I am a peace loving woman, but I do have a sworn enemy – clichés.
When I judged writing contests and edited copy for a newspaper, I cringed whenever I saw a cliché. I cringed a lot.
Sometimes, I would even be reading a first draft of my writing, and what do you know? I found a few clichés.
The definition of cliché says it all. A word or phrase that’s lost its power because of overuse.
Clichés are around for a reason. They are so easy to use and so available. But when you use them that means you’re taking it easy in your writing. You’re not pushing yourself creatively.
It is funny that they have changed over the years. When I taught a creative writing class to young people and gave them a list of clichés, they didn’t recognize them because we have developed some newer clichés like these.
Really? (as in you see something dumb or incredulous and your response is ‘really?’)
Clive Whichelow and Hugh Murray have even written a book about the modern ones called “It’s Not Rocket Science: And Other Irritating Modern Cliches.”
However, there are still a lot of the old ones hanging around and finding their way into your writing.
Think about it this way. Clichés were written or said by someone else. You don’t want anybody else’s writing in yours, do you? Writing is about originality and if we want ours to be original, we must declare war on those pesty clichés.
First locate and eradicate them in the editing process. In addition, have your critique partners read your writing because they may find ones that you don’t.
A fun way to work your brain is to break clichés and turn them into something new and in your own voice. Start with what I have dubbed the Cliché Challenge.
Come up with a list of clichés and then rework them to make them new and yours. For instance take the cliché “All that glitters is not gold.”
My take on it–Her golden life had the glitter of a brick.
You get the idea.
Lists of clichés are all over the Internet. Here is a good one.
Do a few each time. It will be hard and your brain will be sweating.
Good luck and happy cliché hunting.
This is a great column on that topic.
Although it was written about screenplays, I believe it applies for most any writing.
When starting a new story and working on characters to populate it, I sometimes think of Frankenstein.
That’s because as a writer I have to grow and develop my characters. Not sew them together out of a bunch of dead bodies, but develop creations with thoughts, dreams, fears, weaknesses and strengths. Quirks and qualities. How will they react to conflict, love, loneliness or whatever situation in which I place them.
I start with a character profile where I can list almost everything from their favorite music to their background to what they want and need. Not all details will end up in the story, but I will know where the characters came from, where they are going and how they changed getting there. You’ll find many good templates for character profiles online.
Writing 101 tells use that characters should have an external goal and internal one. Take Clarissa Starling from “Silence of the Lambs.” Her outside conflict is finding Buffalo Bill. Her internal one is stopping the nightmares and the screaming of the lambs from an earlier trauma. Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick” must kill the white whale, but also face his own demons.
I minored in psychology in college, so motivation of my character is very important to me. The protagonist in my novel, “The Weeping Woman” is a detective who is promiscuous not because she is a nymphomaniac. It is because sex is the only way she can maintain control after growing up in an environment where she had no control. Not all characters may have motivations and just be monsters, but they will probably be the villain and catalyst for the story, not the main character.
Like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, writers need to a spark to bring their creations alive. Victor used electricity and chemicals. You will use motivations, dialogue, backstory, conflict and more to start your character breathing. If you succeed, then you also can shout, “It’s alive! It’s alive.”
You hear the advice a lot at writing conferences and in writing books. Read. Read. Read. As a lover of movies and writer of screenplays, to that advice I will add watch good movies, TV and plays.
Why? Because you learn so damn much about everything. Pacing. Voice. Conflict. Dialogue. Description. Character. In other words, what makes a good story. What makes good writing.
When I started writing a psychological thriller, I read Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” about four times. I saw how effective it was to tell both the stories of the antagonist and protagonist. For example, in the case of the killer Francis Dolarhyde we learned how he became a monster and at first feel for the abuse that turned him into one. It also ramped up the conflict when the hero and villain meet. In my book, “The Weeping Woman” (Sunbury Press) I also presented the story through the eyes of villain and the detective hunting her down to show their contrast and similarities.
For a great script taut as a drum, I read Brian Helgeland’s script, “L.A. Confidential” many times.
