A Freelance Editor Talks About Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing

By Jordan Dane

I had the pleasure of working with Elyse Dinh-McCrillis (The Edit Ninja) on my short story anthology – Sex, Death and Moist Towelettes – and hope to send her more full-length novels. She came recommended from another thriller author – Brett Battles – so I owe him a beer. She is guest posting her thoughts on the patterns of authors. Enjoy!

This is Elyse laughing at my anthology…I’m sure.

Patterns in Writing
When Jordan approached me about a guest post, I decided to write about the patterns I’ve noticed in my clients’—and other authors’—work. These aren’t errors, but habitual things writers do that make their writing predictable. Most of my clients are surprised when I point them out, so it’s become clear these things happen unconsciously.

I’m not talking about a signature. One of Elmore Leonard’s signatures, for example, is his hip dialogue, with specific rhythms you can almost hear while reading. But the dialogue isn’t repetitive. I’d like to discuss things that show up repeatedly, and could potentially distract readers.

Here are some of the most common patterns I’ve seen, in everything from manuscripts by first-time authors, to finished novels by Pulitzer-nominated writers.

Reusing the same atypical word.

I was a beta reader for a friend and noticed he described many things in his novel as “dank”—basement, room, weather, smell, even mood. I suggested he substitute a few synonyms. He did a search and said, “I found only thirteen mentions in the whole ms. That’s not a lot!” I asked, “But how close were they together?” He admitted that in one instance, the word showed up twice in three pages. Astute readers would notice that.

A recent thriller by a New York Times bestselling author had an overabundance of “murmured” as a dialogue tag. After a while, I thought, “Is everyone in a seance?”

We all have words we overuse. One of mine is “just,” e.g., “I just saw that recently, and thought it was just a mole.” Be aware of your favorite words, do a search for them after you’re done writing, and replace if necessary.

Using the same descriptions and mannerisms for different characters.

In this one book I read, whenever the women were nervous, they bit their lower lips, and when the men experienced stress, they ran their hands through their hair. I started counting the number of times this happened, and could see it coming if characters started feeling stressed or anxious. I got so caught up in the counting, I lost track of what was going on in the plot.

A related pattern would be using the same descriptions as shortcuts for different types of characters. I edited an ms in which every good guy had chiseled features, every tough guy had a crew cut, and every bad guy had horrible teeth. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if a good guy had a facial scar, a tough guy wore glasses, and a bad guy looked like George Clooney? Not falling back on easy clichés to denote stereotypes increases the chances of fully dimensional characters being born.

Repeating the same sentence structure.

Many writers fall into a rhythm as they write, which sometimes results in the same kind of sentence over and over: always starting or ending with a participial phrase, starting or ending a line of dialogue with a direct address, too much passive voice, multiple run-ons in the same paragraph, three short sentences in a row. (“He looks. He listens. He waits.”) All those stylistic choices are fine, but when one occurs too often, the writing becomes routine. Mix up the kinds and lengths of sentences, use them in different order, keep readers on their toes.

Different characters speaking the same way.

Sometimes writers get tied to one kind of speech pattern. I recently read a book by a well-known author in which many characters would eliminate the first words in questions: “That him?” “Help you?” “Hell you talking about?” It’s fine if one character talks like that, but I think a little old lady might say, “Is that him?”

Being attached to a favorite letter, name, number, or color.

In a novel I edited, there were characters named Linda, Lita, Lynn, Lila, Laura, Leslie, Lori (they were not related). I have a good guess as to what letter might be on the author’s monogrammed towels. In another ms, several of the names rhymed: Boris, Norris, Morris, Doris, Dolores. The thriller read like poetry.

Make a character list to see if too many names contain the same letters, or if some of your minor characters are named the same. I worked on a book in which a couple of “under fives” (a movie term for characters with under five lines) were named John, because they were less important to the author and he failed to see he’d used the same name for both.

I read a thriller by an author whose favorite color was seemingly red, because two in three characters were redheads, and different characters drove red cars, had on red dresses, and owned houses with red doors. Another time, an author was stuck on the number 9. There was a countdown to a momentous event, and every chapter had a time designation that ended in 9—3:19, 2:29, 6:39, 12:49, etc. These patterns weren’t part of a theme, merely coincidences that became distracting. Sometimes people wear beige, and things happen at 5:42.

Overuse of italics for emphasis.

This one book I read averaged one italicized sentence for every two paragraphs. So many things were important. The italics soon became mundane, which defeated their purpose.

There are other patterns I can discuss, but I may have already overstayed my welcome. Thank you to Jordan for asking me to be here, and all of you for indulging me.

What patterns have you noticed in your reading…or your writing?

Elyse’s Website: TheEditNinja.com

Twitter: @EditNinja (official), @popculturenerd (where Elyse is more active) 

Meet My Friend Brett Battles

Every now and then you run into the new writer who pisses you off. Here you’ve been churning out reliable thrillers on a reliable schedule, and this kid shows up who has it all: great characters, great plot, great pacing. He’s the punk who wanders into town with a pea shooter on his hip who can out-shoot every gunslinger in town.

I’ve only met a few of these wunderkinds in my time, and Brett Battles is one of them. We first ran into each other at the inaugural ThrillerFest in Scottsdale, Arizona. His reputation preceded him, and in spite of my heartfelt desire to hate him, he even turned out to be a nice guy. Dammit. He’s had his ups and downs in the blender that is the publishing industry, but he’s never lost his sense of humor, and he’s never lost his sense of who he is. In my book, praise doesn’t come higher than that. The fact that he’s as good a writer as he is continues to piss me off, but that’s just my curmudgeonly side talking. In reality, folks don’t come much better than Brett. I’m honored to dedicate my space in the Blogosphere to him today.  By the way, Brett periodically posts on his blog The Independent Writer.  For a limited time, Brett has put the Kindle and Nook versions of his novel LITTLE GIRL GONE on sale for only 99¢.

