Monday, August 24, 2015

When Readers are Wrong, Do You Want to Be Right?

So, I’m pretty God-awful at checking for typos. The God-awfulist, I would say, but it might be because I have a God complex—in that I compare myself to him a lot.

You’d think, this being the case, I’d get more messages from people informing me of my mistakes, but usually that only happens if I crack a Hemingway joke. I'm running low.

It’s only every once in a while that I get corrected, and I have to say, I really do appreciate it. If I could have readers inform me of every mistake I made, I wouldn’t have to find them myself. But, unfortunately, my audience of experienced writers tend to be forgiving and diplomatic, so I am left doing my own copyediting. What kind of world is this?

But, that being said, it’s not uncommon for people to be, well, mistaken about my mistakes. Surprisingly, I get about the same number of messages from readers who misread as those who found one of my numerous typos.

For example, a woman (extremely politely) asked me if I meant “accept” instead of “except.” I thanked her, did a quick word search to find that “except” hadn’t been used once. After reading it through, I could only think, “Did you mean ‘expect’?”

The blog, a post about how to deal with unsupportive friends and families, suggested that expecting them to not jumping for joy for your book helped you not feel bad when they don’t. If they do, then it’s an extra bonus. But most authors experience apathy and obscurity in their foray, and it’s something better to predict.

The word in the blog was spelled correctly and meant exactly what I intended it to mean. She apologized profusely, mentioned she was tired, and we continued to have conversations since. All was well, in that case, and I didn’t have any one else (that I know of) making that mistake, so it was easily solved and forgotten.

Writers will constantly have to deal with reader’s opinions, and while it can be frustrating when it comes to tastes, morals, and perspectives, there will be certain times that the readers will be outright wrong about what they’re saying… and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

Recently I read a book about Yellowstone National Park. I live in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is right next to it. In the park area, there are all kinds of animals tourists will come to see: grizzlies, moose, elk, deer, and, of course, the buffalo.

Which are not actually buffalo.

The correct term for these majestic animals is “bison.” “Buffalo” refers to a totally different kind of animal living all the way across the planet. To call them a buffalo is an uniformed and inaccurate choice… but one that makes you “from here.”

The only people in Jackson who refer to bison as bison are tourists and hippies. You won’t catch a person who grew up here using the term. It drives my Australian boyfriend nuts, and I tell him, “Saying it just proves you’re an outsider.”

“Because my accent doesn’t do that already.”

It’s also one of those corrections people will make to prove their superior knowledge—which is why locals are so adamant about keeping with the, we’ll say, colloquialism. You want to prove you know more than me by correcting me? I’ll excluded you because you're some idiot 90 day wonder, how about that? So, it’s one of those, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, situations. No matter what you call them by, someone will brag to you they know more.

This whole controversy begs the question for a writer discussing Wyoming, especially one who doesn’t have claim to being from around here. Does he use the correct, technically right term, or does he use the wrong term that is more natural?

Then there’s the story I read a few years back in a creative writing class. It was a short piece about a deaf woman whose boyfriend was trying to propose to her while a waiter made a mess of things. Throughout the work, she speaks solely in sign language. At the end, when he finally manages it, she says, “Yes, I will!” (or whatever.)

Well, the story started with the sentence, “Susie was deaf, NOT mute,” and I instantaneously knew what had happened. Someone who received an earlier draft had exclaimed, “Wait, I thought she couldn’t speak!”

It is common for people who are physically capable of oral speech to still communicate predominantly through sign language. In fact, it is unusual for someone who is deaf to also be actually mute. And, from my understanding, deafness occurs more than medical (versus psychological) muteness. It is very likely then, when you see someone signing, they can “speak,” but prefer not to do so.

In this case, the writer was completely correct about what she wrote. The reader was the one misinformed.

Should she care?

In this case, confusing being deaf with being mute isn’t uncommon. Perhaps the writer didn’t make it clear the reason for Susie’s signing and the reader thought she was mute. The reader might have actually known that most deaf people could speak orally, but forgot. None of these cases would surprise me. I would assume that this is a mistake that many readers will make. So, should she go out of her way to explain that Susie can or can’t speak, or should she leave it alone, being that she is right?

Cloverfield made the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into a New York street. They proportioned exactly to the statue’s actual size… and the audience thought it was too small.

Do you make the reality people believe in, or do you distract them with the reality they are unaware of?

In Wizard of Oz, the original book described the ruby slippers as silver slippers. It was changed for the film because they wanted to optimize the use of techni-color.

If the book Wicked wanted to stay with the continuity of the storyline, should it be true to the original, or the version that everyone knows?

It’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes being “right” will make people lose their faith in you. Saying bison instead of buffalo will make them think you don’t know anything about the area, having your speechless person sudden gain the ability to talk will make them think you can’t track. Having a Statue of Liberty “way too small” will force them to stop being afraid of the monster and wonder what graphics artist you hired.

And while I know many people who would argue that that’s acceptable, I personally believe that being right isn’t always the most important thing. Sometimes it’s better to be wrong if it benefits the story. More importantly, there will be times were you’re going to be wrong no matter what (like the use of the oxford comma), and you have to figure out what the best decision is when you’re going to get crap no matter what.

When readers are wrong it becomes more about what you want the story to do. How much effort do you need to put in explaining it to them? What is the best way to convince them you know what you’re talking about? What would best fit the setting or character? What should the readers be paying attention to? What are the ramifications of perpetuating their misconceptions? And mainly, how many of your readers have to think this way before you should start addressing it?

Despite being godly, I don’t have the answer. It’s just an important question. When is being right not the best thing for your story?