What's Cliche?

Everything creative is plagued by cliche. Writers are told over and over again not to use cliched phrases, cliched plots, cliched characters... But what's cliche? Sometimes people talk about cliches like they're definable and objective, but I think it's slightly more complicated than that.

At its heart, a cliche is something you have seen before and are tired of seeing. You're bored of it, maybe even annoyed or angry, BUT it's your opinion. People like to say things like, "The washed-up superhero has been done. It's so cliche." And maybe it has been done, but whether it's old and boring to you is another matter.

Take ninjas. Ninjas have been done, a lot. But you know what? I'm not sick of them. Give me Japanese guys in black pajamas - give them swords, shuriken, and smoke bombs - and I'm sold.*

My point is we should be aware of cliches, but not afraid of them. If it's something that you still enjoy, there may be others like you. If someone says they don't like your work because it's "been done," don't set your hard drive on fire. Write well, be as original as you can, but write what you love, even if everyone else is tired of it.**

But most of all, don't be afraid to write.

* It's worse than that. I know nothing about motorcycles, but I want a Kawasaki Ninja. There's a bottled tea here made of red beans and poppyseed (blech!), but because it's called Ninja flavor, I want it. I'm so sad.

** Now, it's different if an agent or editor says something is too cliche. They know what will sell, presumably. At the very least, they know what won't sell if you don't listen: you.

Much To Do About Nothing

A random writing sample from highschool. We were grouped in pairs and each given the same opening sentence. The assignment was to write a short story using at least 15 vocabulary words from the year. My partner and I used 51.

Much To Do About Nothing


Twists and Turns

I've spent the last week thinking of another short story to write. I've thrown out a lot of ideas as boring or predictable. The problem I've been having is finding a good twist.

I'm starting to think that the shorter the fiction, the more important it is to twist it. I'm using "twist" here in its broadest sense as something unexpected (as opposed to a twist that changes the meaning of everything that has happened in the story), so heck, maybe all fiction needs a twist.

One problem is predictability. If the reader sees it coming, then every time you hint at it or try to misdirect, they'll get increasingly annoyed. "Look, I already know the mysterious stranger is his father. Get on with it." This problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many twists are cliche (e.g. see Strange Horizons' list of stories they see too often, #9).

This can be tempered by using a smaller twist. Imagine twists on a continuum; on one end, there are the big twists: "OMG, Bruce Willis is dead!" or "OMG, Kevin Spacey is Keiser Soze!"* On the other end are smaller twists: Frodo decides not to destroy the Ring or Marlin sees Nemo in a plastic bag and thinks he's dead.

The bigger the twist, the harder it is to pull off. Readers are pretty good at figuring out what's really going on. But when a big twist does work, it's mind-blowing. Smaller twists, on the other hand, won't blow anybody's mind, but they're still interesting and much easier to pull off.

But what does it take to pull them off? Here are some ideas:
  • Practice. Try different things and see what works.
  • Read a lot. Among other things, this will help you know what's cliche.
  • Avoid hiding information from the reader artificially. If the assassin is the POV character, and he knows all along that the target is his daughter, hiding the info from the reader will only annoy them. (Exception: the unreliable narrator; e.g. give the assassin a reason for hiding it from the reader).
  • Misdirection. Set up something else that appears to be the truth. This is tricky, though, because it can't be too obvious. Like in Scooby-Doo, you knew the ghost was never the mean old janitor who hated the museum curator.
  • The twist should be better than the straightforward ending would have been. Like I've said before, don't twist just to be unpredictable. This is one reason why the "it was all a dream" ending always fails.
  • The twist should make sense. It'd be nice if this went without saying, but...
Anyway, I've decided on a smaller twist (I threw out a lot of ideas similar to the assassin-and-daughter example, because I couldn't hide the information in a believable way). Let's see if I can make it work.

* If you haven't seen these movies, I'm sorry. On the other hand, they're old - way past a spoiler moratorium, I think.

A Road of Misconceptions

The first thing I remember writing is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. I don't remember what it was about, but I know I drew pictures and stapled my thumb (twice) trying to put it together.

Major Misconception: At this time, I think my only misconception was that I was a fantastic writer, which when you're a kid is a pretty good misconception to have.

High School
I wrote a lot of humor, I recall. Spanish skits about butlers who watered the carpet and put the cat in the washer. Douglas Adams-style tales about gods who were heads of lettuce.

I wrote novels too, though I never finished any. A near future story about an elite team of soldiers who secretly protected the world from alien invasion. Another story in which a group of people woke from cryogenic hibernation to an empty Earth.

This period of writing stopped when I started a fantasy novel about a simple gnome-like creature who got swept up into adventure, where he met elves and dwarves and wizards on his way to saving the world. Around the time he reached a Rivendell knock-off, I realized I was rewriting The Fellowship of the Ring. I got depressed and didn't write anything again for years.

Misconception: To write, you had to be original. Being original meant not getting ideas from other stories.

Post-College, c. 2000 - 2007
Sometime after college, I realized that every song or story is like something else. There's nothing new in the world, and all that. This freed me to write whatever I wanted and worry about originality later. I started a few stories, but every time it got hard, I'd get lazy and forget all about it.

Maybe a year or two later, I realized if I ever really wanted to write I had to just do it. I wrote a short story, to prove to myself I could finish something, then started Travelers. Whatever happened, whatever I felt about the novel, I determined to finish it.

Misconception: Any decent story could be published. I'm actually glad I believed this. I'm not sure if I would've kept my resolve knowing how hard it really is.

Querying Travelers
When I finished Travelers, I didn't know if it was good enough to be published but figured I'd try. I'm glad I did. I learned a lot from the process, and even more from reading agent/author blogs around the web.

