Thursday, March 25, 2010

When ignorance meets ego

You get things like the alleged first chapter I saw yesterday.

I was going to talk about writing from the POV of the truly evil, until this thing derailed me. It is an amazing demonstration of just how bad something can be when written by someone who has so little knowledge of the writer's craft they can't tell that what they're doing isn't a masterpiece. By about the same margin as the Pacific Ocean isn't wet.

This is, incidentally, a well known principle. The incompetent have no idea they're incompetent because they don't know enough to realize. By comparison, the most skilled are also the least secure in their skills, because they know their abilities so well they focus on their weaknesses instead of their strengths. Short-short-version - if someone tells you they're the greatest writer since Shakespeare (or anyone else), run. Fast.

This piece has so much wrong with it it's difficult to know where to start. It opens with someone arriving at the ER of a hospital - by taxi - after having been run over by a bicycle messenger at the presumably nearby airport, and he's hauling his luggage. Despite a broken wrist. Apart from the clunky prose, there's no mention of the injuries the messenger must have suffered - because anyone who gets hit by a cyclist hard enough to break a wrist is sending that cyclist ass over apex to land on a rather unforgiving surface. The gentleman with the broken wrist is certainly not going to get up and hail a taxi. He's going to be evaluated on-site by the airport security staff, who *will* call an ambulance to get him and the cyclist treated either on-site or at the nearest hospital.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is why we need to use a little intelligence when we work out what happens in a scene of our novels and short stories. If you need your character to arrive at a hospital with a specific injury, first learn what kinds of actions cause that particular injury, then figure out a way to have it happen without any complications you don't want. While you're at it, do a little research into what happens when people are admitted to hospitals, and how critical cases enter.

Yes, the author got that wrong, too. Firstly, any half decent hospital with an ER facility has a separate entrance for ambulance arrivals than the one walk-ins use. There is no horde of uniformed doctors and nurses in white coats milling around the door waiting for a critical case. There will be an organized path aimed at getting the incoming patient from the ambulance to treatment at the fastest possible speed, usually involving the paramedics and ambulance drivers running while carrying IV gear and anything else needed. They don't stop to gossip about the casualty, they don't let any bystanders get close enough to potentially infect the casualty, and they sure as hell don't accept the word of random patients awaiting triage about offering to donate organs. More likely, said random patient would be in for a quick trip to psych eval after a dose of knockout juice and treatment for broken wrist. Anyone who doubts this would be advised to read this from start to finish. As well as the graveyard humor, there's a lot of information about how hospitals operate buried in there, and testament to the dedication of ER and other medical staff.

That's the plot of the chapter the author posted - and absolutely everything is wrong. In the middle of it all of our putative hero with the broken wrist reminisces about how much he likes being a school teacher (and speaking as a former teacher, I guarantee you THAT is wrong, too), and infodumpuses about a particularly vile serial killer due for execution (in a state notorious for not holding executions, no less). Neither has any noticeable connection to the alleged hero's actions, or to the reason the prison chaplain is brought in with injuries that amount to DOA, not ER (knifed in BOTH kidneys, open head wound leaking spinal fluid and brain plus assorted other trauma? Not unless he got those injuries right outside the hospital carpark).

How can anybody think this is how things work? Or am I just too damned optimistic in thinking this sort of thing is too stupid for words?

40 comments:

C Kelsey said...

Two things:

1) How old was this perspective author? I've encountered similar errors in drafts in the past. Most of them are related to the fact that a younger person more likely than not only has TV as a frame of reference for these things, so that's how they write it. Since they're writing from ignorant experience, they simply can't realize they're getting it wrong (and, if young enough, are highly unlikely to undertake the research to find out what really happens since, you know, TV is RIGHT THERE and it can't be wrong because it looks cool).

2) Alternately the person may have written it knowing that it was HORRIBLE, but just had to get it out of his/her head. Once out of the head this person might have felt the need to get it pounded on before something good would take shape. Err... no, I'm not talking from personal experience. Why do you ask? :P

matapam said...

My own first drafts tend to have bad first chapters. I chop them up or off as appropriate before showing them in public.

