June 2011

In praise of the cliché

by Suw on June 25, 2011

Suzannah Windsor Freeman, writer of Write It Sideways, has a post about how important it is to avoid cliché in writing. She splits clichés into three main types:

  • Overused expressions
  • Hackneyed plots
  • Stereotypical characters

And she gives her readers some good advice on how to avoid them.

But clichés aren’t all bad. The human brain uses heuristics – rules of thumb – to help it efficiently deal with the world without having to work everything through from first principles. For example, if someone throws a ball at you, you don’t do differential calculus in your brain to figure out where you need to be in order to catch it, you just keep your eye on the ball and your brain figures it out. This is the ‘gaze heuristic’.

Wikipedia says:

In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules, hard-coded by evolutionary processes or learned, which have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments, and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information. These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to systematic errors or cognitive biases.

Clichés are a kind of heuristic: They are shortcuts to an understanding of the world that is roughly in line with reality. Clichés becomes clichés because we see a nugget of truth in them.

For example, Suzannah says:

Common sayings (or idioms) like “All’s fair in love and war” and “Blood is thicker than water” are cliched. They once held truth and meaning, but through overuse have become meaningless.

Now, “All’s fair in love and war” and “Blood is thicker than water” might be overused, but they do still have meaning and we all instantaneously understand what the writer is trying to say when using them. The problem is not so much with the phrases themselves, but with the context in which they are used. In a quotidian context, quotidian phrases fall flat. In a compelling context, quotidian phrases can move the story along quickly and seamlessly, and the reader won’t even notice that they’ve just been run over by a cliché.

(As an aside, I’ll note that some of Suzannah’s examples, such as “Needless to say,” “At this point in time,” “Each and every one,” are actually pleonasms, or needless phrases, rather than straight clichés. Allan Guthrie has the most awesome tipsheet on pleonasms which every writers should read.)

In rejecting cliché, there’s a serious risk that the inexperienced writer concocts something even worse to replace it with. Instead of “The sun set behind the hawthorn” you end up with “The golden orb had almost disappeared behind the interlacing fingers of the hawthorn”. If a cliché doesn’t interrupt the flow of reading, if it’s not noticeable, or if a replacement would be worse, then there’s nothing wrong with letting a sleeping cliché lie.

Clichés of character, aka stereotypes, are similar: the buxom barmaid, the ornery farmer, the dashing young man. They are heuristics which exist because there’s some reality in them. Buxom barmaids may not be the only type of barmaid, but they’re the type that most men (and probably a lot of women) will remember. Farmers are stubborn and ornery because so are cattle. And dashing young men dash because they are young and male (cf barmaids and selective memory).

By themselves, even stereotypes are no bad thing when you’re drawing a cartoon of a character, rather than a painting a portrait. In the right context, and with the right characterisation, stereotypes can even be fascinating central characters in their own right.

Take wizards. You have the wise, white-haired, long-bearded types like Gandalf, and you have the ditzy, inept, self-aggrandising types like Ridcully, and you have the kindly, paternal, caring type like Dumbledore. These three archetypal wizards are all stereotypes (they are actually stereotypes of academics with added magic), but in the right places, these stereotypes work. You might argue that these characters themselves created the stereotypes, and you might be right, but if you’re writing a wizard character now, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a completely unique take on the wizard format, because the chances are someone has done it already.

Again, that’s no big deal, because although someone might already have written a wizard a bit like your wizard, they haven’t written your story, with your wizard, his dialogue, his backstory, his character arc. So long as he fits into the story as he should, it’s all good.

Indeed, the search for the unique again often results in the painful. The young boy coming into his powers as an Old One amidst a loving and supportive family might seem trite and clichéd. But when you turn that character’s family into an arguing, divided, sullen mess, you actually undermine the very qualities that make Will Stanton capable of success and turn him into the kind of stereotype that makes Susan Cooper fans want to tear their eyes out.

Furthermore, if you subsume your storytelling into a search for the unique, well, you’re fucked. The unique is as attainable as The Way of the Dao De Jing – it is only possible to find The Way if you are not looking for it. The Story is as The Way. You cannot seek to be ‘different’ and ‘unique’ and find The Story. Only in telling The Story as it demands to be told may you perhaps find something different and unique.

Finally, clichéd plot. Well, let’s be brutally honest here. If you want to sell, a bit of clichéd plot can go a long way towards your success. Not everyone wants to have their preconceptions challenged, and some of the most successful books have some of the most hackneyed plots. And as you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, some of those books have the most hackneyed characters and prose too.

We might look down on some of these books, but there’s no denying that an easy, fast read which is compelling enough to keep you turning pages does not have to have unique characters, does not have to have plot that’s different, and can be written in the clunkiest prose, and still sell well. Truth is that, so long as you’re not too egregious, or at least not so egregious that a publisher can’t look past the cliché and see the pound signs, you should be fine.

I’m reminded at this point of the advice I was giving by my photography tutor a many years back: No professional photographer is surprised by what’s in the background of his/her photographs, because s/he has seen it all through the lens before the photo was taken. No professional writer should be surprised by the clichés they read in their own work, because they should have been aware of them as they were writing or on first read through.

The question is not, “Is it a cliché?”, but “Does this piece of writing seamlessly serve a purpose?” If the cliché works, it’s not a cliché.

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Taking off my overcoat

by Suw on June 15, 2011

I always used to think that blogging was for the terminally under-employed or the terminally not-very-happy-with-life-right-now’ed. Certainly that was true of me when I started this blog and at various stages throughout its history. Indeed, I often combined both conditions into one great big fugue of skint unhappiness, and was verbose with it.

