Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Guest: Michael W. Sherer

My Guest this week is a force to be reckoned with in the thriller and mystery novel genre. As this post goes live, his novel NIGHT BLIND is up for an award at the ITW (International Thriller Writers), to be announced at this year's ThrillerFest (July 10-13). On behalf of all the readers of this blog I'd like to wish him all our best for success there. Today he brings us all some very sound advice. Ladies and Gentlemen:

Michael W. Sherer

For God’s Sake, Get It Right!

NOTE TO MY READERS: If you would like to hear this Guest Post read by its author, it can be found HERE (Mike's segment starts at minute 26 more or less).

Some of the worst writing advice you can get is to write what you know. It’s a huge fallacy, a myth. If we all wrote what we know, the world would be filled with boring, poorly written autobiographies. We wouldn’t have fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, regency romances… the list goes on. Did Mary Shelley reanimate a patchwork corpse and dictate her notes on the experiment? Did Poe dismember a body and hide it under his floorboards just to see if his guilt would cause him to hear a beating heart? Did Jules Verne captain a submarine or pilot a balloon? Most of us write about circumstances we’ve never personally experienced.

Amazon Link
Another homily you shouldn’t believe: “Don’t sweat the small stuff; and it’s all small stuff.” Self-publishing has opened up a world of opportunity for authors. When my first novel was published 25 years ago, about 44,000 books were published annually in the U.S. The number last year had grown to nearly 14 times that many. And, according to Bowker, 235,000 of those were self-published. Writers who never would have seen their books in print five years ago now can sell thousands, even millions, of copies of their work. But, just as some of the books traditional publishers put out are crap, so are many self-published books, perhaps a much larger percentage.

E-books have made self-publishing a no- or low-cost affair, and the tools available online make the process as easy as a few clicks of the mouse on a computer. Those two factors alone have encouraged a huge number of authors to self-publish who would otherwise endure slush piles and stacks of rejections from agents and publishers. And, yes, it’s encouraged every wannabe author to put his or her efforts out there for the world to see. Many aren’t ready for primetime. Some will never be ready. A majority, however, are what traditional publishers call “midlist” authors whose work is certainly good enough for publication, but may never find a wide audience.

Sadly, the product many of these authors put out isn’t worth reading for one simple reason: lack of good editing. Maybe they’re too eager to get their work “out there,” and don’t take the time to make their books the best they can be. Maybe they can’t afford a good editor. Or perhaps they’re too lazy to proof their own work. In so doing, they violate their sacred trust with readers. 

As fiction authors, in particular crime fiction, we forge an unspoken, unwritten contract with readers. We promise to do our very best to entertain them, to give them characters who are lifelike despite prowess at one skill or another beyond our normal ken; to offer settings that may be both exotic and foreign, yet places we might find on a map; to carry us on a thrill ride with twists and turns, steep climbs and dramatic drops that leave our stomachs in our mouths but never jar us so hard we’re thrown off.

In short, we promise not to stretch credulity, not to give them a reason to suspend disbelief. Which means that we have to get it right. We must do our research and speak as if we’re experts on every topic even if we’re not. Because the unfortunate truth is that if we get details wrong, then we’ve quickly lost a reader’s trust. Once and they might forgive us. Twice in one book and they might reconsider finishing what we’ve written. More than that, and we’ve likely lost a buyer and potential fan of our next book.

Amazon Link
Some of us hated doing homework in school, and are loathe to fact-check absolutely every detail. And no one’s perfect, which is why so many authors, including me, often say on an acknowledgements page that they’ve done their best, but mistakes happen. We hate it when they do. There’s nothing worse than being called out by an irate reader on a detail that you overlooked, a detail you know you should have gotten right.

When I suggested earlier that you should ignore the advice to write about what you know and use your imagination to create worlds with which you’re unfamiliar, I didn’t mean you shouldn’t learn how those worlds work. Don’t know the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol (a mistake I still see often in crime fiction)? You’d better find out before you put a weapon in the hands of your character.

I recently read a book in which the author made, for me, four fatal errors that demonstrated a lack of research, lack of a good copy editor or both. The first was misspelling the name of a major defense contractor. The error easily could have been remedied by a quick look on the Internet. It wasn’t a horrible mistake, but it wasn’t a typo either, which suggested sloppy work.

The second error was the protagonist’s disappointment that DNA results hadn’t come back from the lab within 48 hours (the protagonist being a crime scene investigator). The CSI technicians I’ve spoken with all say they’re lucky to get results back in as little as two to three weeks. The mistake made me think that the author had relied on a perception propagated by television shows and not real research.

Amazon Link
The author committed a third error when a pathologist conducting an autopsy definitively declared that the victim’s killer had used a revolver with a silencer. Suppressors are rarely used on revolvers because they offer little benefit; the gap between the cylinder and barrel permits too much sound to escape. And though I haven’t yet asked an expert, I find it hard to believe the wound itself would reveal whether a silencer had been used or not.

Then, in the denouement, the struggle between protagonist and serial killer at the scene of a light plane crash, the author kept referring to the still-rotating rudder. At one point, the hero shoves the killer into the “rudder” while it was turning, causing it to bruise his shoulder but not incapacitate him. I think the author meant “propeller” not “rudder,” but by that point my credulity had been frayed to the breaking point.

The book wasn’t badly written, but mistakes like these scream “Amateur!” Worse, for me, they make me leery of reading authors I’ve not heard of, or authors whose books have not been vetted by a large numbers of readers. And I end up approaching the next few books I read with a jaundiced eye and more unforgiving of even the smallest of errors. To be fair, I find errors like these in traditionally published books by best-selling authors, which is an even more egregious crime.

Self-publishing is giving a tremendous number of authors a chance to find readers they wouldn’t otherwise. Don’t lose those readers right off the bat with errors and sloppy editing. Get it right! 

After stints as manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, Michael W. Sherer decided life should imitate art and became an author and freelance writer. Mike is the Thriller Award-nominated, best-selling author of Night Blind, the first in the Seattle-based Blake Sanders thriller series. His other books include six novels in the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel Island Life, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series.

Please visit him at http://www.michaelwsherer.com or you can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thrillerauthor and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MysteryNovelist.

Thanks for the great post, Mike. I confess that you have hit the nail on the head with one of my own pet-peeves. Researching stuff is hard work, granted, but it can also be great fun!

Post a Comment