Don’t forget to do your homework.
Huh? Aren’t we talking about writing? Yes, we are, and by homework I mean research. Even fiction requires that you present the reader with a sense that you know what you are talking about.
Small slips are common in writing, especially anachronisms. In Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Act II, Scene 1, the conspirators have met in Brutus’ orchard where the following bit of dialogue occurs:
Marcus Brutus, “Peace! Count the clock.”
Cassius. “The clock hath stricken three.”
Trebonius. “ ‘Tis time to part.”
So? Well, the first mechanical clock was invented in China in about 1092, and they didn’t make it to Europe until about the 12th Century. So unless Shakespeare knew of a Roman sundial that chimed….
While Shakespeare can be forgiven (the average 16th Century Englishman probably didn’t know 1st Century B.C Romans didn’t have clocks), nowadays such slips are not that easy to accept because we have so much information at our fingertips.
A good editor will catch many such things. For instance in “Agony of the Gods” one of my main characters carries a .45 Automatic. My editor corrected me when I kept referring to “clips” for it – the correct term is magazines, but we ended up in a brief argument because he insisted the pistol is a semi-automatic, not an automatic. He was right, but wrong at the same time. The gun is a semi-automatic because it loads the next round automatically, but only fires one shot at a time. On the other hand I capitalize “Automatic” because the M1911 semi-automatic pistol became well known as the .45 Automatic in the early 20th Century. I was using the name of a classic firearm while he was using the name of a type of pistol.
So I’m not all that worried about small things (although having a number of ‘small’ errors in your manuscript will not help). I’m worried about big things. Here’s a couple of examples.
One posted murder story I read had the coroner arrive at the scene to examine a recently discovered corpse. Following a cursory examination he announces that the victim suffered 38 stab wounds during the attack. Huh? A coroner at a crime scene is interested in determining in general terms (or best guess) a preliminary cause and time of death. They will not strip the body (in a dark alley no less) and start counting stab wounds – that’s left to the post mortem once they get the body back to the morgue. Now look, I claim no great knowledge about such things (I’m not a crime story writer), but this wouldn’t even be accepted for a poor tv show. The fact that the writer got such a simple thing wrong soured me on the book right there. This is where research (homework) comes in. Spend some time reading about what a coroner does at a crime scene. Get a good sense of what goes on before you start writing. Some professional writers have been allowed to ‘shadow’ police so they could get a better idea of what goes into the daily work and investigative routine. Now don’t expect to be allowed to do such things as a starter, but the internet library is always open.
Another example that comes to mind is from a scifi story, posted on a writers help writers site, I started to read. Granted, it was a wild and wooly space opera, but when the hero’s side-kick, a cat person, put on a space suit that had a hole in the back for its tail I called it quits. Look, if you want to have a six foot tall cat person that’s fine (kind of a feline wookiee), but at least have a slip on tail suit. (You could probably have lots of fun with scenes where the poor critter has problems getting it on.) A hole in a spacesuit makes it as useful as the proverbial screen door on a submarine. Since the story clearly was not written for six year olds, or as a script for a Saturday morning cartoon show, I just moved on. Even in space opera there are limits.
Well, I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the point. The most important thing to consider here is that you are presenting yourself to an editor through your writing. Stuff like this just tells her or him that you are sloppy about your writing, and that’s not the first impression you want to make.