Thursday, September 22, 2011

What If Your Truth Doesn't Ring True?

One of the craziest parts of writing a novel is in the details.

What do you do when there's truth in your details, but that truth doesn't ring true to your reader?

Usually the answer is fleshing out the details, giving them some explanation.

But sometimes it's the wrong place for that explanation and slows the momentum of the story.

I run into this problem because I write novels set in a different country and culture. I'm sure fantasy, memoir and historical writers have a heck of a time with this, too.

See, I have China in my head when I'm writing, so I forget not everyone has experienced it. It's hard to know how to weave in an explanation that will satisfy the reader without bogging her down with a big info dump.

I ran into this problem with my first (shelved) novel, which was set in Hong Kong.

Most apartments in Hong Kong have a two door system. First, there's a gate. Then, there's an inner wooden door. The outer gate is there for security. The inner door is there for privacy.

This is something I grew up with. It came out naturally: my mc opened the gate and then unlocked the door....

But this detail threw my critique partners. All of them.

So, I needed to find a way to explain the gate system without over-explaining the gate system, without  hosting a lecture in the middle of my novel about how doors in Hong Kong work.

Small detail, right? But it derailed my readers. They were confused about the gate system, so they couldn't completely immerse themselves in the novel.

I've experienced this with my current novel, too. When I mentioned my MC catching the school bus, my CP Christa asked, "Are there school buses in China?" Now, I know what she's thinking-- the big yellow bus with the flashing red and yellow lights. No, there aren't those kind of school buses in China, but all international schools hire buses to pick up and drop off their students.

But do I want to take the time in the novel to explain this?

It's a tough decision. Sometimes it's best to remove the detail. Other times, it's good to explain.

Whatever you decide, I've learned to take my critique partners' questions seriously. Assume that if he is dragged out of the story now by your little detail, innocent readers later on will be confused, too. In other words, emailing your CP with an explanation about school buses in China won't solve the problem. Right? Of course, right. (And don't ask me how I had to figure that out for myself after confusing ALL my CPs with the gate issue. *blush*)

Writers: How do you handle the details in your books that you know are true, but don't ring true to your readers?
Readers: Have you ever noticed this in a book you've read--pulled out of the story by a detail that just seemed off?


  1. Just wondering where you find your critique partners? I could truly use someone like that right about now! Historical fiction--yep, hard not to overexplain.

  2. Heather, Good question!

    You know, with my first I jumped on a SCBWI board and posted that I was looking for a critique group.

    Since then, I've picked up critique partners along the way--usually blogging friends who write in a similar vein. (By similar vein I mean, if you write for adults, probably you'll find other adult-novel writers. My critique partners tend to write YA/MG, but they write a variety of genres.)

    Hope this helps!


  3. I've been known to dump "technical mumbo jumbo" on the reader. I have to restrain myself sometimes, and use a little more description. If it's not all in one place, I think it works well. I hope it does.

  4. The author Lisa See is great at this, and her books are also usually about China or Chinese people. I think you have to begin with the thought that your book won't appeal to everyone, because of the details. I, for one, LOVE the details, especially when they paint a picture or are directly relevant to the story. I think it also depends on who is "speaking" in your book. For instance, if an American character in China is "speaking" then they may say for example, "The van picked me up for school today. It's weird not to have a bus, but the traffic in China is too crazy for large buses." I totally made that up but hopefully you understand. Or for instance, if a Chinese character is speaking, they may say, "Out of respect I waited at the outer door to see if my friend was home." Hopefully I made some kind of sense. LOL!!!

  5. Most of the truth I look for in writing is in how people behave. There's one bestselling YA novel I couldn't stand because in my world people don't act like that. I'm not talking morally I am talking about a sane person does not make certain choices. A psychotic or sociopathic person might, but don't show someone who is supposed to be normal acting like a sociopath and then pretending that's normal behavior.

  6. This is so true, especially in books written in first person. To your MC, there is nothing odd about the world, but you still need to be able to make things clear to the reader without confusing them and making your MC say things they wouldn't normally say. Sometimes you can do this by introducing a character who's new to the world, and sometimes you just need to find a way to make things make sense without explaining them. Still working on mastering this :)

  7. I was going to mention Lisa See also, but TiAnna Mae beat me to the punch. I think See does an excellent job immersing you in the Chinese culture. She's one of my favorites, too.

  8. Aren't critique partners great? I'd be lost trying to analyze my hist. fiction without their help in this matter precisely. Sometimes I worry too much and it's nice to know what readers can just accept.
    I can't wait to read your story, Amy. I love books about other cultures!

  9. I would think if I were reading a book set in a different culture I didn't know personally, I would assume they knew what they were talking about and accept it. The door thing for example probably wouldn't throw me, I'd just figure that must be the way it is in China. I wouldn't look for an explanation, I'd just accept it. I think we read things differently when we're critiquing - we're more likely to question things and bring them up to the author because that's our job. As a reader, though, I think we (or at least I) are more likely to take the author's word for it and even feel like I've learned something new.

  10. Good question, Amy! Guess if I take my ms off the shelf I need to make sure my cps are not totally from Asia.
    I liked TiAnna Mae's suggestion...

  11. I love that I'm your CP now. *sniff*
    Also, I am dying to know if you deleted it or threw in a "the small bus that picked up international students" line??? Do tell.

  12. I've been criticized on this issue with my first book set in India. It's very tricky if the voice is first person because she wouldn't think to explain things that are *normal* for her. I think this is a situation where 3rd person works very well because you as the author can zoom in and out (using the camera analogy) and take as much distance as you want. Of course, it needs to be done deftly, so that the story doesn't suffer. It's a fine balance for sure, and I struggle with it as well. If my critters ask a question, it means I need some supporting explanation woven in. Patti Gauch talked about this with historical fiction -- the art of weaving fact with fiction so that it all rings true.

  13. Great question! I mostly write in third person, so I don't think I have to deal with this too often. I have a single CP, and she will also hit bumps in the road, or ask me questions about things I didn't realize were unclear, left out, etc.
    A good CP is so important. With her help and support I have completed three novels in a years time. I'm consistent with my writing/editing, and she's consistent with her feedback.
    She's my best friend, and I'm lucky to have her. A big shout out and thank you to all the CPs out there.

  14. Seriously! I think it's those details that in the end define great writing . . . simply because they aren't an issue. They are just a part of the story.

    Yeah, I'm still working on this one.

  15. btw--follow-up--i got into a critique group in my current genre and it has changed my writing so much. now, on to figure out if i wrote in the right genre in the first place. just wondering--when you wrote the first (one or two?) books, then let them go, was it due to the length of revisions? or did you switch genres for your recent book? i need to find out your email so i don't post these rambling questions on your blog all the time. anyway, THANKS for the great advice! it's so worth it!

  16. Heather, that's great! My email is a2sonnichsen(at)gmail(com). (It's listed on my side bar, too.)

    I shelved my first two books because I knew I'd have to give them complete overhauls to help them, and I wasn't attached enough to do that. Does that make sense? For instance, my mc in my first novel was kind of whiny and pretty quiet and shy. I knew I'd have to change her personality completely to make the book work, so I just decided to start fresh.

    To answer your other question, all three of the books I've written have been contemporary YA, so I haven't changed. :)

    Yes, email me anytime if you have questions or if there's anything I can do to help. :) Or the blog's fine, too!