Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Wherever you go, there you are

I mentioned last week how orgasmic it was to sample unique cuisine throughout my Southern travels.

I made it my mission to find the most unfamiliar item on each menu and order it. The very first restaurant I visited in Savannah, Georgia boasted hoards of authentic Southern dishes, but a closer look revealed something all too familiar:
For those of you not from the Pacific Northwest, Tillamook is in Oregon. My family would visit the Tillamook cheese factory every summer on vacation (which sounds weirder than it is. Never mind, it’s exactly as weird as it sounds).

Looking at that menu in Savannah, I couldn’t help but think I should have hitched a ride with the cheese. Does cheese get frequent flyer miles? Does it get sleepy traveling all day with nothing but a tepid ginger ale and some stale peanuts?

My brushes with the familiar didn’t stop there. During my first day out on the town with Harley May in Florida, we went for a stroll. We hadn’t been walking more than 20 minutes when I looked up to see this sign:
Even during my lunch with Linda Grimes in Virginia, we discovered several Oregon offerings on the wine list. What gives? Is my home state really that cool?

I doubt that’s it (though for the record, it is pretty cool). More likely though, my brain is wired to seek the familiar. No matter how hard I tried to find experiences that were new and different and exciting, I still wound up drawn to things that reminded me of what I already knew.

It’s something I’ve caught myself doing in writing. I’ve been bouncing between all three manuscripts in my contract lately, doing copy edits on MAKING WAVES before jumping back to put the final touches on LET IT BREATHE. Though one takes place on a ship in the middle of the Caribbean and the other is set at a winery in Oregon, I realized the other day that I used precisely the same language in both books to describe my heroine taking off her shirt.

Not that stripping should be performed differently depending on your geographic locale, but still. The exact same wording? Not what I meant to do.

I suppose it’s just human nature to fall into well-worn patterns. We use the same route to drive to work every day, order the same thing at a favorite restaurant, put our underwear on starting with the same leg each time. Even if we try to shake it up, maybe we're just destined to gravitate toward the familiar.

What do you think?

I think I want some cheese.


Linda G. said...

I have to be so careful of this in my own writing. My pet phrases will sneak out all the flippin' time if I'm not vigilant. Sneaky b@stards. They're persistent buggers, too. Sometimes I don't catch them all until my third or fourth draft. If then.

Luckily, I have eagle-eyed CPs to help round them up. :)

Unknown said...

Now I will never stop thinking about which leg I start with when putting on underwear.

Danica Avet said...

Oh, definitely have to be careful of this in writing. I've read every book by one of my favorite authors and she uses almost the exact same phrase to describe the heroine's eyes. I don't mind it, but I try to avoid it. Luckily for me, I have a critique partner who has a mind like a steel trap. She'll read something and say "You used this in book blah blah". I'm glad she catches them, but it makes me feel horrible for not remembering that I used the same wording!

Unknown said...

This is so true. I am truly a creature of habit. I find myself using the same phrases repeatedly or I describe something exactly the same from different viewpoints. I just have to remind myself to look through the character's eyes and not my own. Sometimes she might as well be blind, but, I try. ;)

Anonymous said...

Oh, boy. I am a creature of habit. Seriously. Takes me a bit to work myself out of a routine, for sure. You're right when you say we fall into well-worn patterns for sure!!!

Great post. Got me thinking. . .

Patty Blount said...

Jeannie Moon's students nailed me for this... there are certain pet phrases that I use and they do show up in my writing.

That's not so great when the MC is a teen guy.

Best advice? Read your work out loud; hearing helps find the repetition.

Jen J. Danna said...

I have to admit I've caught myself doing the very same thing and not catching it until I went back to reread it and thought 'hold on... that sounds familiar...'. Great reminder to be on the lookout for that particular pitfall!

Sarah W said...

I know repetition can be tricky, even in a single novel (sigh) . . . but aren't some phrase choices also part of style and voice?

I'm not arguing at all---I don't remember many of my favorite authors reusing descriptions . . .

But does everything have to be completely different for each novel? Or just large chunks of description and dialogue?

For example, if two different characters in two different novels claim under different cricumstances that they were stunned as a bat, would that irritate readers?

What if it was the phrase of a recurring character?

Piper Bayard said...

I think you're right. But then there is the phenomenon of learning a word for the first time ever and then hearing it ten more times the same week. Was it always there? Thanks for the post. I always enjoy your work.

