Thursday, April 20, 2006

Please, Don't Repeat That

I've been on a re-reading glom of late. I have no idea why, when I have some 100 plus books I've yet to read sitting on a shelf, getting dusty. But the last five books I've read have been ones from my keeper shelf.

One writer in particular has caught me up in her web yet again. I'm not going to say who, because although I love her stuff, I've now noticed something that didn't catch my attention during my first read-throughs. Something that, while it doesn't detract from her great stories, still picques me enough to discuss here. Because it's proof that just because you've attained success, you can still make some mistakes that seem avoidable.

She really tends to repeat herself.

Not so much in plots or characterisation, which she kind of does but I forgive because she's writing a certain subgenre which by its very nature implies repition of plots and characters. I firmly believe that there are no new stories, simply rehashings of the old.

When I say that this writer repeats herself, I'm talking about certain phrases and descriptives that I now realize I've read in pretty much every single one of her books. Words and phrases she uses so frequently they've become her very own cliches I recognize immediately when they appear. It's almost become a game for me to find the usage in every book because I'm sure it's going to be there somewhere.

In the past, I always rolled my eyes when I'd read advice and how-tos that tell writers to be very wary of using the same words more than once or twice on a page or in a story. There are only so many words in the English language, so limiting the number of times you can use a word in a 100,000 word novel is really asking a lot. Besides, I'd always reasoned, do the readers even realize that you've used a word or phrase more than once? I don't remember exact words from the beginning of a book to know if they've shown up at the end again unless the word is very bizarre. This seemed to me to be simply another one of those craft rules that was meant to be broken.

Except, it's true. Readers do remember stuff they've read, within a story and between stories. Specifically. Especially with a colorful turn of phrase or a particular way of describing something. Which is kind of ironic, really. The writer has done such a good job of expressing something so uniquely that she's ruined the ability to use that phrase again because it stands out so clearly.

In the case of my current re-reading glom, this particular writer has a handful of phrases she uses that I've not come across in other works, so I would consider them uniquely hers. Except she uses these phrases in every. single. book. Almost like she puts them on a list when she thinks of them for future use, then refers to her list when she needs to describe the same thing in her next book.

Now, I suppose if you only read one of her titles this wouldn't be any big deal at all. It's when you read all the titles that the problem becomes clear. It's almost as if the writer has gotten lazy or is taking shortcuts. She's become successful and has determined that what worked so well in Books A, B, and C should be slotted into any subsequent title that comes along. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

But those phrases yank me out of the story because I've read them before, someplace else. And I'm no longer reading a descriptive that applies to what I'm currently reading but rather some kind of stock imagery that also described a similar situation/person/place/thing in previous books I've read. Which means the characters in Current Book are no longer unique or special.

I suppose I'll be a bit more understanding once I've got half a dozen or more titles on the shelves and I'm struggling to find fresh new ways to describe the same old thing. I suppose it's this kind of complaining by readers that gives writers reasons for their huffy "If you think it's so easy, why don't you try doing it?" outrage. I suppose it's this challenge that inspires so many successful writers to repeat over and over that it's all about learning the craft and practicing it well if you want to make it in this industry.

I'm not saying I don't feel for this writer in how hard it is to come up with something new each and every time when she's got something perfectly serviceable left over from earlier works.

I'm just saying that I find it kind of sloppy. And lazy.

And that I definitely notice it. And whenever a reader notices the writing, the writer has a problem.

No one said writing was easy.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. Happened to me with an author I really liked. Had to stop reading the stuff because, even though the plots were different, it felt like I'd already seen it all.

There's another author I stopped reading because, although her worlds were different and fascinating, she spent way too much time pounding the readers with her personal adjenda. Every other plot point, she'd take some time out (a few sentences, a paragraph... not much, but it adds up...) to highlight the fact that her heroine was outperforming the men.

The first book in the series was so good that, even though we were reading it for school (which means overanalyzing until it hurts), I went and picked up the sequel. After a while, though I just got tired of being pounded over the head with "anything you can do, I can do better!" Feminism is good, but this was excessive.

Erm, anyway... *puts hobby horse back into umbrella stand*

Repetition in writing can be annoying and distracting. It can ruin things. But sometimes it's unavoidable. There's a thin line between repetition and personal style. If you have a way of saying things that's just natural to you, well, it'll turn up from time to time.

It can be good. Homey. Familiar. Tone-setting. Better than fighting your instincts and coming up with a different phrasing that goes against your grain (and therefore ends up coming across as stilted).

As with anything, though, there are limits. Which is, I guess, what I'm saying. Moderation. Don't supress too much just because you're afraid of repetition, but don't let the ingrained ruts of habit guide things too much, either.