Monday, July 20, 2009

Hiccups, Speed Bumps, Detours, and Roadblocks.

What I'm reading: The Desert Hedge Murders, by Patricia Stoltey

Somehow, there seems to be a lot of synchronicity in the blogosphere. Recently, there have been posts showing up at various sites discussing how closely an author needs to adhere to the facts.

Of course, we all want our books typo free, and accurate in terms of mechanics. When I see errors in books, I have learned enough about the process not to assume the author is solely to blame. There are copy editors who should be catching things, and sometimes, changes are made that the author isn't aware of. Some 'helpful' editor might change a foreign phrase, thinking it was wrong, when in reality, in context, it was correct.

Or, the wrong version of the manuscript goes to print. I can speak from experience there. My galley corrections somehow never made it into print in one of my books, and I'm not sure when they'll get the correct version out. That's the flip side – they're a small press, and their focus is digital books, so they can make corrections without having to sell out a 100,000 book print run.

Authors do not make good proofreaders of their own work. The eye sees what it expects, and the author has probably read the work dozens, if not scores, of times. In When Danger Calls, the head of the company, Blackthorne, Inc., is Horace Blackthorne. Yet until I saw the printed ARC, he was Horace Blackstone the first time he was introduced. I'd missed it on every read, and both my editors had missed it as well.

I was reading a book recently where a character saw the "break" lights on the cars. And someone was waiting with "baited" breath. Or the book where a character put "peddle to the metal."

How much does it take to throw the reader out of the book so far that they don't come back?

Keep Reading...

That probably depends on how good a storyteller the author is, and how compelling the characters are.

Sometimes there are minor hiccups. If a character makes a choice, and you've got a different solution, maybe that will make you stop reading for a moment and think about it. I was reading a scene where the characters had been interrupted once too often by the telephone in the bedroom, so they took it out. Perhaps the author was trying to find a reason for his character to have to leave the bedroom, and this was his solution. In my household, we simply turn the ringer off the bedroom phone. It seems a simply way to handle the rude awakenings. Thus, when I read the 'no more phone in the bedroom' scenario, I stop for a moment to think about my solution. Does it spoil the book? Of course not. But any time you slow the read, you're giving the reader an excuse to put the book down.

Sometimes an error tells the reader the author is lazy. If you're using a real drug, take a minute to research what it looks like. People who are familiar with the medication will know if you say it's yellow when it's blue.

Why does a flight from Hawaii land at the International terminal at LAX? Last I heard, Hawaii was part of the US.

Thumbing the safety off a Glock? That's the most common error made by writers dealing with firearms. I can skip over that with little more than a snicker. I don't know much about handguns, but I do know a Glock doesn't have that kind of safety.

I also know that it's "Canada goose" not "Canadian goose," even if "Canadian" sounds better. And that those big goldfish are "koi" not "coy" (although maybe they're coy koi.)
A cell phone that has a different ring tone every time it rings? I know you can assign a ringtone for various callers, but then you'll know who they are. If the author does that, then do it all the way. Don't have the person wonder who's calling. (Or are there now "random rings" available on cell phones?)

In writing my books, which deal with aspects of law enforcement, I do my best to get it right. Knowing what you don't know is often the hardest part. Thinking you do know something and not checking the facts (like assuming all semi-automatics have a safety you can thumb off) can get you in trouble.

But what about the death of a prominent politician in a car accident that's declared due to his being drunk because the cops smelled alcohol. Excuse me? That's a real stopper for me. No autopsy? No blood analysis? Where are the media?

Lee Lofland's book, "Police Procedures & Investigation"* has a great chapter called, "C.S. … I Don't Think So" which reminds readers that television is a medium of entertainment, not reality. Yet I had an editor once tell me that if I was going to write about police work, I should write what the readers believed to be true, not the way it really was. Since they watch television and read fiction for entertainment, they expect both to agree.

