I read a lot (A LOT) of chick-lit, so I recognize the formula. It might be wrong to admit there is a formula, but screw it. That's just the truth. Reading chick-lit is like watching a romantic comedy; the story is predictable but in the most comforting way. Have you ever watched a romantic comedy that didn't end the way you wanted it to? And weren't you mad when you didn't get what you expected? Yeah, me too. (Side note: I'm still not over "The Break-up" (2006). I hold a grudge.)
All of this is to say, I'm used to seeing the similarities between other authors' published works and my work-in-progress. As I've accepted the inevitability of following the chick-lit rules, I don't let similar rhythms or even plot devices make me question my work or what I'm trying to do. What does bother me is when I'm reading one of these similarly structured stories and find writing weaknesses that I recognize from my own work.
Here are just a few:
Joke Fail- When a character is telling a joke or a funny story and it doesn't land, it makes the reader uncomfortable. Whether the writer knows it or not, her joke just bombed and the audience is uncomfortable. I found this in one of my supporting characters. His voice was meant to be the glib voice of absurdity ridiculed, but after review, his words were just trite (the annoying cousin of predicable). As a result, I've changed his tone and his dialogue. I had to give him a greater stake in the story and explore more of his depth as a character. I'm much happier with him now. He's someone I would actually like to know instead of a caricature of someone I once met. Lesson Learned: Hackneyed jokes are red flags for under-developed characters.
Dialogue Disorders- Unless you want to waste word space with endless "saids", (Jen said to Ben..., Ben said to Jen..., Ben and Jen said to Ken...), it's important for characters to be easily identified by their dialogues. I notice most often that this is a problem when you're dealing with a character being written by the opposite sex. In the case of chick-lit, it is usually the male voice written by the female author that doesn't work. This was no exception for me. Nothing can douse a hero's romantic flame like making him sound like a girl. Lesson Learned: Run a guy check for the man talk. If the (or just "a") man in your life says, "A guy would never say that" , the dialogue probably needs a tweak or two.
Offensive Repeaters- If you start screaming "pick up a thesaurus" at a book, there is a problem. I have found myself doing a lot of yelling with several, very popular, books lately and it makes me nuts! When a word or phrase is over used to the point of distraction, it takes the reader (this reader especially) out of the story. To make sure I wasn't committing the same crime I did word searches for strong words that I found and anything that ranked over 10 uses in my 60,000 word document was changed. The worst offender was "whore" with 15 uses. (I might want to mention that to my therapist.) Lesson Learned: The thesaurus and the word search function are your friends. Use them.
Should these unfortunate similarities between my unpublished manuscript and other authors' published works be comforting? I mean, hey, someone got that junk through. Maybe, but not really. It makes me more nervous that even if (wait, I'm supposed to be positive) when, I get published, that the work I put out could still be crap. No one wants that. So, no, it's not comforting at all. I suppose what I can take from this is that, as it's been said before, being an avid reader makes you a better writer. So what am I going to do to work on my skills? Read.
Yay! I just justified another trip to the book store!