Monday, March 28, 2011

Sloppy YA Editing: Tic Words

 Twinkies by C-Monster

Charles McGrath recently summed up the novel I am Number Four as an "assembly-line product, poorly written and thinly imagined, [with] one diverting idea," but couldn't that be said of a lot of YA novels today?

In the last few years it feels like many books were thrown together. The author had a great hook, which caught an agent's eye, which got it sold at auction, and suddenly a debut writer has a two- or three-book contract, with the first book slated for a release date that's much too soon for any meaningful revisions to take place.

When you push a hot manuscript too quickly to publication, the trait that suffers the most is language. The secret to beautiful prose and dialogue is that it's so tight, the reader never sees the author at her computer, never trips over a word (unless the word is designed to trip). This can take hours, weeks, months, (years) of slogging at the computer, re-writing, honing, trimming, re-imagining. Without this effort the intriguing premise of the book, poised for greatness, can sometimes be squandered on schlock.

Or maybe not. Greatness may in fact be overrated. YA is big right now — it's a genre that's actually selling, and the readers are voracious — so this sloppiness trend, if it exists, could be a sensible equilibrium of supply and demand. My son is a lot closer to the YA demographic than I am, and with his own art projects he's a proponent of "work quickly, work constantly, seek only to entertain." It's a new, arguably legitimate model of creative production and consumption in the digital age.

There has always been room for both highly-crafted works of art that the author labored over, hoping for a shot at literary eternity, and quickly-written, entertaining novels that get devoured and forgotten. A gorgeously-wrought wedding cake and a Twinkie serve different purposes. But what I'm here to argue is that there's no reason to have a pebble accidentally baked into either the wedding cake or the Twinkie, waiting to ruin the experience.

A particular type of sloppiness that should be preventable with the artful use of Ctrl-F and multiple sets of eyes (and even through rushed editing) is the Tic Word: a word that the author repeats without realizing it. Often it's a distinctive word in its own right, or an ordinary word used in a unique way. A recent book — a wedding cake in every other respect — distracted me in this way. In the span of a single chapter, the word "slash" was used multiple times, sometimes in adjacent paragraphs, and for different descriptive purposes:

A blade came out and with a fierce slash, the monofilament line parted.
Rain slashed them.
[He] stared back into the slash of rain.
Another slash of lightning.
[He] clambered down from the conning deck and out into the slash of the rain.

Even when they aren't used in adjacent paragraphs, distinctive words can leap off the page when they're overused, which needlessly takes the reader away from the action by making her think about the author ("dang, he loves that word"):

...with a beauty still inherent thanks to the feral grace of its lines.
She was almost feral in her fascination...
...clambered over the wreck with the feral grace of tiger monkeys.
[His] father smiled, feral and pleased.
His grin was wide and feral.
[He] smiled, suddenly feral.
...the ship heaved itself up onto its own hydrofoils, its feral bulk skimming above the water.
The feral grin of an addict deep in his drugs.

...his shoulder a bright blossom of pain.
His shoulder was a bright blossom of pain.
Pain blossomed.
His ankle blossomed with pain.
His ankle was a bright blossom of pain.

As writers it's our job to find this sort of mechanical problem in our manuscripts, and to revise accordingly. We are ultimately responsible for what's on the page. Granted, in a 300-page work, it's sometimes difficult to find mistakes, especially when the mistake is being enamored of a particular word without knowing it. Our second and third lines of defense, if we can't see the trees for our own forest anymore, should be critique groups and editors, whom we hope will stumble over tic words and point them out to us.

No matter what, someone has to catch them before the reader does.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Don't Tell Me to Enjoy Your Book

I'm a pretty tolerant person. I have my pet peeves — everyone does — but I don't usually foist them on strangers. When I'm out and about in public I'm generally a live-and-let-live kind of gal. (At home I tear strangers to shreds for sport.)

But some people have habits that suck without knowing it. I figure that as soon as someone identifies the problem for them, they'll say, "OMG you're right! I never want to do that again!" (Please don't say OMG.)

This isn't criticism, I'm here to help you out. If you've committed this little blunder in the past, don't fret. Just be good from now on:

Don't tell me to "enjoy!" your book.* 

I know, I know: when you have a book signing it's genuinely difficult to think of something to write on the half-title page that's quick and friendly but also not frantic, nutty, stilted, or dorky. But often the first clever thing that pops into your head while your pen is poised is a cliché. In this case it's possibly worse: it's superficial, somewhat lazy, and a little weird to command someone to enjoy something you created. Let's not even mention that the word "enjoy" makes you sound like an amateur; and, if it has an exclamation point after it, an overly enthusiastic one.

("I hope you enjoy" also feels strange to me, because it's loaded. What if I don't enjoy it? Will I disappoint you?)

The lucky thing is, you're a writer. You're better equipped than anyone to craft the language you use to sign your books. Some authors link their jotted thought back to the book, as Ingrid Law did when she wrote "Find your savvy," at her 57th Street Books signing in Chicago. Others say something less specific but satisfactory, like "With warm wishes."

