Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Writers' Tics

Please welcome my guest, Gwen Parrott, who's covering for me this week while I take a little break. Like me, she's Welsh, and her book, Dead White, is set in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where she lives and I have relatives. Over to you, Gwen....
We all have writers’ tics, whether we acknowledge it or not. We certainly recognize them in other writers and depending on how much we like their work, we smile or grimace. I am as guilty as the next novelist of groaning to myself and thinking ‘Oh for goodness sake, not again’ as I edit my own work. But the idea that we are all captives on some endless hamster wheel, repeating phrases and figures of speech ad nauseam, throws up an interesting point – are we all really writing, as I read recently, in a kind of fugue state, or semi-trance, where we don’t really know what we’re putting down? 

I know that when it’s going well, and I’m typing like a thing possessed, desperate to get it all written before the mood wears off, that I’m far more likely to let my own particular foibles run rampant. Conversely, when the process is like drawing teeth, every word looks wrong, clichéd and badly positioned. It’s not a matter of my writing more thoughtfully when it’s not flowing – I wouldn’t mind so much if it was – but more a case of not writing at all. It seems you can’t win.

When you write crime novels with a historical setting, as I do, you are very aware that readers may not be familiar with many aspects of daily life. My Della Arthur novels are set around 1947, just after the end of the Second World War, and the characters live with food rationing, transport restrictions and all manner of other difficulties. The dilemma I face, and it’s one of my tics, is how much to explain and when to do it. I have a horror of falling victim to what I call the ‘Products of Venezuela Syndrome’. At school, back in the Middle Ages, it seemed to me that every Geography exam I sat for years required me to ‘List the products of Venezuela’. As a dyed-in-the-wool swot, I knew them by heart and could rattle them off. As a writer, when you’ve researched a topic until it’s become second nature to you, it’s a huge temptation to stuff the story full of great chunks of factual information (just like the products of Venezuela) because you know it and it may all be new to the readers. However, just because readers don’t know it doesn’t mean they want to know it. 

I see this syndrome all the time in crime novels, and in its latest incarnation it takes the form of detailed expositions of how pieces of forensic equipment work. The authors have done the research, so it’s going in, come what may! I suppose there must be people who want to learn exactly what a mass spectrometer does, but I’m not one of them. So, using my own lack of enthusiasm as a template, I have to hold myself back from my natural inclination to give a full run down on wartime ‘powdered egg’ and its uses. Yet, occasionally I just can’t resist having characters discuss things that are unfamiliar to modern audiences in a way that gives a little more information than would be normal for them. After all, if you’re living in that world, or any world, you are not forever talking about things you take for granted. Who, nowadays, discusses the miracle of the electricity supply, unless it’s not working? 

Gwen Parrott
 The other major tic for me is the ‘He said – she said’ dilemma. I know from my reading that many writers have done away with this altogether but, frankly, I get confused by long lines of unascribed dialogue, and find myself counting every other line to see who said what. Mercifully, I no longer try to vary the formula with ‘he expostulated – she opined’, but I still use ‘he said – she said’ too much, and all the ‘he answered’, ‘she replied’ and ‘he suggested’ in the world doesn’t really make a dent in the repetitiveness. It does strike me that I may be over-anxious about this and that the human eye skips over these words without taking in more than a subconscious realisation of who the speaker is. And following on from ‘he said – she said’ is the inevitable adverb. My characters are always speaking ‘humbly’, ‘innocently’ or ‘sullenly’, and I’m not always confident enough to edit them out. Am I really sure that the spoken words themselves are enough of a clue? 

My third tic is over-writing. I can’t say that I do this deliberately, but I’ve found that it’s much easier to cut than it is to add during the editing process. As you don’t write a novel in one fell swoop, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll occasionally make the same point twice, and there is actually something very pleasurable about being able to strike out whole sentences. I take a perverse joy in seeing the word count numbers at the bottom of the screen dropping. And once I’ve rejigged or cut a paragraph, I can’t quite believe that it wasn’t always like that. The fact that my novels are written in the first instance in Welsh means that I get two chances to edit – one for the original, and yet again when I translate them into English. I am aware, because of my other life as a translator, that Welsh comes out ten percent longer than English (for your information, French comes out even longer at fifteen percent), but by the time I’m done with editing, if I’m not careful, the English can read like a nothing more than a précis! So perhaps my tic isn’t over-writing, it’s over-editing. I may strike that sentence out later.....

Gwen Parrott’s Della Arthur novel ‘Dead White’ (Kindle) is set in 1947 in her native Pembrokeshire, South Wales. As she is bilingual in Welsh and English, she translates her own work. You can read more about her and the background to the world of ‘Dead White’ at:


catriona said...

I love "Products of Venezuala Syndrome"! I call it "A whiff of the library" but your name is much better.

Cathy Ace said...

Super insights, Gwen, and I too love the Venezuelan reference... :-)

RJ Harlick said...

Ah, I know all about the over-writing and the delicious feeling in watching the word count plunge as you delete, delete, delete. Great post, Gwen.

Unknown said...

I think you're right that "he said, she said" doesn't really register, when you're reading, so it's doesn't feel repetitive, whereas "opined" sure glares. Great post!