Sweating the small stuff
I remember very well speaking with a woman who wanted to be a writer in the worst way. She buttonholed me at a bookstore signing in a large chain store in western Ontario. Because the store wasn’t very busy that Sunday, I was standing there, flyers and bookmarks in hand, waiting to waylay anyone who even glanced in my direction.
I saw her from the corner of my eye, speaking with the assistant manager who pointed in my direction. I thought to myself, This might actually be someone who’s heard of me and came to meet me and buy a book. With so much spare time on my hands, it was certainly a gratifying turn of events.
“You’re an author,” she said after she marched over and stood in front of me. “So am I.”
My heart sank. Anyone who’s ever done a signing knows enough to cringe when this sort of thing happens. These people usually want to talk about themselves and figure you have all day to speak to them – usually right about the time a busload of mystery fans arrive. It’s very difficult to speak with these people since they all seem to want to make some point. It’s also very difficult to extract yourself from a conversation with them. (They also seldom buy books.)
Still, there’s never any reason to be rude to people. “So how many books have you published?” I asked.
This was looking worse and worse. If they haven’t published, then one of these “authors” probably wants you to recommend them to your publisher/agent/editor or tell them how they can get started.
“And do you write crime fiction?”
“Of course!” she said with a look that made me completely aware she thought I was an idiot for asking.
Another shopper was looking at my neglected display of books. “You’ll have to excuse me for a moment,” I told her, and I turned away to speak with the woman who’d picked up one of my books. I also handed the author one of my flyers, hoping that it would impart the information this woman desired and that would be that.
About five minutes later, the other woman had bought a book (!) and I’d also sold one other to a man who’d also come over. The author was still there, so I turned to her.
She handed back the flyer. “This is very well written. Who did it for you?”
“I did,” and explained that someone at my level of importance has to produce most of my own promotional material.
“But who corrected it for you?”
“No one. Well, that’s not true. My wife looked it over to see if I’d missed anything.”
“I never correct my own writing. That’s what editors are for.”
I’m certain my eyebrows went up. “So you have submitted manuscripts?”
“I have, but they tell me I’m not yet polished enough for them to consider my novel.”
“Well, surely you send them a polished version of it.”
“It’s as polished as I can make it. Certainly there are no misspelled words or poor punctuation. But I also believe that it’s possible to polish something so much that the prose becomes dead.”
I nodded. It is possible to do this, I supposed.
It turned out that this woman’s novel was set in England and it concerned the murder of a man who turns out to be a Soviet spy who’d been living undetected in the UK for years.
Now here’s the kicker: this woman had never been to the town in England where she had set her story. She’d never been to England. From talking to her, it was pretty obvious she knew nothing about spying and didn’t care to learn. Her protagonist was a real estate agent, while the author had been a school teacher. She didn’t know and real estate agents, either.
“Do you call your character a real estate agent or an estate agent?” I asked.
“Is there a difference?”
I explained. “In the UK they’re called estate agents.”
“I wasn’t aware of that.”
I felt like shaking her. She should be aware of that if she wants to write a book that’s convincing. I tried to explain that, especially in crime fiction, the author needs to gain the trust of the reader. If you set your novel in the UK, it has to have all the correct terms and language. Lose that trust (or never gain it) and you’ve lost you’re reader. That trust is found in the little details.
“But the editor will correct those things, won’t they?” she asked.
I spent a further ten minutes with her, explaining that any writer has to know as much as they can about their subject matter. Publishers, editors, agents and eventually readers want things to be accurate and based on fact, and they won’t be forgiving. If you’ve got those kinds of errors in you manuscript, it won’t be considered seriously.
“So I have to know every little detail?”
“Being an author is much more difficult than I thought it would be.”
I could only nod again.
Rick Blechta is a Toronto author and musician. Oddly enough, his thrillers have musicians as their main characters. Next September will see the publication of his eighth novel, The Fallen One. In June, he will be the Master of Ceremonies for Bloody Words in Toronto. You can catch him playing trumpet in The Advocats big band on the first Monday of every month at People’s Chicken