Monday, May 17, 2010

That's So Cliche

We are so excited to announce the finalists of our 2nd Audience-with-an-Agent Contest. We had more than 50 entries, and we enjoyed reading each and every one. It was difficult to narrow the field to our top six choices, but these are the finalists (listed in alphabetical order by title). Congratulations to all! We hope to announce the winner on Wednesday, June 16. Thank you all for your participation!
Bringing Back Bobbie, Mary Lotz
Dismantling Spider Webs, Nicole Amsler
Noble Efforts to Engulf the Moon, Wendy Miller
Perfectly Formed Pearls, Emily Downs
The Seduction of Pastor Goodman, Cynthia Beach
Three Legged Ladder, Susanne Elenbaas
I recently judged a number of entries for a national Christian writing contest. The writing level ranged from novice to ready-for-publication, but almost every entry contained at least one instance of cliched writing. (Sorry, I can't add the doohickey for cliche, so we'll just pretend it's there.) That is, employing phrases long overused, which are as common as dirt, in our vernacular. The same problem held true for some of the entries in our own Audience-with-an-Agent Contest, though, I'm happy to say, at a much lower frequency. Examples of cliched phrases would be "stately elms" ... or stately pines, oaks, saguaro cacti, or any such thing "standing sentinel" over some estate or other. "A smile played at her lips" or tugged, pulled, yanked, or otherwise coerced her mouth to move in an upward manner. Eyes that are "deep blue pools," "majestic" necks or pieces of furniture, or "intricately carved" anything ... all cliches. "Pregnant pauses" are way beyond their childbearing days. And speaking of beyond, "a ghost of a chance, smile, prayer, idea, etc." should be put to rest once and for all. "Pounding hearts," "tousled hair," "marshmallow clouds," "long ribbon of highway" all get the ax. William Brohaugh, in Write Tight, says, "Using cliches robs you of opportunity to surprise readers. 'Bitter cold' doesn't surprise. 'Barren cold' does ..."

We often speak in cliches in our everyday conversations, but it's the kiss of death to good writing. Cliches snag the reader as she moves through passages of otherwise good writing, and take her out of the moment. If a phrase or adjective comes immediately to mind as you're writing, like one of those kids in class who's always sticking his hand up, as if to say, "pick me! 'pick me!" I suggest you discard it without a second thought. See what I mean about the use of cliches in our everyday speech? They're the proverbial workhorse, helping us convey an exact thought with a minimum of words. When I say, "She was as cold as ice," you know precisely what I mean. Enough said. Or as my 3-year-old grandson said to his mother the other day when she was encouraging him to be nicer to his baby sister, "Mama, no more words."
But words and phrases aren't the only cliches that worm their way into our writing. Plots can be cliched as well. Take for instance the following plot and see how many novels you can name that fit the description:

Disillusioned girl returns to her small hometown due to (fill in the blank) a. loss of job, b. ailing parent, c. inheritence, d. Other, only to run into her high school sweetheart who jilted her a. for the head cheerleader who mercilessly enticed him, b. without knowing she was pregnant with his child, who is, of course, the spitting image of him, c. to join the Special Forces and go to Fallujah, d. Other. This happens, of course, when she calls a. a carpenter to repair the inherited house that is falling in around her feet, b. an exterminator to rid her inherited house of unwanted pests, c. a broncobuster to help her break the inherited stallion that will ultimately help her regain her lost confidence when she finally rides the beast that threw her when she was a girl, d. Other. The moment their eyes meet a spark ignites between them. He reaches for her, but she runs away a. denying to herself that she ever loved him, b. denying to herself that she loves him still, c. denying to everyone that she really prefers his older brother, d. Other. She spends the next 10 chapters avoiding him like the plague, while continually running into him, but at the moment of crisis he suddenly appears out of nowhere, in the nick of time, to save her from a. a falling roof, b. the bite of a rare reclusive arachnid for which he just happens to have the anti-venom in his pickup truck, c. the runaway stallion she can't rein in after it's spooked by a nepharious side-winding rattlesnake while she's checking the multiple herds of cattle on her inherited ranch, d. Other. When she finally comes out of the coma, they declare their love for one another, walk the aisle, and live happily ever after. On her inheritance, as it happens.


I know, I know, there's nothing new under the sun. So what's a writer to do? Well, believe it or not, there are still plenty of inventive plots out there, but you can take an old story, put a completely new spin on it, and make it fresh and exciting. Consider: Prejudice in a small southern town costs the life of one person and forever shapes the young female protagonist -- and her brother and his best friend -- whose world is rocked by the events. If you're thinking To Kill a Mockingbird, think Blue Hole Back Home instead. It's altogether a different story ... that rises to the par of Mockingbird.

As a reader, do cliches and other examples of weak writing turn you off or do you hardly notice them? If they do turn you off, will you lay the book down as a result or, short of that, cross the author off your list for future reference? As a writer is it difficult to avoid the cliche trap?

