Sunday, November 25, 2012


This post-Thanksgiving blog post will be briefer than most - just a nod to the inevitable detritus and discarded verbiage that results from editing a book-length manuscript.

I haven't read a certain famous work of fiction that has been making the rounds of late, but I understand that in it, a certain young woman has a habit of biting her lip.  Frequently.  I understand this from the many spoofs, satires, and good-natured ripoffs that keep cropping up.

So, if a little authorial tic like that can find its way into a wildly popular, um, novel, perhaps it's not too surprising that most authors seem to have favorite "bits of business" with which they tend to pepper their prose, only to have to weed them out later, grumbling all the while.

Mine was nodding.  Any time I wanted a character to do something nonverbal, that character wound up nodding.  It was genuinely alarming to see how often people in my book nodded, sometimes several times to a page.  When I read the work aloud (and thank goodness I did!), I realized I had created a historical novel peopled with medieval bobbleheads.

Medieval bobbleheads

Well, that just wouldn't do.  So I made use of a wonderful editing tool, which I call the "Search and Destroy" feature.  I searched for "nod" and ruthlessly deleted it, substituted other things, rewrote sentences or entire paragraphs, and eradicated nodding from my characters' nonverbal lexicon.  Mostly.

A writer friend tells me her particular tic is pausing.  When her characters need something to do, they pause.  I've never noticed this in the drafts of her work that I've read, so she must weed it out early, but I can imagine that left in place, such a habit would result in a sort of stop-action, amateur claymation effect for the reader.

That Search and Destroy feature is handy for other things, too.  I let too many sentences begin with "There is" or "There are."  I know better, but it's a careless habit that still sneaks into my writing.  A global search both reveals the scope of the problem, and gives the author a chance to do something about it, before the manuscript sees the light of day.

It's also great for renaming.  I had a "placeholder" name for a character; I liked it, and I thought it suited her, but I hadn't yet checked to see if it was in use in my period.  It wasn't, or at least I couldn't document it.  So I picked a new name and globally replaced the old one.  Very useful, though I tend to forget I've done it and wonder who this stranger in my book might be. 

And when additional research revealed that I needed to change the heraldic colors of one family I was writing about, Search and Destroy did the job, wiping out the old colors and replacing them with the new ones.  (I did accidentally change the color of the wall hangings at the same time, but I went back and fixed it.)

But the most puzzling habit I've found in my own writing is my tendency to have a character in two places at once.  This is an artifact of rewriting; you rewrite a scene, or a part of a scene, and forget that something also needs to change in what goes before it or comes after it.  Thus, I wound up with a young woman in my book sitting on a window seat and sewing - directly across from herself, sitting on the other window seat and sewing.  Oops.

And I had a poor fellow, a secondary character, who I needed to use in a particularly dramatic scene, but I kept reworking it, trying to get it the way I wanted it.  The result?  Bicci was at the side of my protagonist as they walked toward Bicci, all the while Bicci was off somewhere else trying to find Anselmo.  Bicci was a talented sort of guy, but being in three places at once was too much, even for him. 

I found more systemic problems, many of them, but these are enough to give you a taste.  I've promised myself that I will never attempt to give advice to other writers - I firmly believe that there are as many right ways to write as there are writers, or maybe even as many right ways as there are individual writing projects - but just this once, I'll break that rule:  read your stuff out loud.  You'll be appalled, but you'll be glad you did it.

Images in this post include a photo of mine, and two public-domain images altered slightly by my husband.

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