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Author Proclivities

Editing is like having your teeth cleaned — you hate doing it, but you love having done it.

Well, I’m officially editing my second novel The Telling (due out May 2012 from Realms). And I feel I must confess how much I enjoy someone probing and poking around in my manuscript. Sadistic? Perhaps. Realistic? More likely.

You see, I can’t imagine a perfect novel. Especially from one at the front end of their writing career. So bring on the picks and scalers!

Last night, I received my first edits for the novel. I’ve been worried about this, not because I think the book is a mess, but because I’m always hearing horror stories about rogue editors reshuffling an author’s deck. They request extensive rewrites, changes of POV, re-plotting, and other assorted nightmares.

This was not that. And I was elated.

However, that doesn’t mean my editor thought the book was perfect. Or that I am without “proclivities.” In fact, it was the highlighting of these quirks, er, tendencies, that so enthused me.

Anyway, I thought it would be helpful to give you a window into this process by sharing a small sample of the notes I received from my editor. Hopefully, this doesn’t make me look like a hack or dissuade you from possible interest in reading that book. Either way, here goes.

Under CONSIDERATIONS is a section entitled “Author Proclivities.” Open wide…

  1. Author proclivities:

1. We all have habits that creep in to a project without notice. I’ve written 42 books and each one seems to have its own peculiar problems (by that I mean I make new mistakes). In your work, I noticed:

  1. A tendency to use the word “stood/standing” (over 50 times for “stood” in the first 100 pages).
    1. Using stood in such a way that it requires an -ing ending on the subsequent verb (stood peering, stood staring, stood pondering, etc)
    2. “Stood” is a fine word but not when used without purpose or when it is unneeded. It’s a “weasel word.” The action tells us a character is standing, there is no need to reinforce that unless there’s been a change in position.
    3. A tendency to fall back on “look” and similar for beats. This is done a lot.
    4. Use of double punctuation (!?). Years ago, there was a movement to introduce the interrobang into English punctuation (a blend of ! with a ?). It failed.
    5. Doubling up on prepositions. Usually, a single preposition will do the job. No need for “. . . assembled some of the documents out on the hood, although I can still get them with printing services near me I found online” . (Page 316)

Call me weird, but there was not an iota of defensiveness when I read this. In fact, I immediately texted my agent to say how thrilled I was by the encouragement and the helpful critique.

I mention defensiveness, because I get the sense that many writers do not appreciate such examination. We just want to be told how bitchin’ we are, not that we have… proclivities.

When I reviewed Redeeming Love, I pointed out the author’s tendency to start sentences with a pronoun.

SHE did. SHE went. SHE thought. SHE wondered. SHE felt. SHE worried.

Hey, a lot of writers do this. It’s something I have worked hard to correct in my writing. Not only is it a lazy way to structure sentences, it produces a staccato clip to the narrative.  Not to mention syntactic redundancy. Anyway, I was rather taken aback by how defensive some folks got about that critique. What can I say?

All authors have stylistic proclivities.

At the moment, mine happens to be using “a weasel word,” writing “stood / stand over 50 times in the first 100 pages.” Geez! Oh, and I have a “tendency to fall back on ‘look’ and similar beats.” And the demon of “Doubling up on prepositions,” I have that too.

And you know what? I am better off for knowing it.

Anyway, I was wondering how you approach your stylistic proclivities? Do you know what your proclivities are? Has anyone ever pointed them out? Do you give critique partners genuine permission to do so? What was / is your typical response: defensiveness or gratitude?

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Carradee September 28, 2011, 5:52 AM

    All authors have stylistic proclivities.

    This is so true! Personally, I often get weak or missing transitions pointed out to me in editing. It makes sense; I don’t think in transitions.

    My response to feedback tends to be along the lines of “Huh,” followed by “I didn’t realize that” or “Let me think about that” or “Er, you missed the point.”

    But when someone misses the point, I have to ask myself “So why didn’t they get it?” Sometimes there’s nothing I can do about it, but sometimes, it’s because I screwed up.

    • Mike Duran September 28, 2011, 9:54 AM

      Misti, there’s a difference between being purposely cryptic or ambiguous and being unclear or confusing. We tend to want to blame reader misunderstanding on the former, not the latter. However, the author must make it her aim to be clear… especially when trying to be unclear. More than not I think the author is at fault for confusion rather than the reader.

      • Carradee September 28, 2011, 11:00 AM

        there’s a difference between being purposely cryptic or ambiguous and being unclear or confusing. We tend to want to blame reader misunderstanding on the former, not the latter.

        Quite true. The faster you are to assume that the reader wasn’t paying attention, the more likely it is that you’re actually being unclear and confusing. Though I have encountered times when the selfsame scene gets called just right, too vague, and repetitively clear.

        My rule of thumb is: Am I defensive? Yes? Then they’re definitely right.

