by H. Linn Murphy
It really snags me when I'm reading along in a perfectly good book and I come BANG up against a glaring fallacy or misused word or continuity error.
The other day I was reading a book and the main character shot things with her quiver. Any self-respecting archer or person who has read much about archery will know that a quiver is the case which holds arrows, not the arrow itself. Another place the author called the hilt of the sword the helm. A helm is a helmet and worn on the head. Those are very small mistakes, but they take the reader out of your story. The reader can't forget that mistake. Once a friend of my daughter wrote a story with her in which she was describing a medieval feast. Her words: And they all had individual piglets. My family has never forgotten those words and it's been well over a decade since they were written. I doubt that's how she wished to be remembered, but she'll never live that down.
One of our family hobbies is to try and spot continuity errors in movies. But while you're looking for errors, you aren't participating in the story. In effect, you've put yourself out of the scope of the piece.
Get yourself a really good dictionary. For those words you don't quite feel you know for sure, look them up. Also there are some excellent thesaurus programs which will allow you to use words in new ways and to check the ones you're using. They aren't always just for finding new words.
Even a work of fiction needs its research, especially if it deals with a time, place, or situation unknown to you the writer. I'm writing a book right now about a girl who studies honey badgers in Africa. I've never been to Africa, nor have I ever seen a honey badger up close. So the research I'll need to do will be extensive. Already I've spent some time researching honey badgers and Johns Hopkins University where my main character works prior to getting her grant. I'll need to research camps in Africa and about the area where we'll put this camp. I want to know everything about my subject I can so I don't come off looking ignorant.
The other thing I do besides exhaustive research, is to run through the book several times. I do maybe nine full book checks before the manuscript goes to Beta readers. I want to catch ever single misspelled word, misused word, extra space, and every chance to tighten up. I want to put a book out that I'd be proud to have my name on. It's called learning the craft. We owe our readers a well-crafted book. We owe them our best work and the benefit of as much education as we can cram into ourselves.
We also need Beta readers. We need people with fresh eyes who will spot the things we're too close to notice, as if we're looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. They'll catch those fallacies or plot holes. And we need to listen to them and let them help...to a point. Your Beta reader is the mouth of the reader.
Listen to your editor. They may make some unpopular decisions on things to cut or change, but they generally have your book at heart. Make sure you find an editor who will work with you, but you also have to work with your editor. I keep a slag heap for things I have to cut that I think might be useful elsewhere. That makes cutting things not quite so painful. I also always remember that I have the original manuscript...:o)
Write on! And keep your quiver on your back.