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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London Book Fair 2013

This week the London Book Fair takes place in London’s Earl Court exhibition centre. It’s one of the biggest events in the writing calendar for British authors. I went along to find out what it was all about. In this blog I’ll cover What is the London Book Fair?, What resources were there for authors? Why did I go? And What did I get out of it?

What is the London Book Fair?

The London Book Fair is huge. It features 3 days of focussed business around the buying, production, marketing and selling of books. Now, I’m an author, so you’d think there wouldn’t be too much in it for me. What do I know about publishers selling books to distributors? And what interest have I in new grades of ink being sold to printing companies?

That’s exactly what I thought before I went. The London Book Fair isn’t an opportunity to sell books as an author to either fans or agents or publishers, so why go? Why spend £30 and take a day of my annual leave to attend an industry event?

Why did I go?

Before I went, I was unsure about attending, because of the industry focus. But I was encouraged by 3 people:

  • My friend Yvonne, who went last year. Word of mouth and personal endorsement is important for me, especially as it means giving up a day of my annual holiday entitlement. I have to know I’m getting value for money.
  • Lucy Hay of http://www.bang2write.com / @bang2write who told me it was a great way to connect with industry professionals, especially on the side closest to the author.
  • And finally http://www.diymfa.com. Not specifically. Gabriela, who runs the author support website, has been blogging recently about authors acting like authors. That means forgetting about whether our books are published, or even finished, and starting to act as if we’re already part of the industry. After all, if not now, when? Being an author isn’t just about writing words, it’s about doing all the things that authors do: talking about our work, improving our craft, attending industry events and so on.

What resources were there for authors?

This year, the London Book Fair, or LBF as it’s called when you’re there, opened up to the people most vital to the whole industry: authors. After all, we’re the people who create the content in the first place. While wandering around I heard many people – printers, agents, marketing people – commenting that this was the first year that the LBF had properly focussed on authors. So what did we get?

First, there were 250 free seminars. Not all of them were focused on authors – for example, there were seminars on How To Get Into Publishing, on legal issues like Tackling Copyright Infringement or on technical marketing topics like Delivering ePub3 Titles to Support your Direct-to-Consumer Strategy. All very industry focused.

Us authors, on the other hand, got some quite well focused seminars, mostly aimed at self publishing, which was a major theme running through the event. Here’s a sample of the author seminars on day one:

  • Book cover design workshop
  • The author journey
  • How to get a literary agent
  • Ask the editor
  • Book marketing workshop and
  • Self publishing 101

For those new to writing and who aim to publish, there was plenty to keep us involved. Remember, too, that this was only day one. I’m not going to days two or three due to work requirements, but the seminars continue, with topics like:

  • Helping readers discover your books workshop
  • Children’s book editing surgery
  • Key skills for success as a hybrid author
  • The author as entrepreneur
  • Introduction to KDP and CreateSpace (Amazon’s digital and print self-publishing platforms)
  • Making the right choices as a self-publishing author and
  • Super Q&A with industry experts

In amongst all of this are technical seminars for people in the industry and interviews with published authors like Lionel Shriver.

What did I get out of it?

I think I’m only just starting to digest what I got out of it, and no doubt I’ll blog in more detail about some of content as I reflect on it, or start researching. Immediate information for fellow authors:

 

  • The Alliance of Independent Authors

As it says on the tin, this is a support organisation for people who choose to publish independently. The website is here:

http://allianceindependentauthors.org/

The seminar leader took the audience through a coaching session, where we were all asked to write down answers to the following prompts and learning points:

Being an author means taking enormous risks. What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? How did you handle it? How did it turn out?

What’s the biggest risk you need to take with your current writing project?

What are the three issues with your current writing project where you feel most out of your comfort zone? These could be connected with the kind of story or characterisation, or on technical issues like formatting, editing, self publishing, marketing or selling it.

Any self published book actually needs a team of people behind it, and we have to consider ourselves Creative Directors. We can’t do everything. We need to enlist people to help. For example, to proof read, to design a cover, to help with marketing, to copy edit, and so on.

What’s the budget for your book? To get it done properly, rather than chucking any old rubbish onto Kindle, etc., we should probably aim for around £1000. That’s right: even these days where we can self publish for free, we still need to invest in our product to do it properly.

Copy editors are essential and should charge around £20/hr. A typical spend for a book being copy edited starts at £500.

Who is your audience? Where do you find them? How will you get your book to them or in their awareness? You can’t market your book to everyone.

