Wednesday, February 5, 2014
A Week in the Country
Back in the days when giants like Harold Ross, E.B. White and James Thurber roamed the hallways of The New Yorker, that magazine regularly ran fillers consisting of mistakes made in other publications with a wry comment added.
One of the regular headings was “Our Forgetful Authors,” which appeared over excerpts from a book, usually fiction, in which several passages on different pages stated a fact differently. For example, a female character’s hair might be described as light brown on page 32, auburn on page 68 and reddish-blonde on page 131. When I was in college, I always thought it was hysterically funny.
Now that I’ve written a mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, and have a second coming out in a couple of months, I’m not as inclined to laugh. Truth is, that hits a bit close to home, and having walked that mile in an author’s shoes, I can see all too easily how mistakes like that happen. It’s a miracle there aren’t twice as many.
Time Dims the Memory
Implicit in writing an inventive work is that there are no pre-existing facts. The author is sole custodian of the information and has to catalogue it as the writing of the book proceeds. That sounds a lot easier than it actually is.
Part of the problem is that a book is typically written over an extended period of time — six months to two years is a normal range. By the time you’re two-thirds of the way through, it’s easy to forget what you wrote in the first 30 pages months ago. And if you write the way I do, you’re focusing relentlessly on getting the prose right as you go, and not necessarily on noting those finer details for future reference.
Working from a good outline helps, but is no guarantee. In my second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, I did a thorough outline, setting forth what would happen in each chapter, and also outlining the various aspects and personality quirks of the characters in the book.
Then, in the course of writing it, I decided that an important scene planned for Chapter Two should be moved to Chapter Three. A couple of months passed between the time I made that decision and reached the point in Chapter Three where the scene should appear, and by then I’d forgotten all about it and left it out of the first draft altogether.
The Total-Immersion Revision
I’m happy to report that I was able to catch that mistake, and several others, by taking a different approach to editing the first draft. I decided that I needed to get away and focus on that task to the exclusion of all else. So through the magic of the internet, I found a cottage in a secluded rural area north of San Francisco, booked it for six nights, and spent the past week there, fixing the book.
It took about 13 months to write the first draft, so as I say, there were plenty of inconsistencies to be cleared up, in addition to the ordinary polishing and revising. But the benefit of being able to do the revisions in a short time frame (which would have been impossible at home, with all its myriad distractions) was incalculable. I’m doing it this way from now on.
The other piece of good news is that even after spending a week with the book in close quarters, I still like it and think it’s a step forward from the first one. In a couple of months it’ll be up on Amazon, and we’ll see if the readers agree.