Why I take notice of my beta readers even when I don’t agree with them…(2)

I love reading the kind of book where you start and then it’s like entering a tunnel. Everything on all sides just disappears – the people around you, the sounds, sights, all that stress, all those niggling guilts about what you should be doing…the book holds you spellbound, oblivious, and you are doomed to stay that way (with possible temporary exits for food and water or work!) until you emerge from the tunnel at the end.

And that’s the kind of book I would like to write. It’s what most fiction writers dream of doing to their readers. But alas, it is all too easy to jerk the reader out of that realm of yours and bring him down with a thump because something you wrote didn’t ring true. It could be getting a fact wrong (talking about tigers roaming Africa, for example). It could be using a word wrongly or a spelling mistake (mentioning a breeching whale as I did once…*blush*). It might be just plain poor grammar or convoluted sentences that need re-reading several times to understand. It might be a historical fault – referring to people of eating potatoes in Europe before potatoes arrived from the new world.

Or it could, in fantasy writing, be the use of a word that jolts the reader because it seems inappropriate. The use of modern slang just doesn’t sit well: “run that by me one more time” or “that is so not on!” I just read a review of a (sff) book about the Franklin Expedition, which review criticised the author for several solecisms, including having his British ship’s crew use the American word “ass” – not possible, especially back then.

But what happens when you, the author are technically correct? Neal Stephenson was chided for talking about the Kit-Kat Club back in Regency London…come on, says the reviewer.
But there was such a club. It existed. Yes, 200 years ago. Correct the reference may have been, but it jerked the reviewer out of Stephenson’s world.

So, if I refer to “kids” in my pre-industrial fantasy, am I wrong? The word, used meaning children, has existed in written works for at least that long, and presumably a lot longer as spoken slang.

And what about “foreign” words in my made-up fantasy world? Can I use “paramour” or “clientele” or “vice versa” or “ying and yang” or expressions like “the lotus position” or….? You get the picture.

Sometimes my beta readers will seize on words that I think are absolutely harmless. “Clientele” in my fantasy world brothel? And “vagina”? (Ok, so what do I call it – politely – otherwise?)

But the fact is, for that beta reader, it didn’t work. She was back in this world, where I don’t want her to be. So I sit up and take notice, at the very least, even when I think I am right…

What do you think? What are some of the horrendous gaffes you’ve come across?


Why I take notice of my beta readers even when I don’t agree with them…(2) — 2 Comments

  1. I think foreign words that have been assimilated into English are fine. But *concepts* that belong to a particular culture, such as lotus position and ying/yang, would jolt me, big time. Even if they are English (e.g. Morris Dancing) they are foreign to a different world unless you’re sticking to an alternative England with no other input. If there’s the slightest doubt, I think you’re right to avoid them, as with “Kit-Kat” and “kids”. As you point out, the main thing is to help the reader sustain his or her suspension of disbelief. And a secondary consideration is to avoid misleading readers who have little knowledge of history or foreign cultures.

  2. breeching whale? Love it! My favourite example – though not a gaffe, quite the reverse – is J.R.R. Tolkien’s louver in the hall of Meduseld, the hall of the King of Rohan. The Riders of Rohan are as Germanic as they come, but louver came into English from Old French. So it implies that the Kings of Rohan have had some influence from an outside (non-Germanic) civilisation, presumably from their dealings with Gondor – much in the same way that in the reigns of later Anglo-Saxon kings (like Ed the Con) it was fashionable to follow French ideas and Art. So in other words, if you keep an eye on where your cross-cultural words come from, you can use them to make a subtle point – or even a jarring point or alarm-bell within the context of the fantasy culture of your world.

    I think I’d have left the Kit-Kat Club in, too. It might jar the reader … but if he challenges it, he might learn something. 😀

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