By Brett Battles

The picture is of two people. The man in the center looks tall, maybe six feet. But the photograph cuts him off at the waist, so there’s no way to tell for sure. He’s smiling in a way that you know he’s not just putting it on for the camera. He Caucasian face looks even whiter than it probably is because of his dark hair and matching goatee. You can’t really tell what he’s wearing. A dark sweater that zips up in the front, perhaps, but the background is black, so his clothes quickly fade into it.

Standing next to him with an arm thrown loosely over his shoulder is a woman. She is impossibly beautiful. Not runway model beautiful, she is real and she is stunning. The smile on her face isn’t so much a smile as a knowing smirk. Her eyes, half closed, match her mischievous grin. She is of African descent, her skin darker than some, and lighter than others. Above the right corner of her lip is a dark mole Marilyn herself would have killed for. Her hair is straight, though it, too, blends into the background and gets lost. The only parts you can see are where it passes over her ear, and the strands that drape down her neck and onto her partially bare shoulder.

It’s a party, or a night at a club, or someplace similar. Wherever it is, it’s easy to see they are enjoying themselves. The rest of the photo is merely shadows on shadows in the background. Could be people, could be things, or could be stains that accumulated on the photo before I found it.

I don’t know these people. I’ve never seen them in my life. And yet, the photography—a Polaroid—hangs on my wall, protected now in a zip lock bag that’s held in place by a piece of tape.

I found the photo at least a year ago when I was out for one of my frequent walks. It was lying on the ground, half hidden by a few leaves at the edge of the sidewalk. I almost passed it by before I realized what it was.

How long it had been there? I don’t know. But Polaroids fade in the sun, and this one still had most of its color intact. Still, it’s life, post whoever had dropped it, hadn’t been an easy one. Some of the white on the frame in the upper left corner had flake off, revealing the silver backing below. The rest of the frame was smudged and dirty, like it had been kicked around for a while.

I stopped where I’d found it, and stared at the image while cars drove by on the street a dozen feet away. I didn’t care about the traffic, though, or the couple of people who walked passed. I only cared about the two people in the photo, the man and the woman.

There was a story there. A story I needed to tell. What I didn’t know yet was what that story was. So I carried the photo home, and I put it in that bag, and I taped it to my wall.

A few times every week I look at it. I study the faces. I try to listen in case they have something they want to say. There is a story here. A story I do need to tell. I don’t know what it is yet, but it will come.

It always comes.

Inspiration is out there for all of us, doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or not. So where have you found unexpected inspiration?

Nobody Pinch Me

By John Gilstrap

I’ll start with an apology for shirking my blogging duties last week. I was at ThrillerFest and had neglected to plan ahead. I suppose I could have just ignored the parties and . . . Nah, people who know me understand that I am incapable of ignoring the parties.

Those who’ve been to T-Fest know that the parties there are different. Those other people in the bar or at the receptions aren’t just regular folks that you see at work every day. To a person, the people I met there in New York—from fans to fellow authors and everyone in between—were friendly, intelligent and fascinating. It’s what makes the conference a not-to-be-missed event for me every year.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon on the heels of some media events in Boston the previous day, and I went to dinner with Jeffery Deaver. We had drinks at a little hotel bar on 44th Street, and then we ate at a largely forgettable restaurant whose name I’ve in fact forgotten. We were done by 9:00 and not yet ready to go our separate ways, so we wandered into the bar at the Algonquin Hotel. THE Algonquin Hotel, of Algonquin Roundtable fame.

That’s when it hit me: I’m living my own dream. Sitting there in such a famous room, I realized that had I been around in 1925, I might have had a place at the table. I might have participated in the conversations of those literary and critical giants, laughing at their jokes and maybe even offering up a few of my own. (Conversely, I might have been rejected as a commercial hack and banned from their presence, but this is my fantasy, so let me run with it.)

Now, of course, all of those giants are dead. Instead, I spent my time engaged in conversations with Joe Moore, Jeff Deaver, David Baldacci, Harlan Coben, Andrew Grant, Gayle Lynds, Joe Finder, Brett Battles, Kathryn Lilly and dozens more brilliant, witty writers. Forgive a moment of aggrandizement, but it occurred to me that collectively we might all be remembered as the next famed group. Given the level of talent in the room, I’m certain that at least a few will be tagged with greatness.

And I was there. God willing, I’ll be there again.

When I was a kid, I was in awe of writers and writing. I had little opportunity ever to meet an author in person, but on the occasions when I did, I stood there star struck. To think that I might ever join that elite club—if not as an equal, then at least as a colleague—was beyond my ken.

Yet there I was in New York, surrounded by talent. During the course of the next few days, I would have lunch with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and dinners with Michaela Hamilton, my editor, and Sam Franco, the producer who optioned Six Minutes to Freedom.

I’ll say it again: Agent, editor and producer. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that the guy at those meetings would be me.

Last Wednesday, as we sat in the Algonquin sipping scotch and chatting about whatever we were chatting about, I asked Jeff if he ever stopped to think about how cool this whole experience is, about how lucky we are.

“Every day,” he said.

Exactly. Every day. I am an author. I am what I’ve always wanted to be, and every day I wake up wondering what I did to deserve the good fortune.

And I pray that I don’t do something to screw it up.

Does anyone else find themselves amazed at where they are, and fearful that it might all go away?