I was going to talk about villain motivation today, and though I expressed some hesitation about that on Twitter this morning after yesterday’s events in Ohio, I still will do that—probably next week. But then something happened this morning that got me thinking about the sometimes crucial importance of what might at first seem like the tiniest of details.

I’ve been a professional editor for a very long time, and have copy edited and proofread more manuscripts than I can count—I actually honestly lost count years ago. In no other part of a book’s “product cycle” is an eye for detail more important than in those crucial quality control steps. I have a pretty good eye for detail, and if I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve edited, I can only imagine the number of little tiny mistakes—some that the vast majority of readers wouldn’t even have recognized—that I’ve fixed. I do, however, remember a few that I failed to fix. Yes, loyal readers, there have been times when that eye for detail failed me, and in turn, failed my authors.

What made me think of this today? Am I just having some kind of crisis of confidence? No . . . I mean, yes. Kind of.

On Thursday I transferred some money from one account to another to cover some bills that are due before the first of March. It’s no big deal, really, the sort of thing people do everyday, and certainly not the first time I’ve done it. Everything should have been fine, the money should have been in my checking account on Friday, but then it wasn’t. Then I saw that the transaction might take up to three business days. Nail biter weekend then Monday—no money. Of course, I thought, leave it to a couple of banks to conspire to cause me stress by waiting for the absolute last second, which was today, the third business day. But then no money. Then I checked the account I was transferring from and the money was back in there.

I’ll save you the description of panic . . . wild, uncontrolled gnashing of teeth, pulling out of my few remaining hairs, curses and protestations fired off into the universe, phone calls to bank customer service reps in which I begged, extolled, debased myself . . .

When I set up the transfer from Bank A to Bank B I gave Bank A the routing number and account number for my checking account at Bank B, apparently not having seen the little pull down menu above those fields that identified it as a savings account. Bank A sends out to Bank B looking for a savings account with these numbers. No such savings account exists. Bank B’s auto-response: No idea, Bank A, keep the money. All this comes to my attention only this morning.

I’m actually still in the process of trying to get both banks to bend some rules to get this transfer out of Bank A today and into Bank B tomorrow, thereby narrowly avoiding minor disasters caused by Thursday being the start of a new month, and I remain guardedly optimistic that all will be fine tomorrow. But here I am, scurrying around in a state of panic over what? A small detail that I just plain didn’t see.

Kind of like the teaser paragraph in the first book I edited for TSR, way back in 1995, in which this line appears: “Taste cold steal!”


The bit with Jeggred staying behind to watch over the bodies of the other dark elves while they Astral travel in search of Lolth but then there he is all of a sudden in the Astral with them in Richard Baker’s Condemnation.


Just recently I was made aware of my total lack of research into Spanish naming conventions because I went with what I thought sounded good instead of doing the slightest bit of research on the matter.


The fact is you can go over and over and over and over a manuscript dozens, hundreds, thousands of times and some little thing will get through, some little typo or misspelling or mistake in usage—and not only just because, like my Checking/Savings pull-down menu, you just didn’t see it, but because like my Spanish naming convention gaff, you just didn’t know, or didn’t work hard enough.

No excuses.

Except that this is going to happen. We are all human, even editors, and people make mistakes. Sometimes they’re small mistakes, sometimes they’re big mistakes, but as I’ve occasionally had to remind an editor, squirming over the typo that made it through, no one was killed because that Dragonlance book had the word chapter spelled chaptes in a chapter heading—holy crap, really? Yeah, we did. No one, not me nor my editor, were sent to the gallows because our chapter numbers went off track in one of the Watercourse Trilogy books—see, now I can’t even remember which one.

I will not go bankrupt, be foreclosed on, sent to debtor’s prison, or sacrificed on the street in front of that hideous bull statue on Wall Street because of this bank transfer snafu.

But when I miss these details it does piss me off, knock me down a peg, and make me want to do better next time.

When that mistake, that little detail gets past you, go ahead and squirm. If you don’t care enough to feel embarrassed—at least—by something like that, you shouldn’t be writing or editing. But if I let myself be defeated by “Taste cold steal!” in 1995, there’s one career’s full of mistakes you will never know about, that were fixed before anyone but the author and I had read that manuscript, that might have been missed by someone else, and I would be making little detail mistakes and not caring, in a job I didn’t love nearly as much as the one I have.

Better to be sacrificed to the Bull God of Wall Street.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. scottmarlowe says:

    I know exactly what you mean re typos, etc. A reviewer who otherwise gave me a nice, thoughtful review hit me with 3 stars out of 5 b/c he found some typos and some grammar errors in one of my novels. My first reaction was, of course, no way I made those errors! Turns out I had. I fixed them immediately and rolled out a new version, but damn did I feel stupid for some time after that.

    Oh, I also had the same problem with money not showing up when I expected it to. Hope your situation there works out better than it did for me!

  2. I hate finding those typos after it’s too late. Pride, I guess. And February must be the month for financial mishaps. I swear I paid a credit card bill online before the due date. I even wrote it in the checkbook which I never do before I complete the online transaction. So, why did I get a past due notice? Commence with the yelling and gnashing of teeth, but I got it worked out and the extra fees dropped.

    (Note: incomplete sentence structures used for effect. Just saying!)

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