Why do clouds always billow? Why do aromas have to waft, while lightning is doomed to forever crackle? Why are noses all aquiline, Roman, or button? Why are flags forever furled?
Is it because we are lazy, careless writers? Or is it because we sometimes type faster than we think? I’d say the answer is a bit of both. Sometimes even the best of us write by rote.
The bane of every creative writer is the insidious cliché—in all its cunning and less recognizable forms.
I’m not just talking about the tired idioms, adages and old saws that sometimes creep into our writing while we’re distracted by the larger issues of plot creation, story arc, and character development. No, not all clichés are that obvious.
In certain contexts, individual words take on the taint of cliché. This is because we sometimes write automatically. Try to write about a rainbow, and the word spectrum automatically appears. Thunder automatically claps. Hearts automatically race. Neck hairs automatically stand on end. Meals are always hearty. Blue eyes are always piercing or icy. And smooth can only be described in terms of silk of a baby’s bottom.
Yes, I’m exaggerating. A little. But I believe we have become conditioned by repetition. It has become second nature for us to borrow short-cuts—words and phrases that automatically trip off our tongues when we converse, but trip us up when we are trying to write creatively.
Ironically, one of my goals as a writer is to actually invent a cliché. Yes! I would love to pen a new phrase that is so expressive, so descriptive, so embedded into the lexicon that generations of lazy writers who come after me will use it automatically. Shakespeare’s brilliant word-slinging has graced our language with countless clichés. I’d be fulfilled if I contributed but one.
My fellow writers—of prose and poetry alike—let us leave the recycling to someone else. Let us eschew the easy, and the automatic. Let us cobble our words in fresh new ways. Let us describe one sunset without purple and pink. Let us describe sand that doesn’t run through our fingers, or squish between our toes. Let us never be taken aback. Or seethe with rage. Or bask in the sun. Or count ourselves lucky. Or dodge a bullet.
Sure, clichés have their place—political posters and bathroom walls.
If you want your work to be fresh, you can’t recycle the same old words and phrases.
Clouds can curdle. Aromas can meander. Lightning can ziggle. A nose can look like a turnip. Flags can brag.
See? It is easy. Even I can do it.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
Many, many years ago I wrote a short story for a friend. Briefly, she was a co-worker who quit to live with and drive a truck with her boyfriend. About six months later she was back. He turned out to be an abuser. They exchanged more slaps than kisses.
So I wrote a short story for her about a young lady in a similar situation and how she was rescued by a friend. And that was that. Except…
The character I invented was unusual. Not the victim, but her rescuer—a large, impressive male with high intelligence, an ability to kick ass and a major physical disability. He also had a beautiful wife who was a science teacher and coach in the local high school, and they had two kids.
For much more than a year that character, Ron, kept pestering me, sowing seeds of writing ideas into my cortical furrows. How did he get disabled? How did it come about that despite the disability he was proficient in martial arts and exceptionally strong as well? How did he meet his wife? What about his parents and siblings? What made him the man he was?
I started writing. Ron told the original short story in first person and I kept that point of view. This offered the best opportunity to demonstrate his odd sense of humor and the psychological issues he dealt with.
I started from before he acquired his disability, introducing his parents and siblings. I decided how his disability came to be and how he compensated—no, overcompensated. Most of what I wrote concerned his years in college—his first girlfriend (and his somewhat spectacular first experience with sex), his very good friends and the very special young woman he fell in love with. I devoted a lot of words to their love affair and then to the tragedy that affected the rest of his life.
This young lady, Audrey, was horribly murdered, and Ron was nearly killed sometime later in his attempt to obtain justice.
I kept writing. He had already met Jean, his wife in the original story. She was one of Audrey’s best friends, but it was over a year after Audrey’s death when they finally dated.
And I wrote more. Chapter after chapter about their relationship, her family, Jean’s emotional issues stemming from when was raped five years before and how she and Ron overcame those issues. I wrote more until I came, at last, to the situation depicted in the original short story. I changed the ending to connect it more closely with the earlier parts of what had become a novel. And then one more chapter just to wrap up the whole thing.
I was done. Or so I thought. While I had gone back and rewritten and revised as I progressed, the work was still no better than a second draft. I decided to see what I had.
What I had was well over 300,000 words. Oops. That’s just a little too long for a novel, especially a first novel from an unknown author. And there were several chapters that I’d conceived but hadn’t written. Another 10,000 words, easy.
The first part of paring was easy. There was a natural break so there could be two novels. But even with that, the first would be about 160,000 words. So I had to discard. Virtually all the chapters dealing with his family, especially his older brother (a character worth a novella-length work himself) were cut. (His brother’s not too happy about that, either. I had to promise to make it up to him later.) And then other chapters featuring Ron and his first girlfriend, plus others featuring Ron and Audrey all had to be consigned to the waste bin. Everything that didn’t either move the characterization, the relationship or the plot forward had to go.
Then I did the same thing with what would be novel number two. This was easier because it was shorter to begin with and the original short story was moved to novel number one. I revisited the characters in the original short story that closed the first novel and added a new confrontation to finish up novel number two.
