Reader/Writer Connection: Get the Easy Stuff Right

While chatting with a local police officer about proper procedure for booking drug offenders in a metropolitan police department, I was pushing for specific details of process and practice, and carefully capturing them in my notes. After reviewing the (admittedly tedious) steps, the officer looked up at me with a bemused wrinkle on his brow and asked, “Why spend all this time? You’re a writer; why don’t you just make something up?”

I wanted to answer with a glib “No. We may extend the known with reasonable speculation or extrapolation, but we start with knowable fact and work from there.” The problem is that such a premise is demonstrably untrue. An enormous number of writers seems to make stuff up out of whole cloth* with little or no attention paid to basic and easily verified underlying facts.

It’s happened to all of us. We’re reading a story and a detail leaps out and slaps us in the face because we know that it’s just not true, and that even cursory research would have shown the folly of the claim. As a reader that drives me nuts because it breaks the illusion and jars me out of the story; it makes me wonder how many other details the author got wrong and undermines my trust in the story. As a writer I know that we sometimes play a little loose with certain facts to accomplish another literary task.

Tension, for example. We’ve all watched the Hollywood movie where a digital display shows the 18-digit password with numbers and letters scrolling quickly by as our intrepid hero runs a crack algorithm to break into the system and stop the villain’s nefarious plan (or, alternatively, the villain is attempting to gain access to national security controls). Suddenly, the fourteenth digit appears, followed almost immediately by the third digit. Then the tenth, eighth, and first. Time is running out! Will we eliminate the threat before the system is hacked and the world ends?

Of course the entire premise is silly. Passwords are all-or-nothing deals, not a game of Mastermind where a helpful computer aids your quest and tells you when you get a single digit correct. If you get it wrong all you see is an error; if you get it wrong more than five times in a row the account is usually automatically locked out and requires manual intervention by someone in IT to re-enable it (an innovation created precisely because of war dialers who used brute force software tools to systematically generate passwords—more than thirty years ago).

In this case, underlying fact is not the point—it’s all about tension. Nothing creates tension like a clock counting down, a cutting laser slowly approaching your face (or other vital areas), a blast door slowly closing, or discovered digits of a password appearing one by one to signal the impending doom of humanity (or at least our hero). Of course the premise is silly. It’s a device, a genre conceit that we’re expected to recognize, wink at, and move on from in breathless anticipation of how the device will be defeated. Hollywood logic.

Pulp adventures were famous (and shameless) in using the most flimsy setups (and glaring cultural inaccuracies) to put our heroes in harm’s way so they could use their pluck and ingenuity (and common household items) to extract themselves. The number of sword-wielding Muslims (or ax-wielding Mormons) defeated by an appeal to mystical personages is legendary, and the number and quality of explosives manufactured from soda, hard candies, playing cards, and match heads boggles the mind.

Exactly as intended. Not because they’re plausible, but precisely because they’re not. Tension outweighs realism (the entire premise is already fantastic), and the conventions of genre give us explicit permission to bypass a careful, tedious setup to get straight to the daring escape or tender romantic embrace. In this case it’s all about the payoff, not the setup.

But some genres demand more care in the setup. There’s an entire category of science fiction based on rigorous extrapolation of known (hard) science into reasonable (and clearly explained) technology that then impacts society or government in transformative ways. The technology may seem magical, but there’s a straight line explanation from known tech to future tech. I’ve read “hard fantasy” stories based around rigorous explanations of troop formation and battlefield tactics. You can add wizards to the battle all you want, but if you describe a double envelopment maneuver, you better get the troop movements and placements right and allow the tactic to play out naturally before the wizard cleans up after the decisive moment.

Likewise, I’ve read manorpunk fantasy that demands detailed (and lengthy) descriptions of clothing styles, materials, and colors. You can introduce non-historical characters in your manorpunk, but your descriptions of castles, clothes, and court etiquette better be precise, careful, and historically defensible or your readers will reject you. Sadly, those richly described details are likely to put off non-genre readers, leaving you with no detectable audience.

