The Three Dirty Birds, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and Repeating Yourself


Three Dirty Birds are talking about Self-editing for Fiction Writers again. This is our last week for this book. Today, we’re talking about Chapter 10, which focuses on repetition.

Kate: I thought this one really built on some of the concepts that were brought forward in previous chapters, particularly the one on Interior Monologue.

Ana: Yeah, I guess this is another way to prevent interior monologue from getting rambly. Don’t make your characters repeat themselves.

Kate: And it’s one of those things that depends so much on style and voice, which we’ll be talking about in a later post, so this is a skill that takes a bit of time. I didn’t actually agree with all her examples in this chapter.

Zoe: I didn’t either…so it depends on style and voice and reader taste.

Ana: I didn’t think all the edited examples were all that great. K

ate: No, they weren’t. The second one, I thought that the editing actually removed the author’s voice. It read very bland to me in the second version, while–in the first, original–I could hear the narrator as a person.

Zoe: This was the one with Rita’s habit of gaudy dress? (It’s early here: I’m not up to counting to two yet.)

Ana: I think it’s the one about the garage? I think this goes to show why editors make suggestions rather than rewriting the text themselves.

Kate: I was actually thinking about the one with Rita in it, yes. I thought the garage one was improved by pulling out some of those sentences. Though I’m not sure she should have removed that last sentence. Set off in its own paragraph, it would have been a nice bit of emotional punctuation.

Zoe: I felt the same about the Rita example. It was more vibrant in the original, and it lost its impact in the rewrite. What she took out wasn’t what I usually think of as redundancies that need to be removed.

Kate: Which is just a warning–don’t be afraid to STET something. It’s your voice, you are responsible for guarding it, and I think the Rita passage was an example of someone not being able to see the forest for the trees. Too focused on the technical incorrectness to notice that the voice was carried in those sections. Voice trumps everything–all the editors I stalk on Twitter say so.

Zoe: Well, if it’s on Twitter, it’s true. We all know that. 😉

Kate: The interwebz haz many truths. *nods sagely*

Zoe: I STETed for voice on my upcoming new adult romance recently, and the world didn’t end. Definitely worth sticking to your guns when it really is coming down to voice.

Ana: Are you sure the world hasn’t ended? It’s looking pretty bleak here.

Zoe: I have coffee. The world hasn’t ended if I can still get coffee.

Kate: I ate the last of my chocolate last night. I think that’s the first sign of the Apocalypse, right?

Ana: Does my caffeine intolerance mean I’m secretly already dead?

Zoe: No, you’re still at risk from all the people who may be plunged into caffeine withdrawal if the world ends. (Also, Kate: Ana has chocolate. Make her share.)

Kate: Share, Ana! I’ll share my cabana boys.

Ana: You mean the cabana boy you stole from me three weeks ago? Kate: Possession is nine-tenths of the law. 😀

Ana: Don’t try to confuse me with numbers! *walks into a wall*

Zoe: I’m surprised you have any walls left. (Ana hits her head against the wall a lot.) Anyhow, I thought the example given for interior monologue worked much better in editing. It cut away the refuse and… (Ana’s eating chocolate. I’ve lost my train of thought. Anyway: interior monologue example good.)

Kate: This was the camping, right? I liked that one. I also liked that she mentioned that repetition wasn’t always a bad thing, that you could use it to emphasize something, or build up a character with subtle clues, depending on what you repeated.

Ana: I STETed some line edits that wanted me to remove a repetition that I’d intended. I hadn’t put it in consciously, but I knew I wanted it to stay.

Zoe: The authors make a good point on the close repetition of words used with different meanings. It’s something we don’t generally notice when we’re writing (and even through several edits sometimes) because to us they’re two completely different things, but they can jump out at a reader. In the example it was the use of “on the ground” and “ground turkey” just a sentence apart.

Kate: That’s something that catches me quite often when I’m reading. It’s a fairly easy fix, usually, though it occasionally requires some authorial contortions to have everything flow and make sense.

Zoe: Yes! I had that problem in the upcoming book with “lock of hair” and an actual lock being in the same paragraph.

Kate: I remember you talking about that.

Zoe: I forget what I wound up changing “lock of hair” to, but it wasn’t easy, because “strand of hair” isn’t the same thing at all, and “hank” of hair is much bigger.

