Despite what Joel Grey sang, Life is not a cabaret, old chum. Life is a cliché. Any student of history will back me up on this. Humankind’s wheels remain hopelessly rutted in the same tracks millennium after millennium. Sure the scenery changes some, and we do make occasional veers here and there, but those minor course corrections only tend to widen the ruts without ever getting us out of them. And why should it be any different? Humankind hasn’t evolved appreciably over the last few thousand years, so why should our behavior, attitudes, rituals change? Which brings me to the subject of creative writing (Wow! I’m still the master of the smooth segue).
Truth be told, in today’s writing salons, the cliché is as revered almost as much as it is reviled. While low-level editors experience apoplexy at the term ‘smooth as silk’, the cigar-chomping maven in the corner office fifteen floors up is inking a fat deal for the publication rights to the next saga featuring beautiful, skinny, vampires-on-cell-phones. Which, in turn, will perpetuate the next tidal wave of beautiful, skinny, vampire saga manuscripts our low-level friend on the lower floor will be forced to wade through. And heaven help the upstart with temerity enough to recommend something different—unless it has to do with wizards, or serial killers, or beautiful, skinny wizard serial killers who turn into wolves every full moon. (Pop Quiz: How many clichés can you spot in the paragraph above?)
Yes, I’m being (slightly) facetious.
I read a fair amount of work by inexperienced writers exploring their nascent talents. In discussing their work, I have to force myself to come up with synonyms for ‘cliché’ because, well, ‘cliché’ has become cliché. Cliché genres, cliché plots, cliché characters, cliché mannerisms, and plain old cliché cliches.
But all isn’t lost (another cliché). As I alluded to up top, humans are prone to a finite number of behaviors and passions, so similar stories are bound to crop up culture by culture. And we all know, once a story is told, it will be retold ‘til it’s a bald retread. Witness Rocky. (Even mentioning Rocky in this context probably constitutes a cliché). But shouldn’t these stories be retooled at the same time? Are we such a dull race that we insist on chewing the same gristle (cliché) over and over? Maybe not.
If we can’t be totally original, there is no reason we can’t be innovative. Star Wars took the tired western film genre, retooled it with ray guns and X-Wing Fighters and birthed a whole new … well, cliché. But, hey, always give kudos to the innovators. At the same time, though, do your damnedest not to jump on every newest bandwagon because you’ll just end up being another flute in the crowd (not a cliché). And whenever you find yourself in a crowd, you can bet your middle-aged spread (semi-cliché), you’ve become part of a cliché.
Listen, clichés can be made to work for you, too. The grizzled old sheriff is a familiar cliché (redundant), right? So why not turn the cliché on its head and make your sheriff young and gay and prone to quoting ‘50s Beat poetry? No spoof, either. You can make this guy just as serious as (no, I won’t say a heart attack) _________ . (Fill in the blank with your own original analogy.)
‘Pet peeve’ is a cliché, right? Well, I once wrote about a character who kept a pet cat named Peeve. See? Cliches can be used to advantage when you’re innovative enough to give them a twist.
Allow a character to use the old saw, ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ then let him add, especially if you got good aim’.
All I’m trying to say folks, is be sensitive, be aware of clichés. Big and small. Don’t write ‘em without giving them your own innovative twist. Why borrow clichés, when you can create them?
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
COFFEE HOUSE CHATTER
As a constant reader of James Patterson, my intent is to share the elements of the author’s unique and proven construction technique. I’ve selected KILL ALEX CROSS as the model for this discussion. The novel is one of the twenty-one bestselling books in the Cross series. It has outstanding properties that make the book a perfect example of a commercial thriller.
Kill Alex Cross was published in 2011. It has 117 chapters, 364 pages and is divided into five sections as Book One through Book Five, then comes the Epilogue: Family Ties, which starts on page 357. For some reason, the last two chapters follow. I can’t recall another novel, by any author, that continued beyond the Epilogue. And the book doesn’t have a Prologue.
So many great nuggets involving solid structure standout on nearly every page. A big one struck home from the first chapter. It's written in third person, limited, omniscient POV with a ton of fast-moving action. Like all the rest, it's short. Most of his chapters are two, three or four-pages and have limited description.
