Being a Better Writer: Consistency Versus Accuracy

Welcome back readers! Thank you, b the way, for letting me have that break last week. I needed it. Last week was a slam as far as work goes. But, there is good news.

The Beta for Jungle is done. Yeah, you read that right. Done.

What’s that mean for you readers out there? It means that this week, pre-orders will open. The cover will be finalized, the draft will go into the Copy Edit … and there will be a release date set.

Yeah, this week promises to be just as busy for me as last week. There’s always a surprising amount of work to do with getting any book ready for the big release day. And well, I doubt Jungle is going to be any different. But being done with the Alpha and the Beta, well … That’s a lot of work. It’s the peak. Sure, there’s still a lot of work to go.

But hey, this does mean that Jungle is still on track for a November release. As many of you might imagine, it going up for pre-order does mean that you’ll all be getting some good news on that end very soon. Oh, and a new preview tomorrow.

All right, so that said, our news out of the way, let’s talk about today’s topic: consistency versus accuracy.

This post was actually inspired by a Reddit post I was reading the other day discussing Science-Fiction, where a poster asked why it seemed like so many posters on the subreddit were so adamant that Sci-Fi stories be confined to real knowledge and hard reality rather than, you know, fiction. As they pointed out, they were quite surprised by the number of posters and commentators on the subreddit who seemed quite incensed the moment any author moved away from hard, hard, hard Sci-Fi into the realm of speculation, and noted that they didn’t like reading page after page of scientific explanation, analysis, and research just so that the author could look at the reader and say (in a nutshell) “It’s real science, yo!”

From there, naturally, debate arose over the exact nature of the “fiction” level Science-Fiction should aspire to (this was, after all, a post on the internet), but there were some comments there that raised some good points, got me nodding my head, and led right to this post.

Now, I’ve pointed out that in the past, and many of you will recall if you’re seasoned readers of the site, that “Always do the research” does need to be the author’s mantra. And I’m not stepping away from that. We should be doing the research when and where we can. Wherever we can. Regardless of the topic, setting, whatever of our book, even though it’s a work of fiction, we need to do the research.

But … that doesn’t mean that everything in your book needs to be in line with reality.

Look, at the end of the day, we’re writing fiction. Not encyclopedias (though some may think that by looking at the length). We’re writing stories of speculation. Stories where magic is a real thing, or faster-than-light travel (which we don’t have … yet), or drones that take out the garbage. As of today, and right now, those elements are fictional.

But, again, we’re writing fiction. Exploring these concepts and the settings they can infuse is kind of our bag as writers. Now, while that doesn’t excuse a lack of research, even in fantasy (don’t put your tanner inside city limits, as one author put it), it does mean that there are moments where we are going to break with the reality we know. We’re going to have airships unlike anything in the real world. We’re going to have people who can start fires via magic. Or rings that turn people invisible. Spaceships that can carry us to distant stars.

Now, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a kernel of truth to it that comes from our research. For example, the “electrostatic drive” used by submarines on Pisces in Colony is actually based on real supercavitation technology that’s used to make torpedoes that hit speeds well above 100 knots, and that are being developed for submarines (with the hopes of making subs that can do what the subs in Colony are capable of). So yeah, it’s based on real tech, and directions we’d like to go. Colony just provides a window of “this could be what it’s like once people figure it out” and explores a possible way it might work.

Same goes for the neural skinsuit, by the way. In fact, six months or so after Colony came out, one research group announced their first functioning prototype of a “soft, skintight exoskeleton” that was super thin and used lines of carbon nanotubing as artificial muscle to enhance the wearer’s strength. Just lines, not whole bands of muscle, but … getting there.

However … that doesn’t mean we ever will. Or that some of the other tech shown off in Colony, or any other Sci-Fi or fantasy, will ever come to pass. And you know what?

That’s fine. It’s okay to remember that we’re writing fiction. Reality need not always apply. I harp on “Always do the research” so much so because it’s important to get the common elements right, especially if they’re important to the story.

At the same time, we need to remember that we’re writing fantasy and science-fiction. That there are elements that will not be reflective of reality. And that’s okay.

However, acknowledging that we don’t always follow the rules of the real world doesn’t mean we don’t have rules to follow. Which some of the more involved commentators on this thread pointed out. No one should be surprised or complain about magic being a thing in a fantasy book (though some do, go figure). However, any book that includes magic, fantasy or otherwise, should be internally consistent. As should any Sci-Fi with its advanced technology.