I don't fully agree. I had the pleasure of sharing a ride with Detective Mark (Homicide) Hussey to the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America meeting on Saturday. (As an aside, he became a grandfather for the second time that morning.) Not only did he answer my multitude of questions about police procedure, he was kind enough to read my short story for police accuracy. I feel I owe that to my readers, and if it doesn't match what they see on television, I try to find a way to explain it on the page, without stopping the action.

Harlan Coben said, "It's fiction. I get to make stuff up." But the choice of what stuff to make up might be the difference between endearing or alienating a reader. What sorts of tolerance do you have? What bothers you enough to spoil a read?

*And don't forget, I have a copy of this excellent reference book to give away in my July contest. Be sure to enter. Details on my website.

Tomorrow, my guest is author Bess McBride. She'll be talking about family. And graveyards.


author said...

I am so glad you wrote this article! Many times, as a reader, I'll be enjoy a nice book and get thrown because of the mistakes and inaccuracies of the story.

I do know that it takes a lot of them to keep me from not finishing a book.

Authors (and those who want to become one) should be aware that if they are going to write something, accuracy is more important than a book full of mistakes.

Just something to think about.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, author. I guess I figure if I can take the time and effort to be accurate, others should as well. Sometimes one needs to suspend a bit too much disbelief when reading, and I don't want to be the cause of that. Also, if you spot an obvious error, that can put the rest of what the author says in doubt.

Allison Brennan said...

Great article Terry, and I agree with you. I know, from experience, that some mistakes get "inserted" either by accident or well-meaning production people. Sometimes I miss things, but after writing, revising, editing, and reviewing copyedits, when I get the page proofs I might not "see" the mistake (and I read my page proofs out loud when I have time.)

As far as accuracy in facts, I try to be accurate, recognizing that it IS fiction and I can push the envelop on things like how long it takes to get a DNA test, whether or not the cops are actually in the autopsy room, how cases get prioritized or the manpower available (or not available.) As long as I can make it believable. But plot-critical facts need to be accurate or they really do pull me from the story. If the evidence or procedure is going to be used in any way to prove what happened or find the bad guy, I need it to be right on the money.

Re: tv, I had a copyeditor once who wrote "this isn't how they do it on television" and wanted me to rewrite a scene where my characters pulled a body from the river. Since I had actually just run the scenario by a pathologist at the morgue only weeks before, I was fairly confident that at least in my county, this is how they do it. STET is your friend :)

Terry Odell said...

Hi, Allison. Thanks for stopping by. Sure wish I could have been in DC with everyone.

And even when you're right, you can be wrong, because people will assume things are done the same way everywhere. I asked my cop consultant if cops were allowed in the autopsy room, and he said, "Of course. I've been there dozens of times." But in other places, the cop might have to watch via a tv monitor.

I try to set my stories in made up places these days -- it's easier to get around some reader misconceptions.

Anonymous said...

It's a fine line; isn't it?

If our readers wanted 100% realism, they'd read the paper. And yet as you so accurately point out--mistakes can ruin the pie.

I was watching a so-so movie last night, and a character turns to an old Russian expatriot and says "Life has to matter. It has to have a point." The expat says, "No, that's fiction that has a point."

Wow. I chewed on that though. Fiction SHOULD have a point--and so we draw from this bucket of STUFF (hopefully get it right--as you point out), and come up with a story AND a point.

If we do all that, we might even have a book! : )

Thanks, Terry.

Terry Odell said...

I agree, Drue. I was getting information from a contact about an airplane emergency. He sent me the information I needed. To be sure I had it right, I asked him to read the scene I'd written. He commented that it was sure a lot more interesting the way I'd written it -- even though he'd dealt with the actual emergency.

Celia Yeary said...

Terry--This is a pet peeve--I don't tolerate the errors very well. I've seen: the heroine's name changed in the middle of the book, then back; apostrophes in contractions turned the wrong way; "cousins" used when it should have been "brothers," locating Fort Worth south of San Antonio, and it's for its. Good topic--Celia

Skhye said...

