Monday, February 28, 2011

More Rules for Writers: Killing the Cliché

Janet Fitch's third rule for writers is to kill the cliché. I struggle with this one. After all, who gets to decide what's a cliché and what isn't? In Lost in Lexicon a Cliché is a crevice that opens at the Mistress of Metaphor's feet when she starts using expressions that are stale and over-used. She falls into the Cliché and has to struggle out again, sweaty and panting, with dirt under her fingernails. That's how I feel fighting clichés when I'm writing.

Fitch gives an awfully inclusive definition of a cliché: "When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché." Surely not. For example, I've heard "surely not" before. I've heard "anything you've ever heard" before. Some expressions are just a natural, even necessary, accepted trope of language. What makes other expressions clichés?

I think the clichéd expressions that bother us are those that are meant to be sparkling shortcuts. They're shorthand for something we want the reader to experience or understand, but they also draw attention to themselves for their cleverness. Some examples: smoldering gaze, strong as an ox, with an expression like a whipped puppy. Like dusty dresses pulled from the costume trunk, these expressions were probably once fresh and colorful, but now they're worn and slightly faded. On close examination they don't even seem to fit very well.

The problem is recognizing these old rags in the midst of writing. When I'm casting about in my mind for some catchy image, how can I be certain that my glimmer of imagination isn't really just a glimpse of memory? Sometimes I think I'm being original when really I'm just drawing on bits and pieces I've read or heard. For that reason, I'm glad to have an editor to go through and draw a red line through every weary expressios. I may protest, but usually I can find another way of saying what I meant.

(Characters, on the other hand, are allowed to use all the clichés they want. That's part of the great freedom of speech they have as characters. They can use poor grammar, stutter, swear, make illogical leaps, misuse words, talk nonsense, or speak entirely in clichés, all with impunity. The reader might judge them, but no one's taking a red pencil to them.)

Fitch mentions also clichéd objects, such as fuzzy dice. Usually these are shorthand signals meant to induce snap judgments about a character. I would add that there are situations which have become clichés, situations we've read about so many times we're tired of them. For me one example is a kid getting bullied/beat up on the first day in a new school. Does this really happen so very often? Even if it does, hasn't this been... used? How about the gang of kids tying a can to the tail of a stray dog: is this something the author has observed or only read about? Aren't there more original ways to show cruelty?

Ian Leask, editor and writing coach, tells me to "break open the cliché." Get at the core of it. What did I mean to convey? What really happened here? What did the characters actually do? What could an observer see? Act it out.

Painfully, full of resentment-- it wasn't a cliché; I liked that line; what's he talking about?-- I rewrite the expression. It takes a few tries before I get it clean and fresh. Then I go skipping on through the manuscript, no doubt blithely scattering in my wake clichés galore. The battle continues. And that's probably a cliché, too.

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