My agent is scheduled to send me her detailed critique of my latest manuscript this week. She says she loves the story, which is just the boost I need to carry me through the next round of revisions, leading me to a pitch-worthy novel. The revision process starts with a wide lens view of big picture issues and gradually zooms in, focusing on smaller and smaller fixes until we hit the microscopic level of commas and periods, the line editing. I happen to enjoy the process, which is a good thing. As I look ahead, I already know one thing I’ll be rooting out: cliches.
Cliches are like tuna casserole. When it was first invented, it was a popular one-dish meal. Easy, quick, yummy (at least I thought so). Over time people began to balk. Even me. “Tuna casserole? Not again. Can’t stand the stuff.” Cliches start their lives as strong, fresh expressions but eventually grow limp and stale with overuse. They become tired, lazy ways to express ourselves. Clichesite lists a boatload of them. (Yeah, boatload is a cliche.)
The thing about cliches is that they make themselves at home in our vocabulary and come so naturally that we say and write them without noticing. We get up at the crack of dawn, turn green with envy, see red, feel butterflies in our stomachs, hop to it, and crack up. It takes a “keen eye” to see those slips of the . . . pen. And sometimes it takes some skull work to come up with a different, original phrase. So the first draft is not the place to worry about cliches. That’s the time to get the story down, big picture. So in first drafts, use cliches freely, but let them stand as placeholders. Then in revision, go through your manuscript “with a fine-toothed comb” and give some thought to fresher expressions. Here are four tips to help you customize expressions to fit your novel.
1. Consider your novel’s setting(s).
If the location is Athens – or Nashville – instead of “She stood as still as stone,” maybe “She stood as still as a pillar on the Parthenon.” (Nashville has a full-size replica.) If the scene is on the beach, “it was as irritating as sand in your sock” or “as bothersome as a broken sandal strap” (especially if the character is fashion conscious).
2. Consider your character’s interests, hobbies, career.
This goes for both major and minor characters. Each has a different way of seeing the world and will express him or herself through that lens (as with the fashion conscious character in the previous example). A harpist might describe herself as being “as tense as a harp string wound too tight.” A florist might describe a sunset as being “as red as a poppy.”
3. Consider the mood of the scene.
If the mood is carefree, sea waves may appear to dance, showing splashes of white petticoat. If the mood is tense, the very same waves may appear to spit and bite.
4. Link the expression to previous actions and settings in the novel or to other characters.
She squealed like Mrs. McCready’s pig that day it got stuck in the barnyard fence. Or: Grandpa’s barbecue sauce was hotter than the metal slide at Perry Park in mid-August.
One danger: Straining too hard to create fresh expressions can lead to silly or just plain weird phrases. I once tried to describe an old man’s eyebrows as two furry caterpillars. That might have worked in comic writing, but it completely derailed the serious scene I was trying to write. Thank God for the delete key.
When you read, be alert for fresh ways in which other writers express themselves – and the cliches they overlooked or left in intentionally. (You can get away with cliches in dialogue if the character would normally speak that way.) But when you find a cliche in your own writing, consider it an opportunity – not to show off how creative you can be, but to enhance your novel by customizing your expressions to reflect setting, character, mood, and action.
Happy Writing! Happy Reading!
© 2013 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com