A Few Favorite Flubs

Hi. I’m Winston. I’m a real dog.

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

34 comments on “A Few Favorite Flubs

  1. Aww – I love Winston. He reminds me of my Coco (in her little black dress), beloved companion for 16 years. Border Collie crosses are wonderful dogs! I mostly like the little quirks of small mistakes.

  2. Hello, Susan–Greetings from Ontario.
    I’ve just caught up with the transfer to the new site. I’ve enjoyed the comments about “flubs”, but I have comment about the page itself. It is very pretty to have the words on a transparency over the flowery background, but my elderly eyes were having more trouble seeing them. Perhaps the background could be greyed-out just a trifle? (I am eagerly awaiting the arrival in my local library branch of your newest.)

    • Joyce, glad you found me (again)! We’ve grayed-out the background several times. How about enlarging the font? Easily done, and will make all things much clearer. Thanks for being a library reader/supporter. Libraries purchase the bulk of hardcover books and help keep publishers in business.

  3. I love your books, every single page is a joy. Just finished your Vanilla book last night and will most likely read it again. Thank you for all you do and do not concern yourself with a simple error. We are all human, it is just part of naturen. Hugs.

  4. Leave the name Winston in there. Who doesn’t call loved ones by the wrong name from time to time. I know I have answered to my brother’s, mom’s, and aunts’ names when in the company of family.

  5. Ten years after my book, “Evening Gardens,” was published, someone who was at a lecture and bought a book said, “Big oops, they misspelled your name!” What? No way! Then I looked closely, and with the serif font and all caps, my middle name Wilkinson was indeed misspelled “WIILKINSON!” Contacted my editor and he was gobsmacked, “How many people proofread that page,” he asked, “including the two of us several times?” Sometimes, I’ll pull oiut the book and ask a friend if they can find the typo; in the ensuing 16 years, only one person has. The brain makes corrections for what you see.
    Try writing on a piece of paper
    Paris in the
    the springtime.

    and show it to people for 20 – 30 seconds. It’s rare that they see the double “the”

    • Eeek! That’s a nightmare story, Cathy, but a perfect illustration of the brain’s corrective strategies. Thanks. (I often see this misspelling of my middle name: Witting. But so far, not in the books.)

  6. Susan, one thing we love about China is she is human – we see all of her character, warts included. This makes her believable to us. If any fiction fans expect perfection from authors, they will be disappointed. Thank you for your thoughtful post above.

  7. A few years ago I was reading a mystery set in ranching country in Kansas. All was fine until I read the line that referred to a judge (I think) who was Pa Ingalls (Laura’s father). I’ve forgotten the details now, but it really jerked me out of the story, as I was sure that that Ingalls could not possibly have been the the Pa of Laura’s books. I wrote to the author, who agreed that I was right. I don’t remember if she had known ahead of time and there had been a poor editing, or what the story was, but she was apologetic, and I’m sure it would have been embarrassing for her.

    As a librarian for 30 years, retiring 16 years ago, I did notice in that time period that more and more books had typos in them, whereas in my early years as librarian, it was rare to find a typo or mistake. I had assumed publishers did not care as much.

    Thank you for your many good books–a minor glitch in the dog’s name is easily forgiven. : )
    Melissa Middleswart

      • Interesting, thanks for this information. I am vague on the details by now (quite vague) but I do remember thinking “impossible, Pa Ingalls was certainly never a judge in Kansas, he wasn’t even in Kansas too long”. I had not realized he was actually related to the man who was a judge in Kansas.

        • You’re right, Melissa–the Ingalls were squatters in Kansas and left for Wisconsin before the Indian lands were transferred to the white settlers. The Little House books don’t tell this part of the story. I wrote about this in A Wilder Rose.

  8. I’m so glad it was the dog and ;not some important fact about vanilla. I love the fact that you create stories around important plants….the Vanilla facts were just so very interesting.

