science fiction · writing · writing tips

Repeated patterns in your writing: sifting the good from the bad

Last year I was delighted to get to know author John B. Rosenman, retired English professor from Norfolk State University.

John previously designed and taught a course in how to write Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He is a former Chairman of the Board of the Horror Writers’ Association  and has published approximately 350 stories and over a dozen books, including several SF action-adventure novels.

So I was thrilled when John offered to come to my blog and share some of his experience and a few tips on writing.

Good to have you here again, John!

helena fairfax, john rosenman, author interviewWhat’s the Figure in your Carpet?

by John B. Rosenman

C’mon, you know what I mean.  I’m not talking about whether you write science fiction or paranormal romances or historical thrillers or outright smut.  All this is related, of course, but I’m talking about something finer and more subtle.  Something you have to search for and peer at.  Something that’s staring you right in the face but is concealed by the fanciful design of your words or by paths you too often have travelled.

Your personal Figure is as essential to you as your soul and the way you walk.  Only it involves the distinctive way you write and even the way you think about the way you write.  It’s your personal style, part of the filter through which you process the world.

The Figure in the Carpet is a composite of many things.  Some can be as delicate and small as a tendency to overuse a certain word or phrase.  Plain speaking Ernest Hemingway believed you should do things “truly,” and William Faulkner loved solemn words like “avatar” and “repudiate.”  The Figure in the Carpet can also involve larger, more significant patterns such as your basic writing style and the lengths of your sentences.  Also, specific themes and images you use over and over again.  If you’re typical, you have many quirks.  Some of them are strengths, some of them weaknesses.  Whatever they are, they are precise fingerprints of your mind, which differ from all others.

What’s my point?  I suggest if you can detect the Figure in your psychic Carpet and recognize it for what it is, that you not only can (1) develop a better understanding of yourself as a writer and person, but (2) improve the quality of your writing and story-making.

Let’s use me as a guinea pig.

Recently, an editor for one of my novels pointed out I overuse “but,” “that,” “then,” and “and then” throughout.  Now, if I had used the “Find” feature on my PC, I could have spotlighted those habits and corrected them in advance.  However, to do that, I at least have to suspect the precise nature of the problems in advance.  But, uh, thanks to her, I’m now on guard, especially when it comes to beginning a sentence with “But.”

A minor problem?  No, the devil is often in the details.  While overusing a conjunction once may not be a cardinal offense, excessive repetition can become a serious irritant, undermining the effectiveness of your prose and damaging your prospects for a sale.

To mention one more example in this area, my editor also said I don’t use contractions enough, e.g., preferring ‘he had’ for ‘he’d.’  A picky point?  No, for too many ‘he hads’ can slow your style and make it seem stuffy.  Ultimately, these and other weaknesses are not just cosmetic considerations.  They weaken the way you think and express yourself and need to be recognized for what they are.

Okay, let’s consider a larger part of the Figure in my personal Carpet, a main part of the design rather than a minor thread.  In my novels, I like to focus on the Hero or Heroine as savior and as messiah.  In Beyond Those Distant Stars, only Stella McMasters, a cyborg, can save the human race from alien annihilation.  More recently, in Alien Dreams and Dax Rigby, War Correspondent, we also have saviors.  Both are painted in cosmic, spiritual colors and upon their shoulders the fate of billions depends.

Okay, nothing wrong with this.  Superheroes, as good old Joe Campbell would tell you, have a thousand faces, and many novels, movies, TV programs and the like depend on superheroes to save humanity in one way or another.  But these two particular heroes—

Eric Latimore in Alien Dreams and Dax Rigby in Dax Rigby—strenuously resist the notion they are special and that their destiny involves a divine or cosmic mission.

Now I was aware of this thematic pattern and that Latimore and Rigby closely resembled each other in some ways.  However, I viewed them as variations on each other, sufficiently different to warrant their mutual existence.  When I went over the galleys for Dax Rigby, though, I found a character tries to convince our hero of his great role with the same words used by an earlier character to Eric Latimore:

“Don’t you know who you are?  Don’t you know who you’ve always been?”

Whoa.  Too similar for comfort.  When I wrote Dax Rigby, I was not aware of this parallel, of the fact that I have a character repeat what a character in another universe previously said.

