We all have bad habits, yet you can only really change them if you admit to them. As the author of 1.12 million words in the To Be Sinclair series, with seven books up on Amazon and Smashwords, one coming out June 30th, and 2/3 done with the finale to the series, I’d like to think I’ve isolated my bad habits and am changing them as best I can. It’s not always easy to do, and sometimes not necessary, but my purpose is to whittle them down so they do not plague me and I can get more writing done. Some of them may seem silly to you, but since they are a plague on my process, I need to work on them!
1. My nails are too long. Sure, go ahead and laugh; most people think women should have long, sexy nails, and most writers understand how hard it can be to work personal hygiene routines into the day, much less an ‘extra’ one. Still, nail-clipping is one of my least favorite things to do, so it usually only happens when one of them breaks.
I suppose most people do not understand the obsessive nature of writers such that this issue appears unimportant, but it occasionally contributes a great deal to my stress. Imagine, if you would, that you used to have the power to open up a newspaper, run your eyes across one side for two seconds, and any typo on the page jumps out at you. I used to be like that, and since my superpower disappeared after a serious health crisis, I miss it sorely.
Typing with long nails does not seem like it should bother a person. Many women regularly get salon nail treatments, keep their nails long and have learned how to type with them. You would think even people like me, with a tendency to painfully trim my nails down to the nail bed, would get used to longer nails simply by typing every day while they grow out. Yet when they get too long, the traitorous typos creep in.
So staring at the screen, obsessively pounding out a scene while I’m actually visualizing it and have to get That Perfect Phrase down the instant I think it means I do not catch the typos until I re-read the scene. With a sailor’s lifetime ration of curse-words springing from my lips, I spend gobs of precious time correcting the errors and bitching at myself in High Rant, swearing to clip them at the next opportunity, namely, when I finish correcting the scene.
But by then, I’ve also re-read the scene, noticed a word or phrase that was inadequate, and corrected it with one of the time-wasting methods I describe below. By the time I get to the end, I’m ready to write the next scene, having completely forgotten my desire to rid myself of these treacherous, time-wasting spikes that love to get caught just long enough between my laptop’s keys to vomit extra letters on the page. All told, it’s better than writing everything longhand, but not by much.
2. My sentences are too long. I can’t help it; I got a 4.0 GPA in my studies for a master’s degree in a subject that takes itself seriously, education. I’m also a longtime reader of science fiction and write with a high-falutin’ vocabulary, which is why so many of the hicks I grew up with think I’m too ‘uppity’ for them or some such nonsense. In academia, especially in education, the ability to write long sentences with long words means you sound like you know what you are saying. If you doubt it, may I refer you to Robert A. Heinlein’s description of Zebediah Carter’s doctoral dissertation in The Number of the Beast.
I pride myself on knowing and saying exactly what I mean, but that doesn’t mean I need to victimize the reader with a deluge of precise words and phrases that consistently flow toward a complex thought which takes most people real effort to follow continuously, despite my overall goal to write with clarity and my sincere desire to accurately sum it up such that it need never be revisited again. (See what I mean?) So when I edit, I constantly find myself breaking up sentences into shorter sentences, and paragraphs into shorter paragraphs.
3. I type too fast. I feel like I must, to keep up with the images in the scene running through my mind. I have often said I feel like my brain has a portal to a future parallel dimension, and I spy upon my characters’ lives, scribing them as best I can. As a result, I find myself using the same catch-phrases, over and over.
Did the character pause or start an action, only to immediately abandon it? “He laughed a bit.” I am fascinated with reading facial expressions and notice just how much we communicate with our eyes. “She looked alarmed at first.” I write science fiction romances in which the characters do not remain chaste or clueless until the very end. They offer each other support and comfort, so “He snuggled her close.”
Well, hell, I know I’m going to rewrite the damn scene fiftyleven times anyway, so when getting the initial actions and dialogue down the first time, I might as well just throw those bland phrases down to remind myself to flesh out the scene later, right? It’s not like I don’t know I suffer cognitive dysfunctions now and can only edit for three significant features at a time, such as commas, dialogue tags, and ‘that’ vs ‘which’, so I’ll get to catch-phrases sometime or other, right?
All goes well until a beta reader says, “You use the word ‘then’ a lot.” When my editor starts marking out character names, I realize I must go back and fill in with ‘he’ and ‘she’. And when I’ve published a book and a purchaser emails me to say she was rather tired of everyone doing things ‘a bit’, but is glad I did not use the repetitive phrase ‘a little bit’ all the time because that is her total pet peeve, I growl in frustration as I pull up every final manuscript and replace every ‘a bit’ with some other phrase. Anything that makes me re-upload to the digital platform also makes me re-download for another damn edit, and with seven published books at this point, the process never seems to be complete. Arrrrrgh!