Misconception: A lot of misconceptions were shattered around this time, but the biggest one was that the query letter was just a formality. I thought agents just wanted an idea what the book was about, then they'd read the book and decide if they liked it.

With the exception of the Lost Years in college, I have no regrets about the road I've taken. I mean, sure, it'd be great if I knew everything before I started, saving myself time, embarassment, and trouble. But I don't think life works that way. I look forward to more shattered misconceptions in the future.

What Next?

With Air Pirates in the hands of the betas, I'm thinking a lot about what to work on next. I've been putting off the decision by writing short stories. It's productive and educational and everything, but eventually I'm going to want to go back to a novel.

The question is which one? I've got two novels I can realistically go to at the moment: Joey Stone and Air Pirates 2 (working titles, both). Joey Stone would be cool, but I'm not sure the idea is ripe enough yet for me to start work on that. Or maybe it is, and I just need to get over it.

I'd rather work on AP2, but that means working on a sequel to an unpublished - possibly never-to-be-published - book. If Air Pirates fails, where will that leave the sequel and the work I put behind it? I've never written a sequel, so it would be good practice, but I'm not sure if I could write a novel knowing it would never be published.

Or maybe it could be published. Could I write AP2 in such a way that it could stand alone, apart from Air Pirates? Maybe. I mean, really, I should be writing it that way anyway because I would want new readers to be able to jump in at any point in the trilogy. But it would be a bigger risk.

But maybe the knowledge that AP might never sell is exactly the pressure I need to make AP2 capable of standing alone. I couldn't be lazy in my writing. I'd have to explain everything, but without exposition and infodumps (just like I (hopefully) did with the first one).

Hm, that's a good point, actually. I'm glad we had this talk.

Self-Publishing (or Why You Can't Read Travelers)

When people ask me how my book's going, and I start telling them about the query process and the publishing industry and how getting published is like removing a bullet from your leg with a toothpick,* often the next question is: "Have you thought about publishing it yourself?"

Answer: Yes. Many times.

I admit it's tempting. I mean, Travelers may never be published, and I know people (five of them) that want to read it. They'd probably even like it, being my friends and all.

But I'm holding out for a few reasons. Some are minor: self-publishing is expensive, it requires more time and energy, and if I got published later I couldn't put that nice little "Debut Novel" sticker on my books. Stupid, I know. If self-publishing was what I really wanted, those things wouldn't stand in my way.

One thing that does stand in my way is self-publishing's reputation. Traditional publishers give readers a guarantee, or at least a high probability, that what they're about to read is Good. Self-publishing doesn't have that. Actually, it has less than that because so much out there isn't good (according to general opinion). I know there are fantastic self-published books, and terrible traditionally-published ones, but even so, I don't want the stigma.

The other thing standing in my way is that self-publishing is not challenging enough.** The road to traditional publishing is really, really, really, really hard. And it's pushing me. In learning what it takes to get published, in seeing statistics and examples of stories that get rejected, in critiquing the works of other authors competing for the same agents I am, I have grown exponentially - more than I ever would have had I just put Travelers on Lulu.com a year ago.

There are lots of good reasons to self-publish. And for some, self-publishing is the fulfillment of their dream. I think that's awesome. Go for it. Dreams and journeys are what make life worth living.

But self-publishing is not my dream. I want to be published the regular way. I don't know why. I know the odds. Do you know how many unpublished authors have blogs like this? Probably like... well, it's a lot, and many more that don't blog. A lot of them have been trying for this longer than I have. A lot of them are better writers than I am.

I don't think I'm special. I don't assume God's going to open the doors just for me or anything. I do know I want this. And, for right now at least, self-publishing would feel like I settled, like I quit. I'm not ready to do that yet.

* i.e. anyone can do it, but it takes forever and hurts like hell.

** I know self-publishing has it's own challenges, not the least of which is peddling your own books so that they actually sell. But I'm talking about the challenge just to be published, which self-publishing by definition does not have. Anyone can do it.

How to Not be a Meanie Head

Last time I talked about what to do when faced with meanie heads online. But why are they so mean? Interestingly, if you ask them, most people don't think they're being mean at all. "I'm just expressing my opinion," they might say. Some even believe they're helping.

Sometimes, I'm one of those people. If you read all the comments and blog posts under my name, you might find some mean, arrogant stuff - probably more than I'm aware of. I'm just trying to help people, but I come off sounding like a jerk. What am I doing wrong? How do I express my opinion without being a meanie head?

The problem, I think, is that we don't separate what we're saying from how we say it. We think "This story sucks," and so we say exactly that. Maybe we're even specific, "Your protagonist is stupid. Everything you wrote is cliche."

What if the story's not any good? Shouldn't I tell them what I think? Absolutely. If a story sucks, or a query is confusing, or someone's political beliefs drive you nuts, we're free to say so. BUT if we want people to actually listen to what we're saying, then we need to be more careful. The following are things I'm learning myself, as I try to do this very thing:

TIP #1: Assume the person you're talking to is as intelligent as you are. This is really hard, but it's fundamental. If you can't do this, see Rule #3 from last time.

TIP #2: Emphasize that it's your opinion. No matter how convinced you are that you're right, your thoughts on writing, politics, religion, agent behavior, etc. are in the end only your opinion.

TIP #3: Never say "never" (or always, or must, or you have to). There are times when these imperatives are necessary (e.g. never send Nathan a query with a rhetorical question), but for the most part they should be avoided unless you, personally, make the rules.

TIP #4: Don't be sarcastic. Sarcasm is mean and hurtful by nature. It's fine with friends, where everyone knows that everyone is joking, but not on touchy subjects. If you want people to listen, just don't do it.

Note that none of this changes what you're saying, only how you say it. So what about you guys? Any tips on how to say harsh things while still respecting the person you're talking to?