In Which I Put on Ranty Pants re: Verisimilitude

I don’t really like to review books. It’s not something I enjoy doing. But sometimes a book bothers me so much, I feel the need to point out what it is that bothers me about it. I just don’t like to say anything nasty about an author’s work, because I know how hard it is to write something good. Although, I should note that this particular book, the one that is bothering me today, is self-pubbed, so that should have been a red flag right there. Of course it hadn’t been seen by a professional editor. Of course a reputable Publisher didn’t read it and think “YES! Just the hackneyed clichéd amateurish story we’re looking for!” This is why people are skittish of reading self-pubbed writers; it’s not our job to be your slushpile readers.

For the record, a lot of the sections of this book that I think are hackneyed and clichéd, I know they are because similar clichés appear in some of my own early work. And I recognize that they should never see the light of print.

At any rate, I want to start with “not!” Please, for the love of David Bowie, STOP USING QUOTES FROM WAYNE’S WORLD IN YOUR DIALOGUE. Or worse, in your narrative. I’m speaking of lines like this. “He was a great friend to all. Not!” Just… stop it. It was a silly cliché 20 years ago.

Also, the hardened private investigator who smokes too much and drinks whiskey at 10am, but somehow also manages to be together enough to be a particularly good investigator that people pay a lot of money to for his services. Try something else please, this one’s been done to death. It also manages to glamourize alcoholism in men.

Conversely, moralizing about womens bodies via your characters (especially male characters) is a great big amateur move. It is distracting, and very often does nothing to move the plot forward. Of the men I asked about this one, the trend was this: they do not think “It’s sickening” when a woman is thin/slender. They tend to think either a woman is attractive or not attractive, either they’re just too fat or too thin. “Sickening” is a judgy sizist word that women tend to use more often, and it’s clear it’s the author inserting herself into the narrative. It stood out enough that it brought me right out of the story as lacking realism.

And now, the big one that has me putting down the book and deleting it from  my e-reader: lack of research on a subject. In this case, Witchcraft (a subject that is well-known to more people than this author must have thought).

I don’t know if people realize this, but there really are practicing witches in the world. And while I understand the concept of Fiction and in particular Urban Fantasy… if you are going to add certain details to lend some verisimilitude to your story, make sure you go all the way with that.

For example: You have a witch… whom you have decided isn’t mortal. Witches in your universe aren’t mortal. Okay… what do you mean by that? They don’t age? They can’t die? Or they just have magical powers? This isn’t explained. But “mortal” means “subject to death” so it would be helpful if your story’s definition matched that of the real world.

Also, you have delineated “white magic” and “black magic”. Okay, that’s a little clichéd, but common, so I’ll go with it… how do you define white vs. black? Because this is a subject of debate out here in the real world.

Okay, now you’ve introduced the “harm none” adage that is often misappropriated from the Wiccan Rede. Wicca is a real, recognized religion yanno. And people often confuse “if it harms no one, do what you will” with the Hippocratic Oath, which is “first, do no harm”. You’ve brought me out of the story by adding that in there. Why is it in there? To help you define white vs. black magic? See above about it being a subject of debate. For anyone who’s been following said debate, it’s a distraction from your story. And it also smacks of moralizing.

Covens… again, something that exists in the real world here and now, normally in the neighborhood of 13 people per each. And in your story, there’s about 20 of them in the world? Really, that’s all? In this universe you’ve created, there are only ~250 people who are witches. In the whole world?? So… your world consists of significantly fewer than the approximately 7 billion people in our real world? According to the US Census from 2008, self-reported Wiccans fell in the range of 342,000 and Pagans were around 340,000. And that’s just the US.

Okay, so you’re saying to me, well my world is fictional and in this world, there are far fewer witches. Okay, fine. I just wish you’d called them something else because what you’re trying to do is essentially assign a new definition to a word that has meaning, here, now in the real world. (Kinda like you’re doing with the word “mortal”.) And while this may not bother the average reader who is not a practicing witch, more than likely some portion of your audience IS a practicing witch… and you’ve just lost their interest.

It’s not much different from writing a story that centers around a lawyer, without knowing what all a lawyer does, or anything about court procedures. So you read a few articles online and then decide that lawyers in your made up universe behave differently than in the real world. This tactic will not save the work, and will not lend it any further verisimilitude. DO YOUR RESEARCH.

Writing words in a string to make sentences is easy. Doing it well is not, and I wish people would start learning the difference. By all means, tell the story you want to tell. But don’t be surprised when people wrinkle their nose and put the story down if you haven’t done your research. Show some respect for your potential readers. We’re smarter than you think.

Category(s): writing

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