Small Mind Hobgoblins

My high school English teacher used to have a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson hanging on the bulletin board that baffled me for years.  It read: “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  (Apparently, there’s more to it.)  I’m reminded of it, however, every time I receive a copy edited manuscript from my publisher.

That may sound like a dis on copy editors, but it’s not meant as one.  I say thank goodness for copy editors or my readers would have to spend all their time writing me angry letters complaining about all the little inconsistencies that riddle my work.  No, it’s my mind that doesn’t suffer details very well.  I apparently (mis)took Emerson’s quote to heart and now my brain jettisons “little” consistencies.  Ask my writers’ group if you doubt me, but I’m lucky if I manage to spell my main character’s name the same way throughout a five hundred page manuscript.

Even though I’ve always written books that are part of a series, I rely on my brain to keep track of the world-building details.  I realize exactly how foolish this is, but I almost never re-read a novel once it’s gone to press.  Part of that decision is the fact that I’m usually deeply sick of the book during the process of getting it to publication.  I’ve read and re-read the damn thing so many times (in draft, final draft, editorial revision, final revision, copy edited manuscript, page proofs, etc.) that the thought of looking at it again for even a second makes me cringe. 

One of the reasons I don’t look back at my earlier work in the same series is that I like the freedom that not-knowing-I’m-screwing-up affords.  I should say that I’ve never violated a character’s history with my cavalier attitude toward consistency, but I have messed up the time-line in the AngeLINK universe because a copy editor had corrected a date (to make it consistent with a presidential election year) and my brain had never made the “final edit,” as it were.  So the books following Archangel Protocol are actually off by two years.  Only one reader noticed the mistake and she did because she was re-reading the books on the line-by-line level in order to write fanfic.  Even so, I hope I get a chance to fix that at some point because it now bothers me.

You’d think, then, I’d learn, right?  Not so.  Since that mistake, I’m slightly more willing to do a quick word search through the electronic version of my final draft to check certain details, but I’m still fairly adamant about not letting a little thing like accuracy stop me from writing.  I should clarify, however, that I’m only talking about little, harmless details.  We all know that if a writer isn’t careful and consistent with the important details, you can loose your readers.  I even try to be pretty careful with what I call “blocking,” which is to say whether or not a character is sitting or standing and what color shoes they’re wearing  — although I have a copy editor to thank for noticing a character’s switch from combat boots to high heels. 

God forbid something like that actually make it into print, but I rarely let those things worry me at the start.  I write to get the story out and then sweat the details. 

Or, later, thank the higher powers that a copy editor catches them. 

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  1. 1. Karen Wester Newton

    I find it helpful to always create a file called Timeline at the start of a new book. I write “Day 1,”, “Day 2″ etc. in consecutive paragraphs (with jumps when necessary) and record what happened on that day. It helps most when you have two or more separate action tracks that you need to keep in sync, but it’s also useful when a character wants to say something like “I’ve only known you x number of days.” I don’t have to guess or reread the whole m.s. to figure out what x should be. Also, I can update it when I’m ready to quite writing for the day, and it doesn’t slow down the creative flow.

    I always say I work without an outline, but it’s not completely true. I just create the outline after the fact..

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Only one person noticed the inconsistency? I must be out of my mind. I sweat that small stuff big time when I write, or (more correctly) when I proofread.

    What drives me crazy is proofing all the made up words, place names, and proper names. I think, for my last book, the copyeditor gave me a ten page list.

Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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