So it’s not always about pure accuracy, but about understanding your audience, their expectations, and where they apply scrutiny. It’s when a story pretends to a particular genre’s rigor, then drops a silly mistake in culture, tactic, or technology that I get unnecessarily blasted out of a story.

I recently read a military sf story that featured computer-assisted battle armor on a commando team isolated from central command and control by (created) environmental barriers known beforehand. I was willing to accept the pulp conceit that there’s always one trigger-happy nutjob in every unit who will lose composure at a key moment and endanger the rest of the squad (normally leading to the death of the commander). It doesn’t really make sense that an elite squad sent on a critical mission would tolerate such a member, but it’s part of a long and storied genre expectation that transposes (legitimate) observed meltdowns by ordinary troops into a completely different (and fundamentally incompatible) context.

I cringed at the loose cannon, but I understood his role in enabling a fairly standard plot complication. Lazy, but within the accepted norms of the genre.

But when the commander was disabled and our hero promptly runs around trying to pull the hard drive out of her suit to gain critical mission data, my credulity was strained one step too far. High-availabilty data management and communications resiliency are basic assumptions in a technology-driven system. If the network of suits is smart enough to detect that the commander is down and automatically promotes the second-in-command (a plot point in the story), then it’s smart enough to have replicated critical mission data across multiple repositories before the fact and encrypted access pending need.

There’s never a single point of failure in high-availability computing, so the idea that we need to pull a hard drive from a captured battlesuit before the rest of us can figure out what to do next (while the mission clock counts down to nuclear cleansing), is just plain silly. No self-respecting military technologist would allow that basic a design flaw. Yet there it was, screaming that the author had taken one too many liberties, had skipped one too many points of basic research in the name of plot convenience. You can make the enemy as incomprehensibly powerful as you want, but you better get good old American tech right and not fail the entire operation because no one thought to plan for the hard drive being vaporized along with the commander.

(One of the most devastating critiques I ever received on a story was the obvious suggestion to build a fence. The effort of re-imagining the story in light of that obvious solution to the core problem made for a far more interesting, complex, and satisfying story.)

Maybe I’m being too hard on the author, but I work in enterprise technology and have some sense of the basics of high-availability computing and distributed data replication in resilient systems. The whole point of the Internet was to create a self-redirecting, resilient network that could take hits from nuclear bombs and still function. If we did that forty years ago, I’m pretty sure we’re not dependent on a a single hard drive for mission success (never mind that such storage would be solid state, not disc-based).

The author abused my trust outside of normal genre conceits on a point of fact easily researched on the Internet (a simple search for “high availability” on Wikipedia yields a useful results list that includes enabling technologies like clusters and fault-tolerant applications; a similar search on Google yields more than 8.4 million hits). More importantly, the error didn’t add anything useful to the story; we could have created the same tension with the ordinary soldier’s ethic (and genre convention) that no one is left behind.

This happens a lot to Mormons who read stuff by non-Mormons that describe our unique cultural practices. Often the claim is so absurd that it’s chalked up to genre convention (tunnels from world cities to the Salt Lake Temple to facilitate our abduction of women for forced polygamist marriages). Never mind that it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the Mormon concepts of the purpose of marriage; it’s a constructed shorthand for craven fundamentalists that relies on genre convention to justify lack of factual integrity.

But the errors are sometime close enough to reality that the uneducated will swallow them whole and draw conclusions based on false assumptions, and the educated will cringe and lose trust. I remember reading one novel many years ago that began with a woman tying her garments to her wrist as she bathed—a reasonable (if false) extrapolation of the idea that good Mormons wear their garments at all times. But also an easily debunked notion simply tested by actually talking to a couple of good Mormons (widely available even before the advent of the public Internet).

You don’t have to get everything right, but you should get the easy stuff and not just make it up. Use genre conceits if they’re available, but don’t abuse them to justify lack of basic research. The less you rely on genre conventions the wider your potential audience becomes, and the less likely you are to boot people from your story for avoidable reasons. And more often than not, that basic research will reveal a verifiable fact that is far more interesting and useful in creating your story than the cliché you almost fell back on.