And they are full of little /// check this/// messages for those days when the words aren't flowing.

Can't overstate that research is needed even if you think you know what you're talking about. Or maybe especially.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Sounds like something I would have come out with about ten years ago...

I completely understand what you mean about the complete lack of relevant knowledge on a subject. As a for-instance (drawn from my own experience, for my sins):

I wrote a brief opener for a short story I was working on, involving a pair of officers having a friendly duel across the grass with their swords. One was very much the superior, and at the end of each bout his sword pressed slightly uncomfortably against his friends stomach.
I posted the opener online, and a kindly person had to point out that the POINTY sword would have been pressing slightly uncomfortably against his friend's liver, regardless of skill.

Just goes to show - they don't have to be ill-meaning mistakes, but they are massive mistakes nonetheless.

PS - That link is hysterical!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kate,

Where did you read this chapter? From a budding author? A book? A first draft?

Linda

matapam said...

It was a Facebook post of someone wanting a "Beta Reader" so it wasn't anything the writer considered a finished work.

It's tough finding good critical readers. I'm trying to train my husband (No Dear, I won't cry if you say that scene was appalling.) I'm not sure posting first drafts in public is a good way to do it. A slightly kinder, gentler Kate is needed, though.

C Kelsey said...

A kinder and gentler Kate, matapam? Nah! We don't need no wimps! Kate's the best! (I'm still pulling buckshot out of my rear from the last one though.) :P

John Lambshead said...

Sometimes they get published!
John

matapam said...

No, no, Kate must remain herself. But this writer needs some a bit less brutal to say essentially the same thing. Or maybe she'd tough enough to deal. Hard to say. One suspects a Full Up Kate Critique could be akin to "testing to destruction."

C Kelsey said...

But you get the best data by testing to destruction...

Kate said...

Chris K,

This particular person is old enough to know better, and has a long history of becoming defensive and hostile to any attempt at constructive criticism, confabulation, and flat out insisting that they have everything they need.

Given the history involved, I consider them 'fair game' - and I have tried the kinder, gentler approach.

Kate said...

Matapam,

Research is indeed essential. Even when it's a pain in the anatomy. My first drafts are also flagged with a whole lot of [kind of demon] and [dog breed] and whatnot to remind me to find and fill in appropriate details later.

Usually I've cleaned most of those out before I inflict it on a long-suffering semi-public audience, though.

Kate said...

Jonathan,

Oh yeah... I have my own horrors going way back. Hopefully I've learned a little bit since - you don't need experience, if you can research well enough to fake it convincingly.

I stumbled on that site some years ago when I was looking for details about trauma injuries. I wanted to know what kind of one-hit knife injury would definitely kill someone (and how skilled you had to be to do it in the middle of a skirmish). Anyone who checked my google logs would send me straight to the locked ward, I swear.

Kate said...

John,

If this gets published I want to know what drugs the editor is using and where I can get some!

Kate said...

Matapam,

This particular writer doesn't respond to kinder, gentler. I've tried. She's also displayed a breathtaking level of ignorance and a refusal to learn that in my view leaves her writing fair game for full-Kate-shred.

Kate said...

Chris K,

I was actually fairly gentle with the last crit I did for you :)

When I start in on the line-by-line dissections is when it gets interesting.

Besides, it's my JOB to test things to destruction. The attitude leaks.

C Kelsey said...

Kate,

I asked for it. I wanted it. Taking lumps... I'm pretty good at that. Is it jarring to get feedback like that? Yeah. But I care enough to want to get it right. Whatever it is about how that universe developed in my head makes the actual writing totally jacked up. But I got the kind feedback the first time around. I needed your particular style for the second time. That's right, needed. Kindness does nothing to improve the writing. Sure I have to spend time in the ER pulling buckshot out of my hide. It's time well spent. The doctor's working on my hide, my brain is working on the story.

Chris McMahon said...

Now, Kate. What would be have to bitch about if we could not find bad prose and poorly plotted books?:)

Stephen Simmons said...

