We've all known people in the real world who come up with a line that gets a laugh, and the next thing you know, they're using it everywhere. Their spouses start to roll their eyes, and then the neighbors do, too. I suppose it shouldn't come as any surprise, then, that writers can fall victim to the same trap, enamored of their own cleverness or the response they once got...but what about editors?
For illustration, I'm going to pick on Janet Evanovich--but before I do, I have to say that I REALLY enjoy Evanovich's work. I particularly enjoy the Stephanie Plum series, but I'm partial to Alex Barnaby as well. In fact, I like Janet Evanovich's books well enough that I recently took the outrageous risk of checking out Fearless Fourteen from the "Quick Picks" shelf at my local library--a shelf full of books that are due in SEVEN DAYS and carry a fine of $1 PER DAY if they're not returned on time. Since I haven't returned a library book on time since 1976 unless my mother called me up and reminded me, this was a serious gamble.
So I mean no offense, truly. And, of course, if I did, Evanovich certainly wouldn't care, since she has millions of readers and millions of dollars.
But here's the thing: one day I was reading one of the Stephanie Plum novels and Stephanie took Morelli's dog out for a walk and walked around "until Bob was empty". I remember the first time Evanovich put it like that--it struck me as mildly amusing, and as a writer myself I have a solid appreciation for a fresh expression of a mundane concept. The second time Stephanie walked Bob until he was empty it clunked a little, but I decided (consciously) that it must just be the way this character thought. Walking a dog until he was empty was just something Stephanie Plum did.
You know what happened, don't you?
Alex Barnaby took a dog for a walk. It was Hooker's dog, Beans, of course. I was willing to overlook the whole "female lead walks boyfriend's dog, whose name starts with a 'B' thing". I mean, you stick with what works, right? But when Alex walked the dog until Beans was empty, it put me over the edge. If your neighbor's husband had used that line as many times, you'd be wondering why she didn't divorce him.
Now, you're probably thinking (and you're quite right) that Janet Evanovich is doing just fine. You're probably thinking that it's likely the reason her editor didn't point this out is that MILLIONS OF PEOPLE KEEP BUYING HER BOOKS. And you're right. She can get away with it.
But unless you're someone I'd be shocked to find reading my blog, you and I can't. And if a writer as accomplished as Janet Evanovich can become so enamored of her own turn of phrase that she doesn't notice when it starts to clank, imagine what risk the rest of us are at.