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.
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.