Since editors are as human as authors, we have to give them all a break. :) Authors should be worried about losing their authenticity in a work. If you know something the editor doesn't know, you should defend said something. I had an editor ask me if a holiday I described was celebrated the way I described it in Scotland. I reassured her that I had offended and elderly Scot who thought I should be born knowing what happened the way it did throughout the world. Apparently, I was stygmatized as a dumb American. I told him to be thankful I double-checked and asked him. LOL It was worth all of his grumblings!

Terry Odell said...

Celia, Skhye -

There's sloppy editing and there's lack of knowledge. Mistakes happen.

I recall one editor saying he passed off any Regency manuscripts to an editor who actually knew the facts of the period. While editors can't know everything about everything, they ought to recognize their shortcomings and at least question facts. The author's supposed to get it right -- but sometimes knowing what you don't know is harder than finding the answers when you know you have to do the research.

Kathy Otten said...

I write historicals and I agree and author should check and double check all facts, but sometimes I worry I've missed something and my readers will hate my work.

Terry Odell said...

I know so little about history, I'm the perfect reader. But I'd never begin to attempt to write one.

Elena said...

In my years of writing free-lance nonfiction I wrote a piece that edged into the world of organized crime. I deliberately left that aspect very vague out of personal safety considerations.

The magazine received a most irate letter condemning my lack of accuracy and demanding a correction. He even included details of what did happen. So angry was he that he included his return address - the police, who had been looking for him for quite a while, happily picked him up.

There may be a moral in here somewhere.

Susan said...

Great article and a sore subject for many authors. In my 2nd book, I had a few bloopers (a red truck becomes a red car and goes back to being a red truck in one chapter). I felt terrible. (It's no excuse, but the publisher required a drastic rewrite at the last minute and that's when these type of errors creep in.)

These mistakes, along with spelling or grammatical errors, are the worst. However, deviations such as as street taking a left rather than right in a town, another spelling for a mountain, changing the year for a church's start, the location of some archives, etc, are inconsequential for me and may help shape the plot.

I'm so happy when readers take the time to let me know about these problems and prompt us to improve future manuscripts.

So far, no readers have let me know about similar problems with the third book!

Terry Odell said...

Susan - I agree there are two categories of errors -- the typo type, and the wrong fact type. However, both can pull the reader out of the story, and although authors understand they don't have the last say about what appears on the page, readers might not.

And the reader rarely thinks to blame the editorial process. Our names are on the cover, and we take the fall for everything.

Nightingale said...

Errors throw me out of a book, particularly historical errors, but then I have a short attentions span!

Kelley said...

Great post. I think things like typos and formatting errors shouldn't be blamed on the author, but things like what you talked about like safety switches on a particular gun should be the author's responsibility. I read and write historical books so something like 'she pulled the zipper on her dress' would cause me to stop reading.

Mary Ricksen said...

I think the more authentic you are the better the story, both for reading ease and quality of the read.
I am surprised at how many errors get through even with the big guys.

mb in Port Angeles said...

Not exactly my story to tell, but at LCC when it was in Albuquerque, I heard Tony Hillerman tell about a copy editor who changed "an adobe" meaning an adobe building, to "an abode". Mr Hillerman had a little trouble getting it to be left as he wrote it. Naturally the southwestern audience got a good laugh from the story.

Shelley Munro said...

For me as a reader, it depends on what the error is. Sometimes I'm more forgiving than I would be with a different book or a different author. Sometimes if the writer has done a good job with the motivation an error won't seem as bad. Typos and other editing errors do happen at times.

As a writer I try to be accurate to the best of my ability, but I'm sure there are times when I don't get it right or a reader might think I've done something wrong when it's really not. I think a lot of readers (me included) look at things we see on TV and treat them as gospel when they're really just a producers way of adding excitement or making the plot work.

Lou Allin said...

