Clichés and What They’re Good For

Wait, wouldn’t this be heels over head? Like, their heels- are- what. What does this even mean?

Avoid clichés like the plague. That’s what we’re always told, right? (That, and never submit stories in Comic Sans font, but who really listens to that one?) But surely clichés can’t always be bad, can they? Are there times when clichés would be appropriate and right?

But first, what the heck is a cliché? (Okay, I’ll ease off on the endless questions now, sorry.)

A cliché is a phrase or idea that was once fresh and innovative, leading to its broad distribution and popularity, but that has since become so overused as to become boring, predictable, or even annoying. While the pre-cliché expression is witty and clever, that same expression post-cliché is often viewed as dull and lazy. Sometimes clichés will even lose their original context and just become a meaningless response to be trotted out following the appropriate stimulus. (Think, “The whole nine yards.” Like, we all know what that means, but what was the framework for why it means that?)

Clichés shouldn’t be confused with stereotypes (a set of attributes that people ascribe to a group at large), truisms (a widely accepted or self-evident ‘fact’, often seen as so obvious as to negate the need for definition or proof), or formal expressions (phrases used ceremonially, such as ‘I second the motion,’ or ‘I do solemnly swear…,’ etc.). There are also proverbs, idioms, and all kind so of other specifically defined phrases. While all of these things can contribute to a cliché, or be used in a cliché manner, they’re each kind of their own thing that we’re not going to get into much here.

The kinds of cliché I want to talk about today comes in two varieties: short phrases (the micro-cliché, if you will) and chains of events (the macro-cliché). And when it comes to writing a story, you want to be very, very careful with either of them. But that said, they do have their uses!

Cliché expressions are best used in establishing voice. After all, characters use clichés all the time, just like real people. Maybe they like to say things are ‘all that and a bag of chips’. Maybe they’re always rolling their eyes and ironically grumbling back their mom’s signature ‘a chip off the ol’ block’. Or maybe the time traveler from the 1920s has a tendency to cheerfully advise their friends to ‘know your onions’. Or these phrases can be tragically subverted, such as the terminally ill character encouraging their concerned family with a successively weaker and weaker ‘fit as a fiddle’.

Subversion is probably the best way to use clichéd events or situations in your storyline. Maybe the princess meets a friendly old woman who is of course a witch in disguise. How can you subvert this trope so that the story isn’t boring for your readers? Likewise, everyone expects that when your protagonist has a weird, symbolism laden dream that it’s foreshadowing something important. So how can you upend that expectation to deliver something unexpected?

When subverting a cliché, whether that’s a single phrase or a whole story trope, you’re working with two parts. The set up (which is the trope that savvy readers will see the beginning of and make assumptions about what’s coming) and the subversion (where the trope is revealed to be a red herring and now we’re going somewhere else, get in the car).

During this process, it’s important to surprise your audience, but also to not disappoint them. Yes, it would be very surprising to find out that the Chosen One completely fails in their task (and some shadowy governmental agency has to come clean up the mess and now there’s a hole in the universe that occasionally rains radioactive cheddar curds) and then the protagonist squanders the remainder of their life in drunken shame and dies while trying to fight off a ten-year-old pickpocket armed with an irradiated Army-issue spork. Surprising, sure. But your readers are going to pelt you with rotten fruit by the end of the story if you don’t pull off something better than that.

Like all other things in the story, the subversion needs to have the three S’s. It has to make sense, surprise readers, and satisfy the audience. Losing any one of those elements will sour the experience. But it you can use all three of them while turning a cliché on its head (haha, that’s a cliché), please do!

How about you guys? Can you think of any other good uses for clichés? Or any times you’ve seen them used well? Let me know in the comments below! And until next time, happy writing!

Finding My Center

Many years ago, I took a ceramics class to satisfy an arts requirement for my college degree. I made a lot of really bad bowls and figurines and stuff that have since all been smashed, disappeared, or distributed to family members who feel too guilty to get rid of them. It was an entry level class and I was awful at it, but it was fun.

However, I never used the pottery wheels. I probably would have broken them, and the more advanced students were on them all the time, and I was too garbage and well aware of it to properly beg for wheel time. To this day, I have never tried thrown pottery.

But my ten-year-old has. A few weeks ago, his class went on this weird mish-mash field trip where they went to a rock climbing club, and then a ‘50s style diner, and then a high school pottery studio. Not sure what the educational aim was here (or why this teacher is so set on expensive field trips and activities like all the time), but my son had a lot of fun making a little bowl that I’m probably going to have to buy off the teacher later, to prove that I love my child, in order to help fund further field trips. (I’m not bitter.)