This is the problem I've been having. There is no one here who is willing to bluntly tell me that the baby is, in fact, ugly. I also don't have anyone with any real knowledge of the business beyond "reads a lot of books in the genre". So I've been flying blind, hoping I wasn't turning out junk. (I'm pretty sure I'm not quite in the same league as the chapter You critiqued in the post, at least ...)

At a Con a couple months ago I made contact with an author whose first book will hit the shelves next week, and she iunvited me to join her email writing group. So, hopefully, this will begin to get better.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, on-line crit groups can be good -- I'm in a very good one right now. But if you can find an in-person one as well, that might also help. Check with your local library, university or community college and even meetup.com to see if there are any groups in your area.

Lin W said...

Ummm.... Does this person respond well to criticsm? Is he/she willing to honestly make a change if beta readers say it should be made?

Sort of like something my brother once told me. "You may be certain you don't have a tail....but if, on one day, everybody you meet -- stranger or not -- tells you that you have a tail....you really oughta at least *check*" :-)

This after, as I understand it, he'd had some practical joke involving toilet paper and his belt pulled on him :-)

Lin

Kate said...

Chris M,

I"m absolutely certain we'd find something. What's life without something to bitch about?

Kate said...

Chris K,

Yeah, it does hurt when someone's got to tell you your baby's ugly. I've been through it a few times (like, add a one and several zeros after 'few', and it never gets easier - although if you suspect there's a black hole in the pages somewhere it doesn't sting quite as much.

My usual response to something like that is to leave it for a while - several days or more - until it doesn't hurt quite so much, then look at the crit and what I've done. THEN I edit. Sometimes extensively. And sometimes, the comments actually point me to a different problem that gets changed somewhere else in the piece but answers the problem the critter saw. (Very common QA problem - the thing that you see that's wrong isn't what's causing the wrong - the actual cause is buried layers deep and happened ten or more operations back)

Kate said...

Stephen,

Good critique is hard to find. It's time-consuming for the person giving the critique, and until you get to know how the person on the other end will respond, an awkward balance of "am I being too harsh?" vs "will they understand what I'm getting at here?"

I'd offer - and you're welcome to ship it to me (katepaulk at yahoo dot com) but I can't make any guarantees about getting to it on any kind of schedule. If you're willing to listen and learn from what people tell you (and not slavishly try to do what EVERYONE tells you, either, which is the other end of the scale and kills stories so dead), you're already a good ways ahead of the author of that piece.

Kate said...

Amanda,

Oh yeah. Face-to-face - if you have the right people - makes a huge difference. The wrong people... don't walk, run ;)

I alas am in itty bitty country town and have other issues that mean driving to nearest city isn't really an option. Online is what it is.

Probably just as well. For some reason I scare people...

Kate said...

Lin,

No, and no. This is a big part of why this person's work has the ability to rival black holes when it comes to the vacu-suck effect.

And yes, if everyone says it stinks, you just may need to get your nose checked :)

Dave Freer said...

Kate the terrifying part is 1)there are many of them 2)If they make it dark and angsty enough someone will publish it ;-).

Seriously - some people want to learn, and some people want a nice pat on the head. Only kind of pats I do are produced by cows.

Kate said...

Dave,

1) and 2) are indeed terrifying. And like you, I do not do pats on the head. Unless delivered with a 20lb sledge and a hefty swing :) Or the trusty clue bat with the rusty nails.

matapam said...

"But Daaaave!" she wailed. "I don't do dark and angsty! How will I ever get published?"

Maybe I could write it tongue-in-cheek, then fix it so the humor doesn't show?

Kate said...

Matapam,

Good luck with that. The last time I tried it I got ConVent.

matapam said...

Well, I'd have to survive the research, first.

That is, read enough of the genre to have the heroine nearly eaten by monsters the right number of times. Nearly raped by demon infected humans the right number of times. Be possessed by a demon and do the dirty the right number of times with the right demon possessed person.

I'd probably have to make the were coyotes vicious instead of amusingly sly. And the horse, the dog or one of the cute nieces would have to get killed. Possibly all of them.

