- I was thunderstruck
- Her skin was sunkissed
- His eyes were bigger than his stomach
- She was always there for him.
- He loved her to the moon and back.
- A chill went down her spine
- His heart broke
- He was broken
- At the end of the day…
A lot of writers would rather be caught dead than caught writing clichés, yet a lot of novice writers don’t realize they’re using them– or actually think they are good. There are many reasons for this. First, we internalize language we like, and uncovering a memory can feel like an invention, second, if you haven’t read a lot, you may not realize how often the phrase has been used, and third, an awful lot of cliché cards and mass market fiction make money.
The problem with cliches (aside from going up in a puff of smoke or being obliterated by the writing police) is that they don’t move people. To the person reading their 105th romance novel, they can be comforting (as when her breast heaves and he gruffly kisses her), but for everyone else it rings hollow and can ruin a good plot.
However, there’s no need to crawl under rock in shame when you write in cliché. Clichés can be place holders when writing a rough draft. Highlight it, keep going, and come back later and meditate on the scene, feel it from the inside, and search for a new way to express it.
A quick fix is to revamp a cliché. “My heart breaks” is old and tired. But “My heart breaks like a stick” (borrowed from a poem I need to track down).
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaewke Emezi is full of inventive similes that help us feel in a new way. Contrast, for example “She ran like the wind,” with “She moved like the ground was falling away beneath her feet, the future running toward her” (Emezi).
Some feel as if they simply cannot come up with new simile or metaphr. If so, try some writing prompts to loosen up, and realize it takes time. Sometimes I’ll write out fifteen different descriptions before I settle on the exact wording or image.
If you suspect something is cliché, ask a friend or search the phrase in Google. If it shows up even once, it’s probably a cliché. It’s always good to be in a writing group or have friends read your work, and above all, keep reading.
Comment below, and let me know if you can’t see the above video without downloading the Tiktok app! I’ve put another version here just in case.
Science Fiction appeals to creatures of all kinds. Daisy, an American Bobtail mixed breed enjoys catching a planet or two on Expanse, a series based on the novels by James S.A. Corey about a future where few have the privilege to still live on earth while most of the population mines for water in an orbiting dust belt. Daisy is one of the smartest cats I’ve ever had the pleasure to live with, so if she likes something, you should pay attention.
I adopted Daisy from the local animal shelter when she was still nursing kittens. When not stalking birds and other unsuspecting prey, she follows me around the house, indoors and out, tilting her head quizzically as if to say, “Whatcha doing, Hooman?” She’s the only cat I know who can purr and growl simultaneously. She can be a bit of a bitch, which only intensifies her allure. Her penchant for screen hunting runs in the family, because her son, Merlin, who was adopted by a friend, tries to catch silver screen dragons. Cats were one of the few creatures H.P. Lovecraft loved, and he portrayed them as the walkers between worlds.
Note: NBC Universal blocked the video because of copyright violation (even though all you can see is the cat). I’ve written for permission and covered the soundtrack, so hopefully, this meets fair use. Sigh. It’s free advertisement for them. If they block this one, I’ll try to capture Daisy watching royalty-free video. But you know how cats are…
Walking in Saratoga Spa State Park last weekend, I came across this conelith. Did the cone fall from the tree, and via the mysteries of chaos and order, land upright? Or did some quixotic human being plant it here for the love of oddity and future passers by? Perhaps, as the narrator of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel,” which inspired 2001 Space Odyssey), surmised, “something from the stars swept through the Solar System, [and] left this token of its passage.” We will never know, but it compelled me to make this short film.
Music: Strauss, Richard. “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Greatest Classical Music in Movie Soundtrack. Opening music for 2001 Space Odyssey.
I was late to the GrubStreet Shop Talk Happy Hour, for which I had paid $75 to talk with an agent and editor. Dan Loedel, a lanky young man with a goatee and black-rimmed glasses, who works for Scribner, scooted over to the black window bench to make room for me. I introduced myself and tried my “pitch” on him: “After her mother spontaneously combusted on the Altiplano between Bolivia and Chile, Fallon struggles to make to grasp her identity and reality. Fifteen years later, her brother, who is bi-polar,” I could hear him sigh at this point, but I pressed on.
