Another lesson learned this week on the trail of writing a good book: make sure your facts check out so your story is believable to everyone who reads it. As with most things in life, this can be accomplished one of two ways: either knowing something or knowing someone.
One of my writing buddies is in the alpha-reader stage of one of her manuscripts. About a year ago she asked me some questions about small airplanes because I used to be a pilot, sort of. I gave her some general details and forgot about it – generalities like how crashing a single engine would be much easier that a multi-engine, etc. And then I read “Chapter Six” last weekend and realized I should have given her way different and more specific details because what she had taken from our discussion had been used to create a very tension filled and exciting plane crash – that had little resemblance to how it would really happen. The best thing about it is that when I text her and said “we need to talk about Chapter six” she knew exactly which part I was referring to and had been waiting patiently for me to get to that part so I could tell her exactly how to fix it. See, she knew I would know and thus didn’t waste a lot of time researching. Smart girl, that one!
I had a ton of fun stewing about how it could be fixed without changing anything fundamental about how the characters got to that point or how they walked away from it (aka, keeping the storyline intact) and trying to remember my pilot training that I never actually finished twenty years ago. Luckily I have a buddy who IS a pilot who helped fill in the details. What we came up with resulted in some very minor changes but that will make a huge difference in a reader’s perception – because now it will be authentic.
I learned several lessons from this small encounter.
1) any writer needs a trusted few who they can count on for alpha-reading. That group of people who can read as writers not readers; those who can overlook the grammar and punctuation errors that still exist in the early stages of revision and just point out the plot holes and elements of the story and characters that could be tweaked for a better overall story. The punctuation and grammar come later after revising to death and then “readers” (beta at that point) can have a crack at it.
2) details must be authentic regardless of the genre you’re writing in. You never know when a reader will pick up your book and have a basic understanding of the part of your story you’ve written happening to and around your characters. Even though it is a plane crash in a sci-fi book, it is still a plane crash and it must look realistic or you lose the trust of your readers. I still remember when I read a book by a very well-renowned best-selling author (*cough* Richard Sparks) and found he hadn’t bothered to fact check that the ruins around a certain city in Mexico are Mayan, not Inca. I will probably never pick up another book by him almost solely for that reason.
What this means for me and writers everywhere is that if you aren’t lucky enough to know someone who knows something about what you’re writing, you better do at least basic research. Your book can be made or broken in the details and if you haven’t done your homework, some reader some where out there will know that you slacked off – even if you get it past your publisher – and will tell their friends how much you suck. And hopefully you have a well-rounded writer’s group or other such potential alpha readers to make the revision process less painful. Thank god for MY writer’s group who are chomping at the bit for me to get to alpha-reader mode already!