Category Archives: Paige Duke

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.

 

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.

How a Victorian Engineer Inspired My Protagonist

I should have known by his name that this man would be the larger-than-life figure I needed as inspiration for my protagonist. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You’re destined for greatness with a name like that. And I needed some real-world greatness to help me lay a foundation for my protagonist. In my previous post, “Research: An Antidote for Writers Block,” I wrote about using research to solve some of the structural problems in the world of my fantasy novel. I scoured the Internet for notable figures from the Victorian Era and stumbled onto Brunel. I had found my man: an influential engineer whose name, work, and character lived far beyond the reach of his natural lifetime. Not only did he create some of the most innovative and memorable structures of the Victorian Industrial Age, but he stood out among his contemporaries as a person of tireless vision and ambition, even from a young age.

Twenty-one years old. I was still in college . . . changing my major, how about you? What were you doing at twenty-one? This man, I.K. Brunel, was already working as resident engineer on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. Can you imagine?

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

He was working alongside his father, Marc Brunel, a prominent engineer of the time, who had invented a tunneling shield that made building the underwater tunnel possible. It was the first of its kind and, at its opening in 1843, it was named the Eighth Wonder of the World. But the road to success wasn’t always glorious—the tunnel flooded during the third year of construction, and six of the crew were killed; Brunel barely survived when his assistant pulled his unconscious body from the water. It wouldn’t be the last time Brunel found himself in a tough spot.

From there, he worked on the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge. Like the Thames Tunnel, it was a record breaker—the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built. Brunel, then twenty-three years old, submitted one design after another and found himself battling the design put up by Thomas Telford, a well-known engineer in his seventies and the chair of the Clifton committee. But in the end Brunel won the commission. As if that David-and-Goliath-scale victory weren’t enough, he gained more notoriety with his next stunt. During construction, someone had the brilliant idea to string up a 1,000-foot iron bar that would carry a basket back and forth to bring supplies across the chasm. And guess who volunteered to test it? Yep, Brunel—he climbed into the basket and set off across the gorge, and it was going well . . . until the rope snagged. So he climbed out and freed it so he could get across. He was stranded, what else could he do, right? Needless to say, people took notice.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

So you can imagine by now what kind of man we’re talking about. Now think bigger, much bigger. As in Titanic. Before the infamous steamship was a twinkle in Thomas Andrews’ eye, I.K. Brunel was dreaming of The Great Western. He was convinced he could carry a passenger across the Atlantic by steam power—not so remarkable to a twenty-first century mind, but at the time it had never been done and . . . Brunel had never before designed a ship. Though he was opposed, ridiculed, and badly burned during construction, he saw the ship completed and arriving in New York from London in 1838. Oh and, by the way, it was the longest ship in the world.

SS Great Western (public domain)

SS Great Western (public domain)

The rest of Brunel’s life followed a similar trajectory of one innovative project after another. And it was this more than anything that drew me to him as a character of history: he was a man with astounding imagination, who broke through the boundaries of the known world, and the challenges of his own life, to pioneer a way into the future as we know it. I relied on details from Brunel’s life—engineering competitions, the setup of a drafting office, techniques of shipbuilding—to help construct my protagonist’s life and work, though the challenges he faces are of a more fantastical nature. Still, he has the heartbeat of men like Brunel: ambitious, visionary, groundbreaking. After all, it’s what makes us love them and root for them no matter where we find them.

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

How about you? Where did the ideas for your characters or other narrative elements come from? Did you look into history to find inspiration or another place entirely?

 

– Paige Duke

Research: An Antidote for Writer’s Block

The dreaded curse of every writer—writer’s block! Though definitions of the term vary and its actual existence is at times hotly debated, the writing community agrees at some level that sometimes a writer is just plain stuck. Your stream of inspiration has run dry, your once-nimble fingers have grown rigid and unwieldy, the solid road along which your characters were walking has become obscured and hazy. So, what do you do?

Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike.

Berate yourself for losing your mojo.

