On Writing – Bad Habits

If we consider ourselves storytellers, which habit and personality may incline us to, we certainly each have our styles and traits in how we tell a story. We form habits over the course of a lifetime of having these traits and tendencies. When writing, I aspire to put my personal voice in the words on the page. I enjoy telling stories in person to friends, and I think the more my living voice comes through on the paper the more the reader can connect with the story, and with me as an author.

The issue, however, is that a novel is not as “forgiving” as an in person listener might be. Obviously, a novel must be more finely crafted for word choice, rhythm, pacing, themes, imagery and much, much more. So, as much as one should aim to bring out their more flattering and better qualities of voice, it’s also worth knowing what your less savory habits are.

In my case, as I referenced last night, I have a tendency to lean on describing setting heavily to open a scene. This helps me place my character and kick off “action” by fixing or moving my character through that space. However, as discussed, these lengthy descriptions of setting should serve more than one purpose if you’re going to belabor your reader with them. They should reinforce or introduce tone, themes and brace the reader for upcoming character traits or nuance. Even then, keep it brief because there’s only so much interest a reader will have in the chairs at the table rather than who’s sitting in them and what they’re doing while there.

Another bad habit of mine, much more insidious in some ways, is my tendency when working through more dialogue heavy sections to continue “blocking” the scene by pointing out my characters’ gestures and motions. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself (although there’s something to be said for having your characters defined well enough that you can let the dialogue volley and trust that your reader will follow the train without issue). The issue comes in when I get lazy with the gestures- especially over the course of 100,000+ words.

I have a post-it on my computer at home warning me, emphatically, never to have my characters: shrug, sigh or groan. I also keep a similar edict handy when editing to remind me to cut those out when rereading and proofing my work.

We all have habits, we all have words we pick up more readily as easier and more familiar tools in our arsenal for our rhythms and tempos, but we have to- in disciplined work and rework of our craft- polish off the rough edges, and make patterns and building themes instead of grating repetition.

As ever, we have to move forward.

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