I started to read a book today…put it down immediately…and I’m not sure I’ll pick it up again.
I was barely two pages into the thing, and it’s a book that, by many accounts, is terrific.
The book is James Scott Bell’s DEADLOCK*. It opens with a compelling scene, involving a 16-year-old who is obviously contemplating suicide. Yep. Strong stuff. And pretty well told from a 16-year-old’s mindset, too, all things considered.
Until I hit the line, “…that song her mama used to sing to her, about that girl named Billie Joe who jumped off a bridge.”
And I said, “Oh, for crying out loud!” and set it aside.
This is clearly a reference to a song that a person of my generation (and hence, this girl’s mama’s generation) would know: Ode to Billie Joe. Bobbie Gentry. 1967. I remember it well. I turned 15 that summer, and the disk jockeys went nuts over that song the first time they played it. It zoomed to the #1 most requested song that night and stayed there for an impressive amount of time. It was a huge national hit. It spawned not only a novelization, but a movie…because it was a song that posed a lot of questions and didn’t answer all of them—thus allowing for all kinds of creative license.
But the one question it did answer, and the one this author got wrong, was who Billie Joe was. Billie Joe McAllister was a boy. The girl,who told the tale of his suicide, was the one narrating the ode. But she didn’t jump off any bridges. Not even once.
And anyone who had more than a nodding acquaintance with this song would have known that.
So if you’re going to use a cultural reference like this, the very least you can do is get it right.
I can hear the protests now. “But, Janny, this book was published in 2002! That’s a long time from when this song was popular! Maybe the character just got it wrong!"
Uhh…no. Her mama used to sing it to her all the time, remember? If your mama sings you a song that often, the very least you know is if the main character is a boy or a girl. And if it’s something you’re remembering at a desperate point in your life, it’s already part of your DNA. You know the thing inside and out.
Unfortunately, the author didn’t. And his editor didn’t. And the moment that became obvious, he shattered his credibility with me.
Harsh? Too picky? I don’t think so. Not within the first few pages of a book. The place where you’re trying to reel in a reader. To get her so involved in the scene and in your story that she can’t put the book down.
In other words, this is a lethal place to make a mistake.
Readers can be very forgiving people. Readers who are also writers can be even more forgiving. We know how hard it can be to construct worlds, to spin spells, to craft a compelling read, and little things here and there don’t bother us. Even I’ll forgive an author a minor gaffe if I’m well into the book, buying the premise, and involved with the characters’ lives.
But I’m not there within the first few pages.
I’m not involved with anyone yet at that point. I don’t know this author, I don’t know his people, and I don’t know—because he hasn’t yet convinced me—that I should believe him. Hence, when he makes a mistake that is easily corrected right at the beginning of his story, he's got me wondering already—not about his characters, but about him. About whether he was misinformed, or just lazy. And mostly, about whether I can trust anything else he says.
There are a couple of lessons here.
One, of course, is to avoid any obvious cultural references. Often, this is the advice that’s safest to follow—because it avoids the problem of “dating” the work, and/or rendering lots of what might be really good lines ineffective because another audience, in another time and place, won’t “get” them.
The second one is, if you’re going to use a cultural reference—and by that, I mean a song, a movie, a TV show, a character in a book or play, or even a brand name product or a real street in a real town—you need to be absolutely fanatical about getting it right.
This means you don’t trust the first source you go to, either. You back up the source with three or four others, if you’re smart. If you really want to get the lay of the land, you go there yourself, you walk the street, and you talk to the natives. You watch that play or that TV show or that movie and make sure the line you quote is actually in it. You listen to the song—or at least read the lyrics.
Above all, you never assume you “know” it.
And never assume your editor “knows” it, either. Because more than one author has had something right in a manuscript and had a well-meaning editor change it so it’s actually wrong.
Have your ducks in a row. Period.
And if you can’t be sure of a cultural reference—maybe think about changing it to something you make up. No one faults writers who make up fake towns, fake streets, and fake TV shows. If anything, that shows you’ve got the extra little bit of creativity to truly build an entire world. And even if most people who know you also know what real town you’re talking about…that part doesn’t matter. Because in the end, it’s all fiction, you can’t make a mistake unless you forget your own details…but that’s a whole ‘nuther problem, one that’s solved with a tad more organization. :-)
Unfortunately, screwing up a cultural reference as popular as this one isn’t so easily fixed.
I don’t know if I’m going back to that book, or that author.
So don’t let this happen to you.
I’d hate to leave a horking good story on the shelf simply because you lost me at “hello."
*And yes, I could have omitted the real author’s name and the real book name…but there’s no point to anonymity, is there? It doesn't help a reader. So don’t give me grief about it.