Stranger Fiction, Reviews & Truthiness
Historically, there has been a notable chasm between the author’s craft and the reading public’s knowledge of what that craft includes. And until recently, we never heard much from authors on a personal level about what they thought and felt, what their creative process was, what their methodology entailed. Nor could readers communicate with their favorite authors in any meaningful way.
Now, with the advent of Indie authoring and publishing, writers and readers may actually converse with each other. It might spoil the mystique of being a writer– that romantic idea of an angst-ridden wordsmith closed up in a candlelit room with coffee (or whiskey), manipulating a magical, torturous process that at some point produced viola!–a book. But I feel it’s a positive change. For the record, I love coffee, enjoy a glass of wine, am quite fond of candles, and do sometimes want to pull my hair out during the writing process. But I genuinely enjoy the open discussion about my books with readers who contact me via email, or during a bookclub meeting.
Unless an author is afflicted with narcissism, she will always carry a degree of insecurity about her writing. A book is, after all, a birthing of a literary child, and we feel that when we put it out into the world, we want it to do well, and never want anyone to speak an ill word against it.
I have been fortunate to have four- and five-star reviews most of the time, but the more I write, the more readers I get, the more I will come across the occasional comment or review which isn’t quite as complimentary. I’ve been lucky in that regard, as well, since the few negative comments I have received are within a context of the reader giving the book high marks overall.
I communicated recently with a reader who liked my book very much, but had a few points that bothered her. These complaints were, shall we say, not rooted in fact. I wrote back to her and explained in detail those things that bothered her, and I won’t include that exact text here, because it has far too many spoilers in it. But in general, I will mention a few points that readers have brought up.
One reader said of Book 2 in the AKA Investigation series, Also Known as DNA, “credit for the author for allowing the protaganist [sic] to get the snot kicked out of her on a few occasions and to make mistakes which gives her a more realistic feel.”
And then another who said, “skilled people, especially those 4 should not have been portrayed as that stupid and helpless.”
Opposite opinions about the same thing.
First, I have NEVER portrayed any of my characters as stupid or helpless, unless I was portraying them that way on purpose because they actually were stupid and helpless in the pejorative sense. My protagonists were only portrayed that way if they were stupid and helpless in the universal, unavoidable sense. I’ve known some truly intelligent people who did some patently stupid things–myself included. And I’ve known some really competent people who found themselves in a position of helplessness–myself included. There are myriad reasons why this will happen, no matter how learned, how wise, how strong, or how discerning you might be. Circumstances and emotions and outside forces can conspire to render you incapable–if only for a time–of doing anything to make it better. And these same elements can also prevent you from making the right choice. We all make mistakes, and I will not give my characters some heroic white-washing, when that’s not an accurate portrayal of how human beings are. Please and thank you. But in the context of fiction, obstacles allow the character to evolve. We learn about ourselves and others through adversity; a good writer will do this with characters by showing how they might face these obstacles and conquer them.
Then there was another reader who really enjoyed the book, but said she was annoyed by a few plot issues. Like “There was no explanation to why [sic] the bike was run off the road by the person that [sic] did it. they wouldn’t have known each other at that point.”
There WAS an explanation, but it was in the subtext, and then actually explained in the dialogue between characters later. Once the full story came out, it was clear that what the main characters knew at first, was not what the villains knew. The antagonists had been involved the whole time and operating just out of the purview of the protagonists. When it finally came to light what had REALLY been happening, it was a matter of putting two and two together. The antagonists were working their plan around the protagonists long before the protagonists knew the antagonists even existed. So it might SEEM that the antagonists /protagonists couldn’t have “known” but that was intentional-viewpoint, meant to align the reader with the main characters, and NOT the villains. I wanted the reader to know only what the primary characters knew, so that when the truth was revealed, she would be just as surprised as those characters. It’s simply a literary device, nothing more.
This same reader also mentioned “the timeline for the day of the seminar doesn’t add up. too many things happened simultaneously to have all happened within the same day by [sic] the same people.”
I had to tell this reader, point by point, what happened in that day, to show her that it did, indeed, fit into the timeframe. I work everything out on a linear time chart and am very careful to make sure everything is possible, down to knowing how long it takes to do a particular thing, what time of day it is, and how long it takes a character to get from point A to Point B. It’s what I call Novel Logistics. This, then, was a perception on the part of the reader which was not accurate. It seemed as if that much couldn’t happen, but it’s also an intentional element of PACING. If you want the pacing to be fast, there has to be a lot happening in a short amount of time.