  • Tim George September 28, 2011, 6:09 AM

    Allow me to join your club of weird writers who embrace editing. Careful editing means someone actually read my work carefully. It means there is something for me to learn. A multi-published author was my mentor for some time. He emailed me this encouragement after making some major changes he suggested:

    “These revisions show you have a professional’s ability to take editorial direction properly, making significant changes where warranted, but remaining in charge as the man whose name will be on the cover…”

    Good editors our friends. Great editors are our heroes.

  • xdpaul September 28, 2011, 6:33 AM

    Look, I stand looking over at my body of work and, in review, I see I have no proclivities!?

  • Nicole September 28, 2011, 7:09 AM

    These are helpful and ones we’d probably catch in someone else’s work but manage to overlook them standing off to the side in our own.

  • R. L. Copple September 28, 2011, 9:33 AM

    The first novel I ever wrote back in 2005, I began to realize in editing it that I used “a little bit” very frequently. Like several times a page, often. I went through that three times before just doing a word search to find them all, and take out all but two or three in the whole book that actually needed to be there. I must have deleted well over a couple hundred of them in my 94K novel.

    But a word like “stood” wouldn’t be so easy for an author to spot. We don’t tend to see those. Thus the need for an editor. Or at a minimum, another set of eyes that don’t share your proclivities and will spot reoccurring words.

    To me, getting such critiques is just part of being a professional writer. Even the pros don’t produce flawless text on their first draft, why would we expect to?

    I’ve actually found I enjoy editing my work. Mainly because as I edit, when I discover a problem either because someone brought it up or I noticed it, it gives me a chance to become creative again, and often when I’m done, I feel that much better about the finished product. To me it is exciting to see a story I like become even better and more exciting. So while it can be tedious at times, I generally enjoy it, especially the results, usually. Which is a good thing, because the last first draft I wrote needs extensive edits, that even I can see from afar!

  • Nikole Hahn September 28, 2011, 9:51 AM

    I sent the first 1500 words of my manuscript through the Christian Writer’s Guild thick skin critique. I took a deep breath and wondered if what I would get back would be, “You’re a lousy writer. Don’t even bother. Chuck the manuscript. Find a new career.” Call it paranoia.

    Instead, it was decent, detailed and encouraging. I have a problem with transitions. I didn’t even know it! So I combed through the manuscript and began to fix it. Another problem: Pronouns…he, she. Didn’t know it. So I fixed that, too.

    So I agree. I want to write better and so I accept criticism and change.

  • John Robinson September 28, 2011, 11:06 AM

    Agree with all the above, Mike. A distressing number of writers are afflicted with “golden word syndrome,” and resist editing their wondrous nuggets with all the vigor of a Turkish prisoner of war.

    Luckily for them, the vanity presses are there to print those works as-is.

    Unluckily, those presses are excellent wallet vaccuums.

  • Katherine Coble September 28, 2011, 11:33 AM

    Once I have a good beta reader and/or editor lined up for a project I LOVE the process of getting edits. I think of it as the writers’ version of having a friend tell you when you’ve got something on your face or between your teeth. Wouldn’t you rather know and fix it before going out to the broader world?

    The thing is that it took me quite awhile to know the difference between just throwing something out there to the world via a blog entry or a writers’ group and actually procuring a person skilled as a Beta reader/editor.

    I’ve been editing other folks’ stuff for years and I know that no editor means things personally; their goal is to make the work its best possible form.

  • Jason Joyner September 28, 2011, 11:54 AM

    I found that I used the word “little” a LOT. I am naturally diplomatic, so I use things like “little” to soften a verbal/written blow. Not only was it a repeated word, it weakend my fiction considerably. I really watch out for it now.

    I also like to make compound sentences using “as.” I’m very glad my friend who reads my work points these things out to me. No one wants their work to be full of as-es. 😉

  • Jessica Thomas September 28, 2011, 2:58 PM

    Brave of you to share your editing notes. Funny you mention the double prepositions. I’ve recently realized I do this and have been marking lines through a lot of them. Also, I tend to use unnecessary prepositions. “She sat down.” Depending somewhat on context, I suppose, but the ‘down’ is really unnecessary.

    I also tend to use ‘was’ a lot in my first drafts. “She was standing.” “He was looking.”

  • Amy K. Sorrells September 28, 2011, 7:00 PM

    Love editing! Love that you used the word “bitchin'” for the first time
    since 1988. Love the inside scoop you shamelessly offer here. Thank
    you! “Just,” “seemed,” and any variation of “is, are, was, were, be, being, been,” tend to be my follies to date.

  • Bob Avey September 28, 2011, 7:25 PM

    Yes, editing can be a pain. However, it’s the re-writes after I’ve finished the first draft — before it goes to the editor — that I dread.

  • Matt Mikalatos October 1, 2011, 10:16 AM

    I personally think this is one of the greatest things about becoming a professional author… the professional feedback on your work. For me, on my first book, it was the use of the word “said.” Not that I shouldn’t use it, but that I used it when it wasn’t necessary.

    Also helpful… when I was told to cut my book by a third. That really helped get the most important, best material to the center of the novel! Great post, Mike.

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