Category Archives: 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
When I was in primary school, Happy Days became the most popular show on television. My dad, ever a dickwad, wouldn’t let me watch it however. He was very keen that I didn’t follow the flock and was sure that watching “American rubbish” like Happy Days would corrupt me in some way. Then, many many months (maybe even a year) later, he relented and I got to watch my very first ep of the show.
The next day at school, I could finally talk about the show. Haha, I said with a forced yet knowing laugh, did you see what Fonzie did last night? Isn’t he cool? I wasn’t to know that by then, everybody was already very familiar with the Fonz’s antics, and I had said the equivalent of “hey isn’t that yellow thing up there in the sky the sun?”
Similarly, I got an iPad last week, primarily for the purposes of reading, and have been downloading books like a maniac. Oh god it’s so convenient. You see the book you like and you go “click” and then you have the book, you have the book RIGHT THERE ALREADY, and you can just read it. You can read the book. Just after you had the thought that you might like to read the book!
So I’m saying to everybody, hey e-books! And they’re all looking at me like they did back in primary school, when I spoke about the Fonz like I’d just discovered him.
So yeah. Hey. E-books!
- Look to your verbs. If you read a page back and it seems lifeless and flabby, find every verb on the page and see if you can improve it. Make a point of collecting great verbs every time you read or watch a movie or have a conversation. Verbs like gasp, surge, quiver, and drench work so hard. Verbs are the muscle of a sentence, and can punch up dull writing in a moment.
- Chillax on chapter one. Easily the most common writing problem I see is the writer trying far too hard to impress in the first few pages of a story. Many stories warm up and get fantastic after page five, but by then the publisher has already put you on the “reject” pile. Often your first chapter is so overworked that it’s uncomfortable to read. My advice is to finish the book, then scrap the first chapter all together and write it again without looking at the original.
- Don’t write all your fun scenes first. Write in order. If you give a child her custard first, she’s probably not going to be all that interested in her Brussels sprouts.
- Be in a viewpoint, always. At the start of every scene make sure you know exactly whose viewpoint you are going to be in, and write the scene from inside their head. A story details a relationship between characters and events. The most impact is always achieved from describing that relationship from the inside.
- Plan your story in advance, even if it’s only loosely. It will save you so much time and heartache and, contrary to popular belief, it’s actually MORE fun to do it this way. When you know that an exciting turning point is approaching, the scene and the ones around it can play out in your mind over and over as you think them through, becoming richer the more you anticipate it.
- Most important of all: keep going. This is a tough craft, and it’s an even tougher business. Dream big if you want, but your dreams can’t sustain you on a day-to-day basis. The only thing that can sustain you is the work. Do it because you love it; because not to write hurts. Do it because you are mad about your story and obsessed with your characters. Don’t make it another chore to fit into your busy day: make it the special place you go when your day has been rubbish. Keep going and keep going, and then keep going some more.