But the point here is, while I have made (and will continue to make) mistakes (and corrected the ones I’ve found or others have pointed out later), I care a great deal about my credibility. So it’s a bit aggravating for a writer to see that a reader will criticize something based on an impression that is rooted in their misunderstanding of what is happening, and how, and when. But there’s little an author can do about the ability of a reader to catch nuances and subtext, and even clear explanations that might come later.
Another issue from the above reader was “the confrontation with the enemy. the chasing, captures and recaptures and mountains, etc… was frustrating.” –this, when all other readers who commented, noted how much delicious tension and suspense this activity created for them. Like this reader, who wrote, “So many authors build up tension in their novels only to resolve everything in a matter of 15 pages. This is so frustrating and just plain lazy in my opinion. The last 15% of [Also Known as DNA] is wrought with tension and I was surprised and captivated the whole time” and another who said, “Nail-biting action and heart-stopping tension take the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the pages, piling one catastrophe on top of another and testing the characters to the limit. I wasn’t sure they’d all make it out alive in this one, but it sure had me turning the pages to find out.”
So–it’s all very subjective, isn’t it?
A friend of mine astutely pointed out, “This is why you shouldn’t read reviews.” I’m not certain she meant you in the universal sense or you in the sense of ME, personally, but probably good advice, overall. Be that as it may, reviews are a way for me to see what’s working in my writing, and what’s not, regardless of how many readers might also not catch the subtext, or might not enjoy being pulled through too many challenges with the characters, or might not have an accurate assessment of a timeline.
One reader said that the beginning of Armchair Detective had implausible parts in the plot regarding how Jobeth was hired as an unlicensed P.I., but what that reader didn’t know was that it was all true, based on my own personal history. My experience as an amateur sleuth some years ago, was what inspired the story in the first place. Everything I write is either from personal experience or that of another’s, or if it’s completely fabricated, I consult with authorities on the matter to ensure that it is plausible and credible. This is why when I write about medical things, I speak to nurses and doctors, and when I write of legal things I talk to attorneys, and when I write of police matters, I speak to police officers. There is no greater resource for a character’s job, than those who do the job every day.
Ultimately, what all this tells me is:
First, an opinion isn’t always a fact.
Second, you can’t please everyone.
And third, and most importantly, (and with the most paradoxical irony), this concept: I may have failed to do the best job on a book, if I didn’t make the fiction seem like truth, even if the truth seemed like fiction.
Truth is, as the adage goes, stranger than fiction, and thus, when it appears, it is perceived as lacking credibility, even though FICTION is, by definition, NOT TRUE. So there will always be readers who lament the lack of credibility in some aspect of fiction, when many times the depiction is accurate, it just doesn’t SEEM accurate. So therefore, we, as fiction writers have to be careful to be credible and realistic, while lying our collective asses off. Are you following this?
(Where is my medication?)
Jae, love this article. I think if you are a published author for a long enough time, you are going to experience everything you pointed out. I got a one or two star rating on my latest book and I actually found the review amusing. It didn’t upset me one bit. This reviewer said the whole storyline was unbelievable and she didn’t think those things could happen but she did say I had a good imagination. I really was ROTFL. All of my books are a mixture of fact and fiction, therefore, I write what I call faction. My last novel was one of thee most fact based stories I’ve ever written and so much of it came directly from the news headlines and my own experience. It’s about a bestselling les fic author who is scammed by a Russian woman from an online lesbian dating site and how the author tracks her down. That whole storyline happened to me and in the novel, I actually included the exact emails that this scammer had sent to me. I only have one last thing to say about this: Yes, ladies, TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION and sometimes it’s a lot more entertaining. Just because you don’t “believe” or think something can happen, doesn’t mean it can’t or hasn’t. 🙂
Funny, I also got two different reviews (good ones, 4 or 5 stars, i think) like that–the reviewers said they didn’t find it very plausible that such-and-such happened, and those particular events were taken from my own life, and really DID happen; LOL. I talk about it in this post, Stranger Fiction, Reviews & Truthiness Someone else said she didn’t think the characters should be portrayed “as that stupid and helpless” but it was just me, showing smart people getting caught in unexpected dilemmas–in other words, allowing them to be human, and make mistakes, no matter how smart they were–which is true, I think,for all of us. And FACTION–great way to put it. I always try to make my events completely plausible. Which is why I research everything I’m not sure of, and also use real things from my own life, quite a bit. I WANT IT TO RING TRUE, even if it seems implausible to some readers, who have never had that particular experience. It’s refreshing to hear that you can relate to the content of this post, and the odd situation created by truth and fiction…the irony involved. Thanks so much for sharing that, Trin!