Saying “I Think You’re Wrong.”

Last week, “CBI” asked, “What are the ethics and protocol when an author is reading a draft and one notices a prickling inconsistency or physics problem?”

Politely and Off-stage

As I said in the Comments, the short answer is “Off-stage and politely.”  After all, authors are human and I’ve never met anyone who really likes being embarrassed in front of an audience.

However, this question actually opens up a rather complicated bottle of worms.  Let’s break CBI’s question down into parts.  The first I’d like to touch on is his careful statement: “reading a draft.”

The word “draft” implies that the author has stated this is an incomplete work.  In such a case, a reader offering a correction can be very useful.  As every writer knows, the writer is the worst proofreader, because it is entirely possible to read not what is actually on the page but what one intended to put on the page!

One of the rare times I read from a draft was when Thirteen Orphans was coming out.  After the reading, an audience member mentioned to me that the name I’d given one character was the same as a rising performer.  Even though it was a complete coincidence (and I’ve never heard of that person since) I decided to change the character’s name.  Why create accidental confusion?

What do you do if you catch a problem in an already published work?

Well, the first question I’d ask myself is “How major is the problem?”  If it’s very major – something that makes the book simply not work, then I think you need to tell the author.  I know I’d want to be told – but politely and off-stage.  This  isn’t hard to do in these days when e-mail makes it possible to contact an author even if you can’t manage to do so in person.

The second question I’d ask myself is “At what part in the publication process is the book?”  If the book is a hard cover release, then there is likely to be a paperback publication.  The writer might be able to make the fix for that edition.

When one of the Firekeeper novels was published, my friend Kennard Wilson gently told me that there were all sorts of problems in the list of characters at the end.  I couldn’t fix these in the hard cover, but I made sure I did for the paperback – and I was grateful that Ken took the effort to write these out for me.  You see, the list of characters had been done at the last minute.  Moreover, I’d been struggling to find a way to write the list that would not provide “spoilers” as to the plot of the novel (something that has happened to me as a reader more than once).  Inevitably, errors crept in.  So Ken was really very helpful.

In these days when so many books are published as e-books, the author might choose to make fixes in the e-book.  The same can be said for books published as print-on-demand.  Correcting these entails more, but the author may think it worth doing.  However, if the book is already out in its final form, then I’d consider how serious the problem is before commenting.  How productive would the “correction” be?

This brings me to the second part of CBI’s question: “a prickling inconsistency or physics problem.”

Certainly, “prickling inconsistency” should be drawn to the writer’s attention, especially if the work is in draft.  Often writers change things when writing and may think they have caught all the places they needed to make the change.  However, they may miss one or two.  I certainly caught a few such when I was doing my reading from Huntress  at Bubonicon!

The latter part of the question –  “physics problem” – sounds as if it was a reaction to a particular piece.  Well, writers do their research as best as they can, but it’s axiomatic that there is always one reader who knows more…

Or do they?  Let’s take physics.  One of the writers at Bubonicon, Ian Tregillis, is a Los Alamos physicist.   I’m not saying this is who CBI meant but, in Ian’s case,  I’d be really careful correcting his physics.  In fact, I might ask him, “I thought x, y, z was the case, but you said p, d, q.  I’m interested in physics.  Is there something I should catch up on?”

On the other hand, Ian writes alternate history.  Maybe he made the change to underline a specific point.  The risk that a deliberate change will be taken for error is always a risk when writing alternate history.  Steve (S.M.) Stirling was very proud of a subtle reference he made in his novel Conquistador to a descendant of Pocahontas with the surname “Rolfe.”  However, Pocahontas and her husband John Rolfe had no male children.  The name died out with them  Did Stirling’s readers realize he was being clever or did they think he didn’t know his history?

Max Mallowan, husband to Agatha Christie, emphasized in his autobiography that, although Agatha wrote copiously, she researched carefully.  He related how a lawyer started to lecture Agatha on how she’d gotten a key element of inheritance law wrong in one book.  Turns out the lawyer was wrong.  The law had changed.  Agatha had been aware of it and built her book around that change.

Agatha Christie had also worked as a dispenser (basically a pharmacist) during the First World War.  Therefore, she knew the properties of drugs very well.  I’ve heard many people dismiss her use of drugs and drug interaction as facile or incorrect because they assume that she couldn’t have known about a topic when, in fact, she was an expert.

So, if you find a point of error, do consider that the writer might have done it deliberately or actually know the subject very well…  On the other hand, writers do make mistakes and, if they can profit from comments, they’re usually grateful to get them.  In fact, the desire for comments is why many writers belong to writer’s groups or attend workshops.

I hope that helps address what is actually a complex issue.  I’d be interested in what the rest of you think – not just the writers who have been put on the spot, but the readers who have found themselves frustrated by a perceived error.


