Picture this. I’m reading a novel, an e-book, one of those that is advertised ‘free today.’ Well it may have been 99p, but either way, given the time and labour that writing a novel involves, this author has basically gifted the book to me and anyone else who might like to read it, a generous gesture and one I do appreciate. I also happen to know that the author has been commercially published in the past, and so I have every expectation the book will live up to the promise of the opening page which I have already scanned to check it is likely to suit me, I like its style. I am happy.
When I pick it up again to read it for real, it’s actually about a teenage boy (which I had not taken in at first glance) and after my extended travels with a teenager, maybe I was more in the mood for a story about adults, but that’s not really a problem. The boy is on a plane, the journey and his reaction to it are convincing. By the time we touch down he is a real teenager, maybe young for his age, but entirely credible. In the arrivals hall, I like the awkward reunion with the aunt he hasn’t seen for some time. She too is taking shape in my head. It feels right that she ‘jerked her head to indicate he should follow her.’ The picture in my mind is crystal clear, the awkward adolescent trails behind. But then something goes wrong. ‘As they walked he could feel her eyes on him.’ I blink and reread. Yes, he is definitely following her. Then he feels her eyes on him, looking him up and down. She is in front. No one has turned around or caught up.
I hear you calling me picky, like one of those pesky readers (as I once heard described by Barbara Trapido) who takes her to task because such and such a train journey described in a novel could not have taken place in 1963. As if it mattered. But it does matter to that particular reader, just as this little stutter in the airport matters to me, because I am no longer in the arrivals hall, wondering how the boy and his aunt are going to get on and why he is there in the first place. I am thinking about the writing, and how it could have been done differently. In terms of my progress through this book, it feels like I’ve stubbed my toe.
This is why editing is important. I’ve lost count of the occasions in our writing group when someone has picked me up for something similar, some small but silly lack of continuity that raises a laugh and is easily put right. But every story is a gift to the reader, an invitation to leave the world behind and enter the fiction. Anything that bursts the bubble takes the gift away.
Of course, even in a well-edited book the odd thing will slip through. In this case I was unlucky it was near the start. The rest was as far as I noticed error free. It still wasn’t quite my cup of tea, which was probably to do with the subject matter. Or maybe that toe was still smarting, just a bit.