The power of voice I found in “Funeral for Horses” and “Fight Club.”
How profound point of view can be in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Most any Quentin Tarantino script shows off unique and fantastic dialogue.
In “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” I discovered what makes a great character, namely Walter White and Tony Soprano.
For great writing pure and simple, any Tennessee Williams play.
Grace of language, damn great characters and heart wrenching plot was all found in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.”
You get the picture.
As writers, we don’t want to imitate those other writers, but we should analyze what makes them so good. And hopefully, somewhere find our own voices.
As a bonus, we also get to read great books and watch great movies, TV and plays, which is okay with me.
Writing helped save me.
My mom died at the end of July at the age of 88. She was strong and funny, and lived for her family. She took care of everybody, even volunteering to help low-income people for more than a decade after her retirement and her own personal losses. I not only loved her, but admired her very much.
After she passed, I felt like I was walking through a bad dream from which I could not wake. Food tasted like ash. I wanted to sleep all the time. But I made myself get up and make the bed and clean house.
My family was supportive but they were also dealing with the loss of my mom, who they all loved.
What helped me during those terrible days and months after her death was my writing. I could lose myself in the words and thoughts I was typing, in the stories I was telling. I focused on something else but my own pain.
When I lost my dad years before, writing helped me in a different way.
Flying in from another state, I missed saying good bye to my dad before he died. He passed only minutes before I arrived to the hospital and that tore me up to no end.
I not only had to deal with losing him but not being able to tell him how much I loved him and say good bye. I came home, still crazy with grief, and began a novel. In my story, a young woman gets to say good bye to her father before he died. The moment I wrote that scene was cathartic. It was as if I did tell Dad good bye.
Before my mom passed, I was there with her and got to tell her how much she meant to me.
My sister later wrote me a note to say how proud my mom and dad were of my writing.
It saved me.
I have neared the mouth of madness. I have sat on the tongue of crazy.
And it’s all because I’m working on getting it right. Taking those extra steps to make sure my writing is the best it can be to quote the Army slogan.
This work entails printing out the manuscript, not once, but twice, sometimes three times because reading the print version helps me catch stuff I can’t always see staring into a computer. This also helps me find when I have used a phrase or word over and over.
This means going through and getting rid of adverbs, and declaring war on passive and vague words like there, was, am, it, must, could, and try, among others.
Reading the story for content problems, such as closing gaping holes in plot and that your characters stay in character. Making sure the theme is consistent and your symbolism isn’t overt. Ramping up the conflict in each scene, be it emotional or action. Searching for clichés. Being on the lookout for the times I have changed the name of my characters in midstream (Come on, haven’t you done that?)
Let your critique partners have a go at your work to suggest improvements and what you did right.
One other thing I do is beat back the impetuous urge to send out my first and second draft because I think the work is done. It isn’t. Maybe geniuses will have the perfect novel after two passes. I can’t.
Despite the craziness of rewrites, the more you work on your piece the better it becomes. That makes the madness worth it.
I am a short Latina writer, but when I get in the grip of that old devil envy I wish I was a tall blonde–a tall blonde named J.K. Rowling.
Those are the days I long to be someone with a New York Times Bestseller or with a novel optioned for a movie to be directed by Ridley Scott. I am jealous of those with books in the heavens — the top 100 of Amazon.com.
Or I wonder about how the heck a particularly book has sold so many copies when it sucked.
This is writers envy and you are a better person than me if you have never suffered from it.
When that little devil grabs my ankles, it fills me up with crippling self-doubt and makes me not want to write anymore. It makes me say “what the heck am I knocking myself out for?”
So what happens when that I’m in the grips of writers envy?
I write and write some more. Because as bad as that devil envy makes me feel, not writing makes me fill worse.
I realize that although I can’t write about boy wizards, that I can write about other things, that my voice is unique as are my stories.
Yes my royalities are not in the same hemisphere as those big guys. I mean, come on, few of us have those. But I am grateful for what I have and that I have more stories to tell.