January 31, 2010


The use of the cliché can be the dividing line between the sophisticated writer and the amateur.  We've all been there and chances are that most of our early works were laced with cliché after cliché thinking it made us sound clever, when in fact it shows either complete naïvety or just simple laziness. Sometimes clichés are hard to recognise when you are a novice writer, I am still in that phase when I ask myself "is this a cliché?"; some are more obvious than others - but how do you know if you fall into the trap?

A cliché is a phrase, an idea or an expression that has been overused. As standalone sentence there may be nothing wrong with it necessarily and obviously was once an effective evocation to have been used so many times. Most people understand what clichés mean, making them accessible and tempting to use. A universally understood metaphor which has become a cliché might add clarity but it shows a lack of creativity - why express something in a way that was used a 1000 times already instead of finding a new and innovative way to say it? Writers need to remember they are artists and art is about original expression and new points of view. It loses the point about being art when we just recycle an old idea or old expressions.

I suppose it's obvious why clichés are bad, but returning to the important question - how to avoid them? To be honest, I wish I had this answer. I got a short story I gave in for critique returned back to me with line after line underlined with the dreaded word cliché written above. I set about to research as much as I could to find out what defines a cliché and how to recognise them. There are many websites out there with lists of obvious clichés such as: http://suspense.net/whitefish/cliche.htm . Although I think the best way to tackle them is to read your own work with critical eye. Does something look familiar? Is that metaphor something you are proud of - well google it - how many hits does it get? Are you using something pre-packaged to say what you want or can you think of a more original way to express them?

Can clichés be used in dialogue or narration? We use them often in daily life and in conversation. Real life is riddled with clichés, so it would only add a sense of realism to a dialogue in fiction to use them. I think using the odd cliché here and there in dialogue can be excused, but still it's better to not over use them.

It's safest to question every metaphor, expression and idea you've used. But ultimately weeding out the cliché will take experience to recognise and shoot the buggers. I still expect to get back stories critiqued with the dreaded underlining and the word cliché written above it. I just hope it will be less and less as time goes on and soon I will become an expert cliché slayer.

Anyway as Salvador Dalí said: "The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot."

January 30, 2010

Learning from the Masters

Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer has provided me with some interesting ideas. This is not a book about writing per se, instead it focuses on learning write to by reading the classics. It doesn't give you a list on concrete exercises or things to look for in your writing like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers but it teaches you to think about what makes good literature.

Reading for me before was always something I just did passively; I focussed on the story and unless the language jumped off the page as brilliant or downright awful it wasn't something I was conscious of. However makes a good book? What defines a good writer? Is it purely about telling a good and enthralling story or is it about literary style?

I can think of many writers who have told a good, entertaining story but something irritated me while reading their books. As a teenager I was a huge fan of Anne Rice; I loved her stories and the world she created. I tried reading one of her books recently and I realised what annoyed me so much about her was that she can tell a good story (well up to a point in her novels but that is a different rant) but her writing style is over descriptive, too flowery and she has the annoying tendency to repeat things over and over again. On the other hand, Gabriel García Marquez has an exquisite writing style; his sense of language evokes his settings vividly but I found it felt like it took me 100 years to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

While plot is vital to a good novel or short story, it's the building blocks used in the creation of this art which certain works endure. The very words used to create the brush stokes in the big picture each hold a significant meaning, a clue to the writer's real agenda. Words are not meaningless, an author's choice in a specific word is not something decided arbitrarily. Sentences are the next step up but even the punctuation, the length of a sentence and the way it is constructed would alter the meaning if something in that sentence is changed. Paragraphs too hold a significant impact; where short paragraphs artificially induce tension and longer ones lull one into a sense of relaxation that nothing unexpected is going happen. Would a world or character lose its impact if one small detail was taken out of the story?

The story is a skeleton, it's the backbone and the foundation for a novel or short story, the very essence and without it you are just left with a pretty bit of prose; but what differentiates a piece of high literature and trash is the style; the tools and the craft used to create the piece. Two writers could take an identical story and make them entirely distinct pieces of different calibres because of how they choose to convey the plot. What is a lot of editing and writing books do tell is you what not to do - do not write clichés, do not overuse adverbs, do not repeat, show don't tell. What I liked about Reading Like a Writer is it gives you the tools to think and look closely; judge for yourself what is effective and what works in literature and how can you use it in your own writing. Being equiped to critise work not only from a negative aspect but seeing the successes in an author's work and learning from them is the best thing an aspiring writer can learn.

Maybe all this is obvious to an English Major but to someone coming from a scientific background it's helped me to learn from the best; that I can turn to Tolstoy, Nabakov and Hemingway as my teachers.

