Saturday, February 28, 2015


I was never the girl who thought romances ended in "happily ever after." I knew, even if you found "the one," things didn't just fall into place. Relationships required work and nurturing. When I was a teen and wrote stories and poems, they didn't end happily. Mind you, they didn't end badly either. Just...realistically. Like the geeky girl did not suddenly end up with the popular jerk who realized she was oh so beautiful now that she put on contacts and took out her ponytail. Besides, why would she want a guy like that anyway who only cared to know her when her looks didn't embarrass him? In fact, my MCs usually ended up alone, or the stories ended with them learning about someone else who may be a good match, that they hadn't considered before.

As an adult, that's how I write my YAs too. I don't write romances and can't really read them either. Unless you're talking about supernatural romances. Those I'll read because there's already the element of fantasy so all working out perfectly doesn't irk me. One of the best compliments I received about my first YA, INCONVENIENT, was that the MC's boyfriend, Keith, was the most realistic high school boy she'd ever read. I don't know what else that review said, but that line made me so happy. If people leave my books saying, "Wow, that was so real," I feel I've done my job.

I realize, too, that many people use books to escape and don't want to read about real love or unrequited love or the girl who ends up with neither boy she sweated. But, to me, I like the messiness of love, the rawness, the fact that things don't always work out. When I was a teen and read book after book with the girl getting the guy she wanted, it became depressing. How did this girl get the popular boy when she barely said two words to him? Did I just need to stop wearing ponytails and overalls and the boy would be mine? I wished there were more books about girls who A) Didn't need the boy and found power within themselves and B) Who, even once the contacts were in and hair was brushed out, STILL did not get Mr. Jock. And, guess what? They realized they only liked him for his hotness anyway and--newsflash--just like he was superficial, so was she as she knew NOTHING about the boy except that he was hot, had green eyes, played football, and oh yeah was hot.

So that's my take on love in books. Jaded? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as real. Love you need to work at and explore is not a bad thing. It makes it stronger.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Love is like a dog (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

Love is such a big topic, it’s almost too big. And yet everything I thought of to say about it has been blogged about before, here or elsewhere.

So I decided to have some fun with it. I called up a search engine for an amusing little game, which is to start a sentence in the search box and see how the site suggests filling in the rest. For example, when I typed in, “Jennifer didn’t ...” I got, “Jennifer didn’t know she was pregnant.”

Well, I’m not pregnant. But it was a rather startling sentence.

In the spirit of this game, I decided to try a few phrases about love. And the first thing I learned is that people must search for song lyrics a heck of a lot, because that is what came up most often. And we have a lot of songs about love, because why not? Also, a fair number of cliches came up, touching on our other theme for February.

So here, according to a top search engine, are some things we’re thinking about love:

Love is a battlefield, but love is not a fight. Love is an open door, and love is patient, but love is not enough. Love is like oxygen.

Love doesn’t exist, hurt, or cost a thing. (Ha!)

Love is like a butterfly, love was easy, love was made for you and me.

On the other hand, love isn’t fair, and it isn’t always on time.

Love wasn’t meant for me. Love isn’t real.

Love was born. And, more cryptically: Love was when.

Love does not consist of gazing at each other.

Finally, my personal favorite:

Love is like a dog.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Do You Want To See? (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

Because we're talking about love and clichés this month, I decided to grill my friends and acquaintances about how they feel about romance in novels. I asked them to tell me how they feel about the presence of romance in novels, what they love, what they hate, and what they're tired of. Here's what I got.

From my husband, who is a big fan of books written for twelve-year-old boys. (Not that there's anything wrong with that). If you're writing a book for twelve-year-old boys, he would love to beta read for you:

"I put up with it, I guess? I mean, I really read past it to get to the part of the story I care about. The part with zombies. Get together, don't get together, I don't care. Just escape from the zombies."

Note: My husband has always felt there is "too much kissing and not enough scalping" in Part 2 of my YA historical THE LAST SISTER. Consider yourself warned.

From my friend, who loves romance novels and romance in novels and has forgotten more YA lit than I have read:

"The real value of reading about people falling in love is that it reminds you what it's like to fall in love. You get to relive it, or at least remember it, which is really valuable when you're dealing with jobs and kids and in-laws and so on, and it's easy to forget what those early days of your relationship were like."

Note: I feel I have succeeded with my kissing scenes if my friend giggles and taps her fingers together under her chin. She is the Dr. Evil of romance scene approval. She feels that perhaps there is too much scalping and not enough kissing in THE LAST SISTER. And also that it would be greatly improved by the addition of mermaids. 

