Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writers' Tics

We all, as writers, have phrases or pieces of stage business which unconciously we use to excess. (After an early draft of Dragonchaser I was grateful to a reader who observed that I used the phrase "by no means" with irksome regularity). Writers are generally the worst at spotting their own comfort blankets. Used sparingly, they can be regarded as motifs, but they can become insidious habits with ease.

One of the oddest I've come across is in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. I've now read the first two books (the second good, but not exceptional) and, punctuating seemingly almost every break in the action, the character will pause and make coffee (invariably a thermos*) and a sandwich. It may be a bout of strenuous sex, a boardroom confrontation or a fist-fight with the villain; a spot of computer hacking maybe. Once it's over, on goes the coffee maker and out come the sandwiches. (The editor is as much, maybe more, to blame as the writer for letting this get into print). Thinking is difficult to dramatise, but in detective novels in particular, characters need time to reflect as they ponder clues and revelations; the writer needs to give the character something to do (mine, I suspect, sip from a goblet rather too often) while all the processing is taking place.

Editors have an important role in ensuring variety here; they're much more likely to notice the jar. The version of The Dog of the North submitted to Macmillan had two necessary eavesdropping scenes in relatively close proximity. I didn't help the reader by setting them both in the same place. Will, my editor, noted that this didn't work, and I moved the location of the second one.

What other writerly tics have the rest of you noticed?

*is this a translation issue? Or do Swedes really make a flask of coffee even when it's for immediate consumption?
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Frances Garrood said...

I think you're right, Tim. The editor (or a reader) is far more likely to pick up on these than the writer, although I'm aware of some of my own. "On reflection", "s/he contrived to..." are two, and my characters drink a lot of tea and wine. But the one that maddens me the most is a well-known author whose characters, when drinking, invariably "take a swallow" of whatever it is. I don't know what the alternative is (sip? gulp?) but "taking a swallow" sounds awful. Ornithological, even.

Tim Stretton said...

'I don't know what the alternative is (sip? gulp?) but "taking a swallow" sounds awful. Ornithological, even.'

Pornographic, in fact...

David Isaak said...

I tend to have a major tic per book, but it's usually a tic unique to that book.

It's typically an unusual verb, and I have no idea I've used it more than once.

Writer Carolyn See once noted that her late partner, John Espy, was incapable of writing a prose work with out stating that a character "relished" something. "Relish" wasn't overused in a given book necessarily, but appeared in everything he wrote.

Even an editor wouldn't catch that tic (if indeed it qualifies).

Tim Stretton said...

"Relish" is a good word. If it's not overused, I don't think it's a tic.

I get more worried when writers use the same characters, with different names, in every book. That's less a tic than a congenital defect, though...

Alis said...

I'm like David - I tend to confine my tics to particular books. In Testament it was the verb 'forbear'. In my last book there was a tendency talk about the state of the sky too much (an extension of the British obsession with weather? The book was set in West Wales where there's an awful lot of weather.) I'm not sure what the current tic is, I'll let you know when I've finished. But I do know that I used the word 'forbore' for the first time the other day and I'm 80% or more through!