Beg, bribe, and cajole your muse.

Fake it ‘til you make it.

Well, there are many positive ways of pushing through that rough patch that, for the sake of this post we’ll call writer’s block, but there’s one in particular that’s been immensely helpful for me. When I begin to feel uninspired, unsure, or just totally lost, I often turn to research for help. I know, that sounds boring and academic and not-at-all-inspiring. But stay with me, I’ll give you an example by way of explanation.

My novel is set in a Victorian-inspired fantasy world. Early in the process, I envisioned my protagonist and his love interest meeting in a library where he worked and she visited often (because what’s more romantic than the dusty, silent stacks, right? *sarcasm*) Anyway, I kept bumping into one wall after another until I was at a complete standstill. I just couldn’t see a way forward for these characters. I couldn’t find the right pieces of their backstory that led them to this place in time. In short, it was an unsustainable idea, propped up on a very shaky scaffolding.

And so I went back to the drawing board and did some research. I tried to find out what kinds of employment were available for men of the age and station of my protagonist in historical Victorian society. What educational background usually led up to those positions? Were they available in rural or urban areas? You get the idea. To my surprise and relief, my protagonist’s past, present, and (a portion of his) future magically opened up to me, because . . . drumroll . . . I suddenly KNEW what the possibilities were for a person like him. (The old adage “Write what you know,” turns out to be true in its most literal sense.)

Let me add a caveat: in fiction, fantasy especially, we have the privilege and responsibility of making stuff up!! At times, that’s an ingenious way of getting out of a tough narrative spot. But there are many times when the problem is that you can’t write your way forward in a story simply because you don’t know what is possible or likely or available to your characters. In this sense, knowledge truly is power.

This tool works in so many ways, both big and small, across genre lines and in all kinds of settings. A tiny seed of an idea is sometimes all you need for the character or the city or that piece of authentic dialog to open up for you. And in the age of the Internet, all the knowledge you could ever need is available at your fingertips. So dig deep, get creative, and put on your research cap. Before you know it, you’ll breeze right past that block that was looming so large in your view; it’ll look no bigger than a pebble as you pass by.

 

How has research helped you overcome writer’s block? What other tools do you use to confront similar challenges in your writing process?

 

-Paige Duke

New Writers: Go to Conference!

When I first started writing, I was writing alone. I worked on my novel in my free time, I researched on my own, I sought out resources to help grow my craft, I kept my work to myself. Then I joined a local writers’ workshop and my whole writing life changed. I started sharing my stories with others—I read out loud (this introvert’s worst nightmare) for feedback—and I took the critique to heart. I met other wonderful and talented writers, I heard about local author events. In short, I wasn’t writing alone anymore. And that felt amazing.

Then I learned about the group’s annual writers’ conference, DFWCon. So I went, and my writing life changed again. Next to joining a writers’ critique group, attending conference is the BEST thing I’ve done for myself as a writer. So, here goes. A few ways a writers’ conference can take your writing and publishing journey (at whatever stage of writing you are, but particularly if you’re a beginner) to the next level:

