He had his chance and blew it.

by Hugh Gilmore

At the masked ball, Felice had said, “I guess it’s time to confess that I bought “Malcolm’s Wine” back when you first published it. It sounded like it would be great. I love mysteries, especially those with an intellectual side.”

“Gee, that’s great,” I said.

“But I couldn’t finish it,” she said, “I couldn’t get into it at all. It didn’t hook me … I found the storyline hard to follow. I didn’t identify with the characters, didn’t care about them, didn’t like being with them. Sorry, I’m sure this is coming across as harsh, but please take it in the spirit of honest feedback.”

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned dishonest feedback? I wondered. You know, “Loved your book!” “Can’t wait for the sequel.” “You’re really some writer, you are.” That kind of thing keeps a fellow going for a long time.

But, in truth, one of Felice’s many charms was that, despite her use of a pseudonym, she seemed incapable of being dishonest. In fact, the anonymous nature of her forged identity gave her the freedom to say what she meant. You may be surprised, but I took comfort in being in a relationship with someone whose words I could trust. There was nothing false about her. I liked that.

I must stir the pot for a minute. My most recent book, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” appeared in February in a “final” version (after 12 years of tinkering). I had a book launch and party at Musehouse. I nearly sold out my initial order of 50 copies – to friends and fans of this column. I signed the books proudly that Friday night.

Then, over the weekend, rereading my book, I caught 25 errors – misplaced commas, repeated words, misspellings and the like. How could this have happened? I’d sold a crappy product to people who trusted me. I started revising it immediately. By Friday afternoon of a frantic week I’d submitted the “2nd, revised” edition to the publishers, Createspace.com.

The following lament is not about technical proficiency. We all know that story and character matter most in a novel. But nothing destroys “the willing suspension of disbelief” (what the reader brings to a story) quicker than a misspelled word. Such errors remind the reader that he or she is not living in Time Past with Interesting Characters, but simply holding a piece of paper. So, this story is not about punctuation, grammar and spelling; it’s about authorial suicide. I’d created a virtual parody of the typical ‘self-published’ book.

Worse: I’d ordered twenty additional copies of it that I’d have to throw away. Wasted money.

Meanwhile, I and my anonymous Facebook fan and critic, Felice (a name I invented for this story), were nattering away nightly. A Chestnut Hill Local feature story about my “Gorilla Tour” book had been published. I was also the subject of a video interview, skillfully managed by my editor, Pete Mazzaccaro, who placed it on the Local’s website (here). The revised edition of the book would be ready in three weeks.

Felice got into the act: “Your book finally arrived over the weekend, and I took a quick peek. I was disappointed to find you’d managed to make me despise the main character in the first sentence again.”

But Felice, I thought, aren’t villains supposed to be villainous?

She went on, “I finally saw your interview video. It was worth the wait! You’re a good speaker; I enjoyed the whole thing … your video revved my interest back up.” So, she was going to try reading the book again.

One potential problem though – she’d bought the original version. The revised edition wasn’t available yet. I figured, though, that any errors she’d be seeing had been corrected in the coming 2nd edition.

Felice wrote: “I started it again today. I’m 40 pages in, liking it better than that first couple of pages, will read 40 pages each day until I’m done. Feedback to come when I get some time. Your corrections won’t show up magically in my copy, so I’m making a list for you as I go. Can’t help it … But if you think you have only 25 errors, I must tell you I’ve found a few new ones.”

I wrote, “Thank you for reading my book.”

Felice replied: “Stop playing humble about your book. It’s a weird experience to read a novel while in touch with the author, a first for me. Instead of losing myself in the story, I’m very self-conscious that I’m reading.”

At this time, I was a day or two away from departure for Florida with my family. I was too dense to realize I was about to get creamed editorially, too hurried to realize that “a few more” suggested edits – in only 40 pages! – was a severe warning. I casually replied, “My second edition proof arrived. It seemed fine, so I approved it. It’s in the works now. However, I welcome your suggested edits if you still intend to offer them. But I’m hoping I/others caught them already.”

Just before leaving to catch the Florida-bound train, I checked my email inbox. From Felice: “I have 50-some errors so far. Not what you want to hear when heading to vacation, but you may as well have them.” She pasted them into the next message.

I still believed I’d caught them all. On the train, I opened the file of glitches she’d noticed and compared the enumerated errors with the 2nd, revised, edition proof I’d brought along. (But had already approved, since I wanted this book behind me when I went on vacation. What an idiot.) She was right. She’d found 52 mistakes; 35 of them still lingered in the 2nd edition, now in press.

I wrote, “I read your ’52-pickups’ on the train on my way down here and wanted to throw myself from the train.”

About 200-miles later, disgusted, vowing never to write again, I looked down the railroad tracks and thought of a scene in my book where two characters, Linder and his son, Eddie, were walking along a railroad track. While hiding from the law in a swamp, they’d come as close as they ever would to communicating with one another. The scene was marvelous in a sad and weird way. I was really proud to have written it. It had won a first-place award at the Philadelphia Writers Conference. I decided to go on living, but definitely more humbly. I wrote Felice and thanked her.

She wrote back, “I’m glad you found my edits of value. Count on a second batch plus my thoughts on the book in the next few days.”

I wrote: “Sometimes a fine-tooth comb edit gets in the way of the rhythm. I certainly do a grammar and spelling check when I write, but in a 100,000-word manuscript many things fool the eye and ear. Four people read the book, two of them with a cold editorial eye, but you still caught things no one noticed.”

Later that night, from Felice: “When I read your book, I wasn’t scouting for errors, I was falling over them as I read. All I was trying to do was read, and I couldn’t help seeing them. But don’t let it get to you – for future books, if you want a professional product, it may be worth your while to invest in some professional editing. This doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You can hire someone off elance.com or odesk.com. Just keep it in perspective: the story and how it’s told is more important than punctuation and spelling.”

The next day, sitting poolside under a slatted-roof cabana and covered with towels, I couldn’t resist going through Felice’s edits and making a scorecard. The results: She’d caught 110 errors, of which I and my crack editing team had caught only 33. That is, I had 77 changes to make.

I sat on my chaise lounger, palms swaying nearby in the balmy southern air, feeling mortified, certain I’d really damaged the small, but good, reputation I’d worked so hard to achieve by rushing this thing through. I’d let deadlines (self-imposed, at that!) rule over sensible caution. I’d hurt myself through feeling an unjustified omnipotence. Three books in a year! Hurray for me.

A cleaned-up “Gorilla Tour” is still not available. But Hugh Gilmore’s “Scenes from a Bookshop,” based on true stories from his old and rare bookshop days in Chestnut Hill, is. At Amazon and other bookstores, in Kindle and paperback formats.

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