Last minute thoughts

There’s a deft little thread woven into Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night where one of the academics is perpetually working on the final draft of her definitive book and keeps taking it back to do what modern publishers call “tweak” it. A footnote here, the incorporation of a newly published paper there—her colleagues in the end have to wrench the thing from her hands and send it away, while she trails behind protesting about the footnote on page 84 that needs correcting. Or something of the sort, you get the idea.

At least, you do if you’re a writer. When the page proofs for Touchstone came in (during BoucherCon in Alaska–you can revisit my pleasure by scrolling back to September) I dutifully put my head down and worked my way through them, correcting the odd name, changing verbs, removing repetitions. I sent it off, by the deadline. Editors, assistants, and various others went through it, and off it was bundled to Publication and the printers.

And then the other day a niggling thought surfaced in the back of my mind: Wasn’t there a place where..?

So I went to the ARC (yet another illustration of why no one should wish to read an advanced reading copy of a book) and yes, there was. It came in a passage where two main characters are talking about Bennett Grey, the man known as “Touchstone,” with one character explaining to the other what that word means. I’d been focused on the alchemical overtones of a substance that can identify gold, and somehow overlooked the minor problem that the book isn’t named “Quicksilver.”

It’s the sort of thing that brings Those Letters. Letters that point out, in fury or in longsuffering patience, that the author got it wrong, yet again. Letters saying that touchstone is a, yes, stone such as slate on which precious metals leave a trace when rubbed. Mercury (also known as quicksilver) is not a touchstone, although it can perform a similar function of proving true gold. Discerning readers couldn’t help picking up on the idiocy—and reviewers! I could just see the scathing criticism now: Doesn’t King bother with research any more? Doesn’t she know that mercury and touchstone are entirely different things? Sheesh.

So up bursts the desperate author, snatching in desperation at her tattered manuscript, crying out to her editor to save her from Those Letters and Reviews.

And on the very brink of catastrophe, with the letters about to be set in solid type (yeah, right) for all the ages to mock and wag their heads at, Miss Lydgate’s—er, Ms King’s book was rescued from infamy, and common sense restored.

So when you get to page 121 of Touchstone and come across the place where Alistair Carstairs and Harris Stuyvesant are talking—

“What’s touchstone?” [Stuyvesant asks]
“It’s a soft stone used to prove the purity of gold or silver. But the
alchemists used quicksilver, or mercury, because when one touches
gold to mercury, the liquid is drawn up to cover the solid…etc”

Know that only the lightning-quick action of my Bantam editor’s beloved assistant, Kelly, rescued that from reading—

“What’s touchstone?”
“It’s an archaic name for quicksilver, or mercury. Mercury bonds
with gold, and only gold. When you touch a gold ring to a pool of
mercury, the mercury is drawn to the ring, covering it and making it etc”

God, the shame. And oh, the Letters…

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  1. Roxanne on November 15, 2007 at 10:57 am

    I experience ‘lightbulb moments’ like that oh-too-often and after-the-fact. In my case, I am a cataloguing librarian, so two days after I (think I’ve) finished with an item, it will suddenly occur to me out of the blue: “Did I remember to add an 043 field to that record?”

    Although these moments serve to remind me of my fallibility, I guess I am thankful for them in that I get to go back (as you did) and fix the error.

    On the other hand, I sometimes wonder about the many occasions that I do *not* have a lightbulb moment and errors go on uncorrected. (Involuntary shiver.) I try to not to dwell on this . . .

  2. Younger Son on November 15, 2007 at 11:34 am

    When I read this, I began to frame a question for you on the VBC, asking exactly how great your dread and loathing for Letters was, as I had once or twice struck upon an apparent inconsistency, and wanted to emit a cry of pleasure and triumph at finding a kind of treasure.

    On reflection, I suppose that’s an insult in that it implies that hunting errors, and not the lapidations of plot and character, is the main pleasure to be had from your writing. Which isn’t true.

    Miss Manners does say that when one notices a fault in another’s hair or dress, one should mention it only if the sufferer has some immediate hope of correcting it. By extension, once an imperfection in a story has gotten into print, there’s not much to be done about it; so those who notice it should keep their mouths shut. If it were information essential to lives or fortunes, you should alert the author, but not when it’s a work of fiction.

    Having answered my question, I decided not to ask it.

  3. Teresa on November 15, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    I find such errors in books (and in any published writing at all) reassuring,that human beings are human.

    Thanks for writing.


  4. Roxanne on November 15, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    Oooohhh – “lapidations” – great word (and particularly apt in light of this entry)! I had to go and look it up in the OED. Thanks, Younger Son.

  5. annie on November 15, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    Errors – I agree that there is only any point in writing to the author if they may be able to correct it – for instance in future novels of a series. Too many glaring errors, and I ditch the book (a few American authors try to set novels in Britain and get basic stuff wrong!) but it obviously depends on one’s knowledge. I adore Lindsey Davis’ Falco books set in Ancient Rome and don’t have a clue if there are hundreds of errors! Even on stuff I know, if I’m caught up in the novel I don’t usually notice.
    As for DLS, I’m trying to remember how many campanological errors she comitted in The Nine Tailors – something like 73 – but she must have expected it from bell ringers!

  6. Phil the Badger on November 15, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    I hope your novel, unlike Miss Lydgate’s magnum opus, does not involve “twelve different varieties of type”.

  7. Kerry on November 16, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    In the interest of taking responsibility for my actions and participating in the age-old ritual of publicly requesting forgiveness for transgressions, may I just say “mea maxima culpa” and admit that I’m chagrined and woefully sorry to have been the author of One Of Those Letters? I truly wasn’t pointing fingers of blame or trying to shame — just sharing a bit of trivia culled from my profession. And the remark was included in a letter of praise and thanks for a great read.

    Laurie, I will hasten to add, was all graciousness in her reply. For my part, I will go forth and sin no more!

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