Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

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Page One Literary Center

 

More often than not, I find myself having to reject manuscripts due to clichéd writing. Since it’s one of the most common things I see in the slush pile, I thought I’d talk about it so other writers can avoid it.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about occasional clichéd sentences, like “I was so scared that my blood turned to ice in my veins” or “I needed to avoid him like the plague” or other commonly used metaphors and similes. Such uses are often effective when used sparingly and at the right moments. They’re often the quickest way to get your meaning across.

And I’m not talking about tropes found within specific genres (because each individual use of a trope should be unique even if it’s the same type of situation), like the damsel in distress or the chosen one or the guy gets the girl.

I’m talking more about the scene level. Specific scenes that aren’t accomplishing anything new in the story, yet are included anyway. Let’s talk about the most common ones that I see.

  1. The main character describing herself by looking in a mirror.

I swear some people put a mirror into the scene just for the sake of describing their MC. But there are thousands of ways to describe a character without doing this. You can do it through dialogue. You can have the MC outright state it. You can have your character have a bad hair day. Whatever. The important thing is that the descriptions enter the text naturally. Don’t make it sound like you’re trying too hard.

  1. The school scene

In contemporary YA manuscripts, unexperienced authors often feel the need to lay out the main character’s entire schedule. Then we have to watch him go through the whole schedule. Such scenes add nothing to the plot. They only give us minor details and go into great detail about the setup of desks in a math classroom or the posters found in the chemistry room. I don’t care how beautiful the author’s writing is. If he’s describing something that I’ve seen a hundred times, I’ll find it boring.

  1. Excessive use of a character’s name

In first person POV, when introducing the main character’s name, a side character will tack her name at the end of a line of dialogue. But then another character does it. And another. And another. When people talk to each other in real life, they rarely use each other’s names. Only if we’re trying to get their attention.

  1. Bringing a character from our world to a new world

Now this can be argued as being a trope, but this bugs me in certain genres. In middle grade, it’s okay. Do it all you want. For YA and above, I see it as a no, no. It’s cheating. It’s a way to introduce your world building to a character unfamiliar with the new world. I am so sick of reading about the disbelief of the main character and waiting for her to catch up with everyone already a part of the new world. There’s no reason not to just have your main character be a part of the new world already. There are other ways to show the world building to the reader. You don’t need to spell it out to one of the characters. And if you’re doing it for the sake of having a main character who speaks and thinks in modern English, you’re just being lazy, and I will have none of it. (Note that time travel is not the same as world travelling. I think time travel is perfectly fine.)

  1. The completely irrelevant and meaningless prologue

I cringe just thinking about this one. I have to read so many prologues that don’t make any sense. Prologues that are uninteresting and much too wordy. Writers seem to have a hard time grasping why this isn’t okay. Let me put it this way. Books with prologues have two beginnings: the prologue and chapter one. It’s hard enough capturing a reader’s interest once. If you have a prologue, you have to engage the reader twice. That’s an extra opportunity you’re giving him to put down your book. And you’re asking him to sit through meaningless scenes until he gets to where the story really starts. So why bother?

  1. Uninteresting magic

If magic plays a large part of the story, it cannot be bland and unexplained. If the magic feels like that found in another story then you shouldn’t do it. Be unique. There are types of magic. Elemental magic, strength-draining magic, mystical amulets. THESE HAVE BEEN DONE BEFORE. Come up with something interesting. Something that makes sense. Don’t have magic for the sake of having magic. (See my post Three Awesome Shows and Magic That Fails for more information.)

  1. Dream scenes

Just don’t do it. Dreams are so overdone. Don’t do it to reveal important plot points. Don’t do it to tell things to the reader without the main character knowing. Don’t do it to start off the character’s bad day. Just don’t do it. Show plot progression other ways. Ways that require you to be clever. You’re a writer. You can be clever, so do it.

  1. Fainting to end a scene

It’s okay if your character faints for a legitimate reason at an inopportune moment, but don’t use fainting as a way to avoid a transition or to avoid coming up with what complicated thing could come next in that scene.

