by Paul D. Marks
“Go to hell,” I said with a Jack Nicholson grin. I jammed outta there, jumping in the car, slamming my foot down on the gas. The blood spread across my shirt like a Rorschach blot. I smiled. Shot out of there like a bat out of hell (hey, I made that one up, didn’t I?).
The above graph is from nothing I’ve written before today. But it could be a taken-to-extreme example of my writing tics. I do have certain words or expressions I fall back on, the “comfort food” of writing.
My characters tend to grin and smile. Not only guns shoot, but people shoot out of places, shoot here or there. They jam here and slam there and jump all over the place. So I definitely repeat certain words or phrases. Sometimes intentionally (hey, that’s my style, man), sometimes not so intentionally. And I do use Word’s Navigation feature (I think that’s what it’s called) to see how many times I might use a particular word or phrase. And I often cut them or rephrase them. And I also often start sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but’ but that is a stylistic choice. A voice choice, if you will, as I think it makes my narrators sound more natural and casual, which I like.
I also tend to use the word just maybe just a little too much. But it’s just because I just like the justness of it. Now, even I think that’s just too much of a good thing.
And sometimes my characters use clichés—like ‘bat out of hell’—but that’s the way people talk. I also set things off in dashes a lot, so sometimes I try to cut down on that. If you read something of mine with a lot of that—well, you should see the earlier drafts. I use run on sentences, so I sometimes change them to two shorter sentences. And from the opposite side, I sometimes combine two short, choppy sentences into one sentence.
But I try to do better. I really do. I try to change things so they’re not so repetitive. I look things up in the thesaurus. Uh oh!
Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” I find that sophomoric—and yes I got sophomoric from the thesaurus when I really wanted to say absurd. But it’s not a word I would generally use. The thesaurus is a great help, despite what Mr. King says. And how many of us eschew them? Of course—I also tend to use ‘of course’ a lot—you don’t want to get those hundred dollar words when a two dollar word will do. But the thesaurus is extremely useful in helping you see things a little differently and pick just the right word for the job.
One person’s tic is another person’s style. But you have to be conscious of what you’re doing and don’t overdo favorite things or lean on too many crutches. So, I do try to look for those weaknesses and repetition in my writing. And remember, it can all be fixed in the editing/rewriting.
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I just heard that my story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” will be coming out in the December issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, last issue of Ellery Queen’s 75th anniversary year. Totally jazzed about that! – Bunker Hill (Los Angeles) was LA’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. Lots of film noirs were shot there (Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me, Deadly and many others). It’s where John Fante lived when he wrote “Ask the Dust.” It got run down after WWI and became housing for poor people. And in the late 1960s it was all torn down and redeveloped. The fabulous Victorian houses were either destroyed or moved. They even flattened the hills. You can see the contrast of the old and new in the pic below. The insert is a Newell post that I copped from one of the Victorian homes on Bunker Hill before it was to be moved or torn down. It’s an artifact from Bunker Hill and the logo for my Bunker Hill stories and a prized possession.