Oh. Dear. The Chief of Police would get eaten grotesquely. The cop who gave her the two tickets the first day she moved to the grim and foreboding little town would turn out to be the Evil Villain controlling the demons. Pity, he had a lot going for him as a love interest.

The question is, how does she win? Is surviving enough? Or does she need to put a stake through the heart of the vampire?

I have a nasty suspicion it wouldn't work.

Mike said...

Oh, Matapam, that's not the vampire's heart!

Oh, you thought putting a stake there was poetic justice for all those times "doing the dirty"?

You might be right.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate
LOL!
Yah, I know what you mean. David Drake said that the reason he was willing to mentor me was that I listened to criticism and tried to follow his advice, however incompetently.

I have never understood why so many people find that difficult. If a first class novelist like Drake deigns to waste some of his valuable time offering a novice advice then one would have to be a lackwit not to take it.

I suspect anxious people are competent because they are anxious and self-doubting.

John

C Kelsey said...

In an endeavour like writing there is something to be said about a person who puts his heart and soul (and ego) into a work, and then is willing to doubt himself as to the quality of that work to the point that he can take meaningful criticism. In fact, that kind of goes against human psychology. Most normal folks would be looking for a protective response. After all, musn't harm that precios ego...

RJ_CruzeJr said...

David Brin coined an acronym that he uses for a variety of topics, and I've found it applies quite well toward writing. The acronym is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error.

That works the same for internal criticism as well as external, and I think that's why many competent people are bit uncertain of themselves: I believe one of the hurdles to competence is developing the ability to honestly self-criticize yourself without either catering to your ego or engaging in self-loathing. And the ability to accept self-criticism helps you to accept criticism from others as well.

It's funky duality a writer has to strike a balance between: you have to have enough of an ego to send this thing you wrote to total strangers in the belief that they're going to love it and send you money for it, yet you need to be able to shut down that ego in order to accept the criticism that can help you turn that story into something that total strangers will love and send you money for.

Of course, I could just be talking out my arse again :-D

Kate said...

Matapam,

The research would be dangerous. You'd wind up wanting to claw out your own eyes in self-defense.

As for the rest, with the appropriate levels of angst, she's allowed to win, but she has to hate herself afterwards and never ever think that any of it was worth the struggle.

This is my problem. My leads have a tendency to go through life with the metaphorical middle finger upraised in defiance.

Kate said...

Mike,

That's just to hold the vamp in place so he doesn't get away before the stake goes through his heart. One can't be too careful, you know.

Kate said...

John,

Yes, on both counts. If someone with more experience and knowledge than you offers advice, you listen. It may not be the right advice, since - particularly in this field - what's great for one person is impossible for someone else, but you listen and you consider what they've told you. I still treasure Jim Baen taking time to read a submission of mine and telling me I needed more practice. He read it.

Kate said...

Chris K,

I try to separate myself from the writing some - the criticism isn't of ME, it's of the STORY. It's not easy - but you've seen my crits - I try, even at full shred, never to cross that often very fine and damn near invisible line between critiquing the story, and hitting the author.

And when I get a harsh crit, I try to remember that they're tearing into the story, not me. If you can't separate yourself from what you write (or, to generalize a bit, what you do), you've got no business even thinking about being in this field. It will destroy you.

Kate said...

RJ Cruze,

If you're talking out your arse, you've got a remarkably talented and articulate arse.

David Brin has it nailed. You've got to be able to accept criticism or you won't improve. You've got to be able to criticize your own work.

Some of my most frustrating work has been when I know something isn't working, but I don't know WHAT I've done wrong. Those who've been on the other side of this can tell you how grateful I am when they figure out the problem and I can move forward again.

Of course, it helps when I'm not trying to write to a tight deadline when I'm brain-dead. For some reason that never ends well.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate,

I would love to send you some of what I'm working on, to get meaningful feedback from an actual pro. And yes, after 20-plus years as a submariner, with multiple different Navy examining boards coming out every year to critique our ability to operate their ship, I'm hoping that I've managed to develop some sense of separation between me and my work. I think. Usually, anyway.

Of course, if you take a second look and say, "What was I thinking? I don't have time for that!", I'll understand that, too.