Sunday, December 21, 2008


On Gremlins, Making Mistakes, and Compassion

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Oh, how easy it is to make a mistake. Oh how easy it is not to see it in your own material—even if you are a great editor of others' material.

Often times the mistake involves a word that is spelled differently but pronounced the same. And often the author does know the difference between the spelling of the two. It's just those gremlins that The Frugal Editor is making famous get to us. Maybe we're typing too fast or maybe our brains are in another zone or... but the gremlins will get us—both you and me. Here's an example of how one got me.

I try to take a poetry class once a year. Because I'm an instructor, UCLA Extension Writers' Program gives me one class a year at no charge. It's one of the perks they offer and a great way for them to be sure that their instructors continue to get educated—and at least one of us (me) needs it. So I finished the first draft of my poem. Checked it (well, OK, checked it perfunctorily). I printed out copies so everyone in class would have a critique copy. Stuck the copies into my tote marked "Poetry," and took off for class. Couldn't be late!

When it was my turn to share my poem for critique, I passed out the copies and began to read. There (in the title!) was the word "peer." I meant "pier."

"Oh, gawd," I said. "Make that "pier, p-i-e-r." It was especially awful for me because I am an editor and because I wrote The Frugal Editor. Fine example I had set. What would my classmates think of my abilities? Could I possibly do anything worse to undermine my own credibility?

But here is the most important part. Everyone just nodded and chortled. It can happen to anyone. It can happen to editors, to teachers, to university instructors, to plain-old-everyday writers. The gremlins can hit at any time for any reason.

I thought maybe you'd like to see the poem. Here it is (with the spelling right!):

Death by Ferris Wheel at Santa Monica Pier

From her seat in the gondola. A woman
who might be me, watches roller

bladers with supple bones and toddlers with careless
balloons Far, far down on the pier. She opens

the doors—mini saloon doors of purple—or
she crawls over acrylic barriers. Either way

she hesitates a moment. The lurch
of the wheel as it stops at the top finishes

the job. No scream. Even the plane floating
a campaign trail of plastic behind it, silent. Soundless

waves, too, that far up. She floats as if posing
for her close-up, delicate fingers, poised toes,

her red sunhat a Frisbee against
sky of pulled taffy clouds on blue.

Sea like scallops of Alençon lace below,
sand stretched away toward the Palisades,

the smell of sugary churros her last sensation.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson ©

By the way. I didn't flunk my class, either.

The lesson here, Aesop fashion, is that because the gremlins are always at work, people will make mistakes. It will happen to you and it will happen to me. Best not get critical and point fingers. Your day is nigh!


Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits fiction and poetry, is an instructor for UCLA Extension Writers' Program and the author of The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success. She is edits a newsletter the includes tips galore on everything from editing to branding. Subscribe by sending an e-mail with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line to Learn more at Click on the Newsletter and Blog tab at the top of the home page.

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Blogger Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Awww, Angela and WOW editors! Thank you so much for printing this. Another message beside that great editing is a an author's first and best marketing offense is that in this year of economic downturn and publishing woes, we would all do well to BUY BOOKS! For ourselves, for gifts. At my critique group meeting yesterday we exchanged gifts. Most us us did just that. We enjoyed passing the book-gifts around and getting more ideas for our own last-minute gifts.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson

10:00 AM  
Anonymous B. Lynn Goodwin said...

You are so right about the gremlins, Carolyn. They are out there for all of us. Mine often wake me up at night. Whenever I remember, like right now, I ask them, oh so politely, to step away from the computer. I invite them to take a walk in the park, or take BART to the airport, where they can get on a plane to the destination of their choice.

I love the heartfelt honesty and compassion in this piece. Thanks for sharing it.

B. Lynn Goodwin
Author of You Want Me to Do What? Journaling for Caregivers

12:15 PM  

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