Writing with teeth…or at least with gums

The beast prior to the procedure

I meant to post yesterday, honest I did, but I couldn’t drag myself to the computer because of an overwhelming sense of guilt. Remember that shelter kitty we adopted last fall, to keep me company while I was lolling on the couch with mono? The one with the past that would make Charles Bukowski turn pale? Well, it turns out that he (the kitty, not Bukowski) had a set of teeth that imply that he spent his kittenhood ingesting crystal meth on a daily basis.

We’re relatively sure that he didn’t, but pretty much all of his front teeth had to go anyway. Thus my Friday o’ Guilt.

Actually, the kitty seems to be taking it all better than I am on this suddenly summer-like spring day:
he’s raring to go; I’m walking around apologizing to him every fifteen minutes.

Oh, no: I inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. Pardon me, everybody…my vision is going wavy…

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!”

Three feet forward. “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Six more feet. “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Tears have by now come to my mother’s eyes, but we’re too committed to the line to back out now. “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: howling, “Oh, God, not that same phrase AGAIN!”

Yes, I know: I’ve used this example before here, but I don’t think most writers have any idea just how much word, phrase, and even concept repetition grates on professional readers and contest judges. Fingernails on a chalkboard doesn’t even begin to describe it.

But it makes the average pro want to hide under the bed like a cat threatened with a visit to the vet — and, since folks like me are trained specifically to catch redundancies a hundred pages apart, even a single repetition can sometimes send us diving bedward.

Did some of you out there just go pale? Are you perhaps thinking of my last post, where I mentioned that readers do not necessarily remember every detail about every character?

Good; that means you’ve been paying attention.

For those of you whose blood pressure remained normal, let me disturb it: character trait redundancy is really, really common in submissions. Why? Well, for precisely the reason cited above — fearing that readers may not recall important plot points or characteristics, many aspiring writers repeat such information throughout the book.

How common is this practice? Well, let’s just say that most of us who read for a living (and, I suspect, for most who review movies for a living as well) see the second instance and say immediately, “Oh, okay — THAT fact is going to be crucial to the climax.”

The best way to avoid engendering this reaction, as I suggested last time, is to introduce the relevant facts or characteristics in such a vivid way the first time around — showing them, perhaps, instead of simply telling the reader about them — that the reader may be safely trusted to recall 300 pages hence that the protagonist’s sister is allergic to the beets that are going to kill her on p. 423.

Gee, who saw THAT coming?

Did that sudden stabbing sensation in my back mean that some of you found that last observation a trifle harsh? “But Anne,” the repetition-fond point out, “readers honestly do forget details — my first reader/writing group/my agent/my editor keeps writing in the margin, ‘Who is this?’ when I reintroduce characters toward the end of the book, or even, ‘Whoa — this came out of nowhere!’ when I’d thought I’d laid the groundwork in the first third of the book. I’m just adding the repetition to address these concerns, because, frankly, unless the reader has that information, the conflict loses some of its oomph.”

You could do that, repetition-mongers, but I would translate this feedback differently: if your first readers are not recalling certain salient facts introduced early in the book by the time they reach the closing chapters, isn’t it possible that the earlier introduction is at fault?

My first response would be to rush back to the first mention of the information in question to see if it is presented in a memorable manner. Or if, as we discussed last time, the reader is presented with so much information that the important bits got buried.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go back and double-check anytime you notice yourself repeating information. Is there a reason that you’re assuming that the reader won’t remember it if it’s mentioned only once?

This strategy will only work, however, if the writer catches the repetition — say, in the course of reading her manuscript IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest.

I’ve noticed that writers are very frequently unaware of just how much their manuscripts DO repeat themselves. There’s a very good reason for that, of course: repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time.

Not just in everyday conversations — 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 with a summa cum laude from MIT, 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!”)

My favorite example of this tendency is the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special designed to break the news to young folks like me that 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.)

Because it’s not as though we could be trusted to draw conclusions like that for ourselves from real-world observation. Because these playlets were intended to be EDUCATIONAL (as opposed to, say, entertaining), Afterschool Specials tended to hammer home their points with SUBTLE TOUCHES OF IRONY on the order of some minor character’s saying to our tragic heroine (played by someone like Helen Hunt in braces), “You know, Esther, I don’t think that you should even consider taking those drugs. They might make you go CRAZY.”

Any sane viewer, naturally, would recognize that this would mean that Helen Hunt was going to (a) take those drugs, because where would our object lesson be otherwise? (b) in fact go crazy, and (c) probably be dead within the next ten minutes of screen time.

Strangers With Candy had a great deal of fun with this kind of foreshadowing: 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 most 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 bloody time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping.

At base, this is a trust issue. 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?

I’m sensing some squirming in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” I hear some consistency-mongers protest, “doesn’t the fact that we ARE all accustomed to being spoon-fed the information we need when we need it mean that we writers should be ASSUMING that our readers will have some memory problems? Especially someone like Millicent, who might read the first 50 pages of my novel, request the rest, then continue reading a month or two later? Surely, I should be including some reminders for her, right?”

Good question, squirmers. 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 indeed the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions.

For precisely the same reason, 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.

“But WHY?” the consistency-huggers persist.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

And here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are substantially 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.

Let me ask you: just how much control does the average submitting writer have over the OTHER manuscripts Millicent might have already scanned that day?

That’s right: absolutely none. So while following the cultural norm for repetitive storytelling might not annoy a reader who curls up in a comfy chair with only your manuscript, if your tale repeats twice something similar to what the submission before yours saw fit to convey 37 times in 22 pages…

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.


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 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 inadvertently from time to time.

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, something they apparently didn’t do before the 1930s.

But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting — or not come across as hackneyed — 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 is kind enough to 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; I’ve got some cat appeasement to do. (I wonder if he’d like a salmon milkshake…). More tips on catching repetition follow anon.

Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *