• Tayari Jones
  • BUT I DID IT ON PURPOSE: When Your "Mistakes" Are Not Mistakes At All
BUT I DID IT ON PURPOSE: When Your "Mistakes" Are Not Mistakes At All
Written by
Tayari Jones
July 2010
Written by
Tayari Jones
July 2010
My editor and I have an ongoing discussion about willful incinsistencies in my new novel, The Silver Girl. To understand what follows, you have to know the plot. Here's the three sentence summary.
The Silver Girl is the story of the two wives and two daughters of James Witherspoon. Gwen and her daughter know about James' other life, but Laverne and her daughter have no idea. Inevitably, his lives intersect with dramatic consequences.
Well, the whole idea that this man has two women in the same city means there is going to be a whole lot of lying going on. Some of the deceptions are big deals, some are not. The problem focuses on the little things. I think they add texture but my editor worries that they will look like mistakes. Here is an example. Early in the story the secret daughter, Dana, mentions that "James' wife won't even let him smoke in his own house. She makes him go out on the porch, even when it's raining." But later in the story when he hear from his "legitimate" daughter, we see him smoking up a storm in the living room or wherever else he wants to light up. This inconsistency is willful, but my editor and the copyeditor flagged it. Her: I just worry that people will think that we're sloppy. Me: So what? We solved it by inserting Dana in a scene and letting her react with surprise when she hears that he smokes. I don't think it hurts the scene any, I guess it's good that the reader is assured that I know what I'm doing. Another similar moment is when the father is waxing nostalic about the early days of his marraige, "When your mother and I first got married, it was baby this, and baby that...." In an earlier chapter it's already shown that the couple got together in a shotgun wedding. I felt that the reader would understand that James is changing the story for his own purposes, but again, the worry was that the book would seem inconsistent. I held my ground on this one and just let it stand. The last such moment involves the title. The Silver Girls is a reference to the song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Near the end of the song is a lovely moment that goes "Sail on, silver girl, sail on by. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way." I intend it as a sort of ironic reference. And silver, of course, is the second place prize, perfect for an "outside" child. Well, in the section narrated by one daughter, the lyric is credited to Simon and Garfunkel. In the section narrated by the other, she said, "My mother sang along with Aretha Franklin, "All your dreams are on their way." My editor was worried that, again, it would seem sloppy and that readers wouldn't know that Aretha had recorded the song, too. On this one, too, I had to stand firm. There are Aretha Franklin households and there are Simon and Garfunkel households. My editor raises a really important issue. I usually tell students that anything that pulls the reader out of the story isn't worth it. But this experience has sort of changed my perspective on this. I think you have to decide whether it is worth it to pull the reader out of the story and you have to figure out if all readers will be distracted or just some. The final issue is whether readers will think you're sloppy or if they will think you're doing something smart. It sort of reminds me of the way people read stories in workshop as opposed to stories that are published in the New Yorker. Let's say you see some thing amiss in a story you have up for discussion in class. You will urge the writer to correct it. But if the story is published somewhere that you respect, you will see the weird thing and try and figure out how it works.

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  • Tayari Jones

    @Sin, I think it's great when there are different versions of the same song! the sameness of the song reminds us that music is universal, but the different singers still let each person, each family, each culture, have their own identity!

  • Sin McKnight

    Based on my understanding of what I read Tayari, I would have though the father was confused and forgotten which house he was in and what hapened with either wife. I would stay stand firm on the Bridge over Troubled Water song since I've heard it also by the Wynans and your readers will understand but give your manuscript to a reader with a critical eye and get their opinion. Not a friend since you need objectivity but someone who likes to read. Strange but I have a poetry titled the he same -Bridge over troubled water.

  • Tayari Jones

    Stacy, I totally agree that you have to let editor's edit. But I also think that you don't want to give too much weight to a sort of hypothetical simple reader. If it's a novel about deception, then there's going to be deception. And yes, I care about being sloppy. But I don't care so much when I am NOT sloppy. And, again, whether people think you are sloppy largely depends on how much they trust you.

    I think an editor's job is to point out potential issues and then the writer decides what she thinks is important. For some things, I give in, but for others no. Did you see that mentioned one of the times where I agreed with the editor's suggestions.

    I think one thing that is really important, that your comment doesn't seem to consider is that there is no universal "reader" that has a shared perception. Different readers, like different writers, have varied experiences. Another example: Where I'm from, people say "He'll be back after while." I won't change that to "after a while" for fear that some readers will think I am making a typo.

    This is not about "ego", but about trying to accurately report a world. It's dangerous to homogenize. And I would rather be thought "sloppy" than to misrepresent a language I know to fit some sort of bogus standard.

    I hope this makes sense.

  • Stacy-Deanne


    As an author I understand where you are coming from, but as a professional, I gotta be honest with you that I think the editor might be correct. Editors read things in the way that the audience will and us as authors, are too close to our work. It might not look sloppy to us or "we" understand it perfectly, but we gotta remember, people who don't know what the book is about or don't know what we had in mind is gonna read our books. When the editor says it seems sloppy, that tells me maybe she feels like the writing (in terms of how you convey this information through the story) could be tackled in a clearer way. I can't put words in the editor's mouth but this seems like it's just confusing to the editor and if it's confusing to the point where they have issues, you should evaluate this. I am the first one to say writers should stand by their work and how they want it done, but the truth is, we aren't always right and sometimes you gotta compromise. My agent does the same thing for me. I might not understand her AT first, then I reread her comments or suggestions and I realize she is right. We gotta put ourselves in the shoes of the reader. We can understand our own work, but it could still be confusing to others. We've had time to be with this plot for months and so we already know the deal. But think of it like this, if you didn't write it, and read it, would any of this be confusing to you? Could it be a different way you convey it?

    I also think that in terms of being published, you always think of what's best for the work, not our egos. We all have egos, LOL! But we gotta remember that doesn't mean we are right. It's always your decision go. If you disagree, you can ditch the publisher and submit to someone else. But I feel these might be valid statements they are making. She obviously thinks the work is good or she wouldn't be publishing it right?

    I think compromise should be the key here. Also when you said, "So what?" about the sloppiness, surely you didn't mean that. You want your work out there sloppy? It will only hurt your name and reputation and from that point on, everyone's gonna think your work is "sloppy".

    I'd put weight into what the editor's saying but hey, you have to make the decision you're happy with. But remember, the work is most important.

    Best Wishes!