5 Reasons Why New Authors Should Use Clichés

I started writing fiction when I was about fifteen years old. It was 1988, Margaret Thatcher appeared an unstoppable force in the UK, and The Smiths were a popular band. It was misery in politics and misery in the charts. And writing, for me, was an escape.

That’s the clichéd start to how many of these blogs start, isn’t it? “I wrote as an escape.”  And for those people who say that they wrote – write – to escape, it remains true. It’s a truth repeated so often that it has become a cliché, albeit one we allow to continue existing, because we don’t want to take anything away from people’s feelings.

Fine.

But if you read writing blogs that aim to help new authors, you’d be forgiven for thinking that clichés are verboten, that they’re forbidden in all creative writing endeavour. And I think this is wrong. If we’re allowed to start writing for the same reason – it was an escape – then why can’t we write clichéd things?

Below, I argue that we can, and indeed should, write in clichés. This argument is very much aimed at people new to fiction writing, to help cut through the confusing ‘rules’ on other blogs.

Reason #1 – The 7 Basic Storylines

There are seven basic plots that underpin all stories, or so argues Christopher Booker in his seminal work The Seven Basic Plots. (You should buy this book.)

These plots are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster;
  2. Rags to Riches;
  3. the Quest;
  4. Voyage and Return;
  5. Comedy;
  6. Tragedy;
  7. Rebirth

Often these plots are combined, such that we might have a Voyage and Return, like Jason & the Argonauts, in which the hero must also Overcome the Monster.

I won’t describe the basic plot types, but the point here is simple: if we can boil all plots down into one of these basic seven types, with a dash of another thrown in depending on the cocktail presented to the reader, then we are quickly bound to clichés anyway.

“A-ha!” you argue, “but if there are only seven basic plots, then shouldn’t we do our best to escape cliché elsewhere?”

Not yet, dear new author. Not yet. Otherwise there’d be no blog for me to write! But let us ignore that inconvenient truth, and explore reason to cliché #2.

Reason #2 – Wriggle, Wiggle, Crawl, Walk, Run, and Fly

Imagine this: you’re a new mother or a new father. There’s your baby just days old. Her or his little fingers wiggle in your hand, their chubby knees squirm at your tickle and their delicate feet are too cute for words. Now, carefully put the baby on the floor in your home, stand back, and say:

“Baby of mine, I want you to stand up right now, walk to the door, run to the nearest airport, buy a plane ticket, hop on the plane and go travelling!”

What do you mean it’s just a baby and it’s impossible? Tell it to fly immediately, damn it!

You get the point. New authors are like new babies. You’re perfect in every one of your toes and fingers, and each of your letters and words on the page is lovely and cute. But like that baby, you need to practice the basics first.

We don’t look at a baby and say, “Oh god, it’s so clichéd, crawling. Come on, little bubba, innovate a different way to strengthen your legs.”

No, we encourage them to wriggle and wiggle. We help them stand until they can stand on their own. We help them to walk by holding their hands, until they can manage their first few steps unaided.

And that’s how it should be when we’re learning to write. Practice the basics first. And that means practicing the clichés. For example:

Develop a simple love story.

Write a story about going into a cave and fighting a monster.

Craft a tale of a hero who is too flawed, and becomes a victim of his flaws and loses everything.

Write in clichés, and write them until you’ve mastered them. Be good at crawling to build leg strength. Be good at walking and upright balance before you start to run. Write in as many clichés as you can, until you can churn them out without even thinking about it. And then think about flying.

Reason #3 – Clichés Have Power

Here’s a few basic plots and characters. See what you think about them:

1. A woman treated like dirt by most of society is noticed by a rich and handsome man. He takes a fancy to her, and rescues her from the poor life she leads. She lives happily ever after.

It’s a cliché, right? And yet Cinderella is famous the world over, and Pretty Woman is one of the most famous films ever made. Why? Because the clichéd story of someone in a low position being rescued by someone in a high position appeals to us. It gives us hope that maybe we, too, can be rescued. Or if not us, then someone just like us.

2. A dark power has cast a blight on society. A small group of apparently weak and insignificant people travel into the heart of the dark power and overcome it. Society is saved.

Another cliché. Like the first example above, it’s one of the basic plots. But we recognise the power in it. The power of the story speaks to us. What did you think this plot was from? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Krull? These are powerful films because they’re clichés, not in spite of them.

Notice where the power lies in these clichés. It’s in their simplicity. Knowing our clichés, mastering their forms, and then using that mastery to unleash the power in the story is what gives us the grounding we need to become competent, good authors.

Reason #4 – Even Famous Authors Aren’t Above A Cliché Now & Again

What’s that? Famous authors use clichés? Yes, and they get away with it, too.

The question, of course, is why do they get away with it? Is it because they’re famous that we’ll forgive them anything?

No. I’d argue it’s because they’ve practised their writing so much, have mastered the basic forms so much, that they have a damn good sense of when to use a cliché. Because the point isn’t that we master a cliché so we can step away from it. Rather, we master clichés so we know when to use them for maximum impact.

