March 28th, 2007


Perseveration and crutches and uniques, oh my

Working on Madness of Flowers drove home for me one of the basics of my writing. I am death on word echoes. To me, those are almost the epitome of bad style. Sadly, no matter how carefully I read for them, I always miss some. (Is there a regular expression which finds duplicate text strings within N characters?)

Echoes seem to rise from several sources. They're interesting to me, as a sort of window into my writing process. Note that some words don't count as echoes -- common verbs, pronouns, etc. For others, the echo factor has to do with proximity. A character name feels like an echo if its repeated twice in one sentence, but not every paragraph or two. An unusual adjective, say /vainglorious/, can be an echo if it appears twice in the same manuscript. Monotonous, repetitive sentence or paragraph structures can really point up words which might not otherwise echo so intensely either.

The key is whether the word draws attention to itself, and distracts the reader thereby.


Perseveration is when I get a word lodged in my mind while writing, and it appears several times across two or three pages. So for example, I might have /enspelled/. Which has loads of synonyms and near-synonyms. (One of the great glories of writing in English is our ridiculously large and varied vocabulary.) /enscorcelled/, /enchanted/, /caught within a glamer/, /magicked/, etc. If I'm looking over a manuscript and I see /enspelled/ more than once, unless there's a very good reason for it, I go on a scorched earth hunt for the sucker.


Crutch words are a special case of perseveration. While perseveration (nice echo, huh?) tends to drop off after a couple of pages, crutch words (or phrases) echo throughout a manuscript. In Madness of Flowers, one of my crutches was "For one", as in "For one, she's a right bastard and she'll kill us all." Almost without exception, that tag was a de-intensifier that I cut on rewriter -- it was a mental equivalent of saying /um/ in speech, a stall while I worked out what was coming next. It's been a different word or phrase in other books and stories, but I always seem to have a few of them.


Occasionally, even in this language you have words or phrases with few good synonyms or substitutions. Volcanoes erupt, for example. There aren't a lot of other verbs for that. (Feel free to diss me on this in comments, but the basic point holds true.) You can talk about lava rippling or fountains of molten rock or pyroclastic flows, but there's only so many ways to say "the volcano erupted." There's a point at which the contortions to avoid the echo become more artificial than the echo itself.

I hate that.


Then there's just good old-fashioned clunks. For example, this language doesn't do a lot with pronoun case. The sentence, "Susie gave Jane her purse." is inherently ambiguous. Whose purse did Susie give to Jane? You can write around it to some degree, but the simple fact is that native English speakers cope with these ambiguities every day with little to no confusion. Generally there is plenty of context by the time you get to a sentence like that. Likewise, the degree of repetition required of a major character name can turn into a clunk.

Everything about an echo is dependent on the situation, of course. But for me personally, it's one of the greatest offenses in my own writing, and something I go to great lengths to manage. Maybe someday I'll get it right.

Homonyms and figures of speech

A bit more thinking, from me on my lunch hour.

I had a sentence in Madness which read something like:

"The boat was tied to the dock as the tide came in."

/tied/ and /tide/ are not echoes, typographically or lexically, but they are absolutely echoes from an audible standpoint. Personally, I don't hear the words as I read, so I'll tend to slide right by that sort of thing, but many people do hear text in their heads. So it still counts.

Which thought in turn led me to remember a workshop story some years ago where the writer had said:

"The dog laid down to stand guard."

I pointed out you can't /lay down/ to /stand/ -- that the actions were directly contradictory. He didn't get it at first, because he was seeing the figurative meaning of /stand guard/. I finally asked him if he ever made puns. He said no he didn't. Punning is all about seeing the 'wrong' meaning in a word or phrase, and emphasizing it back to your audience. He saw the 'right' meaning of /stand guard/ and never noticed the conflict between the two action verbs embedded in his sentence.

That's not an echo, but it's rather similar. Of such nuances are good style made.

Poll - echoes and puns and reading style

If you're not sure what I mean by "echoes", it might help to read this post first.

Poll #955855 How do you perceive written text?

How do you perceive written text?

When I read, the words happen typographically in my head.
I hear them, as if being spoken to.
Conceptually, in pictures for example.
Something else I'll explain in comments.

What happens to abstract terms or complex phrasing?

They just string together like beads.
I can see the things, but the ideas are harder to follow.
Too much text without a break loses me.
Something else I'll explain in comments.
Ticky box.

Are you sensitive to word echoes?

