Being a Better Writer: Repetitive Ticks That “Don’t Exist”

Welcome back readers! I hope you’re doing better this Monday than I am. As I am still sick. On the mend, thankfully, and I’ll be picking up some Nyquil today to at last give this cough the boot, but it’s been tenacious in hanging on.

Anyway, before I get to today’s topic, I do have one news topic to bring up: Thanksgiving and the Black Friday Sale.

Midnight on Thursday, and running through the next week, most of my lexicon of books will be getting in on the Black Friday sale goodness! If you’ve been holding out on a particular title, this will be the time to grab it! Or if you’re looking for a good Christmas gift for the reader in your family … this is it!

There’s only one catch. Due to Amazon’s bizarre handling of international digital markets, the sale isn’t consistent across all countries. Sorry. But I’ve done my best to put as many of my books as I can on a sale if possible.

And a steep on, too. We’re talking 50% off or more. Even for new books like Shadow of an Empire or classics like Colony. I’ll post more about it as the day approached, but for now? Set your alarms and get ready. If you know folks hunting for a deal or looking for Christmas gifts, let them know!

Okay, with that bit of news out of the way, let’s talk about repetitive ticks that don’t exist. With a title topic like that, I’d expect that a bunch of you are expecting me to talk about “Saidisms” and other repetitive words, but … nope! I’ve already talked about that. You can find that post here.

So then, what’s this post about? Well, it’s a curious one, but as the title says, I’m talking about repetitive ticks that don’t exist.

Or do they?

Confused? Well, I don’t blame you. If they don’t exist, then what’s to talk about?

Perception.

Let me start with where this topic came from. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been spending some of my spare time editing the short story A Game of Stakes. And in the act of editing that (as well as editing my other works) I’ve come across a curious phenomenon.

See, at one point during the Alpha Editing of A Game of Stakes, an Alpha Reader stopped to comment on the protagonist’s father telling his daughter to “Stay safe” with a comment along the lines of “This is the third time he’s told his daughter to stay safe, which is a little much for that phrase.”

Except … here was the thing. It was the first time he had told his daughter to stay safe. In fact, it was the only time he said the word “safe” at all.

But if that was true, what was going on with my reader? Were they wrong? Well … yes … and no.

Thankfully, this wasn’t the first time I’d run into this situation, and so I knew what was really going on. Which was this: The character in question, while not using the words “Stay safe” had expressed the sentiment through the course of the conversation. They had been concerned about the dangers of their daughter heading out all alone, had asked if she wanted to take more guards with her, and then uttered the line “Stay safe.”

And what had the reader remembered? The sentiment. While Victoria’s father hadn’t said the words until the very moment at the finale, he had expressed that he was interested in keeping his daughter safe. What resulted was that the reader read it like this:

  • ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It could be dangerous?’ — Be safe!
  • ‘Do you want to take more guards with you?’ — Be safe!
  • ‘Stay safe.’ — Be safe!

This wasn’t the only occurrence of something like this happening in the story, either. In another interaction (which I’ll try to avoid spoilering), another Alpha Reader noted that a characters observations on another across the story were all “the same.” And like the example just given, while they weren’t exactly “right” they also were.

Seen, in each case, even though the words used were not the same, the sentiment expressed was. In both cases the Alpha Readers were correct: My characters were repeating themselves even though they hadn’t actually done so in the way they remembered.

Like I said earlier, were they right? Yes … and no. The characters actually hadn’t overused the term that they remembered anywhere but in their own memories … But the gist of what they remembered was accurate. Victoria’s father did want her to stay safe. And the other character was voicing the same thing … though often in different ways and with a different approach.

Okay, so why bring this up? Perhaps some of you are nodding your head and saying “Sure, sure. What’s this got to do with my writing?” Well, not as much, to be honest. After all, if you’re already working to avoid being repetitive, you’re going to sidestep the most obvious issues. This problem then, by contrast, should rear its head during editing, when others are looking over your story and start taking the words you’ve put down to build their vision of it in their heads.

So what will you do then? First, you’ll acknowledge that they’re right, because they are. Even if their own explanation isn’t quite “correct,” they are still right. Once I read those comments, I first checked to see if they were true directly (CTRL+F is an editor’s friend), but then reread the section entirely to see how they had arrived at the conclusion they had.

Wouldn’t you know it, but they weren’t wrong. As I explained above, when I looked over the sections they were talking about, I could see exactly what the problem was, or rather, how what I had written had led to them to remember what they’d read as “stay safe” or some other repetitive phrase. And if they were remembering it that way, others would as well. And remember a repetitive phrase even if it didn’t actually exist.

This will happen to you at some point. Which brings me to the next step: How do you fix it?

Well, you might guess that the fix would be to change what the Alpha Readers had highlighted, right? Get rid of the ‘stay safe” and replace it with something else, or maybe change the tone of the conversation entirely?

No. That’d be the wrong step, actually.

No, what I did was go back to the prior paragraphs and make a few small changes. For example, While Victoria’s father had only used the word safe at the end, Victoria had replied using the word as well. I changed that to “fine,” thus removing the connotation of “safe” with her father’s words. I then also went back to the prior paragraphs and took a few words out, or swapped them for words which imparted a lessened value of “be safe” and instead came across as “concerned parent.”

Just like that, the issue was solved. Removing Victoria’s use of the word, as well as streamlining the earlier conversations (I believe I trimmed … three words, total, in that) removed the issue. It was no longer a repeated thing, just a case of a concerned but proud parent.

The other issue with the repetitiveness I did the same, though it took a little more work. I cut some words and inserted others to downplay the mental “summary” as it were being associated around a single term or word and introduce some variance. The result was that when the reader went back over things, they didn’t see a problem.

Now, I know for some of you this may still seem nebulous. But at it’s core, what this is about is, to a degree, manipulating what your reader remembers. For example, when I edited Shadow of an Empire, there was a single phrase that Salitore used once that an Alpha Reader pinged as ‘having been used every chapter.’ However, it was wholly unique in the entire book. What they were remembering was that the character had laid the groundwork for such a statement with his side-musings in earlier chapters. I don’t quite remember how that one got fixed, but again it was a case of “this is a repetitive statement” when it wasn’t.

Sometimes there isn’t a fix, either. Sometimes it’s just one reader who sees a “problem” but others disagree. As with all things in editing, you have to work carefully.

But, and I have said this before, the effort is worth it.

So watch out, not just for repetitive words, but for situations in which you fool a reader into remembering repetition that doesn’t exactly exist. At least, not the way they remember it.

You can’t stop it from happening. But if you get a response in this vein from an Alpha Reader and wonder what’s going on because the word isn’t repeated, well … Remember this post. Look at prior paragraphs, or even other areas of story where you might have expressed the same ideas or sentiments in a different manner a reader may have “summarized.”

Then make some tweaks, some nips and tucks, and see what happens.

Good luck. Now get writing. Especially if you’re doing Nanowrimo.

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