January 29, 2010

Writing is Re-Writing

I have been told many times - Writing is Re-writing; a big part of the writing process is not just telling the story but reshaping it, polishing it. To me writing used to be about telling the story and writing the first draft, a naive belief that writers can just channel their stories into perfect prose onto the page as Mozart did with his music in Amadeus. Alas it isn't so, even a literary genius like Ernest Hemingway re-wrote one scene 27 times, so I guess for someone starting out like myself it would probably take 100 re-drafts. This is a frustrating process. I find myself editing a piece and wanting to delete it from my computer and burn the hardcopies. Even though writing is a labour of love sometimes it just gets darn right irritating and frustrating and you swear you hate it, want to take up something less dedicated like throwing paint on canvas as a form of expression - but you can't. There lies a compulsion inside to just keep going. Write everyday - was another word of wisdom given to me; to look at writing like a professional sport, some dabble in it part time on the weekends like those who play tennis for leisure, but others who train day after day and endure the blood, sweat and tears are the ones who go on to be pro-athletes.

I love first drafts. I find them exciting to write because I feel I'm truly living the story then and there. I wrote my last novel during NaNoWriMo in a month and it was an exhilerating experience. I became so engrossed in that world I fell in love with my book and the characters in it. I am proud of the story I came up with and it was a wonderful experience realising I could actually write every day and make time for it even with a PhD in Physics in the pipeline. When NaNoWriMo was over I wanted to do something with that novel - but I had to face the dreaded editing problem I ran away from all my life. I brought a lot of books on writing hoping to learn from them, I joined an English speaking critique group in Madrid to help with some outside perspective and meet other writers - but I decided to put the novel to rest for the moment and work on actually learning to edit and to write, I started to write and focus on short stories.

Why short stories? Well one, they are much shorter than the behemoth of my 75,000 word novel which makes life a lot easier when it comes to editing and feedback. Also, if I could get my short stories up to par and get something published I could have some actual literary credits to my name.

Overall it's been good. Even since November I have already learned a lot. Editing fiction is not as daunting as I imagined it to be; I used to think it was just about tidying up the grammar which I confess is my Achilles heel since I am 1. Dyslexic and 2. Even though English is my first language, technically, I grew up in a non-English speaking country. I was learning and speaking Hungarian fulltime between the ages of 7-11, not a long time but a very crucial one. Yes, I have been told I write like a non-native speaker a lot. However I like to think considering my background I am not doing too badly and there is always room to learn.

Editing is more than just grammar, it's about putting the best, most coherent story forward. It's about learning to give more from your writing and to let the image that plays so clearly in your mind be watched by the person reading the story. Also for me it's about learning to find the voice and the technique which works best. I have written the same story from different styles - the first draft full of over-done description, the second stripped bare to a stark minimalist contract, the next written using action to convey the descriptions; it's a frustrating process. Sometimes the next draft is worst than the previous, but you have to learn from trial and error; then the draft after is even better than anything you have ever written.

I find a critique group can help fill in the gaps that you miss. I find the group I go to in Madrid has not only given me the motivation and encouragement I need (as well as the opportunity to meet some wonderful people) but I am learning about what works, and what doesn't. Talent isn't enough. Sometimes it will take 27 drafts of a story to make it good, and that is not a game for dabblers.

January 28, 2010

Points of View

I recently submitted a short story I am working on to my critique group here in Madrid. I got some interesting feedback but one particular thing stuck out at me - a comment saying I wrote from too many points of view. To be honest, it was something I was aware of... I just pretended it wasn't there. When I learned to edit I started out with a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is a very good book and I highly recommend it for anyone looking into learning how to edit fiction. I didn't know anything about editing fiction nor did I know where to start and this book helped me a lot.

There is an entire chapter in here dedicated to points of view. As far as I was concerned there was first person and third person, both of which can be written in different tenses. But I learned a lot while reading this chapter that third person is pretty flexible - it can be detached in the omni form or more intimate and close when it takes an external perspective from a particular point of view of a character in the story. It also details on how it is best to be consistent and not jump around from head to head of each character. I think this is a big danger to novice writers who start out in third person, because there is the assumption that 3rd person = the freedom to get every point of view in. This isn't necessarily true, if anything this makes the reader confused while reading the story. I think this is important for short stories, I believe this is easier to execute well in a novel, but a short story is so compact that simple is better.

I did exactly the opposite in my short story. I wrote it about two characters and I wanted to capture both sides of the story so I jumped around between their heads. I was aware of this while editing, so instead I split up the sections where I change perspectives, but even so it didn't work. Well it's an experiment and we all learn from writing by trial and error, right? One reason I didn't want to change it to only one point of view was because it I felt it would change the story. The main points I try to convey come from the two perspectives of the characters in the story.

But you know what? I thought about it and I feel over these months I have grown a lot as a writer. I thought about how could I make this work if I take only one point of view and how could I express what the other character feels and thinks? Then the power went back on in my head and now I see it as challenge as opposed to a problem, I could try to convey the other character's emotions and thoughts by means of action and dialogue. Yes I know what you are thinking - that should be obvious right? Well yes, but not that easy to do. I was lazy. I took the easy way out by trying to show the two sides through point of view. But right now it is a challenge to see if I can still tell the same story through the eyes of only one character. If anything it's a good exercise to help me grow so I fully embrace it this challenge set for me.