Can you stand another few posts on self-editing? I hope so, because after a very refreshing day off yesterday (translation: I edited, and then I had a nice, long, my-fiancé-wondered-if-I’d-been-eaten-by-wolves length writing session. Woo hoo!), I’m raring to go.
Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.
So there I was, all eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. As each ship-shaped (literally) car took a new crew of tourists into the ride itself, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”
After about five minutes of listening to that annoying voice while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride.
And that, my friends, is how one grows up to be an editor.
Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth — it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations, as I mentioned last week — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, go find a community that’s experiencing a heat wave, sit in a popular café, and count the variations on, “Hot enough for ya?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.
Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)
The great recent example of this, of course, is the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.” Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.
It’s funny in the series, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”
All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping.
At base, this is another trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.
Who could have predicted THAT?
Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.
Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring. And here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.
We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!
It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a project for a rainy day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.
Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?
No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows.
Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue HADN’T made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.
Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? No? Well, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?
“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”
Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.
It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.
I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.
Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries told me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.
Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)
Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.
It’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep up the good work!