Is this a weakness or a justified variation on a theme?  Perhaps it’s the latter, but one thing’s for sure: I must not do it a third time.  My point, again, is that writers need to be aware of the infrastructure of their stories and novels, of the perils involved in repetition.  The Figure in our Carpet exists whether we see it or not, and perceiving it enables us to know more fully who and what we are as writers and to accentuate strengths and avoid weaknesses.

One last point: probably the major theme in my fiction is transformation in all its imaginable permutations.  A woman contracts a deadly, horribly disfiguring disease which makes all her friends shun her, and in the end she turns into—a radiantly beautiful, angelic creature.  In other stories, humans become aliens, or emerge like butterflies from a miraculous chrysalis.  Sometimes the transformation is psychological or spiritual and involves a sea change of attitude rather than form.

Obviously, this theme is a broad, worthy one, and I’m deeply fascinated by it.  But how much is too much?  No matter how resourceful and inventive I am, do I run the risk of being a one-trick pony and limiting my scope?  Either way, it’s something I must at least be aware of.

So, gentle reader, as I asked before, what is the Figure in your Carpet?  While it’s difficult to be objective and self-analytical, it’s still something we must do.

Here’s an assignment: Sit down and make a list of ten distinguishing traits of your writing.  They can be small, concerned with word choice and punctuation, or they can be large, such as repetitive themes and character types, or a tendency to telegraph your endings.  Or those traits can fall somewhere in the middle, like a tendency of your heroes to dream or share similar gestures, facial expressions, or mannerisms.  Whatever they might be, your task is to recognize them and determine if they are assets or liabilities.

If it helps, pick up one of your stories or novels and read it as if you were a customer in a bookstore, whether virtual or brick-and-mortar.  Put yourself in the Carpet objectively and try to see the Figure in the depths of your own mind.

*

helena fairfax, john rosenman, kingdom of the jaxKingdom of the Jax is Book II in the Inspector of the Cross series.  Book I is Inspector of the Cross.  The tagline for the series is: Can Turtan, our greatest hero, save humanity from invincible aliens?

For four thousand years Turtan has traveled  to distant worlds in suspended animation seeking a weapon or device that can turn the tide against humanity’s alien enemy.

Blurb – Kingdom of the Jax:

Accompanied by Yaneta, his beautiful alien bride, Turtan travels across the stars to Cross Imperial Station.  The Jax, Overseers of the universe, have given him an amazing navigational device which can enable the Cross to quickly defeat their seemingly invincible enemy, the Cen, and end their five-thousand-year-old war.

But will the Emperor welcome him to the station or order the execution of both him and his wife?  Turtan is, after all, endlessly resourceful and may learn the emperors’ terrible secret and act of betrayal concealed these past five hundred years.  Even if he is spared, Yaneta is still a member of the enemy and may be killed instantly.

To succeed in his mission, Turtan faces an almost impossible task, one requiring not only luck but the full range of all the skills he has acquired in four thousand years as an elite agent.

It is his greatest challenge ever.

Buy links: MuseItUp / Amazon / Amazon UK and other ebook retailers

Website: www.johnrosenman.com/

Blog:  www.johnrosenman.blogspot.com/

*

Thanks so much for coming today, John!

My romance novels tend to emphasise the hero and heroine’s eyes too much.  That’s one of the patterns in my carpet :)  My editor once told me, ‘I think the reader knows he has grey eyes by now’!

How about you?  If you’re a writer, how do you avoid unnecessary repetition?  And if you’re a reader, are there repetetive phrases you tend to notice in certain novels?  If you have any questions or comments at all, please let us know.  We’d love to hear from you!

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15 thoughts on “Repeated patterns in your writing: sifting the good from the bad

  1. What a great post – thanks John, and to Helen for hosting you. It’s so helpful and I know several ‘figures’ already that I don’t even have to think about. My previous editor was also kind enough to give me a list of words to avoid repeating all the time!

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    1. I know – no matter how many times I check my ms, I still don’t spot my own “figure in the carpet”! So good when someone else points it out. And interesting to find out that even Hemingway had his repetition quirks. I enjoyed John’s post, too. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. Hey, Helena. Great post, John. Probably the worst string in my carpet figure is a tendency to write characters who are too perfect. Not great for the romantic suspense I write. :) Thanks to CPs, I am aware of it, and in rewrites try to fix that. I’m in early days of a new book and I’m working to lock down what the flaws in the H & H are. The heroine is in better (in a flawed way) shape than the hero right now, but he’ll come along. I just don’t like to make characters suffer. I don’t even enjoy reading about dreadful things happening to other characters. When I first started writing, another thing my CPs correctly pointed out was my writing and dialogue was stilted. Too many complete sentences, 75 cent words, and no contractions. For the most part, I’ve fixed those. I have a list of 75 or so words and phrases on our MIU files that I’ve collected from others and ones I tend to overuse. It’s not that you can’t ever use them, but overuse is probably lazy writing. Great post. I’ll be sharing.

