Is That Medically Possible?

I’m not a doctor and do not pretend to know a great deal about medical matters.  However, there are things I’ve learned over time that could be useful for you to know.

Too often, we see injuries that simply aren’t believable, because the reader doubts such a thing is possible.

For instance, if I want an attacker to stab someone in the head with a pocketknife, writing that it pierced the skull, entered the brain and caused instant death is very unlikely.  That’s why we do research.  What’s inside our faces?  A skull.  A bony skull.  A sturdy bony skull.  Damage is possible, but it is designed to protect the brain, so it is pretty durable.  Is it possible to stab through it?  Maybe.  In your research you may find that such a thing has happened once or twice, though there may be extenuating circumstances that made it possible.  But in general, it probably doesn’t happen a lot.

So, if it isn’t at all possible, don’t write it.  No one will believe you.  If it is possible, though not probable, write it, but address the issue of unusual circumstances making it possible.  Say that it’s rare, and mention how the knifer either got very lucky in their attack, or was so skilled that they knew how to circumvent the difficulties.  Give your reader a reason to believe anything that isn’t common.

We often see depicted in movies/stories someone being stabbed or their throat slit or such, and then they silently die instantly.  Only trouble is, that isn’t at all likely.  Most people will cry out when stabbed or even attacked, so you need to silence or muffle any outcry.  Most of the time the person isn’t dying from the injury so much as bleeding to death and that doesn’t happen instantaneously.  Knowing human physiology increases the likelihood that your attacker stabs them in an extremely vulnerable spot, to improve the possibility of killing their victim.  I ran into this when I had someone kill a person who was holding a hostage.  I had to find a way of quickly killing the person without the hostage being injured in the process.  And in researching the issue, it wasn’t simple to come up with a believable solution.

We see this often, also, when someone breaks a leg and then is running marathons a week later.  Bones don’t knit that fast.  Know how long it takes to recover from an injury – that is how long your ‘victim’ is going to be hampered.  And that means complete recovery.  If you don’t use an arm or leg for 6 weeks while a bone mends, the muscles are going to be weakened by lack of use and need to regain their former ability.  Keep that in mind.

Maybe not all of your readers will know when you fudge something.  Maybe if the story is really good they won’t bother to question whether or not it could happen.  But maybe they will.  If you have a sound basis for an injury/illness, you don’t have to go into all the details of it, just what is important to the story.  But having the details in the back of your mind can add to the telling of it, or guide you where to make advisory comments, such as, “Don’t see that often.  Once in a blue moon.  The killer was either very good or very lucky to accomplish it.”

I spent hours researching the attack I mentioned earlier, but it amounted to only a couple of seconds/minutes “on screen” and I didn’t go into it in great detail.  I, in essence, had 50 pages of research for 3 sentences.  But having the details in my mind made it possible to write those 3 sentences more believably than before I did the research.

Keep your credibility – stay believable.

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What’s the Difference?

As I’ve mentioned, I write fan fiction.  That means I’m working in an established world with established characters and an established history.  While some fan fiction writers go AU (alternate universe/reality) with their stories, changing whatever they want as they play in someone else’s world, for the most part, I try to be true to the story the original author told.

Because of that, it limits some possibilities.  Even so, the challenge is always to bring something new to the table.  There are a million love stories, battle stories, fantasy stories, etc. and many have similar details.  A guy and a girl falling in love is standard in a romance, but how they get there isn’t.  Unfortunately, some writers keep using the same scenarios over and over.  If I tell you a story wherein John and Mary meet, fall in love and live happily ever after, you are not going to want to read a second story that I write wherein I merely change the characters’ names to Bob and Sue, but pretty much tell you exactly the same story with exactly the same details.  Each time I tell a story, I need to bring something new to it, and so do you.

In my case, I have to think of scenarios for meeting that are ‘possible’ within the already existing timeline/scenario set by the author.  Anything the author didn’t originally tell his readers then becomes the fodder for finding new stories.  Tolkien told us how Faramir and Eowyn met in Lord of the Rings.  But he did not tell us how Eomer and Lothiriel met.  He tells us they married and had a son named Elfwine, but he never explored their history/story or told us much of them.  (Some even say Lothiriel and Elfwine are not canon characters since they did not appear in the main story line, but in additional writings of Tolkien.)

