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Things You Notice the Second Time Around

I'm making pretty good headway in my latest pass at "I Need a Job."  This is maybe my fourth or fifth go at the story in the last six months, but only the second in-depth rewrite.

One of the great things about revising the novel now (compared to the first time I went through) is that I've forgotten enough of the finer details that it's easier to notice stylistic ambiguities.  When you've recently pictured a scene in your head, you know exactly what it's supposed to look like; it won't seem strange to you that details are missing.

This, in turn, has led me to notice a few odd habits (quirks?) I seem to have when I'm writing in a hurry. I thought I'd share a couple of them in case it might be of help for any other writers out there.

First is overuse of the word "very."  I'm a bit revolted by "very" outside of everyday conversation.  Using it here and there isn't so bad, but in the context of prose it just seems... childish.  When I see it, I always imagine having a conversation with the narrator that goes like this:

"The living room was big."

"How big was it?"


Quote time!  Mark Twain once said, "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."  Pretty good advice.  You know what?  Add 'pretty' to that rule, too.

Next is my reliance on compound sentences.  I'm not sure why it happens when I write, but I seem incapable of settling for simple structure during my first drafts.  If a man goes into a room and kills somebody, I couldn't just say, "He opened the door.  He took out a gun.  He shot John in the head." I have to string it all together.  At a minimum, it would be, "After opening the door, he took out a gun and shot John in the head."  (Insert descriptive details as desired.)

It's not a flaw, exactly.  There are situations where a more elaborate sentence structure is defensible if not mandatory.  But there's plenty of times when meaning is lost just because a sentence has too many clauses, parentheticals, interjections, and modifying phrases.

On a related note: repetitive use of the word "that."  This one sneaks up on me all the time and is even more of a grey area.  There's cases where you really can't get rid of it: "He found the man that attacked him."  Grammatically speaking, omitting 'that' here would render the sentence unclear and incorrect, so it's not a stylistic choice.

But then there's cases like this: "She hated the man so much that she killed him."  Style Nazis (not grammar Nazis - they're a different breed of snob) will always tell you to strike the "that" in such a case.  It is a redundant word in the sense that you can sub it out with a comma and still link the two clauses: "She hated the man so much, she killed him."

(Geez, my examples are so violent today.  Sorry guys.  Maybe I'm harboring some ill will right now.)

I don't think either one is inherently better or worse than the other.  It's another case-by-case situation where you make the choice based on which style best emphasizes the mood or tone of the scene.  The only reason I mention it here is that I virtually always include the "that" during my initial draft.  The end result is an unintentionally rambly style.

There's certainly other things I'm noticing now, but these are the most "universal" habits.  I'll have to wait until the novel has been released before I start to get in much more detail about specific plot or narrative details.  You know... as if I'm not egocentric enough.