Last week, the proof for It’s Murder, My Son arrived and I immediately poured a glass of iced tea, put up my feet, and proceeded to read it from cover to cover.
A book reads differently when you’re not reading it on a laptop screen or a stack of papers with a red pen in hand. The words flow differently when you are holding it bound in a cover, sitting with your feet up, and a glass of cranberry iced tea at your elbow. When it comes to the proof, the author needs to put themselves in reader mode and try to pick up on what their readers will pick up.
When I did this with It’s Murder, My Son, I sucked in a deep breath that comes with the feeling of horror when I reached page 74. Holding my breath, I reread the section praying that I was not reading it the way the average reader would read it. It didn’t do any good. No matter how many times and ways I read it, it read the same.
Multi-millionaire playboy Mac Faraday has come across a witness for Niles Holt’s murder. He calls police officer David O’Callaghan to inform him that said witness had given a statement to the police at the time, but his statement, which contained pertinent information, seems to have gotten buried. Why?
On page 74, David O’Callaghan goes to the file room to retrieve the case file. On this page I state that he had read over the file so many times that he had it memorized. A few paragraphs later, for the first time, he is reading the witness’s statement.
The question hit me: If David had reviewed the case file so many times that he had it memorized, why didn’t he know anything about that witness statement? Why didn’t he know anything about the witness? The statement was right there in the file.
Luckily, this was the proof and it was an easy fix before going public. It’s Murder, My Son has been through two editors, which means two fresh pair of eyes have looked at it, but still no one noticed that David missed that witness statement after memorizing the case file.
That is why authors must go over every proof even if they feel like their eyes are going to bleed if they have to read “that thing” one more time.
I take comfort in knowing that it happens to the best of us.
Celia Hayes, author of To Truckee's Trail and The Adelsverein Trilogy, calls proofing “the ritual humiliation of authors”. She confesses, “There was an essential part of a word omitted in Chapter 4 of To Truckee's Trail which still aggravates the heck out of me. On pg 60, there is a description of wagon-train emigrants breaking camp, and mention of 'the privy-pits with the last shovel thrown upon their contents’ when it should have been ‘last shovel-full’. I am still embarrassed by it.”
Celia recalls the most potentially embarrassing typo; which she mercifully did catch in the ARC, and was able to correct in the released book; was in Adelsverein: The Gathering. In the dedication and thanks, she had misspelled the name of a person who had been enormously helpful and encouraging. If she had not caught this error, Celia says it would have been “embarrassment of the most heinous.”
Recalling one of his own bloopers, Dr. John Yeoman suggests, “We worry too much about published 'mistakes' that the reader will probably never spot but we never see those errors, too late to amend, that they joy in disclosing to us.”
Yeoman recalls, “My PhD thesis in creative writing referred throughout to one 'K J Rowling' as the author of the Harry Potter novels. This mistake appeared in several places, although I had proofread the thesis umpteen times. My examiners awarded me a doctorate magna cum laude, but neither referred to my howler. This rather suggested they had not read my thesis. The error only came to light when my wife flipped through the bound volume, about to be lodged in the campus library, and whooped with delight. No, I did not correct it.
Maybe it is because of those who do delight in pointing out our mistakes after a book’s release, even in a jovial manner, that authors feel particularly sensitive to any literary misstep. It’s been ingrained in our psyche as writers that our work must be perfect. Literary agents and publishers only accept work that is error free. One mistake and you’re out, especially if that mistake goes live in a published book.
Authors can assume that those who make it to the best seller lists don’t make any mistakes like having a detective find a report tucked into a case file that he has long memorized, or not knowing the name of a famous author. After all, isn’t it their perfection that separates them from the rest of us?
Mistakes happen, even to the best of us. So many in fact that one website is dedicated to listing them for our enjoyment…and emotional support:
According to website the Best Book Mistakes, the master of suspense, Stephen King had trouble deciding which of Eddie’s arms was broken in his book IT. It went back and forth between the left and the right.
In the start of Part 6, in King’s The Green Mile, the men let Percy out of the closet. They take the tape off his mouth and he starts to rub his lips, then lowers his hand to speak. The problem is that he's in a straight-jacket at this point.
In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, when Edward is telling Carlisle's history to Bella, he says that around 1660-1670 Carlisle found a coven of true vampires that lived hidden in the sewers of the city. According to Best Book Mistakes, the vampires couldn't have been hidden inside the sewers because there weren't any. The sewage system was only built around 1859.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, while being sorted into houses, Harry looks up at the Sorting Stool, and there are only three people left to be sorted. Professor McGonagall then calls out the names of four more kids.
So, boys and girls, the moral is we can take comfort in our imperfections. This is not to say that we can let down our guard and write with wreckless abandonment and a total disregard for facts, grammar, and continuity. But, if we do make a mistake, even if it goes public, we can shake our head, say, “Oops! I did it again,” and keep on writing.