Friday, August 9, 2013

Tic Toc

by Riley Redgate

The other day, I was strolling through Goodreads when I encountered a review that stopped me in my virtual tracks. I don't remember what book it was for, so I can't find it again and thus the specifics here are invented, but in essence, it said this:

"This book used the phrase "blue eyes" seventy-eight times. Seventy-eight. Yes, we get it, the love interest's eyes are frickin' blue!"

Nervous laughter. This is a new era, everyone. With the advent of the search feature on eBooks, readers can now see exactly how much of a crutch your crutch words are.

One of the most disheartening (yet strangely hilarious!) writing things I've ever done is a control-F search for the word "and," which led me to realize that numerically, "and" comprises 2 percent of my entire manuscript. Amusing. Less so when it's a reviewer realizing that your work has a reliance on certain phrases.

I've always wondered why writer's tics exist. One hypothesis I've come up with is that it's something in our minds trying to fix the disparity between our character's voice and our own voice. Like, in reality, I actually do just use some words so very often: "like," "actually," "just," "so," and "very." ... Hang on.

Another guess of mine is that we have lingering initial concepts of people, places, or things in our manuscripts that haven't been fully fleshed out. I've often found that, sadly, an author's fixation on a character's particular physical characteristic can become a (poor) substitute for that character having an actual personality. For example, instead of deepening and fleshing out a character's humanity, she gets a "blue-eyes" tag and that makes her familiar to a reader in an easy, superficial way. A character's voice is repeatedly described as "husky" because that's how he first came to the author, in a snatch of a husky-sounding voice. A flag is repeatedly described as tattered and worn because that's how the author first saw it in their mind's eye. It betrays something never having left the conceptual stage.

Another guess: casual padding. My tics, especially the ones listed above, are irritatingly common words like "just" and "so," and I share these tics with a lot of folks out there. The sheer quantity of them is staggering and often hard to notice -- you have to use the ctrl-F laser-pointer to see, "Welp, okay, I've used "just" 834 times in this manuscript. Great." I'd hazard a guess that the reason they're harder to notice is the reason they're there in the first place -- they're placeholders. Empty calories. They delay the point of the sentence, and they do it sneakily. Eyes brush over them.

Of course, reviewers' eyes tend to be more discerning than an author's. And now, if someone starts noticing your egregious excess of "blue-eyes" descriptions, there's nothing stopping them from telling the whole world how repetitive your writing got, quantitatively.

This is terrifying to me. Terrifying. Of course, it's also Capital-A Awesome. Honestly, in my eyes, anything that holds authors accountable for the quality of their prose is an Awesome development, given our hyper-commercial day and age, where The Quality Threshold seems to be transforming -- more and more -- into The Purchasing Threshold. That is to say, the question starts changing from "how perfect can this be?" to "how perfect does this have to be for people to buy it?"

As with any issue of Awesomeness, though, I'm torn. On the one hand, yes, I absolutely believe it's great that authors have more cause than ever to worry about their writing getting lazy. Keeps you on your toes; keeps you striving for excellence! On the other hand, there's a point at which pulling out numbers gets arbitrary. Another review I saw that listed crutch phrases said that one of these 'crutches' showed up four times. Honestly, in a novel-length work, four of a phrase doesn't seem like a great deal to me (unless the phrase is something like "alarming proclivity to waterski spontaneously!", which ... um, it wasn't).

In any case, I'm sure if I'd been reading the book, I wouldn't have noticed those three repeat phrases, and I feel like the practice of breaking books down by numbers -- if it indeed becomes a 'practice' -- creates a risk of veering into semantics. I mean, come on: if you ctrl-F your way through the classics, I bet you'll find repetitions, some unintentional. Authors pre-1950, after all, didn't have the luxury of finding every instance of their crutches electronically in a fraction of a second. And while it's now simple to find the flaws of a book by the numbers, I certainly hope that doesn't become our default mode as readers. I hope that collectively, readers still hunt first for the beautiful and the unexpected within a book rather than the failed and the recycled.

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.


Matt Sinclair said...

I know them well. One of my bugaboos is "look." Now I pore of every manuscript to minimize how often I use it.

Jemi Fraser said...

I have several of those pesky words too! I like using Wordle to help me figure out which words to use Ctrl-F on! :)

JeffO said...

And yet numbers alone aren't indicative of quality. I imagine the reviewer got irritated with 'blue eyes' seeming to pop up every page, hence the search. Sometimes, however, a word or phrase is an important part of 'voice.' It's good to be aware of these things, but it's not good to obsess over them.

Debra McKellan said...

I read a book that I made a comment about not needing to be reminded of the character's blue eyes. lol I wonder if that person had the e-version of the same book.

As I've been in the revising limbo, I've cut a lot of my crutches. My characters nod and sigh a lot. I'm sure their necks hurt. lol