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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