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    1. Hi Marsha, that’s an interesting comment about the character flaws. I’ve found readers will form their own opinions about your characters, so that sometimes what you might think of as a minor, understandable flaw in a character becomes something that ruins the whole book for them. The book I’m reading now, for example, has a heroine who starts off insecure and is quite obsessed by fashion labels. The author redeems her because of her troubled background and inate compassion. The book got mainly 5 star reviews, but some readers just hated it. The heroine’s “shallowness” was just too much. I guess what I’m saying is, one person’s critique might be totally opposed to another’s. So you might as well write what YOU feel, in your heart, is right. This is a long comment! Interesting point, Marsha. Thanks for bringing it up. On Feb 11, 2014 8:15 PM, “Helena Fairfax” wrote:

      >

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      1. Your example, Helena, is perfect fro helping us remember it’s all a matter of opinion. Anyone’s opinion is a valid as anyone else’s, because that’s what an opinion is. :) Glad your friend got a bunch of 5 stars. Those are so important.

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  3. Thanks, Helena for hosting me again, and I appreciate all your comments. In editing this essay, I saw that I had repeated yet another thread of my “Figure” in another novel and a major thread at that. Ah, well. You do want to have distinctive traits, just not too darn many of them. Marsha, I don’t know how much you have to make your characters suffer, but I think it’s often a lot. I’m thinking of soap operas. Maybe not the best example, but every day at 12:30, my wife and I watch The Young and the Restless. We ought to know better.

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  4. Helena, thanks for hosting me again. And thanks for all your comments. It’s so darn hard to be objective about your own writing. Even if you put it away for five years . . . it can still be pretty much the same person who picks up the story or novel again. Marsha, I think you have to make your characters suffer quite a bit and complicate the heck out of their lives. I’m thinking of soap operas now. Perhaps not the best example, but one reason they last year after year is that misery and problems are fairy constant. As soon as sunlight breaks through, another storm approaches on the horizon.

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  5. John, you made me laugh that you and your wife stop your lives to watch a soap.LOL I’ve watched more than my fair share of those over the years. I really hated when the bad stuff happened to them. I watched As the World Turns because it was a small town and a large family. I especially remember the picnics every 4th of July and Memorial Day.
    During college one day walking to a table in the lunch room, I overheard something and I had to go back and see what had happened. I thought they were talking about real people. Oh, no it was one of the soaps, and they talked as it it were real. Guess that part of the soaps is something we want for our books. :)

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  6. Thank you for this very helpful post. I’ll definitely be watching for my patterns during the next WIP read-through.
    And John, I’ve been watching Y&R on and off for the last 30 years or so, but have boycotted recently due to Adam and Billy leaving. I’m not trying to make any sort of statement, I just found it boring after they left. Let me know if it gets better! :)

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    1. Well, I’ve never heard of The Young and the Restless. Sounds just up my street, but fortunately it’s not shown in the UK – or that would be another programme I’m addicted to! Thanks for coming by, Heather!

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  7. Hi John, you’ve written a very interesting post. I noticed a bad habit in my book; too many ‘she ruffled his hair’ throughout. It is so easy to overuse favorite words. I’ve used a site called Edit Minion to check for repeated words and weak verbs.

    The only soap I every watched was General Hospital. They not only made the characters suffer, but had a nasty habit of bringing them back from the dead. I stopped watching years ago.

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    1. Ooh, I remember General Hospital, Leona. What drama! I also loved ER, and in the UK we have Casualty and Holby City. Not that I’m a hospital soap addict, or anything :) I admire the writers for constantly thinking up new storylines. Thanks for your great comment!

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  8. Great, honest post on something that applies to writers of all levels and in all genres. Even those just taking baby steps in the field, like me. I’ll definitely (I’m one of the few people left on this earth who can spell that word) keep an eye out to avoid such patterns. Thanks for sharing, John, and thanks for enabling, Helena :-)

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