6.01.2006

Clap your hands three times if you believe...

Dear Miss Snark, I'm critiquing chapters in a mainstream novel where the MC sustains an injury that's quite serious and extremely painful. He's alone and can't get help. The author then has the MC do things which aren't physically possible according to a check of some medical sites. The novel is billed as mainstream, not science fiction, fantasy, or James Bond type thriller. I think the novel is fatally flawed, and will probably remain so for me, but is it really in terms of being published? The sad thing is, I like this person's style.


Well, it wouldn't work for me. I have a disgustingly literal and practical mind. This manifests itself in all sorts of useful ways for my clients. Some of them actually keep the pictures I've drawn of why something is physically impossible. (Get your mind out out out of that gutter..and you too!).

That said, a good writer can make me believe boys can fly, anything is possible, and the dead can speak. When you start reaching for the medical textbooks cause you don't believe...it's too late.

42 comments:

ColoradoGuy said...

As an ICU doc, I often notice how preposterous many medical scenarios are, especially on TV. Many of the folks who write these things acknowledge medical advice in concocting their plots. I can only think that they ignore it. If it’s a good story, most readers don’t seem to mind. On the other hand, I have seen so many real things which, to a writer, would probably have seemed too far-fetched, too “unrealistic,” to put in a novel.

Greta LaGarbeaux said...

Kinda depends on the genre/intended audience. People don't raise a peep when movie heroes with broken limbs and all manner of life-threatening injuries rise up and smite the evil-doers. My faves are the scenes when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford cling with bare hands to the outside of jets flying at 300 mph+ at, what?, 20 thou, 30 thou feet altitude. Stupendously stupid, yet people buy it. I guess it depends on how well you sell the whole super-human, I-laugh-at-gravity premise from the get-go.

yrtjwo said...

I can't speak to publishing the work with this kind of flaw.
But as a reader I would find it a real turn-off.
It's the kind of thing that makes me leave a book half-read.
Or keeps me from carrying it up to the cash register in the store, if I catch it in time.
Can't your friend find some other way to work through this section?
(Less injury, other intervention, death?)

The Rentable Writer said...

The only reason Stroud gets away with the footnotes is because of his awesome humor. I agree, Miss Snark.

Anonymous said...

I remember an episode of "The Six Million Dollar Man" where the bad guy was escaping in a helicopter. The helicopter was already of the ground, so Lee Majors had jump and grab ahold of the running blade. He brought the helicopter down by his six million dollar strength. Now anyone who has taken even high school physics knows that only a MASS greater than that of a helicopter, not STRENGTH, could pull it down. My college friends and I laughed hysterically at the pure bad science, when we usually just laughed at the bad plot, bad writiing, bad acting, etc. At any rate, I always keep that episode in mind when tempted to write something that might not fly medically or scientifically. The audience WILL know.

otto said...

I would be honest with the author on this, since lesser injuries are easily written in to correct the situation.

Ric said...

Get your mind out out out of that gutter

You obviously know me too well.

Cool examples, though.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute. Consider the true-life story of mountain climber Joe Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates. These are the "Touching the Void" guys. Aron Ralston cut his own arm off to escape falling rocks. Here's a story of compound fracture with dehydration followed by an eight hour rappel and three mile hike on one leg, and that's from last week. These things are common.

Much of our judgement is so context-based. I know fluorescent-light office people who think it is extraordinary if they can climb two flights of stairs without having a coronary. When was the last time you were outside, in the rain, at night, without an electric light to be seen?

Anonymous said...

otto, I was honest about it, but I think I kind of beat it to death because I just couldn't get past it.

It bothered me more, because it's supposed to be a mainstream novel, not a James Bond type fantasy. I don't mind buying into the impossible if the story hangs together otherwise and the author convinces me, such as in The Time Traveler's Wife. But this isn't that kind of story.

Unfortunately, I think I only succeeded in making the author angry with me.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

I want to see some of those pictures, even if they don't have any gutter-minded appeal. This story about an author not understanding what is wrong with part of the story until you drew a sketch sounds like there's more to it, and I want to know about it.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's not whether or not it's true; it's whether or not the author / film maker / whoever can make you believe it. Evil Editor found it unbelievable that soldiers would still be using swords in a world that had steam trains...yet that's based on historical evidence. What's a sqrl to do?

