There’s only one hard-and-fast rule about writing: No book is ever perfect. A corollary to that rule: once a mistake is in print in a physical book, it stays in print. Books are like buildings: they’re there until (*shudder*) they’re burned or bulldozed in the landfill.
Of course, authors and publishers do whatever they can to avoid bloopers. The writer edits. The editor edits. The copy editor edits. The page designer edits. In the big publishing houses, the managing editor edits. And then some of them do it all over again. And sometimes again. And then (in sections) once (or twice) more because somebody’s paranoid.
But careful as we are, mistakes happen. With. Every. Book.
The latest China Bayles mystery, A Plain Vanilla Murder, contains one of my favorite flubs. Howard Cosell (McQuaid’s elderly basset) crossed the rainbow bridge several books ago, and Winchester is now the resident basset. But (as sharp-eyed reader Carol Wilson pointed out to me last week) a brief brain lapse on my part produced the name “Winston” on page 220 in the print edition (location 3151 if you’re reading an ebook).
Was it a genuine name mixup, Carol wanted to know. Or was I testing readers’ attentiveness? Maybe I inserted the error to trap plagiarists, as cartographers insert “trap streets” and “fake towns”? How did “Winston” pop in there?
The answer: Winston is a real dog who lives with my son Bob in Reno. A beautiful border-collie mix with a winning personality, he and Bob are inseparable. My editor-brain took a brief trip to Reno and Winston shows up in Vanilla. The copy editor and I both missed him on our three passes through the pages, so he’s there to stay in the hardcover, large print, and audio editions. He’ll be booted from the paperback edition next year. But meanwhile, Bob says that Winston is loving the attention.
Another favorite flub happened in Death in Whitechapel, one of the Victorian-Edwardian mysteries that Bill and I wrote together. It’s 1903 and Jack London, the writer, is living in Oakland CA. He’s looking across San Francisco Bay to the Golden Gate. But my brain took a break, my fingers inserted the word “bridge” after “Gate,” and—magically—London’s view included the Golden Gate Bridge. Which wasn’t completed until 1937. That error flew past at least four editors, none of whom spotted it. But sharp-eyed readers saw it right away and let us know. They still do. As I said, print lives forever. (Well, for a long time.)
My third favorite flub also involves a bridge. In The General’s Women, Eisenhower and his driver/lover, Kay Summersby, are in Egypt. Sightseeing, they take a automobile trip: “The next day, they drove across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings.” My son Michael was the first to report that they couldn’t have driven across the Nile because the bridge at Luxor wasn’t built until 1998. They had to have taken a ferry. (I found the information about their trip in one of Kay’s memoirs. She writes about the rickety old car; I assumed a bridge.)
Sometimes errors are significant enough to withdraw a book from print. Maybe the problem is plagiarism. It could be something that would injure a reader in some way, like a wrong wiring diagram or a poisonous mushroom or a can of beer in the hand of a kids’ comic-book character. Or it could be controversy over a factual error, as in the recent case of Naomi Wolf’s Outrage, or even racial or ethnic bias.
But usually, an error is just a reminder that every human-made thing is imperfect. Sometimes it’s here to stay, sometimes–as in Vanilla–it can be fixed in a later edition. In the meantime, enjoy Winston’s brief (if inexplicable) appearance.
He really is a lovely dog.
Reading note: Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?― L.M. Montgomery