Coffee, Tea, or Too Much Me–or You?

You are partial to a special craft beer and addicted to an oolong tea only grown on a certain slope. You smoke, love soccer, listen to jazz and collect posters of abstract art. You stay in the shower until the water turns cold; you sleep on flannel sheets even in the summer. Your car is old, recalcitrant, and fails you at the most inconvenient times. Fine. I, too, have things I can’t imagine living without–not the least of which is high-end coffee, listening to K.D. Lang singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and a certain brand of really comfortable shoes.

When I open a novel, I like to read details about what the characters eat and drink; about what their living quarters look like; about what books are on their shelves. I like to know whether they go for a run at 5:00 a.m. or just dawdle over coffee. It makes them seem like people I know, people I’d like for a friends–or those I’d avoid. Describing settings and details familiar to you–whether the logo on your gym bag or the view from your bedroom window–will breathe life into your fiction; that is, unless you inadvertently have EVERY character in your novel lighting up, opening a craft beer, or hanging out in the shower (except maybe a character who is contemplating suicide by hanging himself from the shower spigot).

How much is too much YOU? We are admonished by many writing instructors, workshop directors, and how-to books on fiction to “Write what you know.”  A talented writer I know used to work with his family in a decorative, wrought iron business. He incorporated details of their shop in an early work of his, and it was highly effective because it fit with the main character, the plot, and the setting. If what you know (like) fits in with a character–if your character is the type to really love those flannel sheets–then give him a set, but if it doesn’t fit save the sheets for another character in the book–or another book. And don’t, I beg you, have every character in your book loving soccer and collecting posters.

Stella, the protagonist in Nothing’s Ever Right or Wrong, is frequently baking biscuits–a lot of them. That was only wishful thinking on my part since I can’t make a decent biscuit; however, Stella could, and it fit her lifestyle and situation. That hasn’t always been the case. In the past, I’ve burdened my characters with habits or traits that didn’t fit them; they were my traits, my desires, my biases. Sometimes it almost worked; other time it detracted.

Description can be dicey. It’s easy to get an image or phrase fixed in our mind and, without realizing it, use it repeatedly. I just finished a novel by a New York Times Bestseller who is a very accomplished writer and a book critic. For some reason, the men tended to have long, glossy hair. The woman, with one exception, had long, shiny, black hair. Everyone seemed to be pale. Also, the men seemed to be very partial to black tee shirts. I couldn’t resist sneaking a peak at the author’s photo. Yep! Long, very dark, hair and she does look sort of pale.

Once, I found myself giving all the characters in a novel hazel-colored eyes. I don’t have hazel eyes myself, but I’ve always liked them. It seems that preference was lodged somewhere in my mind, and I used it thoughtlessly. What saved me that time was proofreading. Now I use the “find” tool in my word processing program, knowing I have a tendency to make that particular kind of error. If I type in “hair,” and I keep getting “blond and tousled,” I’m in trouble.

The best plan is to recognize your individual tendencies when writing character descriptions. Make use of your word processing technology (or a sharp-eyed, first reader), and you won’t make the “pale face, long, shiny, black hair” mistake.

You Poor Mother

“You poor mother,” the female character said. I stopped reading. Wait a minute. Was she calling the young man, who had just told her that his mother was comatose, a “mother” in the most derogatory sense of the word?

This was supposedly a caring young woman. Something wasn’t right. I went back and read the line again. Oh! It was supposed to read, “Your poor mother.” Of course. And therein lies the need for careful editing, even if you have to read your manuscript a dozen times, read it until the words swim and you hate it. Read it until you know it’s right.

One of the criticisms of self-published books is sloppy editing. But we can’t confine those observations to independent writers alone. I recently read the latest novel of a very well-known and admired mystery writer. She has a top level publisher and consistently hits the best seller list. Yet her latest book had errors that were too obvious to miss–wrong words, dropped letters, twisted timeline.

At a book fair in our area, I shared a table with a fellow author and I complimented her on her latest novel. She laughed and said, “Did you notice anything wrong?” I hadn’t, but she told me she’d changed the color of a main character’s car, describing it blue in one scene and green in the other. We talked then about how easy it is to overlook errors.

Sometimes we simply know the material so well that our mind supplies the correct word or phrasing. Sometimes we have read through so many times we can no longer concentrate. Sometimes our proofreading programs supply the wrong word–I’ve laughed until I cried over some of the auto-text correction errors people have posted. And, sometimes, we just have a mental block that causes us to consistently use the wrong punctuation or the wrong word (a friend didn’t call me the “comma queen” for nothing).

Do minor errors detract from the characters, the plot, the theme? Not usually, but they often confuse or irritate the reader.

In my nonfiction, true-crime book, I paid scant attention to the chapter titles once I set up the table of contents. Since it was a book involving two murders, two trials, and two executions, the chapter titles included dates. During the last proof (after discovering on previous proofs various oddities including two lines that, for some inexplicable reason, were in a different font), I realized that, according to my chapter titles, my protagonist went to trial a year after he was executed. It was just a typo, but still . . ..

Would anyone really notice and be thrown by the chapter title error, I wondered? Maybe not, but the one or two people who did notice might question the veracity of my other facts as well–or think I was just careless.

I was saved by FRIENDS, people who believed in my work enough to read it . . . and read it again . . . and again. One used a Microsoft program to add, delete, and suggest. The other read an early copy of the actual print book and made pencil notations. Their time and attention to detail was invaluable.

My best advice? Treasure your early readers, find a good copy editor, and read that manuscript just once more.