It's been a while since we had a book giveaway, so ... do you know a familiar plot told in a refreshingly new way? Leave your answer on Comments and your name will go into a drawing for your choice of Every Good & Perfect Gift or Lying on Sunday. And, as always, thank you for visiting Novel Matters and sharing your thoughts with us. We appreciate all of you so much.


Jessica Nelson said...

OH NO! LOL Well, thank you Sharon for the great post! I agree totally and yes, cliched plots can bore me because I know what's going to happen.
I'm saying OH NO because my entry was almost just like what you listed, except things were reversed to where it was the guy who ran off. :-( Reading your post was like reading my manuscript, except there are differences. Hopefully they'll be enough to be non-cliche, but guess I'll see later when winners are announced. :-)
Thanks for the post!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Yes, they are a turn off. I'm going to write cliche without the doohickey too. Okay that was fun and a little rebellious. ;)

Anyway, I find sometimes I'm apt to do the opposite. I'm gutsy when I write my first drafts. Sometimes my risky metaphors work, sometimes I laugh when I edit.
~ Wendy

Terri Tiffany said...

Oh wow-- you read all of my work:) I found my cliche and the one I'm working on know has one of those plots!! UGH! Thank you for sharing this. And I thought I made up my marshmellow clouds:)

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

To be honest, when I read other people's work I rarely even notice cliches. To me they rarely stick out. Unless it is just rife with them. In fact, they don't stick out so much that the writing may feel flat.

I do dislike cliched plots. There are some tropes that I'm really over.

On the other hand with my own writing, I use a lot of cliches in my first draft. I prefer the revision stage--a lot--so I just try to get things down anyway I can in the first draft. On my second, third, fourth, fifteenth pass I try to make sure I weed them out.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Minor cliche phrases don't bother me too much, like saying the heart pounded. I've found I tend to overwrite in order to avoid cliches, trying to put all sorts of unique twists that are probably more distracting to the reader than if I just said, "Her heart pounded." Some instances just need those three words but others require an "empowered" line (to steal from Margie Lawson's vocabulary). The hardest thing for me as a writer is making sure I distinguish between the two.

Nicole said...

I think it's difficult to avoid cliches, but, yes, the most common cause the eye-roll and reader's fatigue. It's different if it's dialogue from a character who's all about cliches.

As you said, Sharon, there's nothing new under the sun. One of the things that bugs me is the "secrets" that characters have upon returning from their "other" life or not revealing in their "present" life. C'mon. And when it takes too long to reveal these secrets with allusions to them constantly--makes me want to throw the book but of course this ol' work horse just keeps reading--but with an attitude.

I think the main (and perhaps only) thing which saves cliched (why can't they make it easy to use the doohickey thingee anyway?) plots is the creation of desirable, or empathetic, or unique characters who entice us into their situations and make us want to see solution/resolution.

Carla Gade said...

Cliché, touché!! I've had enough of them. Although, I agree with Sarah that sometimes it serves the story better to use something that is already known so that the reader isn't distracted - on that level some can be tolerated. But how sweet it is to discover a new and clever way to say something that has been a thousand times before. I do not like reading clichés (sorry, not trying to rub it in!)that do not even fit the setting. That is irritating.

As far as the plot goes it once I recognize where the story is going if it is unoriginal I get very bored and sometimes my own writer's imagination takes flight and fights with the actual book. Not a good thing.

Your advice is excellent, Sharon, and gives lots to think about.

Lori Benton said...

I'll admit to having used one of those italicized cliche phrases in my last writing session!

I promise I will dig deeper
I promise I will dig deeper
I promise I will...

Loved this post. And it seems for me it's a timely one. You saved me from letting at least one cliche slip past, Sharon!

Lori Benton said...


"I prefer the revision stage--a lot--so I just try to get things down anyway I can in the first draft. On my second, third, fourth, fifteenth pass I try to make sure I weed them out."

Ooh, a writer after my heart. I love the later draft work best too. In fact, I wrote something similar to your above statement in a blog post earlier this morning, talking about editing. And I notice we finaled together in the Genesis, Congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Great comments, everyone. To be honest I was a little nervous about this post.

Carla, HOW did you do that?!? Really, I want to know.

It's funny how our writing styles can be so different. There are many who love revision. I happen to be one that hates it, so I try to perfect as I go. Because of that it takes long time to get my first draft written.

I agree, Nicole, well-written characters can save any overused plot.

So, do we have any answers to my giveaway question??

Terri Tiffany said...

I forgot to congrats the winners!Wendy is my critique partner and her story is terrific!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'm flipping out excited. Just had to write that.

Thanks, Terri.

I know Bonnie wrote in her comments several days ago, reading a story by Kingsolver felt like coming home. Sometimes I click on this blog and experience that same feeling.

~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

We're flipping out excited too, Wendy!
Congratulations to you and to the other five finalists.
What's it feel like to KNOW Janet Grant will be reading your work??


Couldn't be more happy for you all.

Patti Hill said...

