Monday, October 29, 2007

Small Minds Hobgoblins

My high school English teacher used to have a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson hanging on the bulletin board that baffled me for years. It read: "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." (Apparently, there's more to it.) I'm reminded of it, however, every time I receive a copy edited manuscript from my publisher.

That may sound like a dis on copy editors, but it's not meant as one. I say thank goodness for copy editors or my readers would have to spend all their time writing me angry letters complaining about all the little inconsistencies that riddle my work. No, it's my mind that doesn't suffer details very well. I apparently (mis)took Emerson's quote to heart and now my brain jettisons "little" consistencies. Ask my writers' group if you doubt me, but I'm lucky if I manage to spell my main character's name the same way throughout a five hundred page manuscript.

Even though I've always written books that are part of a series, I rely on my brain to keep track of the world-building details. I realize exactly how foolish this is, but I almost never re-read a novel once it's gone to press. Part of that decision is the fact that I'm usually deeply sick of the book during the process of getting it to publication. I've read and re-read the damn thing so many times (in draft, final draft, editorial revision, final revision, copy edited manuscript, page proofs, etc.) that the thought of looking at it again for even a second makes me cringe.

One of the reasons I don't look back at my earlier work in the same series is that I like the freedom that not-knowing-I'm-screwing-up affords. I should say that I've never violated a character's history with my cavalier attitude toward consistency, but my alternate personality messed up the time-line in the AngeLINK universe because a copy editor had corrected a date (to make it consistent with a presidential election year) and her brain had never made the "final edit," as it were. So the books following Archangel Protocol are actually off by two years. Only one reader noticed the mistake and she did because she was re-reading the books on the line-by-line level in order to write fanfic. Even so, I hope I get a chance to fix that at some point because it now bothers me.

You'd think, then, I'd learn, right? Not so. Since that mistake, I'm slightly more willing to do a quick word search through the electronic version of my final draft to check certain details, but I'm still fairly adamant about not letting a little thing like accuracy stop me from writing. I should clarify, however, that I'm only talking about little, harmless details. We all know that if a writer isn't careful and consistent with the important details, you can loose your readers. I even try to be pretty careful with what I call "blocking," which is to say whether or not a character is sitting or standing and what color shoes they're wearing — although I have a copy editor to thank for noticing a character's switch from combat boots to high heels.

God forbid something like that actually make it into print, but I rarely let those things worry me at the start. I write to get the story out and then sweat the details.

Or, later, thank the higher powers that a copy editor catches them.


Anonymous said...

I've spotted a couple. I just figured that, you know, there's nothing you can do about it now. I only believe in sweating things I can change. I also think they're small enough that you'd have to be obsessively fannish to catch 'em.


Xochiquetzl said...

Oh, and my writing-related quote? "Art is never finished, only abandoned." Because I'm one of those people who would rewrite chapter one for ten years if I let myself.

jpj said...

Does Marvel comics still give a "no-prize?" Readers would mail in inconsistencies and, if the writers couldn't explain them away, the reader would be awarded a no-prize in the letters section.

And there is a virtual cottage industry of explaining away inconsistencies in stuff like the Sherlock Holmes stories. The stories are positively riddled with them but the fun is to come up with some method of explaining them away.

Xochiquetzl said...

Heh. I like jpj's suggestion and want a prize, but I thought explaining away inconsistencies was the fan's job. Or have I watched too much Star Trek?

By the way, in episode 37, The Misty Moon of Zendor, Doctor Spork reminisced about his victory as Miss Drag Science Academy, but in episode 42 he condemns drag as being illogical. Can you explain the inconsistency?