jr. high). Operative word there being “tried.”

    The plan was unveiled with great fanfare. The district had drawn up with a list of “skills,” and gave each one a fancy alphanumeric designation. C-5, D-7, B-2, etc. Like it was a game of Battleship or something. We were to be “taught” or “review” a different skill each day, meaning each and every lesson from each class that day was supposed to relate, somehow, to whatever skill the district high-ups had decreed was to be taught that day. Teachers were to write the skill (with the alphanumeric designation) on the board at the beginning of class, read it aloud to us in its entirety (again, with the designation), explain what that meant, and then explain how today’s lesson would help teach us this skill.

    Within a week or two, everyone (except, of course, the district high-ups_ realized just how idiotic this plan was. Everyone began treating it like the joke that it should have been from the start, even the most dogmatic of teachers who usually treated district policies like divine instruction from Heaven. By that school year, none of the teachers were even bothering with it. Most only wrote the daily skill on the board when they were being observed by district high-ups, but even then some didn’t bother.

    I think the policy was quietly done away with about the time I started (sr.) high school.

    “Miserable failure” doesn’t even come close. Tellingly, to this day, all of my classmates still remember the policy and the goofy alphanumeric designations, but not one of us can remember a single “skill” that we were supposed to have learned, let alone which designations they corresponded to.

    • Kate Paulk

      Failure point 1: most of the teachers weren’t capable or willing to do any thinking themselves.
      Failure point 2: one day “learning” a skill is not going to teach it. It’s something that’s got to be practiced.
      Failure point 3: if you’re going to teach people to think for themselves and expect them to think for themselves, you have to be prepared for them to reach different conclusions than you do.
      Failure point 4: whichever twit mandated it probably didn’t even know what it really meant anyway.
      (er… apologies for excess snark… today involved trying to find a way to route around Another Department’s Manager who we suspect keeps her position by means of horizontal extracurricular activities)

      • Points of clarification on FP’s #1 and #2: the idea (I think) was to rotate through the list of skills. So each skill would theoretically be “taught” multiple times. Also, it was the district administrators who came up with the plan, not the teachers. And it wasn’t that the teachers were capable or willing to think, it was that the way the program was designed made it impossible to actually teach the “skills.” There’s no way, for example, to incorporate, “Examine the problem from the other points of view” into an Algebra lesson. There can’t be “other points of view” in mathematics. It’s like trying to make “Bolton” into a palindrome. It don’t work.

        And don’t apologize for the snark. My first manager was a micromanaging tyrant who probably only got and kept her job because of AA (and I don’t mean alcoholics anonymous), so I understand completely. Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt.

        And apologies on my end for taking so long to reply: for whatever reason, WordPress didn’t alert me in any way that you’d replied to my OP.

  7. But I’m an eensy minority, and I’d guarantee most people don’t do that kind of thing. I’d bet most people don’t even notice the things that send the likes of me or Sarah or Amanda or Dave on a tearing rant if we don’t just wall the book and look for something else.

    Pretty much…see my complaint in the comments here about a month ago about a novel whose principle plot problem was figuring out where stones belonging to the Twelve (minus Judas plus Matthias) that held mystical power had been hidden over the centuries.

    Disregarding the traditional narrative of Thomas taking Christianity to India was bad enough but at least her choice of Jude’s stone being there has some ties to Church tradition. It was when the expert on the Early Church justifies going to Iran for one of the stones and explains it was at the Council of Chalcedon caused the split of the Catholic and Eastern Churches that I would have thrown the book it it hadn’t been on my tablet.

    That is just plain wrong and Wikipedia can fix it…and the author has a divinity degree.

    Yet she didn’t know and couldn’t be bothered to be basic facts relevant to the plot right.

    Yet she’s pretty successful and, at least among some people I know, a go to source on indie success given she and her husband have been able to dump the day jobs.

    So, no, readers don’t care.

    Rant off.

    • The chick who was the wife of a Doctor Who writer, and therefore got to write a licensed Doctor Who audio drama about the Council of Nicea, also had a divinity degree. I counted five errors of fact (as opposed to interpretation) within the first five minutes. The most basic was when she had Arius (middle-aged guy) supposed to be young, and Athanasius (then a young whippersnapper) supposed to be middle-aged.

      • I’ll admit I’d be a bit more forgiving of those for dramatic reasons. They are closer the the Thomas/Jude choice…I was minorly WTF but they don’t change the nature of what was going on.

        Now, if Arius had been all about Christ’s divine nature and how he was literally begotten by the Father I’d have lost it.

        • But that was a lot of the human drama. Athanasius the deacon and his young desert monk buddies (who had been sent out there as kids while their parents were dying as martyrs in persecutions) backing up the oldster bishops who had been tortured for the faith in the persecutions.

          Arius the suave, middle-aged and popular priest and man of the world, disappointed in his ambition to be made a bishop, making up his own theology and writing hit songs to spread it, as well as preaching in his mellifluous tones. There would be no more persecutions, and it was time to soften theology into something everybody could understand, right?

          The theology is important, but the generational struggles had a lot to do with it.