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* Enter “out of whole cloth etymology” into your favorite Internet search engine for an interesting analysis of the origins of that phrase and its original meaning.

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12 Responses to Reader/Writer Connection: Get the Easy Stuff Right

  1. Lee Allred says:

    Great column, Scott!

    We’ve all read some howlers in stories over the years (but that hard drive scavenger hunt you mention is a lulu for a number of reasons of which redundancy is only one).

    Those of us fortunate enough to have been published also get to experience readers pointing out various errors we’ve made (despite our best efforts). Alternate History, the sub-genre I often write in, catching authors in errors seems to be a great deal of the genre’s attraction for readers. :)

    What’s maddening, though, is when you’ve carefully researched something right and readers think it’s wrong anyway. That happens, too.

    – Lee Allred

    (P.S. Just out of curiosity, where did we Mormons put all the dirt excavated by digging our Temple tunnels to London, Paris, and Rome?)

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Alternate history is a special case, because it generally involves an author who is deeply educated to history intentionally changing the factual and speculating on the possible repercussions. Less a science than an art, but founded on an arguably deeper appreciation of the known underlying history.

      And it’s precisely that shared love of real history that brings author and audience together—and creates the game that both enjoy of defensible speculation and intentional revisionism. As a non-history person, I suspect I’ve got more than a few incorrect details in my head about certain events because a good writer makes the created fit seamlessly with the real.

      All of which is entirely different than getting basic things wrong. If you don’t know the details of technology (or history) it’s best to steer clear (or at least limit your exposure to the minimum necessary). Technobabble and non-technical narrators are wonderful things.

      Just got your latest anthology of alternate history stories (Assembled Allred) and will be reading it soon (four down in the pile). I’m looking forward to it.

      • Katya says:

        Alternate history is a special case, because it generally involves an author who is deeply educated to history intentionally changing the factual and speculating on the possible repercussions.

        Even in alternate history, you can run into problems.

        Cherie Priest wrote a series in which the Civil War lasted for a couple of decades, plus there are zombies. She also moved the construction date of a train station in Seattle up by about 10 years. Guess which one of those three changes people complain about? (Civil war drags on for 20 years? Fine. Zombies exist? No problem. King Street Station built 10 years earlier? Outrage!)

        (My source for this anecdote is Writing Excuses, btw.)

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Lee—

      You didn’t think the Oquirhh Mountains were naturally occurring, did you? So smooth and round. Sort of like the Teufelsberg in Berlin, where they piled up the rubble after WWII and covered it over in dirt…

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    A lot of times (though not so much in the examples you cite), the error may come simply because it doesn’t occur to the author to ask the question. Thus, a novel I wrote set in 2003/2004 had a couple of teenagers looking up YouTube videos for fun one afternoon. It wasn’t until my editor pointed out that YouTube didn’t exist back then that it even occurred to me to ask the question. If it had, it would have been the work of maybe 30 seconds to look up YouTube on Wikipedia. No excuse except just plain not thinking.

    Elements like the ones Scott describes are a little trickier. Clearly the person writing the story put in at least some effort to get the battle logistics right — but without sufficient familiarity to catch the glitches.

    (My own example I can’t get over: an author of a fairly widely praised sf novel, set on a planet with a moon that was visible ONLY FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE. Published by a well-known sf press. How did that get through? My brain hurts….)

    And yeah, some of the fun is catching the author in an error, at least in some genres. MIT students chanted “The Ringworld is unstable!” when Larry Niven came for a visit, as I understand. It’s all good fun, at least in cases where you know the author is also doing his/her best to play the game. Even the best stumble in the creation of a realistic fiction. But you have to put in a good-faith effort — and hopefully get readers that will let you know when you got it wrong, and/or prompt you to ask the questions you missed.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      The game of catching hard (or at least firm) sf authors in errors of speculation is part of the fun of the genre and seems entirely different than basic errors of research. Daring to speculate greatly earns a lot of respect from readers and makes the game of finding logic flaws or factual missteps that much more fun. Where the preponderance of science is clean, correct, and well-researched, it would take a real troll to dismiss the entire story for a single glitch.