  1. A diary holds the secret

No, a diary does not need to hold the secret. The main character needs to do something clever to learn the secret. That thing which will make them discover the next course of action. By her own ingenuity your MC can solve the problem. She doesn’t need to find it in a book. Diaries are lame. Diaries are overdone. Diaries are clichéd. Don’t be clichéd.

No cliches

Maria Murnane

 

You can be smart. I promise you can. You can have unique ideas. It may be difficult, and it may take time, but you can do it. Be brave enough to try.

Dead but Not Dead

*This post may contain spoilers for the following books and movies: City of Glass, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Two Towers, Marvel movies/shows.

There seems to be this trend going right now. Story makers either make you think they killed their characters when they really didn’t (like when Loki “dies” in Thor) or they kill them for real but then bring them back to life (like when Jace dies in City of Glass).

Is anyone else finding themselves horribly desensitized to characters dying?

Hagrid_carrying_Harry

I was fine when it happened in Harry Potter. That was actually one of the first times I’d seen it done (or rather, read it being done). How satisfying was it when Harry came back to the world of the living and kicked Voldemort’s ass?

gandalf_falling

I was even okay with it happening in The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read the books beforehand, so when Gandalf died in Fellowship, I was so depressed. Then when he came back in The Two Towers, I was ecstatic, as I’m sure others of my generation who didn’t grow up reading the books felt.

But nowadays things are getting a little out of hand. Everyone seems to be using this dead-but-not-dead trick. Marvel especially is going crazy with this idea. Check this out.

Bucky Falls

In Captain America, Bucky “dies.” Then he comes back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Loki Falls

In Thor, Loki “dies.”

Loki Stabed2

In Thor: The Dark World, Loki “dies” again! Didn’t buy it the first time, and I certainly didn’t buy it the second time. He’s the best thing about that show!

Groot dies

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Groot “dies.”

Phil Coulson Death

In The Avengers, Phil Coulson dies, like for real except they bring him back to do Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I would guess that these producers/writers are trying to add more tension to these stories. The stakes are high. Death is a real possibility when you’re saving the world. People, even the heroes of the story, might die. But the overuse of dead but not dead is having the opposite effect. For me, it’s getting to the point where if a character dies, it doesn’t affect me at all because it’s likely that they’re not really dead. All tension is gone.

Since complaining about something isn’t effective unless you have a solution for it, I tried to think of what other writers could glean from this blatant overuse of dead but not dead. If we kill a character, should they stay dead? Or should we not kill characters if we intend to bring them back?

Here’s what I think. As long as authors are aware of this trend and how it affects readers who are used to seeing it, they should be able to effectively incorporate it into their stories. Each story is trying to achieve something different, and maybe some authors are talented enough to convince readers that their character is really dead when he actually isn’t. Good for them.

But I think the really important thing is for us to be aware of what’s already been done by others before us, how it was done, and how readers/viewers responded to it. This way we can decide how best to use the same treatment in our own stories while also being unique.

And since that was a lot of death, let’s end by looking at some happy things.

Richard Armitage

lol-rofl

Ian Somerhalder

Fanpop

Jake

Fanpop

Writing a Sequel

Catching_fire

Image from Wikipedia

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Image from The Young Folks

Frostbite

Image from Fanpop

Harry_Potter_and_the_Chamber_of_Secrets_(US_cover)

Image from Wikipedia

Those of us who read can relate times when we’ve been disappointed by sequels.

I’m afraid I can’t get into specific examples of bad sequels. As a rule, I don’t like to insult other authors—you never know when that can come back around and bite you. But I can point out good examples (see pics above) as well as things to avoid when working on sequels, which is what I aim to do with this post.

Someone once told me that we shouldn’t be disappointed by an author’s sequel. They have creative license. What they envision for the book is how the story should go. Authors can’t write their books “wrong.”

But if that were true, why would editors exist?