One thing I've learned in publishing eight books since 2000 is that it's very very tough to get a perfect book. This is especially true for a small press where only one or at best two people read the copy. So having as many "eyes" pass over it at the final stage is great. It's not like a friend is an editor at this point...just there to catch bugs. And once the final final final copy arrives, read it as if for the first time. You can't assume the errors you flagged were fixed. That's the case where someone changed my Valium to velum. OOoooooops.
One thing that older (myself included) authors often do is give their characters references far older than they are. In the book I've been reading, a woman in her late thirties has strong recollections of the song "Two Little Girls in Blue." That's Civil War stuff. Maybe great granny sang it to her......

Terry Odell said...

Great points, all.
Nothing is perfect, and the errors that bother one reader won't bug another one at all.

And, as someone who firmly believes that all sorts of gremlins snead into the manuscript every time you turn off the computer, the more eyes the better.
Hubby read the ARC for When Danger Calls. He's a scientist and used to checking for details.

P.A.Brown said...

I hate it when someone gets something wrong that is so easy to check out. I read a book once that was set at the Kentucky Derby. The writer had one of the horses as the 'perennial entry' that came back every year in hopes of winning. Hello, the Kentucky Derby is for 3 year old, and only 3 year olds. How hard would that have been to find out? Especially in this day and age of the Internet when facts and figures are there for anyone who has five seconds.

I especially hate when the police procedure is wrong, maybe because I strive so hard to make mine right. Maybe that's also why I don't read cozies very much.

But I like accuracy, and I want to read it. I'll let small goofs slide, especially the ones that are likely not the author's fault. But major ones will, at the very least, make me put that author on my 'don't bother with this one again' list.

Terry Odell said...

Right, PA -- and if you haven't entered the contest for Lee Lofland's book (or don't already have it), it's a great reference for getting cop stuff right.

P.A.Brown said...

I already have his book and I love it. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has police in their books.

I also have a couple of Dr. Lyle's forensic books and a few police procedural texts used in Academy courses. I am nothing, if not thorough (or anal, some might say)

Ray said...

I have a problem with an author using a real location and create a world that cannot possibly exist in the same quantum universe. A book I read in a location I have visited hundreds of times and where I vacationed last summer had a non existent casino and strip club, a non existent island off shore and hotels much larger than any in the area.

I know this was fiction, but I would have liked the book better had the author used a fictional town. Places Like Chicago or LA can have fictitious locations, but it pushes the envelope to do so when the author admits in the novel that the town in question only has 3000 year round residents.

For someone who doesn't live near the town in question there would not be a problem. For me it was.

The characters were the only reason I finished the book. They were believable.

Still I love the author's work and have read several of her books and will again as long as I am not too close to the location.


Terry Odell said...

Ray -- a lot of times the publisher won't allow "real" venues in their books for fear of litigation. I've set books in real places, but I've tended to create hotels, or invent restaurants, or be a little vague as to the precise location of a scene, especially if something bad's going to happen.

It might not be the author's fault at all. Some publishers don't want you to have your character drink a Coke without written permission from the Coca Cola company.

Ray said...

I only mentioned my problem with real places because I couldn't wrap my mind around the changes. The late Wendy Haley wrote books about Hampton Roads Virginia. She place one in a book store with a fictional name, but when going to a book signing for Suzanne Brockmann the indy book store was exactly like the one in the novel. She told about crime after dark on the Virginia Beach Ocean Front. That really happens. She told of arson in one of the shipyards in Portsmouth or South Norfolk. She wasn't specific, but there are quite a few. She used real street names if they were long enough not to exactly pinpoint a location. I loved that about her. She made me always want to go out and find the locations that brought her storys to life.

In one story she even told of crime that began on leaving a local teen dance club. I felt I knew which one it was.

The story the author wrote about the Outer Banks of North Carolina just confused me. I am sure that it was just a case of picking a real location in to small an area to render to fictionalizing it.


Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Terry, As you know from your current read, I have thrown facts out the window and written a tale for the sheer fun of it. I think the right thing to do in that case is admit it up front to the reader, hoping he will then relax and go with the story and characters.

What bothers me is when a writer puts his tale before us as a serious police procedural, but doesn't do his homework.

