Sunday, November 30, 2008

Clichés

I apologize for this post being late -- and for the fact that it's a fairly short one. The holiday season hit my house full-force this year, and earlier than I'd expected, so it's thrown me off-stride. (Note to self: do a post soon on how hard it is to write in the midst of frantic family festivities.) Still, I feel compelled to talk about clichés, because I just encountered two manuscripts filled with them.

So what is a cliché? According to Wikipedia, a cliché is an "idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel." For "idea" I'd substitute "phrase or concept," since there are overused phrases as well as overused character types and plot developments.

Here are some examples of overused phrases, provided by Carol Gorman in an article called "The Critical Last Step: Revision" (in From Inspiration to Publication, edited by Pamela Glass Kelly and Mary Spelman, published by the Institute of Children's Literature): a shiver ran up her spine; her eyes sparkled; his eyes flashed with anger; her heart melted; his heart skipped a beat. (Lots of body parts here!)

Overused phrases pop up because the writer has been too lazy to come up with a fresh way to express a common idea. They're fairly common (even experienced authors sometimes get lazy!), but also fairly easy to root out during the revision process. Clichés related to plots and characters, though, are very hard to eliminate, because they're typically woven into the fabric of the story-- and they're also hard for a beginning writer to recognize unless the writer is widely read.

If someone hasn't read a lot of novels, from different genres and different eras, that person doesn't know that a particular type of character or a certain plot element has been overused. For example, if you're writing a fantasy but haven't read any, how would you know that other authors have employed so many evil black-cloaked riders on all-black horses that if you have them too, your novel can't be called entirely fresh? Or that if you're writing a novel about modern-day Antisemitism and show neo-Nazis breaking a shopkeeper's window with a brick tied to a threatening note, your scene will be one of many that have already been written?

Chances are good that if you've seen a certain type of character or scene in a movie or TV show, it's already become a cliché in novels -- so whenever you find yourself reaching for some old, familiar idea, stop yourself, shake away the laziness, and work hard to come up with something new. And if you're not already a reader, become one! I've said this before, but I'll say it again: I don't know a single best-selling novelist who wasn't also a big reader of novels prior to getting published -- or a single best-selling nonfiction writer who doesn't also enjoy reading lots of nonfiction. So make sure you read as much as you write -- even if it means slipping away from all those visiting relatives over the holidays. (Ahhhhh. Talk about an incentive!)

A postscript: Right after posting the above, I found a discussion of clichés in a book on screenwriting, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. He talks about the importance of having a huge body of knowledge in regard to films that have already been made (sound familiar?), saying, "Your knowledge of a few movies you like is not enough. It is also not enough to know all the movies of the past five years. You have to go back, see the lineage of many types of movies, know what movie begat what in the line of succession, and how the art was advanced by each." (And as I suggested earlier, the same is true with novels, if you want to be a novelist.) Snyder adds that "to explode the clichés, to give us the same thing . . . only different, you have to know what genre your movie is part of, and how to invent the twists that avoid pat elements." Avoiding "pat elements" -- that's what it's all about, when it comes to clichés. You can start with something tried and true, but you'd better add something new, something fresh, some twist to the mix, or your creation will fall flat.

Happy writing!!!!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

An Honest Appraisal

Yesterday I got a call from someone asking me if I would look over her 16-year-old son's book manuscript. "He's written a fantasy novel," she said. "And we've already sent it to several publishers and agents, but no one has responded. It's been weeks!"

I resisted the urge to say how rare it is for a minor to get a book contract unless his parents are 'in the biz.' Instead I asked a few questions about the project, and here's what the mom told me:

1. The book is for children in upper elementary or middle school -- or maybe it's for teens, or possibly for adults. Hey, wait, this is a novel for all ages!
2. The book is 150,000 words.
3. The book is the first in a series, so it has no ending.
4. The author has never written anything before or taken any sort of writing classes (except the English classes in his public schools), and his book didn't need to be revised after he wrote it. He's been submitting his first draft.
5. The author has never read a fantasy novel himself, but he really enjoys the Harry Potter movies.
6. In fact, the author's story is just like one of those movies. It's going to be a huge hit!

All of this told me that the kid's manuscript will never sell. Here's why:

1. The book doesn't have a well-defined audience. Most editors won't buy a manuscript they don't know how to market, so you'd better know who you're writing for. (J.K. Rowling broke into print with a children's book, despite the fact that adults read it too, and the marketing campaign was geared accordingly.) And in children's fiction, content is as important as reading level, because kids of different ages have different interests -- which is why books for young children typically involve home, family, and pets, whereas books for teens often concern social issues, relationships, romance, trauma, etc.

2. Each audience, and each genre, comes with its own word-count requirements. Most middle-grade books are around 30-35,000 words. A teen novel is usually no more than 60,000 words. Fantasy novels tend to run longer, sometimes lots longer -- but 150,000 words is really really REALLY long, and most publishers don't want to invest so much money in a new author. (The longer the book, the higher the printing and shipping costs.) Stephen King was able to write all those huge books -- after writing the very slim Carrie the first time out -- because he'd proven he could sell lots of copies of them.

3. Every story needs an ending of some kind. It's never okay to say, "Well, I can't figure out how to resolve this plot thread, so I'll just deal with it in the next book." Your last pages can suggest that your novel's world and its characters and/or story will be revisited -- in fact, your ending can make this necessary, providing you've already been guaranteed publication of a follow-up novel -- but you'd better give your readers some sort of satisfaction at the end of your novel or they'll be very unhappy with you. (We'll talk more about endings in the future, when I start discussing story structure.)

And as for the notion of a series -- it's difficult (though not impossible) for a first-time author to get a contract for a series, again because of the money investment. But the ones who achieve this feat typically have a fresh new idea that really excites the marketing guys. Examples of this would be Generation Dead by Daniel Waters (which I'm assuming was sold as a series because the ending is fairly open-ended, though a main plot point is resolved) and the "Five Ancestors" novels by Jeff Stone. Stone got a six-figure deal for his series because his books were the first martial-arts fiction aimed specifically at middle-grade boys; Waters' novel has a clever premise bound to appeal to its teen audience: teenage zombies are just like living teens -- partying, dating, going to school -- but experience painful discrimination because they're, well, dead.

4. I've got to admire the kid for tackling a novel as his first writing project -- but trying to sell it is just asking for disappointment. He needs to study his craft and write a lot of things before leaping into the marketplace. And NO author should send out a first draft! Multiple revisions are a must in this business. (Hence the old saying: "Books aren't written; they're rewritten.") And while an experienced author might be able get away with turning in a less-than-perfect effort (with the notion that it will be 'tweaked' later, during the publication process), a first-time author needs his or her manuscript to be as fine-tuned as possible.

5. I don't know of any successful fiction authors who aren't also passionate readers. But if they're out there, then they at least read novels in their own genre, so they know how such books are written. If you're not familiar with your genre, you're doomed. (And no, movies don't count -- unless you want to be a screenwriter instead of a novelist.)

6. Do I need to comment on this one?

So now you're probably wondering whether I told the mom all of this. Yes, I did, though with more tact than I'm using here. And in the end, she still decided to hire me to help her son revise his novel, and to develop a list of fantasy novels and how-to-write books for him to read. I'll let you know how this works out -- and in the meantime, I hope you get lots of your own reading and writing done!