I was bouncing around to the various writing boards and found this particular question noteworthy:
Do you care more about the author suspending belief in the laws of nature or our man-made laws of society? Or both? Or neither?
Hoo boy, talk about a publisher’s nightmare. Readers are soooo smart and savvy, and there is nothing worse for a publisher when caught with their Victoria Secrets down around their ankles. If a story isn’t labeled science fiction or fantasy, where the laws of physics and, well, every other law as well, can be manipulated into whatever you want it to be, there is a responsibility to remain as factual as possible.
And this involves research.
Suspension of disbelief has its limits. How many of us have been engrossed with a story only to have something pop up that makes us groan, “There is no way that happens in real life?” Things like, according to our resident lawyer and author Donna Ballman, a lawyer can’t change sides in mid-case. Legally, it can’t happen. Or, as one author put in on the writer’s board, ice that sinks.
Many readers may gloss over it, never aware of the lack of plausibility, or they may throw the book across the room because their suspension of disbelief just took a U-turn.
Contract with your readers – trust
Many writers may shrug and say, “who cares? It’s all about the story, so what’s the big deal about a little muff up here and there?” Well, a lot. I believe writers have an unspoken contract with their readers, and it goes like this:
If you read my book, you can be assured that I researched every bit of information that’s in here.
This is a sign of respect for your readers and yourself. You’re telling the world that you care enough about them and your integrity to get it right. I write medical fiction, and I spent nearly a year researching every facet of my book and asking author, surgeon David Page, author of the brilliant Body Trauma, to keep me factually correct. The ultimate compliment was being at author events and doctors asking me at author events what kind of medicine I practice.
On the flip side, we once had an author whose main character had MS. I’d read it and thought, ok, she’s got MS. My editor, however, has MS and was furious at the way the character was depicted. The author got everything wrong. I asked the author how this could be. Her reply was that she hadn’t really bothered to research MS and didn’t think it was a big deal.
Well, hell’s bells, it certainly is a big deal to the millions of people with MS, who may read the book. She unwittingly broke her contract to her readers. She basically said, “I don’t respect you – or me – enough to get my facts right.”
Since the whole story was wrapped around this character’s MS, the story fell apart. There was no story. I learned a tough lesson that day. Had my editor not had MS and known better, this book would have been the laughing stock of my lineup. Hardly good for credibility – for the author, or for us.
It’s not just your neck on the line
“You?” you ask? You betcha. Us – the publisher. Just recently Holt had to pull a book off the shelves due to the questionable veracity of the author and his sources. I hate to even guess what that cost them. While Holt will be able to absorb the blunder, a massive recall could put a small indie trade press out of business in under five seconds. So before you get upset at your editor for questioning the authenticity of that Catholic ceremony in Chapter 14 – yes, the very ceremony that’s pivotal to the plot, keep in mind they bear the financial brunt of your lack of research.
This is also about trust. If you get something wrong – a big thing, like performing an emergency heart transplant in the ER – you’ve breached your reader’s trust. How likely are they going to be to trust anything else in your book? If they no longer trust what you’re telling them, then what do you think the reviews will be? In short, their suspension of disbelief just got blown out of the water.
The point is this: There is always someone who knows more than you about any given subject, so it’s your duty to get it right. Some may gloss over it and forgive you. Others will deride you and say nasty things about your book.