He sat back and wrinkled his nose. “Your pitch is too plotty. As an editor of literary fiction, I’m less interested in plot and more interested in language and style. What are your “comparables?” That’s shoptalk for authors you might compare yourself to.
I suggested magical realists like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell. That was strike two.
“People in the publishing industry don’t call Karen Russell’s or Aimee Bender’s writing magical realism.”
“What would you call it?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. “I’d call it literary fiction that pushes the boundaries of reality.”
Okay, I admit it. I was discouraged. I was hoping people would say, “Wow, fascinating, send it to me” or “Sounds original, ground breaking, Pulitzer Prize winning.” After all, little grandiosity goes a long way towards getting a person to stick to a project for many years.
Part way through the happy hour we were supposed to mingle. Dan introduced me to an editor from William Morrow, and she agreed. She said, “spontaneous combustion” raised so many questions about whether I was I or joking, talking about reality or metaphor, that she couldn’t listen to the rest of the pitch. She thought I should simply say, “After the mysterious death of her mother . . .”
My friends all groaned when I told them this later. They love that opening line.
But later, at the GrubStreet Manuscript Mart, where agents and editors read the first 20 pages of you manuscript and comment, Laura Biagi from the Jean V. Naggar Agency agreed that I should start with something less confusing, or go into more detail about the combustion, or start in real time in the present with the main character and give us enough about her that we start to really care about her. Here’s the former first paragraph:
After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love. Fifteen years later, navigating her way across the crowded floor of the North Star Pub to serve drinks to tourists and Wall Street brokers, she was still struggling to disentangle herself from both events.
Ovid had called her again yesterday.
I told her I was making a bow to the opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” She pointed out that the his novel then goes into that scene of the discovery of ice, whereas my first paragraph starts in the past, brings us too briefly to the pub and then goes the previous day. Too much too fast.
I’ve been hanging out with poets too much, damn it, who like compressed language, and I’ve been writing a lot of short stories where things have to happen fast. But in a novel, apparently, we need to start a little slower.
Peter Blackstone from Grove also agreed that my first paragraph was front loading the novel too much.
So, I learned a valuable lesson. Start your novel with a hook but don’t give people whiplash.
Course, a friend of mine who works for GrubStreet would say, “You’ve also learned that the big publishers aren’t adventurous.” They say they want something different, but not that different. After all, it has to be something that 100,000 people would like. He had personally given up on them, claiming that the best work is coming out of small presses. I can attest to the small press and magazine exuberance and inventiveness at the AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) bookfair.
But if you want to quit your day job so that you can write more, you have to please the big publishers.
I’ve vowed to give it a shot. Then I’m going to the small presses.
It happens more often than you care to admit. You type a computer document, save it, revise it, and save it again, then exit, only to return and find none of the changes are saved, or, more distressingly, that you are unable to find the document at all. You might have indulged a Where-the-fuck-is my-document-I know-I saved-it moment, or considered medication for Alzheimer’s. But before you go postal on Microsoft or commit yourself to the hospital for the typographically challenged, consider this.
You may have fallen victim to the Parallel Universe Syndrome (PUS), a hypothesis, posited and currently undergoing study by Dr. K. L. Davidson professor of English and the absurd. Davidson contends that there is a little known command reached by random key punching, which clicks you into a parallel universe, where you did indeed follow correct document-saving protocol. However, the save button clicks you back to your own universe, where you promptly exit, none the wiser. Meanwhile, all your revisions are still in that parallel universe, unsaved, unwashed, and unshriven.
While this revelation doesn’t actually help you save changes to your documents, it at least preserves the possibility that you are not necessarily technologically inept, or teetering toward dementia, though Davidson has been accused of these things in both the personal and professional arena.
Davidson has been able to repeat experiment results for PUS, though never on purpose.
She is confident that once she discovers the configuration of the PUS command, she will be able to program the shift key to reconcile multiple realities with one click.