Copy editing conundrum 6: Shady Cliche and Stunted Emotions

Episode 6:

It’s been some time since I last posted a Copy Editing Conundrum. So, welcome new readers. Hope you enjoy, and are informed, as well as entertained. Although, technically today’s episode has less to do with copy editing, and much more to do with substantive editing, or perhaps injecting bad substances into published work like Hunter Thompson injected, well, everything, rather than pumping those substances out.

I found this cliche-ridden gem quoted in a Writer’s Digest article on what makes novels sell, and the excerpt is from a novel, or series of novels, that’s making the writer a J.K. Rowling-rich hack. (I write for money; I think writers should make money and a lot of it, but it still irks me that bad writing can make so much money and sell people on cheap emotions.) Anyhow, here’s the passage in question:

Okay, I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very  attractive. But it’s a lost cause, I know, and I sigh with bittersweet regret. It was just a coincidence, his coming here. But still, I can admire him from afar, surely. No harm can come of that.

Every line is a cliche. It reminds me  of a teenage girl’s diary, or even a prepubescent girl writing about her first crush. And yet, the character is supposed to be an adult woman, confessing her darkest erotic desires. An apparently emotionally-stunted woman. (Have you guessed the bestseller?)

This is bad writing at its finest, reveling in its shiny badness. And I’m disappointed in Writer’s Digest for providing it as an example of tension-filled writing that will make your novel sell. It may help sell, but it’s not tension-filled. It’s not remotely satisfying, at least for this reader. Is this the kind of writing modern readers want, even if it is meant as escapism? I hope not. I hope it’s a passing fancy.

My advice would be to send this passage back and tell the writer to rewrite it until a real character, a real woman with genuine desires emerges from the prose.

Of course, if the whole novel reads like this one passage, the writer could churn out a novel a month, which will make the writer’s publisher happy, as long as readers are buying. And the hack will laugh all the way to the bank.

—Todd

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How Many Words Must a Writer Write Down To Know He or She Has Written a Novel?

Word Count

Word Count

I once read somewhere Mark Twain kept a running word count in the margins of his manuscripts. Word counts are probably a weird obsession held largely by writers. We survive by them. Sometimes we’re paid by the number of words we write. Sometimes we use the count to measure a good day’s work, whether those words add up to a few sentences or several pages.

Word counts also tell us—somewhat arbitrarily—what sort of work we have written. Is it a Tweet (which actually is even more micro, down to the character)? Is it an essay? A short story? A novella? A novel?

A few months ago, a writer friend of mine Gerald Warfield and I shoptalked about just such things. We couldn’t come up with a solid answer. But a blog post from Writer’s Digest gives some novel advice at least, breaking down some average word counts for novels of different lengths.

The link is here. Of course, it’s not the end-all declaration of authority, but it must count for something.

—Todd