Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Proper Care and Feeding of Cliches

Avoid cliches.

This advice is so commonly found in writing self-help manuals and agent blogs as to be rightfully regarded as an advice cliche.

Lists abound which purport to give guidance to the unwary writer of fantasy (or SF) as to which characters or plot lines one should eschew if one wishes to become a writer of good taste and discernment.

Examples of such lists may be found here or here or here .

The aspiring writer of fantasy should be thankful for such thoughtful sage counsel: after all, who wants to be called a Tolkien or Jordan clone?

But I have a question.

Such lists look suspiciously like a compendium of standard fantasy conventions, those kinds of characters and plot lines which define the genre. So...if we entirely avoid those sorts of characters and plot lines, will what we write actually be regarded as fantasy?

Fantasy readers have come to expect that a fantasy novel will provide them with fantasy characters, and unless one is as gifted and original as Tolkien, how does one produce a fantasy novel? (Actually Tolkien's originality consisted of recasting ancient British myth into fantasy: but I digress...).

Just what we Writers needed, another source of angst.

Now I understand that for Pubbers, whose daily immersion in the POS (Pile of Slush, which reputedly contains unwashed pap in such quantity and lack of quality as to produce crossing of the eyes, drooling, and in rare cases, loose bowels), may be very tired of seeing the same sort of thing repeatedly. I have a feeling that some of the advice from agents regarding the overuse of fantasy cliches is a subconconcious plea to aspiring writers to give them something different. Even a daily diet of filet mignon would become tiresome after a while.

And another question: if we shouldn't write in fantasy cliches, how is it that so many Barnes & Noble shelves are filled with cliched fantasy novels, hmmmm?

Yet more angst.

I have come to several Conclusions regarding this troubling paradox. And as usual, I find myself a little at odds with the standard advice. I believe cliches are not only necessary in fantasy, but the writer who discards them does so at his own peril - but of course there are caveats.

Conclusion 1) Old themes satisfy
I have mentioned before that good writing touches something deep within the human psyche, and that good stories succeed, in part I believe, because they pluck certain common strings in all hearts. Even Shakespeare and Homer and Tolkien made use of ancient material.

Conclusion 2) Human experience is cliched
People have similar fears, desires, and problems. Novels reflect this.

Conclusion 3) Cliches can provide problems or solutions
The 'ignorant farm boy' protag is a delightful fund of ignorance, providing natural opportunities for all sorts of self-inflicted drama, while the Hero's Journey is a natural, even expected, story arc.

Conclusion 4) A different 'feel' is needed
While cliches may well be necessary to define the genre, it does not follow that each and every writer should treat them in the same way. Both Harry and Ged attended a wizard's college, but the texture, the warp and woof of each of their universes are widely dissimilar.

Conclusion 5) There are new Readers born every day
Cliches aren't cliches for new Readers: they can be as fresh to them as the day the stories were first written. I recently introduced a friend of mine to Stephen Lawhead, specifically his Hood trilogy. Now what is more cliched than the Robin Hood story? Yet Lawhead's treatment of it is not only fresh, but surprising.

Conclusion 6) Fads are cyclical
Who knew that vampires and werewolves be popular again?

I intend to fill my writing with cliches, but to twist, pervert, and resurrect them.

And while I wouldn't want to be called a Tolkien clone, if someone said that I reminded them of him, I would be as pleased, as well, punch.

Spiked punch.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reaction anxiety

Time for my annual blog...

Writing, any writing, invites comment and judgment, and, although driven by the whip of the Demon Muse to vomit the innermost workings of our benighted souls upon a virgin page, we Writers must then, in fear, face the Reader.

It's not just that we fear that we may reveal too much of ourselves; nor is it just that we fear criticism or ridicule; nor yet that we only fear the Reader may think less of us for having read our work.

All of the above, of course, we fear.

There is another, subtler fear lurking in our fevered brains, Narcissistic and unavoidable, shameful and insistent.

I discovered this abomination very early on, when I surprised myself by the feelings unleashed by Madame Editor's reaction to my work. It came into sharper focus when I was able to observe my beta readers while they were reading my first (as yet unpublished) novel, to my everlasting reproach and secret delight.

