Presuming to Edit Neil Gaiman

Let me get this out in the open: I like Neil Gaiman. I like his writing, I like his style, and I like the apparent ease with which he not only navigates the alabaster halls of writerly fame, but is polite and supportive in his interactions with his fans. He bestrides the narrow world like a colossus; I am, at best, a zed, an unnecessary letter. These are neither fanboi gush nor false modesty, but simple facts.

All of which makes this blog post a bit troublesome for me to write.

When I started posting stories on my website, one of the first things that was pointed out to me was a tic in my writing that I wasn’t even aware of. Having written, re-read and edited the stories, I posted them with this linguistic tic in place. It took someone else to point it out to me. Ever since then, I’ve been sensitive to it, like a man stung by a jellyfish will develop a hypersensitivity to it. I look for it in my own writing and, compulsively, in just about every piece of fiction I read.

When I see it in my own writing, I revise it. When I edit other people’s writing, I flag it. When I beta read for friends, I point to it.

I saw it here on the Today’s Author website and was all set to write a blog post discussing why writers should always be on the lookout for this, why you should check your own work to make sure this doesn’t crop up. Then, to my chagrin, I saw Neil Gaiman do it and it gave me pause. Here’s a guy who CLEARLY knows how to write, someone who has autographed more books than I’ll probably ever sell… but there it is. He did that thing I was all set to tell people not to do. A cat can look at a king, but who am I to edit Neil Gaiman?

If he put it there, it had to be deliberate. Since he knows what he’s doing (to put it mildly), that deliberation is worth rethinking my own reaction to it.Grumpy cat is not amused by textual repetition.

I’m talking about opening repetition, using the same words in the beginning of a paragraph.

Don’t get me wrong – sometimes repetition is used deliberately, as I did in the sentence above (“When I see…”, “When I edit…”, “When I beta read…”). It establishes a rhythm for the words, an underlying chord progression that supports the changes in the sentences. That kind of intentional repetition is poetic and can be quite powerful. Neil Gaiman used it to good effect in the May tale in his Calender of Tales project.

However, in Kim Ellington’s piece, The Thrill of Chills, is a different kind of repetition. (I hope Kim doesn’t mind my drawing on her work for this illustration. After all, she can now safely say that she writes the way Neil Gaiman does, at least in this one way, which is pretty good company to keep.) A consecutive series of Kim’s paragraphs open with:

I grew…
I loved…
I didn’t know…
I prefer…

This is the kind of repetition that, had I written the blog post I set out to write, I would have suggested warranted a second look in order to vary the sentence structures. Maybe change the opening of the second paragraph to “Oh, how I loved…” or “What called to me…” or some other construction that would have the same meaning, but would avoid the repetition.

But then I read this set of openings in a set of successive paragraphs in the March tale of Neil Gaiman’s Calender of Tales:

She was dressed…
She fell…
She left…

So much for my hypersensitivity! I hit that sequence and fell out of the story as my internal editor was challenged by this repetition. What does that say about this aspect of writing? Or about me as a reader/editor? I tend to avoid even one successive repetition, lest the reader stumble on the opening of the second paragraph and be pulled out. Am I wrong? Is even three repetitions OK, but four too many? I once beta read a book for a friend that had (as I recall) twelve of the first sixteen paragraphs start with:

Bob ran…
Bob opened…
Bob took…
Bob gave…
Bob looked…
Bob angled…
Bob closed…
Bob walked…
Bob climbed…

This was too much and I said so. As I had been unaware when it was first pointed out to me, so was my friend unaware that it had taken such strong root in that book.

So, now that I’ve held up Kim’s and Neil Gaiman’s writing as exemplars of repetition, what can I do now but invite them to comment? (For the record, I contacted them both with a preview link before submitting this post to the Today’s Author overlords.) Guys, was this intentional? Was it part of an impulse that made the words sound the way you wanted them to? Do you look for this kind of thing when you self-edit, as I do? Did you intend to leave this here or did it slip through the cracks?

Also (looking for anyone’s input here), am I crazy for paying attention to this? Am I overthinking things again?