Monthly Archives: August 2012

What to do about clichés: advice from Dr Kim

The problem with clichés is that they are often not noticeable: writers think they’d know one  because it’s obvious: “she thanked her lucky stars”; “he had a heart of gold”.  They’d never use one of those tired old expressions! But new clichés are being made all the time: “dealt a savage blow”, “sorely mistaken”, “grim determination”, “dripping with sarcasm”. All of these are clichés, and all of them are in frequent use in fiction. The faster you write, the more likely you are to reach for a cliché as a shortcut. Readers don’t engage with clichés, and too many can make writing seem tired and boring. Remember though, that clichés are overused because they work well. That is, most clichés were originally very good ideas. But like a rock being rolled around in the sea, it eventually loses its texture and becomes smooth (which is why they often go unnoticed).

  • First, train yourself to identify a cliché. It’s usually figurative. For example, “sorely mistaken”: mistakes are not usually physically painful so this adds the idea of metaphorical physical pain to a mistake. It’s a way of intensifying the mistaken-ness. Often the best way to identify a cliché, though, is simply to ask yourself if this collection of words has appeared together in this order many times before.
  • It can help to think back to the original sentiment of the cliché. Ask yourself, what was originally interesting or fresh about it? Can you write that idea back in, a different way? eg. “glowing reviews” — the idea is that the reviews contain so much praise they emit light.  Can you reconfigure? “Reviews bright enough to read by”?
  • Or perhaps you don’t need the cliché at all, you might not want to draw that much attention to something which is a side detail: “good reviews” or “excellent reviews” can work just fine. So another option is to scale the cliché back to literality.
  • Remember too, that some clichés are so time-honoured that they can continue in use and bother few people; they’ve become almost as invisible as if they were literal. I’ve yet to find a better way to say “burst into tears” or “her heart sank”.
  • Also, sometimes characters talk in clichés. An unimaginative character may very well say “for the umpteenth time”, and it’s appropriate to characterise them in this manner.
  • It’s useful to think of clichés as bandaids over gaps where there something specific should have been written. When you find one, ask yourself, “What am I reallytrying to say here?”

Clichés aren’t an evil in themselves, but a flag that something evil might be going on. If you find one, consider it carefully. If it’s not pulling its weight in your writing, then do something about it.

– Dr Kim

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Sensibly Spellbound

I made a promise a while back I would contribute regular writing exercises. I’ve been pretty slack on that front. I hope this’ll make up. But bear with me.  It’s kind of a book review with a writing exercise at the end.

I’m currently writing an exegesis to accompany a group (flock, herd, pack?) of short stories I’ve written for my creative writing Honours project. The ‘thing’ each of these stories has in common is shape-shifting – each tale has a central character that shifts form from human to other-than-human, or vice versa, or something in between.  The theoretical bit I am in the midst of, looks at a bunch of stories (by more famous people than me) that also have a strong element of shape-shifting in them, and examines what kind of stuff gets opened up when metamorphosis is given such an overt presence.

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Hathor – Susan Seddon Boulet

The thing about shape-shifting is, when you start to really think about it and engage with it, it opens up into an incredibly rich and ever-expanding territory. It’s big. It’s fun. There’s so much to explore. You kind of start out with these loose ideas about human/other-than-human relations and end up being taken on a wild ride through genetic engineering and poststructural cyborgs, through ecofeminism and postcolonial thought via fairy tales and mythology, and then deep inside the philosophy of phenomenology and finding yourself on the doorstep of animism, opening up to the inherently aware life of everything around us. Well, that’s what happened to me.

All along the way I knew that I wanted to speak about the way shape-shifting in stories is not something made-up and magical, at its essence (if it has one), but is a process inherent in all life, and when it happens in stories, it is addressing something both ordinary (in that it happens all the time) and profound (in that when we take it personally, we can see that it expands and connects us to EVERYTHING).

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Ok, I’m being a bit abstract about all this, I know. I’m still forming these thoughts into something that can make some kind of sharable sense. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share the beautiful articulation of thought that I have found in a book called ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram. This book is that rare thing – the one you start to read and shivers go down your spine. The one you read and you don’t feel like you’re being talked to so much as feeling like you’ve been plunged deep inside a reciprocal conversation, because each bit you read seems to be a direct answer to an ache that’s been in your heart since the time you first started to figure out how most people live in this world. It’s rare in a book, and even more rare in a theoretical, intellectual book.

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And the marvellous thing is, the way the book does this, it actually embodies what it is speaking about, which is about perception being ‘an experience of reciprocal encounter’ when we pay attention to it at its most direct intersection with what it is we perceive ‘prior to all our conceptualisations and definitions.’

