Stir Your Echoes

by James Scott Bell

Some of you will recognize in my title an homage to Richard Matheson and his novel Stir of Echoes (one of his best!) Not very clever, but I had a heck of a time coming up with something better.

But I digress.

What I wanted to tell you is that the other day I picked up a novel in a long-running series by a mega bestselling writer (now deceased). It was one of the later books in the series which, truth be told, was starting to run a little thin. Some critics have noted this, but I’m a fan of the early books so I thought, What the hey?

Unfortunately, I was only a few chapters in when I decided to set the book aside. I just got the feeling that this one was mailed in, that the writer wasn’t working hard anymore.

The final straw was a grating echo.

A writing echo is the close repetition of a word or phrase:

Monica charged into the room.
“So there you are!” she said.
Harvey said, “You don’t understand.”
The girl in the bed elbowed Harvey. “I think she does.”
“See you in court,” Monica said as she charged out the door.

The obvious echo here is charged. The words occur in close proximity. The echo clangs on the ear of the reader. It’s what I call one of those writing “speed bumps” that, even for a brief moment, can take the reader out of a smooth, fictional ride.

So don’t put them in.

But an echo is easy for a writer to write and overlook when editing his own manuscript. It should be something a good editor or reader catches for you.

In the novel I’m talking about, either the editor was asleep at the switch or, more likely, the manuscript went straight to copy editing. After all, the mega bestselling author sold 80,000 hardcovers out of the gate. Plus, he probably made it clear he was not going to edit the thing anyway.

So a clunky, clumsy echo found its way into the book:

Shepherded by the detail cop, it backed up out of sight. Somebody held up a clacker board in front of the camera.

A few paragraphs later:

Shepherded by the detail cop, the limo backed up out of sight. I’d been around movie sets before.

Now, one might argue that this glaring echo was somehow intentional stylistically. But there is no stylistic reason for it. If you’re going to echo intentionally for effect, you do it in a way that is unambiguous—usually following the “rule of three.” To wit:

I devoured the sandwich.
I devoured the fries.
I devoured the news, then decided it was time to get my butt in gear.

Or you can do a double:

I cancelled my subscription, then Twitter cancelled me.

All the way home I screamed at the injustice of it all. When I walked through the door, Stan screamed at me for being late.

In both cases, the echo is a pleasant one, and the reader knows it.

Two observations:

  1. The more distinct the word, the greater the echo

Common verbs like run, walk, went don’t stick out so much, though in the same paragraph you should really choose another verb. Someone who runs into a room can scurry out, for example. Just don’t have them scurry in, too.

  1. Do a word to search for your personal bugaboos

I always have a word or phrase that repeats in my first drafts. Mrs. B catches these, and I then search for that echo throughout the document and make changes accordingly.

Do you ever catch echoes in your own writing? What are some of your frequently repeated words or phrases?

27 thoughts on “Stir Your Echoes

  1. On my desk is a running list of overused words in my current novel, which I began editing yesterday.

    Here are my favorites:

    Squint – My characters squint their eyes a lot.
    Raised his/her eyebrows – They do this a lot, too.

  2. I’ve been known to add a repeat to hit that rule of three, which my first writing buddies said, “shows you mean it.”

    I give thanks to SmartEdit which has a routine for repeated phrases. Some of mine
    For the moment
    Truth be told
    All of a sudden
    One of the
    Some of the
    (John Sandford pointed out one of his last steps before turning his manuscript in to his editor is to go on a search and destroy mission for “some.”)

    My character drag/rake hands/fingers through their hair a lot.

    I agree that proximity makes a difference, so I check to see how many pages between usages. Trying to make simple verbs stronger often results in repeating the replacement too many times. Often in the same paragraph. It’s as if once I type a word, it disappears from my brain.

    And how many ways can you reasonably say “door” in a contemporary novel?

  3. I just read the newest book by a mega bestselling author (not deceased) and was shocked at how bad it was. Most of it was telling, very little showing, and the murderer was found by accident, literally, not by anything any of the characters did. They only sat around talking, drinking, and musing. I almost quit reading several times because it was boring. It was almost like the author had to put a new book out, so used the setting and characters from a previous (very good) book of his, but couldn’t come up with a clever plot. To use your words, “The writer wasn’t working hard anymore.” I read it to study technique from one of the big ones. It was a study in what not to do.

  4. Sentences beginning with conjunctions. In my first book, one of my beta readers devoted her entire read to finding hundreds of sentences beginning with “But.” In my WIP, I discovered that “So” had moved into first place (in spite of my ridicule of everyone clearing their throat with “So.”)

    I finally learned how to have Scrivener or Word read my rough draft out loud. That was a big help in finding echoes as well as problems with the rhythm of the words. I liked Word better, because the voice was boring and less likely to smooth over rough spots.

    At least, when “segue” was all the rage, I fought to keep it out of my vocabulary.

    • I love Word’s read aloud feature. It’s my final step before publishing. Especially if I’m going to put my books into audio. Begone, ye echoes and clunkers!

  5. Yes, it would be jarring to come across that in fiction. Though I’m grateful to say that most writers are good about editing those problems because I rarely see it. The big problem I see the most which knocks me out of my read are formatting issues in the e-book version of a novel.

