Getting Things Write

I’m primarily a writer of what’s referred to “hard sf,” which of course means what I write is really difficult science fiction.

That’s baloney.   Ok, something a little harder than baloney.  Salami, or a nice summer sausage.

What I write is science fiction with plausible science.  I try to get all the science right, and while I certainly speculate plenty in my work, I won’t put something in that violates science as we understand it.  We’ll certainly learn more in the future, but everything that happens shouldn’t violate the laws we know already.  Einstein, when developing relativity, made sure it agreed with Newton in cases where Newton was known to apply.

I have bachelor’s degrees in physics, electrical engineering, and a doctorate  in astronomy.  That makes it easier for me, at least when it comes to getting the physical science right, but I include a lot of other science in my work and I have to get that right, too.  I have more than a few bookshelves for the writing hard sf.

Now, not everyone agrees with me on the topic of getting the science right.  Over at sfsignal.com, there was a recent discussion about this, which I have previously responded to.  Now, I agree with the dissenters in this sense: a writer should know what’s right and what’s wrong in their work.  There are entire branches of fiction about intentionally getting things wrong to great purpose, e.g., fantasy, alternate history, etc.  Still, I’ll make these admonitions.  If you’re writing science fiction, get the science right.  If you’re writing historical fiction, get the history right.  If you’re writing crime drama, get the police procedurals right.  Get everything right you possibly can, from the spelling to the quantum physics, because the writer is the only one responsible in the end.

If you don’t, you risk the greatest threat to fiction writers, a threat greater than poor characterization or limp prose or anything else.  You risk losing the suspension of disbelief.  The suspension of disbelief is critical to the entire enterprise of fiction, and when it’s gone, you’ve lost the reader, perhaps forever.  Bad writing or weak characters risk this too, of course, but having a reader stop and think, with regard to an important plot point, “I thought penguins were at the south pole, not the north,” and then wait for a payoff that never comes…well, that’s a crime against readers.

I have a couple of authors I won’t read again because of errors not much more subtle than this.  Now, it doesn’t have to be a crisis.  Larry Niven got to write entire sequels to books based on subtle problems with the original (see Ringworld and the Ringworld Engineers).  Still, my guess is that he would have preferred to have gotten things right the first time.

You have to have authority in the reader’s mind, based on the words on the page, in order to keep that disbelief in suspension.   The best and easiest way to get that authority, much easier than writing sterling power-infused prose, is to be an authority.  Know your world and know how things work in it.  Do the research.

Research can be fun, and it doesn’t have to come from books (although most writers I know love any excuse to read an interesting book).  If you’re writing a story set an observatory, go visit the place and set up interviews with real astronomers who work there.  The internet and email makes this sort of research incredibly easy today, and websites like google make it trivial to get maps or see what an area looks like.  I’ve met few astronomers who minded taking a little time from their day to answer questions.  Likewise for world-experts in all sorts of fields who rarely have the audiences they (think they) deserve.

For one of Michael Swanwick’s award-winning stories (I think it was “Radio Waves”), he  researched what it was like to die in a parking lot.  He went out and laid down and took note of the things around him.  In two minutes he got details he wouldn’t have imagined given hours to think about it.

That’s a bit subtle.  Not so subtle is a reading exercise I developed while I was really working on the craft and realizing the importance of this issue of research.  I started reading books of the type that I wanted to write, and as I read each page I asked myself if I could have written that page without doing any research.  Sometimes I could, when it was a passage involving the characters and internal monologues, but more often I realized that I’d need to look at a map, or a website that provided annual temperatures or local wildlife, or pull out a calculator to get an orbital velocity right.

Nobody knows close to everything about everything.  All you really have to know is when you’re not sure about something, and go check it.

For Spider Star, I went hang gliding, even though I didn’t really want to.  I really wasn’t as relaxed as I looked.  I didn’t wind up changing much if anything in the book as a result of the experience, but I also knew for sure I hadn’t made any major mistakes.  I could have gotten someone else who had hang glided to read what I’d written, but the first-hand experience is sometimes critical.

One of the best one-sentence pieces of advice about writing professionalism I got from Octavia Butler.  She said that you shouldn’t ever send something out that had mistakes in it that you knew of.  You were ultimately responsible and a professional didn’t send out something with errors.

Perhaps your editor will forgive you, and your audience too, if the error makes it into print.  But perhaps not, and that may be the only chance you ever get with them.

