Echo (echo echo echo)

This morning I actually typed the following sentence, although I have all my faculties and was not drunk at the time.

He gave a disgruntled grunt.

Be right back, just going to exorcise my word processor.

This got me thinking about echoes, if not the worst problem faced by writers then perhaps one of the most annoyingly niggly ones.

The problem is, the rules about conservation of energy really do apply to writer brains. Grunt good? More grunt better! Spend five minutes coming up with ‘malevolent’ as the perfect word for the hero’s boss? It will now be the most accessible word for your brain, which will duly give the hero a malevolent cat, a malevolent hangover, and a love interest who shoots him malevolent looks. Probably within six paragraphs of each other. Poor guy.

Of course ‘malevolent’ leaps out at you on read-through. Less obtrusive words tuck themselves away in the text, although they build up over time.

He had an odd effect on other people. He couldn’t miss it. He’d speak to people and they’d smile, then look puzzled, then drift away. People who didn’t drift away tended to be worrying. Perhaps he just wasn’t a people person, but then, the world was peopled with those.

I have spent some time looking for a genius bit of software that will pick this stuff up for me while ignoring words like ‘and’, ‘said’, and ‘while’ except when I want it to pick up ‘while’, and that doesn’t take half an hour to churn through the MS and then crash Word. Yes, I feel strongly about this. No, I am not aware of such software existing, but if anyone wants to recommend some in the comments I will love you forever.

However, the really hard one, which I don’t even think is machine-spottable, is the structural repetition. You phrase a sentence in a particular way, your brain latches on to the cadence, and whoops, I did it again.

Peering at his hand, he decided he could win this round. Selecting the ace, he decided to take a chance. Spinning the card across the green baize, he said, “Twist.” Frowning, his opponent dealt another card.

I’d love to say I was exaggerating but I’ve just come across an example of exactly this in a trad pub book. Which just goes to show that you can’t rely on an editor to pick this stuff up for you: the structural repetition is the wood, and thus invisible to an editor who’s reading for the trees (have you spelled all the words right, is this how to play pontoon anyway?)

Even harder to see is the structural habit. Speech adverbs is a common one. (“Really, a dinosaur?” she said doubtfully. “Yes,” he replied assertively. “I thought they were extinct,” she commented wryly.) Or try this for size:

Page 4: He was tall, broad, yet oddly youthful in his looks.

Page 76: The cake was delicious, chocolatey, yet with an odd hint of olive oil.

Page 105: She spoke clearly, loudly, yet with an odd reserve.

Ironically, this sort of thing is glaring to a reader tearing through the pages at speed, yet (GOD DAMMIT SEE WHAT I DID THERE) much less obtrusive to the much slower-moving editor, still less to the snail-like author.

Do I have a solution? Lol no. Well, the usuals:

  • Be aware of your habits. ‘Rather’ and ‘quite’ are two of my chronic ones (can you tell I’m British?), but I am also horribly prone to ‘grimace’ and also “He didn’t reply for a moment, and then…” Keep a list if you have to. This is painful to the self-esteem but hey, life is struggle.
  • Stick the MS into another font—try Comic Sans, seriously—and print it out, or format it as a book if you’re au fait with self publishing and read it on your ereader/tablet/phone. The change to your normal working layout helps enormously.
  • Text to speech it. Or read it out loud yourself if you can bear that.  
  • Choose violence and publish the book. You’ll see all of your echoes along with all your other mistakes, every single one of them, right there.

Self-editing: Repetition, echoes, and saying the same thing over and over again

The first in an occasional series of self-editing blogs, in which I address common writing errors, and marvel that my fifteen years’ editing experience doesn’t stop me making them.

Today, repetition, which comes in three main forms.

Word repetition

‘Turn round.’ John looked round, and saw the round muzzle of a gun pointed at his face. He sagged, realizing they had been roundly defeated.  His enemy smiled. ‘Round them up!’

It’s appallingly easy to do. I fix this for authors on a daily basis, but I still turned in The Magpie Lord to Samhain with so many unconscious repetitions I was hiding behind the sofa with embarrassment when I got my edits back.

Read the MS aloud to catch these, or if you are in public or find yourself totally word-blind, run your MS though a piece of software such as this free one. I wouldn’t ever use an automated grammar check function, but as a basic highlighting tool to flag duplicate words, this can be very helpful.

NB: Don’t go mad with a thesaurus to change every instance. The above paragraph would not be improved by replacing instances of ‘round’ with ‘circular’, ‘rotate’ or ‘pirouette’.

Concept repetition, micro level

Peter and John are alone in a room.

‘You want me to carry this thing, Peter?’ John asked, prodding the gun with a finger as if it might explode. ‘I don’t like guns.’

Just consider how much of that is repeated concepts.

‘You want me to carry this thing [if you must have a noun here, use one that isn’t null]

, Peter?’ [they are alone in the room, John knows who he’s talking to]

John asked, [there’s a question mark right there to tell us he’s asking]

prodding at the gun with a finger. [what else would he prod it with?]

‘I don’t like guns.’ [A restatement that adds nothing and gives no flavour of his character. Useless. Plus repetition of the word ‘gun’]

And without repetition:

‘You want me to carry this?’ John prodded the gun as if it might explode. ‘I’d rather leave violence to the experts.’

Repetition of meaning can be tricky to spot. Read slowly, and look hard at passages where your attention starts to skip or you feel the text drag: you’ll probably find concept repetition lurking within. And trim your speech tags as much as possible. See here for how much I hate speech tags (a lot).

Content repetition, macro level

A real example from my soldier/spy romance, which I’m currently editing.

Curtis and da Silva are trapped in a country house. They have discovered that their host is a ruthless villain; if the host learns his secret is out, our heroes are for the chop. That’s crucial for the plot. So crucial, in fact, that I seem to have written three separate conversations where da Silva makes this very point to Curtis – or, rather, where I make it to the reader. Yes, it is dangerous! Lots of danger! Be very afraid!

What’s actually going on here is that I haven’t set up the threat properly in the first place. There are two key plot elements coexisting in the first scene where our heroes are faced with the threat, and I concentrated on the other one, at the expense of the sense of danger. Because the threat only comes across as a secondary element of the scene, it isn’t sufficiently convincing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this as I wrote the first draft, but my lizard brain seems to have tried to patch that hole by demanding extra passages to assure the reader that the danger is real.

Nice try, lizard brain. Unfortunately, repeatedly telling your readers something is not the same as convincing them it’s true. If you find yourself making the same point over and over, you’re probably compensating for something that isn’t working. Go back to the scene that should have established it in the first place, and make it happen there.

Go on a repetition hunt. It’ll do terrible things to your word count, but such glorious things to your text.