Monday, November 7, 2011

Accuracy is Important, Even for the Fiction Writer

 If you ask me how long I’ve been a writer, you get two different numbers.  I’ve been a writer since I learned to put the words to paper, but I’ve been what you’d call a professional writer since 2006.  To see the latter number in print shocks me a bit since it feels like I’ve been in this business much longer.

When I decided to make the leap from writing for fun to writing as a profession, I ran out and bought numerous books on the subject. While I purchased the typical books on how to snag an agent and writing the perfect synopsis and query letter, I also picked up several selections on the process of writing. One of my favorite is a skinny volume from Jack M. Bickham titled The 38 Most Common Mistakes Fiction Writers Make. To this day, Bickam’s book remains one of the favorite in my library.

In his book, Bickham often takes a tongue in cheek approach to assisting writers in seeing the error of their ways. One such chapter is devoted to showing writers the importance of making sure their stories are accurate and their descriptions reflect that. To illustrate his point, he tells of an instance in one of his western novels in which one of his characters used a gun that hadn’t even been manufactured in the year the novel was set. An astute reader picked up on this and fired off an email to Bickham which pointed out the mistake.
This may sound like the reader is being too critical, but the fault lies with Bickham for failing to do his research.

Too often, fiction writers take the approach that accuracy isn’t as important because it’s a story and not a work of non-fiction. As much as it pains me to admit it, I too have recently fallen into this trap. I could go on the defensive and concoct some excuses for the oversight, but the fault is mine. I should’ve been a better editor, and the readers have caught me red handed. In my case, the problem wasn’t with research. My novel is pure fantasy and conjecture and has no root in reality at all. My mistake was failing to keep track of what I wrote so that critical details weren’t changed. The most glaring example I can recall had to do with the introduction of a new character. Character A was introducing Character B to his brother and explained his acquaintance to her by saying they shared a class together. The problem with this was that earlier in the story I told readers that Character A was in all of the same classes as his brother. Therefore, the brother should’ve already known Character B and known how she and Character A met. This is a perfect example of Bickham’s point and my own point that editing is more than correct grammar, punctuation and spelling. Editing also means getting the facts right and keeping your details straight.

Readers become emotionally invested in your characters. This is a good thing. It’s what you want. It means they’re going to keep reading. The flip side of this is that they’re so enamored with the story, they often recall what you the writer would think are minute details. While the readers may point out the inconsistencies, it’s not their job to do so. It’s our job as writers to get it right so that we don’t interfere with their reading experience.

So what’s the solution? I’m sorry to say there’s no easy answer. What works for one writer may not work for the other. It could mean making outlines and charts. If you don’t want to go that far, ask a trusted friend or family member to give it a thorough read, but proceed with caution if you make this choice. It’s sometimes been my experience that my family and friends are hesitant to point out mistakes or admit they don’t like my story for fear they’ll hurt my feelings. Ideally, you should hire a professional editor to catch these things, but who can afford that in this economy? Certainly not the fledgling writer.

Whatever you decide, you must face on thing. Even in fiction writing, accuracy and details count. Ignore this and face the consequences!

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