When writing back cover descriptions …

Here is the back cover description for Chaos, by Iris Johansen, a book that’s included with this month’s SFBC mailing:

When CIA agent Alisa Flynn flaunts the rules by breaking into a mansion in the middle of the night, she skillfully circumvents alarms and outwits guards only to find herself standing in billionaire Gabe Korgan’s study . . . busted by Korgan himself. This could cost her her job unless, in a split second, she can turn the tables and try to convince him to join her on the most important mission of her life.

In a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, schoolgirls in Africa have been kidnapped, and Alisa knows that Korgan has the courage, financial means, and high-tech weaponry to help rescue them. With so many innocent lives hanging in the balance, what she doesn’t reveal is that one of those schoolgirls is like a little sister to her. But when the truth gets out, the stakes grow even higher.

Calling in additional assistance from renowned horse whisperer Margaret Douglas, Alisa and Gabe lay their plans, only to see them descend into chaos as the line between right and wrong wavers before them like a mirage. Every path is strewn with pitfalls, each likely to get them — or the hostages — killed. But with the help of a brave team and a horse with the heart of a warrior, they might just get out of this alive.

Quick! Who spotted the problem with the above description?

This is actually the first time I’ve personally seen someone using “flaunt” when they mean “flout.” I’ve heard other people say this is one of the typos in their personal top ten most hated, but I’ve never noticed it and don’t think the words seem that same and kind of wondered whether this error is actually all that common.

Well, I guess maybe it is, if it got into the book’s description on Amazon and in the SFBC mailing and no one caught it.

I think this particular error has to occur for people who don’t subvocalize. The words do not sound very much alike to me, so I suspect those who do subvocalize don’t tend to make this mistake. What do you all think? Is this a typo that gives you trouble, and if so, do you or don’t you silently pronounce words as you read them?

I like the general sound of the story, but typo aside, the description does have a few problems. You can’t convince anybody of anything in “a split second.” Convincing somebody necessarily takes time. It’s not clear why the protagonist reserves the information that one of the children is special to her — what’s the reasoning there? I get why the person who wrote the description wanted to mention the horse — lots of readers like horses — but this “And there’s a horse!” type of mention seems weird to me. One sentence indicating why a horse is a useful in a rescue mission in Africa would have helped a lot.

I think what I actually like is my impression of what this story could be, depending on how the author wrote it. I like the idea of the story I would write if I were matching that description. Having never read anything by this author, it’s difficult to guess whether I’d like the story Johansen wrote. I know this isn’t SFF, but has anybody read anything by her? What did you think?

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13 thoughts on “When writing back cover descriptions …”

  1. In contrast, I would suspect that the “flout/flaunt” issue shows up for people who have never in their lives said the word “flout” or heard anyone else say it — maybe not “flaunt,” either, for that matter, but “flout” hardly ever comes up in speech. In that case, I doubt subvocalization matters.

    As for the book — my suspension of disbelief yells at the idea of a billionaire going *personally* on a dangerous adventure with a rogue CIA agent. Shouldn’t he have people for that? Yeah, sure, thriller rules not reality, but still…

  2. Allan Shampine

    The subvocalization comment caught my eye. People process information in such a myriad of ways, and often we just assume others process the same way we do. I have a well-defined mental “voice” (a metacognitive voice) that literally “sounds” to me like normal speech, with intonation, volume, etc., and I use the same “voice” when reading (subvocalization). But there are many people who do not have metacognitive voices! I was shocked when I first learned that. They not only do not subvocalize, they do not “talk” in their heads at all, at least not the way that I use the term.

    Returning to the topic at hand, though, I agree completely with Craig that the idea of “billionaire jumping at the chance to join a dangerous secret mission run by a complete stranger who broke into his home” seems even more disconnected from reality than is usual in the genre…

  3. I caught the error and I’ve seen it more frequently than I’d like; enough so I’ve begun to wonder if the meanings are getting blurred together. This depresses me.

    The blurb doesn’t interest me 1) why; or why not knock him out and run? 2) in what world does him getting involved personally as opposed to financially/logistically make sense? 3) why a horse? they don’t thrive in the parts of Africa where these sorts of things tend to happen.

    Admittedly I’m not a great reader of thrillers, either. Maybe at least points one and two are essentially genre conventions.

  4. So “flout/flaunt” is the sort of typo I make, more often than I like. I don’t really understand why! I silently say words in my head as I write, but it’s as if my brain decides that, because a word has some of the same letters or sounds, near enough is good enough. And then that’s what my fingers type. I’ve written according instead of occuring, required instead of requested, and yard instead of year.

    I’ve noticed that I’m quicker to detect these kinds of errors when the beginning and/or ending letters differ from those of the word I meant to write.

  5. Mary, it could stand to be tightened up a LOT. A bunch of the details could be left out.

    Pete, now come on, it could be very good fanfic! Depends on how it’s written.

    Actually, so much about plausibility depends on the author’s ability to sell implausible events that I could see practically anything in this description working. It’s just that from the surface, looking at nothing but that description, so MANY implausible things present themselves to the eye. I’m a bit surprised I didn’t join the rest of you in going “Don’t billionaires have people? Can’t billionaires hire people?” I think that’s because I assumed this was also a romance and thus it’s crucial to get the male lead involved personally, no matter how implausible that might be.

    In fact, given the story’s probably a romance, the thing that REALLY would annoy me about the male lead is that he’s a billionaire, period. I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of romances where the male lead is (a) young; (b) super handsome; (c) astoundingly competent, or if you’re in a paranormal, astoundingly powerful magically; and (d) the fourth richest guy in the world. I’m like, pick one! And the one you should pick is (c)! The rest of that is either negotiable or actually detracts from your story. But I guess I’m in the minority there, or publishers think I’m in the minority at least, because there are SO MANY romance novels where the male lead has all those traits.

