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.