Monthly Archives: September 2014

How to stop using clichés in fiction

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Cut clichés. That’s an early lesson we writers learn, and for good reason. Clichéd phrases cheapen our writing. They may be helpful in everyday speech, so instantly recognizable that they’re like the traffic signs of language. But it’s precisely because they’re so glaring that they are toxic to the written word: they are trite, overused, unoriginal. If watching out for clichés is on your revision checklist, it’s easy enough to spot them:

  • Better late than never
  • A clean slate
  • Down and out
  • Icing on the cake
  • Keep an eye on
  • Live and learn
  • On the tip of my tongue
  • Too good to be true

Just to name a few. (If they’re not on your revision checklist, now might be a good time to add that. There’s no time like the present.) I don’t want to give the impression that you should never, under any circumstances, include a cliché in your writing. They do have a place when used intentionally. If you’re trying to achieve a certain tone or voice in a piece, cliché’s can help you do that. Used in character dialogue, clichés can give readers a strong sense of personality or setting. But reading a story riddled with unintentional clichés can quickly start to feel cheap and unsatisfying.

But clichéd phrases aren’t the only kinds of cliché that can sneak into our writing. What about stereotypes, overused tropes, and outworn genre conventions? Have you read a book’s back cover and promptly reshelved it, thinking, “Oh, I’ve read that before”? It’s this type of cliché that I want to focus on because it’s so easy to find them slipping into our stories. I wrote a short story not long ago, revised it a few times, and still found myself frustrated by how blasé it felt. So, trying to get a fresh perspective, I submitted it to my writing group for critique. They pointed out that one of my main characters was a pretty blatant stereotype, and they were right! He was right there under my nose It was obvious, but I couldn’t see it.

So, when we do find these in our writing, what can we do about them? One technique I’ve found incredibly helpful is to employ nuance. Stereotypes, like clichéd phrases, exist for a reason—because they’re almost accurate, they reflect a type of person or experience in the real world. But the inaccuracy of a stereotype lies in its rejection of nuance. So, yes there are ditzy cheerleaders and dumb jocks and nerdy gamers and soccer moms and workaholics . . . but what if you don’t have to chuck them out completely? What if they’re variations on a theme? Maybe your ditzy cheerleader was raised by a single dad and can change her own oil and fix a flat tire without calling her boyfriend. Maybe your nerdy gamer comes from a long line of famous chefs, so he can make a flawless six course French meal. Can you see the possibilities? Add an extra trait, another dimension, and you can see new avenues opening up or old ones rewriting themselves. To get to that place, though, of thinking differently about your characters and storylines, teasing out the possibilities is often the next step. One way is to ask yourself questions to get the ideas flowing. See if any of the following questions help you think a little more deeply about stereotypical characters or overused plot lines:

  • What else?
    • What else is possible for this character?
    • What else is in their past that makes them unique?
    • What else might they like or believe or long for that would make them more complex or that might explain their behavior?
  • What am I overlooking?
    • What is at this character’s deepest psyche that I’m not seeing?
    • What is he or she most afraid of?
    • What is this character’s greatest wish/highest ambition?
  • What’s unexpected?
    • What could happen to this character that would shake him to his core?
    • What thing, if she lost it, would completely transform this character’s life?
    • How can this character’s problem be heightened even more/what would push it to the next level?

If you’ve done this revision work already and had no success, then maybe it’s just time to start over. Sometimes that’s the best thing, but it’s worth the creative exercise to try fiddling with it first.

This is the hard work of writing and revising, right? It’s easy to be attached to our characters and storylines as they are and just ignore that nagging feeling when they’re too easy or too obvious or whatever it is that’s making them cliché. But that doesn’t serve our efforts to be strong writers or to thrill and enlighten our readers. There’s a phrase in yoga that I think is useful to the writing craft too: “Play your edge.” In any given yoga pose, that means you come to the absolute edge of what you can do in that moment, and then you hold the pose, grow in that space, rise to a new level of strength and flexibility.

 

How can you play to your edge in your work-in-progress or in a self-identified weakness in your craft? What other techniques have you used to work through clichéd prose or story problems?

-Paige Duke

Flash Fiction Friday

920 by scheinbar, deviantART

Originals

by Paige Duke

The tall man in the fedora walked brusquely through the library’s lobby, unaware that every eye turned to follow his progress. He had become accustomed to being watched because, well, shifters weren’t usually hired to impersonate normal people. But it wasn’t that. He was still thinking about what he’d seen. About the knife in Mr. Calvert’s desk drawer and how he just wanted to be holding his box of originals in hand as soon as possible. He hadn’t meant to go snooping, it was a rule he upheld at all times. No snooping into clients’ private business. That was the quickest way to get into trouble in this line of work. He’d only meant to find some paper to take down a note from Mr. Calvert’s secretary, and there it was. The thing was lying in the desk drawer, covered in blood, sealed in a sandwich baggie. It was a miracle he’d managed to get the secretary’s note down at all after that little shock.