Here are a few other general likes and things readers want to see:

  • ·         a focus on the non-physical aspects of a relationship—people who are good company for each other, not just good sex partners

  • ·         witty banter between the principal love interests

  • ·         characters who realize they are in love when they are threatened with losing a long-standing relationship

And some things readers are done with:

  • ·         male love interests who are not generally good-natured, likeable people

  • ·         abusive relationships idealized (Can we all be over this, please?)

  • ·         big strong man/weak little woman pairings

  • ·         people who start off hating each other but grow to love each other (I think this is often an attempt to pull off an Elizabeth Bennet/Mr. Darcy or Beatrice/Benedick pairing by people who don't realize how much those characters genuinely enjoy each other, even from their first meeting. See "witty banter," above.)
They are loving this.

"Am I expected to show emotion now?" + Mild Smirk = My Wedding Pictures

Thanks to everyone who talked to me about romance in novels! What would you like to see more or less of? Leave a comment and let us know.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Garage Sale Signs and Cliches by Patty Blount

All this month, we're blogging about cliches. Generally, authors are told to avoid cliches because they're trite... things become cliche because of overuse.

Cliches could be phrases like "He made my heart skip a beat" and "All's fair in love and war". Or, cliches could be scenes you see in nearly every romance -- the hero whipping up gourmet omelettes after a round of sex, for example. They could be stereotyped characters like the repressed librarian or the billionaire hero and even settings like the spooky Gothic mansion. Now that it's February and Valentine's Day, cliches are out in full force. The cards, the flowers, the heart-shaped decor -- the entire holiday is one big cliche. 

So how do we avoid them? How do we write novels that are fresh and unique? 

I think the secret is in making cliches work for us. Cliched sayings like "Love conquers all" and "All you need is love" can work when they're themes. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts of writing scenes, you need to get creative so your readers don't shut the book with a Been There, Done That sigh. 

Let me tell you a story. (Indulge me. We're writers, it's what we do...)  I've been married for many years to the same guy and trust me, I no longer remember all the trinkets he's bought me over the years. But I do remember one gift. It's special and heartfelt and speaks only to me on a level that only we understand. In fact whenever I share this story, eyes glaze over. 

There are a lot of demands on my time. I'm a mom, wife, author, volunteer, fulltime employee, etc. Sometimes those roles bump up against each other, wreaking havoc on schedules, to-do lists, and my demeanor. There's too much to do and because I can't just drop things off that list, I spread myself too thin, lose sleep, and skip meals. The inevitable result of all this pressure is a tantrum of epic proportions in which I beg, wish, and scream for a staff of minions or clones who could help me do it all. 

I had just such a tantrum about ten years ago. I'd started a new job. A group of colleagues invited me to participate in a volunteer effort to raise money for a charity. Next thing I knew, I'd offered up my home to host a multifamily garage sale and gave up an entire weekend on which to hold it. It was a lot of work. We needed price tags, tables on which to display our wares, advertising and signage. The entire group of us was supposed to share that work load but a few days before the event, I knew I had to do it myself or it wasn't going to get done. 

After I burst into tears from all this pressure, my husband made a Staples run, hand-wrote signs on DayGlo Green poster board and then drove around the neighborhood tacking them up. I had no idea; I was home, still crying that I had to do all this work by myself. It was near midnight when I finally reached the "Hang Signs" item on my to-do list. I grabbed the staple gun, a few pieces of cardboard I found in my basement and was about to head out when my husband gave me a hug and a kiss and said it was done already. 

I blinked up at him, not sure I'd heard him correctly. He repeated it, and then told me he'd hung not just a couple of signs but quite literally wallpapered the neighborhood with them. I could go to bed. 

Imagine that. 

I could go to bed at a decent hour. 

The first day of the garage sale, we had cars lining up while we put out our goods. Every single customer mentioned how great our signs were. So yes, I guess you could say the best, most memorable and even romantic gift I've ever received was a deck of eye-searing green Garage Sale signs. 

You don't see a lot of Hallmark ads for that gift. 

My point is, if you think of some of those old cliched sayings like "All you need is love." 

"Love conquers all."

"Love is patient. Love is kind."

 Maybe that's the answer... take a cliche and then brainstorm a few dozen tired old overused ways to express them. 

Those are the ones you avoid. 

