Search This Blog

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Book Blogger Hop: What Drives You Bonkers About Authors?

This week's Book Blogger Hop asks you to talk about what drives you nuts when authors do it and makes you want to tell them a thing or two.

Okay, here's mine: I find that I drop completely out of a story when an author has not done their research. Occasionally, this includes non fiction, when the book tells you, for example, that criminal Carl Williams dropped out of school at the age of 11! It was YEAR 11, thank you, they would not have allowed a primary school child to drop out, but I blame the editor for not picking it up and the authors of that book - one of them very well known - didn't pick it up on a proofread. I confess I did it myself, once, when I got the year of Madame Curie's death wrong in my second book, due to a typo I didn't pick up until a student at my school asked politely, because she had read a different book with a different date. And I had a very good editor, but she trusted me to get something like that right. I am quite sure she would have picked up a typo that said a big name criminal left school at the age of 11!

So, what irritates me? I'm not one of those who make a huge fuss if a word that didn't exist in a certain time is used, as long as it's used outside the characters' mouths, sometimes even if it's used by the characters themselves, if it's supposed to be translating from a different language. Of course, you'd draw the line at plain anachronisms!

And that includes fantasy novels set in a secondary universe. I recall a conversation on Twitter, in which an author of hard SF said that if she wrote a fantasy novel, it was her damn universe and she could do what she wanted with it. This is an author who wouldn't dream of writing science fiction without doing her research. If you're writing a secondary universe, chances are that it will be inspired by a society in our own world. You can change things, but only if you have a logical way of making it different, and a reason for it. But you really, really can't convincingly write a scene in which a horse is basically a furry machine, which doesn't stop quite a few authors from doing it. There are other problems with writing fantasy. Here's a link to an essay by Poul Anderson, On Thud And Blunder, written many years ago, but still relevant, on the SFWA website.

Sorry, but I can't stand Americanisms in a novel set in historical England, used by British characters. There is a certain book I will never finish. It was seen, in first person, from the viewpoint of Agatha Christie's daughter's nanny, who used quite a few American terms. In the 1920s. And, by the way, made reference to things she remembered that happened the 1990s, when the historical person died in about 1975.

I don't mind a bit of poetic/dramatic licence, as long as the author says, "I know this is not quite how it happened, but I did it because...", in other words acknowledges they knew what they were doing. And some do - but others don't.

It isn't just historical issues. If you are writing a story set in the present day, you need to make sure you have that right too. If you're writing a police procedural, for example, you need to make sure that you get the procedures right, the details of any weapons they use, etc.

If you're writing a children's or YA novel, set in a particular time and place, that needs to be checked. Some authors doing much better than I am have got things wrong. In Victorian schools, for example, you aren't allowed to leave students on their own. If you do, and something happens to them while you are absent, guess who gets sued? This hasn't stopped quite a few of my favourite authors from writing scenes where kids in detention are left alone by their teachers. One of them was a good friend of mine and rewrote that scene on my advice, but there are some classics out there which have jarring scenes in them. Well, jarring to me, anyway. Probably nobody who doesn't work in a Victorian school would notice. (Not, mind you, that it doesn't happen at all, but in those cases the teacher has done the wrong thing and knows it)

Another otherwise-excellent YA novel had a character who was looking after her sister's children when her sister disappeared...and collected the child support cheques and lied to the Department about it. Guess what? At the time I read this novel, admittedly a long time ago, I was working for what is now Centrelink and I can assure you, the aunt was entitled to that money. She didn't have to lie. I say this as someone who has had phone calls from people who demanded the tiny amount of money they were entitled to if the kids were in their care even for one night. They knew their rights - oh, yes! And we had to pay them, even though it cost more for them to call us and us to arrange the transfer, than it was worth.

Another matter for irritation is when things change in the course of a series, especially a hugely popular series, so that you can only assume that by the later books, the author is so popular that the editor either doesn't dare to ask them to fix it, or the publisher doesn't care because the books will sell anyway.

You probably know many of these, especially if, like me, you have a tendency to read and reread your favourite books. I won't name mine, but perhaps you can think of some and comment in the box below?

Here are a couple of books I recommend. I found them on Apple Books, but possibly you can also get them in print form.

How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. An amusing, entertaining and chatty book which goes through some of the truly awful errors that can be made by authors who don't check their facts.

What Kings Ate And Wizards Drank by Krista D Ball. Currently reading and enjoying. Focuses on food and drink and what you need to remember when you send your heroes/heroines out on that Quest. This author knows what she is talking about when she speaks of what is, and what isn't, physically possible, due to doing a lot of this stuff herself. She suggests what you might like to try instead of the unlikely things.

Personally, I'd rather just write the thing and then correct it than spend months on research before writing a single word, but I usually have some idea of what I'm writing about, or I wouldn't have any ideas in the first place. But you do have to look it up sooner or later, and if it's wrong, rewrite, preferable before publishing!

What do you think?


Brian Joseph said...

Fascinating post. In relation to what you wrote, I agree read lack of research is a problem for certain books. In particular, certain kinds of stories need realism. The police procedural is a good example. The child support thing would also drive me a little crazy.

Greg said...

Love this post! I too often wonder how some things slip past editors and proofreaders- I mean it's going to happen, of course, but sometimes the misses are fairly prominent! And I can think of an author or two I've read recently who have gotten so big that they seem to pretty much have carte blanche! Which I suppose is a mixed bag, since no one likes to be edited in some situations, but at the same time an editor's touch often improves the work. A fine line I imagine. :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Brian! I’d say that what ALL books need is believability!

Hi Greg! I suspect there are some authors who are big enough to think that THEY don’t need editing, on, no! I’ve heard of one very famous SF author who, in his later years, wouldn’t allow anyone to edit his work except his wife. It’s true, though, I agree, that the editor’s job is to make your book look the very best it can be. I have been lucky in that respect. And all my editors have queried any bits they thought might not be accurate.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - I quite agree ... and I get agitated when I read something that purely by common sense cannot be right. Cheers Hilary