So, you’ve got horses that aren’t exactly horses in your fantasy, but a similar creature? Well, that’s fine … as long as you’re consistent with what those creatures are, how they behave, how the characters take care of them, etc.

You’ve got magic? That’s fine. You can do that. However, you should keep it consistent in how it’s used and what it can be used for. Some readers on the thread pointed out that nothing to them was more frustrating or reminding to them that they were reading a story than an element in it, fantastical or Sci-Fi, suddenly being used in a completely new manner that wasn’t explained or foreshadowed, or even worse, used in a manner that contradicts its use prior in the story.

In other words, it’s fine to have magic, but keep the use of your magic consistent with what you’ve established before in the story. It’s fine to have FTL tech, but keep that FTL consistent across your story. Don’t suddenly upend everything the reader knows out of nowhere with a revelation that invalidates earlier decisions.

And yes, the “hyperspace ramming” from Star Wars: The Last Jedi came up quite a bit in this discussion. And in all fairness … that’s a legit shot at that film. It shattered it’s own rules of space combat with that particular moment, breaking its consistency in a manner that send shockwaves across the fandom.

Now, regardless of where your opinion on that event (or film) lie, it stands as a solid example of why internal consistency is so important, even in science-fiction and fantasy. Sure, we may be writing about magic-assisted airships that are far better than anything seen on Earth today, and they may be “unrealistic” by the standards of Earth … but as long as they’re realistic inside the setting you’ve built, and follow an internal consistency, that’s okay. They’re consistent with the world you’ve built.

Okay, so going back to what I’ve said before with “always do the research” then, how do we mix the two? If our world is a fantasy, or a fantastical future, what does that mean for “research?” Can we just throw in the towel?

No. You can’t. Because having a starting point is really nice.

For example, if I’m writing a story that’s a fantasy setting with magic trains (and as I say this, I realize that I have indeed done just that after a fashion with Shadow of an Empire), and they’re going to be important enough to the plot that there will be focus on them in some degree, then a good starting point is, naturally, real trains. You learn how the real thing works in our world, then, as fiction writers do, make some twists to the formula with the magic of your setting and see what changes. Then once you’ve got those changes, you keep them consistent across the story.

Steampunk, for example, often tends to follow steam engines and then diverge where the setting’s “magic” takes place. And then play things straight inside their own setting’s logic, keeping the consistency of how things are set up, but also delivering a story of the fantastical.

Plus, people who read steampunk stories tend to often be fans of, surprise surprise, steam-style technology. Which means they’ll often know the proper terminology for things, and how they function, something a writer of steampunk should know as well so that they can get the bits that are in line with our world right, while explaining and showing what makes this setting different.

And … that’s true for any work of fiction, really. If you’re writing a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, while there’s likely going to be magic and plenty of elements that aren’t like our world … there will be bits that will. How armor works, maybe. Or swords. Travel food in a medieval setting.

In other words, no matter your setting, there are going to be elements of the real in it, and you should know what those are and how they work. When they diverge, however, such as a character picking up a wand, reciting a few choice words, and summoning fire, we should take care to make sure that our setting is consistent in how it handles the fire and how it occurs. In other words, we need “rules” that we follow even if the reader doesn’t ever hear them. An internal logic. Can just anyone pick up that wand? Can just anyone say those words? How has this impacted our setting? The next time a character picks up that wand, will the same thing happen?

The “rule” can even be that it’s unpredictable and unreliable. As long as we are consistent with our setting for the reader.

So then, when it comes to fiction, we can be as “accurate” to the real world or not as we want. We’re entirely free to write up fantastical settings, worlds, places … whatever we want! It’s fiction! But we need to make sure that internally, things stay consistent. That the magic functions the same in chapter one as it does in chapter twelve, and doesn’t change for arbitrary reasons of “plot.”

We keep our worlds consistent, operating on their own rules, just as our world operates on ours.

And those people who show  up with reviews of Harry Potter complaining that there’s magic  of all things, and ho dare this writer that’s just so unrealistic, and blah blah blah blah blah … Forget ’em. At some point they themselves missed the warning signs that they shouldn’t be reading this stuff anyway.

So, do your research. Always do your research. But your world won’t always line up with that. And that’s fine. Just keep that world consistent with itself.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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