I Hate Being Caught Being Wrong

By John Gilstrap

I’m writing this on Monday evening, December 2, 2019.  This morning, I submitted my copy edited manuscript back to my publisher, having endured my annual pity party centered around the theme, “If you know so much, write your own damn book.”  It’s the constant picking at the niggling details that make me crazy.  Yeah, I get that “which” vs. “that” is a real thing, as is “farther” vs. “further”.  And, as I discussed last time in my epistle about my comma conundrum, I’ve accepted that I’ll never get certain things right.

But come on.  “We can’t take this argument any further/farther.”  They both make sense.

Copy editors make me think too hard, that’s the problem.  (See that friggin’ comma splice?  Boy, did we hammer on comma splices at my last critique group meeting!)  Even I–the passionate purveyor of the principle that there are no rules in writing–admit that there are rules to grammar, and I try very hard to stay out of the way of those who understand these things.  But then there are the stylistic choices.  Such as . . .

In my original draft, I wrote, “Sid asked for a Maker’s-rocks”.  (By the way, that comma is properly positioned.  You know, in case someone asks.)  The copy editor changed it to “. . . Maker’s Mark Bourbon on the rocks”.  My first instinct was to ignore the comment, but then I wondered if maybe I was unclear.  Sid is in a bar, for crying out loud. Doesn’t the context fill in whatever blanks there might be?  The word, Bourbon, was a non-starter, but should it be Maker’s Mark on the rocks?  On the first pass, I accepted that part of the change, but on the second pass, I switched it back to my original.  That sounded best to my ear.

Shouldn’t “God-forsaken” be capitalized?  The copy editor lower-cased it, and for the life of me, I don’t understand why.

And then I stumbled upon The Big One.  The.  Big.  One.  How I missed this in my own editing passes is beyond me, but miss it I did: A nighttime shootout sandwiched between two daylight scenes.  Wait.  What?  Holy crap!

My stories are all told on a pretty tight timeline, with the events of one scene having ripple effects through other subsequent scenes.  The shootout couldn’t be moved from its slot in the story, and the results of said shootout have a massive impact on the next 250 pages of story.  Have I said holy crap yet?  Well, here it is again: Holy crap!

So, I had to re-engineer the shootout to happen in the daytime.  From a tactical perspective, that changes everything.  Different gun sights, different approach to the building.  Different everything.  But I fixed it.  I made it work, and I think I was able to stitch the downrange damage back together.  I think.

Actually I’m sure.  Well, pretty sure.  Damn.

It looks like I’ll be reading the page proofs more carefully than usual in a couple of months.

Meanwhile, here it is for the record: Thank you, Mr. Copy Editor for catching The Big One while there was still time to fix it.

I hate being caught being wrong.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

16 thoughts on “I Hate Being Caught Being Wrong

  1. A truly great post, John, and not just because I’m a fan.

    When I was teaching remedial grammar and punctuation and grunt English in college, I told my students you’ll be right if you never put a comma between a subject and its verb or between the verb and its object. As a writer and copyeditor, I tell other writers the same thing now. The other “big” comma rule is this: When in doubt, leave it out. A comma forces a minuscule interruption. Why risk it. The thing is, a reader can’t just “read through” misplaced punctuation. They quickly subconsciously correct and forgive missing punctuation, however. Especially commas.

    For the record, as a reader I totally got the “Maker’s-rocks” image without all the extra words. It’s cleaner, more concise. To me. To another reader, maybe not, but I would bet most of your readers have, on occasion, frequented bars. So there’s that. (grin)

  2. I feel your pain.
    I probably would have written it as “Makers. Rocks.” (I would have ordered it as “Makers. Neat.”)
    I’ve had characters eat lunch twice, be wearing different clothes without having to change them, and going to court on a Sunday.
    I just had to fix a character showing up after a good night’s sleep–on the same day. I, too have books that unfold in a relatively short time. This one starts Wednesday, ends Monday.
    I give thanks to my critique partners who keep me from even more mistakes. And my editor who knows whether song titles or theater productions should be put in quotes or italics.

