The Joy of Hunting Tics


So far this year, I’ve written six short stories, which I’ll be wrapping together into a collection that will be released this summer. I’ve submitted all of them to multiple publications, and they’ve all been rejected. I’ve published most of them on Amazon, and haven’t had enough sales to buy a bagel and coffee.

But the effort – nights, weekends, lunch breaks, early morning train rides – hasn’t been wasted. Through the constant experimentation allowed by short fiction, I’ve learned quite a bit about outlining, character development, dialogue, and endings, among other things.

The most helpful lesson, though, has been discovering my own writing tics. One of my editing passes is always a sit-on-the-hands-and-just-read-the-story exercise. This is the editing pass where I try to pretend the piece was written by someone else. I examine whether I’ve left holes in the plot or other mysteries that wouldn’t be clear to a reader who’s not inside my cranium. Occasionally, I’d find one of these oversights. But every time I did this read, some writing tic – a repeated word or construction – would grab my attention.

After a while, I decided to start keeping track of them, and I now have a list of fifty of these little buggers. I now devote an editing pass to interrogating each one of these tics to make sure they are essential in their place and whether there is a stronger phrasing I could use. I haven’t banned these words from my stories – it is incredibly stupid to ban any word or expression from your work – but they often serve as indicators of weak language, imprecision, or missed opportunities.

For example:

I used to start a lot of sentences with some variant of “There was.” This construction is a holdover from my days of adolescent Hemingway reading. The vagueness of the two words lends a detached, Voice of God effect to a sentence, rather than keeping the reader planted in the character’s head, seeing the world the way a particular person would see it. Most of these I’d rewrite to focus on the main object being observed. So “There was a weathered boat bobbing in the ocean” would become “A weathered boat bobbed in the ocean.” Tighter. Cleaner. More immediate.

I also used to hang “began” or “started” in front of a character’s action. Those are simply unnecessary words, and they can become distracting when repeated too often.

The last one I’ll talk about is “thing” words. Something, everything, or just plain old “thing.” These words crop up when I’m writing quickly and can’t think of the exact right word, but I don’t want to stop the flow so I drop down a “thing” and keep going. “Thing” words can be replaced with a more precise word almost every single time, and the sentence is immediately improved. “That was the thing that annoyed her the most” becomes “That was the habit that annoyed her the most.” “Something about the place gave him the creeps” becomes “The way no one made eye contact gave him the creeps.”

Making these changes during editing feels like being at the optometrist with my face in the phoropter and having the little lenses click over, sharpening the clarity of my vision bit by bit.  What’s interesting is that scrutinizing my own work in the editing phase has made me so familiar with these tics that I have since cut down on them during the composing phase without much conscious effort. The stronger phrasings have become instinct.

Does anyone else devote a whole editing pass just to tic removal? What are your writing tics?

How to Write Faster

…according to 1.5 books on the subject.

I’m going to keep this post short because I don’t have much time to write today, and I want to spend most of it working on my current novel.

Since the “not much time” dilemma is a persistent theme for me these days, I recently read through one and a half books on how to write faster, with a goal of getting more out of my scant writing time. One book was good (2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aaron), and one was not (1,500 Words Per Hour by N.P. Martin).

Despite their varying quality, they both had the same basic message:

Plan your novel. Extensively.

Figuring out what you’re going to write — before your butt hits the chair — frees you from doing your heavy “where am I going with this” thinking at the keyboard. It allows you to focus all your mental resources on settling into a flow while composing. Extensive planning also helps by preventing major mistakes that require you to scrap and rewrite large portions of your book. You know, the “Oh wait, when did my protagonist lose the superpower that would have made the climactic battle a non-event?” kind of oopsies.

I actually arrived at some of these conclusions on my own via another path. On my last short story – which will be released as part of a collection I’m putting out this summer – I tried extensive planning, purely with the aim of writing better. My goal was to craft a story that was deeper than my previous work, and I knew that would require weaving certain themes consistently throughout the piece. I had just read a great post by Steven M. Long about outlining, and my guess was that imagining almost every beat of the story in advance would help me develop that depth. It did. I’m happier with that piece than with a lot of my other stories. But the unexpected bonus was how quickly I was able to compose it.

2,000 to 10,000 was a lot better in fleshing out these concepts. The writer, Rachel Aaron, has produced a ton of well-received novels, and she walks the reader through the plotting and diagramming process that she has honed over her career. The examples are supremely helpful, and I’m employing many of her methods as I map out my current project. The Martin book is less detailed and mostly repeats itself ad nauseum.

Both of these books could have used better line editors. They are riddled with typos, which undercuts their argument that writing quickly does not mean writing poorly. The Martin book was far worse in this respect — to the point where I stopped reading halfway through — and even had an egregious error in the first sentence of the first chapter.

Speaking of first chapters, I’m hoping to start laying down words on my new novel this weekend, so I better get my outline done. I wouldn’t want to start writing without it.

I Love My Kindle, But…

I just read six pages of a book while waiting on a dark train platform. I’ll probably sneak a couple pages during visits to the espresso maker at work this morning. And each day usually presents the occasional four-minute stretches between tasks where I can sip down a scene or two. Add it all up, and by the end of the day, I’ve done a respectable amount of reading, probably more than 90 percent of Americans.

None of it would happen without the Kindle app on my phone. While it is physically possible for me to carry around a book all the time, it’s just not practical. My phone though? As long as I’m conscious, I’m going to have it on my person. Also, no one questions me for busting out my small screen for a bit. My coworkers might not take it as kindly if they saw I was skipping conversations at the break-room microwave to leaf through Battlefield Earth.

So as much as this post is a love letter to my Kindle, it’s also an “I miss you” to paper books. I miss their weight. Their smell. The lack of glare.

But it’s not just the physical experience. It’s also the abundant free time that enabled me to sit down for hours to read instead of stealing pages here and there.

I love my life. I wouldn’t trade the things that keep me so busy – namely my two amazing daughters – for any amount of reading time. Maybe there are other tasks I could lose or reduce, but for now, reading volume has slipped far down my hierarchy of priorities. Part of why I’m pursuing a writing career is to have more time, or at least more control over my time.

Until then, I’ll be reading my Kindle. I won’t be hating it. But still…