Friday, December 20, 2013

Little Mistakes Can Kill a Story

This post first ran on Thursday, April 28, 2011

Okay, maybe I’m too picky when I read. My husband keeps telling me to quit reading like an editor and just read to enjoy the book. And sometimes that works. Sometimes I do get so caught up in the story that I overlook little mistakes that would otherwise jerk me out of the story.

But when I first start a book and haven’t yet connected to the character or the plot, those little mistakes keep prickling me like the thorns on my blackberry bushes.

For instance, we really have to stop and think about the words we are using and what they mean or convey, especially the misuse of reflexive pronouns. “I smiled in spite of myself.”  What exactly does that mean? Perhaps it would be better to write, “I smiled, despite my glum mood.”

Inappropriate sensory descriptions can also be a problem. “My own voice sounded dank…” Dank is a smell. It can’t be heard.  “Soft-smelling hair.” Soft is a touch, not an odor.

A common dialogue attributive is also problematic. Authors often have a character mutter to himself, which to me implies that it is not something the other people in the scene heard, even though the muttered dialogue is written out in full. But if the character simply mutters, leaving off the “to himself”, it is more believable that the other people could hear it. That is most important when the narrative is in first person and the reader has to know that the central character heard what the other character muttered. 

I know these are silly little details, and we all see them over and over in published works, but I don’t think that is a good enough reason not to take a little extra care with what we write. Well, actually rewrite. Because it is in the editing and rewriting that we find these little mistakes and fix them.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten nice reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly. One Small Victory, is a top seller in the mystery bestseller list at the Amazon Kindle store.  Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. She will stop playing with her horse and work, honest.

25 comments:

  1. This is a great post, Maryann. I have abandoned a number of well-known writers whose editors apparently were out to lunch because these kinds of "little mistakes" ruined the stories for me — and were a distinct departure from the authors' earlier works that I had read. This is a very important reminder for all of us!

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  2. I agree that sometimes these missed expressions can jar me out of a story, but some of the more memorable phrases were a result of a creative use of language. For example, the first line of Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
    We can still let the beauty of the language shine through without getting too rigid.

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  3. You're tough, Maryann ... you remind me of the old school editors who used to ravage my stuff. I would proudly turn in my Hemingway-like prose and it would come back with so much red on it that I thought the editor had cut himself shaving and used my work for a blotter. But, as hard as it was on the ego, that's how I learned ... i needed plenty of that kind of discipline!

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  4. I agree completely with this posting. These kinds of error just keep poking at me when I read and it makes me nuts. I recently read an opening chapter where you weren't supposed to know who the character was--she was referred to as her, she, and the woman. She was breaking into a building. Suddenly it said "Susie's strong arms..." then went back to her, the woman, etc. Did someone named Susie suddenly rush in to help "the woman?" I had to put the book down it bugged me so much.

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  5. I don't think those issues are silly. I honestly haven't thought very hard about them. My characters mutter a great deal.

    I will say the kinds of details that bother you don't necessarily bother me, but factual errors make me crazy. I hate it when details of medical or psychological conditions are incorrect, showing that the author did little to no research. The same sentiments stands regarding marksmanship and horses, both common elements in many genres of fiction.

    Blatant spelling or grammar errors also make me nuts, but I usually only see that in self-published books.

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  6. Bailish, I agree with your comment, and your example is not a misuse of a descriptive phrase.

    Christopher, I do try to be kind while still being tough. LOL. It was impressed upon me years ago that taking the time to get the details right pays off in the long run. So often I read books that were obviously hastily written and hastily edited, so little mistakes slip through. Many readers don't notice them as much as we who have been editing for some time.

    Thanks all for stopping by and adding to the discussion.

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  7. I agree, Maryann, that sloppy writing can pull the reader form the story. I would agree with Bailish, though: sometimes unusual sense pairings actually help to paint a more imaginative picture.

    Two examples from the bestseller The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak:

    Frau Diller had a "refrigerated voice, and even breath that smelled like "heil Hitler."

    ~and~

    "...the road contained several houses with lacerated windows and bruised walls."

    I love that sort of thing!

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  8. As one new to the writing craft, I appreciate blog posts like this hone my craft to where it needs to go. Thank you for your insight. (There's so much to remember about writing when I'm writing.....)

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  9. Being an editor can certainly spoil the enjoyment of reading for pleasure! I always have the urge to get my red pen out!

    On the other hand, I sometimes like using senses to describe other senses. If it's not too outrageous, it can really get the "picture" across. I used the phrase "a cacophony of wildflowers" in one of my books. Does that do the trick or does it jar you too much?

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  11. Great post. :)

    Quote: "“I smiled in spite of myself.”" - This can be seen quite often.

    However, it's not only the writer's fault, it's the editor's too, either for not noticing or for leaving them like that.

    Thank you for the interesting post

    (Sorry for posting twice, my browser froze I deleted the previous one)

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  12. You are absolutely right. Just a tiny change to wording can have a huge impact on a sentence, and further, an entire story.

    While it's hard to get out of editor reading mode, it can often be a good thing. Work to achieve the best result, in spite of yourself. (pun intended)

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  13. The canned expression that's been driving me nuts lately is "back in the day". Back in WHAT day? Ack!

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  14. You're so right, Maryann. Of course, different readers have different thresholds of tolerance. Some things that distract me are inappropriate dialog tags, like "I hate you," he snarled; he shrugged his shoulders (what else would he shrug?); he nodded his head (what else would he nod?)

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  15. Heidi, your example of a cacophony of flowers works because the definition of cacophony is roughly "a wild assortment" That is most often used with sound, but works with a wild display of color. My point about the odd pairing is that I don't think it works well when the meaning of the word used is so obviously contrary to its meaning. Katherine's examples don't jar me either because a "refrigerated" voice is just a unique way of saying a voice cold as ice. That is a comparison that works because it is describing a tone of voice.

    This has been a good discussion. Thanks to all who have stopped in to share thoughts and ideas.

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  16. I'm not an editor and still carry a red pen in my head, most recently using it against winning entries of writing contests. I, also, like the odd metaphor, including the "dank voice" which is what a vampire might have.

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  17. I make descriptions several revision layers: descriptions of places, people, things. I highlight each type of description in a specific color of font and go back and read them consecutively: all the reds, then all the greens, etc. It is interesting what you pick up on when see in that light. You find repetitions, mistakes like red versus brown hair, etc. Revising and editing are hard work but are well-worth it if you want to keep readers coming back for more.

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    1. What a good suggestion, Diana. It is so important to make sure we have continuity in the story.

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  18. Maryann, I agree with every word as I again review this article. An accumulation of "little things" adds up to major mistakes in any book. Thanks for reposting this reminder to take extra care when we write and when we self-edit. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I'm glad you found the article helpful the second time around.

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  19. I'm not ready for little things yet - I have so many huge holes in the current story, I could fall into one and you'd never find me again.Prayers welcome. ;)

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    1. I'll send a search and rescue dog for you, Dani. LOL

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    2. Thanks - hope we all find our way back to the light of day. Mercy!

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  20. Thanks for such a nice post. I think i should take English classes from you.

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    1. Glad you found this post helpful. I think you can learn a lot about English by visiting the blog often, Srishti.

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