This recognition of perception as a dynamic exchange has a heck of a lot to do with writers and writing. Our perceptions are the base materials that we use in our craft, they’re what we paint with, weave with, build with and blend and bend into all the countless creations possible when words are turned into imagery. No matter how imaginative we are, no imagery is really pulled straight from our heads. It is from our experiences with the world, with things, with other beings, with landscapes and rooms and objects and voices and wavelengths and winds – all the myriad experiences open to the perception of the senses of our physical body, that this imagery is based upon, whether first-hand, or handed down over centuries from our ancestors.

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Der, you might say. That’s obvious. And okay, maybe it is. But it’s so goddam obvious I think we miss the profundity of it much of the time.

Take this, for example: ‘… in so far as my hand knows hardness and softness, and my gaze knows the moon’s light, it is as a certain way of linking up with the phenomenon and communicating with it. Hardness and softness, roughness and smoothness, moonlight and sunlight, present themselves in our recollections not pre-eminently as sensory contents but as certain kinds of symbioses, certain ways the outside has of invading us and certain ways we have of meeting this invasion…’ They’re the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose major work was to investigate and elaborate the philosophical terrain known as ‘phenomenology’, which is the intellectual basis of Abram’s book.

There is something profound in recognising that what is ‘outside’ our bodies, can ‘invade’ us in the process of perception. As Abram points out in his book, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is full of such words. Throughout his work, all that we traditionally describe as ‘passive and inert’, is ‘consistently described in the active voice’, so that the ‘sensible world’ beckons, summons, ‘holds itself aloof’, expresses itself, takes possession and even ‘thinks itself within me’. Abram suggests that this isn’t just a pretty, poetic turn of language, but is an inevitable result of what happens when you try to speak about the world as it is directly experienced, rather than shutting off from it.

So here’s my writing exercise for those who are up for it (and the potential profundity it may reveal in the ordinary world surrounding you): write about the ‘sensible world’ in the active voice. Any bit of it, whichever bit of it presents itself to you. It might be a cup or the sky. It might be a cat or a rock, a breeze or a building. See what happens. (eg. I could write quite a bit about the persuasive powers of my bed in the morning! It frequently resists releasing me. I think it makes itself more comfortable and snuggly on purpose as soon as the alarm clock rings. Maybe they have an agreement…)

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image by Miftah Fauzan

But if you remain unconvinced of the worth of this exercise for your writing (or your life), read this:

“We conceptually immobilise or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies… Only by affirming the animate-ness of perceived things do we allow our words to emerge directly from the depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world.”

So, go for it. See what happens when you open up to experiencing the world as awake and alive and active and then write from this openness. I dare ya.

Romance Writers Conference Gold Coast 2012

What a glorious conference! This was my first time at a Romance Writers of Australia Conference, and I had the good fortune to attend with my good friend and fellow writer, Charlotte Nash.

Can I just say, it was magnificent. Everyone I met was super supportive and genuinely interested in hearing about projects (Yes, I couldn’t but help mention Bikie Werewolves in Tasmania). Published authors were friendly and approachable, the RWA volunteers were easy to find and super helpful. And the hotel. Well, let’s just say those beds were like sleeping on freaking AIR.

Tell you more about this awesome conference, you say? Alright then…

How not to Pitch to a publisher
I was lined up to pitch my polished manuscript, Blackgoat Watch to one publisher and then another the next day. Can I just say…curse my nerves! Curse them to the pits of HELL. My first pitch went something like this:

(Rebekah finishes her pitch, realising too late it was too long.)

PUBLISHER: Nice, nice. (pause) So…is there romance in it?

ME: Oh. Yeah. Well, there’s that guy I mentioned. And they have sex.

PUBLISHER: I see. And where did you say this story was set?

ME: Oh, you know, a place I’ve called The Weald. A realm, like, if Narnia smoked methamphetamine and forgot birth control.

PUBLISHER: I see….

Cue internal scream of noooooooooo! That is NOT better than what I was supposed to say, which was: “A pre-industrial fantasy world”. Publisher asked for a couple of chapters though, so a nice outcome, though I suspect he was taking pity on me, I was pretty shaky. Not the greatest moment in pitching history. Fortunately, I learnt from my errors, trimmed my pitch to a neat 30 seconds and made sure I mentioned the romantic angle. The next day I pitched and it went great. What can you do? DON’T DWELL REBEKAH, DON’T DWELL.  MOVE ON. NOTHING TO SEE HERE.

