Do you see the mistake I made in writing this conversation?
(Marjorie) “Here. I pulled a few photographs out to show you. ‘Course, they’re all black and white.” She set a small stack of photographs in front of TJ [Sweeney]. “That’s Frank.”
TJ stared at a handsome man… a young Marjorie on his arm. She had the same smile, but her hair was a luxurious black and hung loosely in curls. TJ could see the outline of those funky 1940’s shoulder pads under her white blouse, which topped a navy blue skirt.
Every author dreads making mistakes, especially when readers catch their errors and point them out.
I just finished writing a novella that will be up on Amazon as an e-book on April 10th. It’s called The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney. A novella is much shorter than a novel and longer than a short story. This means a writer has fewer pages and words where she might make a mistake, or perhaps it means her mistakes are more glaring since the plot is much shorter. Either way, it means this writer has been working hard not to find herself in “mistake trouble.”
Haven’t you read books, found errors, and wondered how in the world that mistake wasn’t caught? Often it’s a typo. Happens all the time. In this post, however, I’m not writing about typos or grammar or those pesky commas that drive me wild. I see those errors even in books by major New York publishers these days.
When I mention mistakes, I’m thinking about content errors. Readers probably say, “How could she ever make such a stupid mistake?” Believe me, it’s easy. After you read your own words over and over and over, you miss all kinds of logical mistakes because you are too familiar with the writing. For example, a character walks into a room, starts talking to someone in the center of the room, and the next thing you know she is sitting with four people and has a cocktail in her hand. How did that happen?
To catch those errors, I employ, for the rock-bottom price of “thank you,” beta readers who read my manuscript in the early stages. After they catch errors, my final copy goes to my editor who also finds content changes. If I stay away from my manuscript for a brief period of time, even I can see some errors that need fixing.
Readers are very astute when it comes to catching mistakes. One of my friends recently told me he was reading a book that mentioned St. Jude’s Hospital. “First,” he said, “‘St. Jude’s’ does not have an ‘s’ on the end, and second, it is usually called St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.” Obviously, that writer needed more knowledgeable beta readers, or at least better research.
While it’s fresh in my mind, I can confess I made a number of mistakes in my novella, some caught by my beta readers, others caught by me. Here are some examples.
I wrote a conversation that mentioned that same-sex marriage was now legal all over the country. (The characters were discussing how movements grow when it comes to civil rights.) After reading this conversation for the fifteenth or twentieth time, I suddenly realized that my novella’s year was 2011. Same-sex marriage was not legal in every state. So I had to backtrack, check out the legal situation in the fall of 2011, and change the conversation.
One of my beta readers noted that a key date in my plot was way too late in the year for people to be dancing outside in the 1940’s. He was absolutely right. They wouldn’t be out there in November in the Midwest. In my zeal to make the date match a couple’s anniversary—ala Downton Abbey for wrapping it all up in a bow—I had somehow overlooked the Midwest weather. Major change in dates and weather for the entire plot of the novella. This is why I employ first readers and pay them fabulous amounts of money.
Then there is the problem that every writer dreads: timelines. This pesky problem is especially difficult for me because I often write about different periods of time in the same novel or novella. Three May Keep a Secret took place in 2011, but a major plot point occurred much earlier in the twentieth century. How old was each character when? The Locket essentially describes a crime discovered in 2011, but the clues and the crime itself happened in the 1940’s. That was really a huge problem because a few people who were in their early twenties in the 1940’s were still alive (you do the math), but dates and ages became a central issue in plotting the 2011 story. Finally, Marry in Haste, coming out in November, has a double plot: one takes place in 1893 and the other in 2012. Not only did I need double timelines for the plots, but I also had to keep track of several generations of characters because the plots had some cross-over.
Finally, errors creep in to my novella because of a change in the main character and viewpoint.
When I’m writing the Endurance mysteries and my main character is Grace Kimball, I am in the mind frame of a person who is about my age and has similar experiences to mine. But my novella is about my detective, TJ Sweeney, and she is as different from me as a bear is to a fish. Her entire life has not been much like mine, except she lives in a small town. Since she’s 39 in 2011, she was born in 1972, the same age as my oldest child. She missed the twenty-six years that shaped my life before 1972. This makes it easier for me to make errors in her memory and her cultural history. Instead of growing up listening to the early rock and roll era, she was a teenager listening to Prince, Motley Crue, and NWA. Lots of research for me.
So, please, gentle readers, be kind to us age-challenged writers. We aren’t perfect, but we work hard to weed out those navy blue skirts from black and white photos.