So, if I want to write about Faramir/Eowyn, I either have to flesh out the details of how Tolkien said it happened, filling in gaps that he didn’t bother to mention as to their meeting and falling in love, or I have to pick up my story after they’ve met and continue on from there into the unknown.  But if I write Eomer/Lothiriel, so long as I follow the details of history and the timeline, I have a lot more leeway in the story I tell.

But that’s just part of it.  I’ve written many Eomer/Lothiriel stories.  Others have also.  So why write another one?  There isn’t any point (not even I would want to read it), if a new story didn’t bring something new and creative to the tale.

The same is true for anything we write, even completely original works.  Find something new to say or explore about love at first sight.  Find a creative way to storm the castle and defeat the evil king.  Find/create new and different characters, with different personalities.  Not all dwarves should sound and act like Gimli.  Not every medieval fantasy requires elves that look and act like Legolas.  Love at first sight doesn’t happen exactly the same way for everyone.

It’s easy to copy details that another writer has already dreamed up and written, but we are writers, not transcribers.  We should be creating our own details, or looking at them in new ways, or exploring things they didn’t touch on.

Be the daisy growing in the bed of roses.  Find something different to say.  Then you might not be lost in the crowd.

Don’t Leave Them Hanging

It’s become popular today that authors write a book series rather than single, stand-alone novels.  Whether this is due to what publishers want, or the writer feels they’ve created a world that will take several books to tell the story, I don’t know, but the fact remains that they are common.

In and of themselves, that isn’t a bad thing.  If readers are enjoying a story and its characters, they usually aren’t eager to reach The End.  They like knowing there is more to come.  BUT, it has to be done correctly.

I’ve read reviews on Amazon where maybe the first book in a series is on sale or free (probably to get readers started and encourage them to buy the remaining books).  But too many times the reviews howl with people annoyed that the book never reaches a resolution by itself – you are forced to buy the next book to find out what happens.

An author shouldn’t try to FORCE their reader into buying the second and subsequent books.  The writer’s job is to make them want to buy the rest of the books in the series, because they want ‘more’.  Take for example the Harry Potter books.  Each book was self-contained.  It began, something happened and there was a resolution of some sort.  No, the resolution didn’t solve every single problem of every single character in the book, but it resolved the immediate conflict.  The reader then thought, “Wow!  I can’t wait for the next book to see what else happens!”  And they willingly waited the year to get the next one (albeit not always patiently). 

But if the writer tries to force that, by not resolving the conflict in any way and leaving it til the next book to see if the hero loses their tenuous grip on the cliff face, the reader gets so angry they just toss the book and swear never to read anything by that author again.  I am not aware of any author who has successfully managed to leave one book in a series unresolved without angering readers. 

Yes, there can be cliffhangers.  Rick Riordan writes the well-known middle-school books about Percy Jackson.  In one book of the series, at the end of it two characters are falling into a very bad place.  The thing is, that wasn’t the story resolution needed – there had been a quest to obtain an object, and that quest succeeded or failed.  The cliffhanger was incidental to that quest.  Consequently, the reader wanted to go to the next book to see if they survived the fall (given the premise of the series there was reason to believe they could survive), and if they did, what happened to them next?  It set up the next book, but THIS book still resolved its main story.

Don’t try to play games with your readers and give them incomplete books.  If you do, they won’t be your readers for long.  Do your job – finish the story, then move on to the next story.  It may continue and add to the previous story, but it should be possible to rewrite each individual book as a stand-alone story if necessary.  Beginning, middle, end.  The rest is cream – extra, more, new situations and conflicts.  Separate books are not separate acts or chapters in a story so that the beginning is Book 1 and the ending is Book 4, with Books 2 and 3 being the middle.  They are connected stories in a connected world, but they should work all on their own.

Happy writing!