The big thing in the first chapter is that the president's two children have gone missing. There are no political or ransom demands and not a hint of any responsible terrorist organization being involved. All that's known is the statement that the president is told he will never see his son and daughter again.
Events leading up to the kidnapping involve the two children getting into a scuffle with another student. The altercation occurs between classes in a hallway of the Branaff private school in Washington, DC.
The kids are Ethan and Zoe Coyle, twelve and fourteen respectively. Zoe is a firecracker to say the least. She steps up to protect her brother by whacking the bully Ryan Townsend with a heavy textbook.
Of course, the ever-present Secret Service guys get into the mix and bring the fracas under control.
Within the next few paragraphs, Patterson pitches the first curve high inside and takes chapter one to the next level.
Zoe cons the SS agents into giving her and Ethan a few minutes alone.
The fuse has been lit. The kids ditch security and sneak out of the building into a small garden area so Zoe can grab a quick smoke. Ethan can’t talk her out of the idea and they, unknowingly, walk into their worst nightmare.
Ethan and Zoe are kidnapped.
All along, it's Cross' direct Presidential-Request fueling the story: “PLEASE FIND MY KIDS!” That plea, from the White House, is printed on the cover directly under the title. The book hits the ground running before the reader takes it off the shelf.
It’s the First Lady who actually summons Alex, and that meeting doesn’t happen until several chapters in. By then Patterson has already broken conventional formula a few times over. He doesn’t switch to first person narrative until chapter five, and then he takes the reader back to third person a short time later. The narrative POV continues to shift throughout the novel.
To break convention the way Patterson does, requires a lot of experience to develop the necessary skills to pull it off. His skill-set works like a fine-tuned machine.
What the author has done, right from page one, would draw low ratings from many of our die-hard purists. They might be demanding information the writer has held back. Everything appears to be scattered, hazy and lacking description and more detail. What do the characters look like? What are they wearing? The story seems chaotic! Whose story is this?
Therein lies the beauty of Patterson’s style and skill.
He isn’t going to give up any more information until its necessary, and he decides how, when and where.
The audience is kept in the dark regarding who’s behind the kidnapping until chapter eight, which is revealed on page twenty-six.
At this point, the author has written seven fast moving, short chapters in only twenty-six pages. That’s part of the backbone for good, thriller-type, commercial fiction.
Over the years, I’ve critiqued scores of first-time novelist’s work. By and large, the majority have a false mind-set that writing a book requires long, sweeping chapters filled with dense, descriptive paragraphs and highly detailed imagery. They are not considered High Concept, commercial fiction.
The reader doesn't hear about the kids again until over halfway through the novel. And then they learn the captives are still alive, drugged, hidden, and being cared for by a reluctant participant. That person is an armed man who has no idea where his orders are coming from or what he has to do next beyond protecting the children.
However, the character does know he’s a participant in a terrorist plot perpetrated and funded by highly skilled foreigners. They are on a deadly mission driven by hate for Americans and dedicated to killing as many as possible.
Patterson drops bits and pieces of information throughout the story’s journey.
One of those revelations doesn’t come until near the end. The man keeping an eye on the missing kids works from the inside and knows Alex Cross. Patterson pulls the character in from an earlier novel in the series. It is he who has the order to Kill Alex Cross.
Every brick in the construction of the plot is put in place at just the right time. For the most part, the reader doesn’t see it coming. But then, those elements are ever-present in the Patterson toolbox.
The author’s advantage is the fact that Cross fans know Alex well. He had previously been with MPD/Homicide and went to work as a profiler for the FBI. Alex is a licensed Psychiatrist and had a private practice in Washington.
Cross’s family is of major importance in his life and Patterson never fails to weave most of it into the series. Kill Alex Cross is no exception and it’s used in two clever ways: there are always a few scenes involving family members that serve to give the reader a break from the tension. Quite often, in the series, the family’s safety is part of the drama. In this novel, Nana-Momma, Alex’s Grandmother, and Matriarch, takes in an orphan delinquent off the street. It makes a delightful, yet tense sequence when the young, homeless, girl snatches Nana-Momma’s purse. The scruffy child plays into the family part of the story as Alex tries to justify the girl’s misdoings and insists she needs to go to Child Services. That lights Nana-Momma’s fuse and off go the fireworks.
