Bad habits…

February 14, 2012

I am never as in love with my writing as on the first re-read. It’s all downhill from there, which makes editing my own work difficult, frustrating and a bountiful source of self-doubt. What’s worse, I edit as I go, so I never really get to read my whole novel for the ‘first’ time. I’ve tried to get that first draft down without tampering but you might as well leave me in a room with a Toblerone and ask me not to eat it.

I’m not a technical writer. I’m often aware that something is wrong, or not working, but I’m not as savvy as an editor or a critic. I go by feel. There are countless books available to help with self-editing, or rewriting, but I’ve found it’s a process I needed to tailor to my style. That means some soul-searching, brutal honesty and the inevitable showdown with your demon-self. It’s not pretty.

So, I thought I’d share some of my bad habits with you. I focus on these when I edit. The trick to self-editing is to be intimate with your writing and to be unimpressed by your own bad habits, even if they seem like such an integral part of your ‘voice’. Don’t let them masquerade themselves in a paragraph that bores you numb.

Here are some of mine:

Crutch words: I tend to use these when my character is feeling introspective. I’m heavy on words like sometimes, just and maybe. I also like shiny, jagged and most swear words. When I read my work aloud I swear using a Scottish accent because a) it’s funny and b) it makes me pay attention. Ultimately characters who swear all the time get boring, so I cut the swears by half in the second draft and half again in the third. Yes, basically my first drafts are riddled with profanity, which is a crutch of sorts.

Dialogue with an agenda: Often I’ll use dialogue to further plot. This is a mistake. It almost never works and it drives me crazy when I’m reading. I don’t know why I do it. Dialogue should reveal character, not plot. If a character sounds wooden or possessed when they speak, I know I’m writing out of character just to direct the script.

Telling: If I’ve written, ‘I feel…’ or ‘She felt…’ I know I’m not on my game.

Lapsing into lazy, fragmented sentences: I do this when I’ve become bored writing action scenes. This can work to convey a sense of urgency or pace, or it can work if the character isn’t capable of being articulate because she’s suffering blunt-force trauma, but mostly it’s laziness and I know I’m ripping off the reader.

Overblown metaphor and simile: Sometimes (there’s that crutch word) the quest for a fresh image can go horribly wrong. These are really hard to spot. They’re the ‘darlings’ I must kill. Often they’ll hang around until the last draft where they stand out like a pair of shucked, dirty socks left on the carpet after you’ve vacuumed because they’re so ridiculous.

Too many prefixes and suffixes: Blah, blah, blah. They seem indispensable to me at the time but there’s usually a less junky way to say something is more or less, or it is or it isn’t.

Forcing a theme: This is the big one. As a general rule, my characters do what they want. They do what is right for them. But. Some days I’m dazzled by my (imagined) brilliance; I see the shimmering mirage of a Big Idea and usher my characters towards it. Disaster. Very hard to fix. When things are working well for me it’s usually because I have a lot of small, authentic ideas that arise from my characters and their interaction. For me, plot works in a similar way. Theme will emerge from these small ideas and grow like an organic carrot in an untended garden develop without forcing it.

Hellooo, Author: Authorial intrusion. A hard concept to grasp, for me anyway. It’s excruciating to give up on wonderful ideas or a snappy piece of dialogue when I realise it’s me, the author, spouting off, not my character. I might read several books by a single author and the characters sound the same—they’re all witty, snarky, funny, empathetic, good-looking but mildly imperfect, flawed, but in a destined-for-redemption kind of way. Even their quirks seem, well…mainstream. Or secondary characters become stereotypes because stereotypical characters are easier to write – the blueprint’s been drawn, all the writer has to do is connect the dots. (Personally, I love stereotypes but at some point they need to surprise me.) I used to believe that a character must be highly intelligent, beautiful, and have stature to capture the imagination of the reader, but I’ve discovered that’s not always the case. Winston Groom proved it with Forrest Gump. I think readers want diversity, authenticity and a goddamn story. I’m always on the lookout for pieces of me that find their way into my characters’ personalities and, if they don’t belong, they’re cut. It hurts.

You’ve cut the hell out of your work. Your novel has gone from 274 pages to a measly 200. So, what’s left?

Just the gold.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your tips, Vikki. Great to read so I can think of my MS and what I'm doing wrong.
    February 19, 2012 at 7:55 am ·