Let’s Get Real

Regardless of what you write, there must be an element of truth to it.  Even in fantasy or science fiction, you can’t simply write anything you want that involves humans without any regard to the facts of life.  For example, humans need oxygen to breathe.  They just do.  So plunking them down on a planet with an atmosphere devoid of oxygen and having them walk around on it without any sort of breathing apparatus providing oxygen simply is ridiculous.

And it is things like this that often trip up writers.  Stories that might otherwise be exceptional are undermined by the reader sitting back and skeptically considering the details.  “Sorry, I’m not buying it” they think, and when that happens, you’ve lost them.

In the Harry Potter stories, J. K. Rowling didn’t simply have a lot of humans underwater doing stuff without taking this into account.  Since hers is a world of magic, she provided several reasons for how they could function underwater without scuba gear.  Granted, all her ‘reasons’ were based in magic, but she did have a reason.  The reader could not honestly dispute what was or was not possible with the magic of her world, so few questioned that.

But in stories with worlds that are, or are very similar to, Earth, you have to acknowledge the rules – gravity, oxygen, and so forth.

In one story I read, set in Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth (which is essentially our world but in Medieval times), the writer had a couple kissing passionately.  Then she wanted the man to lift the woman (during the kiss) and the woman wrapped her legs around his waist.  So far, so good.  That could happen in our world, right?  But, wait – this ISN’T precisely our world.  What sort of clothes did women wear in Medieval times (and Tolkien’s world)?  Long dresses, to the floor.  Few wore pants of any sort.  Which means what?  That woman would have a devil of a time wrapping her legs around the guy without a whole lot of shifting of fabric in some way to free her legs.  Oops!  As a reader, you’re going along, wrapped up in the romantic scene and then you slam into that wall of reality.  “Wait, how is she managing that?”  The reader is yanked out of the moment trying to work out the inconsistency and the romance is spoiled.

Now, that isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, but it does need to slightly be addressed in some way.  Though not common, find a reason to put the woman in pants.  Build into the story the premise that many (or at least some) women ride astride their horses (not sidesaddle) and so have split skirts for riding; therefore this woman happens to be wearing such when she has the romantic encounter with the man.  Problem solved.

Other issues are a little trickier.  A recent romantic comedy was essentially a Jane Austen/While You Were Sleeping hybrid.  An amusing premise, but it entailed a man injured and unconscious for weeks.  He was put in a bed, completely unconscious, and all that seems to have happened in the way of care for him during that time was his being read to and having his brow wiped with a cool cloth.  Ummm, yeah, but what about food and water?  What about the potential for bedsores if his position never changes in all that time?  What about the expelling of bodily wastes?  Even if you don’t want to go into great detail about such things, you can’t simply ignore them.  Further, after not eating, drinking or moving, the man fully recovered his health and strength in a very short period once he became conscious, without any ill effect.  Not likely.  The biggest problem alluded to was that his injury/recovery might have impaired his returning to being a soldier, though it is never clear why that would be since he seems to make a full and complete physical recovery.  A few vague memory problems were all that resulted, and they were not so appreciable that they should have compromised his being a soldier.

Details like this are sometimes tedious to consider.  You just want to “get to the good stuff” in your writing, but you have to keep it somewhat grounded in reality.  In a completely fantasy world or on other planets, you have a little more leeway for creating animals and people who look and function differently than humans.  In fact, you might not include any humans at all, which allows far more rewriting of the rules.  But if humans show up, then human considerations must be made.  You can fudge some stuff, maybe allude to a solution without being specific, and the reader will give you a pass, but they won’t be so forgiving if you simply ignore anything you don’t want to bother with considering, researching or resolving.

Don’t let reality overcome your story.  Keep it real.

Clarity

Gotta love ambiguity.  I was reading one of my genealogy blogs this morning, and there was a ‘news’ segment that gave links to other articles.  The title of one was:  “Digital Panopticon: London convicts database project”.

My first reaction was, ‘Why?  What did they do wrong?’  The problem arose from the word ‘convicts’.  There is a noun and a verb form of that word, with different meanings.  In this instance, the article is referring to ‘London convicts’ (noun), aka criminals.  But my reading the word in its verb form suggested that Digital Panopticon had been found guilty of some wrongdoing and were to be punished.

