I recently read a James Patterson book named Mistress. It was one of the best books I’ve read in months. You know the type of book I mean… the one you snap at your husband over because he’s dared to interrupt you – AGAIN – after you asked him nicely to just let you read!
The kind of book you carry with you everywhere you go, so you can read it in snatches, while the Starbucks guy brews your tea or you stand in line at the checkout.
Mistress is the first James Patterson book I’ve ever read. Am I the only person who can say that? He’s written an unbelievable number of books (I looked it up). Clearly I’ve been missing out, and I intend to remedy that situation soon.
But first, I have to mention the cat. I have to mention the cat because – great as the book was – I actually laid awake one night, mad as hell… about the cat!
You see, written in amongst the political intrigue and dangerous liaisons, there is a scene where the main character (Ben) slits the yellow tape of a crime scene and enters the apartment of his dead friend, to search for evidence.
Ben doesn’t find evidence. But he does find his friends cat (Cinnamon), which has been left there, abandoned and terribly hungry. The poor thing is a nervous wreck, writes Patterson. Has anyone been feeding her? So Ben finds some cat food in the pantry and the starving cat ‘goes to town on the food‘.
Ben then leaves, hops on his motorcycle, and we’re off to the next scene… abandoning the cat once again.
Since Ben’s friend has been dead for some time now, we’ve already attended the funeral, met the family, and been engrossed in this novel long enough for the bad guys to score their second murder. We’re a good quarter of the way through this book when Ben breaks into that apartment and finds the cat. Friends of the deceased are few, or caught up in the conspiracy. No landlord or neighbors are mentioned so it seems likely no one is coming to rescue the cat.
Cinnamon’s on her own.
We’re left wondering… did Cinnamon starve to death? Was the toilet seat left up so she could at least get water? Did she become too weak to even utter pitiful meows that might be heard by a neighbor if the walls were thin enough?
The apartment had been crawling with cops and the CIA on the night the murder took place. Any one of them could’ve removed the cat. Or Cinnamon could’ve run out in all the commotion. (Better for her to be on the streets where she at least had a fighting chance, than to starve to death alone, locked in an apartment.)
Or one of the family of the deceased could’ve come and picked her up. A concerned neighbor. The landlord. A friend. Anybody??
There are countless ways that cat could NOT be there when Ben broke in, and the reader would’ve accepted her absence without question, understanding a crime scene left empty. Patterson didn’t have to write any explanation whatsoever for Cinnamon’s absence.
Discovering and feeding the cat took all of two short paragraphs. It didn’t change the purpose or meaning of the scene. Not one bit. The cat never comes up again in the rest of the book.
So why did Patterson have to mention the cat? This may seem a silly thing to obsess over, but I have a point here.
As writers, we change the storyline, cut and paste, edit, delete whole sections and start all over again. So many times we lose count. It can’t be helped. It’s part of the process. Rarely does a book get published from a first draft. Details get lost in the shuffle and – sometimes – details that worked in a previous draft don’t work in a later version. If they’re not caught, they leave unanswered questions. Like abandoned cats.
The authors themselves forget the very words they wrote in a previous chapter. When you’ve written and revised 30 chapters over a period of many months, it’s easy to get confused. During a proofread of a book I wrote, I once discovered that I described my main character as having blue eyes in one chapter, and brown eyes several chapters later. It happens.
That’s a pretty big detail to screw up but I’m not alone in this. I’ve proofread similar mistakes in other’s manuscripts. I even remember one book – already published – where the main characters name changed! Two thirds of the way through the story she went from “Marianne” to “Marilyn”. (In case you’re wondering, that book was published by a large, well respected traditional publishing house. Mistakes like that aren’t confined to self-publishing.)
But these details are important. Like the cat. I wasn’t mad at Ben for not having the good sense to drop the cat off somewhere on his way to the scene (although it did make him look callous); he was, after all, just a written character. No, I was mad at Patterson.
It’s doubtful Patterson intended his character to look callous. He or someone else just forgot to fix that detail. Yet it’s those details that define your character, reveal their moral attributes, and differentiate the good guys from the bad.
Those details are important.
And we all know (or should know) that you never, ever have the good character hurt, abuse, kill, or abandon a child or a pet. Only the bad character does that, and even then it’s edgy. There’s a reason the baby or dog survives the blast in movies, while scores of adults get blown to bits.
Editing those details is the biggest reason for prejudice against self-published books. It’s why traditional houses are considered “quality publishing” and the other has a reputation of “poor quality”. In the past, this reputation was earned by careless self-publishers, who didn’t have access to hiring outside editors. That’s gradually changing as more and more self-pub’s offer editorial services and the two forms of publishing are meshing together. (Why Self Publishers Are A Traditional Publishers Best Friend) But as writers, we need to be vigilant in this area.
If you publish the traditional way, don’t sit back and relax and expect the publishing house to carry all the proofreading load. Remember, they work on reduced budgets now, and they’re not infallible (as Patterson’s book is an example of).
If you self-publish and proofreading is not your forte, then you need to find help… fellow writers, family and friends, or hired professionals.
We’re human. Our proofreaders are human. Mistakes will happen. (If you look close enough, doubtless mine will come to light.) But do not spend all that time writing your book and then be lax on ‘cleaning it up’. Especially in today’s environment, more than ever, first impressions can make the difference between a loyal following, catching the interest of a professional pub., or being labeled as a sloppy writer. Labels, by definition, stick with a person a long time. They are difficult to change.
Patterson doesn’t have to worry. He’s made his name. One lone cat detail isn’t going to break him. But most of us aren’t Patterson. We’re (insert your name), and nobody knows who we are yet.
Be sure that when they do, they remember your story, and NOT the cat.