12 Responses to “Saying “I Think You’re Wrong.””

  1. Paul Genesse Says:

    Interesting post. It’s easy for me now to fix certain issues, as I’m mostly working with eBooks and POD books, but when my first two novels came out I just had to live with the minor errors and fix them in the next edition. Personally, I like to hear from readers who find something wrong so I can fix it in the future. Nobody’s perfect.

    Paul Genesse
    Author of the Iron Dragon Series

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It’s so true. In today’s internet culture, we have so many who think they know best. Many do know. Many more don’t. I remember an episode of I think it was ER or Third Watch. A guy performed the Heimlich maneuver, then based on flawed insight from the internet, did CPR thinking he stopped his heart. I could totally see that happening in real life. “I watched this or read that, so I know what I’m doing.” Yeah, one problem mister amateur bomb tech, you just cut the trigger wire, not the timer wire. *Boom*

    As a writer, I would like a private note saying “I think you have this wrong, and this is why it’s important.” Keep it polite, keep it positive, and I’ll take you seriously and really examine it. Like Jane said, maybe it’s intentional for some reason that matters. I know I have one thing like that in one of my works in progress. Yeah, it’s technically wrong, but it’s wrong for a reason that matters.

  3. heteromeles Says:

    I agree on the polite and positive, although I’ve had most authors (not Jane!) flatly tell me I’m wrong in any case. Jane stands out for being polite and responsive, which is something

    Still, it can get awkward on the reader’s side. Forgive me, Jane, for this example, but I know a lot of pharmacists, and I lent Thirteen Orphans to one of them. Everyone knows what a pharmacist does, right? Actually, no, that’s not what they do most of the time, and I didn’t know that either until a few years ago. This pharmacist couldn’t finish Thirteen Orphans, because the character described as a pharmacy student was nothing like a pharmacist or a pharmacy student. She was acting like a pharmacy tech instead. Fortunately, said pharmacist likes most of Jane’s other books, but she never finished the 13 Orphans series.

    I’ve had similar reactions, for instance, when an East Coast writer talked about characters driving into the Malibu hills to see the fall colors on the foliage. Say what? All that news about fall Santa Anas and fires didn’t make it back to New York? Raymond Chandler’s evocation of the mood the Santa Anas bring doesn’t ring a bell? No? I never bothered to contact that writer and correct them. In fact, I’ve never read that author again.

    I fully agree that one must be polite and positive in correcting an author. But still, I wonder if, for authors, it isn’t better to take the comments regardless. It’s much better to have someone who engages at that level, unlike all the readers who simply toss their books and never buy another.

    Better, authors can even do what Larry Niven reportedly did. This might be apocryphal, but supposedly he was caroled by college students at a convention, who chanted, “the Ringworld is unstable” at him because they’d done a dynamic model of it, and found out that it would tend to oscillate badly. That taunt became a central plot point in Ringworld Engineers, if I recall it right…

    • Nicholas Wells Says:

      Oh I never said I didn’t want to hear it. I do. It’s just easier for me to hear you when you don’t have my ears ringing. 😀

      I’ll have someone be upset with me about errors at some point. Just by the law of averages I figure it’ll happen sooner or later. When it does, I’ll listen to all. But I’ll admit, the cool heads will get more attention than the hot ones. Sometimes the hot ones will be too busy being angry to listen to the reason why that error isn’t an error at all.

      In the end, I do want to know if I got it wrong. I take too much pride in my work to simply believe I got it perfect.

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    I was priviliged to see a first draft of a novel by a New Zealand SF writer called Phillip Mann (he’s a friend of mine, which is why I got to see the novel in manuscript). At one point, the hero is in hospital recovering from an injury. He’s bored, and for lack of anything better to do he calculates the number of tiles in the ceiling by counting the number of tiles in a row and then multiplying the figure by the number of rows. He feels a certain sense of satisfaction that he can still do this in his head even after his injury…

    Unfortunately Phillip got the arithmetic wrong, which made a nonsense of the whole scene.

    I pointed this out to him (politely of course) and he fixed it immediately. I’ve heard him gleefully tell this tale against himself to many people in the years since then. He’s always been very pleased that I spotted it, and he has always greatly enjoyed mocking himself for making the error in the first place.

    But I suspect he’d have been much less amused with himself if the error had actually made it into print.


  5. heteromeles Says:

    I forgot to ask: are Politely and Offstage denizens of your garden, Jane?

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Heteromeles… I’m answering here about pharmacists.

    Actually, as I remember the book, there is precisely one scene with Nissa at work. And, guess what? She’s working as a pharmacy tech while she goes to school! So your friend was right. And wrong to reject the book, at least on those grounds.

    Later in the series, in fact, Nissa makes a life-changing decision because the town in which she lives is too small to support more than one pharmacist.

    What was my research for a pharmacist student character?

    First I talked to “my” pharmacist. Next I talked to two pharmacists at our local compounding pharmacy, where I was going about once a week to get a specialized drug for one of our pets.

    I also talked to several pharmacy techs, including interns from the local community college and learned how on-the-job was part of their training.

