Killing Clichés and Birthing New Ones

We use clichés when we talk.  Why should we be surprised when they worm their way into our writing?  Surprised or not, when you start the process of self-editing your work you best underline those little gems and prepare them for annihilation via repeated backspace smashing.  If the cliché is located in the intro of your book, you can assume any literary agent worth their weight in shattered hopes and dreams will put your work down and move on to the next prospect.

cliches in history.jpg

Don’t take my word for it.  Here are some direct quotes from the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents 2016written by  Chuck Sambuchino.

“Anything  cliché such as ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ will turn me off.  I hate when a narrator or author addresses the reader (i.e., ‘Gentle reader’).” (Jennie Dunham, Dunham Literary)

guide to literary agents.jpg“1) Squinting into the sunlight with a hang-over in a crime novel.  Good grief – been done a million times. 2) A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.  3) A trite statement (‘Get with the program’ or ‘Houston, we have a problem’ or ‘You go girl’ or ‘Earth to Michael’ or ‘Are we on the same page?’), said by a weenie sales guy, usually in the opening paragraph.  4) A rape scene in a Christian novel, especially in the first chapter.  5) ‘Years later, Monica would look back laugh…’  6) ‘The [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.'” (Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary)

That’s probably enough examples.  If not, there are more fury filled offerings listed on pages 66-67.

But hey, screw agents right?  Real authors do what they want!

“Clichés work because we all understand them, but they’re also a little sad because, really?  Can’t you do better?  ‘He ran like the wind?’  Yeah, well, I kicked your nuts like a soccer ball.  You’re a writer.  It’s your job to avoid clichés.  It’s your job to do better than the bare minimum”  (Chuck Wendig, The Kick-Ass Writer, p. 100).

I could pound out more quotes from how-to books and author memoirs, but I will save you the tedium.  Breath it in and accept it, we should avoid clichés.  So what is a way to avoid them?  Here’s a pretty cool concept I found in Writing Tools, written by Roy Peter Clark.

“When tempted by a tired phrase, such as ‘white as snow,’ stop writing.  Take what the practitioners of natural childbirth call a cleansing breath.  Then jot down the old phrase on a piece of paper.  Start scribbling alternatives…” (p. 81). 

Queen_Elizabeth_II_June_2014.jpgThe example Clark provides is this progression: white as snow -> white as Snow White -> snowy white -> gray as city snow -> gray as the London sky -> white as the Queen of England (p. 81).

It’s an interesting way to turn an old phrase into something new and unexpected.  Give it a whirl.  In case you were unsure if you were using a cliché, here is the most gargantuan list of them I have found as of yet.  Another good reference to check out would be Writing Excuses Season 2: Episode 25, Avoiding the Cliche with Tracy Hickman.

That’s it for today.  Got a favorite cliché?  Share it.  Think I am dead wrong and you can use them if you want?  Awesome sauce!  Throw your thoughts into the comment box.  I’m always open to hearing your insights.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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29 responses

  1. Loved the comparison to “kick your nuts like a soccer ball”. I laughed. But it’s true. Even in everyday conversation I use cliché. Never noticed them until pointed out. But I think it all stems from my parents. I find myself using a lot of cliché they used. Never thought I would, but they are kinda embedded in the mind and they just fall out. Enjoyed this as usual. Till tomorrow