    Echoes are also another argument in favor of bland dialogue attributions like he said/she said. I can understand how writers are tempted to use more descriptive words in attributes. But when you read blatant, big word examples like “sheperding” overuse in the echo example above, it really points out how ‘she said/he said’ are good words that kindly blend into the flow.

    I’m not sure what my problem words/phrases are but I have no doubt that my first drafts have their share.

  6. Good information and discussion, JSB. By the way, what happened to the image at the top? I can’t see it. It says something timed out. ??

    Smiled, grinned, then, shrugged, and the beat goes on. But, sometimes a smile is just a smile, and a walk is just a walk. The trick is knowing when it’s not. 🙂

    Ditto for mobile eyebrows. I’ve worked hard to come up with other ways to describe it. One author said, “One eyebrow looked like Vesuvius about to blow.” Different, but I spent more than a few seconds outside the story trying to picture that. Sometimes a raised eyebrow is just a raised eyebrow.

    When I’m in final editing stages, I read the MS aloud to myself. I’ve tried the Word thingamajig, and it’s just better for me to hear my own voice. That’s where I catch the fishies that got away in the first editing passes.

    I finally broke down and downloaded The Emotion Thesaurus.

    “Helps a lot,” Deb said, with a shrug and a raised eyebrow. 🙂

  7. Many of my characters “turn their heads to see (fill in the blank)”. I cannot explain why, but very few of them just “look” at anything. They always seem to be in physical positions and locations where exercising the neck is a requirement.

  8. Nodding, smiling and frowning. We all nod, smile and frown and times. My characters do each far too often. Enough to keep me and my copy editor busy 🙂

    Speaking of echoes, this of a mangled sort, a friend sent me this from a Robert E. Howard Conan story: “With a tigerish leap Conan landed amidst his foes like a tiger.” I would hope tigers leap in a tigerish fashion 😉

  9. I have to watch out for my characters. They “turn,” “shrug,” and “grin” a lot. They also have active eyebrows.

    Like Steve and Terry, I love MS Word’s text-to-speech feature. I tried it for the first time in the ms I completed a few weeks ago, and it caught errors that my editor and I both had missed. I’m also better at hearing the echo than seeing it.

  10. I do this [echoing] all the time. But I know it and just bold the words on first or second reads and have my online thesaurus ready and waiting in the next window. “Nod” is one my favorite—and tough—ones.

    “And a final word search at the end usually catches most,” he says, nodding.

  11. As a reader, these are grating to me. Maybe it’s just me, but proximity doesn’t have to be the problem. Sometimes a writer has an uncommon pet word that he uses not necessarily in close proximity but many, many times throughout a book.

    I read a bestselling thriller a couple years ago where the author must have used the word “loosed” a couple hundred times. It’s kind of a weird word in general, but everything was “loosed.” Very annoying and it took me out of the story.

  12. A vast majority of the books I read from NYC traditional publishers obviously have no editor input, bestseller or not. Most of the editors have been fired to save money, and the ones who remain have very little time to work on actual editing. If that’s not the case, the sheer incompetence allowed on the page is appalling. If I were still a working writer in traditional publishing, I’d spend my own money on a freelance editor, or, at the very least, invest in the pro version of Grammarly.

    Writers who have been around a long time keep getting better, become more experimental, want to do something else, or are dead bored. All that’s on them for better or worse. What really upsets me is a last book or books which are obviously Frankenstein novels from the publisher, not the author. Lilian Jackson Braun’s final THE CAT WHO is a very sad example. The novel was a hodgepodge of unused scenes cut out from other novels, the plot made very little sense, and the hero and his kitties never solved the murder or even attempted to solve the murder. Braun’s legacy was badly tarnished by that money grab.

    On that note, consider your own legacy as a writer. What do you want to happen to your unfinished works or back list? Do you want someone else to finish your series? Etc. Figure all that out, then create a writing codicil to your will and choose a literary executor as well as an estate executor. Choose someone who understands the publishing industry because it’s such specialized knowledge. I have had to watch in horror as an idiot husband destroyed one of my friend’s legacy as a writer, and he would not listen to her writer friends. She disappeared as an author with a snap of his moronic Bubba fingers.

    Neil Gaiman has a writer will template on his website, and you can find links to that and writer estate articles on my blog by clicking “wills.”

    • Good idea about the literary executor. Believe it or not, I have wondered what will happen to my unfinished MSs if I get hit by a truck tomorrow…now I have an option to consider. Thanks!

  13. P.S. I love Richard Matheson’s short stories. Never read his novels. I’ll have to check them out.

  14. As a songwriter, I try to be mindful of echoed words… and since country songs are known to be “two minute novels” it’s usually pretty easy to spot ’em… it’s the trying to find another word for ’em that fits the theme and storyline and rhythm and audience expectation that becomes a challenge (worse still if they’re involved in the rhyme pattern…)

    My “favorite” bad example was an author repeatedly telling the reader where the scene was set – along the lines of, “The President stepped into the Oval Office, lit a cigarette with the Oval Office lighter, and tipped an ash into the Oval Office ashtray before telling his secretary to bring the Vice President into the Oval Office…” (and he did this kind of thing all the way through – to the point I started underlining every time it happened with the intention of returning to the publisher for a refund – ’til I ran out of ink [in souvenir Oval Office red pen…])

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