 

  • How to find a literary agent

This was a broad ranging discussion between 2 agents and someone who runs a marketing company aimed at self-published authors. Here are my tweets from the session storified:

http://storify.com/astrotomato/what-agents-are-looking-for-lbf13?utm_campaign=&awesm=sfy.co_r4eG&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter

Apart from the tweets in the Storify link above, agents said:

Chick lit is getting less attention from publishers

Straight vampire stories have passed their current peak

Psychological thrillers continue to sell well and are of interest

Scifi authors should know that military SF, steampunk and cyberpunk are selling well

 

Those are some of the technical things I got out of it. But the real gain comes on the personal level.

Long time followers of my blog may remember the trials of Becoming An Author. What was really great about the book fair was hearing the Alliance of Independent Authors go through all those questions that I’ve already asked myself: take risks, write outside your comfort zone, involve other people in your writing project, and so on. It was validation – maybe even linked into confirmation basis – that I’ve been doing the right things, by and large. I still need to save up £500-£700 to have my books copy edited, but that’s just a finance issue, not because of any resistance on my part.

Hearing authors ask agents questions that were similar to my own experience was also gratifying. I think the one that made my heart leap was this:

If an agent says they loved your book, and you’ve been through some re-writes on it for them, and they ultimately don’t pick you up because they can’t sell it to publishing marketing departments, should you believe them?

This is exactly the experience I’ve been through. “Loved the book, was on a knife edge about picking it up, but can’t sell it to publishers as they’re all asking for 50 Shades of Grey derivatives.” The agents responded thus:

Yes, the agent is telling the truth. We get lots of books that are brilliant, that are worthy of publishing, from excellent writers, where we genuinely can’t sell them because of the marketing departments of publishers.

The agents went on to talk about this in more depth, covering their own frustration with publishers who have become more risk averse and profit focused. There was discussion about the rapidity of self publishing and the sluggishness of the traditional industry to change, and how both needed to learn from the other. Self-publishers need to avoid the temptation to rush to publication, with a suggestion to focus more on improving story quality, design and marketing plans first. While traditional publishing needs to try more new books, across different genres, even if there’s no ‘obvious’ market.

And above all, I got to see the look on other authors’ faces when they listened to the agents. I got to hear the questions they were asking, and mark my own progress as an author against them: ahead of 90% of them, but behind the odd one who had sold more than 500 copies of their books and were making a small income from them.

Would I recommend attending the London Book Fair to other authors? Absolutely. There were some logistical issues that need sorting for next year, giving author events more space and quieter venues, but that aside, any self-respecting author should make a bee-line for the event when it rolls around in 2014.

Writing updates

Good day.

I’m covering a number of different topics in this blogpost: updates on my writing projects, updates on me as an author, updates on applications to agents. And whatever else crosses my mind.

Writing projects updates

  • planetfall

Well, book one is published! I still owe a huge debt to the cover designer @moviessimple.

The feedback has been phenomenal, too, with really good reviews from customers on Twitter, the Facebook page I created for the book, and reviews on Amazon.

The reviews really help: every time I publicise the book with a genuine reader review, it helps sell another copy. Reader feedback is key to growing the buzz around the book. You read this kind of thing from other authors and artists, saying how grateful they feel to their readers or fans, and now I know from their point of view how it feels. I am indebted to the readers who have taken a risk with my book, and who have felt motivated to write a review. Thanks to each and every one of them.

planetfall book 2: Children of Fall is coming along well, when I have time to write (I’m now back in full time employment). I’m up to 70,000 pages, and finding that my early predictions are bearing out: this is going to be a big book. It will come in somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 words. A typical book is around 70,0000-100,000 words long. At the moment I’m not prepared to edit it to fit into a 100,000 word size. The story needs to live and explore its universe. Once I have a full first draft, I’ll see what’s needed and what’s extraneous and kill my darlings appropriately.

The story is getting good feedback from my writing circle, too, and they are nothing if not honestly critical. They’ll rip something to shreds if it’s not up to standard, as well they should. That’s what critique is for.

  • Robocop fanfic

Some longer time readers of my blog might remember that I wrote some fanfic last year while I was unemployed. What was supposed to be a 1000 word piece on Robocop turned into a ~35,000 word novella. It’s still very raw and unfinished, with half developed characters and some plot lines that just fizzle out. I’ve been thinking recently of resurrecting it and finishing it to a reasonable standard (not highly polished) and making it available as a free ebook download. Just for fun, you understand. More news as and when.

Updates on applications to agents

  • Backpackers

Before Christmas I undertook some significant rewrites of Backpackers, following some very positive feedback from agents. I’ve sent it to 23 agents so far. Of those, about 7 sent personal responses saying that they really liked it, but that their agency was listing different kinds of stories at the moment, or that as much as they liked it, they couldn’t see where it fit into the current market.

I met an agent in October last year, who confirmed that if agents give a personal response beyond a standard reply, that it means you’ve got something good.