The editing issue is a whole different ballgame. The worst part is to read our novels dozens of times, and still find mistakes in the printed version, even after editors and copy editors have done their work. It's so frustrating, but it happens a lot.

Terry Odell said...

Pat, yes, a definite disclaimer from the get-go gives the reader the choice to accept the terms of the book. If they're looking for a police procedural, they know to go elsewhere, or at least not to expect one in that particular book.

Terry Odell said...

Ray, one thing I love about Michael Connelly and Robert Crais is their realistic portrayal of Los Angeles, where I grew up. But if you're going to murder a character, it's probably better not to have it happen at a well-known, real establishment.

Anita Birt said...

Excellent post. I wince when I find a spelling error in book or newspaper. I swear a lot of young editors never had a grammar or spelling lesson at school or college. Nor did they learn how to write a coherent sentence. Ah well, I am an old dame who was drilled and drilled on grammar and spelling.

I'm not above making errors though! I ain't perfect.

Ray said...

I think one of the biggest culprits is spell check. It can lead to serious usage errors. It won't weed out correctly spelled wrongly used words. grammar check isn't perfect either. It counts vernacular dialog and idiomatic expressions as errors. When I use grammar check I use suggestions with great caution.


Terry Odell said...

Ray, someday I'll tell the story of why I turned off grammar check.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Terry,
I like medically related details to be accurate. Most doctors do not take the hero's significant other to dinner to discuss his case, nor do speech or occupational therapist's show up to a head trauma patient's room with a preschooler shape puzzle (from a movie, a long time ago).

I've grown more tolerant of typos b/c I, too, better understand how they can slip by. What makes me most crazy is books that aren't well-written or ridiculously slow-paced making the NYT best-seller list.

As tedious as it is, an author needs to research whatever topic, line of work, etc, s/he plans to include in her/his work. In today's internet-driven world, there is no excuse for not being able to verify what one writes. Case in point: I wrote an officer-in-training who did his fieldwork during his academy run (not the norm). I did, however, find at least one place in the US that combines the two, so I can justify having written my story the way I did. That's just me and this is simply MHO.

Thanks for posting and for reading!
Joanna Aislinn
The Wild Rose Press; Jan 15, 2010

Terry Odell said...

Joanna - Yes, I think we're all more sensitive to fields we're familiar with, or things we've experienced. For example, I was reading a book where the character counted out fifteen almonds for his afternoon snack, because he was on the South Beach diet. The reader familiar with that goes, "Right!" But if the author had said, a handful of almonds, or ten, or seventeen, that same reader would wonder why the author mentioned a specific diet if he wasn't going to do his homework.

Those knowing nothing of the 'rules' of that diet would probably gloss right over it.

Sheila Deeth said...

I like to say I have an extra reason to be bad at editing my own work, in that I rarely notice mistakes in what I'm reading, and when I do, I rarely take note. I'm a pretty heavy sleeper, so maybe I'm a heavy daydreamer too, and I daydream in books.

Terry Odell said...

Sheila - I've always said I could spot a typo upside down on a page on a desk across the room, but I can't see them in my own writing.

Amy said...

Excellent note on how Authors do not make good proofreaders. I also believe friends and families do not as well.
Objective feedback is, perhaps, the most important gift to a writer. Loyalty, however, an attribute that you would value in a bridesmaid, wife, father or rugby teammate does not align with those of an objective responder/proof-reader. The tie monologue from AMC’s Rubicon illustrates why trusting loved ones to provide objective feedback is problematic.

When you left the house this morning wearing that tie, perhaps your wife stopped you in the doorway, perhaps she told you how good you look in that tie, how handsome it was. Now, while I’m sure you love your wife, might I suggest, you have many reasons to distrust her judgment about that tie. Maybe she has a fond memory of another time you wore it, a sentimental attachment. Or perhaps she knows your tie collection and she’s simply glad you didn’t choose one of the ties she dislikes. Perhaps she just sensed you were feeling a little fragile. She felt like bucking you up a bit.