Words are beautiful things, but they can also be tricky.  In this case, the headline didn’t make sense to me (I couldn’t think of what a digitization project might be guilty of), so I reconsidered and realized my misinterpretation.  But that isn’t always the case with readers.  Often they merely take the words at face value, with whatever meaning they initially perceive.  Only if someone challenges them on it do they give the matter more thought.

That can make a difference in our writing.  We want our readers to understand what we are saying (and what we mean to say), and so we have to choose our words carefully.  That is one of the reasons writers are often counseled to have a trusted friend or beta reader go over their manuscript.  New eyes may see things that were missed because we knew what we meant.

While there may be times when you as the writer, or a character in your story, wants to obfuscate words or meanings, most of the time that isn’t so.  Clearly clarity is needed.

Say What?

I worked with someone once who did not have strong English/vocabulary skills.  Our boss would dictate memos about his client meetings, and she or I would transcribe the tape.  (Yes, ‘in the old days’ people dictated stuff onto tapes that got transcribed.  Imagine that.)  The problem was, our boss had an excellent vocabulary and used it when he spoke, but she couldn’t always recognize the word he was using.  When she heard a word unfamiliar to her, she would take her best guess at how it was spelled and let the computer ‘suggest’ possibilities.  But the computer was limited – it had no way of knowing the context or what word was wanted, so it just offered anything spelled similarly.  She would choose one at random, assuming it was correct.

When she would type up tapes for him, I always proofread them before they got filed, to hopefully correct any errors.  She would get so mad at me for laughing, but truly some of the word substitutions were hilarious.  Could you not laugh at “historical performance” being transformed into “hysterical performance”?

People are fond of relying on their computers to catch mistakes of spelling and grammar, and over the years the machines have become better at the job.  Even so, they don’t know what you mean to say, only what you seem to be saying.  Then they give you a ‘best guess’.  As the writer, it is your job to know you are using the correct words.  If you have any doubt whatsoever, look it up.  Does the definition given match what you meant?  If it doesn’t, then possibly you have a word that sounds or is spelled similarly, but not the word you mean.

Try variations of spellings until you find the one that matches.

You can also look at synonyms to sometimes find alternative words that more closely describe what you intend.  Just be careful, since not all synonyms are created equal.  They are ‘similar’ in meaning, but not necessarily identical.  You may need to check the meaning of the synonym before you use it, to be sure it expresses what you want.

Good luck, and may your next hysterical drama…er, historical drama be a bestseller.

May the Best Man Win!?

The story I just wrote was interesting.  Usually, the characters behave themselves and do what they are supposed to do.  In this case, the protagonist’s sidekick kept hogging the limelight.  To a certain extent, he was meant to, but he…got carried away.  I got carried away with him.  I liked the character and he was fun to write, but he was overshadowing the protagonist to the point that I knew readers would question why the love interest didn’t go for the sidekick instead of the protagonist.

Fortunately, I recognized that fairly early in the story and was able to dampen his role and bump up the protagonist so that he “made sense” as the lead.  The sidekick didn’t disappear entirely, but he became less present on the page and the protagonist was able to step forward and take his rightful place.

It is easy to fall in love with a character so much that we get carried away in making use of them, but if it isn’t their story, it won’t work.  Be sure people are doing what they need to do in order for the story to make sense.  If they aren’t, then maybe you aren’t telling the right story.

If X is the hero, let him, even make him, be the hero.  It may mean rewriting a lot of what you already have written down, but it is the only way for the story to work.  And, if you discover a more interesting story surfaces among the characters, then make the entire story shape around that.  Trying to force disparate elements together (character vs. story) just never works.  It confuses the reader and doesn’t accomplish your purpose.

Whatever you write, let the best man (or woman, or child, or creature) win.

An Infestation of Weasel (Words)

And here I thought I was better than this!

I noticed in my most recent work that two ‘weasel words’ had snuck in (a word that steals its way into your writing repeatedly), and carefully combed through the story to ferret them out.  (Sorry, bad pun.)  Fan fiction posts online by chapter, so fortunately I am only 3 chapters in, since I just noticed 4 more weasel words that need ruthless culling.

