Monday, February 16, 2009

The Copy Editor in Us All

by Patricia Smiley

I assume that all of you have at one time or another been reading a book and stumbled across an error that the author or copy editor should have caught. So what do you do? (a) Grumble to yourself and continue reading, (b) throw the book against the wall, or (c) notify the author of the error?

A few years ago, I read a book that had been widely praised by the mystery community and although it possessed a fair measure of charm, it contained spelling errors and typos that exceeded my comfort level. In addition, the book was set in Southern California and since I live in Los Angeles, it was disconcerting to discover that the author had confused two cities with similar names, placing one in the wrong geographical location. A friend who read the book was also distracted by the errors. In fact, he compiled a list that he planned to send to the author. Since I was somewhat acquainted with this writer, I realized how angry and hurt this person would have been, so I convinced him not to send his error list.

Most authors sweat over the details, but as hard as we try, errors sometimes slip through the net. I am grateful when fans notify me of my boo-boos. Shortly after my latest book COOL CACHE came out, Terri e-mailed me to say: “… I must make you aware of a spelling error on Page 123 of "Cool Cache", just in case you're planning to make this into a paperback book. I am referring to the way you have it as "carpel tunnel syndrome", when it should be "carpal tunnel syndrome." Sheesh! Thanks for telling me, Terri, since “carpel” means “One of the structural units of a pistil, representing a modified ovule-bearing leaf.”

Bob also e-mailed: “I really enjoyed the book. As a flight instructor who taught in Pipers for seven years, the mental picture of Tucker getting into the Warrior first, followed by the pilot, made me laugh....there is only one door, and it is on the passenger side.” Hmmm, perhaps a sexier scene than the one I attempted to write…

On Friday, I received the page proofs for the paperback version due out this June. Thanks to Bob and Terri I was able to fix everything…that is; unless you have a list of errors you were afraid to tell me about. In that case, you have until February 19th to e-mail me.

Any interesting stories about errors in books?

Happy Monday...


Congrats to our very own Jacqueline Winspear for the glowing review her new book received in the February 23rd edition (page 49) of People Magazine. AMONG THE MAD got full-page treatment and four stars, the maximum given to any book. This week, a prized Wall Street Journal review will appear.

MAD is the latest in the Maisie Dobbs books, the New York Times bestselling series set in England between the wars. In this outing, Maisie matches wits with a potential mass murderer.

"That Maisie's traumas help her understand the criminal mind is just one of the unexpected depths of this engrossing mystery." --Ellen Shapiro, People Magazine

Here’s the link to her signing schedule.

Your success is a joy to us all, Our J.


  1. Congrats to Jackie!

    Patty, I cannot speak of proofreading as I'm the worst.

    I have been looking for a good proof reader for months. My family has not worked out so far and I'm too cheap to attract many others.


  2. Congratulations, Jackie!! I am half way through Among the Mad and am enjoying every page of it. Maisie has new confidence.

    I have read books that have spelling and fact errors that drop me right out of story. I don't mind it enough to write a letter about it, though, most times. Writing style however, makes me grind my teeth if it is incomprehensible or just plain too amateur. For example, a self published book I read last year for review: the author repeated information three times on the first page - did it several times throughout the book as well; he 'told' extensively instead of 'show' in his text; and his characterizations were less than single dimensional. Otherwise the story was good, and the plot advanced pretty well apace in the right direction. I still have to write the review, but no matter how much I gentle my criticisms, the author is still going to be pretty pissed at me for finding something wrong with his 'baby'. It was fourth in the series by the way... Sigh. I don't like shredding people's work - they worked hard at it to get it in print, and that's admirable in itself. But sometimes, I wish they worked a bit harder on the writing part.

    Happy Monday,

  3. I'm with you, Marianne. Errors like that take me out of the story. I'm pretty good at it except with my own work. I've read those words so many times sometimes I just skip over them, assuming they're correct.

  4. I don't know much about firearms, although Jim Born has attempted to teach me without wounding me.

    That's probably why I kill people with injections, a fountain pens through the eye, vicious karate blows to the aorta, poisonous stings from a Man-o-War, spear guns, sexual asphyxia, and in one case, by being ingested into a sugar cane harvester.

    I've had a reader tell me that coral snakes don't bite (wrong), and that they don't reach 6 feet in length. Basically right, though I had written 4 feet (still a pretty big one), and an editor lengthened it to make it more dangerous.

    In my very first novel, "To Speak for the Dead," I made a mistake involving a handgun. Don't remember what. Maybe having someone click off the safety when that gun doesn't have a safety. I received a letter from New Zealand. Maynard MacDonald, son of John D. MacDonald, wrote to correct me. Otherwise, he said he enjoyed the book.

  5. Fans hate gun mistakes. I think it was Elmore Leonard who made one and his fans never let him forget it. Also, Sue Grafton had a continuity error in B is for Burglar, something about having keys when she went into a house but not when she came out. Can't remember the details.

  6. I was afraid to write. :o)

    Fortunately, I have a copy handy.

    I recently read a new book where the errors came thicker than ticks on a coon hound. Honestly, I stopped counting after the first ten. I considered asking the author if he needed a proofreader, as we had exchanged notes a couple of times, then decided that I had my hands full with my own projects.

    So yes, I'm a Spelling Nazi. And it's bad enough when they crop up in my own work.

  7. Maybe all of us "Spelling Nazis" should arrange to read each other's work?

  8. Just arrived in Houston on the first stop of my book tour, so am just checking in.

    There's a book currently on the NYT list that drove me nuts with errors of language and basic research. I thought the premise was a good one, but the errors spoiled the whole thing for me - I considered them an easy remedy (and there were several on each page) but no one bothered because it was a fairly immediate bestseller ... and perhaps there's something for us there, that when something is a good, original story, much can be forgiven by the readers.

    Funnily enough, with my own books, the thing that readers are most likely to take issue with is my use of the word "smog." Most readers think "smog" is a Los Angeles phenomenon, circa 1950. But it isn't - it was first used at a conference in London on public health in 1905 and described the "noxious blend of smoke and fog" which enveloped the city. The word quickly became part of the lexicon, and has been used all over the world ever since. Hasn't it, Mr. Gore?

    Thanks for the mention of the People review, Patty - still reeling with disbelief at this end!

  9. Hope you enjoy Houston and the many other stop along the way. I wish it was still the custom to send post cards.

  10. "...and perhaps there's something for us there, that when something is a good, original story, much can be forgiven by the readers."

    I'm going to suggest an alternate (and unsavory) explanation, Jackie. Given some of my experiences, I would say that there's a good possibility that the average reader no longer notices spelling and syntax errors. Since it has become the current fashion to intentionally misspell, and so many people nowadays rely heavily upon spellcheckers, I don't like what that possibility implies about levels of literacy.

    Patty, you can ask anything of this Spelling Nazi. I should mention that I've been corresponding lately with my one-time ninth grade English teacher--and recently had the opportunity to correct her spelling of "flagellance". :o)

    Both of us got a kick out of that one.

  11. Jeff, you didn't mention the often disasterous consequences of relying on computer spell-checkers.

    And sometimes we humans just have brain lapses--like the time I could not for anything remember how to spell "such."

  12. Speaking of errors, your link to Ms. Winspear's signing engagements is broken. If someone could remove the "" which appears before "" that should fix it.

  13. Thanks for the heads up. The link is fixed now.