  3. I agree that you definitely don’t want time transition errors, such as your nighttime shootout between daylight scenes, but reality is, when you’ve looked at your story that much, stuff like that is easy to miss–even if you’ve been over it more than once.

    That just lets writers know that we are, indeed, human. 😎

  4. I loved this submission, John. It’s good to know that even the great ones (that means you) sweat the details of downstream impacts of early edits like the one you mention. It validates one lament of every novelist: “You mean I have to read the whole thing again?”

  5. As a writer who is just today starting to wade through the copy edits on my debut novel, this post came at a good time. Hopefully between my editor and I, we will catch any of the Big Ones and there won’t be too many little, nitpicking ones. This is one aspect of writing my non-writing friends don’t understand. It takes many many passes before it’s “ready”

  6. It is true, misery loves company. I had one novel finished! All done but the final edits. I was discussing a major scene, the ending in fact, with my cop/crime expert husband, retired law enforcement/gun collector/walking encyclopedia/historian/former Marine (although they are never former even when no longer active) and he blew the whole book up with a few short words. “That could never happen.”

    What!

    I mulled it over. How many would actually catch that one little fact? Most of my readers don’t have extensive knowledge of law enforcement and criminal behavior and this was a paranormal thriller, couldn’t I just make up what I wanted?

    I knew the answer. In order for a novel that already touches on the unbelievable to seem real, every other aspect must be grounded in realty. Stephen King is a master at this. He puts enough reality in his stories to make the rest plausible.

    Ugh.

    I should have asked the question before I assumed and continued to write. BIG lessoned learned. The amount of rewriting and replotting should be enough to ensure that mistake doesn’t happen again. I hope.

    In the end (pun intended), the ending was much better, more powerful and believable. And at least the major error was caught before I had even sent it off to Beta Readers. Whew!

    • More times than not, it’s the simple stuff that snares me. In a recent Grave novel (FINAL TARGET, I think), a character drives up in a Corvette convertible to pick up his son, who throws a ditty back of clothes into the back seat before taking the shotgun seat.

      Covettes don’t have back seats. I bet I’ve gotten 50 emails on that one.

  7. “God” and the “Bible” have had their capitalization removed by many editors because they are about yucky religion. Sad.

    I’m of the firm belief that if you are writing tight first or third person, it’s okay to use vernacular in narrative because it’s coming straight from the character’s head. A good ol’ boy or ill-educated tough guy isn’t thinking in perfect grammar. However, this shouldn’t be used to the point that it makes reading hard.

    Since your copy editor insists on the full brand name of the bourbon, I’m guessing she/he has very little experience working with fiction so stand your ground.

    • Years ago, I got a cease and desist order for having a character reach for a Kleenex. (I’m almost sure that was the product, though I might be wrong. It’s been over 20 years.) The letter pointed out that Kleenex is not a generic term for facial tissue, but rather needs to be written as (I think) Kleenex(R) Brand Facial Tissue. With over 100,000 copies in print at the time, I sort of panicked, but then it was pointed out to me that companies can lose their trademark protections if their brand becomes generic. It would be the same if a character said, “Go Xerox this for me.”

      Since then, when my characters have runny noses, they reach for tissues, and if they need extra copies they go to the photocopier.

  8. I feel the pain, both in writing and in narrating. Doing a work right now with a ton of Russian names, some of which belong to American people who pronounce them “wrong”. Who knew that Yovanovitch could be pronounced “YO van oh vich” “Yo VAN oh vich” “Yo van OH vich” or “Yo van oh VICH” and all are right, but none are interchangeable…cuz, you know, people like their names to be said correctly or something.

  9. Pingback: I Hate Being Caught Being Wrong | Loleta Abi Author & Book Blogger

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