  9. Plain Vanilla is one of my favorite Chyna books… and that’s saying something. I love them all. I love everything about them, I missed the flub, but things happen. Just this morning I called my puppy, who is called Bailey, Lola. The name of the dog I had just before her and who I still miss every single day. It’s not the first time either. Even though I didn’t notice the flub, I embrace it 🙂

  10. Ah well, it happens. I have been a print journalist for many years and thankfully my worst errors (I swear autocorrect is a genuine gremlin) were caught in time.
    I enjoyed your take on the weirdo trips the brain makes that so many other brains go “sure” to.
    Lastly, I have found it to be an odd thing that there seem to be a very high number of typos/errors in digital books as opposed to print.
    Be well. I love your work.

    • Cris, digital books run the gamut, so it’s not an odd thing that you’re spotting many errors. There are early books (some from previous centuries) that are simply scanned in, with no OCR corrections. There are a great many digital books by first-time author-publishers who don’t know that they need an editor/copy editor. And there are digital books that are published in multiple formats by the biggest publishers on the planet, and which have been gone over with a fine-tooth comb by several editors. But even then, the digital edition may not be checked over as carefully as the print edition–and the two are definitely NOT the same.

  11. One of my favorite Ruth Rendell books is “Piranha to Scurfy”. It is a story about a poor soul named Ambrose Ribbon who spends his days reading books and looking for errors. He then writes the authors telling them to have the mistake corrected before the next printing. Of course, he doesn’t get a reply to his letters and things go from bad to worse. The title is from a volume of a set of encyclopedias. It is sad, but funny at the same time.

  12. i like the name winston better. i think i also remember a flub. its about blackie blackwell. in one of the books i think i read that he had no children from his first marriage and in another book i think i read he had 2 boys. but im a senior and am not 100 percent sure

    • I remember that he has two boys (I think in the second book), but don’t remember the no-children. But (almost) anything is possible when it comes to flubs, Gloria. Especially when I wrote the book a quarter of a century ago. 🙂

      • I recently reread the series. One of the books rather implies that Blackie has no children when they are talking about the possibility of Sheila being pregnant.

  13. I’m on page 155 but just looked ahead and sure enough, I see Winston. But that’s o.k. I’m enjoying the story so much, as I do all your books. Who knew vanilla could be so interesting.

  14. I read plain vanilla as an ARC and I thought the same thing, Linda. I should have gone back and checked, but as you stated in the blog Susan since Winston is a lovely dog we’ll let him stay with China. I like dogs and I do miss that old dog.

  15. Errors happen. I was chief editor for a Swiss magazine for a dozen years. We were proud that, although very small fish in the publishing world, we had at least two astute proofreaders (and I myself read the new issue two, three times before handing it over to them). But you get blind after some time, especially in articles/texts you wrote yourself. Nevertheless, over time, there were some grammatical or orthographic errors I still am ashamed of. It’s really much more important that there are no errors in our research. So Winchester can stay Winston for some time …

  16. Susan – I thinking I’m reading this really late. Will not bore you with why, but just HAD to add that my FLUBS are like a pebble in my shoe. A large pebble! It’s a bit reassuring to know I’m not the only one who has them. Love the new website.
    Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

    • EVERYbody goes through this, Karen. One famous mystery author (you’d know her name) told me she returned her page proofs half-read, saying that she wasn’t going to correct them until they were set by somebody who could read and write English. The book had been typeset in Singapore. Stuff happens!

  17. That is one of my favorite Montgomery quotes! I agree about the vanilla, I buy mine at Penzey’s, but would prefer to make my own…just use too much of it to have the time.

    • Lori Walker, that is one of my favorite Montgomery quotes, too. I think Anne of Green Gables was one of my first chapter books. You might want to check the label on that Penzey’s Vanilla; it has sugar in it. Maybe you don’t mind. I love Penzey’s, BTW, but am sticking to McCormick’s for my vanilla extract.

  18. How funny about Winston vs Winchester! I noticed that, but thought I was just remembering wrong and was glad I at least had the “W” correct!
    By the way…..after reading A Plain Vanilla Murder, I immediately checked the label on the Mexican Vanilla I like to buy. One said “extract” and the other (from another export store) said “pure vanilla!”

    • I’m not even sure, Linda, whether we can trust the “pure” vanilla (who’s checking the source?). If we definitely want “pure,” we need to buy vanilla beans. But I’ve had some non-flavorful beans (probably harvested green or cured too fast), which means that even my “pure” vanilla isn’t as tasty as I’d like. Challenging!

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