Depends on context.
Something else I'll explain in comments.

Do you frequently make (or at least see the opening for) puns?

Depends on context.
Something else I'll explain in comments.

A bit more on spoken vs written word

I'm still noodling this whole echoes/puns thing. (See my previous posts if you missed earlier portions of this discussion.)

One thing that's interesting to me is how noisy (in the communications theory sense of the term) ordinary speech is. We all edit this out constantly, but if you look at an accurate transcription of almost any speech stream, it's full of garbage -- repetitions, dropped words, misused words, stammers, syntactically neutral placeholders, random noises, etc. I myself stammer on a fairly regular basis, but I don't think many people notice it.

Yet in written text, there is (rightly) a premium on clarity. Even written dialog, as within a work of fiction, can sustain only a small amount of that 'noise.' Consider how negatively some people react to "eye dialect" Wikipedia ]. I have to read portions of Tom Sawyer aloud, and all of Riddley Walker has to be read that way to be understood in the slightest.

So written text, even when it's aspiring to represent the spoken word, is offering a highly idealized version of speech. Likewise the potentially complex structures of written text correspond to the ordinary speech patterns of no one this side of William F. Buckley.

Kevin J. Anderson reportedly writes some of his books by dictating them into a recorder and having them transcribed. For me, the language which flows out of my fingers is so distinct from the language which comes out of my mouth that I might as well be working with two different brains.

Sometimes I'm so funny I crack myself up

Just wrote a pitch letter for a novel called Nixon Agonistes for the next IROSF article with specficrider. If she doesn't make me cut it out again, you all will get to read it soon.

It's an alternate history rock-and-roll murder mystery set in Russian-colonized Southern California. Just in case you were wondering. Think an ancient Vladimir Lenin as the Tsar of all Russias, and Richard Nixon as Elvis.

Norwescon Schedule

Thursday, April 5th
3:00 PMEvergreen 1Breaking in Through the Small Press
Bruce B. Taylor (M), Marti McKenna, Jay Lake, Bluejack
9:00 PMCascade 7Writing a story in an Hour with Jay Lake and company
Jay Lake (M), Caitlin Kittredge, Lisa Mantchev, Kat Richardson

Friday, April 6th
10:00 AMEvergreen 1Writers and Blogging
Joe Cooke (M), Jay Lake, Joshua Palmatier, Erin Tidwell, M.K. Hobson
2:00 PMCascade 6Defending the Writing Life
Jeff Ayers (M), Greg Cox, Yasmine Galenorn, Jay Lake, Syne Mitchell
11:00 PMCascade 4That's Horrible--Do It Again! Sex, Death, and Debauchery in Dark Fantasy and Horror.
Eric Morgret (M), Jay Lake, Kij Johnson

Saturday, April 7th
10:00 AMEvergreen 1 & 2Autograph Session 1
Jay Lake
12:30 PMCascade 3Reading: Jay Lake
Jay Lake
1:00 PMCascade 9The Liars’ Panel: A Guaranteed Way To Sell That 1000 Page First Manuscript Of Yours
Michael Montoure (M), Jay Lake, Amy Thomson, Loren Coleman
2:00 PMCascade 8Neither Fish nor Fowl
Andrew Dolbeck (M), Richelle Mead, Kat Richardson, Jay Lake, Cynthia Ward
3:00 PMEvergreen 4Bag and Baggage
Alexander James Adams (M), Cynthia Ward, Jay Lake, Heather Lindsley
6:00 PMCascade 6Can't Someone Just Teach Me All This Writing Stuff?
Mary Rosenblum (M), Loren Coleman, Jay Lake, Irene Radford, James Cobb
8:00 PMTBDTalebones Live

Sunday, April 8th
10:00 AMCascade 10Are There Day Jobs Particularly Suited to the Writer?
Jay Lake (M), Caitlin Kittredge, Bruce B. Taylor
11:00 AMEvergreen 3The Next Generation of Writers: What Are They About?
Caitlin Kittredge (M), Jay Lake, Duane Wilkins

Platonic ideals

There is only one true Pop-Tart, before which all other Pop-Tarts and lesser toaster pastries are inferior imitations to snare the faithless and the unwary. I'm talking frosted brown sugar and cinnamon, of course.

Do you have a Platonic ideal? The perfected automobile? The perfected book? The perfected spice? Do share. For that matter, do you have a Plutonic ideal?

I'm going to sleep now, I swear.