  • Expand your community. Attending conference expanded my sense of the writing community and my place in it, even more than joining the workshop did. I learned how to come out of my shell and introduce myself to perfect strangers (who happen to be perfectly friendly fellow writers). We talked about our books, where we are in the writing process, what our publishing goals are. We swapped business cards and I followed them on social media and their blogs, and many did the same for me. I still follow them all year long, celebrating and sharing their successes, commiserating with them about their setbacks. It was a wonderful and unexpected part of my writing journey. Now I know I’m not alone, and you don’t have to be either!
  • Fuel your creative writer brain and boost your motivation. Conference is like summer camp on steroids. You get together with a bunch of people who are passionate about the same things you are, and you talk about that stuff all weekend long. You learn new tips and tricks, you’re exposed to new perspectives, and you get ideas about how to use them to improve your own writing. By the time I leave conference, I want to dive headfirst back into my current WIP or write something new altogether.
  • Meet industry experts and publishing professionals. One of the most exciting features of conference is that keynote speakers, agents, and editors attend specifically for YOU. That’s right, notable figures in the industry come to conference to share their insight, inspiration, and success stories with you. Agents and editors from some of the most well-connected literary agencies are there to meet with you in one-on-one pitch sessions to talk about your book. They’re looking for new clients and it’s your chance to make them fall in love with your story. Even if you don’t have a finished manuscript, you can often sign up for a consultation with an agent or editor. I’ve had two such meetings and both ended with invitations to query once my manuscript was finished. You can imagine I walked away feeling great about my prospects and fired up to work hard on my revisions.
  • Start a platform. Do you know what author platform is? If so, you’re ahead of where I was as an new writer. I’d only heard the term once when I attended my first writers’ conference, but by the end of the weekend, I not only knew what it was, but how to take steps to build one even before I was published. In the contemporary publishing world, authors are expected to share responsibility for promoting their books and building a strong readership. And, lucky for you, conference is a great place to learn how!
  • Learn about industry trends and expectations. I had some understanding of the publishing world before I went to conference, but hearing from agents in class and during critique widened my view. Do you know what agents look for in a query letter? Do you know how to research agents before you query them? There were a lot of little nuances about this and other aspects of the business I didn’t know before I went to conference. Now I feel confident that when it’s time to query agents about my novel, I can handle it like a pro.
  • Grow your craft. Personally, this is the number one reason I go to conference. Every class I take gives me insight into new ways to grow my writing. Every person I meet challenges me to push myself as an artist. Every agent and speaker I visit with inspires and encourages me that I do have a future in this industry if I keep working hard, staying positive, making connections, and—most of all—doing the hard, day-in-day-out work of putting pen to paper (or, rather, fingers to keys).

 

Have you attended a writers’ conference? I want to hear about it! Are you considering it, but you still have reservations or questions? Leave a comment and we’ll talk.

Wanderlust

It’s such an evocative word, isn’t it? Wanderlust. It sounds so perfectly like it’s meaning that we don’t bother with an English equivalent.

I first learned of wanderlust when I lived in Austria and spoke German as a child. Though we moved back to the U.S. when I was seven, my kinship to the word has always felt stronger for that connection. Modern German usage actually tends away from the word wanderlust when talking about desire for travel, in favor of the word Fernweh. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but I love the translation: “Farsickness.” Farsickness! As in, the antonym to homesickness (Heimweh).

There are moments in my memory that are so fraught with this Fernweh—the longing, the ache, the sheer need to get away into some faraway, unexplored place—that to think of them stirs the feeling in me all over again. With summer so close, I’ve found myself daydreaming of my precious few days of vacation. And as I’ve been listening to Wild (Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail) on my way into the office, I keep fantasizing about quitting my job and taking a hiking trip of my own. I’m forever asking myself, a little impatiently: What is at the root of this compulsion?

To escape the mundane, to explore the unknown, to discover, to uncover secrets. It’s the what, but not the why.

I find, too, that it’s the same feeling driving me to sit and write. I need to know what happens to my characters, I have to get inside their world, explore it, see it for myself, know what it feels like and why. And not just the physical world, but the emotional landscape too. Why is she throwing her life away for a cause she knows is hopeless? Why is he willing to trade family loyalty for a fleeting chance at success? How do they muster such bravery in the face of overwhelmingly bleak odds?

I can feel the seed of an answer when I sit still long enough with the why of it all: Is it possible that I’m trying to plumb the depths of my own spirit? Maybe in exploring the unseen corners of this untamed planet that is my home, and uncovering the hidden motives of my characters’ hearts, I’ll somehow glimpse more deeply inside the hazy, illusive mystery of my own Self.

I think that’s the long way around to answering the question, “Why do you write?”

 

I’ve scrawled Beethoven’s words on the inside of my writing notebook and I linger over them every time I open to a clean page:

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”

 

Are you an adventurer at heart? How does wanderlust manifest itself in your life or your art?

 

–Paige Duke