Tips for Dealing with Details


Several pages into a highly recommended memoir, a factual error popped my eyeballs nearly out of my head. Can you find the mistake?

In September 1963, the Cuban and Russian governments placed
          nuclear bombs in Cuba.
In October 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended….
In November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In December 1963, I was born….

The Cuban Crisis was in 1962! Both that event and the JFK assassination are indelibly burned into my memory. The author can’t remember, I thought, but how could something this obvious slip by the editing involved in a traditionally published book? I checked Wikipedia to be absolutely sure, then kept reading. Along the way, I found half a dozen typos, and by the time I finished, I’d found several loose ends in the story along with an apparent contradiction.

But still, I do appreciate the book and its many strengths. The story is powerful and the author’s voice superb. I understand the book’s appeal. The mess saddens me on the author’s behalf.

In one sense I felt vindicated that such casual editing was released by an established publisher when self-published authors are widely slammed for flooding the market with slop. But the point is to write your personal best, not to meet standards.

Whether you are writing a few stories for family or a major opus for the world, these guidelines will help you smooth wrinkles in your stories.

Check your facts. Always validate times, dates or places, if you’re sure you know. Those erroneous dates for the Cuban crisis may be accepted as factual reality by younger readers. Your error about a birthplace or date could throw genealogists into a tizzy years down the road.

Look for loose ends. They may be subtle. For example, this author doesn’t mention how she generated income, but despite a divorce, she spent money like it grows on trees. She says she remarried. To the man she had the amazing relationship with?

Look for conflicts. She reports reflections of someone with her son’s name who met a celebrity she was about to meet. It makes no sense that her young son would have met this person before she did, or that he would relate such a mature impression. Ebooks make searching easy. No other person with that name was mentioned at any other time. Confusing!

Look for missing information. She cites results of certain studies with assurance. The topic is new to me and I’d like to read more. I don’t need footnotes, but I’d love to see an appendix with references and suggested reading.

Rely on beta readers. You aren’t likely to notice loose ends or missing information, because you fill in the blanks from memory as you read. Even family members may gloss over omissions like these. Discerning readers who aren’t privy to the backstory will pick them up in a flash.

Don’t rely too heavily on professional editors. I don’t know what shape this manuscript was in when it arrived on the editor’s desk. Perhaps she did as much as she was able in the time allotted to meet deadline or budget. Maybe loose ends fly under her radar. If you are paying for editing, remember that more time means more money, so have things in the best shape you can before you seek help. Professional or not, nobody is perfect, and any given reader will fail to notice something. Have two or three more people read for further edits and errors after the formal edit is done.

Be gentle with yourself. Readers love this book in spite of its flaws. Write great stories, give them your best shot, and then chill. If you pour your heart into them, readers view mistakes with compassion – if they notice them at all. Many won’t.

Write now: if you don’t already have a writing group or a list of trusted beta readers, find or start a group and begin a search among friends, local or online, who can read pre-release versions and give you reliable feedback.


Boyd Lemon said...

The Cuban missile crisis was in 1962, not 1963. In my novel, "A Long Way To Contentment," as I was reviewing what I thought was the final copy, after 2 professional editors had gone over it, I found I was a year off in describing the United States invasion of Iraq. These things are easy to miss and so embarrassing when you miss them.

Sharon said...

Your example is helpful for several reasons Boyd.

First, I Cuba and JFK occurred in landmark years in my life, so it's easy to remember. I only vaguely recall when we invaded Iraq -- "Once upon a time!" So if you were within five or six years, I'd never notice an error. Lots of things do slide by readers.

Second, apparently you did catch it before it became an embarrassment. Hooray for that! I do own a copy and could look to see, but never mind.

Third, based on your testimony about editors, I suspect they many not see fact-checking as part of their job. That's worth clarifying, and it may not be a good use of t their expensive time. In any event, facts aren't the only thing they may overlook.

Fourth, I have heard via the grapevine that the author of the book I cite is aware of the date error and not at all happy. I sympathize with her plight on all these matters and have deliberately not named her or the book, not wanting to taint a good read for others who may not notice what I saw.

Amber Lea Starfire said...

As always, very good advice, Sharon. It's hard to remember to check facts when you think you remember them correctly or are unaware of typos — and no one else is checking either.

My favorite advice, though, is "be gentle with yourself." When you pay for editors and proofreaders, or rely on publishing companies' editing staff, and they still miss errors, it makes you wonder why you shelled out money or worked so hard to sell your book. Remembering that readers view mistakes with compassion (if they notice them) helps us to view our own work more compassionately as well.

Sharon said...

Thanks Amber. Actually, editors may lack the resources to fact-check memoir, because few of those facts will be public. My mother died before finishing her autobiography (her account was more than 90% documentary), so I can't fault her for erroneous dates for a couple of births or events, and she had mistaken names on a few photos. She left as many as three drafts of some material, with a few inconsistencies between them. I was able to spot these problems and called on one of her cousins to fill in blanks.Stories like hers will be considered source material by genealogists down the road, so getting the facts right matters for family history. Room color, meal menus, verbatim dialogue -- no problem about accuracy there.