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous about the real life stories and would buy into the injury in this story if the writer didn't have the MC do something he couldn't physically have done after the injury. But instead of having the MC work around his injury, as difficult as that would have been, he basically had him limp on a unset broken leg instead of crawl as that real life story had in the compound fracture article.

Rei said...

Nothing makes me batty as much as bad portrayal of computers -- especially hacking, since most of the people who write about it know absolutely nothing about the subject and get it comically wrong.

Even the most rudimentary research could correct the gross misconceptions, but people just don't seem to want to do it.

For anyone out there who has hacking in their story:

1) It has *absolutely nothing* to do with graphics, either on the attacking side or receiving side. It has nothing to do with video -- especially 3d. It has nothing to do with sound except for perhaps the occasional click of a hard drive. What does it have to do with? *Text*. Probing tools, scanning tools, premade cracking tools (text mode), custom designed cracking tools (text mode), ssh connections, etc.

2) You attack a *service* or *program* that has open sockets (occasionally the OS's networking code itself). This means that you try to connect to it, pretending to be something that would normally talk to it, but then send it some invalid data that exploits a mistake that a programmer made. Needless to say, not every piece of code has mistakes. By far, most pieces of code *don't* have known mistakes at the very least.

3) Attacking some program or service that was just installed, that doesn't have any custom content, means exploiting a known hole in that program or service. There are often tools to do this, and people who use the tools are called "crackers", not "hackers". Fixes are usually made within days or weeks of the hole being announced (sometimes even before it is), so if it's an important system, the administrators will keep the software well patched. This means either attacking as soon as the weakness is announced, or discovering your own weaknesses (*this* is hacking, and it's not easy). Weaknesses can also be found
in any custom applications, content, or configuration of a given server; this will only apply to the one server in question, and is probably even more difficult than discovering weaknesses in a readily available application.

5) When someone breaks into a system, they often install a "rootkit" of some kind or another: a system that creates additional weaknesses all over the system so that it's easy to get back in even if they fix the original hole. This is generally discrete. A good hacker/cracker will wipe the logs of their connection (although a good system will have other ways to log connections, such as logs on a router that the connections pass through).

6) Hackers/crackers often use chains of compromised boxes to connect through so that they don't get caught. If they can conceal their trail at any one of those points, they're pretty darn safe.

7) Most hacking of big, tough-to-get-into systems isn't done through computers -- it's done through people. Human intelligence is always the biggest weak point. "Hi, this is PersonYouKnowWhoWeResarched. We're going to need you to reset your password. You can do so at this page..."

8) Hacking/cracking also generally works through "escalation of privileges". You first find your way onto an unprivileged user's account on an unimportant system, and then steadily get better and better access. Networks are often houses of cards; sysadmins have a nasty habit of focusing their efforts on stopping people from getting in in the first place, and ignoring privilege escalation risks within their network.

9) Hacking/cracking is not some "team" activity. It's generally lone individuals. If website defacement is involved, someone else may help them with the design for the vandalized website, but not usually. The only time that numerous others get involved is in the "selling" of compromised systems (usually by those motivated by credit card theft, spam zombies, denial of service extortion, etc). There's a whole black market based on this, although most hackers/crackers aren't involved in it.

Oy, that was long. Still, bad hacking really gets my goat, so I had to write it.

pjd said...

rei, you're clearly thinking of the "Hey! This is Unix! I know this!" line in Jurassic Park. I saw it with a bunch of my software nerd friends, and we all had a good laugh over that one.

I am thinking that you left out another item from your list, though:

4) Hackers usually know how to count.
:)

Anonymous said...

to BuffySquirrel and agreeing anon--

you're totally right about the separate issues of the thing and the writer's treatment of the thing. Still, the reviewer likes the style. Rewrite?

Anonymous said...

It's interesting how we each internalize the bad representations of our particular fields or interests and pick up on those in books.

