I've picked out two passages from the middle of the book, one which I think exemplifies the problems I mentioned in the earlier entry, and the other of which I rather like and think works quite well.
"Bright sparks burst behind her eyes, and she slumped in his grasp, unable to resist as he dragged her farther into the trees. Through the ringing in her ears Jane heard another man crashing through the brush behind them. They came out into a level clearing and Jane tumbled to the ground. She tried to get up, but her head kept spinning her back to the ground."
There is absolutely nothing I like about this paragraph on a prose level. It's not bad. Not at all bad, really; there's nothing wrong with it. (Oh, the dreaded "there's nothing wrong with this.") But it's not good, either. It's not doing enough right.
Specifically, there is the problem of first- and second-order cliches. First order cliches are the ones they teach you in grammar school. "Red as an apple." "Quick as a flash." The one that catches my eye here is "Bright sparks burst behind her eyes...."
Okay, writing about pain is hard. We all know it. We all have to do it anyway. We're stuck with writing about pain; pain is a part of fiction. But it seems to me that I've read a combination of words very similar to this many times before. The blow, the bright sparks, the bursting, the eyes. Sometimes it's in front of the eyes. It's an attenuation of an even more common cliche--"seeing stars." It bugs me.
Then there are the second-order cliches. (and thank you, msisolak, for the categories of cliche.) What those are, are words that go together so frequently that as you are reading along, you anticipate the conclusion of the phrase as you are reading the beginning. So:
"Bright sparks... behind her eyes.. slumped in his grasp... unable to resist... the ringing in her ears... crashing through the brush... level clearing... tumbled to the ground... her head kept spinning"
Okay. And even one or two of those might slide in there without robbing the paragraph of vigor and muscularity. (Muscular prose can be very froofy, by the way--when I say muscular, I mean it maintains its narrative energy.) However, the problem of a bunch of them in one place is multifold. First of all, when the reader thinks he knows was to expect, he reads faster. He skims, without realizing it, because he can grasp the sense of a paragraph or even and entire page without effort.
A lot of mass-market paperbacks that are meant to be read quickly are written this way. They're designed so you can digest entire pages at a glance. But that doesn't make it good writing.
What it is is the symbol of the action rather than the action itself. (You know how we've talked before about how fabulous reality is important, and telling detail, and how it grounds the reader viscerally in the action and puts him right there? Not a briar patch, but this briar patch. Not a hand over Jane's mouth, but this hand over Jane's mouth. Right. That's the other thing that I feel is missing here.)
This is hard to explain, because these two things--the cliche phrasing and the lack of specific telling detail--ally themselves to reinforce the same problem. The action is not real. It's make-believe; it's not a vivid, continuous illusory reality. It's just a bunch of symbols. Like the difference between a child drawing a symbol of a tree (a brown stick, some green scribbles) and a trained artist drawing a particular tree, shadow and line and negative space, this is not real. You can superimpose your own experience (or fantasy) of a kidnapping over it, but it's not this kidnapping, viscerally, now.
Jointly, this leaches power from the prose, I'm afraid.
"The window wouldn't budge, and drops of rain were beginning to fall from the ceiling. Archie took a step back and swung the valise, aiming for the center of the cross formed by the four panes. The iron-capped corner of the valise shattered the window, leaving the broken sash hanging in the frame. The crackling behind Archie grew in intensity, and a pin from one of the door's hinges sprang loose and pinged on the wooden floor."
I like this paragraph much better. That first sentence: "The window wouldn't budge, and drops of rain were beginning to fall from the ceiling." I might change it to "began to fall," if it were my sentence, but then I might stare at it for a bit and change it back. This is good writing. I forgive the "the window wouldn't budge" as a second-order cliche here because it's a strong image, and it's chased down with the positively jarring second half of the sentence. Huh? What? It's raining from the ceiling? Weird!
That slows me down, and forces me to pay attention. It's all good.
I think there is still an air of lacking confidence here, betrayed by the too-meticulous line of direction. It's pretty much something we all have to be trained out of as writers. When we start writing, people don't just say stuff, they say stuff to other people. They walk to and from places a lot. Stuff like that. There are excess words that creep in and rob energy from the other words. Above, see, "Archie took a step back," which I might tweak to "Archie stepped back," and "the center of the cross formed by the four panes" could be "the cross formed by the four panes."
But I'm fussing a lot at that poor sentence, and it's a perfectly good sentence. Not just not a bad sentence, but a good one. It's precise, it's direct, it's specific. It presents a clear mental image.
And then there's a string of good verbs and details. Iron-capped. Shattered. The broken sash hanging in the frame. Yeah, that's detail. Good detail. Visual, unusual, telling.
I'm not so happy with "The crackling behind Archie grew in intensity," because it's kind of vague, again, and could use a more direct verb and structure. But oh, that pin from the doorhinge popping, that's good.
Also, important here is what this scene avoids telling us, that our own cliche factories can provide: the door groaning as it bulges inwards, for example. The tinkle of glass raining to the floor. And so on. We know that stuff already, we readers. It's programmed into us by long exposure to storytelling, the same way it's programmed into the writer.
Instead, in this passage, Irvine avoids telling the reader things he already knows. As such, he doesn't get tuned out, the way your husband gets tuned out when he tells you the same college story for the 75th time. If you already know it, you don't have to listen. If you don't know it, though, you're inspired to pay attention.
But this, it's grounded, it's real, and it's vivid. This, I like.
Of course, because there are no rules in this writing gig, sometimes cliches come in handy. Sometimes they're funny, especially used in first-person narrative or in dialogue for an effect. Sometimes, they can be bitterly ironic.
I guess the point is, as a writer, one really does have to think about every single word one puts on the paper, even when it's a pain in the butt, because they do count. They add up. No one choice is going to kill you, but a collection of them get together... and piled up, they can create--or derail--an effect. Or your effective narrative.