By Sarah Hamaker, CCWF president
I’m a details person, which translated well into my chosen profession of writer and editor. I notice things like misplaced commas, wrong usage of apostrophes (don’t get me started on how years can’t be possessive!) and subject/verb disagreement. It used to drive me crazy when I encountered grammatical or word choice mistakes in the real world, like church bulletins, business signage or political campaign literature.
But I’ve largely been able to turn off my inner editor—or at least hit the pause button—for most of those instances (with the notable exception of school communication…the people teaching my children should certainly understand the proper use of its versus it’s, but I digress). And lest you think I’m an overly strict grammarian, I mostly point out these missteps to my husband (who’s also an editor) and don’t call out the grammar hounds on the culprits.
However, I’m sure I’m not alone with how much it bothers me to uncover multiple mistakes in books. The hair color for the heroine started out blonde but ended up brunette, with not a whisper of a dye job in between. The hero had vivid blue eyes on page 16, but deep brown ones on page 230—and he wasn’t undercover with tinted contacts. A major secondary character undergoes a name change that was unintentional.
If a reader is pulled out of the story because of simple errors, then we run the very real risk of losing that reader. And the reader might not abandon this book only, but could decide not to bother picking up other books we’ve written (or will write) too.
Take heart, gentle writer! There are ways to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen many an author before you (and probably many after you too). Here are some common mistakes and how to correct them.
The Switcheroo. Eye or hair color are the easiest ones to mix up with a character. Word processing tools like Scrivener can help you have easy access to character sketches. One trick I use when writing a rough draft and I don’t want to slow down to look up those things is to write something like this: Sally Smith gazed into Burt Brown’s COLOR eyes and sighed. Then when editing, I can easily insert the correct color.
The Lost Time. This one I struggle with because I have a hard time creating timelines when writing, but I’m finally figuring out how to keep track of where my characters are in relation to months and days of the week. For example, some writers have a file with chapters listed and dates/days next to them. If you don’t keep it straight, you can bet sharp-eyed readers will notice!
The Pet Phrase. We all have them—those phrases that keep popping up in our books, sometimes within the same chapter, but the phrases are unusual enough that you notice. For example, the character “hits the [car] gas” not once, not twice, but three or more times (Lisa Scottoline, I’m looking at you!). I’ve found that my online critique group provides a much-needed service in this area—they are never slow to point out when I’ve overused a particular word or phrase.
The Missing Info. This one’s harder to pin down, but it can be so annoying when a character walks into a room with a brown bag, but then is able to gesture and hug and do all kinds of things as if the brown bag had never existed. This kind of magic isn’t going to endear your readers. Pay attention to what your characters are wearing, doing, taking or leaving. Beta readers can be invaluable in helping to point out these inconsistencies.
Remember, editors are wonderful and they catch many things, but the cleaner we submit our manuscripts, the more likely the finished product will have very few errors. We don’t want our readers tripped up by these small mistakes in our writing—we want them entranced by our storytelling.