By now, you must be aware of how Patterson’s complicated juggling act works to create a full, three dimensional, page-turning, novel. It’s not unlike putting together a two-thousand piece puzzle without the aid of a picture on the box.
I came across a couple of errors in character POV-shifts. Glitches of that kind are clearly mistakes and should’ve been corrected by the editor. I’d be more than a little upset if a publisher missed such obvious errors; especially from a top imprint like Little Brown.
James Patterson did take the liberty of tossing a bundle of rules out the window. Most of those would go unnoticed by the average reader. However, I’m sure a few die-hard purists have taken the author to task for breaking them.
Most of Patterson’s broken rules are minor and to give the book less than a top rating because of them is, in my opinion, snooty and trite.
The standout infractions are such things as repeated names and words. I know repetition is frowned upon. Quite often, depending on the author’s style, a repeated name or word here and there is acceptable. When done too frequently it becomes amateurish.
Factor in dialogue tags (he said/she said). Even though those specific tags are basically invisible to the general audience, they too can be irritating or distracting. Patterson uses those tags a lot. On the other hand, going to an extreme in order avoid them with replacement gestures is worse. Novice writers tend to fall into that trap frequently.
Other Patterson-habits are the use of too many adverbial dialogue tags, adverbs in general, and starting narrative lines with ing-words too often. He should know better on all counts.
I noticed an interesting narrative issue in Kill Alex Cross that could be seen as an error. It shows up several times. The author slips into second-person address in a brief thought-line, pulling the reader into the moment. The narrator is obviously thinking out loud and speaks directly to the audience. He doesn’t use italics as is the norm for internal dialogue. An experienced writer/reader would notice it immediately. Here are a couple of examples:
This sequence takes place at the scene of a wreck following a high-speed chase. It’s on the first page of chapter six and Alex is questioning the dying driver: “So who are the missing kids?” I asked him, but he just shook his head. He wasn’t going to tell me, was he? What was that about?
The last two short sentences are thought with no italics, and delivered directly to the reader. Patterson has just put the reader at the scene as if he or she were standing right beside him.
Here’s another example with the same guy, now on the way to ER. This one is all narrative with the effect of the reader sitting beside Cross in the ambulance: We’re wasting precious time on this guy. That was exactly what the kidnapper wanted, wasn’t it?
Similar examples turn up throughout the novel. They’re always used in first person narrative.
Stephen King and David Baldacci have done the same thing from time to time. As a writer/reader, I’m never snatched out of the story like some reviewers claim they have been.
Patterson is prone to using a lot of italics, one-word sentences, paragraphs and the ellipses, along with a good measure of the long-dash. I’ve been accused of the same things and that won’t change any time soon.
I saved a closing Patterson-twist for last, as he does with the ending pages of Kill Alex Cross.
Throughout the novel, the reader knows the terrorism is headed by a husband and wife team with the woman at the helm. Several sequences reveal the couple’s backstory and how mission-driven they are. They, as well as every supporting terrorist, carry cyanide capsules. If faced with capture it’s their sworn duty to use the deadly caps. Chapters 106 through 109 are devoted to the gathering of the terrorists on a cold, wind-swept Atlantic beach. The scene is set at sunrise. For the first time, the ultimate leader of the operation, known as Grandfather, meets with the couple and the few remaining cell members. He speaks to the woman in Arabic, praising her for dedication and commitment to the mission.
The author doesn’t use any accent or dialect in the exchange of dialogue.
Unless the story requires foreign language or ethnic accents, it’s wise to avoid doing so. Simply state the type of speech the character has and continue in normal English. Readers are often irritated by a writer’s attempt at clever speech patterns causing them to stumble over strange spellings and odd dialogue. Below is an example.
The Grandfather asks for one final act of obedience from her and her husband. Without hesitation, her spouse popped the capsule and bit down on it.
She did not.
In one swift motion the woman pulled her weapon and killed the Grandfather and his two bodyguards.
Patterson closes the scene with the following third person narrative:
Coming to this country, she’d been prepared to die at any time. And in a way, she realized, she just had. Hala Al Dossari’s life was over. Another one would have to begin.