Emboldened by these responses, I re-wrote part of Backpackers following a lengthy response from one particular agent. The re-writes were to make the story more commercially acceptable. The character Jack Wolf has been boosted from a bit part in one chapter to being one of the two loci of the story (the other being Cath). He now starts and ends the book, and the thrust of the narrative is about him trying to find the backpacker, Cath Pearson.  This meant re-writing the first 2 chapters almost entirely, a later chapter where Cath originally met Jack (now it’s her 2nd time, completely ditching the character John, and re-writing the final chapter.

I remember about two years ago a good friend, whose mother is a successful author, asked me how I would feel if I had to re-write a story to meet market expectations, and move it away from what I wanted it to be. My answer then was the same as my approach to the re-writes: The story I want is on my laptop’s hard drive saved in a previous version. No one can change that or take it away. What happens to it after that, to make it commercially acceptable, doesn’t matter. After all, a piece of writing only becomes a book when it forms a bridge between author and reader. And if the story needs to adapt so it reaches readers, then that’s fine by me.

So where am I now?

I sent the re-written Backpackers back to that most friendly agent. She kindly re-read it and wrote back saying she was still on a knife edge about whether she should pick it up or not. Ultimately, she went with market conditions: there just doesn’t appear to be the demand from sellers (not necessarily readers) for the story type in Backpackers, so she passed on it.

Obviously in one sense, that’s hugely disappointing: to be so close to the next step to publication, only to have it pulled away. But I was struck by her email: “You can write,” she said, “and please immediately send me anything else you write in future.”

I might not have hit the bullseye this time, but I have an open invitation to submit work in future. And that’s ultimately good news.

  • planetfall

Following the really positive response to planetfall from readers, I’m wondering if perhaps the book is a little better than I think it is (it’s my first novel and full of technical problems). So I am having a second round of sending it to agents. I only ever sent it to 10 agents anyway, and perhaps should have persevered a little more. planetfall never got the level of positive response that Backpackers has, but I did get personal emails from agents saying they liked it and that (beware, deja vu alert) that type of story is missing from the current market. Which worked against it, of course, because sellers weren’t looking for those kinds of stories…zzzzzz. Sounds familiar :-/

I have told agents that I’ve already published the book, and have pointed out the marketing I’ve undertaken, and the reader reviews that it’s gained. In that, I think I’ve changed my approach to agents. I am treating the submission query as a business pitch: here is some product, it has some traction with the market, there is a marketing profile around it, it has already sold a few copies. I’m not sure what response that approach will get, but I think it’s worth trying different approaches beyond the “Here’s my book, please like it!”* that I was using in my first round of submissions.  (*not actual text, professional authors, don’t worry.)

Updates on me, the author

You might have noticed the last few blogs having a slight change: confidence. I am no longer someone who writes books, I now consider myself an author. I hadn’t quite conceptualised it that way until I read a recent DIYMFA newsletter.

It’s a subtle shift in thinking to an outside, but I think inside it suggests quite a radical shift.

My self identity now includes an acceptance that I am an author. This is what I am, this is what I do, this is what I will continue to be.

That means that I will prioritise writing before other things, in the same way that for 40+hours per week I have to prioritise work because I am also a sustainable development professional. I love doing that kind of work, it helps make the world a better place and it pays for my food and home. If being an author could do that to a level where I could survive, I would take the chance. (I already took a huge chance in taking redundancy from a well paid job in 2011 so I can write constantly for a year and improve my writing skills. That risk, that chance, paid off. I made it into an opportunity, the fruits of which are outlined above.)

Because I now think of myself as an author, I’ve started thinking of doing things that I never previously considered. For instance, I will be going to the London Book Fair this year. So what? Anyone can go, you pay £30, you attend. But this is different. Previously I’d considered it was for industry professionals only. Now. Now I consider myself an industry professional, and that I deserve to be there. It’s the attitude change that’s important.

I’ve started running promotions as an author for planetfall, too. The recent competition I ran to give away copies of the book was successful, and got me good feedback. People have said they can’t wait for the sequel. There is a sense of expectation on me as an author, which means I need to respond by being an author who delivers.

Creating community

A few blogs ago I said I would write a blog about creating community, and how important it is as an author. I don’t have time to do that at the moment, so in the meantime the best thing I can do is point writers and authors to DIYMFA’s online resources for building community:

http://diymfa.com/category/community

And remember, the best community you can have is joining a writing circle where you regularly take your work and receive critical feedback on it. Re-writing with external feedback is crucial to improving our writing skills and the work we produce.

As ever, I’d love to hear what you’re up to with your writing. You can contact me on Twitter at @astrotomato or by email on astrotomato@gmail.com Just say “Hi astro” if you like.

A bientot,

astro x