Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Repeating Ourselves

Have you ever been listening to someone speak, and everything is going along fine until it catches in your consciousness that they’re saying “um.” Hey . . . they’re saying “um” frequently. Um. Um. Um. From that point on, you’re doomed. They might be delivering the most masterful speech since the Gettysburg Address, and all you can hear is “um." Before you noticed it, you were fine, but once you noticed, it’s hard to un-notice.

Same with books. As authors, we sometimes use a word . . . and use it again . . . and again. As a reader, you’re fine until you notice it. Once you do notice it, you start cringing. I read a novel where if ONE MORE PERSON shrugged, my brain was going to melt. Don’t misunderstand me—there’s nothing wrong with shrugging. Shrugging is good, a nice bit of stage direction. But once I noticed it was happening frequently, it started to bug me. In another book, it was a sneering blitz, if I remember correctly. Stop sneering! Next person who sneers gets a timeout and a penalty job!

It’s super easy to slip into the repeated word trap. When we’re writing a novel, days, weeks, or even months can pass between when we wrote this scene and when we wrote that scene. I don’t know how good your memory is, but I’m sure not going to remember that in the scene I wrote three months ago, and the one I wrote five weeks ago, and three weeks ago, AND last week, people were shrugging in every scene, until it was some kind of new shoulder exercise craze. In my recent manuscript, a test reader pointed out that I was overly fond of the word “adrenaline.” I hadn’t noticed that, and I’m glad he did. I was able to mix things up a bit so I wouldn’t have readers saying what IS it with her and adrenaline?

Reading rapidly through a manuscript is a good way to catch word repetition—you’ll notice things you never would have noticed while working your way through a novel slowly, scene by scene. And that’s how your readers will read it—fast—so it’s good to try it out that way yourself.

At Writing on the Wall, Annette Lyon wrote a fantastic post dealing with editing out repetitive, deadwood words in our manuscripts. In addition to watching out for “pet words” she talks about getting rid of empty words that weaken prose—her post is one you’ll want to bookmark and refer to again and again when you’re editing. Thank you, Annette!

On one of the LDS Storymakers group chats the other week, there was a discussion where people listed “red flag” words they targeted in editing. Looks to me like ALL of us have to work--every time--to cut the deadwood from our prose. I'm glad to know I'm in good company!


At 2/09/2011 2:10 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Oh, I suppose you have a problem with the rat-faced man and the lantern-jawed man? (I'm not even sure what lantern-jawed means.) Anyone else recognize these?

My oft repeated word: Actually. ;)

The repetition that I try to avoid is the one where you identify the subject. I want to use different descriptors (Beau, the older man, the lawyer, etc.) It gets ... tiring after a while, though. On the other hand, I hit a point in the last book where I wasn't sure who was speaking, because the author used the last name (Frode) and I wasn't sure at first if it was the husband or wife!

At 2/09/2011 3:08 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

Aw, man! Now I have to go through my WIP and take out half of the shoulder shrugging, and I love shoulder shrugging. Maybe I'll replace them with eye rolling, or deep sighing. (deep sigh!)

At 2/09/2011 4:17 PM, Anonymous mean aunt said...

Or the opposite--one of John Grisham's books drove me nuts because his characters replied, stated, declared, etc. Just say SAID!

At 2/09/2011 4:46 PM, Blogger Maggie said...

I read a book last year where every character "noted" instead of said. I was getting so annoyed at all the "noting" that was going on.
However, in my current WIP, I notice I have the same syndrome. My too-often repeated phrase is "made their way". No one ever walks, runs or drives anywhere in my novel. Everyone "makes their way." Oh annoying!

At 2/09/2011 4:54 PM, Blogger LifeAsWeKnowIt said...

Dialog is my weak spot. (I'm not a natural conversationalist.) I went through a faze in my writing where I only used the word said. (I was in sixth grade.) Ever since then, I have been afraid of that word and I am just now facing my fears.
As for my other word troubles, it really depends on the tone of the scene I am working on. Thesauri are my new best friends.

At 2/09/2011 5:27 PM, Blogger Steve Westover said...

My characters seem to smile, grin and smirk A LOT. At least they're happy--right?

At 2/09/2011 6:55 PM, Blogger Michael Knudsen said...

Amen to this. I recently read one LDS fiction series (by a very respected and best-selling author)where there was so much "smirking" that I began to wonder if the word had any real meaning.

At 2/09/2011 7:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Locutions (he said, she said) don't fall in the category of repetition.

In two person dialogue scenes you can eliminate virtually all locutions. You introduce one speaker with a short bit of action and then the dialogue naturally jumps back and forth. If you go on too long without identifying the speakers with another snippet of action, the reader may lose track of who is speaking, unless, of course, you're really good at dialogue and your characters have such reconizable voices that additional dialogue tags aren't needed.

In three characters dialogue scenes you can USUALLY avoid all locutions, but depending on the scene you may have to use one or two.

Its the multiple character scenes (more than three speakers) that are bears! That's when using lots of snippets of action as dialogue tags gets in the way by overburdening the scene will all sorts of unnecessary character movements, gestures, and idiosyncratic poses. Multiple character scenes require a few locutions, but not many.

And though you end up using locutions (he said and she said) throughout your novel, they shouldn't be considered repetitive. The reader comes to your novel already expecting to see lots of locutions. Everywhere. In fact they are so over used, by design, that they become more like comma or a period or a quotation mark than an actual word. Think of locutions as punctuation. Everything else is subject to repetition.

At 2/09/2011 8:40 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Loved the comments--thanks! It's interesting to me to see what other writers struggle with (and good to know I'm not fighting the repetition battle alone!)

Like Anon, said, the "he said" attributions don't count as repetition. The "said" just lets the reader know who spoke--and most of the time, if you need an attribution, you DO want to use said--it's when you try to use too many other words that it becomes distracting. "Said" would only feel repetitive if you use the same sentence construction over and over in a row:

"I'm hungry," Joe said.
"Have a cookie," Mary said.
"Thanks," Joe said.

So you can mix it up:

"I'm hungry," Joe said.
Mary handed him a bag of Oreos. "Have a cookie."

Ditto for character names--they aren't repetitive; they're simply designating the person we're talking about. If you refer to the same character by a bunch of different descriptions/names it can confuse your reader. If your character is Joe and your viewpoint character thinks of him as Joe, then just keep calling him Joe in the text.

At 2/10/2011 10:11 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Amen! (And thanks for the nod!)

I just finished going over an old ms and wanted to slap my old self for repeating certain gestures and phrases. Like you said, the only reason I caught it was because I was reading it in a short period.


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