The thing is, it's all about the writing, as Miss Snark pointed out originally. A really good writer can make us suspend judgment on issues we know are impossible.

So get over it. It's fiction, not text book! (hint: back to DaVinci, etc.)

Anonymous said...

If the writing style of the book is intended to be realistic instead of action-hero fantasy, then the writer owes it to the readers to be reasonable about injuries. If the hero's got a broken leg, then deal with it, or make up a lesser injury for him to overcome.

Heck, I've stayed in bed monaning in agony over a bad haircut.

When in doubt go with the old stand-by: Truth IS stranger than fiction--but fiction has to make sense.

Gabriele C. said...

Speaking about the gutter - I read a sex scene a few weeks ago that made me go: well, hand 1 is here and hand 2 is there ... wait, where's that hand coming from??

The author also had a character hold the reins of his horse with his hands tied behind his back. And no, he was not sitting backwards. :)

But while I thought these things to be funny and a bit irritating, they didn't keep me from reading the book. Major historical blunders do, though (potatoes in the Middle Ages, plate armour in the 10th century, kings alive at a time they should be dead already, that sort of things). And the book in question had none of these.

Mark said...

My favorite is Robert Langon leaping out of plane with a tarp and landing unscathered in the Tiber River at night mind you. I threw the book across the room on that one. It's from Angels&Demons.

Anonymous said...

It reminds me of that new show "The Unit." Come on, how unrealistic can you get? I cringe every time it's on.

Anonymous said...

I read Angels and Demons...I think. See I can't remember, but I did like the Di vinci Code. Dan Brown's an ok writer, I guess I liked the idea of the book. I never had heard of Holy Blood/Holy Grail before so the idea was fresh to me.
This is a good reminder to all us writers, research, research and more research!

lizzie26 said...

Mark--
I was just going to post about that book, Angels & Demons by Dan Brown. I couldn't believe that whole scene, and yes, I almost threw the book across the room. (I didn't. My TV was there.)

Nick said...

There's nothing wrong with compromising reality so long as it's done right. It's important to establish early on exactly what the characters can and can't do and not awkwardly save a character's life via deus ex machina.

One line I'm looking forward to using in my third book: "What part of 'the laws of time and physics don't apply here' did you not understand?"

otto said...

Dealing with artistic ego and muleheadedness is tough. The author chooses carefully his first readers, but the intelligent author selects for honesty. Maybe he just needs some time to stew about it before another reader confirms it to him and he breaks down his self-constructed protective shield (or in some cases, shield of self-importance) and recognizes the truth enough to sit down and revise.

Anonymous said...

gabriele c. wrote: Major historical blunders do, though (potatoes in the Middle Ages, plate armour in the 10th century, kings alive at a time they should be dead already, that sort of things).

Then you probably hate Shakespeare's Richard III. Some serious blunders were--
• Richard kills Sommerset in the battle of St. Albans (Richard was two when that battle was fought).
• Richard was in London when his brother King Edward IV dies (he wasn't, he was up North in Yorkshire when he received the news two weeks after his brother died).
• Margaret Anjou, Edward Lancaster's mother and Anne's first husband was in London at the time attending her newly dead son (Edward was killed in battle twelve years earlier and Margaret had died a year earlier; Richard did marry Anne; some say she was his childhood sweetheart).
• Richard drowns his brother George, Duke of Clarence in a butt of malmsey wine. (His brother George was executed by Edward IV five years earlier and Richard had pleaded for George's life).
• Richard was a hunchback, had a withered arm, and uneven legs (there's no contemporary evidence to support this; it's unlikely he had any deformities since he was a soldier and fought in full armor).

Oh there's more, those are just the high points.

And yet, Shakespeare rewrote history and did such a good job with the writing that's this is the version that's accepted by most for over 400 years.

Rei said...

pjd:

Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Hackers (that one took the cake), The Net, and every other Hollywood movie that had anything to do with hacking. Heck, at least Jurassic Park didn't have an "Uploading Virus" dialog box, 3d graphics designed to represent hacking, or a "virus" that would have taken a beowulf cluster to run and the entire staff of MIT's AI department to design.