So he’d made some excuse and got out of there fast. That was the second biggest rule: Don’t run out on the job. But he thought this might be an exception. Dean wasn’t squeamish. He had been willing to look the other way, that was practically part of the job description. You didn’t hire a shifter unless you were into something on the side, it was always shady. But Calvert’s desk was like a crime scene now or something. He’d called to tell Mr. Calvert he was terminating the job early. Had redialed so many times he’d lost count. Why won’t he pick up?

Dean was sweating, he realized as he stood in line at the front desk. He prayed the two people in front of him would be quick. Usually he didn’t mind shifting. It was fun—being someone else for a few days, driving nice cars, flirting with beautiful women, stuff like that. But this was crossing the line. He was not gonna let the likes of Mr. Neil Calvert III get him caught up in something illegal.

The thought made him go cold. No, he had done that to himself already. He was underage. He was only trying to stash some money away for college, but the courts wouldn’t care about that. He was shifting illegally.

Oh my god.

If I get caught, I am in the shit.

Hurry up!! He pleaded under his breath. Miraculously, it worked. The person at the front of the line stepped away from the counter. Only one guy left, then Dean would just get his originals and go.

Most of his colleagues kept their originals, as they called it in the business—clothes, keys, wallet, ID, the usual effects along with their DNA pills—at banks or other high-security companies that dealt exclusively with shifters. But, as Dean was trying to keep his operation under the radar, he’d had to go with something less institutionalized. The local library rented out lockers for community members and guaranteed they were vigilant about security. It seemed suddenly ridiculous, irresponsible, he felt so exposed—keeping his originals in the library!

Dean forced himself to calm down, to be reasonable. John Malcolm has the only spare key. It’s alright, you’ll be back in your own skin in no time. Yeah, he was being ridiculous. He would hand John his key, the man would go back to the lockers, return with his box as usual, he’d make a quick trip to the bathroom to shift back, and he’d be out of there. Home free.

The man in front of him moved, and the scene played out just as Dean had seen it in his mind, as he had done it hundreds of times before.

But in the quiet of the bathroom stall, as Dean was finally calming down, lifting the lid to his box of originals, he began to shake.

The box was empty.

The Dark Witch’s Dagger

by Dani Nicole

17 was the worst one.

50 was better.

When I got to 100 I stopped feeling the pain. But it came back at 200.

920… 920 lashes. 920 piercing cries. 920 fingers breaking and forging again. 920 times my body will be taken apart by the Dark Witch, and 920 times it will be put back together again.

She hovers over me, her face delicate and pale. I wonder how it would bleed. Would her blood be the same violet hue as mine? Or would it be something wretched and ugly as her heart?

She cursed me to this, and oh… the things I would do to her… as she –

901.

That one stung. It was a lash. She likes those. The sound of the whip on my bare skin, the crack of flesh, the oozing blood. She delights in it. She chuckles, giggles, with a hint of mania bubbling beneath the surface.

905.

My curiosity peaks as we get closer to the final number, but 906 feels like I’m dying. She breaks four of my left fingers. They shrivel, turn gray. Then I breathe life into them and they heal, the bones poking the tender flesh, the nails piercing beneath cuticles.

Do this, let her do this, and you will get yours on 920.

As she cuts my arm with a blade, number 914, I wonder if the words I hear chanted in my mind are just false hope. What if this prison of torture is my permanent home? What if I’m not even alive?

917 is more lashes.

918 is a broken shin.

919 is the sound of my mother’s voice when the Dark Witch murdered her. Her screams fill the cavern. The chains which bind my wrists and ankles quiver. Or maybe it is me. Shaking with the fury of 919 strikes, cuts, broken bones. 919 moments of pain.

She circles me once, looks into my eyes. “Let me try something special. Something to change things up. I’ve lost count by now, but it seems as though I’ve been doing the same thing… over and over… and yes, how I’d love to see a new look of pain on that pretty face.”

She takes her dagger from the stool, places it near my heart. “For someone so indestructible as you, I wonder if a blade to the heart would finally bring you down. You see… you see at first,” she laughs “at first it was just a game! The look of pain on your face was just too much fun. And the way you reacted to your mother’s screams… oh yes, you gave me quite the show. But now…” she yawns, “now I grow tired.” She grips the knife, presses it against my skin. “Now it’s time to end this.”

She smiles, her teeth perfect and white, then drives the knife into my heart.

Pain rips through my body, cuts me in half. I fight to sew my sides together, to keep my soul rooted in my being as it begs to drift elsewhere. When she removes the dagger, the hilt starts to glow violet – the color of my blood.