Then make another list of the things your specific characters would do for each other. Maybe, just maybe, you'll find your Garage Sale signs. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Clever or Cliche? (Alissa Grosso)

When Edward Bulwer-Lytton first wrote the immortal line, "It was a dark and stormy night" it was not a cliche. It's how the opening sentence of his novel Paul Clifford begins and the sentence goes on to give more details about the weather, which while not exactly cliche, might be ill-advised, since no one really gives a fig about the weather. Bulwer-Lytton now has a writing contest named after him - participants compete to see who can write the worst first line. He's also credited with coining other phrases that history has not forgotten including "the pen is mightier than the sword," "the great unwashed" and "the almighty dollar." None of these phrases were cliche when Bulwer-Lytton first wrote them, they would be if you or I tried to write them.

Edward (It was a dark and stormy night) Bulwer-Lytton himself.

The fact is, every cliche started out as one person being clever. It is the repetition of these clever phrases by others that turn them into cliches. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery (Charles Caleb Colton was the clever guy behind this turn of phrase, by the way) writers should be honored when their phrases become immortalized as cliches. So, the first instance of a phrase that becomes a cliche is genius, but repetition turns it into bad writing. The problem lies in determining who the genius is, and who the lazy copycat is. Thankfully, we have Google to solve this dilemma. I'll admit, that up until a few minutes ago I had never heard of Charles Caleb Colton.

Unfortunately it seems that Google can't solve this dilemma until a phrase has been officially ruled a cliche by the general public or the Ministry of Cliches or whoever it is that has determined that a phrase has been repeated so often that it's become trite and unoriginal.

I say this because recently I was reading a book. I won't name names because I don't believe in being catty and mean, and the book was otherwise pleasant and enjoyable, but then I read a phrase that I keep seeing in books and my internal cliche meter began to chime.

The phrase in question was some variation on "his smile didn't reach his eyes." While a smile that doesn't reach the eyes is a perfectly reasonable description, you could also save yourself a few words and write "fake smile" or "phony smile" and mean exactly the same thing. What's more this whole smile not reaching the eyes thing is being used in far too many books. The first person who wrote it was clever. The rest of you are just offering this mysterious individual some very sincere flattery.

Apparently, though, the smile that doesn't reach the eyes has not yet been ruled a cliche by the Official Court of Cliches, a fact that has been firmly established by my Google search on the topic, which means that there is, as of yet, no Wikipedia entry on the genius author who first penned these words. My money's on Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

To Cliché or Not To Cliché (Natasha Sinel)

Clichés and stereotypes exist for a reason. They can be useful to a certain degree because most people recognize what you’re saying. So, when I talk about the mean girl, the jerk jock, the geeky smart girl, the musical-loving gay guy, you can picture this person, right? Or when I say “I fell head over heels” or “his voice sent a shiver down my spine,” you know what I mean.

But, accessible as they may be, clichés become overused and then they are boring. BORING. When I read clichés  in a novel, I may, without even realizing it, roll my eyes or start skimming. I don’t want my readers to do that.

Since we’re in the month of Valentine’s Day with all of its eye-rolling sentiments and forced proclamations of love, I thought I’d share some of my least favorite romantic clichés. I’m guilty of using some of these in my own writing occasionally, of course.  But sometimes a cliché is the best choice. Anyway, hypocrisy aside, here they are:
  • The misunderstood bad boy (he’s so sensitive behind that hot angry exterior)
  • The girl who finds the boy so maddening, but can’t resist his dimples and the wave in his hair, so she falls for him
  • The high school boy who is so deeply in love—the truest deepest love there is—that he would wait centuries for the girl, follow her anywhere, and do anything for her 
  • Girls who are extremely clumsy or almost get hit by a car but are rescued by the perfectly-perfect boy who then vows to protect her forever
  • The “nice” girl who doesn’t put out and is, therefore, rewarded (gets the guy, goes to prom)
  • The “slutty” girl who does put out and is, therefore, punished (gets pregnant, STD, dumped)
  • The smart geeky girl who gets the meat-head jock (who turns out to be using her for a dare but ends up falling for her in the process)
  • The fat girl who loses weight without really trying (e.g., she starts taking her little sister to the park and chasing her around on the playground, and then presto-change-o, she’s thin!), and then suddenly the hot guy she’s always wanted asks her out because she’s thin, but she discovers that she really loves her dorky best friend, who liked her when she was fat
  • Pretty, popular, mean girls putting on lipstick in the bathroom
  • High school boys asking girls out on dates (does that happen? I thought that was kind of 1960s?)
  • Girl and boy best friend who have never thought of each other “in that way” suddenly see each other in a new light and fall in love (who’s never thought of it?)
  • High schoolers who fall in forever-love
(This is so creepy. But also perfect.)