          • Fair enough.

            Which really leads to, “what do you learn in getting a divinity degree these days”

          • Did she at least have St. Nicholas punching him in the face? (Apocryphal, but the second most popular story of the saint and entertaining. And oddly enough, given the dozens of things that Nicholas is the patron saint of, “pugilists” are not on the list.)

          • Good resources on these personages for the layman? I am cautious about poking around that sort of thing since that era of Christian history I mostly know as a very broad summary. Most of the books I find are beyond my ability to evaluate the reliability thereof.

            • Go back to the original sources. There’s Eusebius, who wrote a history in the 4th Century. No, I have not read the whole thing – that’s on my bucket list. There’s also the writings of the church fathers. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not so much as read <i<City of God.

            • Luke

              Good question.
              I don’t know of one.

              The central problem is that Arius had a point.
              Through the lens of sola scriptura his view was arguably the most defensible. (At the time. A couple of verses were added after he was safely dead. We know because we’ve found a couple of the earlier versions. To the best of my knowledge, this fact has only really been known for a bit over a decade. So most of criticisms of Arius will glibly pronounce his ignorance–willful or otherwise–of the verses which contradicted his stance. Which simply didn’t exist when he was advancing his argument.)

              Which isn’t too say that his position was clearly right. But making the argument against him in good faith now involves arguing over what was metaphor, translation difficulties, the authority of the midrash, and other cans of worms.
              While aknowledging that it would be possible for someone to reach his conclusions legitimately.
              There hasn’t been an eagerness to reassess. Especially as he’s made such a great villain for so long…

  8. Serious question:

    porn masquerading as erotica

    What is/where is that line?

    • Given the old joke about “erotica is using a feather; kinky is using the whole chicken,” I guess that anything that uses dinosaurs automatically falls on the porn side of the line.

      • Kate Paulk

        Yup. As a general rule if there is no plot, porn. If there’s at least a fig leaf towards a plot and you might have a story if you removed all the sex, erotica. At least, that’s my mental classification.

      • Arwen

        So that’s what PETA was suggesting in their recent ads!

  9. I think readers do care. They are trusting, that’s all. And if people trust you, you have an obligation to be trustworthy.

    • I make allowances for “there’s no way they could have known that.” OTOH, I damn near went ballistic when an editor changed a phrase in my book from “A promise, then?” to “It’s a deal,” when the speaker was basically a medieval-equivalent royalty figure. Nope nope nope.

      • Ow! That’s egregious editing. No, no, no.

        • That’s also badly out of character even considering that I was using mostly modern language. What king would use a MERCHANT term?

          • Kate Paulk

            Not one worth his salt.

            A phrase that excuse for an editor would not understand.

            • Well, that editor was *literally* brand-new, as in “hired less than two months prior to taking on my work”, and didn’t fight me when I changed it back, so I put it in the category of “training”. (And will provide a helpful guide of phrases that should remain untouched for the next go-around.)

  10. Dan Z

    For one science fiction story I wrote, I put a fair amount of research into crafting realistic, or at least plausible, planetary system for the binary star that was the home system for the main characters. I put equal care in to the research and crafting of the other star systems they visited, noting the spectral class of the main star and how individuals who grew up under the light of yellow sun would perceive daylight on other planets orbiting other suns. I was certain my readers would do similar research and call me out on any errors.


    However, two things my readers did mention were: (a) the story really gave them a sense of just how vast space really is and (b) the story “felt” real, almost as as if the people and places in the story might possibly be somewhere out in there the Universe. I count that as a win.

    So I believe that while most readers might not consciously care about details, their subconscious minds will note the details exist and will subtract those bits from the “suspension of disbelief” list. I imagine the rare reader who will research those details will be pleasantly surprised to find the author has done so as well.

    As a reader, I have to say I really don’t like when an author takes including realistic details to an extreme. For example, I enjoy a good Excel spreadsheet as much as the next guy (who enjoys Excel spreadsheets), but when I read a space battle scene I should be envisioning starships not the color-coded rows and columns of the author’s combat probability spreadsheet.

    I suppose, as with most things, its all about striking the right balance.

    • Dorothy Grant

      I will not disclose how many hours in the last published book went into checking the size of the craters in the solar system, then checking the ability of weather patterns in said crater, air density as a function of altitude, what smacking that much rock into a planet does to the geology, ice age formation, glacial flow, etc…. Right down to checking with two gents who worked on captured soviet weapons systems on the trials and tribulations of figuring out systems and codes in an unknown system. (I cheated and kept the language the same. Still, I had to revise my timeline with the amount of time they needed.)

      And then I was surprised when readers happily described it as good hard scifi.

      …and then I realized one had checked my crater size research, and rock formation, and my glacial retreat and advance. When my numbers were plausible, he was happy… because historical romance readers may or may not care about the corsets and underpinnings, but hard scifi fans? Yeah, they check your math!

      • I spent an afternoon figuring out how long it would take a particle beam to go from geosynchronous over Brazil to the shore of Hudson’s Bay.