Somewhere. Somehow. Her life as a warrior would continue.
But who, Hala wondered, will I fight?
The conclusion of the novel continues through chapter 117 without any further mention of Hala Al Dossari.
All loose ends are cleared up along with the bodies on the beach, and Alex conducts an interview with the president’s kids in the presence of their mother. Then a debriefing with the president in the Oval Office.
One of my reviewers caught the tense-shift in the scene below:
The Grandfather asks for one final act of obedience from her and her husband. Without hesitation, her spouse pops the capsule and bites down on it.
She does not.
In one swift motion the woman pulls her weapon and kills the Grandfather and his two bodyguards.
Thriller type commercial fiction demands a tricky pattern. The story must move quickly. Short paragraphs and chapters, along with brief descriptions, accomplish that result.
One rule of thumb would be: if the scene doesn’t need description, leave it out. Patterson avoids over-stuffing scenes with minor details until they play an important role in the setting. As an example, he fills the tense rescue sequence with vivid detail. Right up to that moment the fate of the two kids is unknown. They’ve been kept in a falling-down, abandoned barn. Their prison has been a damp, dark root-cellar and they have been drugged. Little by little, a military rescue team carefully uncover the hidden pit-like cellar. Patterson milks the sequence to the MAX.
I don’t believe any self-respecting reader would put the novel down during the unfolding suspense of that short chapter. The author employs the same skill to other important sequences designed to keep the reader hooked.
ABOUT TED TILLOTSON
STORIES BY TED TILLOTSON
Fear: The Black Death, part 3
The last we heard from our amateur author, it was balls-to-the walls rewrites and editing. Then, the first symptoms began to appear. My muse would disappear for no good reason. A new love, perchance? Interesting, but not life changing. Ah, if I’d only recognized the tell-tale signs earlier (no pun, well, maybe a little one.) Next came the dreaded procrastination and excuses. We’ve heard them all before. “I’ll start tomorrow, I’m so busy today.” “First, I’ll do _____ (fill in the blank) then I’ll sit down and write.” “But, I’m working today, babysitting, visiting a friend.” Blah, blah, blah. All are the first critical signs that The Black Death is knocking at your door.
As I sit at the death bed of my muse, I ask myself where did I go wrong. She is on life-support, IVs of creativity and motivation. But, it can’t go on this way. I can feel her spirit drifting away from me. Am I keeping her with me because of selfishness? Am I past hope of reviving her? Would I be merciful just to pull the plug now and be done with it?
Alright, enough of the dying muse metaphors, I can’t write. My novel those two months before I was all fired up to edit/rewrite, has a layer of dust I could write my name in, if I could, well, you know. Yes, it’s been a busy summer. I continued to work at school and home with an autistic young man, I am looking at back surgery, and my son is very ill. But, my novel should have been my escape and a way to release stress. Instead, I turned it into an anxiety point in my life. Now, I see The Black Death’s real poison; the loss of passion.
Where I felt desire and hope, I now sense emptiness. I grieve the loss of love for the written word. I don’t know who I am any more. Very soon I need to make a decision, to “pull the plug” and let my writing die a natural death or to keep trying to breathe life into that corpse that was my dream of being a writer. Not a decision I make lightly, but maybe it’s time to face reality and do the right thing.
Fear: The Black Death, part 4
It’s done. Just a few hours ago, I would never have guessed I would write that. I have completed the rewrites/editing of my novel. Like a dreaded dentist visit, it was way less painful than I imagined.
To bring everyone up-to-date, my second novel is about a young girl with autism and two friends who come to her aid. “The F.N.B.” (Friends Not Bullies) sat finished but unpolished for months. I had lost my passion, confidence, and motivation. I had written a couple of articles for Page & Spine about my progress. But, after weeks of writing nothing, I was about to give up. I wrote, what I thought was my last installment of “Fear…” The dear creator of this site refused to let me and told me to read “Write Something, Damn It!” by Lee Hill. (TWT-Jun’13 – ed.) The combination got me rethinking my decision.