You got #4 wrong. It was:

4) Hackers remember to renumber when they remove a comment block.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, you have a point here. Though 400 year old plays are a different matter than modern historical fiction novels.

But you made me think about that. Why do we (at least the hist fic writers I know) require the best possible amount of historical correctness and yet like Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott?

Seems I've found a topic for my next blogpost. Some time this weekend. Stay tuned if you want. :)

S. W. Vaughn said...

I believe everything I read.

This makes the world a very confusing place.

Anonymous said...

gabriele c., I've bookmarked your Blog and will be looking forward to reading the submission, I assume focused on accuracy in historical fiction.

Anonymous said...

gabriele c. wrote But you made me think about that. Why do we (at least the hist fic writers I know) require the best possible amount of historical correctness and yet like Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott?

I think one reason people read historical fiction today is to get an authentic feeling for the period the book is supposed to portray. If that doesn't ring true, then the rest of the book falls apart. Also, readers of historical fiction are probably more educated about the periods of those books, at least at the end if the book captures the reader on some level.

OTOH, Shakespeare wrote drama, and even though Richard III is considered to be one of his historical plays, I don't think he was a historian. Some say, and I'm inclined to give this credence, that as Shakespeare's patron, Elizabeth I was Henry Tudor's granddaughter, it was written to promote the Tudors. It was a piece of propaganda as much as it was great drama.

McKoala said...

LOL sw vaughn! anonymous shakespeare reader - shakespeare took so many liberties with history it's not funny. Didn't seem to hold him back though..

btw in real life macbeth was considered a good ruler. would kind of spoil the whole plot.

Anonymous said...

Listen to the first comment people. I have seen this many times. As for jumping out of airplanes with a tarp, I read an article about a decade ago that talked about the many cases of people falling out of planes and living. It all depends on getting your terminal velocity as low as possible and the rate of deceleration at the end. What he wrote is actually quite possible (ducks thrown books). One problem in writing is that people believe what isn’t possible but won’t accept what is possible. A lot depends on how well everything else is written. Now about holding down the copter - that supports what I just said even though it is impossible.

How well something is written is totally up to the reader. A friend of mine was reading one of Brown’s books on a plane last night and he thought it was one of the “best” books he ever read This may shock all of you, but it is obviously the norm. Brown may have done things wrong, but he did something right for the people he was interested in reaching. Don’t be jealous of others success. We may hate his type of writing – so what – others hate what we write. If on the other hand you want to emulate his success – don’t complain – figure out what he did. Now if only I could figure out how to control luck .

bordermoon said...

You can always tell an author who has never endured chronic pain, too. I read one otherwise good historical romance that I threw across the room screaming "He did NOT!" for the following reason:

Hero had endured a head injured during the war (Napoleonic). He suffered, thereafter, shattering headaches. He suffers one and the heroine nurtures him through it for most of the night. When the headache ceases, hero makes sweet, passionate love to her.

The hell he does. He is exhausted and probably goes to sleep. Or lies there like a limp and very tired noodle, wishing Excedrin had been invented.

Migraine headaches are often used in books to convey a character's romantic, artistic nature. Migraines are only "romantic" and "artistic" to those who do not suffer them. (Yeah, there's nothing more romantic than turning green and throwing up...or wishing you could drill a hole in your head and let the pain pour out.)

Oh, yeah -- I enjoyed THE DA VINCI CODE, but the vision of an elderly man who was shot in the stomach crawling around the Louvre leaving codes and stripping down and positioning himself in "the pose" and so on did make me snicker. I recommend THE DA VINCI CODE: A FISHY PARODY by Don Brine to those of you who wish to read something almost as funny as the opening of CODE.

Anonymous said...

It seems like we could say something useful about the DaVinci code if we were to coin the term "cult blockbuster." A cult blockbuster is possible only when the law of large numbers applies. In a nation of 300,000,000, even if you are so rare, gifted, talented, damaged, or whatever, that you are one-in-a-million, there are three hundred people just like you. That constitutes an audience, or a community.