A voice fills the room, this time not my mother’s. The same voice that’s chanted in my mind all this time. And in the moment of the Dark Witch’s greed, the one she captures will be freed. The victim’s blood will pay the price, the Dark Witch shall end her gruesome fight.

The purple swirls up the hilt, onto the Dark Witch’s hands. It stains her skin and sears into it, causing smoke and the smell of burning flesh to permeate the air. It spots her skin in hundreds of places, until she falls to the ground writhing.

The knife she holds turns on her, and drives itself into her heart.

As the sizzling stops, the smoke fades, the chains around my hands break. I walk over to her, tapping her body with my shoe, but she falls limp, the dagger still stuck in her heart.

Number 920.

 

The Frenzy, The Insanity, The Insomnia

Image from unwire.com.

Image from unwire.com.

Sometimes passion is a good thing. Like when you’re reciting vows to your future spouse or holding your newborn for the first time. And yes, even when you want to write a book.

Passion is beneficial most of the time. It keeps you doing what you love without any recognition, without any compensation, and without any definite payoff. It enables you to do what you love for free because that’s the only thing you’d do for free. You do it without any real promise of a future, because you believe in yourself enough to make the future.

But what passion really boils down to in my life, is going freaking insane. It’ll happen to you if you’re the creative type – you just wait. You’ll be out having drinks with your friends, maybe even a significant other, and all of the sudden the most awesome plot twist ever will pop into your head, and you’ll be so frazzled that you won’t even know where you are, what day it is, and what you’re drinking. You’ll have to go to the bathroom just so no one sees you scribbling notes on your phone in a frenzy, like your life depends on it. Or you might entrust Siri with the task and use the voice texting option. But you’ll end up with numerous typos. Instead of “skilled man” you might get, “are you still a man?”

And a few minutes later, maybe 30, you’ll walk out with a smile on your face and a compulsory itch to write more. Don’t worry, your friends will just think you’re drunk.

You might forget about it for a second over your Mai Tai, but God forbid you want to sleep. The minute your head touches your pillow you’ll be thinking of that plot twist again. But you’ll think of more than that. You’ll think of how that plot twist changes the whole story line, changes your character arc, and how basically, you’re not even writing the same book.

So you’ll go to bed at like 5 a.m. to wake up at 7 a.m. and go to work like a zombie, and everyone will just think you’ve been out drinking too much. Little do they know.

You’ll promise yourself that you’ll sleep the next night, because that night you’ll have to. But when your head touches the pillow again, your book will find you. In your sleep. It will hunt you down and try to kill you.

Because writing a book means becoming a slave to it. It’s hard to keep your head above water when your passion is pulling you under. And as much as writers like to complain, it’s a beautiful kind of misery.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

-Dani Nicole

 

Does your craft keep you up at night? Share below by adding a comment!

Flash Fiction Friday

br, deviantART by DelilahWoolf

br, deviantART by DelilahWoolf

Counting

by Paige Duke

Ten cherry red fingernails.
Two bruised knees.
Twelve succulents in a crate.

My finger halts its counting, resting above the prickly bunch . . . succulent. That’s a word used somewhere else, isn’t it? A succulent roast, maybe. The two ideas stand together in my mind, totally incongruous. So absurd—the roast and tiny cactus sprouting stick-figure arms and clasping hands in my mind—that I can’t stop giggling.
I bury my face in my elbows until it passes, I don’t want anyone to find me and spoil the whole thing, my five minutes of privacy, this glorious and rare distraction.

Four pristine white walls (painted last week).
Six tall windows.
Eight zigzag boot prints (Mom’s rain boots) across the slat wood floor.
Mom . . . in my mind I see her out in the rain yesterday, drenched, but still insisting on the boots. She can’t have kept an inch dry, the way it was coming down. I count to cope; Mom plants. Despite the fact that everything she puts in the ground dies shortly thereafter. It’s something of a joke—has to be, I suppose, otherwise it’s just too sad. Too ironic.

Three orphaned shoes no one ever bothers to toss out.
Two towering stacks of books, Dad’s overflow.
I squeeze back tears—for the first time today, that has to be a record. It’s just that overflow . . . it’s so opposite of everything DAD right now. I count; Mom plants; Dad stares. Sits and stares, where he used to sit and read. Where can a mind go for so many hours? Nowhere good. To blame or darkness or self-loathing, surely. Wherever it is, it’s not here.

Two identical frog umbrellas for two identical boys.
The twins, a godsend of noise and busyness, the forgivable interruption to our collective grief. They force us to be normal again in a million everyday ways. And break our hearts in the same breath because they can’t understand, will never know who they’ve lost.

I search the room—this mudroom, the time capsule of our house—for anything else. But I’ve counted everything already, everything but one.

One growth chart, its six penciled names glaring, conspicuous for the truth that we are now only five without Michael.
Michael. Our light, our miracle. The boy who was supposed to die but who lived seven years, seven years of borrowed time.

But death forgives no debts.