My boy told me in such exquisite detail about the potting process that I think he might want a throwing wheel for Christmas. He told me all about tucking his elbows, and keeping his hands wet, and maybe most important of all, centering the clay.

When throwing pottery on the wheel, one of the biggest problems beginners have is failing to properly center their lump of clay. It might seem centered (enough), but once the wheel gets up to speed and you begin to craft your masterpiece, the wobbly tower of clay suddenly ruptures and flops over dead like an overwatered cactus in fast forward.

A lot of creative work is like that, including writing. Sometimes we start a project before we’re quite ready. Sometimes we don’t see the problems until we’re well along. Sometimes we have to scrap and start over, even when something starts out so promising.

I am the queen of false starts. And messy starts. And oh-gosh-I’m-going-to-have-to-change-all-of-this-later starts. Lately, I’ve been feeling like the empress, though. This last year has been a weird year for me. I’ve been reasonably productive, and pretty successful by some metrics, but I haven’t felt creatively centered, if that makes any sense. So I’ve ended up with some preeeetty wobbly stories, structurewise.

I think part of my problem may be in the sorts of projects I’ve been working on this year. More about this later, but a much higher proportion of my writing has been for either nonfiction or ghostwriting on other people’s creative projects. So a smaller chunk of my creative brain power has been spent on the sorts of projects I enjoy the most (which is mostly people running around getting stabbed in the woods, apparently). This has put me a bit off so that when I do get around to those projects, my head isn’t in the game. This is probably further exacerbated by how busy I’ve been with life in general. My time for art in any form has shrunk considerably as we welcomed a new foster child into our home late last summer. He’s an awesome kid, but takes a looooot of time and attention. I basically doubled my kid load, meaning that most of my time for feeding my creative soul now happens between ten at night and… whenever I go collapse into bed. Sometimes that’s ten, because I’m tired. Sometimes it’s one in the morning because I really want to work on something that isn’t kid related. But then I’m exhausted in the morning and I pay it back for days. So yeah, I’ve been off-balance lately.

So how to center myself a bit more?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing may be to accept that, at least for a little while, I’m just going to have less time for art. I can’t not take my kid to his appointments. I can’t ignore my natural children, either, who are needing more attention than ever as we navigate these emotional waters together. But rather than just settling for less art, I think I should also shift the focus of what time I do have for art. I’ll have to do a better job of reserving my art time for the art that I find most fulfilling. And I’m going to start doing more of my visual art out in the midst of the kids instead of only while holed up in my Tortured Artist Cave. (Writing will have to stay in the cave, though. I cannot write with any distractions whatsoever, unfortunately.)

Giving myself the breathing space to make art without the guilt is probably the key here. Maybe I can’t produce the same volume of work that I have in years past. And maybe I don’t have the same amount of time that I have in the past. But letting myself create for the sheer joy of creating, rather than worrying about deadlines and output and word counts and dollars, should help bring me back to center. I’ll write more in a couple weeks about my goals for this year and how those shaped up, and then I’ll roll out a shiny new set of goals for next year.

Until then, happy (happy, I say!) writing!

Bumps and Bruises: My Twin Careers in Rugby and Writing

Nick Kennedy, Gonzalo GarciaThe day my new husband and I moved into our first apartment, he viciously provoked a water fight over the meager boxes of our possessions.  In the interest of saving the defenseless computer, I fled out the door and across the field at the back of the building, snarling about an annulment.  The school’s women’s rugby team happened to be practicing in that same field and, impressed by my rage and my sprints, invited me to join them.  Robert went back to the apartment.  I hared off to play rugby.

Thus began my love affair with the greatest sport on earth.

Rugby hasn’t always been kind to me.  I’ve broken fingers and ruptured a bursa.  I’ve torn my quad and sprained just about every joint in my body.  I’ve dislocated my shoulder repeatedly and been so bruised and battered that coworkers started gently offering me safe havens.  I love, love, love ruby, but I can’t even say I’m all that good at it.  I’m not particularly fast and I have a hard time memorizing plays and my kicks always seem to go awry.  I’m skinny and fragile and can’t seem to reliably throw and run at the same time, which is kind of an important skill in a game that involves a lot of running and throwing.

But still I love it.  I play whenever I can and I watch hours of tourneys online and I delight in teaching my boys how to take me out at the ankles while I run in slow motion.  Rugby pleases me in a way that is both deeply satisfying and wildly thrilling in the same instant.