Christina Auret said...

Our brains filter for relevance, so it makes perfect sense that you would see Oregon everywhere. Your brain knows that Oregon is relevant to you.

Ja, I am choosing to refer to your brain and you as separate entities. After all, only a small portion of your brain is actually speaking to you.

Ricky Bush said...

Speaking of stripping--I always take my clothes off and put my clothes on in the same order. I think that if I took my pants off before my shirt, then maybe I could break out of my habit modes and be a completely different dude.

Eleven Eleven said...

I toured the Tillamook Cheese Factory this summer! It would have been more exciting if they actually had the machinery running at the time (aerial view of cheese production, how cool would that have been?). But the Pumpkin and Cheesecake ice cream made up for it at the end.

And seeking out the familiar? Totally. Especially when I'm in need of a little comfort from heading too far out into uncharted waters.

(P.S. Your home state really is that cool. Whether you rubbed off on it, or it rubbed off on you, that's another question.)

Mark Simpson said...

More than a few times I have re-read autopilot written sections finding series of carbon-copy structure. So I shrug and get to the business of reformatting it.

For a while I fought to "get it right" the first time--or at least as close as possible. But I found this approach stifling, working and reworking paragraphs until I would get bogged on a single page for hours.

Now I look at the first pass as ore, and the coming revisions as the gold extracted from it.. although that may be giving myself a little too much credit.

When laying words on a blank screen, I now remind myself to keep it moving and not worry about how it reads just yet; it takes shape faster when I revisit the section with a fresh mind later... keeping a mental tally of those fallback phrases you refer to so I can mix them up.

Liz said...

I've noticed repetition in a series I read -- the author uses the same or similar phrases to decribe characters' appearances, their interactions and reactions. Sometimes it annoys me -- think of something new, I already read that! Other times it's sort of a reassurance that I know and remember character aspects well.

With a series more than a dozen books long with a large cast of the same characters, it's got to be hard to not repeat yourself. How many ways can you describe chocolate brown eyes?!

Leona said...

I'm thinking that with repeat characters, there is a familiarity of hearing the same descriptions that is comforting, especially when mixed w/ a slightly different, more in depth characteristic.

But, if it's new characters and same descriptions, to me gets boring. It's like, this should be given X's name cuz it's the same LOL

And you have to wear underwear to wonder about which leg goes in first...Course, w/ the intersting places Tawna finds "missing" things...Good thing she does... :D:D

PS TILLAMOOK CHEESE ROCKS and I still remember fondly, the trip to see the factory when I was MUCH younger lol

Jeffe Kennedy said...

It's hard not to repeat. I try to reassure myself that future scholars will entertain themselves by looking for my "themes." Hubris solves all worries!


Linda G, are you catching any as you read LET IT BREATHE for me?!

Malin, I'll admit I paid attention this morning, too!

Danica, one of my favorite authors does that, too. Could be we're talking about the same author :)

Charissa, it can be a tough habit to break, and if you have long gaps between writing different books, it makes it even tougher to remember how you phrased things.

lynnrush, I find wine sometimes helps with that :)

Patty, never start a sentence with, "Jeannie Moon's students nailed me."

Jen, I'm sure I have plenty of instances I don't even catch. Hopefully my critique partners do!

Sarah, great point! Definitely it makes sense if it's a recurring character in multiple books.

Piper, thank you!

Christina, I like to keep my brain in a little jar on my desk.

Ricky, dammit, now I'm going to start paying attention to the order in which I strip.

Eleven Eleven, watching the actual cheese production is delightful. I loved buying the cheese curds at the end.

Mark, indeed, I'm a big fan of writing fast just to get the words on the page and then going back and editing later once I've got the skeleton in place. As the saying goes, you can't edit a blank page.

Liz, great point about the tags serving as a reminder of certain character traits.

Leona, Tillamook's extra sharp cheddar is heavenly!

Jeffe, yes! Someday lit classes will debate whether we did it on purpose!

Thanks for reading, guys!

Anonymous said...

I totally know what you mean. I started to write a book when I was 16 and I finally finished it last month. I was going through, changing random words here and there, when I noticed the same word creeping up quite often.

I used the word "slightly" to describe smiles, laughter, speech.

It was slightly annoying.

(See what I did there? It probably would have been funnier if I hadn't added this little aside, but I always have to go ruining jokes by explaining them.)