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A Calamity of Clichés

              I’ve done a lot of rewriting during the last few weeks. Aside from giving the old pruners a good workout as I clipped almost 5,000 words from my (now) 55,000-word YA urban fantasy, Fur-Face, I discovered a type of cliché I'd never heard of before. 


I’m not talking about the plot lines we borrow from other stories, like the one where a poor farm boy discovers he’s really the chosen one, destined to defeat the evil one etc. I don’t mean predictable characters, like the woman of negotiable virtue with a heart of gold, or the timid hero who learns to stand up for himself, or even the obvious narrative clichés like ‘heart in his mouth’; ‘sank like a stone’; ‘black as pitch’; ‘ran like the wind' etc.


Of course, we should strive to avoid all of the above, but I’ve discovered a worse type of cliché, so insidious, it doesn’t even bother to hide. As a matter of fact, until recently, I was proud to have them in my story. 


Here’s what happened. As I wrote (and later revised and rewrote) Fur-Face over the last four years, I came up with descriptions to show my characters’ reactions to what happened in the story. When they were puzzled, they looked/felt confused. When scared, their hearts cannoned around inside their chests, when they were shocked, their jaws dropped open. Not exactly award winning stuff - I daresay you’ve already thought of better ways to say the same things - but they did the job. 


Here’s my problem, Even though I re-read and revised that manuscript more than any other, until this last read-through, I never noticed how often I used those same phrases within the same ms.  


I wouldn’t describe any of them as clichés (though I’ll grant you they aren’t exactly original), but when used too often in the same manuscript, they become one - at least as far as that book goes. I’ve managed to lose or change enough of them to solve the problem, but it got me wondering if anyone else has found themselves doing the same thing.


How many times can you use a phrase in the same ms, before it becomes a cliché?


Is it something you check for?


What (if any) phrases do you use too often?


Or is it just me.

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( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 7th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC)
It's not just you. I imagine we ALL do it. Luckily for you, you recognized it and are now aware. I wouldn't worry about such phrasing in first or even second draft, but once you're ready for your first spit and polish pass, a word search of those phrases or words you already know you overuse will fix the situation. In other words, don't bog down your creative process on that sort of easy fix.

That being said, it really is a problem because those phrases we unconsciously use tend to camouflage themselves within the rest of our amazing shininess. They vanish for their familiarity, like "said" and "asked." You hit the nail on the head--insidious!

My worst culprit is smiling. Everyone smiles before or during or after they say something! blrgh...
May. 7th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
I have a solution to the smiling. Kill off a couple of characters :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - May. 7th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mongrelheart - May. 7th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - May. 7th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
An Englishman in NJ, eh? What part? I was born and raised in Northern Jersey (Paterson and Wyckoff.) I escaped to Connecticut about 16 years ago, but I'm still a Jersey girl at heart. :)
May. 7th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
I live in Monmouth County (Central NJ). We considered moving to New York State or Connecticut before we moved here, but NY State was too cold and I can't spell Connecticut ;)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - May. 7th, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2009 06:35 pm (UTC)
I would worry about it a little -- too much repetition of *anything* can be dull. But it's easy to overdo the worry too. You've read your own manuscript so many times now that you've lost the ability to see it as a normal punter would. Most of them won't notice. More than likely nobody will care.

It's like all that stuff they tell you in "writing school" -- don't use passive verbs; avoid "was" blah-de-blah. Read a few best-selling writers and you'll see that these things don't bother anybody on the NYT list at all.
May. 7th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
You're right of course, though I believe there are two categories of best-selling author. People like Stephen King, Bernard Cornwell etc. made their name before the days when the world and his wife had access to a word-processor. They don't have to get out of the slush pile to convince an agent their books will sell. Wannabees like myself need to work harder to get their attention :)
(no subject) - peadarog - May. 7th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - May. 7th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
I used to have this huge problem with "of course". It would show up, like, every other page. I'm trying to get it under control ;)
May. 7th, 2009 06:53 pm (UTC)
Lol, I just used that my own self (see above post):) I also had a lot of 'looked ats' and other bobble-headisms, though I got rid of most of them.
(no subject) - dqg_neal - May. 7th, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - May. 7th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2009 07:18 pm (UTC)
I don't know there's one particular phrase I repeat too often. But I do repeat phrases from MS to MS or within the same manuscript and I have to watch that....
May. 7th, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
I think that's okay. I'd call that your writer's voice.
May. 7th, 2009 07:21 pm (UTC)
Good catch. This is one of the few things I notice as a reader, especially if the phrase is memorable (canoning about in a chest cavity most definitely is). Many established writers never manage to get rid of this all the way.
May. 7th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
I spotted the problem when I was getting rid of all the bobble-heads. I guess you don't often see what you're not looking for :(
May. 7th, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC)
I bet all writers are prone to this, so good for you for finding your crutch words or phrases. Repetiton can ruin a book for the reader. I remember reading a David Eddings book many many years ago (it was Sapphire Rose, I think), where the phrase "sort of" kept cropping up in dialogue and narrative. It started to bug me like hell and it was one of the reasons I stopped reading his books!
May. 7th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC)
It's like in real life, when you notice someone saying 'you know' or 'erm' a lot :)

Edited at 2009-05-07 07:36 pm (UTC)
May. 7th, 2009 08:36 pm (UTC)
I was reading Sabriel and started picking up on 'seemed'. Everything in that book 'seemed' to be something. After a while I started counting the seemed on a single page, when I got to seven I stopped reading, in your example the book then becoming too cliche for me to finish although the word seemed alone is just fine.

My cliche, as I posted early this week as a matter of fact, is smiled. Everyone loves to smile in some way or another until it all just becomes cliche.
May. 7th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)
I remember your post. It was about speech tags, right?

I suppose we shouldn't get too caught up in these things. I just never noticed my self-made cliches before.
(no subject) - mylefteye - May. 7th, 2009 11:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 7th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Haha, well I guess I'm normal for a writer. Some of the ones already posted are ones that plague me.

Looked is my worst one and is followed closely by smiled. I tend to use nodded and grinned too.

It's funny though because I was just thinking about this at work today. I brought an unfinished story with me and these things were sticking out. Once I got off break I was thinking I need to start watching how people act again to get more ways for my characters to respond.
May. 7th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
I find it's better to cut most of the looks and smiles out altogether, along with most of the other bobble-headisms (if that's even a word);)
May. 8th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
So many things to be aware of! It's no wonder things slip by. When I'm editing for others, I seem to find writers focusing on eyes. They begin to come up with new ways to describe the eye color. Green, emerald, moss green, as green as grass, deep olive... Hardly ever mentioning anything new about the character - just the eyes.

May. 8th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Descriptions
lol, if it's not the eyes, it's what they're doing ie; looking :)
May. 12th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
I tend to use words like "his eyes popped open" or his "eyes snapped open."
May. 13th, 2009 11:30 am (UTC)
I like snapped open. It implies something important just happened :)
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )

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