4. I use the thesaurus too much. I blame point 3 for that, but I also blame my education, particularly my self-education. As an avid reader, I love the flavor of words, so much so that I have spent hours perusing thesaurus.com for just the right word. Hell, I’ve even gotten so lost in chasing for the right flavor, I ended up writing my first blog post just to exemplify how freaky I get over understanding the essence of a word! (See Geeking Out on the Thesaurus http://evacaye.blogspot.com/2012/09/geeking-out-on-thesaurus.html or on one of the blogs such as Digital Book Today that have reprinted it.)
This is the hard part about using the thesaurus: you look up a word and see a dozen offerings in the FIRST entry, and they all have different ‘emotional settings’. So you wonder, “Do I even really know what ‘intrigue’ MEANS?” You click on the dictionary button, find out that the meaning you originally wanted is considered obsolete (‘to entangle’), and go back to the thesaurus, taste-testing each entry with the wholeness of the scene you’re trying to write to see if it fills the gap in your sentence adequately.
What’s even worse is when you are trying to write in a particular culture and run across expressions you cannot use, but you have a vague, niggling doubt if the one phrase you think you understand is indeed what you mean, yet cannot find any precise definition that meets the lexicon of your characters! If your character must ‘batten upon’ a relative out of need, but she’s High Royal, I certainly cannot call her a ‘freeloader’, ‘bum’, ‘sponge’, ‘lounge lizard’ or ‘mooch’, especially when she is a hard-working, determined student, fiercely independent and really making something of herself, though she has a sudden, temporary need of a residence. Since your readers might not know the archaic phrase ‘batten upon’, you try to find a new word.
But, lo and behold! The thesaurus entries for ‘batten’ are: fasten securely; bar; black out; blossom; flourish; flower; prosper; tether; thrive. What the hell? You are POSITIVE that to ‘batten upon someone out of need’ is the right phrase, yet if one of your readers has never heard it before and tries to look it up, is s/he going to think you’re off your rocker? Hours, people. I spent hours trying to find a better phrase to show the delicacy of the situation, and Rosita ended up battening upon her boyfriend anyway. I rationalized it to myself by saying readers expand their vocabulary through context anyway (thank you, Literacy Education course!), and they should appreciate learning a genteel way of expressing such a common occurrence without completely denigrating those who have temporary housing problems.
Still, the question remains: must I use ‘desultorily’ when ‘casually’ will do? Must I defend myself to my editor, arguing that ‘essayed’ instead of ‘asked’ is needed because saying ‘he asked tentatively/hesitantly and with a clear tone of doubt’ would affect the flow of the dialogue? Face it, I’m a word junkie, and this is one time-wasting habit I doubt I will ever break. I hope my readers appreciate that, at least.
5. I wrestle with other people’s demons. For example, I use a lot of adverbs that end in –ly. When I read an article on why that’s such a bad thing, I spent two weeks editing my entire body of published works in desperate attempts to replace as many –ly adverbs as possible. There’s no way you can get them all, and as I uploaded my manuscripts to Amazon and Smashwords, I felt I had improved upon them. Yet how many readers will be so very grateful that my character no longer sighed joyfully, but has now evolved to having ‘emitted a joyful sigh’?
After reading three different style manuals’ rules on spelling out numbers, I wrote up my own rules and sent them to my editor, deciding unhyphenated ones or those beginning a sentence should be spelled out, though numbers expressing ‘pure data’ in context should be left as digits. After reading all the arguments why one should no longer use two spaces at the end of a period, I decided older readers who prefer double spaces as visual cues are a more important demographic to me than anyone snarking about how wasteful or margin-warping those extra spaces are, though if my books ever go to print I will delete them just so the reader doesn’t have to pay for an extra 40 pages.
What matters to me is the literature, not the ‘industry standards’, a phrase I have come to loathe. Yes, I still tweak my book covers, upload and republish new versions of my manuscripts regularly, and read everyone’s opinions on What You Must Do, as if their 10 Most Important Writing Tips article establishes them as an expert in the field. When my beta readers tell me of a problem, I fix it, but at this point I have little desire to read one more article about what I should be doing. I’ve got a story to write and edit a thousand times, so I look for those writing tips that improve the reader’s internal experience, not a publisher’s or an editor’s or a grammar nazi’s I-am-an-authority-you-must-change-this experience, because the readers are the ones who matter. Still, to spend so much time reading advice articles over hundreds of literary pet peeves saps my time and energy. I simply wonder how many people really care about those issues, and recognize it as one of my worst time-wasting habits.
6. I forget to eat. When I’m in the zone and the scenes start flowing before my eyes, I pound away until the visions stop. The usual way I discover I haven’t eaten in 16 hours is when the hubby hands me a plate of food. It’s rather disconcerting to realize my other-mind has actually spoken to him about food, even discussed what he should cook for dinner, while my focus-mind has been plotting, researching, and typing all along.