The fact of the matter is that authors CAN write their sequels wrong, but oftentimes editors don’t bother to change the big stuff because the first book did so well (I’m sure there are also various other reasons, but for right now we’ll stick with this one). They know the second book will sell well too. But what about the books after that? What happens when an author gets progressively worse because no one will tell them what they’re doing wrong?

First off, the goal is to make each successive book either better or just as good as the last one. As a writer, your books should not be getting worse. And by worse, I don’t mean that bad stuff happens in the book. No, no, no, no. I mean that the quality of your story worsens.

So. Here’s how this works. You write a book. You have a setting. You have a cast of characters. You have a main character or two or five, depending on the norms of your genre. You have a voice, a style, a feel to your book. You’re giving readers a specific experience that only you, as the unique writer that you are, can give them. By writing that first book in a series, here is what you are promising your readers: “Here are how my books work. These are my characters. They have these personalities. You can expect this kind of pacing from me. This is the kind of climax you can expect from me. Here are the kind of subplots I will be doing in this series. You can expect this kind of unique world building in my setting. Etc.”

And when it comes time for a sequel, your writers EXPECT you to give them all the things you promised them in the first one. They want that experience again. They want it to be the same, but different. They want the experiences they had during the first book—the laughing, the crying, the gasping, etc.—but this time with a new story.

Because it’s a perfect example for just about everything, let’s look at Harry Potter to demonstrate this. When JK Rowling wrote that wonderful book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, she showed everyone what incredible things she can do. She demonstrated wonderfully diverse and round characters; multiple mystery subplots; a magical setting; numerous fantastical elements; and themes of friendship, loyalty, and bravery. You can even get into more specifics. You will read about people flying on broomsticks. You’ll see people brandishing wands. You know that the bad guy is not who you first think it is. The characters will cleverly get out of tight situations. They will make you laugh.

I could go on, but you get the point. Rowling makes this all happen in the first book. Then it happens again in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. All the same things. All the same elements. But does it feel like the same story? No. Completely new story, but you get all the same experiences. And Rowling always makes sure her books are just as good or better than the last one. As a series, we can say that Harry Potter wins.

Let’s look at another good example: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. Does she give her readers the same experience in her sequel that she did in The Hunger Games. Yes. Can you find the same elements and themes? The same characters. The same feel. Yes.

Other good examples of sequels include The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson and Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about other books because I want to get on to ways that authors can ensure that readers will be satisfied with their sequels. Because believe it or not, there are simple things to do to give your sequel the best chance it can have of being just as good or better than the first book.

First, I need to preface this by saying that just because an author you know did one of the no-nos I’m about to list, that doesn’t mean I don’t like that author or their books. I respect all (well, most) authors because writing is hard no matter what. And even if an author I love did one of these things, I would forgive them. Unless they started doing it consistently. Basically, if you’re a published author reading this, don’t hate me if you’ve done one of these things. It’s not personal. I’m probably still going to upset someone, but whatever. This is all in the interest of making us all better as writers. So you shouldn’t hate me.

The first on the list is pretty simple: don’t change the genre of your book. If your first book is a romance, the sequel should not be horror. You laugh now. You think that no one would actually do this. But I’ve seen it done. Not with romance and horror, but with other genres. If your first book is a “fight to stay alive” kind of thriller, the sequel should not be a mystery. Give readers the same experience. When your book is a mixing of genres, give your readers the same mix of genres in the sequel.

Second and third, don’t replace all your characters or separate all your characters. These two kind of go together, so I’ll talk about them at the same time. If in the first book, you made us all fall in love with one cast of characters, don’t replace them with a new cast. This isn’t to say you can’t kill off characters or introduce new characters. Go ahead. This means you shouldn’t take your character away from all the other fun characters. Don’t have your character spend a whole book in a new country and ignore all your other characters. Bring them along too. Because readers enjoy the interactions between all the characters. They love the conflict that arises between Character A and Character B. They like the way Character C and Character D crack jokes together. They like the romantic tension between Character E and Character F. When you separate even two of the characters, you don’t get that interaction that your readers loved in the first one. You’re giving them a different reading experience.

