Reading Lynne Patrick’s post The devil’s in the details earlier this week reminded me again how much she and I think alike. I am neither a writer nor an editor, merely a reader and a bookseller, but I am sometimes as troubled as she by the jolt one receives when an inconsistency interrupts the flow of a narrative. I had been thinking about the editing (or lack thereof) in the process of bringing books to market because while on vacation I thought I had found another example of carelessness in a book I was reading during my few quiet moments in an active visit to the UK. More about that book later.
As a bookseller, I am frequently asked to “look at” books by self-published authors with an eye to displaying them in my shop and recommending them to customers. This post is not about the issues and value of self-publishing, but in these cases I have come to expect inconsistencies and confusing exposition. I am actually surprised when the grammar and spelling is somewhat correct. It is when I find errors in works by bestselling authors produced by major publishing houses that I wonder if anyone other than the author read the book before it went to press.
Three examples are memorable enough to have stayed with me for several years. In a book by a British author of several series focused on small villages where there is an inordinate amount of crime, an older woman witnesses a murder. Her distress, compounded by the necessity of reliving it during police questioning, leaves her too flustered to drive home. Her son, who has arrived to assist her, drives her home and says they will get her car the following day. The next morning, she arises, dresses, and trots out to her car, off to begin her amateur sleuthing.
The first of a new series by an American author famous for two previous series, had a character named “George” who appeared somewhere around Page 70. As I read, he seemed awfully familiar; in fact, he seemed to be awfully like “Harry,” who had been involved since the beginning of the book. A lot of page flipping and rereading led to the realization that the character’s name had been changed with no warning. And no, these weren’t aristocrats or Russians with multiple names; just plain old Americans with one first and one last name. It appeared that the author had renamed his character, but forgot to go back to his earlier chapters. The book was written in the mid-1990’s, but even then word processors had global change capabilities.
The third instance is from a book by an author whose work is always on the bestseller list shortly after release, and who has grown in popularity with each book. Her series character is a medical examiner. The plotting and characterization are excellent, but the scene which remains most in my mind is one in which the protagonist is preparing to do an autopsy. She reflects with sadness on the youth and good looks of the murder victim as he lies naked on the table. But to work! She begins with scissors, cutting off his jeans and shirt.
I can understand how these errors in detail can slip in when an author is focused on the larger plot. I have even wondered if some came in during a revision process, when the earlier event (leaving the car at the murder scene) is forgotten when making the morning scene move at a faster pace. The “fresh eye” may be necessary not only after the author completes the work for submission, but again after the final edits are theoretically complete. The author of the book with the autopsy scene credits several friends with helping her edit the book; if the error slipped in later, perhaps the publisher needs to have someone unfamiliar with the work give it one last read. I understand that there are people assigned during filmmaking to be sure that clothing, hair styles, and other details are consistent from scene to scene; the publishing industry needs to define a similar role in the editing process.
None of these errors is catastrophic; they do not affect the events of the plot in any serious way. I do not find myself looking for more errors as I read on. But, for me at least, there appears to be a longer term effect. In preparing to write about these inconsistencies that have stayed in my memory, I decided to go back to my list of books I have read. I have been keeping this list for over twenty years, mostly to prevent the disaster of getting part way through a book, realizing I have read it before, and not having another one available. I was looking for the dates when I had read these books. What I found was even more interesting. In all three cases, these books were the last I had read by the author. This was not a conscious decision; I at no time felt that the error was so egregious that I would never read another book by that person. In fact, all three are writers whose work I like. But somewhere some credibility was lost, and when choosing from the multitude of unread mysteries on my shelves, I chose others. Subconsciously, I did not want to be annoyed again.
And now a warning, largely to myself. If something looks like an error, be sure it is. As I was reading a book by one of my favorite authors, saved up as a treat for vacation, I found a series of five sentences that I was sure I had already read. Did I put my bookmark in the wrong place? Had I forgotten what I read before I fell asleep last night? No, there were the same five sentences, seven pages earlier. They were great sentences, expressing a mood and a silent communication succinctly and clearly. Had the author forgotten he had already used them in another situation? In only seven pages? Did the editing process fail again? Was this to be my last book by this author, now relegated to the bottom of the pile by my subconscious? I read on. The same five sentences were in the concluding paragraphs of the book. Only then did I get the point the author was making. My mistake, not his. Thank goodness.