DVC sold 40 million copies worldwide. The pop of the possible Northern-hemi + Aussie audience is about a billion people who might read DVC. So DB's market saturation was about 4%. Even in the US, his marksat was about 8%. Less than one in ten people in the US have read the book. Of those, many did not like it (but their money is spent anyway). So, in a walking-down-the-street sense, the vast majority of people have not read this book, or don't like it. It is still a blockbuster, though, because the initial pool of possibles is SO large.

It doesn't take perfect genius to create a cult blockbuster (btw, The Matrix was, I think, the first cult blockbuster. Or Fight Club. They were nearly simultaneous, weren't they?), it only takes enough genius to identify a "cult" (ducks religious chin spittle--not that kind of cult) and give them enough of what they already want to be plausible. They want to believe you already.

Inkwolf said...

anonymous "One problem in writing is that people believe what isn’t possible but won’t accept what is possible."

Which is the central theme of "The Life of Pi" as I recall. I just had to laugh at the whole 'It can't be true because bananas don't float! Okay, so bananas DO float, but it can't be true anyway!' argument. Amazing how many readers seem to think Pi revealed the 'true' story to the unbelievers at the end...you read the Amazon reviews and have to shake your head at the number of cynical people who will grasp at the most sordid lie rather than believe that something bizarre and amazing occurred, even in fiction.

But really, 'truth is stranger than fiction' only holds true because we need to make fiction believable, while real life has no such editorial restrictions.

Gabriele C. said...

McKoala,
if you want to read a different take on Macbeth, try Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter.

Dhewco said...

Roman soldiers had bronze/iron plate armor...if by that you mean little links of armor woven together. They could stop crossbow bolts from going far. Saw that on either The History or The Discovery channel.


You probably wouldn't like my alternative fiction. I have Edward V alive in 1489, as the reigning king. (Bishop Stillington never got to relate the story of the boy's illegitimacy)

Anonymous said...

dhewco, curious as to how you account for Buckingham, Morton, and Beaufort. I think Buckingham wanted the throne himself and once the Edward IV's children were bastardized, his next obstacle would have been Richard. Makes one wonder what he was doing with Morton all that time. For a fun take on all of that, you might want to read The Adventures of Alianore Audley by Brian Wainwright. It's very tongue in cheek and historically accurate. He doesn't try to change history.

Gabriele C. said...

The Romans had both mail armour (the intertwined ringlets) and plate armour fit together of several pieces, the lorica segmentata. But in the 10th century the armour was mail; the elaborate plate armour often seen in movies is a later development.

dhewco,
if you call something Alternate History, I have no problems with incorrect facts and details. Same with historical Fantasy - the moment you have werewolves, you can have plate armour as well. *grin*

Anonymous said...

Um, as far as limping around on an unset broken leg. . .well, shock and adrenaline are amazing things. As a teenager, I walked off a fifty-foot cliff in the dark, breaking my leg, my sternum, and cracking three vertebrea in my neck and back. I also suffered a very nasty concussion, which is why I thought it would be a good idea to try and hike back up to my car. For almost an hour before the fire-rescue squad showed up, I scrambled along, clinging to trees and rocks while. . .well, limping along on an unset broken leg. It didn't work too well, as the ankle kept buckling under my weight, but honestly, I just thought I'd sprained the ankle--there was no pain, just an infuriating lack of muscle control. Of course, once the EMT's shone that floodlight on it and I could see what it looked like. . .well, then it hurt like *hell*. But before then, the shock and that crazy-ass drive to save one's own life did a pretty good job of keeping me moving.

A. J. Luxton said...

I thought I'd add my own datapoint to Bordermoon's, as I, too, get migraines but am prone to having this weird burst of energy immediately thereafter, usually coming up with a great idea for a book or business that will never, ever work, or waking up in the middle of the night and getting tired the next day. So I'd believe that scene. YMMV.

Great points about hacking, Rei. Yes, yes, yes.

mary said...

So Shakespeare's just caught a lucky break because no one had Goggle back in the day?

My experience has been that reader's complaints about lack of accuracy are just as likely to be wrong as right.