Fourth, have the same kind of subplots. If you’ve got an incredible mystery subplot in the first one, have another one in the second. If you have an element of adventure in the first one, have it in the second one. If there’s a romance in the first one, have it continue onto the second one.

Because I’m me, I just have to expand on the romance thing for a bit. If your series contains a romantic subplot (and especially if you’re writing YA), then it needs to have the same amount of romantic tension in each succeeding book. If you lose the romantic tension, you’ll often lose the reader too. If you’re writing a series with a huge romantic subplot, the guy and girl cannot get together at the end of the first book. Well they can, but something needs to disturb it at the beginning of the second book then. That tension needs to continue. You need to give readers the same reading experience.

So don’t be a one hit wonder. Be that person who has readers dying to read their next book because they can’t wait to see what awesome thing you’ll do next. Because they know they can expect it from you. Fulfill your promises to the reader. Be like Rowling.

 

Word Sprints

Today’s post might be of particular interest to the NaNo-ers among us. I know you’re out there. You probably haven’t slept more than six hours a night in the last two weeks and, if you’re like me, there are a lot of undone items on your To Do lists, but hopefully you’re all still alive and hopefully this post might help that general state of living-ness continue.

So, onto the topic at hand: Writing.

Sometimes writing is honest-to-goodness the greatest thing in the world. It is better than chocolate, it is better than curling up with a good book while the world is blizzarding outside, it is better than steak (and I love me some steak). But other times, writing feels like a chore. It’s just one more thing that needs to get crossed off your To Do list, which is already about a mile and a half long. It’s that thing that needs to get done before your mom will let you go  play on a Saturday afternoon.  It’s not fun–in fact, it is about as much fun as going to the dentist.

For me, the writing is a chore feeling usually comes along when I’m already tired and stressed out and my story is broken and all I really want to do is watch another Big Bang Theory rerun. But I’ve found that (especially during high-stakes months like NaNo November) if I skip writing one day, I am more likely to skip the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that one…ad nauseam.

And the only way to get out of this cycle of suck is to sit down and stop whining and actually write something. But this hard, which is why I have taken up the sport of word sprints.

The basic premise behind word sprints is you set a timer (I usually set mine for a half hour) and you do nothing during that half hour but bust your butt writing.  No checking facebook, no responding to that text message. The internet will still be there when you are done–this is a solid block of time that is just for writing.

And the goal is to write as much as you possibly can. I like going into my word sprints with a certain word count in mind. I like having a goal–and then I like utterly wasting that goal. Other writers like to do word sprints in the form of word wars. You and your writing buddy sit down and you each try to write more than the other. This fosters a friendly (or not so friendly, depending on the competitiveness of both you and your writing buddy) spirit of competition, which can be a great motivator.

And really, that’s all word sprints or word wars are. They are means of motivating yourself to get something done.  Because it’s really easy to say to yourself, “Self, for the next [insert block of time] we are going to nothing but breathe and write. And I promise that once [block of time] is up, we can go back to watching Big Bang Theory instead of studying for that test/writing that paper/cleaning the house/walking the cat etc.” Knowing that you only have to sit and focus for a little amount of time makes the writing seem way more obtainable and a lot less scary and intimidating. It’s a small step towards completing your goal.

Of course, you need to keep in mind that what you write during a word sprint is most likely going to be crap. It’s a natural consequence. Going back to the chore metaphor, word sprints are the equivalent of shoving everything under your bed, wiping off the visible dust,  spraying the room with air freshener, and declaring your room “clean.” It’s a shoddy job and definitely not a permanent fix, but it gets the job done.

Because sometimes you just need to get the words on paper. Sometimes you just need to write through whatever problems you’re having with your story. Because you know what? Once it’s written, you can fix it. It’s not going to get fixed as some amorphous blob in your head.

So next time you hit a roadblock in your writing, turn off your wifi, set a timer, and get sprinting.