        I also seem to spend an inordinate amount of time converting from joules to kilotons of TNT and back again. How long does one fire a 2 megaton-per-second plasma beam weapon, if the target is an evil flying squid longer than a football field? Be careful not to blow up thew castle behind it…

        • Kate Paulk

          *coff* There’s a reason I asked those who know better than I about how long it takes for large chunks of former spaceship to go from “not exactly stable low earth orbit” to “oh shit it’s going to land somewhere soon and we can’t evacuate in time”

          • Mike Houst

            I was wondering that about David Weber’s Honorverse when the Mesans blew up Manticore’s orbital infrastructure. Logically? They’d place the main structures in geosync over their primary cities for direct communication purposes. To get a platform to crash into the city directly under it would require some very precise changes to the platform’s velocity. Precision not likely when attacking a 10 mile long space city with multiple nukes. I would suspect a cone of random scatter from aerodynamics. And I would expect the actual impact locations to be from anti-spinward as the host city rotates out from under the debris field and a different urban area rotates into place under it.

  11. Forrest

    Part of my definition of a good book is that at some time while reading the book, I have to stop and look something up. It can be something simple, like “what is fumed oak?” Which was not important at all in the story, to looking up flu vaccines, which was important to the story; but I want/expect to learn something.

    • Kate Paulk

      Well, yes. I may save the looking up until after I’m done with the book (the Spruce Goose fell into that category) but I still looked it up.

    • Fumed oak can be a major Time Warp issue if you put it in a time period earlier than the invention of the Haber Process. ~:D

      My favorite anachronism: An aluminum/scandium alloy framed S&W Chief’s Special Air-weight snubbie in the 1930’s. S&W didn’t release that gun until the 1950’s, and a materials scientist in the 1930’s would go nuts trying to figure out what it was made of.

      • Kate Paulk

        Oh, those are fun. It would be rather like someone snapping polaroids in WW1

        • Worse than Polaroids. It would look like it belonged, until somebody who knew what they were doing picked it up. The trained man would know instantly that the gun was really, really wrong. Then the armorer would declare that it is Unpossible! to make an aluminum revolver cylinder, because Pressure! But there it is, looking at them…

          Or an aluminum engine block in a Spitfire, with a carbon fiber main spar and kevlar wings. Carbon propeller, CNC machined supercharger gears, with water/ethanol injection.

          • Terry Sanders

            Worse. Cause then he unloads it. And the shells are a bit long…

            HOLY SCHEIST!! This thing’s a mother-lovin’ THREE FIFTY SEVEN MAGNUM!!! You can’t DO that!!!!

            (If DIRTY HARRY had been filmed in the Thirties, he would have carried a .357. Same size gun. Same speech at the opening…)

      • TRX

        The old Airweights were 7075 aluminum, best as I remember. They didn’t start adding scandium until much later. 1990s?

  12. Umm, you mean I’m putting too much science in my Science Fantasy books? I really thought it was the other way around. 🙂

    • Kate Paulk

      Considering how much alleged science fiction is science fantasy in disguise, yeah, probably.

    • Real science just makes the fantasy more fantastic.

      • I spent a lot of time thinking about the geology on my made-up world. Then I realized that I could largely borrow and have the work “done for me.” So if you read my book, I can tell you what the weather is on any given day—by looking up the real-world location I based it on and subtracting 5-10ºF. (Well, one of the places would be a hybrid, but the geology is at least consistent.)

        I remember Terry Pratchett recounting how a mapmaker told him that his world had some serious issues (as in, “there wouldn’t be a swamp there, that’s a rain shadow!”) Geology and geography are both important.

        • Mary

          With the fun aspect that you can’t count on people realizing that it’s a Clue that something’s wrong.

          Mind you, put a flourishing tree in the middle of a desert with no spring in sight, and most might get a Clue.

          • Oh yes. I placed geological hints in the first book about something that’s going to happen in the sequel. (I also stuck in a fascinating tree that only exists on Mt. Rose—it’s a spherical pine. Of course, I couldn’t use the name Washoe Pine…)

  13. Yes, you can teach critical thinking. True some people are incredibly stupid and it can be hard, but it can be done.
    Just understand that you have to apply the proper motivation, and for some people (well most people) that means pain. When doing stupid stuff hurts, and hurts a lot, they will start to apply critical thinking skills in the future to avoid the pain.
    And I’m not talking just physical pain. It can be financial pain, emotional pain, all sorts of pain. And while they’re hurting you point out just where they went wrong and why. You show them how some critical thinking could have saved them some of that pain.

    People forget that pain exists for a reason: To teach you not to do what you just did. Assuming your survive it of course.

  14. Luke

    If it were possible to teach incisive mental acuity, my children should have learned it by now.

    One of them will agree without thinking.
    One of them will reflexively disagree without thinking.
    And trying to walk them through the process is like teaching the cat to knit.

  15. Draven

    how about your ability to enjoy a video game being disrupted by them having a hundred meter shot being hard?

  16. Galbraith’s Law of Human Nature:
    Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.

  17. mrsizer

    This is why I very rarely read historical fiction.