Here’s an example from one of my favourite authors:

“[their] eyeballs moved no more than necessary, as with animals on the hunt.” – 1Q84, Haruki Murakami

Is that an innovative way to describe something? Is it beautiful description? Does it soar with beauty? Or colour synaesthetically our emotions? Not particularly. It’s the kind of description we’d find in a thousand books, from the wonderfully written to the absolutely atrocious.

But it doesn’t matter. It may be a clichéd line , but it’s the context in which it’s placed that makes it stand out: two men are in a bar appraising two women. These are men on the prowl, but within the story, so are the women. And it is the women in this scene who have the power. Haruki Murakami is so practised with clichés, that he can deploy them in a way that makes them effective: here stoking the appearance that the men have the power, when we know it’s actually the women. Mastery of the form, “men looking for women are like hunters looking for prey” is what gives him the ability to use it to better effect.

The point is that you can’t innovate or twist a cliché until you know how to use it properly. And to use it properly, you have to use it improperly first. Write in clichés until you’re sick of them and can spot the approaching from a mile off. And then push yourself to use them in an unexpected way.

Reason #5 – The More Creative the Writing, the More It Distracts

I’m falling back on the great Elmore Leonard here. Here are two of his 10 Rules of Writing which he outlined in a New York Times article [source]

  1.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  2.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

Now, what’s the cliché here? For new writers who are still practising their craft, and who are trying to build their creative writing muscles, one of the most common instructions is this: “Try to find interesting ways of to allow characters to express themselves.” So you’d think that using “… she said,” is bad, and we should write things like, “…she screamed,” or “…he whispered,” or as Elmore says, “…he admonished gravely,” and so on.

Elmore is telling us that in fact we should stick with the clichéd, “…she said.” Why? Because the power of the dialogue should come through how it’s written, punctuated, and the surrounding build up and atmosphere. It’s a cliché to just use “…said”. But that simple form isn’t is a barrier to the characters properly expressing themselves in the narrative. Flowery description (he admonished gravely) is a barrier and distracts from the story and the characters’ emotions.

(And when you feel you’re practised enough with using “…she said,” try dropping it altogether and just putting the speech in, without attribution to a character.)

Of course, Elmore Leonard also said, “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” and he was absolutely right.It’s not they’re clichéd, though. It’s that they’re just awful.

 

So, there are 5 reasons to use clichés. The blog was aimed at authors still exercising and building their writing muscles. And to them I will always say: use as many clichés as you need to. Master the basic forms and basic approaches to writing, like Daniel in Karate Kid mastered his basic moves in slow motion: first wax on, wax off, and then wax lyrical.

Oh, and that reason I gave at the start about why I started writing? It wasn’t true, it was a cliché and it also gave me a reason to say that The Smiths are rubbish and get away with it. And do you know what? I think I got away with it, too.

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Writing updates 30 May 2013

A quick update on my various writing projects.

Planetfall book 2

I written around 100,000 words in the sequel to Planetfall: All Fall Down, which is called Children of Fall. Writing has gone very well, and I know from feedback from my writing group and from my own sense of my writing that it’s a more mature and better written work. This is good, and I’m happy.

Despite being at the 100,000 word mark, the novel is only halfway through.  Full length books are supposed to weigh in between 70,000-100,000 words. This means I’ve written a full length novel in word length alone, and I guess it equates to having finished my 3rd novel. Except.

Except this book really is only halfway through. It’s a concept double album of a book. It will eventually be somewhere between 170,000 and 200,000 words. And this leads me to consider something: do I release it in two parts? I won’t go to agents with this book, as the first book is self-published, which pretty much means the rest of the series won’t get picked up.

I’ve got a while to think about this, though, as I’ve put the book on ice for 6 months.

Book 1, by the way, has now been downloaded or sold in physical paperback about 310 copies. I get good feedback for it from complete strangers.

Backpackers

Backpackers has been available as an ebook and in paperback for just over a month now. It is selling terribly – I think I’ve shifted about 8 copies. This is a shame, because it’s a much more commercial book, and the writing is better than Planetfall: All Fall Down. Backpackers was almost picked up by a couple of agents.

I’ve been trying to have Backpackers reviewed by book review sites run by bloggers. One recently got back to me and said after consideration, having received the book, they’ve decided not to review it. Obviously I’m disappointed, though I understand their editorial policy is to only review books they really feel passionate about, and road journey books aren’t for everybody.

I will continue to seek out book reviewers and blogs to review this. I really believe in the book, and I think it has a readership out there. If I was better at marketing I’d figure out how to bridge that gap. More news as and when.

Secret project

The past 6 weeks I’ve been working on another novel. It’s a sort of horror-comedy-steampunk-political satire affair. I’m not releasing any details until the book is finished. I can say that my writing group have said it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, which is exceptionally gratifying.

The writing is coming very easily for it. I’m at 28,000 words at the moment, and I’m aiming for about 75,000 words, so it’ll be a short book.

Those 28,000 words are currently with two trusted reviewers (outside my writing group). It’s essential that writing is shown to people and feedback is received.