If you’re going to be a serious writer, you need to get things write.  I mean right.  You know what I mean, but a writer shouldn’t count on it.

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    I had a long debate on the suspension-of-disbelief thing with a friend. The X-Files movie irritated me enormously in the first five or ten minutes because of all the errors in it. People in North Texas 40,000 (or however many) years ago? We think now that might be true, but when the movie was made it was a pretty controversial proposition. People who look like Neandertals in North Texas 40 kya? Er, no. And while you can brush that off as a specialist issue, when they pan up in the modern day and show you Dallas on the horizon . . . I was in Dallas when I saw that movie. The entire auditorium started jeering. I think they must have digitally pasted Dallas into a scene shot in West Texas, because the area simply doesn’t look like that.

    But that means they went to extra effort to get it wrong.

    And the point I argued with my friend was, it violated the foundational promise of The X-Files. If you want me to believe this could be going on all around me and I just don’t know it, then you have an obligation to get the mundane details right. If it’s set in a blatant fantasy-world, it loses its effect; you lose the interplay between the factual truth and the plausible untruth.

    Or, to put it more pragmatically: you want to eliminate anything that might kick your reader/viewer out of the story. If I’m wondering why Dallas is in the desert all of a sudden and where did its miles of suburbs go, then I’m not engaged with the story.

  2. 2. Chaz Brenchley

    I used to write contemporary crime novels, and to be honest, I didn’t research much, because much of what I needed to know was the stuff of everyday life; I wasn’t interested in police procedure, they were much more books about criminals and victims, and I knew plenty of those.

    Then I switched to writing fantasy – and you wouldn’t believe how much research it takes. It’s not in your list above, but when you’re worldbuilding, you have to get everything right, at least in terms of everything else, because if your world’s not credible, then you’ve lost the reader before the story starts.

    My favourite easy example: if I’m writing contemporary crime, I know how long it takes to travel from Newcastle to Carlisle, by train or bus or car. My first fantasy novel starts with eight strong men carrying a teenage girl in a litter across a semi-desert landscape. How far can eight strong men carry a teenage girl across a semi-desert landscape in one day? Or toss a second girl into the litter, how does that affect the distance…?

    Run and find out. And God bless historical recreation societies, who will do this stuff for the (apparent) pleasure of it…

  3. 3. Mike Brotherton

    Chaz, you just suggested a great premise for a fantasy version of “The Cold Equations.” The eight strong men are carrying healing potions to a distant oasis, and this teenage girl stows away because she wants to visit her brother there, then you get to go into this long exploration of just how fast and how far eight men can carry the potions AND a teenage girl before everyone at the oasis dies.

    I’m trying to be a little funny, but you’re right. You’ve got to know the answers to those sorts of questions, because some of your readers will, or some will be skeptical at least if you try to cover your own ignorance too much.

  4. 4. Martin Wisse

    One more piece of advice: once you’ve dilligently done your research as a science fiction writer, kept everything as plausible and real as possible, accept that you will still overlook something, often something incredibly obvious you thought was not worth checking because you knew the answer.

    Also, being believable is better than being right.

  5. 5. Mike Brotherton

    “Also, being believable is better than being right.”

    Let’s avoid setting up false dichotomies that make it sound like it’s okay to get everything wrong as long as it’s believable. Following that statement to its logical conclusion, Bush can sleep well knowing he’s made really good decisions.

    It also would make Star Trek Voyager writers feel empowered to push technobabble more than they already have.

    If you get it right and know you’ve gotten it right, the believability will usually be there without much effort.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    Well, right is usually more believable than not right, but not always. It’s valuable to make a distinction between the two if not a dichotomous one. They aren’t the same thing, though they can be.

  7. 7. Jonathan Schattke

    I think it is only in the realm of the very strange – quantum physics and severely warped spaces – where your reader’s intuitive sense of “right” is going to contradict believability. There are also severely warped situations in political/social realms, which may be a whole ‘nother bailiwick – and probably give a sharper contrast between “believable” and “right”. Things like badly planned cities with no suburbs or slums, or the incongruous existence of a completely unneeded public organization.

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    I actually find that readers (my readers at least) are most likely to find a divergence of right and believable in character actions. I have on occasion lifted character actions directly from life. When I’ve tried to keep those as close to the real events as possible my first readers tended to find them significantly less believable then when I deliberately chose to caricaturize them. I don’t think that’s an anomaly but rather a typical manifestation of the phenomena that generated the quote “truth is stranger than fiction.”

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Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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