Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Making Mistakes


All writers make mistakes, much as they strive to avoid them. I have certainly been guilty of a few in my books over the years. Very often the mistakes are of trivial significance – I know one eminent writer who confessed to me that he kept forgetting the colour of his hero’s eyes, and therefore changed them from one book to another. This kind of thing may irritate some readers, but it hasn’t harmed that author’s high reputation at all, thank goodness. His view is that story is more important than pedantic accuracy, and I agree.

But there are limits. I read a new book recently that contained mistakes and implausibiliites so significant that they did spoil my enjoyment of the story. It was a pity, because the book and the author seem to me, in many ways, to have a lot going for them. The story was one I really wanted to like. But it contained a key courtroom scene that struck me as so hopelessly unbelievable that I lost faith.

I wondered if this was partly because I’m a lawyer, and people with specialised knowledge often become frustrated when the exigencies of the story take precedence over factual accuracy and credibility. Novelists have to cater for the majority of their readers, not just a niche audience. But I don’t have any expertise in criminal law and procedure, and I’ve certainly never attended a major trial.

On reflection, it seemed to me that what happened in that courtroom would strike most readers, not just me, as implausible. A shame, because this was a book with real potential which, ultimately, didn’t work for me. So because I don’t like writing negative reviews, I’m not going to say any more about it. Especially as I feel pretty optimistic that the author is good enough to get it right next time.


9 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I know exactly what you mean! I've read books like that too, where there are glaring inaccuracies. That really does take away from the plot, doesn't it? And I think you're right that we especially notice inaccuracies if they're about something we know. Always a good reminder to be careful when one's writing...

Fiona said...

Interesting post, Martin. I have to admit that little inconsistancies within a series do irritate me (I would notice the colour of the hero's eyes, for example) but they wouldn't spoil my overall enjoyment. What did annoy me was when the hero's eyes changed from brown to blue within 3 pages! Surely that's sloppy editing which should have been picked up by someone before publication, even if the author didn't notice?

And yes, specialist knowledge in a reader can be a handicap. If it's my own specialism I probably criticise the author far too much; if it isn't, but a friend points out mistakes to me, I'm inclined to feel they don't matter.

I think you have been generous to the unnamed author.If a courtroom scene was outside his ken, surely some practical research (like attending a trial) was fundamental before attempting to write.

Tim said...

Oh yes. I read a novel by a Swedish author where the (Swedish) detective comes to London to compare notes with his English counterpart. At one point the English policeman picks up his gun as they leave the office.

That stumped me. I had to put the book down. How could they have let a mistake that big get through?

Fortunately he is a good writer (and anyway, I wanted to know what happened) so I put that aside and carried on reading.

C is the Big Dog said...

I was afraid too at first, and I hate being my own editor, but I went out on a limb and published my first ebook under my own name. You can get a free preview at www.BN.com It is called Teaching Can Be Murder

Maxine said...

So you are not going to hint at the title/author of the book, Martin?
Most crime novels strike me as implausible on some level, as the crimes are too interesting, frequent or other. (How many murders per year are there in the UK compared with the number in that same year's crop of new crime fiction?!) I'm happy to suspend belief for those reasons. But as you say, when obvious details are wrong because of inadequate knowledge or research, this can make one stop reading. One likes the author to know more about what he/she is writing about than the reader!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks as ever for these comments. Maxine, I won't hint in a public setting, because it would feel a bit unkind. I wanted to review it, but decided I couldn't without being very critical, and I didn't want to go down that road.

thousandmonkeys said...

I think not revealing the author is the right decision. When I was so frustrated with temporal anomalies in one of my favourite detective series that I just had to blog about it, I tried not to leave clues to the author's identity; I would hate to deter people from a good series and I mightn't even have noticed the mistake myself if I'd left a longer gap between reading two books.

Specialist knowledge can be a curse - I know someone with a forensic background who hasn't made it to the end of any novel by a particular well-known crime writer due to apparent mistakes. It's not just legal professions though: when I read Robert B Parker's The Godwulf Manuscript (which involves a theft from a university) I had a moment of 'no university administrator would allow that/act in that way' before I sternly told myself that 1970s American universities were probably very different from English ones now, and continued reading!

Martin Edwards said...

You've put it very well, Thousandmonkeys.

(M)ary said...

I always blame the editor and/or copy reader for mistakes. I mean, doesn't someone read over the book and make corrections?