Writers’ tics

Here we go, another post. I’m going to try not to make this into a rant or a whinge; bloggers who do nothing but complain about other people are not attractive. (And there I go…!)

Writers’ tics… what I mean by that is those little repeating phrases or words or descriptions that a particular writer uses so often that the reader starts to expect them… then look out for them… and finally (worst of all) stops seeing the story and only sees the tics. It’s like the Chinese water torture: you can’t think of anything other than when the next drip is going to come, and it drives you crazy. As a reader, it lowers my opinion of the writer. When I read, I want to see and feel the story – I want it to be a film playing in my head, a private screening that is unique to me. I do not want to be distracted from it by clumsy phrasing.

A tic isn’t something wrong in itself; it’s the fact that it’s repeated. Again and again.

For instance, in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, it’s the eyes. Eyes twinkle, sparkle, narrow… they are icy, warm… The characters in that series have the most expressive eyes ever. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using any of those descriptions of a character’s facial expression – it’s only when it happens too much it gets to become a series cliche.

Kim Harrison, in her Hollows series, has a different type of tic. Instead of describing a thing in a certain way, she has words and phrases that constantly reappear. For instance characters are ‘ticked’ when they are annoyed; I know what the word means in this context, but I’ve never used it myself or known anyone who did. Is it an American thing? Well, even if it is, that’s OK – American author, American setting, American slang. Slang is part of a character’s culture. However, this word keeps appearing. Until I want to scream. Surely some variety wouldn’t hurt?

For Laurell Hamilton, it’s not a way of describing or a particular phrase – it’s a particular look. Practically every sexy man in her Anita Blake series has long hair and wears thigh-high boots. Firstly, the long hair – sometimes it’s incredibly long – floor length. Now, when did you ever see anyone with hair that long? Not more than once in your life, I bet, and probably never. That’s because hair usually does not grow that long, even if it’s never cut. Still, even if her characters have some kind of genetic anomaly that results in their hair growing differently to everyone else’s, fair play. It’s fantasy. But again, it’s the over-use that’s the problem. It’s very (oh, god, is it) clear that Laurell’s particular kink is men with long hair and thigh high boots. So much so that she can’t seem to write an attractive man any other way. It’s a bit rough on those of us whose major reaction to a man with long hair is to recommend a decent barber. And the appearance of yet more thigh-high boots just engenders a reaction of Oh no, not again rather than Mmmm….!

Classically, a tic is a sound or movement the person can’t help making. Unless authors deliberately put these things in, just to annoy readers (which doesn’t seem to be a terribly good marketing ploy, although I may be wrong), I conclude that in the case of writers’ tics, the tic-owner does not know that they have a tic. Because the difference between a writer’s tic and everyone else’s is that keyboards have a delete key.

Sometimes, a repeating word doesn’t become a tic – it becomes a catchphrase. In the case of David Eddings’ Sparhawk books, the characters tell each other to “Be nice” if one of them makes a sarcastic/spiteful remark. After a while, this attains the status of a series in-joke. The characters know it’s a repeating phrase, so it’s funny, not irritating (well, to me, anyway).

I suppose the origin of a tic is when the writer comes across a word, or a phrase, or a description, that just seems so right that it seems that nothing else could quite fit the current need. But that is exactly what makes a writer’s tic – that particular word becomes the go-to word. Instead of trying to think up something new, the writer goes back to the old-and-familiar because it achieves the ‘feel’ that they want for the scene. That, therefore, is the difference between the catchphrase and the tic – the former is inserted intentionally, to serve a narrative purpose; the latter is unconscious.

I think the worst tics to identify are probably those relating to the nature of a character – long hair and thigh-high boots, for example. If the author’s vision of that character is a certain way, it’s got to be quite hard to change it to something different, after realising that their current incarnation is the expression of a tic. But I think it’s important to make the effort. Not only are tics irritating for the reader, whatever they are (thus spoiling the enjoyment of the book), but the character-based ones skew the book in one direction or another. If you don’t like long hair and thigh-high boots, you won’t find Laurell Hamilton’s male characters sexy (at least, not the ones she thinks are sexy). So you go and find a different book, where the male leads are sexy. So writers’ tics – even the ones that are most complex – can have a real adverse effect.

So what can you do about it, as a writer? Well, there’s only one thing. Not having tics isn’t something you have any control over; their very nature is to be unconscious. If you knew about it, it wouldn’t be a tic… So the only thing you can do about tics is to identify them and then strip them out. The easiest way to spot the tics is to read the book over and try to spot the repeats. Is a repeat there for a good reason, or is it a tic? Once you know what your own personal tics are (and I bet everyone has them), you can work on not including them, or at least rationing them.


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