Imagine you open a new book from a first-time author, begin reading, and in Chapter One encounter the word “mishappen.” Is your first thought, “Hmm, that’s a curious word. Wonder what it means?” Or is your first thought, “Hmm, a misspelling of misshapen right in the first chapter. Wonder how many more mistakes I’ll find?” Now let’s take that same scenario and add one additional bit of information: the publisher.
This time imagine you’re reading a book published by Random House and you encounter the word “mishappen.” Do you reach for a dictionary? Take a second look at the word’s context to ascertain its meaning? Or do you simply regard it as an error and move on? I’m guessing you’re grabbing a dictionary or taking a second look. Okay, now imagine you’re reading a self-published book and encounter the word “mishappen.” Again, a dictionary? A second look at context? Or do you simply make a little tick mark in that space you keep reserved in the back of your mind for self-published books? You know, the space where you almost subconsciously tally each textual error you find, apprehensive that you will again reach that tipping point whereupon you’ll be forced to conclude: “What a waste of time. I should have known better.” It’s the latter isn’t it? It’s all right. Believe me I’m not criticizing. I do the same thing. And we all know why.
There are so many self-published books out there just riddled with errors: spelling errors, grammatical errors, plot errors, formatting errors—errors, errors, and more errors—so many errors, in fact, that we’re predisposed to the fact and begin expecting them. It’s an understandable prejudice. Get bitten by seven of the eight yellow Labrador retrievers you’ve ever encountered and it’s understandable that you’ll be wary of the ninth. But should we be? As a self-published author, I say . . . sure, of course. Why not? Who’s looking to get bit again? Unfortunately, like our fictitious yellow Labs, many self-published authors have a tendency to bite. It’s a propensity that makes it all the more difficult for those self-published authors who don’t. Yet it’s a fact, and one we need to acknowledge. So where does that leave the self-published author? Somewhat disadvantaged I’m afraid.
If Random House is the publisher of my book, a reader will almost certainly give me the benefit of the doubt when he encounters some new word, literary device, or innovation. It’s a natural inclination. If I’m the publisher of my own book, however, I’m unlikely to receive that same consideration. A reader will naturally regard the “oddity” in the self-published book with a wary eye and, quite possibly, see it as an error. So what’s the self-published author to do when it comes to the new word, the new device, the innovation? Employ it or ignore it for fear a reader will fail to recognize it? It’s a difficult question.
In the end, I believe it all comes down to the work itself. As a self-published author, there’s only so much one can do to ensure an innovation is not misunderstood. Do too much—explain too much—and the work is compromised. Rather, I believe the self-published author needs to be true to himself, true to his work, and true to his craft. He needs to write the story the best he can, ignoring the fact that his new word or device or innovation may be viewed with a more skeptical eye than that of his traditionally published counterpart. Is it fair that a self-published author should be judged more skeptically simply because he is self-published? Perhaps not. Then again, perhaps it is. It’s not as easy a question to answer as one might think. It harkens back to the question of the biting yellow Labs. Except that a yellow Lab cannot help but be a yellow Lab. But a self-published author . . . Well, that’s a subject for another day.
Whatever the case, whether fair or unfair, reality is reality. A self-published author will be judged more skeptically. And that is not likely to change. I only contend that, despite this reality, a self-published author should still embrace originality and innovation whenever possible, despite the potential for heightened skepticism and misunderstanding. Originality and innovation are hard enough to achieve. They are too precious for one to eschew out of fear they’ll be misunderstood. Therefore, I say stay true to the work. Who knows, one day you may be recognized as the innovative yellow Lab that doesn’t bite. And good dogs, as we know, sometimes get treats.
Okay, so what about this word, “mishappen”? Is it a misspelling of misshapen or is it actually a new word? Well, the first thing it is, is a self-serving device I used in this article to one, make my point, and two, blow my own horn while simultaneously promoting my book. Shameless I know.
Beyond that, “mishappen” is a word I coined three decades ago for use in my future novel, Keepers of the Dawn. In Chapter One of the novel, a three-year-old Bartu is described as “the mentally afflicted mishappen with the strange and unsettling eyes.” Later, in Chapter Five, he is referred to as the “[m]ishap of a wrongful birth,” the “[f]oul fruit of a lifeless womb,” the “[s]pawn of Muta!” Therefore, a mishappen (pronounced mis–hap–en), as referenced in the novel, is a person or thing whose existence is directly attributable to a mishap or an adulteration.
For years after I’d coined the word, whenever I came upon an unabridged dictionary somewhere I’d check to see if the word appeared in it. But I never found it. Then a few years ago, I decided to check the internet. And voila! There it was. Mishappen. After so many years of off-and-on searching, it was quite a surprise. As it turns out, however, the mishappen of the online dictionaries is not quite the same mishappen that I had coined.
Although spelled the same, the word in the online dictionaries is a verb, whereas the mishappen of my book is a noun. The dictionaries state that “mishappen” is rarely used now. It originated in the 14th century, comes from the Middle English word “mishapnen,” and is equivalent to “mis- + happen.” It’s defined as meaning, “[t]o happen through misfortune,” which is actually very close to the meaning I’ve ascribed to my version of the word. That is, a person or thing whose existence is directly attributable to a mishap or an adulteration.
Since my version of mishappen is a noun rather than a verb, it appears the mishappen used in Keepers of the Dawn is a new word after all. Even better, the definition of the new noun, “mishappen,” fits well with the definition of the existing verb, “mishappen.” It’s such a natural fit that I’m surprised the noun wasn’t coined long ago. Then again, perhaps it was and I just haven’t encountered that definition yet. Maybe one day another previously undiscovered dictionary entry will rear its aged head and prove me merely a borrower of the word rather than originator. Until then, however, I’ll take my little glories wherever I can get them and lay claim to the new noun, “mishappen.” My brief moment of fame!
From the Ninety-Ninth Edition of the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, published January 2234: 1 mishappen mis-hap-en n : (now exceedingly rare) a person or thing whose existence is directly attributable to a mishap or an adulteration. Ex. The mule was a mishappen, as it was the result of a prize racehorse escaping its paddock and mating with a donkey. Origin: late 20th century, coined by a forgotten man of little consequence whose name has since been lost to history.