One morbid thought moved me to finish the novel. In the next few months, I will be having back surgery. I have a compression fracture that will not allow me to stand or walk for more than ten or fifteen minutes. I am in constant pain. The fear of back surgery is sending me into constant panic attacks. The surgery has to be done but I know the risks. One, even if remote, is paralysis. If that happened, what would be one of my biggest regrets? I knew then I could not leave my book unfinished. Even if no one ever reads it, if it's never published, I will know I completed it. I said it was morbid.
Maybe that is one of the best motivators; fear. When I began this series called “Fear: The Black Death”, I never imagined that it would be fear of being physically unable to write that would move me to do it while I can. We authors are a dramatic lot. But, whatever it takes -- right?
A huge thank-you to Nancy and Lee for just the right pushes when I needed it. Anybody know a good agent?
ESSAYS BY D.J.S. HARRINGTON
Eager to learn more about Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I left my house early on the day of the annual forum. I slowly made my way from the parking lot to the hotel, wondering what insight I might glean about my chronic illness.
Sticking on my name tag made me think of the last time I had worn one. It was a few months back at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation conference. But today I was not a writer; today I was a patient with Multiple Sclerosis.
I limped over to the book table and hooked my cane on my wrist. As I flipped through a book written by one of the forum speakers, I heard a woman say, “I enjoyed reading your article this morning.”
I glanced around before realizing the woman was talking to me. “What article?” I asked.
“Why, the one about the cane. It’s in Wisconsin magazine in today’s Milwaukee Journal.
I had been watching for my article every Sunday for the past four months. This was the one Sunday I had not seen the paper. I was amazed that the woman recognized my name; I thought only writers paid attention to bylines.
For a moment, I forgot how anxious I was for the forum to begin. Here was a stranger who actually had read my article. How appropriate that the essay dealt with my having MS and how easily my four-year-old daughter accepted my using a cane, while the adults around me had difficulty accepting my handicap.
Until the MS forum, only my family and closest friends knew of my publishing credits. My articles, poems, and children’s stories had appeared in a dozen magazines. Unfortunately, the average reader never heard of most of them.
Of course, those sales were exciting. But they were only exchanges of paper through the U.S. mail: manuscripts, letters, checks, printed pages with my byline—-the start of a modest writing career with small successes along the way.
As I filled my scrapbook with my published works, I couldn’t help feeling that something important was missing. I wondered if the elusive element had to do with my being virtually unknown in the field of magazine writing.
It wasn’t until my article appeared in the local paper’s Sunday magazine that I discovered what was lacking—-personal contact between readers and me. My simple essay entitled “Why the Cane?” brought the readers to life.
Several women with MS called me on the phone to empathize with me. A woman, recently diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, called to say my article gave her the courage to admit that it was time she bought a cane.
I welcomed my first fan mail and congratulatory cards. A dear friend from my past wrote that she admired my willingness to bear my soul in print. Clippings of the article filtered in with hand-written notes of “thought you might like an extra copy.”
I enjoyed being recognized as the author of “Why the Cane?” But the most rewarding incident occurred at an MS support group meeting. Cindy, one of the members, approached me and lightly touched my arm. “Remember the advice you gave me to buy a cane so that I’ll stop stumbling and falling?”
I nodded and glanced approvingly at her new cane.
“You’ve got to read this excellent article,” she said. “It’s about a woman who struggled with the decision to use a cane, just like I did.”
Obviously, Cindy hadn’t noticed my name in the byline.
A few weeks later, I visited a library in a neighboring town. After handing the librarian my card, she said, “I enjoyed your article in Wisconsin magazine so much that I saved it. I was planning to show it to my out-of-town friends. Now I’ll get to say that I met you.”
I rushed home, eager to inform my husband that I was starting to feel like a celebrity. When I walked through the door, he handed me a message from the Wisconsin chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The director felt my essay contained a poignant message, and she wanted permission to reprint it in their quarterly magazine.
Until “Why the Cane?” was published, I wasn’t aware of the impact my writing had on readers. Now I know that my words rouse their emotions and cause them to reflect on the world around them.
My sales are no longer mere exchanges of emails and paper. They are the sharing of my innermost thoughts with men, women, and children—-readers with voices of their own.
originally published in Byline Magazine, September, 1991