I have briefly mentioned this disease before, but it recently reared its Loch Ness serpentine head and neck out of the peat-stained murk of my mind while my latest beta reader dove into my writing. The good news is that she emerged sound of mind: the bad news is that I did not.

Of course, all Writers suffer various and sundry phobias (the latter, as Tolkien said, being the ones that came in the front gate, went out the side, and came back in again), and I shall simply have to learn to live with it.

This fear is the sneaking suspicion that we will not be able to make our Readers feel what we want them to feel, to gasp, cry, laugh, or get angry when we want them to: in short, that our writing will have the desired Effect.

For this is why we Write - well, apart from the inability to resist the Demon Muse's tempting lacerations, and the possibility of a movie option - we Write to elicit a response. Don't we?

How do we overcome this?

Why would we want to...

I say glory in it, bask in its degenerate musk, and roll the sweet syrup of it around your tongue.

And then dive down to the deepest Marianas Trench of your mind, crawl on your belly through the clinging mud of its darkest caverns, take a safari to its least explored jungle, and dredge, drag, and capture enough of your greatest fears and loves to cover the next empty page.

Alas, since I am as yet unpublished (as I think I mentioned), this is the among the best I have to look forward to.

For now.

What fun Writing is!

Friday, July 04, 2008


I have an Addiction.

I used to quench my appetite mostly at home: but for a long time now, I have been able to satisfy my cravings in full public view, unnoticed by those around me.

I fulfill my desires in restaurants: while watching TV; while surfing the Net; driving my car; at work; at home; in airports; in fact, anywhere at all.

I became Addicted very early in life. Growing up in the 70's was an interesting experience, a time when experimentation with any and all forms of physical, chemical, or mental stimulation was not only accepted, but encouraged. I managed (with the gracious help of the Almighty) to avoid the usual pitfalls - I've never been drunk, or high, in my life - but I got hooked before I knew what 'hooked' was, and by then it was far too late.

Of course, there have been consequences. My Addiction has caused me trouble with my parents, in school, at work, and at home, usually because I should have been doing something else at the time that I was indulging my Habit.

But I refuse to give it up.

I like the way my Habit alters my perceptions. I can lose myself for hours, forgetting all the stuff out there waiting for me, piled up like six weeks' laundry, pungently aromatic with Eau de MustbeDone. I need that escape from this reality to another, to have my mind exploded, rearranged, reconstructed: if deprived, the thirst comes on me like the blood lust on Lestat, and I must feed.

That's not the worst of it, though. Sometimes my Addiction produces nothing so much as a delicious ennui, an aversion to re-entry to real life, a reluctance to stop that ignores sleep, food, and personal hygiene.

Alas, sometimes it produces no feelings or intellectual stimulation at all, but just is, like Decartes' thoughts. Somerset Maugham, who shared my Addiction, said that this last was 'as reprehensible as doping'. Those of you who share my predeliction for Maugham will now know what affliction I bear, on what I am hopelessly hooked.

I am Addicted to Reading. *sighs*

I read any and everything. I read great books, good books, bad books. I read airline magazines. I read restaurant menus, ingredient lists on boxes, signs by the roadside. I can't help myself: the moment my wandering eye collides with a word, it absorbs, digests, and immediately transports itself to the next word, paragraph, page in line. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In this way I have been transported to worlds as diverse as Calvin and Lovecraft, Daily Kos and Frontpagemag, Lewis and Adams.

I have also delved into menu-worlds as disparate as Bennigan's and Mosaic in The Cove, Paradise Island. It was fascinating how they differed - and in what they did not.

I would be very surprised indeed if, in the world of Writers, I didn't have lots of company. After all, it's the love of the written word (truth be told, mostly our own!) that drove us to vomit forth upon an unsuspecting world the outpourings of our souls. Maybe there are those of you out there who haven't recognized your own Addiction yet: you just read everything 'out of habit' or unconsciously.

Admit it: you cannot help yourself, but must read, or shrivel, wither, and freeze.

Of course, I am also Addicted to Writing, but that's a subject for another time.