Please Sweat the Small Stuff

7 03 2011

There is a whole self-help industry that’s based on telling you not to sweat the small stuff. While that may be true of life in general, I do not delude myself into thinking that applies to my writing as well.

I sweat the small stuff. Every writer should.

By the “small stuff” I don’t mean the colour of a character’s hair, or what they’re wearing, unless it’s integral to the plot of what I’m writing. By small stuff, I mean the things that may be just three words in your 80,000+ word novel, but for someone like me reading it, could completely break my investment in the storyline.

I had this happen recently with a book I was reading by a well known author in the forensic crime genre. While I’m sure no one would question her knowledge of forensic anthropology, it was four words that let me know neither she or her editor eat fast food, apparently.

In the book the main character was with a local police officer and an informant at McDonalds. The order was two Big Macs, large fries and two Cokes.

Everything is fine so far. Then I get to the following passage. “As Fitch ate, wilted shreds of lettuce dropped to the burger’s discarded wrapper. A hunk of tomato. A glob of cheese.”

I almost continued on, but my eyes and mind kept tracking back to that passage. For me, it proved idea that Malcolm Gladwell had written his book Blink about. The idea that we have the ability to make a correct judgement on something being a fake or out of place in a split second.

Anyone of a certain age will see the information above with Big Mac and tomato and will have one thing auto-play in their brains. Sing it with me if you know the tune.

“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun… ”

No tomato. When you’re naming a burger by name, you better make damn sure you know what’s in them. Especially if  anyone over the age of thirty knows the popular jingle from their commercials that is basically a listing of the parts of a Big Mac.

After that passage, I found that my mind was consciously looking for other errors. It really dampened my enjoyment of the book. All I could think was that if she didn’t bother to google what goes into a Big Mac, what else has she written wrong? I also wondered where her editor was on that. Surely between the two of them, one of them had eaten a Big Mac in their lifetime.

I’m sure I enjoyed the book, but when this topic came to mind for me to blog about, guess what leaped into my mind first. The tomato.

I research everything to do with my writing, making sure that if I’m saying a Big Mac has a tomato in it, then I’ve made sure there is a tomato in it. These days there is really no excuse to not even do cursory research into something, even if it’s a small thing. With the internet, search engines and a whole world wide web at your fingertips, research isn’t nearly the chore it used to be.

I’m going to be dating myself here, but I remember having to haul to the library to use their research books and photocopy what I needed, bringing it back home, along with an armful of books to do my school papers. Now we just put in a search term and all the information we could ask for comes up in 0.045 seconds. So really, there’s no excuse to not research something.

In online posting of fiction, if someone has stated right in their opening information that they haven’t done research into what their story is hinged upon, I will not read it. It says to me that you are lazy and that you don’t take your writing seriously at all. Why would I waste my time reading something like that?

There may be truth to not sweating the small stuff in your life, but in your writing, please, for the love of your reader, sweat the small stuff. To your reader it will make all the difference in the world. It will allow me to get lost in the world you’ve created, instead of looking for where the cracks in the illusion are.

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