A Foolish Consistency?

rowhousesThat’s Emerson, by the way.

I read a post recently about keeping a “series bible” so you’d always get the minutiae right as you add more books to the series.

I take a different perspective. I’ll meander toward it.

First, an excerpt from my very first book The Commonsense Entrepreneur. It’s about musicians, but in most ways it applies to authors as well:

As far as I’ve been able to tell in my 45 years of listening (I’m not counting the years when I couldn’t speak yet) I’ve come to the conclusion that the average listener couldn’t care less about quality recording, or, in fact, about quality performance. They care about snappy tunes that touch them emotionally, which they can hum later and sing along with after a few listens.

It’s a classic mistake musicians make: garage bands playing clubs will invariably include long blazing guitar solos, at least one drum solo, some fancy bass work—hey, let’s show off our musicianship.

Nobody cares.

Nobody but other musicians, and they’re 1) a smaller demographic than ‘everyone’ and 2) usually in the lower ranges of your economic target (what’s the difference between a guitar player and a medium pizza? The medium pizza can feed a family of four.)

So, if you’re obsessing about quality on your recordings, unless you’re recording exclusively for other musicians, you’re wasting your time. No, I’m not saying you shouldn’t care. Just applying some Voltaire something-or-other about good enough versus perfect.

Learn from a Master

Rex Stout’s creation Nero Wolfe is one of the great personalities in fiction. He and Archie Goodwin are an unstoppable team. They’re also the victims of endless inconsistency.

(Though much of this is my own observation, I culled details from the Wikipedia article on Nero Wolfe.)

  1. Wolfe’s New York brownstone is at 10 different addresses, all of them impossible.
  2. Though the books were published over a span of 40 years, no character ages despite the world changing around them.
  3. Details about secondary characters change. Saul Panzer’s marital status. Orrie Cather’s full first name (Orvald? Orville? Orrin? Stout answers only “Probably.”)

Surely there was a good reason that a brilliant author, a man in his second career (the first was banking, from which he retired after creating a system still used by most of the world’s banks) would fail the consistency test.

Yeah, there is. Laziness. That, and having a fictitious character to blame. Stout’s primary biographer, John McAleer writes in Royal Decree: Conversations with Rex Stout that Stout blames “laziness . . . Of course all discrepancies in the Nero Wolfe stories are Archie Goodwin’s fault.”

What’s an Author to Do About Fussy Readers?

How about ignoring them?

This is where the musical excerpt above comes in.

I don’t perform for other musicians. I specifically avoid it, in fact, because although I’m a good songwriter, I’m a mediocre musician on my best day.

Should there happen to be a musician in my audience, and should they happen to be disappointed, and should they [shudder] happen to mention their disappointment, guess what I do about it?

Yeah, nothing.

They’re not my audience.

Readers who will note inconsistencies in Phil Brennan’s directions to the library or Web Martin’s thoughts on Irish history or my next main character’s attitude about abstract art — they’re welcome to take all the notes they want, but those details are not the point.

A good storyteller is not constrained by facts. One of my favorite movie quotes: Geoff Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale announcing to Will “I’m a writer; I give the truth scope!”

Consistency of character? Probably good in your series’ main character, though we’re inconsistent creatures. Consistency of writing style? Absolutely. If the first book is noir and the second is dancing cats, be prepared for hate mail from fans.

But spending time ensuring the consistency of details which have no bearing on a reader’s vicarious experience of your story?


4 thoughts on “A Foolish Consistency?

  1. Do you think the same applies to accuracy on a topic you’re writing about? For instance, I have a medical background and worked 10 yrs in the ICU and ER. If I see a TV show or movie depicting either of these areas in a scene, I will immediately pick up on the inconsistencies. The movie John Q is a prime example of a whole lotta medical B.S. wrapped up in a story I abandoned within the first 10 minutes because it was so inaccurate. The presence of Denzel couldn’t hold my attention with the blatant medical fallacies displayed.
    Sure, that movie’s target audience likely wasn’t medical professionals, but where do you draw the line to make your story as accurate as possible vs not getting too deep in the weeds on the details?

  2. When watching any movie I draw the line when it stops being entertaining. John Q is a story not a medical documentary. Accuracy may improve it but inconsistency is definitely in the eye of the beholder. I didn’t see John Q because the idea of it did not appeal to me. That’s where I drew the line. I may have enjoyed or thought it was a stinker had I seen it but, not being a medical professional, I doubt the inconsistency you describe would have bothered me.

    Since I write non-fiction, and mostly how-to, accuracy and consistency is important to me. However, there are traditional woodworkers who frown on the methods I use and teach and probably view them as inconsistent. They would draw the line early on in one of my books. I see Joel’s point because I don’t write for those woodworkers but for those who wish to build quality projects as simply and efficiently as possible.

  3. A lot of it depends on the level of reality in the rest of your story. Obviously, in fantasy/scifi you can build in all kinds of leeway. In a realistic thriller, you’d best get it feasible, if not exactly right.

    For me, it’s not about how deep you go, but whether what you put in is right.

    I am a foaming at the mouth rabid fan of Blue Bloods. I do not care one whit if the police details are correct; what gets me yelling at Danny or Jamie is when someone leaves a potential victim alone “to go check on something” or leaves without their gun “just this once.” Building in a dumb action just to create a story line is bad writing. (Unless you build it in well, with believable reasons, then I’ll suspend disbelief and swallow it.)

    It’s what I loved about Crichton: yeah, loads of science, but it always, for me, served the story. Okay, once in a while he loaded too much, but his science was so good that his footnotes in the book on global warming are, in and of themselves, an intelligent alternative take on the current understanding of the science behind it.

    I see no reason to inject bad science or wrong medical information (“we removed one of his livers, but he’ll survive just fine on the other two”) but if your purpose is to tell a story, use just enough detail to make the story feel real.

    That’s another article: how much detail makes a story feel real? Maybe that’s next week, eh?

  4. Bill, your level of experience in your work and in life give you a pretty clear head about who’s following you, and who should be ignored.

    That’s key: knowing your fans and what they expect.

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