The little stuff matters, too. How to write a novel–part 19

Let’s say you’ve reached that point in your latest writing project when you think it’s safe to relax. You typed “The End” on it days ago, and you’ve finally resurfaced after drinking yourself into a well-earned state of oblivion. Life is good. The Work is done. You’re a verb mongering deity, and you can hear the world revving up the engines on their bulldozers to begin work on the twelve-lane path to your door.

Right?Uh no

Well, Binky [cough] maybe not. There’s a fairly strong chance that you’re not quite done yet, no matter what your spouse, parent, gardener, pharmacist or masseuse might suggest. F’rinstance, have you read your opus out loud? All of it? Start to finish?

If not, you’ve probably already missed at least a scadzillion little things that really, truly–I mean seriously–need to be changed. Not because they’ll have a great impact on your plot, but because they’re likely to have a great impact on your reader’s patience. It doesn’t take long to convince a reader that you’re either new at this thing called writing, in which case you don’t know any better, or you’re too damned lazy to go back and correct the nits and wobbles that make readers groan. Either way, you lose.

It takes about a half dozen such missteps to derail the average reader. If they all come in the first chapter or so, said reader will chuck the book and move on to the next one, specifically one not written by the same author. Long-suffering readers, like your Mom or the gargoyle living above your garage, might hang in there longer, but even they will tire eventually.

Closed earsBut, wait, you’ll be tempted to say, *my* writing isn’t like that! I don’t get befuddled by verb tenses, and I use SpeelCheque-Deelux, so there couldn’t possibly be any booboos of that ilk, and my vocabulary is like, y’know, exemplary or whatever, so I’d never use a word misappropriately, besides which nuance is my muddle name.

[Yawn.] Imagine me delivering a world class Bronx cheer, at a decibel level of about 9.2 on the Richter scale, replete with a hogshead of derisive slobber.

I’m going to repeat myself here, so pay attention. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t important. The little shit matters. All of it. The problem is, your brain is hard wired in such a way that you can’t see all your mistakes.

I wish this weren’t true. I also wish I weighed about 50 pounds less and that I had to spread my wealth across a thousand banks so I’d never surpass the deposit level insured by the FDIC. Dealing with the small stuff, however, is something I can do.

Recognizing that we’re all afflicted with the same problem is a good first step. Being blind to our own mistakes isn’t weird; it’s normal. What’s weird is knowing that we can’t see them and pretending they don’t exist. That’s not only vain, it’s stupid, because they do exist, and readers will see them, and they’ll laugh at you. Behind your back. In the dark. And not even your very bestest, most busomist buddy will ever tell you. Because he or she will be laughing at you, too.

naked writerHere’s a scary thought: imagine having the world watch you working in the nude, only you don’t know they’re there. When you let your mistakes sit there and fester, they’ll eventually sprout into windows through which readers will line up to stare at your icky parts.

You can prevent this–just find the little buggers and gas ’em!

How do you do that? As mentioned previously, read your stuff out loud. Slowly. This will downshift your brain to the speed of your mouth. Saying each and every word will allow your brain to process each and every word. Instead of seeing what should be there, you’ll have a chance to see what’s really there.

I’ve known writers who claim to read their stuff backwards. I’m sure that probably works, but the mental gymnastics scare me. But I fully understand the concept. The idea is to make it impossible for the writer to get caught up in the story. Once that happens, you’re screwed. From that point on the warts turn into beauty marks and wretched becomes rosy. Trust me on this.

The other most tried and true method of finding your literary lice is to have someone you trust look for it. This means sucking up to people who command two vital strengths: the ability to recognize mistakes, and the willingness to point them out. Such people know a basic truth: it might sting to learn you’re not perfect, but it stings a whole lot more to discover the world is laughing at your work, or worse, ignoring it.

So, before you release your next brilliant piece of handiwork do this:

  • Read it out loud, and fix the mistakes you find as you go.
  • Find a half dozen readers you trust to check your work. Then fix it.
  • Read it out loud AGAIN, and fix the mistakes you find as you go.

Go ahead; hate me now. You’ll thank me later.

Next up: Clearing your throat isn’t the same as finding your voice.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to The little stuff matters, too. How to write a novel–part 19

  1. Amanda says:

    Sigh — I hate the little shit but sadly, it tends to make up the big shit, so it matters :-). Btw, this series would make a fun little book…

  2. joshlangston says:

    You’re absolutely right. Shit seems to have a stronger gravitational pull than non-shit. Hopefully, all this shit will be a book one day. [grin]

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