Ana: I think I’ve never heard that second one…

Kate: It’s not as common as the other ones. Did anyone’s eyes open just a little bit wider when you read the extract from the review on page 183?

Zoe: I think we all agree that review was a bit anal (but I wanted to be the one to type anal. Ha!)

Kate: I’m not sure you need to worry about a repeated three-word phrase with two hundred pages in between them.

Zoe: Mr. Rider told me that I really like the word “congeal,” after he read my horror novel. I did a search on it. Used it twice in 86,000 words. TWICE!

Ana: Lol. I guess some words stand out to readers if they wouldn’t use them themselves? I remember I once read (and gave up on) a book that used ‘proverbial’ every second page or so.

Zoe: I guess that author lost a proverbial reader.

Kate: Groan. Every second page was probably a little too much.

Ana: You could have made a drinking game out of it.

Zoe: The authors move on to tackle larger-scale repetition: chapters that accomplish the same thing, characters who play the same role. I actually removed a character from the new adult romance and assigned his jobs to the other characters—he wasn’t integral enough to the story to justify being there, and he duplicated some functionality of other characters. (Though it did lead my editor to ask “WHO???” when I forgot to change the name once or twice. But it wouldn’t be a good editing session if I didn’t throw in at least one character who wasn’t in the story.)

Ana: Yes, real life people often have a large circle of acquaintances, but in fiction, it just gets confusing when you have too many characters.

Kate: True. In real life, we interact with people, or can ask who they are if we’ve forgotten. It’s a bit harder in a novel, when you’re reading along and the name is familiar, but you can’t quite remember who this person is, because you’ve met so many. Much better to keep it simpler.

Zoe: Plus you don’t want readers wondering why this character is there. What’s their importance? Oh…there is none. Whoops.

Kate: Or, we’re asking the reader to acquaint themselves with a brand new character, so they can learn something important to the plot, when one of the old characters could have done the job. You never get really familiar with the characters if you’re always meeting new ones, just like in real life.

Zoe: Or Twitter!

Ana: When you’re giving more tasks to fewer characters, you usually end up with more fleshed out characters too. It’s better to have a few well rounded characters than to have a bunch of background puppets.

Zoe: Yes. Well-rounded characters make memorable characters. A well-rounded supporting cast will have your readers begging for you to write spin-offs just for their favorite characters who didn’t get enough attention. (Like one of Kate’s well-loved supporting characters….)

Kate: I thought they made an important point about making sure that your chapters all have their own purpose, that you don’t have two chapters in the novel that essentially do the same thing. That kind of repetition slows down a story and creates a circular plot, where you’re just retreading old ground.

Ana: Yeah, I recently read a story where the three introductory chapters pretty much all just showed the MC’s relationship to her friends and family.

Zoe: Every chapter should have its own purpose (one that moves the story forward, of course).

Ana: Wouldn’t that be nice…

Zoe: And then we get to really large-scale repetition. You know, the one where you loved an author’s book, so you read another. And another. And…hey, they’re all the same book! That’s much less fun.

Kate: I laughed reading that part.

Ana: Yeah, I had some names in mind. We probably all do.

Zoe: Probably. On one hand, they can be comfort food for some readers, but….

Ana: I suppose sometimes it’s nice to know exactly what you’re getting when you’re buying a certain author.

Kate: I don’t know. I stopped reading a fairly well-known scifi author after realizing that if I continued with this series, I was going to be reading the same story over and over again. I could just reread the first couple of books and have the same experience.

Zoe: I feel like it has to get boring to write, by the thirteenth book or so. Ana: Once you reach number thirteen you can mix things up by swapping the males for females!

Kate: Oh, Ana! Dirty Bird!

And the last thing they talked about was overdoing stylistic tricks, or characterizations, because if you use a trick or piece of information too often, people start to notice it. It’s great for a running gag, but most times it’s not meant that way and people start figuratively (or, sometimes, literally) rolling their eyes about it.

Ana: Yes, don’t be a one-trick pony!

Zoe: A Song of Fire and Ice Fans love to parrot the over-repeated lines from those books.

Ana: Brace yourselves, edits are coming.

Zoe: Ha. Words are wind.

Kate: Lol.

About the author: Kate Lowell

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