Writers Behaving Badly

1 aI’m at that stage in editing my second novel where I’m confronted with my own bad habits. It’s much like cleaning out your closet only to discover you still own not one but three pairs of those chunky clogs that were popular in 1996. How have they hidden this long? And what were you ever thinking?

In reading my draft, I noticed a character rolling her eyes more than once. I ran a search on the word “roll” and discovered I had 17 separate eye-rolling incidents, most of them from that one (really fed up, apparently) character.

I was also horrified to find twenty uses of the word “fool”—and I should clarify here that my novel is in no way about the courtly entertainments of the seventeenth century.

My choices were simple: I could either beat myself over the head with my manuscript, or I could drag other writers into the literary equivalent of that fifth-grade slumber party game, where you all tell your most embarrassing secrets. I chose the latter—and the results are below.

Some writers confessed to words they overused. M. Molly Backes, author of The Princesses of Iowa, writes: “There are no fewer than twelve suddenlys in the first 60 pages of my current work-in-progress, approximately one every five pages. Apparently the world of my first draft is a terrifying, unpredictable place, full of abrupt and startling words and gestures.”

And Eleanor Henderson confesses: “In the final stages of editing my novel, Ten Thousand Saints, one of my trusted readers scribbled an innocent note in the margin: “Do they have to say ‘fuck’ all the time?” Being the thorough and self-interrogating writer that I am, I did a CTL+F on “fuck” and its relatives: “fucking,” “fucker,” and that word which must be used most sparingly: “motherfucker.” To my embarrassment I discovered approximately a million fucking uses of this word. I took out all but approximately two hundred, washing the mouth of my filthy book. I edited that shit out.”

V. V. Ganeshananthan’s bête noire isn’t a word but a punctuation mark: “Well: I think my tic is probably obvious. In my first novel, Love Marriage, I use colons to create a certain stylistic refrain. But in the writing of that book, I got a little bit too used to them, so now my garden of double dots requires constant and prudent weeding.”

Other writers point to scenarios or descriptors that pop up too frequently.

Alan Heathcock, author of the story collection Volt, has learned to question his knee-jerk plot devices: “I have certain scenarios (e.g.: a snow plow driver hitting a buck deer, a woman having a knife stabbed into her palm, people listening to a Louvin Brothers record in a bomb shelter) that I try and force into just about every story. I’ll be writing along and—BAM—a woman has a knife sticking out of her palm.

The problem is that I’m trying to take a short cut, trying to fill the blank page with a situation already created and available in my imagination. Through experience, I now know this is just what I do when I can’t figure out what should really be in that spot, at which time I stop writing and begin thinking (though not without first wasting at least a little time wondering if maybe this time the woman really should have that knife in her palm).”

And Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of the YA novel Fingerprints of You, caught her character shortcut before it was too late: “My favorite discovery was that, as one editor noted, all of my characters wore corduroy pants during at least one scene in the novel. And they were right, every time I described a character’s clothes, I inevitably mentioned wide legged corduroys. Who knew I was obsessed with corduroy pants?! It was a symptom, of course, of lazy writing. I had rushed my final draft and failed to recognize I was using those details as a crutch to create a vivid image that, unfortunately, didn’t provide any significant information about the character.”

A few writers admitted to struggling with dialogue tags, which is where I think my own eye-rolling problem comes from. I don’t want to write “she joked” or “she said, sarcastically,” so… I’ll have her roll her eyes! Again! Brilliant.

Christine Sneed, author most recently of the novel Little Known Facts, writes: “I notice my repetitive tendencies especially when I’m writing in scene. I try to keep dialogue tags inconspicuous – mostly “said” and “asked” rather than “responded” and “interjected.” The “said”s and “asked’”s are fine, I think, but also describing how characters speak or look at each other—”her stomach leapt,” “he scowled/blushed/ran his hand through his hair,” these are the details I find myself repeating and have to watch out for most.”

Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of Somebody’s Daughter, recognizes a similar tendency: “I’m always telling my students not to use “chuckle” so much but then I’m all “smiled,” “nodded,” etc. 6 ways to Sunday.”

Have my fellow writer’s confessions made me feel better? Yes. Quite. Especially when their habits are the same as mine. Here’s Ganeshananthan again, copping to one I’m guilty of myself: “In nonfiction apparently I like to insert pretentious “thens” into things when it’s not necessary. So, then, what must we make of this?”

Which leads me to wonder what, then, we are all to make of this.

Well, first: no one is original at every turn, and quite often the writers we’re trying hardest not to repeat are ourselves.

But the good news: this is what editing is for. We have a chance to catch our mistakes, to laugh at our odd tendencies.

And even more good news: we’re blessed to live in the age of Control+F. It’s no substitute for a careful read, but it’s a lot faster than scouring a 300-page manuscript for every time I used “grin.”

But the problem of finding fifty other ways to have characters express their glee? That’s still on me.

*eyeroll*

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About Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai's second novel, THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, has been called "stunning: ambitious, readable, and intriguing" by Library Journal. She is also the author of THE BORROWER (Viking, 2011) and numerous short stories, four of which have been anthologized in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES series. She teaches at Lake Forest College, Sierra Nevada College, and StoryStudio Chicago, and is the recipient of a 2014 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her website is http://www.rebeccamakkai.com, and she tweets at @rebeccamakkai.
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4 Responses to Writers Behaving Badly

  1. Those hateful repetitive tendencies! Such a relief to know such wonderful writers share this burden. My characters nod more than those bobbing-head dogs that folks used to put in their rear car windows. Why, oh why (then), can’t my repetitive tendency be something more useful, like dusting?

    Thanks for writing an essay that made me smile (and nod). Today’s editing will now be more enjoyable.

    • Ha! In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose has a great chapter called “Gesture” — it’s made me much more aware of my own fictional knee-jerk gestures (of the nodding, grinning, eye-rolling variety), although of course France Prose has yet to materialize at my desk and fix my manuscript up with ingenious replacements. My characters also go wide-eyed a lot, and stare with alarming frequency. If I met them in real life, I’d probably think they were insane.

  2. Pingback: Better Words: Brief Thoughts on Editing | It'll All Work Out

  3. Thank you so much for this. I was breaking from an edit when this came up on my Twitter. Your timing couldn’t be better. Not that it makes me a better writer or editor — but I feel a hell of a lot less lonely.

    As for the confessional, what I need is one of those collars that shock dogs when they bark, but it needs to shock me when I type the words “actually,” “apparently,” and “realized.”

    I’ve given up on controlling the F-bombs.

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