Standout Sessions
A stand out session for me was the “Putting Sizzle into Every Scene” with amazing and hilarious Fiona Lowe. She talked about vital elements for a brilliant love scene and how unresolved sexual tension is a powerful tool. She also showed some wonderful examples of body language in kissing scene. See here…meeeeoooow Does anyone recognise the first kiss? Is that Daniel Day-Lewis? How could I miss this movie? And another kissy-kissy clip she showed us… (Now, what is this North and South business? Who is the guy in the train? Who is the woman? Stuff them…WHO IS THAT GUY KISSING HER? I shall be hunting down this BBC series to watch, my bosoms all aquiver in anticipation.)

Of course, in my opinion, one of the best kiss scenes is the one from Drive. Oh yes. Oh noice. Very noice.

The panel of erotic writers talking about their craft was interesting. I’m still wondering about the story one author told us she wrote, about a women who bakes a gingerbread man who then comes alive and they have erotic sex (Don’t visualise it, Bek, just don’t…aaahhhh! My eyes! My eyes! All that gingerbread!)

Alexandra Sokoloff had some great things to say about techniques on the four act story structure. I’ve bought her books online and am looking forward to utilising what I’ve learnt in my structural edits for Bikie Werewolves and Griorwolf.

Cocktail Party
The cocktail party was a blast, though I think I had just as much fun getting ready as I did at the party, as there was knarly-pants 90’s music on the telly (When Bobbi Brown and Vanilla Ice were hot). I swear it felt like I was getting ready for my senior ball. Cue montage of Charlotte and I, getting ready…

Meeting people
The variety of people was outstanding and everyone was keen to chat about writing. Some of the interesting people I met were fellow writer Karyn Brinkley and her rather interesting handmade brooches. I also met the talented up-and-coming writer, Whitney Keevers-Eastman.

In Conclusion
So, now I am charged up to edit and polish Bikie Werewolves (I really need to think of a better name…like…His Dangerous Passion Stick…or something) and book 2 of my dark fantasy series, Griorwolf. I am super psyched to beef up my romance subplots and create those dark and dangerous hero’s Rebekah everyone adores. Yeeess. Just like Michael Fassbender. We’ll even forgive his rather unattractive skinny gymnastic hips. Oh, Mr Fassy Pants….how you shall inspire me!

An awesome adventure of sci-fi, Sydney trains, and Indiana Jones (and a little muse about e-books)

Bek and I have spent the last two days at the fabulous RWA conference, where the impacts of digital publishing are discussed as much as anywhere. Among the bonuses oft cited is “instant gratification” – the ability to go from covet to cover in one click. That phrase has been spoken many times in my presence these last few months, but for some reason today (maybe because of my gallivanting to Sydney last week), this story came to mind.

Last year, after the Brisbane floods, I spent a few months working in Sydney. It was, at times, pretty lonely. The loss of home was especially felt (I blogged about it here), and books were pretty important. I was living in Chatswood, where a massive Borders closed its doors, and, in the dregs of the store (which steadily resembled The Nothing eating Fantasia), I found books 1 and 3 of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy. I figured I’d find book 2 later. But I was so engrossed in the story, I unexpectedly finished book 1 (Forty Signs of Rain) late one afternoon.

And I had to know what came next. Right then.

At least, as “right then” as was possible for someone without an e-reader. A quick trip to all the local bookstores revealed the horrible truth – no one had book 2 (Fifty Degrees Below). The closest I got was Dymocks, who had a copy in their city story. But I was in Chatswood. It was half an hour before closing. And I was a 20 minute train ride away. A single second assembled all my mental power into one thought:

I can make it.

I ran. Up the long hill from Westfield, past Gloria Jeans and the buskers, and down the stairs in twos. Punched out a ticket with adrenaline-fuelled precision. Slammed through the station gates and up the stairs. The train was on the platform. If I missed it, the next would be too late. I would miss the store, and the next chapter in the story.

I can make it.

Doors were closing. That gap was the width of opportunity and I chucked everything at it. A real tunnel vision moment. I certainly didn’t stand clear … but then this was Sydney. No QR rules there. And, miracle of miracles, I scraped through, pulling up dramatically to avoid collecting the opposite doors. I was pretty chuffed. I was Indiana Jones of the city! I rode all the way into the city, lowering my heart-rate and mapping the path to the store. A well-timed light change got me there with minutes to spare. Another two minutes and I owned the book, and was heading back to the train, risking life and limb by reading it while crossing roads.

I loved that book, and today I imagine, with an e-reader I could have had it within a few seconds, instead of a heart-pumping thirty minutes. But the thing is, I love the story of how I got the book just as much as the story within it. It was an adventure only possible because instant gratification wasn’t. And maybe we need a little more of that 🙂