    With this, I then went and read the course requirements for several training programs. I then adapted this to Nissa’s situation — a single mother of low income who could not drop everything to pursue her education aggressively.

    Since there was only one scene with Nissa at work in the book, was all this effort wasted? Not at all. I wanted her to be a pharmacist (in training) because the Rabbit in Chinese myth compounds the drug of immortality. I could have stopped there. However, learning about the training Nissa was doing showed me elements of her personality: patience, attention to detail, a strong memory, a willingness to check facts, an awareness of interactions, and other such.

    All of these gave me a sense of her as a person that colored how she would react to challenges.

  7. heteromeles Says:

    Nissa would have been perfect as a pharmacy tech, and I know a single mother pharm-tech right now. It’s not a high paying field, but the entrance requirements are low enough that a lot of people can get in, and there’s a certain amount of flexibility with it. It’s also a women and minority dominated field (as is pharmacy in general these days), so she would have fit in perfectly.

    The problem with a PharmD is that it’s a four doctoral program, just like med school, and there weren’t a lot of pharmacy schools in the country until very recently (I’ll come back to this at the end). As I understand it, most states have just one school, if that. Hawai’i, for example, does not have a pharmacy school, so pharmacists from other states are always welcome to settle there.

    Certainly pharmacists perform the tech job while they’re doing their rotations, but it’s a demanding educational program, much like medical school or vet school. I’m quite sure that some single mothers have gotten their PharmD’s, just as some single mothers have gotten their MDs. The problem is imagining someone in the middle of that kind of training taking time off to adventure, any more than I can imagine a second or third year med student/single mom taking time off to adventure without temporarily withdrawing from school.

    Also, as with med students, pharmacy students tend to rack up humungous student loans. Working through pharmacy school isn’t a good option, even for hard workers (which most pharmacists are).

    Which brings me to the last bit: until recently, there was a relative shortage of pharmacists, and people with PharmD’s had their choice of jobs with high salaries and bonuses waiting for them, as well as regular calls from headhunters trying to lure them to other cities. Unfortunately, a lot of medical schools are developing their own pharmacy departments to take advantage of the perceived demand, and we can confidently expect a flood of young pharmacists to hit the job market in the next five years, all coming out of new programs. While this is good news for the hospitals and the public (assuming that the new pharmacy programs make the grade, which not all of them will), this is bad news for anyone who is looking at careers and thinking of going into pharmacy. It was a very good choice ten years ago, a decent choice five years ago, and a competitive choice now. While I wouldn’t discourage anyone with that particular skill set from going into pharmacy, as with dentistry, it’s no longer the “easy life” that it used to be.

  8. CBI Says:

    I’ve only a couple of minutes, so I’ll try to reply more when time becomes available.

    That any discussion be done privately seems to me to be a baseline: it is both stupid and churlish to embarass an author publicly during a reading (although a stupid statement during a panel discussion might be fair game). That’s just following Jesus’ admonition to do to others as you would wish it done unto you. There is a boatload of difference between saying “don’t you know that . . . ” and saying “My understanding is this, but your writing says . . .”! Especially in science fiction, sometimes a physical inconsistency is really more of a reflection of further purported (for the sake of the story) ‘advances’ in physics.

    It is interesting that you mention Ian. Since I am, like him, a physicist (and also doing computational physics), I’d be very comfortable going up to Ian with a concern, and I’d expect his response to be within the realm of scientific discourse. In effect, his response would evidence more about himself personlly than about physics: an arrogant brush-off would show a disdain for the readier; an explanation would show a more mature writer.

    The pharmacy examples are also different: this is a technical field of which not only I, but most people, are unfamiliar with. Quite frankly, given my own ignorance of the field, I’d give the author a signifiant benefit of the doubt. (Also, I am *very* impressed by the amount of research Jane did on pharmacies for the /Breaking the Wall/ books.)

    Anyway, my original question was not so much an “if” as a “how” and a “when”. It was also colored by something I heard last year: a very dismissive disdain for the opinions of “fen” (plural of SF fans). While I am convinced that some of that disdain is honestly earned — and why I am leary of becoming too “fen-like” — it was very much a serious question about how things work in the SF author world.

    Anyway, thanks for the answer — in spades!

  9. heteromeles Says:

    I agree with CBI. Nissa’s profession didn’t particularly bother me when I read it, but that was quite different from watching someone else who did know better putting the book down and saying, “she isn’t a pharmacist, that author didn’t know….” The important point was how it felt to be on the receiving end. The discomfort does cut both ways, and it can break suspension of disbelief abruptly.

    Now, I’m not going to argue that every author should spend a huge amount of time on research. In Jane’s case, this is something that just happened. If I hadn’t been on the receiving end of a harangue about it, I doubt I would have remembered it.

    If anything, it’s an argument to be a bit less realistic in fiction, so that the people don’t expect you to make every single detail correct. When a six shooter fires thirteen bullets, it’s annoying if everything else in the story is realistic. If it’s a cartoon, then it’s just part of the world.

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