The final result was Just Lucky: Friends and Enemies and the sequel, Just Lucky: Love and Hate. The first was still over 100,000 words, and the second was a little under. I thought the first was ready to go…but then I realized that, as I submitted short stories and absorbed rejections and editorial suggestions and viewed editorial changes to my writing, I needed to go back and re-re-re-examine that first one and possibly re-(times three) write and revise.
I just recently submitted the first for consideration to a publisher after doing the three “re’s.”
What I find depressing is all the work that will probably never see the light of publication day. Audrey was half Cherokee and I did an entire chapter on her family’s background and origin. Several hours of research went into that…sliced and diced.
Robert Heinlein recalled that when he wrote his Hugo Award winning Stranger in a Strange Land, the original manuscript was three times longer than it should have been, and the cutting and editing took longer than the original writing. (During that whole process, he also wrote another Hugo winner, Starship Troopers.)
So, even though it almost breaks my heart to see so much of the work I’ve done basically go for naught, it is some comfort to know that discarding the chaff to reap the grain is an accepted part of the process.
ABOUT FRED WAISS
STORIES BY FRED WAISS
POEMS BY FRED WAISS
ESSAYS BY FRED WAISS
CRUMBS BY FRED
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"Would you publish work containing bad words?" a writer-colleague asked after apologizing for using crude language in a story he’d set in the inner city. He’d been criticized for it, and wondered aloud how to avoid rough language and still be true to his characters.
My first impulse is to say, “of course”. To refuse to print an otherwise good piece of writing simply because it contains language you’d rather not have your grandmother hear over high tea is priggish at best. At worst, it’s censorship. As a writer, I despise censorship. But how do I feel about it as an editor?
That question got me thinking, something I alternately do too much, and then not enough. I've just said I don’t like censorship, so how do I give writers the freedom of expression they deserve while refraining from alienating the audience? I’m suddenly feeling sympathy for those 1960s television network censors whose list of banned words was well-mocked by comedian George Carlin in his song The Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV.
You know I did it, right? Yep. I looked ‘em up. I. Was. Shocked. No, not for the reason you think. I discovered I’ve used four of the seven in dialog without a second thought. Are they crude? Sure. Sometimes people are crude. But are they bad? Well, I wouldn’t use them in front of my five year old granddaughter, but I suspect she’ll learn them from outside sources within the next year or two. Not the definitions, I hope, but certainly the words.
So ethically—and because I’m certainly not going to ban words I use—we’re down to three. Are they offensive? If they’re being used to describe me, absolutely. But if they’re used in dialog appropriate to the character and the circumstances—they’re still offensive. But they’re also appropriate.
And that’s the heart of the matter, really. Within the framework of the story, the writer isn’t speaking. His characters are. If certain words are appropriate vocabulary for a character, given the circumstances and the composition of your intended audience, then those words are perfectly acceptable. Because there are no “bad” words, just appropriate and inappropriate ones. They change from character to character, story to story, audience to audience, but every author knows what they are.
And I think it’s fair to warn potential readers with a disclaimer if your characters’ speech is a bit ripe. Then the reader has the choice to read, or not read, those stories that might offend.
ABOUT N. K. WAGNER
READ STORIES BY N. K. WAGNER
READ POETRY BY N.K. WAGNER
READ ESSAYS BY N. K. WAGNER
READ CRUMBS BY N. K. WAGNER
That’s a question I get asked a lot. Undertones reach from the giggly – “You’re so daring, you!” – to the reproachful – “Why don’t you write something respectable? Something you can show your grandmother?”
So first, let me say that I think erotic romance is a perfectly respectable genre. Sales numbers alone prove that it has a large following among perfectly normal people. (Even if many of those may not want their grandmothers to know about it, either.) More importantly, there is nothing “wrong,” “dirty” or “evil” about sex. Most people do it. Many of those who don’t wish they did. None of us would be here without it.
It’s a worrying trend in modern culture that sex, a natural part of life, is considered crude, wicked, and unmentionable in polite society, whereas movies that include amounts of violence none of us would want to experience in real life are rated PG-13. Which one of these do we want our children to consider “normal”?
But that only explains why I don’t oppose erotic romance. What makes me want to write it?
Mostly, it’s the artwork that serves as my muse. My writing has always been driven by people and their interactions and relationships. That’s what fascinates me. And for many people (and therefore many characters), the most important kind of relationship you can have – the one that really turns your life upside down, makes you reevaluate what matters and do crazy things – is love.
It’s certainly possible to tell a love story without including the sexy bits, but there’s a price for leaving them out: sex, if written right, isn’t just body parts in motion. A lot of it is about the character's head space and feelings. Letting go, trusting, giving and receiving pleasure, and seeing your partner come undone: that’s powerful stuff. Showing a couple only up to the bedroom door skips over the main thing they’ll be thinking about the next day at the breakfast table.
I write romance because I want to tell stories about people, and I want to include all the important bits. I write for the woman who wishes she had someone telling her these words, and for the man who has the feelings, but cannot say the words.
Poetry is much more than just words on a page. It is about what stirs up in your mind when you are directed to a particular idea, or in my case, the artwork and what it says to me. You can be erotic without being dirty. Once over the line, you have defined yourself.
Please keep it clean, but touch the hearts of your readers.