I feel much the same way about writing.  Writing intoxicates me.  I write whenever I can and I read and research a lot about writing and the specifics of my stories and I always squee for joy when my children tell wonderful stories about rock climbing adventures and zombie attacks and magical foxes at wishing wells.

There is, however, one large difference between the way I think about rugby and the way I think about writing.  With rugby, I’ll never be anything close to pro, and I am totally okay with that.  I want to play my best game and I have a great time doing it.  I get some bumps and bruises and I go home happy.  Knowing I’ll never be pro does nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the game.  With writing, however, I have a hard time letting myself be so carefree.

Maybe it’s a matter of focus.  When playing rugby, I have a laser focus on the ball.  I know where it is and I itch to get my hands on it and nothing outside the boundary lines matters.  When drafting, I can often find that nothing-matters-but-this focus, but the minute I start editing, something changes.  The story becomes not just what pleases me, but something that could potentially please others as well.  And just as surely as it could please others, it could displease them too.  What if nobody likes it?

What if nobody likes me?

I was thinking about this after practice last week, during which I let some sneaky Samoan guy blitz right past me to score the winning try of the scrimmage.  It didn’t occur to me at the time to wonder if my teammates were mad at me, whether they liked me or not.  I’m sure some of them were disappointed, maybe even annoyed, but I’m just as sure that they knew I was doing my best with some serious disadvantages.

Maybe I should give myself the same accolades while writing.  Nobody can deny that I’m giving it my best.  Things go awry and I mess stuff up, but any time you put your heart into something, there will be injuries along the way.  If I don’t get a few bruises, I’m probably not trying hard enough.

In this vein, though, I’m doing a lot better with the rejections goal than I thought I would be at this point- I’m only slightly behind.  But more importantly, I’m learning to take them better.  I think choosing to look at rejections as the goals themselves has made them a lot easier to swallow.  (Because you all know how I am with check boxes.)  Maybe this is a good first step in growing that thick skin professional writers are always talking about!

I’m getting better at this game.  (Not at rugby.  At that one, I’m just getting older, haha.)  I can usually spot my weak points.  Self-editing, although not exactly what I’d call fun, is less excruciating than it used to be.  I’m getting better and better at using feedback.  These are all signs of improvement.

I want to be the best writer I can be, but I always want to enjoy the process.  After all, the thrill of telling a good story is what got me into this addiction hobby in the first place.  Even if I never go pro (although I hope I do some day!), I will always love to tell stories.

And I will always love rugby, too, even when it beats me up.

Happy writing!

PS- Watch some rugby! Go, Eagles!

How to Evict Your Readers

East_Side_Eviction It’s happened to all of us. We’ve taken a chance on a new author and now we’re getting into this book. Maybe we love a character, maybe it’s an incredible world, maybe the premise is fascinating. And then, WHAMMO, something in that book jerks the magic carpet right out from under our feet and plops us back on our couch with a bundle of paper, glue, and string in our laps.

Ouch. Nothing derails a story faster than seeing the author’s inky fingerprints all over the place. Those fingerprints can come in many different forms. Some things bother one reader, but not another. Some are generally irksome, while others drive only a select few nuts. Either way, as writers, it’s important for us to know what to watch out for in our own writing so that we don’t commit the very sins we sneer at in another. Below are just a few things that rip me right out of a book.

Explanations You’ve got this really cool mechanic in this really cool world and you’ve just gotta let the reader know how it works and why it’s there, right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong. Stick within your established POV. If it’s something the character is used to, there’s no reason s/he would sit around musing on its presence and purpose. (Even worse is injecting information the POV character wouldn’t know.) Don’t be a lazy writer, or a purple proser. If it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. And if it does, make the explanation natural and seamless. No lazies allowed.

Excessive Descriptions This is related to the above, but slightly different. Even if the descriptions are relevant, keep it minimal and to the point. No need to bore your readers into a coma. Also, try to find more interesting ways to describe stuff than a solid block of exposition. If it has to be described, like fight scenes that are a lot of action and little to no dialog, break it up into smaller paragraphs to maintain a quicker pace.

Out of Character Acts Characters are meant to change throughout a story. It gets pretty boring and frustrating if they don’t. But that change is supposed to be gradual, a culmination of the things learned throughout the story. If a character does something completely outside of their established mode of operations, simply because it bullies the story in the direction it’s “supposed to” go, that kills me. Ugh. Don’t.

Typos This is less of a story problem and more of an editing issue. Seriously- please edit the snot out of your manuscript and then get someone else to do the same. One or two typos, I can muscle my way past. But sloppy work just sets me on red alert for other problems. And like a cop hunting for a reason to ticket you, I will find other problems, even if they wouldn’t have bothered me before.

