Thursday 30 July 2015

Maintaining Author Cred

A friend of mine, who is very entertaining in ordinary life, had the dream of becoming a stand-up comic. She took a course which helped her forge a routine and which ended with a graduation "gig" in a local bar. I was looking forward to this event, but was simultaneously worried that she might bomb and that it would be embarrassing for her, me, and everyone else in the bar. Unfortunately, my fears were realized. Her material was just not polished enough. She was trying too hard and falling short because she had not done this enough times, in the past. It was excruciating for all of us.

I have similar anxieties when reading an indie-author for the first time. Mistakes in the text will send me in one of two directions: I will either grow angered by the author's laziness or I will be embarrassed for him/her having missed such obvious blunders. (The errors of traditionally-published authors almost always make me angry, and a little bitter. With a huge and powerful production and marketing machine behind them, those final products deserve little leeway. But finding errors in traditionally-published works is also a bit of a guilty pleasure as it ignites a confidence in me which makes me feel better about my own writing.)

Here are the three most irritating errors that I run across most often...

* Typos: I have found a typo in almost every novel I have ever read, but one on every page would alter my focus from reading the story to catching and highlighting every typo. A typo on the first page and the book gets laid aside or red-inked for sport.

* Poor grammar: Even more irritating than typos, poorly constructed sentences kick my mind right out of the story. If the structure is awkward or the meaning unclear, my mind is forced to leave the story in order to solve the word puzzle.

* Lazy description: A recent trend in character descriptions I've run across too many times in the last few years is to describe a character in terms of a real, well-known figure.  For instance, "She looked and acted exactly like that woman who plays Wendy on all the commercials." It's basically plagiarizing another artist's character.

Typos, poor grammar and lazy descriptions indicate a lack of effort or attention to detail.

In non-fiction work, it undermines the author's authority. Because written language is not nearly as precise as mathematics, rules of grammar and correct spelling are important tools in making our meaning clear. Exact meaning is especially important in instructional texts. If I found poor grammar or multiple typos in a reference book, I would chose another.

In fiction, poor editing interrupts the process of suspending belief and steers the reader toward being more critical. Most stories are vulnerable enough without the author rallying the reader against them.

An old saying comes to mind: "An amateur practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until it can't possibly go wrong." If you want to be a professional writer, you are going to have to work that hard on every sentence.

Oh, and if you're curious about my friend, she practiced a lot more, sharpened her material and now she's funny on stage as well as off. She can't yet leave her day-job, but her career as a stand-up comedian seems to be coming along well.

(NOTE: Be sure not to apply any of this advice to your first draft...
or my blog.)

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