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?

Originally posted in Glenda’s blog on Thursday, 6 December 2007 (2 Comments).

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