So these are my reading pet peeves, and they’re certainly not the only ones on the market. What about yours? What are some other issues I’ve missed that we still need to watch out for? Let us know in the comments!

On Feminism & Fiction (and Real Life, Too)

Madison Dusome. Even her name is poetry. Picture a midair superhero with a boa constrictor draped around her neck as she parkours her way through an epic food fight with desperate authorities in a Costco in Canada, and you’re almost halfway to her monumental level of magnificence. Given the staggering amount of cool points she’s accumulated, I can’t tell you anything more or the universe might explode from sheer awesome. Enjoy this small taste of her kick-donkey coolness as she teaches us all how to be a little more rad.

On Feminism & Fiction (and Real Life, Too)

I participate in a lot of writing/creative communities online, and this summer there has been a lot of talk about women in writing and fiction – not only as writers but also as characters. To be completely frank and maybe a little incendiary, I’m pretty bored of hearing about how there aren’t enough of us, or about how the industry is sexist, et cetera. I fought with myself all summer to not write this blog post, but the articles, posts and tweets just kept coming. So now I’m adding my (pointless) opinion to the mix.

TL;DR Version: Girls and women: stop playing the victim. I’m not saying to shut up about sexism – pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t going to help – but doing anything with the attitude that you’ll fail “because you’re a woman” is a terrible way to live your life, and isn’t helping anyone. You want to change the statistics? Change them, then; don’t cite them and bemoan your fate. Be proactive.

Here we go…

To read the full article (which you totally should), Follow The Link! –>

The Virtues and Vices of First Drafts

See this child? This child will be starting kindergarten this fall.  I am terrified.

See this child? This child will be starting kindergarten this fall. I am terrified.

I hate to admit it, but when I met my firstborn child, he was no cherub. He was a chunky little alien child with acne, a neanderthal brow, and a mashed-up head. He was noisy, smelly, slimy, and he had pooped on me (in me?) while being born. (TMI yet?) But he was also gloriously, heart-stoppingly, incandescently beautiful and I knew that the rest of my life would be devoted to seeing him do well in the world.

First drafts are a lot like newborns. You work darned hard to push them out, only to find that, despite being completely lovable, they’re a little ugly and weird, and need a lot more work before they can face the world on their own. That’s the nature of first drafts. As we plow forward into Camp NaNoWriMo here in another couple days (cue panic), here are a few things to keep in mind while looking forward to the end of a month-long labor of love.

It will not be perfect. But it will have massive potential.

I am constantly guilty of the assumption that whatever first draft I schlepp out in a month will be query ready by the end of a week. And I am constantly disappointed. Go figure. First drafts are not final drafts. Heck, so-called final drafts aren’t even usually final drafts. If you do Camp NaNo and then have this lovely little lump of literature lying in your arms, take a deep breath and let it be imperfect for a moment before you pick up that red pen. Marvel at what you’ve created in so short a time, even if it’s hairy and its poop is yellow. You may some day look back and realize you were cooing down at your newborn masterpiece.

It will frustrate you endlessly. But it will also bring you more joy than you thought possible.

Nobody hates my books like I do. But nobody loves them like I do, either. They keep me awake at night, they take directions that veer wildly from The Plan, and I don’t know what to do with them half the time. But writing is like that sometimes. It’s not a clean shot from A to B with a guaranteed agent smiling to greet you at the end. You might feel down sometimes. You might feel like it’ll never get anywhere in life. But you’ll love it anyway. (And, stepping away from the offspring analogy for a moment, you can always scrap it and use it for parts. A good writer, like a good butcher, wastes nothing.)

It will need to change. But those changes can only be considered improvements.

Ah, editing. Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting. But sometimes we don’t want our babybook to grow up. Sometimes we think it’s perfect just the way it is. But it’s not. (See above. It’s not.) Once you accept that, you will cut flowery scenes that you dearly loved. You will tear out the purple prose that sings pointless poetry between the things that actually matter. For every word that you cut out that feels like a piece of your heart is being removed, you will tighten your prose, you will enhance your dialog, you will streamline your story, and you will improve your book.

A first draft is an advent. A step in creation. Not the first step, but certainly not the last. Expect your first draft to be the utter poop that it is, and love it for its foibles. Soon enough, you’ll be ripping those foibles out like a stolen kidney. But you’ll think back with fondness to these early days and you’ll chuckle at how far you’ve both come.

NaNoWriMo Recap

[UPDATE: The students made the newspaper! They were on the front page of the Youth section, and you can read all about it here.]

