Fiction’s Boogie Man

NicolaBlog2014-04-29We haven’t had one of these in a while, so I reckon it’s time.

What follows is a post for budding authors. More specifically, it is a post about what we call writers’ tics. These tics are kind of like fiction’s Boogie Monster – something to be avoided at all costs. And, trust me, if you pay attention to this, your editor is going to love you.

Every writer has a tic. What this is is something that crops up too often – maybe a particular word or phrase – that is just plain wrong. It’s hard to be aware of your tic, of course, but there are certain things that we see time and time again that we can at least make you aware of.

The Shaking of Heads tic

This happens a lot. Frankly, people just don’t shake their heads that much in real life, but they do almost every other sentence in fiction. You have the rueful shake of the head (which no one actually does unless you use it to illustrate your sarcasm), you have the laughing shake of the head (come on, when have you ever seen anyone laughing while shaking their heads), you have the affectionate shake of the head (no, just, no), and all their pals in between. In fact, the only time we ever shake our heads in real life is to say ‘no’, but it’s the only instance in which I never actually see it used in fiction. Next time your character shakes their head, stop and have a little think about it. Would you see this in real life? In fact, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb when you’re writing character reactions, ask yourself: would it happen really? This goes for all gestures: shrugging of shoulders, nodding of heads, whatever.

The Appeared/Seemed tic

Okay, so sometimes things can appear to be something they’re not, but every time? If, for example, there is a jar on a shelf and what it appears to contain is a load of eyes, but it actually is a container of eyes, don’t write ‘appeared’. General rule of thumb on this: an object doesn’t appear to be something, if it is actually something.

The I’m Writing in an Upmarket Way tic

This is something you’ve really got to watch for because, often, it’s an appropriation of someone else’s style, or merely something that sounds good in your head and not so much on the page. For example, when you look at someone, do you look at them or to them? I can answer that: you look at them. You look to them for helpful advice, or to show you what to do. I don’t know the psychology behind this, but I’m guessing people think it sounds more upmarket to write ‘She looked to her friend.’ This is not true. It’s just wrong. Much like the word ‘very’, another one to watch out for: ‘as if it was affecting his very being’. It’s okay once in a while, not so much when everything is ‘the very’ something.

The Sentence Without Subject tic

Long flowing hair, beady eyes, blood on her chin.

Know what I’m talking about? No. You don’t. And that is because my sentence does not have a subject. I’m guessing this is an offshoot from the I’m Writing in an Upmarket Way tic, but it just doesn’t make sense and it also happens a lot. Make sure your sentences have a subject because if there’s one thing an editor will probably be fed up with doing, it’s trying to unravel what an author means when they write one of these obscure sentences.

There you are: a little guide to writers’ tics. If you’re looking for much more helpful and sage advice, I would recommend a book that Ben Aaronovitch once recommended to me (so you know it’s good): How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. People get a bit angry at it, mostly because I suspect they’ve done exactly what Newman and Mittelmark have said not to do, but I think it’s a very helpful tool for budding authors and will at least help you see what to watch out for.


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