So give it a moment of thought before your scheduled event. I have confidence in you: now that you're aware of this tiny issue I'm sure you'll think of something that's not trite, that's not a command, and that's not bloody annoying.

Grade: A-. Omit the exclamation point.

*Corollary: please don't tell me to "enjoy!" your blog or website on the welcome page.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Books I Haven't Read: The Great Gatsby

One of these Gatsby-themed revelers is a phony.

I am the least well-read, supposedly-literary person I know. I love books and I hate them. I love them when I've found one that engrosses me so deeply that I resent the real world when it intrudes (get your own damn dinner). I hate them because they make me feel guilty that I haven't read enough.

This is particularly true of adult books. I've basically given up on them, and that makes me seem to be moronic company for all the intellectuals who live in my university neighborhood — but only because they don't read children's books. Half the time I nod along, pretending that I've read an adult book they're talking about, and half the time I say apologetically that I only read middle-grade and young-adult books because of my career. (That's a lie. I only read them because they're more fun.)

It doesn't help that I majored in Biology in college, and then got a PhD in Economics in graduate school. While the University of Chicago makes its students read a notorious amount in its Core classes, it's all Plato and Homer and Hobbes and Locke and Hume. You have to take some actual literature classes to read any of the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries. I was too busy with Organic Chemistry and Linear Algebra to read Anna Karenina. In grad school I was reading mostly tables and graphs and equations.

So you can imagine my dread at being invited to a Gatsby dress-up party last year. Those of you who know me will instantly realize that it presented a trifecta of socializing hell for me: 1. a party, 2. a themed party, 3. a themed party about a famous book I haven't read, with people who know I'm an author. In the week before the party one of my dearest friends bounded up to me and said, "I'm going as the light Nick sees across the water!" I nodded away, with a moronic smile on my face. I still don't know what she was talking about, although I know there are amusement park lights on the cover of the book. I went as a 1920s boy, with a woolen cap, wool knickers, a white shirt, suspenders, and wire-rimmed granny glasses. Surely there was a boy somewhere in the book? I apologized a lot that night.

Most people read The Great Gatsby in high school. Somehow I missed it, even though three of my kids have attended my old high school and all three were made to read it. I say "made to" because not one of them enjoyed the book. Everything I know about Gatsby I know from them: the writing is self-indulgent, and deliberately obtuse so that future generations of English classes will pore over the invented metaphors; the phrase "non-olfactory" is used at one point to modify the word "money;" and Fitzgerald was probably a dickhead.

In all honesty, given that I have a stack of scrumptious middle-grade and YA books on my nightable and in my Kindle, I will probably never find time to read Gatsby. That means, unfortunately, that my children's thoughts will be the final word about a novel that a lot of other people say is one of the greatest of the last century.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Take Heart Young Authors: Negative Book Reviews Increase Sales

Even an old-growth red wine described as "redolent of stinky socks" experienced a five-percent increase in sales after being featured in a Wine Library video.

New authors who read reviews of their own books often never let go of the bad ones. I honestly can't remember a word of the positive reviews of my first novel, but I can quote to you verbatim the most disappointing sentence of the less-glowing Publishers Weekly review: "Such muddled, cumbersome prose weighs down the chronicle of Emily's nightlong struggle to survive in the sea, heavily reliant upon coincidences." My first reaction was catty: wasn't the reviewer's writing somewhat muddled, too? My second reaction was pragmatic: at least the description "nightlong struggle to survive in the sea" had an exciting ring to it. And as the saying goes, they had spelled my name right. I could live with that.

I've already posted my thoughts about why bad reviews are a good thing, and how dumbfounded I am that the world of children's literature has gone soft. Now, actual economic research reassures relatively unknown authors that any publicity is in fact good publicity, because it stimulates product awareness.

In their paper, "Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase Sales" (Marketing Science, September-October 2010), Jonah Berger (Wharton), Alan Sorensen (Stanford), and Scott Rasmussen (Stanford) looked at the sales figures for 240 works of fiction following reviews in The New York Times. Positive reviews had the effect of increasing sales by 32% to 52%. Negative reviews for established authors decreased sales by 15%. But negative reviews of books of relatively unknown authors raised sales 45%. Moreover, follow-up research in behavior labs showed that the negative impression of the review diminished over time for study participants, while their desire to buy the book remained the same.

(I would argue that there is an implication for reviewers in this research as well: don't hold back your negative reviews to spare the feelings of new authors, because you may actually be doing them a disservice; rather, you should only withhold your negative review when you don't want to contribute to sales of the book.)

If an author has real chutzpah, he or she might even fan the flames of negative publicity. A Chicago colleague of mine did this for his debut middle-grade novel, when he challenged a high-school blogger to a duel in Grant Park and held Neil Gaiman hostage at the ALA meetings the year The Graveyard Book won the Newbery. I may have my facts a little off, but only a little.

As for my PW review, a producer called me soon after my debut, inquiring about the movie rights. She made a point of mentioning that the PW review had sparked her interest. When I expressed astonishment that such a ho-hum review could catch her eye, it turned out that she couldn't actually recall the details of the review. She said, "I just have a note here to myself that the story sounds exciting." Score another point for Berger, Sorensen, and Rasumussen.