Oh my goodness, all of you MUST know how difficult it was to choose only six finalists. Congratulations to the finalists and to all of the rest, keep refining your manuscripts. You're almost there.

Lori Benton said...

Congratulations to the finalists!

Keylocke said...

Wow! Thank you! What an honor and it's even my birthday! (I am considering that Patti and Latayne knew it was my birthday and gave me a pity vote.)

But my heart is full. Thank you, thank you, thank you for putting me in such fine company. Wendy is my former neighbor and a fantastic writer. I am thrilled for us all.

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

Hey Lori! Yep it's like once I've ironed out the shape of the story and I know everything has a place, then I can go in and do all the interesting decorating.

Congrats on your Genesis final!

And congrats to all the Audience with an Agent finalists too!

Nicole said...

It could've been just another sob story about the dying heroine, but Gina Holmes managed to surpass that kind of story with her voice, her unexpected "twist" at the end with the heroine's decision. Good debut novel. But, yeah, a tear-jerker.

Nicole said...

[Oops. That was Crossing Oceans by Gina Holmes.]

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I'm with you, Patti. There were SO many excellent entries in the contest that it was difficult to narrow down to six. Keep up the good work!

d. w. fry said...

To the fine ladies at Novel Matters ... Bless you & THANK YOU! This contest provides a cherished opportunity to walk in off the street into an auditorium of class acts and try out our work. It's almost like a mini master class.

As a judge in the Genesis contest this year I know quite well the sacrifice, effort, and yes difficulty that goes into judging entries, so your time is well appreciated.

And to the finalists ... Congratulations! What a tremendous opportunity. Grab a hold and hang on - your ride has only just begun. :-)

And to everyone else who participated - doesn't this feel like the little gift shop you find tucked away in a busy tourist town - the one only a few know about and fewer still understand the beauty of? What a delight!

I look forward to seeing many of the names here showing up in other venues on this writing journey.

God's blessings to everyone, this is a splendid trek.

Nichole Osborn said...

Super Great post! And congrats to the finalists! :0)

Carla Gade said...

Susan, I cheated :( and Googled the word and copied and pasted it into my comment. I've done that with other unique spellings that I can't type out on my own keyboard.

Congratulations to all the winners of the contest!! I wish you could all win!

Heather Sunseri said...

Congratulations to the winners!!! Congratulations to Wendy!!!

Great post. I'm a little concerned how many pounding hearts I might have in my suspense novel. Off to check that now.

Anonymous said...

Okay, we can live with pounding hearts. Take it off the cliche list, but the others stand, at least in my book. Man, see how easily we slip into the cliche?? Anyway, this post was meant merely to be a guideline, to give us something to think about as we craft our stories. To encourage us all to stretch ourselves and not simply give in to what's close at hand. I hope that came through.

Tana said...

Congrats to all!! Congrats Wendy! Go out and celebrate!!!

Carla Gade said...

"a familiar plot told in a refreshingly new way" ~ I think Julie Klassen's The Silent Governess did a good job at that. There was the who's the daddy and inheritance issues, but there were many twists and turns that kept me turning the pages.

Nikole Hahn said...

And watch out for the cliches that hide like an animal trap under the dead leaves. These can suddenly bite your ankle and leave you maimed. Seriously, I found a cliche I used and didn't know it was a cliche. I believe ACFW has a link available for members where you can look up that suspected cliche and avoid the trap.

Anonymous said...

Nikole, what an excellent resource to know about. Do you know where on the site to find it?

And Carla, thanks for suggesting a title that puts a new face on an old plot. Your name is entered in the drawing. So far, your odds of winning are quite good : )

Steena Holmes said...

WOW - congrat's :) While my name isn't in that list - I'm excited because I recognize others :) That's fantastic!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Eish... cliches. So important to remember--so easy for them to sneak into an otherwise brilliant sentence.

Congrats to the finalists! And thanks so much for the opportunity! I'm going back to perform more surgery on my novel.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to all the winners! Don't you feel like you ran a gauntlet and survived?

We are so proud of all of you. And Keylocke -- that was no pity vote! In fact, I didn't make the connection that I had actually met you -- not that you're not memorable, I just don't do well with names.

Yay winners!! Yay God! May all the glory go to Him!

Sara Davison said...

I'd like to add my congratulations to the finalists as well. My chapter did not win, and while I'm not discounting the quality of writing factor, I'm thinking I need to revisit my title - all the finalists had fantastic, attention-grabbing ones! Well done everyone.

Anonymous said...

Sara has an interesting point about titles. While a good title can't rescue a bad manuscript, it seems that almost without exception the author of good writing in the manuscript takes the time to craft a provocative title.

Jeanette Levellie said...

Hello. I have been guilty of this, but I repent. Thank you for the verbal swat on the hand.

I found an old story told in a fresh way in Tammy Barley's "Love's Rescue." Excellent writing, believable characters and surprising plot twists.

Please enter my name in the drawing.


Nikole Hahn said...



Look under resources, I think.