Naturally, when you own a laptop eating implies editing, so I go to my start-point for the session and begin. Being so hungry and distracted by editing means a lot of food spills, crumbs working their way under the keys, splashes across the screen, and near-complete ignorance of how much food I consume. Especially when the adorable husband leaves a bag of pretzels or chips on the couch, and my other-mind finds them.
When I am about to pass out but realize I will never get to sleep through my ravenous hunger, I scrounge for something healthy to gnaw on before going to bed. But otherwise, unless we actually go out for a meal at a restaurant, I can rarely tell you what I’ve eaten of a day. Hubby will occasionally cook something so awesome I must post about it on Facebook, but those days are rare.
This habit is so bad for me on so many levels, but especially because my other-mind now equates ‘not-writing’ to ‘eating’ or ‘sleeping’. As a result, when I have time on my hands, I also usually have snacks or am thinking about how to acquire food. I am making inroads on changing this habit, but it’s extremely difficult because everyone needs to eat of a day; you cannot replace it with other habits, you cannot go cold-turkey, and you cannot ignore the effects upon your body.
7. I write all night. It has a lot of advantages, like no phone calls or visitors, but it makes it hell on relationships with regular people. The worst part of this habit is finishing a very romantic or hot sex scene at 4 a.m., desperately desiring a good, ah, bonding experience with the hubby I cannot wake up because he needs those last two hours of sleep before work.
So I start a new scene, or go online to distract myself, and curse myself for being a night owl. I sometimes manage to work a marathon session all day and get to bed at a decent time, living like a ‘normal’ person for a few days, but when I’m bustin’ ass to get a project done, I usually end up doing another marathon session all night long, and I’m hooked again. I have no idea how I’m going to change this habit!
8. I check my book stats too often. Indie authors, being responsible for our own marketing, have an obsession to find the perfect place to display our books to readers. After working up a promotion, I tell myself I need a break, so I go online to chat with friends, catch up on email or reading blogs, look up some topics I need for my next scenes, and find myself checking for sales every fifteen minutes. That leads to sobs or shouts of joy or wondering whether to promo there again because it has not given me The Big Break That I Need to Go Mainstream. Yep. Big waste of time.
9. I ask my hubby’s opinion. We met at a science fiction convention in 1990, and our combined library of science fiction books is somewhere in the 700’s. Although I’ve been a writer for over 30 years, I have only been a serious one for four. Despite knowing my hubby prefers gaming, anime, and ‘mind candy’ novels, I insist he do his husbandly duty and beta-read my books. I do listen to what he says, and I do edit with his opinions in mind, but I simply have to recognize that my heavy literary symbolism and exposition of deep, emotional complexities are completely lost on him.
What can I say? He prefers movies with big, bright explosions, and I rarely write war scenes. He likes superheroes and silly spoofs (we own the DVD of all episodes of The Tick) and I write high milieu, high drama, high science with as much realism as possible. He’s perfect for me in a thousand ways, but he just doesn’t dig deep literary metaphors or fighting wars with propaganda and political ploys. He wants a blatant Good vs. Evil battle that rages on and on, with cool tech gadgets the characters wield against each other.
And my sociological, psychological, medical, political, philosophical, and even spiritual battles and thorough explanations of science just don’t thrill him. He likes my dedication to knightly virtues (the major themes of my books), but he prefers straight-up, gritty bad guys instead of conflicts between cultural perceptions, where all characters think of themselves as good and doing their best in bad situations.
Still, I value his opinion but need to break myself of the need for it. Sometimes I think he feeds me to keep me writing just so I won’t ask him for another opinion, because he fears to break my heart with his honesty. Since he grills a mean ribeye and makes to-die-for pizza from scratch, this will probably be my easiest habit to break.
What are your bad writing habits? I don’t really want to discover I have another one, but if you have one and know how to conquer it, I would be grateful for anything that keeps me working instead of bleeding away my time and energy. I have dozens of entries in my Books to Write file, and I want to get them all written before I die. The only reason conquering them all might be a bad thing is if I receive a manuscript back from its first round with my editor with not one comment or change to be made; I might die of surprise, with all those books unwritten!
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A health crisis inspired Eva Caye to become an obsessive writer, completing eight books in her To Be Sinclair series before she could afford an editor. She published Dignity in August 2012, with the projected release of her 8th book Nobility in late June 2013. She laughingly refers to Evan’s Ladies as Book 6.5, an ‘add-on’ book to the series since it consists of four novellas. The other seven books are full novels, though most have ‘Easter egg’ short stories as bonuses for the reader.
The To Be Sinclair series is set some 600 years in the future and covers the lives and loves of the greatest ruling family in the galaxy. Her current works-in-progress are a finale to the series, and two prequels set in the TBS universe about 100 years in the future.
Eva lives with her incredibly supportive husband and two lovely mutts in a tiny, century-old farmhouse in Louisville, Kentucky.