Monday, January 11, 2016

What's a Little Repetition among Scenes?

Whether you are editing your on work or being paid to perform specific editorial services on the work of a client, you follow a routine, one major aspect of which is to deal with repetition in all its damaging, distracting variations.  


You start by looking for habit words, those often unnoticed words such as "and," or "but," or "perhaps," all of which are drum majors for habit phrases such as those beginning with "meanwhile," "later," and, in nonfiction, "as a rule," while in fiction, "Mow, what?"

This is by way of warm up for repetitions of the three-pronged trope, such as:  "She went into the living room, looked around for signs of someone having been there, then returned to her work area."  When you've run some of those to ground, you look through the entire text for repetitions of such devices as "This was error, writ large," or "This was a screw-up on steroids.

By approaching a completed draft with such targets in mind, you've sharpened your focus on the overall topic of repetition, either your own or the writer whose work you are editing.  At one point in your early twenties, you had a friend who was a gifted musician, when he was not trying to square his professional life with his drug habit.  He was in effect showing you what he listened to when he listened to other musicians improvise.

One of his early exercises was insisting you listened to a particular 78 rpm shellac disc featuring Charlie Parker, the lightning-fast improviser and gate keeper to the new cordial approaches to jazz called bebop.  You were to listen to the record one hundred times before you could talk about what you noticed.

The untutored musical student who was you observed that Parker's notes were always crisp, articulate, seeming to be a part of something larger.  This got you some nods from your friend, but when you began discussing Miles Davis' performance, lacking more musical language, you accused Davis of fluffing or missing notes, not coming close to the precise clarity of Charlie Parker. "Think about it for a minute," you friend said.  "Suppose those fluffs, as you call them, were not errors.  Suppose they were deliberate.  Suppose they were in effect two notes simultaneously, maybe even one the overtone of the other."

"That would make Davis smarter than Parker,"  you said.

"Why does it have to be a matter of smart versus dumb or a single note against two notes being played in the same space?What if his playing is a different voicing to the theme than the voicing Charlie Parker is using?  What if they're both right, each in his own way."

You scoffed.  "You can't get two simultaneous notes on a trumpet."

"Who says?"  Your friend picked up his trumpet, blew on the mouth piece, his cheeks and lower jaw seeming to expand beyond their natural ability to expand.  He played two notes simultaneously.

In any number of ways, listening to a recording of what was once a thematic outline, meant to expose its melodic possibilities, is of a piece with rereading a short story or novel to see how the author achieved a particular emotional effect.  

In one important way, your trumpet-playing friend, long dead from either too much heroin or heroin that was too bad, taught you how to read Shakespeare.  "You don't read for the words, man.  You read for the music.  You come at the text like it was a theme chart, you and the reeds and brass playing the meter.  Then it's your turn and you read it for the flight of it as it wants to take wing and reach a destination."

Whether the words are your own or those of someone else, you look for the music of the theme.  Where is it going?  What is its emotional destination?  What are you or the writer bringing to it?

You were hearing fluffs or slurs while Miles Davis was hearing something that called on the notes to do things you'd not heard notes do before.  You were more impressed with Charlie Parker's speed and dexterity than what he was making the melodic path do.  Slow down, lad.  Listen.

You do not want to repeat unless by doing so you will achieve a surprising and exciting effect you might otherwise have missed, simply because, say, someone has a vocabulary you envy.  Even then, a vocabulary can cause distraction.  What was that word?  Do I have to stop, look it up, then continue?  Can I instead guess what the word meant?  It sounded as though it belonged in the sentence.  When was the last time you looked at brick wall,then asked if a particular brick belonged there?

Editorial passes allow the writer and the editor to look at the direction the story is or is not taking, then make choices that will effect the outcome without seeming to call attention to themselves.  If you're going to repeat a word, a phrase, a theme, the repetition has to have a purpose.  So far as you've been able to see, purpose always means the evocation of a specific feeling.

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