      But where a major plot point revolves around a single erroneous assumption it gets harder. The battlesuit story was difficult for me because there were a lot of reasons to like it *and* a lot of little things that made me wince. In the end I appreciated what it tried to do, but felt that the whole suffered from a certain softness of craft. Neither the loose cannon nor the hard drive ended up playing into the resolution; they could both have been dropped with only minor edits to the remaining text. The author’s talent is obvious; but he really needs a good reader to help check some of the logical assumptions (and/or he needs to write stories whose obvious readers are not sticklers for core tech).

      That’s where an effective critique group or stable of first readers is useful. Even the most careful among us can make obvious logical mistakes or botch the occasional fact, and fresh readers who bring fresh eyes to the story are a huge help in identifying them.

  3. “And more often than not, that basic research will reveal a verifiable fact that is far more interesting and useful in creating your story than the cliché you almost fell back on.”

    That’s exactly the right answer to the question you quoted from the local police officer in your first paragraph. The more you know as a writer, the better and more interesting your possibilities are as you write your stories.

    I love what Connie Willis (award-winning SF author) has said about how, because we are writers, everything is our business, and we should be asking questions and learning about everything that comes to our attention, even if it doesn’t pertain particularly to what we happen to be working on at the time. You just never know how useful it may be someday.

  4. Ronn! Blankenship says:

    One goof I see repeatedly, including in one recent novel by S.M. Stirling, is when the cop or P.I. takes his Glock out of the holster, FLIPS OFF THE SAFETY, and proceeds to clear the premises. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Glocks are famous for not having an external safety switch. (They have three separate internal safety devices to keep them from firing accidentally frex if dropped or otherwise until the trigger is pulled.) Such an “easy thing” to get right with a tiny bit of research . . . and so glaring when the author gets it wrong . . .

  5. Moriah Jovan says:

    I know which story you’re talking about, so FWIW, as a non-SF/F reader, I didn’t notice or think that it should have been something different. However, I’m not persuaded it should/could have been done differently. But again, that’s me as a person Not In The Genre OR Technological Know, which juxtaposes with…

    Ronn! Blankenship: That safety-on-a-Glock detail bugs me as well. In fact, it bugged me so much I had one character remind another character of it.

    The body armor is a made up thing and really can function on any rules it wants. The Glock is not; it has a unique feature that the writer clearly didn’t know and should’ve researched his guns. I guess my question is: Is a factual error comparable to what a reader familiar with a genre thinks should/could not be possible?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      For me the safety on a Glock thing is fundamentally equivalent to the retrieve the military hard drive thing. As an area of personal knowledge, the misstep sticks (apparently aggressively) in your craw. It doesn’t mean that I can’t (or don’t) enjoy the story, but it does mean that I no longer trust the author to get the details right, so I have to read with other values in mind.

      In the genres we have conventions and expect our authors to at least play by the rules. In science fiction (especially military sf) we expect the tech and the procedures to be reasonable, if not perfect in all cases–and we expect named details to be realistic. As such, the battle suit story is fine for non-sf readers, but doesn’t meet the standard rigor of accuracy a genre reader expects.

      At the risk of abusing the author (I thought the story was fine; I just kept getting knocked out of the flow by missed details), my struggles with the hard drive chase revolved around a couple of key points–

      First, no single points of failure in military data systems ever. Whether the data system is part of a (fictional) battlesuit’s systems or part of the ground infrastructure at NORAD Space Command, you don’t allow critical mission data to have a single failure point.

