Mechanics Over Inspiration

Here is my latest as part of the Insecure Writers Support Group


“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”

Octavia-Octavia Butler

I don’t think I understood what the late Octavia Butler was saying the first dozen times I read this quote. I thought she just meant I had to keep writing. Keep the laptop on and stay at it.


Staying at it can be a prescription for repeated failure.

Too often, I’ve thought of writing as art. I just had to keep going and work harder.

Writing may be one part art, but it’s two parts mechanics.

I can pump out a novel. I can also edit the thing for months. As if all that hard work will eventually produce something of quality.

Instead, I need to take a careful look at what I am doing wrong in my writing and fix those problems the same way a plumber unclogs a pipe or my wife fixes a squeaky door. The same way an athlete works on their form and creates better habits.

I’ve been working to identify mechanical problems in my writing. Problems that can be fixed with a metaphorical screwdriver or wrench.

As an anxious writer, thinking about the editing process this way helps me worry less about how good my work is and more on how to make it better.

Here are two mechanical problems I’ve been trying to fix.

1. Explaining what my characters just said – after a relatively clear piece of dialogue, I tend to explain what was said rather than trust my readers to figure it out. Here is an example from Wolf Bait, the novel I’m currently editing.

“Twelve year old Jess Turner is being held in  jail because she dared to speak the truth.” Ms. Mendez sounded every bit as professional as the reporter, but her sentences never lifted up like a question. She believed what she was saying.

Just in case the reader didn’t understand what I meant by “her sentences never lifted up like a question”, I felt compelled to add that last sentence. I had to make sure the reader understood.

I won’t bore you with other examples. Trust me, I do this way too much. So now I am going through my novel and striking out these explanations wherever I can.

2. I’m also struggling with shoving too many “beats” into my dialogue. In the past, I let dialogue drag on without having the characters do something interesting while they talk. I was right try to fix this problem. But I’ve gone too far. My dialogue is often heavy with characters fiddling around in the middle of every quote.

I can’t show a quick example of this because each beat (activity inserted into a quote) makes sense on its own. I just need to do  less of it.

These specific concerns aren’t really my point. A year ago, I was all about striking ly adverbs, italics, and exclamation points. Next week, I will line up all of the dialogue said by each character and make sure the voices are distinct.

I am trying to think of my writing less as inspired art and more as furniture under construction. I need to get the joints right and sand down the rough parts. In general, I need to think of editing as a mechanical process. It’s not personal when my work goes astray. I just need to fix it and stop thinking of myself as an artist who can trust his instincts.

Does this ring true with anyone else?