Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Meant to do That

by Kathryn Miller Haines

You know what an actor’s nightmare is, right? It’s when it's opening night and you’re in a play that you’ve never seen a script for. And sometimes you're not wearing pants. I always imagined that a writer’s nightmare would be that a book of mine would go to press with mistakes. Not a missed comma here or there, but an obvious error I made and didn’t catch.

Well it happened to me. And I feel like a complete moron.

I’m not going to tell you what the error is in hopes that you’re a part of the reading population it won’t matter to. I would love to blame this on my editor. Or my copy editor. Or my critique group. Or my husband (when in doubt, he’s a marvelous scapegoat). But it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

How did it happen? I’m a fast writer and sometimes, rather than verifying a detail, I plug something in thinking I’ll go back and change it later so that I don’t interrupt my flow. In this instance, I used a placeholder and then forgot about it because…well….because there were a thousand other details in my mind that I needed to attend to. And I’m an idiot. As I read draft after draft what should’ve stuck out like a sore thumb, insidiously wedged its way into the text and became a legitimate part of the story.

Someone else caught the error, the last person I’d want to have pointing out my mistakes, but by that point the book was on its way to the printer and it was too late, and too expensive, to do anything about it.

My editor assures me this happens with every book. In fact, there’s even a website devoted to it, where I find myself in the illustrious company of Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Steven King. In truth it’s a small thing. A single detail. A poorly chosen word that would only rip certain people out of the story and temporarily at that. But I’m one of them and that sucks. This will always be The Book with the Mistake in It.

I’ve mourned the error the way you mourn a fresh scar you know won’t go away. I know it could be much worse. I could’ve been caught plagiarizing scholarly research on black-footed ferrets. I could’ve carefully created a murder scene that so closely mimicked a real life crime that the authorities realized that there was a very good chance I had actually murdered someone. I could’ve erroneously called my book a memoir. I could’ve accidentally inserted a block of text from personal correspondence that revealed my long-standing love of prostitutes and how for years I’ve been client number 9 at a well-known brothel. In the grand scheme of things this is tiny.

When I screw up on stage I try to make a bit out of it. Let the audience know I know I messed up and share -- rather than suffer-- the laughter. You’ll leave them wondering if you didn’t intend to do it all along. I made a decision to do something similar with this mistake. I've reclaimed it. It’s part of the story now and by golly I’m going to do something with it.

But you better believe I've gone over ever manuscript since with a fine toothed comb.

So hit me with your best mistake -- writing or otherwise. How'd you make lemonade of that lemon?


Wilfred Bereswill said...

This is a timely topic for me, since I went on a marathon this weekend of pouring over the proofs for my first book. I've read the manuscript and rewrote it a hundred times and still managed to find a missing "the" on the first page.

There were actually 4 mistakes I found. 3 gramatical and then the BIG factual one. My female protagonist drives a '67 Mustang Shelby GT. I mentioned that it had a 427 engine. For some reason, this weekend I decided to check that. Ford used a 428 in that particular car. One cubic inch off. But I'm sure somebody would have e-mailed me on it.

I don't look forward to learning about a mistake I didn't catch, but it certainly could happen.

Anonymous said...

Kathy -
I understand that you don't want to flagrantly point out your error. I really do. And yet my suspicious mind wonders whether there might be many, many errors and you're hoping that we readers each will notice only one, and think, "Ah-ha! That's it!"

Joyce Tremel said...

Every time I read through my manuscript I find something I missed.

And you're going to have to dish. I can't stand not knowing what the big mistake was. It might not be as bad as you think it is. I know I always think my own screw ups are much worse than they really are.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Gina, that was cruel;) And far more clever than I'm capable of being.

Wilfred, I know what you mean. I wrongly assume that I know something and that I don't need to confirm it. It's eye-opening to realize that your assumptions are wrong.

Sorry, Joyce, I'm not going to say what the mistake is. Primarily because I ended up doing something with it in the next book and I don't want to give that clue away.

Joyce Tremel said...


For me the most embarrassing mistakes are when I get police stuff wrong. The good thing is, most people wouldn't know the difference.

Anonymous said...

Kathy, the really really bad news is that your particilar mistake wasn't the only one in your book. There are dozens. And eventually some well-meaing, helpful jerk is going to email and tell you all about each one---but only when it's two minutes too late to correct the blunders.

I figure I'm doing those readers a real service. Where would their small lives be without the chance to give the occasional author the benefit of their wisdom?

I think you're right---embrace your mistake. Or forget about it entirely. It's not helping the delightful, entertaining, creative and witty writer who is you!

Anonymous said...

As I mentioned last week, I had an article printed in the latest issue of the Mystery Reader's Journal. The deal I had with the editor was - I thought - that she'd let me know if she was going to use the article, because she wasn't sure she'd have room, especially since I don't actually write historicals and since this is the history mystery issue of MRJ. I never heard, so I didn't think much about it, except to notice at some point that I'd made a factual error. But she was supposed to let me know, right? So I'd just fix it then. It was minor. Just one word. A place. The difference between where Marie Antoinette was in August of 1793, vs. where she wasn't.

Well, last week I got an email from someone who told me she'd enjoyed the article. I never heard that it was supposed to be published, so I never fixed the mistake. So far no one has emailed me to say, 'You know, Marie Antoinette wasn't actually there at that time...' and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Forget it. There's nothing you can do, and like Nancy says, think how much pleasure you're bringing to all the people who get the chance to write and tell you you're not perfect.

Anonymous said...

Well, I like to have one error in anything I write/do because that makes it real. Nothing in nature is perfect, so I figure Mother Nature knows what's best.

Welcome to the club. Real is a thousand times better than perfect.