These days, I seem to only blog when I have something to say. Back in the day, I had a lot less to say but seemed to say it more often. The last few years, since ORG really, I’ve busy with work and, since meeting T’Other, my life is several orders of magnitude happier. Somehow this seems to mean that I’m less likely to blog, due to having a lot less to whine about. Indeed, I am in awe of my friends who still blog enthusiastically despite being both over-employed and deliriously happy.

I still have those little moments where I think “Oh, I could write about that on my blog”, but by the time evening has come, my brain and fingers feel like they have had enough and that what they’d really like to be doing is nothing. I write a lot – a 15k word report here, a 35k word report there – and it can be hard to whip up the enthusiasm to find another few hundred words at the end of the day. It’s easier to say, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will blog.”

But I can feel an inflection point coming on. Change is in the air. I can smell it. What’s more, I want it.

I’m wary of talking about plans, because the future is one slippery little motherfucker. Kevin and I have made many plans but the ground keeps shifting under our feet. Actually, we keep making the same plan, over and over again, each coming from a slightly different angle, each one falling over at the first hurdle. The nub of the plan never changes, however, and is this: Leave London. But like a psychotic partner who makes your life hell but who’s still just enough fun to make you pause, London is a bitch to break up with.

For the first time in my life, I have a social circle, friends I see regularly and can just go hang out with. Friends within walking distance (a rarity in London). I have clients both here and at the other end of a flight from Heathrow. Favourite restaurants and pubs. Opportunities. Contacts. Cats. A life. (Compare and contrast my time in Reading, where I lived for three years, knowing no one.)

But the one thing that’s missing is the one thing London can’t give me, not on my earnings anyway. Space. Peace. Quiet. A view. A slower, more considered life. Time to write what I want to write and the money to do so. It would take a miracle for that to happen in London. Specifically, a miracle that involved a very, very large deposit into my bank account.

There are other places that are nicer, quieter, cheaper, with better views, although the downside is that I’ll be leaving my friends behind and starting my life anew in a strange land. (Don’t ask me where, because I don’t know yet.) It’s exciting, but nerve wracking. But the decision is made.

Place isn’t the only thing that needs to change, but meaning too: The meaning of me. I’ve always been someone whose self-identity was tightly bound to what I do. Being a music journalist may have broken the bank, but it was a fun persona to try on for a while. Being a musician or a stand-up comic were interesting and sometimes even enjoyable experiments.

Being a digital rights activist or social media consultant connected a bit more deeply with who I am, because ultimately it was a form of story-telling, the sort of story-telling that involves us creating a better world in our imagination and then fighting to make it come true. But who I really am, who I’ve always been, has been the Suw who wrote Argleton and the Books of Hay and Tag. It’s just that at times, wearing these other careers like coats, I might have fooled you. Or maybe I was trying to fool myself.

A few years ago, after Tag but before Argleton and the Books of Hay, I was having dinner with a writer friend. He’s quite good, this writer friend, and I confess I’m still a bit in awe of him, despite us having shared sushi and he having witnessed my meal fighting back in a most embarrassing fashion. I mentioned something about truly, madly, deeply wanting to write and the words he kindly didn’t say were, “Well, get on with it then.”

That night, I lay in bed, thinking about what I would write about if I was going to write something that no one would read but me. At some time around 3am, I realised that it would have magic, and cats, and probably some scenes in Wales, and dragons if I could crowbar them in. The next day, I started writing the Book of Hay. It was supposed to be stupid, whimsical and just for me, but it turned out to be quite good, even though it doesn’t have dragons in it.

Just before I finished the Books of Hay, which was turning out to be 30k words longer than the short story I had anticipated, I had the idea for Argleton. Egged on by friends, I put down the Books of Hay and focused on what was supposed to be a short story but which came in at novelette length instead. Well over a year later, Argleton is nearly done. Not the story – that’s been done for ages – but the project that the story evolved into. And as part of that evolution, something became very clear to me: I can be, and have the skills to be, the kind of writer I want to be.

I’ve always been somewhat put off by the traditional route that writers used to take. The idea of sending of my works into the cold, harsh unknown and waiting weeks, if not months, for a rejection letter, filled me with dread. I just don’t have the patience for it. I’d rather just put my stuff out there and see what people think. Novelettes are a great length for a piece of work – long enough to be a bit meaty, not so long that they take forever to edit. In fact, I’ve fallen in love with that format, with the idea of a little book not so tiny as to be accidentally inhaled, but certainly bite-sized.

And in the years of my procrastination, of wandering aimlessly through the creative desert, the world changed. Pivoted. In a way that is now essential to my plan. Five years ago, I could have distributed Argleton for free quite easily, but whilst free is lovely for readers, it’s tricky for writers who need to do things like eat and sleep under a roof that’s not leaking and wear clothes that aren’t threadbare. But now we have crowdfunding. Now I have a Plan.

The Plan is this: When I have finished making all the Argleton books and have sent them out, and the backers have had their PDFs for a couple of weeks so that they get to enjoy the story that they funded first and exclusively, after all that, it will go up here for free. Then I will crowdfund the prequel to the Books of Hay, which will likely be in the form of a newspaper. Then I will crowdfund the Books of Hay, which is another novelette. And hopefully, by then, I will have my 1000 True Fans, and I will have, with them, a living.

Because I’m frankly shit at doing this thing that other people manage to do where they balance writing and working and get both done equally well. I need to find a way to do that for now, through this transition, so Dear Clients, I still love you and want you and need you. But this is what I need to do to be me, because I’m not happy when I’m not me. I don’t want to wear a coat anymore. I want to feel the sun on my skin, feel the grass between my toes, and feel everyone staring as I dance through the meadow in my white dress like that chick out of the Timotei advert.

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