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Killing Repetition

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

In polite company, when people say, “Avoid doing such-and-such,” what they really mean is, “Never do that or you’re wretched filth.” Recall the magician’s creed, “Never repeat a magic trick.” Notice it doesn’t say, “Avoid repeating a magic trick.” This is because magicians are smart. Speaking of magic, I’ll bet you a white rabbit magicians hate YouTube. They should not put their work there because it does not enforce a one-view-per-user limit. I am guilty of watching a magic trick on that website twenty times until I discover its secret. Afterward, I feel disappointed in myself for killing the magic. Notice in the previous paragraph I mentioned the name YouTube only once, and subsequently referred to it as, “there,” “it,” and “that website.” Authors are magicians who create entire worlds using only words. Down with the impious dotards who incant, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Bah on them because words are wroth a thousand pictures. Writers, just like magicians, should not repeat anything. Not words, phrases, techniques, metaphors, sentence lengths, or any other literary contrivance. You’ve heard of “extreme sports?” Clichés are “extreme repeats.”

Recall the phrase, “You only live once.” So does your prose.

You cannot use ignominious more than once in a novel no matter how much you love the word.

After you read a few several Stephen King novels you’ll realize they are for the most part quite different from each other. The Dark Half isn't anything like Dolores Claiborne, which is far and away from The Stand. Two of my favorite pop music groups are Wings and Styx because of the variations in musical themes within and between their songs. Billy Joel’s songs are so different from each other that some listeners may not realize the same person sings all of them.

If you never repeat anything, you’ll soon run out of the commonplace and will be forced to live in the rare and priceless.

How about Johann Sebastian Bach? If you study his works, notably The Well-Tempered Clavier, you’ll quickly realize he rarely repeated a melodic phrase or harmonic mechanism without variation. Everywhere you look, great art provides vibrant, fresh combinations.

Avoid Lens words

I don't know what they're called, so I've labeled them "Lens words." They're words that let us experience the world through the lens of the character. You'd think such is a good idea, except they become repetitive and therefore create an artificial boundary between the reader and the character.

Instead of: "I feel the wind whip my face."

Consider: "The wind whips my face."

The first version comes across as an analysis, while the second sentence is a direct experience. The Lens word "feel" is not necessary. Lens words are "see," "feel," "think," "understand," "hear," and so on. Here are other examples:

Instead of: "I think I'll ask out Kimberly."

Consider: "I'll ask out Kimberly."

Instead of: "I saw the sun shine in my eyes."

Consider: "The sun shown in my eyes."

Do some electronic searches through your work and you'll find them repeated across your pages. After you remove as many as you can you'll be even more impressed with your writing skills, and for some of us that is quite extraordinary.

One-hit wonders

Recall the following hit songs:

You wouldn't know by listening to these songs that they're the only big hits performed by these bands. I wouldn't dare attempt to explain why these groups did not create other hit songs except to say that the entertainment industry (including literary fiction) is vicious, changing, complex, competitive, and subjective.

Perhaps one contributing factor to those single-hit bands is they could not seem to avoid repetition. If that is the case, you don't want to be like them. Make your writing flexible and expansive by varying your prose in every way conceivable, while keeping your fiction coming from you.

Comedians can't tell the same jokes repeatedly, yet at the same time, their style of humor must be theirs. It must be different and new, yet sound like it's coming from the same person.

How can you do this? It comes from thousands of hours of practice over time. It comes from knowing who you are professionally so you can vary your style enough but not too much. It is called your voice.

The Process

Here is one tip to help you become more diverse and flexible:

  • Priority 1: Keep changing your writing in every way, both between stories and within paragraphs and sentences. Add bits of variety like spice in a carrot cake. Never repeat anything.

  • Priority 2: Go back later and make sure the changes are a good fit with the theme and mood of your story.

Where people get hung up writing fiction is they try to do both at once, or worse, the second before the first.

  • Priority 1 provides "energy" and "interest."

  • Priority 2 provides "maturity."

Your writing must be imaginative and stimulating, but must also feel like it is written by a seasoned professional. Your readers want you to be a master. They want to believe they're being entertained by the best in the business.

You must grow accustomed to knowing that what you’re writing now won't bear fruit until much later. You’re not capable of judging it in its present form because it’s like being handed a kumquat for the first time. You have no idea what is about to happen to you. Maturity comes around later and helps you fix your writing.

Keep varying your techniques until the day comes when you have plenty of space that is your space in which to move around. Be grateful that in the literary world you can go back after the fact and correct what you've done, especially if you self-publish. Even in the formal publishing world there is something called a 2nd Edition. (This process makes your first edition more valuable.)

Most of the time in real life it is much harder to fix the past.

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