      Likewise, device destruction is far more likely under the circumstances. In a military situation, critical mission data is secured both logically and physically; if the commander’s suit goes down we would expect a self-destruct of the storage device to preserve military secrets and keep the enemy from gaining access to key intelligence. I can get a self-destructing thumb drive for enterprise data security (there’s a fun YouTube video of smoke pouring out of the device when they hit the Big Red Button). I can guarantee the military had it years ago for securing military intelligence assets.

      Of course the author can just make stuff up–but in science fiction I still expect the (relatively) easily knowable to be right, the logically derived to follow a level of rigor. Powered exoskeletons exist today; battle armor is not that far distant. More importantly, securely networked autonomous data systems exist aplenty–not just submarines and aircraft, but tanks, drones, artillery, and even handheld weapons systems. I can reasonably assume that individual soldiers can carry such systems today that are far more complex than the Android or iPhone currently carried by teenage civilians. I worked for a company that had data-dump technology built into IT controls for Blackberry devices more than a decade ago (used the phone carrier to send a secured signal to an agent running on the device to protect against corporate data theft).

      We can argue about whether the story should have been more careful; as you point out, it didn’t interfere with your enjoyment nearly as much as it did mine. Honestly, the Glock safety thing wouldn’t have registered on my sniff-o-meter; that factual error is outside my personal area of either knowledge or interest.

      But the general case remains true. As the policeman asked during my interview, why don’t I just make stuff up? For me, getting the knowable stuff right creates verity and trust for the reader and is part of what a good author does. It’s part of the game–if you present it as true, it should at least represent the currently knowable. If you write fantasy, it only needs to be self-consistent, not generally true.

      Had the battlesuit story been presented as fantasy (like Star Wars), that changes my expectation. But military sf tends to be rigorous about both the military and the science part of the fiction, so when a reasonable extrapolation of current, publicly available technology is inaccurate to what is already known, it surprises me, knocks me back from the narrative, and creates noise that interferes with my ability to enjoy the fun tale that author is telling.

      That particular story brings in supernatural elements as well, but that didn’t absolve it of its military sf-ness. I thought it told a fun, interesting story. And so I was disappointed that he missed a reasonably knowable detail about the Glock’s safety…er, reasonable data security in any situation (and especially a military special forces unit).

      Not a killer, but a disappointment. A bump in the tell that could easily have been avoided, but wasn’t.

      • Moriah Jovan says:

        I see what you’re saying now. (Honestly, I wasn’t trying to be provocative; it was something that didn’t register for me because I’m not in that genre.) There’s always a huge argument in romancelandia about how important historical accuracy is in historical romance. For some people, “wallpaper historicals” don’t bother them (basically a contemporary romance with long dresses and no electricity and questionable (or downright wrong) inheritance and noble title properties). For some people, putting underdrawers on a woman in the late 18th Century is a dealbreaker.

        As for the policeman, as I was reading your comment, I immediately wondered if we’re so used to the Law & Order world that many of us will accept anything and thus, the policeman is used to such storytelling? At least to the point where he expects authors to just make stuff up?

        • Scott Parkin says:

          TV and movies are an interesting problem, where procedures are loose (at best), and a fair number of outright falsehoods are regularly offered as true.

          For example, common TV wisdom was that an undercover policeman has to answer truthfully if you ask if he’s a cop. Simply untrue. A cop can lie all he wants to obtain evidence. The screenwriting trope is a lazy way to create tension, not an accurate reflection (not unlike the password matching thing).

          I think that’s why the cop was surprised. He had become so tired of the rampant inaccuracies in cop shows that he assumed writers were either lazy or stupid.

          For my dime it’s not that hard to get the knowable facts at least mostly right (we all miss a detail now and again), especially where it drives the plot. It’s a matter of pragmatic value—fewer excuses to stop reading means more readers read more pages. If they get to the end of the story, you win. If you earn their trust, they’ll think good thoughts about your next story.

          Not necessary, but useful. It’s become a bit of a burr under my saddle recently. While writing is an art, it’s also a craft and imagination alone is not the only useful value. Ordinary verity enables the story to be more relevant to a wider readership and doesn’t require that readers give a story a pass.

          FWIW.

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