Weasels are sneaky creatures.  In and of themselves, the word is good, and probably you even used it correctly.  The problem arises when you use it (or some variation of it) over and over and over.  This is another reason for reading your finished story straight through from beginning to end – you are more apt to see such things so they can be fixed.  Well, most of the time.

If you notice you’ve used the same word three times, it might be a good idea to do a search for it.  And not just the exact word (unless it is very specific).  In my case, I have been using words that have ‘variations’ – for example:  consider/consideration, express/expression, press/impress/impression.  You get the idea.  In those cases, I can either search each variation separately, or  search a portion of the word that will pick up most of the different forms (such as ‘consider’, ‘impress’ or even just ‘press’ to pick up many more).

Time to get the pest control in order.  Weed out those rascally weasels.  Don’t let them infest your stories.

I Want Proof!

In fan fiction, you often see new writers posting things they’ve written without anyone else looking at it.  And, often, they themselves have weak writing skills.  No money is lost by posting such things online, but you do lose readership if people can’t get past the first page for all the mistakes.

Proofreading (or copy editing) is all the more critical if you intend to publish something professionally.  If you send a mistake-riddled manuscript to a publisher, I very much suspect they won’t bother reading it to completion either.  Your story may be great, it may be the next bestseller, but the reader won’t be able to find the story for all the errors.

Part of the problem is that writers often write in a vacuum.  They write it, they edit it, they proof it and then they’re “done”.  It gets sent to a publisher or self-published online and they wait for the readers and money to flow in.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read Amazon reviews that remark on how poorly written stories are – structure, editing, spelling, grammar.  Usually the reviewer couldn’t bring themself to even finish the book.  And those are NOT the kinds of reviews you want.  They certainly won’t encourage new readers to give your book a chance.

So, what do you do to hopefully clean up most, if not all, of the mistakes?  Read it, read it again, and again and again.  Then have at least one other person (that you know has strong English language skills) to read it over also.  No matter how good we are, we will always miss some of our own mistakes.

One of the things I do when proofreading for a friend is to do the first reading ‘straight through’.  Why?  Because I want to see the big picture, and I want to check for continuity and story progression.  I usually prefer to read a print copy and so I might circle in red any errors I spot along the way, but I keep reading.  I don’t stop and give lengthy notes about the problem then and there.  That disrupts the flow.  This can also be done on a computer screen – I simply highlight something and move on.  When I’m done, I can note general, overall impressions of the story, and then I can go back and give specifics for cleaning up any issues I spotted.

I recently proofed a book for a friend who self-publishes.  There were instances of repetitious use of a phrase (without a specific reason to do so).  They weren’t close to one another so they weren’t readily seen unless you read straight through.  There were also a couple of places where she seemed to change her mind on a certain element of the story (a door being opened), but in three separate places, the action varies:  it is opening, it isn’t opening.  All of those needed to be reconciled with each other.

What about dropped plot points?  I wrote a story once and was cranking right along, but this story tied to other stories I had written.  I had failed to check the timeline.  So I have a story going that is totally ignoring a significant event (a wedding) that would be taking place when and where the new story is occurring.  Luckily, I noticed before I finished the story, but it meant going back and rewriting a lot of pages to work that detail in.  As it happens, I am very good at proofing my own stories (I once worked as a proofreader so I tend to see mistakes before I see the whole picture, but I don’t publish professionally).  That being the case, I rarely have anyone else read my stories before I post them.  That slip-up of omitting a plot point would have shown up in the “finished” product, and I’m very sure one of my astute readers would have called me on it.  Embarrassing, yes, but it would also mean pulling the story down for a rewrite – not ideal.

You’ve been staring at your story for a long time.  The ideas and words have been written and rewritten several times (presumably).  Maybe you’re really tired of looking at it and just want to be done.  If so, set it aside for a while (a week, a month or whatever suits you) and then read it from scratch and see how it strikes you.  And, if at all possible, get a trusted friend to read it and give you feedback.

Your work will be the better for those final efforts at tidying it up.