Time to put my money where . . . you know.

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I knew this would happen. If I hung out with real writers, on a writing blog, sooner or later somebody was going to make me write a post about actually writing. I’ve pretty much avoided it for months. I’ve written about the life of the writer, about publishing, about creating anthologies, about just about anything except writing. 

Then y’all had to go and read the excerpt last week from Paint it Black and ask how I avoided cliche in writing an opening scene with a vampire brooding in a graveyard. Since that’s the most original setting in the world and all. By the way, release week went well, not NY Times well, but pretty happy for small press well. We’re still hanging out in the Top Ten on Amazon’s Horror>Comedy bestseller list, right around Christoper Moore’s Lamb and Rick Gualteri’s latest Bill the Vampire novel. So that’s good. 

But let’s speak briefly about this whole “avoiding cliche” thing. Here’s how I handle it. Here’s my secret for avoiding cliche situations in my writing. 

I don’t. 

No really, I don’t. I avoid unconscious cliche, and unwitting cliche, and cliche that I don’t use intentionally, but I don’t avoid cliche overall. Cliches exist for a reason – they’re another kind of shortcut. And while the rule is that you never use cliches, the rule is also that you never use adverbs, but as long as you know hot to use them properly, adverbs are fine. See what I did there? 😉

Part of it comes from the fact that I write comedy. Part of it comes from the fact that I write urban fantasy. Part of it comes from the fact that I write primarily in first person narrative. All of these things combine to create a more self-aware narrator, and that allows me to use cliche when it’s appropriate, because my POV character probably recognizes that it’s a cliche

Let’s look at the selection from last week bit by bit (not the whole thing, I’m trying not to get too far into Hartley-length blog posts;) )

OKAY, I’LL ADMIT it. I was brooding. And not just the lay-in-the- 
recliner-staring-at-a-blank-TV-screen-with-REM’s-Everybody-Hurts-on-r
epeat-on-the-stereo brooding. We’re talking full-on, sitting on top of a 
mausoleum in the rain at midnight, wearing a trench coat and no hat 
kind of brooding. The kind of brooding that makes preteen girls swoon 
and RuPaul question your masculinity. 

We start off with an admission – this tells us not only that the character is aware that he was doing something he probably shouldn’t be doing, but he goes on to explain the silliness of his actions in metaphor. He calls up images of Joss Whedon (there’s a Buffy scene where Xander is playing the same song on repeat in a dark room). He references how dumb it is to go out in the rain with a hat, and makes a veiled reference to Van Helsing and the stupid trenchcoat, and then he throws in a drag queen reference just so NOBODY misses the nod and the wink. 

Yeah, that’s me. If you want subtle nuance, you might want to skip the Hartness/Tuck section of your local bookstore. 

But working in comedy and working in urban fantasy give me the benefit of having self-aware characters, and that gives me the wink and the nod to the audience, what we call in acting a “take.” I know that I’ve had moments when I felt like I was living in an episode of Buffy, so I can have my characters do the same thing. A self-aware character can see when he’s doing something ridiculous, and point it out to the reader, and that takes the edge off the ridiculous. 

So I feel like you can use cliche, but you have to know what you’re doing. It’s just like any rule of writing, or anything else for that matter, as long as you know what the rules are and how to use them properly, feel free to break them. So use all the cliche you want, but make sure you know when you’re using it. Use all the adverbs you like, but use them appropriately. Understand why the rules are there, then shatter the hell out of them! 

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7 comments to Time to put my money where . . . you know.

  • Yup, yup, and some more yup.
    But I totally missed the van Helsing-coat thing. I was going with Harry Dresden or Niko Leandros image. And it didn’t matter. They all wear trench coats and so the image and cliche worked, maybe even better. That’s the great thing about cliches. They are each a cultural phenom, so they fit no matter when used.

    Uh, yeah. Jane Yellowrock rides into New Orleans on a Harley in Skinwalker. Can you say double cliche? But it sets the style, mood, tone, setting, and genre in just a couple paras, so cliche or not, it worked.

  • Yes, cliches, like tropes, are there to be used, twisted, made into something both familiar and novel. Ethan is not your typical fantasy protagonist, but, aside from the tricorn hat, he is very much a typical mystery hero — older, broken, a bit of a loner. That blending of originality and cliche is part of what makes the series work.

  • Ken

    Agreed. Cliches are there for a reason and are one more tool for us to use. They may need to be tweaked a bit but if they serve the story, then they can be useful.

  • Megan B.

    I 100% agree! And on the subject of adverbs (and adjectives), I recently noticed a technique that I really like and want to use more in my own work. Instead of using the adjective to describe the character, attach it to something else in the world around them. For example, there is a line in a Peter Gabriel Song that mentions “the sun in his jealous sky.” It conveys jealousy just as well as saying it more directly, but it’s way more creative. I think this is a great example of what you mean about breaking the rules.

  • “The obvious is better than obvious avoidance of it.”
    —Fowler

  • Technically Van Helsing wore an Australian-style leather duster. And wore it so very, very well…*ducks as everyone throws tomatoes at me.*

    😀

  • Misty, you are right! (slaps head) I so suck at trivia — TV, film, books, or any other kind. I just don’t remember stuff.