    I guess I should add that it’s not “young” that bothers me, it’s “young” in combination with astounding competence plus amazing wealth. Come ON! I don’t buy it.

    Allan, like you, I not only subvocalize when I read, I always have a mental voice, in clear words, with intonation, practically as distinct as a real spoken voice, for all or almost all thoughts. I wonder how common that is for writers compared to non-writers? You’re right that people have very different ways of handling and processing information and experiencing thoughts and so on. If someone really developed actual telepathy, I wonder how shocked we’d all be when we dipped into someone else’s head and found their mode of thinking rather different from our own? I’ve never seen a telepath written as needing adjustment time in order to comprehend someone else’s thoughts, but I bet that would be a realistic take on the experience. I mean, to the extent there’s such a thing as a “realistic” take on telepathy.

  6. Herenya, if I’m tired, I’ll type all sorts of semi-random words that start with the same letter as the word I meant to type. I could actually make this exact mistake when I’m tired, but I never have, probably because neither word is that common.

    But I’m actually much more likely to make homonym errors when I’m tired than errors based on spelling. I can literally type “right” instead of “write,” for example — I just did that last night. I generally catch that sort of thing at once, and ideally STOP TYPING and take a break, or even a nap, to reset the editor that ought to be hovering in the back of my brain to stop that sort of thing.

    I think that’s why “flaunt” and “flout” looks like a weird error to me. Even though they both start with the same letters, the pronunciation is so distinct. Craig, to me, the spelling indicates the pronunciation VERY clearly. I’m not sure *I* have ever said either word myself, but to me the words seem almost as hard to mistake for each other as for “float” or “flit.”

  7. I read over it the first time through, as I’m a bit of a gestalt reader and tend to skip lightly over names, if I’m not paying attention to them. This, immediately following the name, got lost in the slipstream of that.
    I do have a mental reading voice sounding out the text, but unless I’m paying close attention (i.e. proofreading) it can sound out the words it expects instead of the one that’s on the page.

    One thing I learned when training as a childrens’ librarian, is that the way people read depends on the method they were taught when learning to read.
    There were three methods used in teaching Dutch, and which you learned depended both on your age (which method was popular when you were six) and to a lesser extent your school (which method was used at your school).

    The oldest method was learning to read letter by letter. Advantage of this method: once you know your letters you can read every word, even if it’s new to you.
    Disadvantage: People taught that way read a bit slower, as they look at each letter in order to read the word. They are the ones who will immediately notice the difference between flout and flaunt.

    Then came the method where kids, immediately after learning the alphabet, were taught to recognise whole words at a glance, without constantly sounding out each letter (starting with small words and building up vocabulary).
    People taught this way look at the shape the word makes on the page, especially the first and last letters, and where any noticeable up- or down-lines should fall. They can easily read over the differences between shape, skape, shepe, shspe, shaqe etc. in a sentence, as they are reading by the gestalt of the whole word (and even the whole sentence-fragment) and the expected sense of what the next word in the sentence should be. The more you read, the better you get at predicting what should be next, and the more chance you’ll skip over typos and missing small words without noticing.
    The advantage of this method was the resulting reading speed, but the (bigger) disadvantage was that kids taught this way have a lot more trouble reading and acquiring new words. Until the shape of the new word is internalised they will stumble over it, or interpret it as something else with a similar shape.
    I think this method was only used for two or three decades, as its drawbacks became clear once the kids taught this way became students, and the universities started noticing these difficulties they had with absorbing knowledge from unknown scientific language.

    So the current method (for the last 3-4 decades) is a mix of both: while learning the alphabet, as soon as they learn the letter shapes, they start to learn not just the single letters but often-occurring groups of them, dipthongs and groupings like squ-, sch-, etc. That way they learn to read in syllables and letter-groups instead of single letters, making them faster than the letter-by-letter readers, but more capable of handling unknown words by recognising their component groupings than the kids taught by the gestalt method.

    I don’t know the history or methods used to teach literacy in English, but it’s likely that some of the difference in how people read, and what they notice while reading, is caused by the different reading methods they were taught (or taught themselves, before going to school).

  8. English has had phonics, which is letter by letter, and whole word, which sounds very like your second method. For a while California taught whole word. I don’t know what is taught now. I know my niece and nephew couldn’t read fluently until my parents (their grandparents had them for a long summer visit and taught them phonics.

    I also know that my sister who spent some years teaching ‘business writing’ for university or grad student level people grumbled about the horrible literacy level she was seeing – and that was in the last ten years. She retired from that just a couple years ago.

    I can certainly believe people aren’t taught the vocabulary any more, given the errors I see in professional as well as amateur writing. I think we got vocabulary through spelling lessons and spelling bees. I wonder if those are still a thing. ..?

    I vaguely remember a blended sort of teaching like your third example: sounds and syllables and words.

  9. I do the gestalt reading thing (because I (apparently) learned to read when my mom put up little signs labeling everything in in the house) and so I read the word as “flout,” but it annoyed me because “flout” is still the wrong word. You can’t flout a law by breaking it in the middle of the night where no one can see you. Unless she brags to people about it beforehand, I guess, in which case she’s just a really annoying character.

    And then I completely lost it when the horse whisperer showed up. Huh?????

  10. @Rachel–
    Unlikely to be good fanfic when Mary-Sue waltzes into the helpful millionaire’s home office in scene 1.

  11. Kim, I definitely blinked when the horse whisperer appeared, that’s for sure.

    Pete, you have a point.

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