I’m so sorry! Crazy day got crazy and I didn’t even think about the post until… well, until right now. So so so sorry. I don’t even have the excuse of NaNoWriMo anymore. Posting now!

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on here before (although it has been known to crop up in author bios before), but I love teaching writing. Although my degree is in education, I’m not a professional teacher. Instead, I stay home and babysit and raise fantastically smart kids. Even so, I like to poke my foot in the door of education whenever possible and I occasionally get the chance to teach. For example, my husband is a molecular biologist and taught a college level genetics class. But when it became apparent that they couldn’t write decent papers to save their lives, who did he call? (Hint: not Ghostbusters.)

Likewise, I have an English teacher friend who I have been pestering for years to do the Young Writers Program through the Office of Letters and Light (NaNoWriMo for youth). This year, she decided to take the plunge, and she dragged me into the lake with her. And I am so happy. It’s been fantastic.

Today we had our TGIO party of sorts at the high school. Seventy-five freshman printed out their stories to much revelry and joy (and banana brownies), burning through almost six packs of paper. The largest novel clocked in at just over 27,000 words, but 15,000 was probably closer to the average, with tons of students begging the teacher for more time because they really wanted to add just a little bit more to make everything perfect. I’ve been going in every now and then since the last few days of October to mentor the group and it’s been awesomely rewarding. I’ve written more than usual this month (finishing 72k) and wrote it a lot quicker than usual, ending a week early (mostly because I really wanted to edit it a bit before the students got to look at it). Also, I feel like the story itself was a lot more solid than my usual NaNoWriMo swill.

But I think my favorite part of the whole experience wasn’t my own improvements as a writer, but that of the students. They were not excited when we first announced what we were planning. (There was much groaning and eye rolling and flopping over across desks- you’d think they were having seizures to look at them.) But as we got through the planning stages and into the actual writing, they tolerated it, and then accepted it, and then embraced it. They wrote every class period that entire month and well over half the students worked on it at home as well. Their teacher was dazzled- she’d never seen them get so into a project before.

The unit was sprinkled with lessons on plot, sensory language, and literary devices which the students then integrated into their novels. They were encouraged to learn and use new words, to research and brainstorm and cook up wild new universes. They knew what was expected, and then they went beyond. So much of high school English is devoted to fiction and it was wonderfully empowering to the students to realize that writing isn’t just reserved for the Hemmingways and Fitzgeralds. It’s accessible to them, too. Their stories have value. Their voices can be heard. And I think that was my favorite lesson of the entire project.

Did any of you have any wonderful lessons learned throughout NaNo this year? Any epiphanies? Any spectacularly epic wins or fails? Let me know in the comments! I’ve missed interacting with the denizens of the ‘net over the last month.

Conference Lessons II: Great Expectations

(Again, I’m stealing ideas from Lisa Cron with the reminder that she explains all this WAY better than I do and that you should get her book or hear one of her lectures in person. She’s fabulous.)

All readers come to a story with expectations. When we as writers fail to meet these expectations, it can frustrate the reader. Minor infractions probably won’t be a huge deal, but a consistent disregard of what the reader wants out of a story can lead to book lobbing- yours, out the window. But if we keep these expectations in mind, we can create a compelling story that readers will love.

What follows is Lisa Cron’s A Reader’s Manifesto: 15 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has for Every Story. Check your story against these expectations.

The reader expects:

1. That the story will revolve around a clear, escalating problem that the protagonist has no choice but to deal with.
2. That the protagonist will enter the story already wanting something, which gives meaning to her goal.
3. That the protagonist will already have a deep-seated fear, misbelief, or wound that keeps him from easily achieving that goal.
4. The things that happen in the plot to force the protagonist to confront and overcome her inner issue, something that she’s probably spent her whole life avoiding.
5. There will be something crucial at stake, continually forcing the protagonist’s hand.
6. A clear and present force of opposition, with a loudly ticking clock.
7. That everything in the story is there strictly on a need to know basis, even the weather.
8. To feel something, all the time.
9. To feel what the protagonist feels, which means the protagonist must feel something, all the time.
10. That the protagonist will be flawed and vulnerable.
11. The protagonist try to make sense of everything that the plot puts him through, in the moment, on the page.
12. That everything that happens will in some way affect the protagonist in pursuit of her goal.
13. That as the protagonist tries to solve the story question, she will only make things worse, until she has no choice but to face the inner issue.
14. That every subplot and flashback will in some way affect the main storyline.
15. That at the end of the story, the protagonist will emerge changed- seeing the world through new eyes- and that the reader will emerge changed as well.

So how does your story measure up? Anything else you’d add to the list?