As with all my writing projects, this is a real test and it’s taking me outside my comfort zone. I’ve never written comedy (except for an attempt at a sitcom script last year, which resulted in one and a half pretty good episodes), I’ve never written horror, I’ve never written political satire (though I have done dystopian political writing) and I’ve never tackled steampunk.

This book will also be the first of my books that I will send for professional editing. That’s simply because I’ve saved up £500 for it, whereas Planetfall and Backpackers were finished when I was unemployed.

Other writing

I recently wrote two synopses for other books. One was a political/crime thriller, and the other a Young Adult adventure. Both way outside my comfort zone. Both synopses were intended to be my secret project, but I chose not to progress them. I may publish the synopsis to the Young Adult book in the spirit of sharing and being transparent with my approach to writing.

Buying my work

Well, a plug. If you wish to buy either Planetfall or Backpackers, they’re available in ebook and paperback, from both Amazon and Lulu. Links to both are below, and you’ll find that Lulu is the cheaper option, where ebooks are 90p each. The paperbacks are more expensive than I’d like, but they’re print on demand, and most of the cost goes to the printer.

astrotomato on Amazon

astrotomato on Lulu

That’s it for the moment. As ever, I’d love to hear what others are up to. Until the next blog,

astro

x

Flash fiction as writing exercises

Flash fiction competitions

In whatever we’re working on – a novel, a script, a short story – we often get to points where we’re stuck: maybe it’s a scene we don’t know how to approach, a descriptive passage we need to develop, or a way of demonstrating a relationship as quickly as possible.

I think “flash fiction” is a great way of exercising those writing muscles. Flash fiction is generally taken to mean short stories of less than 1000 words, though many people focus on 500 or even 300 words. There are writing circles on line that have a 50 word limit.

The short nature of the form – less than 2 pages – forces us to concentrate on what’s important, and get to the heart of the story as quickly as possible.

Entering flash fiction competitions is also a great way of ensuring we write regularly, with external deadlines to drive us (if that kind of thing motivates you).

There’s a flash fiction competition currently open on the Ink Tears website, which I would recommend to anyone developing or refining their writing. Here’s the link:

http://www.inktears.com/Inktears/WritersNewWriters2013FF.html

There are cash prizes on this one, with a top prize of £250.

A writing exercise

Below is a piece of flash fiction I worked on last night. It’s not good enough for entry into the competition above (the end is too flat). I used this as a means of establishing a relationship with a strong emotional base very quickly, and to try (however successfully) to turn that relationship very quickly. It’s not wholly successful. In the interests of writing development, I’m happy to share my failures:

No title – flash fiction

“You know how this story ends,” Jez said. He held Sarah’s hands in his and felt her warmth burning into his cold skin.

“No,” she shook her head. Her lower lip thinned and her cheeks turned to jowls. A tear sprang onto a cheek and clung to her skin. A sickly green light refracted inside it and for a moment Jez saw another eye, green, pure, un-jaded by recent events.

“I can’t,” he said, but his voice cracked.

“Please, Jez. Don’t go.” Sarah pawed at his face. There were no tears there. His skin was already so cold, and whatever colour it might once have been, it was now pale as ashes at dawn.

“I’ll love you forever.”

“I love you, too.” Sarah’s voice broke, and they sat in a silence punctuated by the sound of Jez swallowing over a dry throat, and Sarah hiccupping through her tears.

The clock on the wall ticked, each mechanical wobble of the second hand a gunshot in the quiet hospital room.

“Oh,” Jez’s face creased.

“Do you need more pain control?” Sarah started fiddling with an electronic box, out of which snaked a tube which entered Jez’s arm through a dark bruise.

Jez shook his head. He squeezed his eyes and grit his teeth. “S’OK,” he managed.

“Do you remember the night we met?” Sarah said. She had picked up a thermometer and was holding one end of it, watching the mercury slowly rise to her skin temperature. “You were so sweet.”

“Nervous,” Jez closed his eyes agin. A waxy sheen broke on his forehead.

Sarah smiled at the thermometer, “Sweet, too. I remember you knocked over that vase.”

“Soggy quiche. Sorry,” Jez nodded and managed a smile. He opened his eyes. Sarah wasn’t looking at him. Her attention was on something in her hands which she was worrying, a thumb moving up and down.

She shook her head. “I want more,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry. Sorry. Everyone’s sorry.” Sarah put the thermometer back on the bedside table. At her feet was a Bag For Life. She looked inside at its contents’ shadows and obscure lumps. “How’s the pain?”

Jez’s eyes were closed. Sarah glanced quickly at him. She couldn’t bear to see him in pain. His face was creased, but quickly fell into a plain silence.

“Jez?” She kept her eyes on him and leaned down, fishing in the Bag For Life until her hand found what she needed.

Jez’s eyes snapped open. They were pale. His irises were a pale green, like the tear which had so recently sat on Sarah’s cheek.

“I’m sorry,” Sarah said.

Jez’s face, devoid of pain, moved upwards as he tried to rise.

Sarah brought her hand up. She put the gun to his forehead and fired.

Jez’s face exploded onto the crisp white hospital pillow.

“Fucking zombies,” she said. She put the gun away, picked up her Bag For Life, and left the hospital.