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Kim! I use clichés non-stop when I talk, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it really (unless it really starts to annoy people). I think it’s part of our individual flavors. The only issue really is when it manages to sneak into our writing. Glad you enjoyed the read.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for giving a realistic way of handling the cliche. I am verbal/visual thinker and the thought of jotting down ideas when I’ve got a cliche to tackle is right up my ally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you found something useful Renae and thanks for reading and commenting. I’m the same way you are, writing it down and working it out clears out the cobwebs. It’s one of the reasons I do this blog, to help me remember all the stuff I read and refer back to it later. Best of luck in your writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Avoid cliches like the plague, take the tiger by the tail and think outside the box. But at the end of the day, if at first you don’t succeed, there are plenty of fish in the sea. After all, every dog has its day!
    I bet it doesn’t get worse than that, for if you survived reading this, there’s more – Your article was right on target and could not have come at a better time.
    Again, thank you for the illuminating information! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Love your examples. It’s hard to write characters and not model them around real people, after all, real people speak in cliches. Good luck navigating around them and thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Aside from narrative, how do you feel about them in dialog. Like you said, people speak that way. I am researching a book of short stories about baseball. If you ever listen to a post game interview, you hear the same things over and over. It would be unrealistic not to use some of them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great example, and yet another reason why I always try to say there aren’t too many inflexible rules when it comes to pounding out fiction (of course I didn’t today). As you correctly pointed out, context is everything. In the context you are talking about, I wouldn’t think of them so much as clichés, but as their normal vernacular.

      The use of clichés seems to be more acceptable as you start moving into historic fiction. After all, how can you not use some period clichés when trying to recreate the feeling and setting of a piece of history? If I’m going to write about guys training to go to war in a certain era, I’m going to use some clichéd dialogue/statements from that era. It helps the viewers tap into the nostalgia of the period. What you would be doing with baseball is much the same.

      My only nugget of advice would be to run through some sports transcripts and try to measure where the balance is if you haven’t already. Especially if your piece is happening at a certain time in history (sports speak constantly evolves) what you choose to use and how much of it could be a powerful tool.

      Thanks so much for reading and posting this great comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for noticing my blog. I write what I think is abhorrent hackery sometimes, but some seem to enjoy torturing themselves, so if you need a sadist for your masochism, I suppose “I’m your huckleberry.” Occasionally I might actually publish something more adequate, so if you keep following, we’ll both wait and see. I love cliche, occasionally for the purpose of mockery, occasionally to make things more quickly and easily understood. I apologize in advance and appreciate your patient endurance. ~Deon

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah! Different strokes for different folks. One mans abhorrent hackery is another mans potpourri. If you have any offerings on your blog page I will swing by and give them a whiff.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Loved your post and I’ll take your advice, thanks for visiting my blog, it is under construction even as I write it. See, I didn’t say “a work in progress” lol. Feel free to offer any comments and I’ll check out some of your older posts as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great advice!! And I know this is something I need to edit in my work. Darn clichés, always sneaking in there. I plan to query my book next year, so the more I read your post, the more knowledge I’m gaining to do my rewrite. Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a big step! Congrats! I would recommend snagging the 2016 (maybe 2017 if it’s next year) Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents (it will help you select applicable places to submit to as well as give you an idea what they are looking for). Also one of our fellow Word Press Warriors, has some well-written guides to writing query letters. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Cute article!
    I’m afraid I am fallen into this abyss, in fact did a comment on a blog using one of my ole’ time favorite cliche’s. If you fail, “get back on the horse”, and get going again. Something like that.

    Great Tip! Will try that next time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading it Diana. I’m not trying to cast stones, or suggest we don’t use them in speech, just that we keep a weary eye out for them in our professional work. I love your blog page and your poems. Keep writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh I know. Didn’t get that message at all from your blog post. It was helpful. I felt it helped me to stay out of ruts. Using repetitive saying’s and words because they are handy. Going beyond that stretches the mind and improves the writing.

        Thanks for the kudos!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you!
        Oh, I know. I didn’t get the message you were trying to cast any stones, etc.
        I enjoyed your suggestions. Those tips are what create stronger writers.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Writing Tools: Quotes from the Book « Quintessential Editor

  10. Just looked, and it says “my comment” (the reblog) is “awaiting moderation.” Not sure what is going on. Again, WP can be mystifying!


    • I also try to use word association to bust through areas of stagnation in my writing. This example was the first intuitive method I had seen of taking cliches and warping them. I would say almost every other book I’ve read simply states to not use cliches, this was the first one that offered a solution. Best of luck chasing the words 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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