A cliché that doesn’t bother me that much: The “love at first sight” concept. "What!?” you exclaim with disbelief. “That’s the most hated one of all! It’s so dumb.” 

I know, I know. But hear me out. It's just not labeled correctly. It’s not “love at first sight,” it’s “strong mutual attraction at first sight.” When two people look at each other and hold eye contact, it’s because they’re open for something to happen. If both like what they see, then sure, why not? It might not be insta-love, but it’s insta-attraction. That’s enough to get something started.

However, instead of the cliché where the insta-attraction must pan out into the forever-love cliché,  I’d like to see the insta-attraction end in…nothing. Maybe they make out and then are like, oh, based on that prolonged eye contact at that party that night, I thought we would be in love forever and ever, but actually not. So, that’s cool. Lemme just reapply my mascara and head to that dance tonight and scope out some fresh eyes to contact.

Natasha Sinel writes YA fiction from her home on a dirt road in Northern Westchester, NY. She drives her kids around all afternoon, but in her head, she's still in high school, and hopes that no one near her can read minds. Her debut YA novel THE FIX will be out from Sky Pony Press on September 1, 2015.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Killing Mom and Dad by Jody Casella

I know. I know. We are supposed to write about love-- romantic love. But I have been thinking about a different kind of love lately. The parent/child kind.

My daughter's about to graduate from high school, and in a few months she's leaving home to go away to college. I have a weird contrasting mix of feelings about this upcoming event.

I love my daughter. But sometimes I want to throttle her.

I worry myself into a frenzy thinking about her when she's off driving or out with her boyfriend or her friends. But some days she's busy doing something and I'm busy doing something and she's totally out of my mind and I'm assuming she's okay.

I don't want her to go away to college. I want her to go far away to college.

I'm completely fine with the whole empty nest thing. Yay! Rah Rah! My husband and I have our lives back at last. But I can't imagine my life without my daughter in it on a day-to-day basis and just writing that line makes me feel like someone kicked me in the stomach.

So, basically, that's parent/child love how I've been thinking about it lately.

YA books have a grand old time playing around with parent/child relationships. By which I mean that in a lot of YA books the parents are dead.

After reading hundreds of these books and writing a few myself, I've come up with a theory about why this is true.

Teens do not want to read about parents in their books. 

They get enough of their parents in real life. Yeah. Yeah. Sure. They love you. Sometimes they go to you for advice. They enjoy seeing you in the audience of their plays or on the sidelines of their soccer games. But they like to read books where YOU ARE NOT THERE.

Books where the teen main character has no helicoptery mom or dad swooping in to save her. Books where the kid goes on adventures or makes stupid decisions or drinks alcohol or has sex with the love interest or cheats on the love interest or tells a lie or bullies someone or gets bullied or grieves or is stricken with a deadly disease.

Books where the teen main character fights and loses, but in the end, fights and wins.

The parents in those books are spinning in the background, dealing with their own problems or going out of town on conveniently scheduled trips or dying in car accidents or being attacked by wild dogs.

Sometimes the parents are assholes. Because, NEWSFLASH: a lot of parents in real life are assholes.

Sometimes the parents are lovely people who love their children fiercely but can't quite see the huge complicated dramatic emotional outrageous unfair glorious world their main character child is living in... because their child has kept it a secret.

Psst: Your child keeps secrets from you.

Just like you once kept secrets from your parents. Because you didn't want to get in trouble or you didn't want them to think lesser of you. Because, ultimately, it was none of their business what you did with your own life.

You grew up. You left your parents. And your children will grow up and leave you. One way or another, the easy way or the hard way. Whether you are a good parent or a bad parent.  Whether you love your child fiercely or not. Especially if you love her fiercely.

She will leave you.

Because that's the way her story begins.

Once upon a time my daughter
liked to wear plastic bowl hats. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Opposite of Valentine's Day (Amy K. Nichols)

My view as I write this
Yesterday was Valentine's Day.

My valentine was sick. He apologized for having a fever and feeling like a bucket of blah. Somehow he still managed to buy me flowers and the most delicious box of chocolates. Silly boy. He didn't have to do that.

While he spent the day zonked out, I fixed the patio screen door that the dogs have shredded with their incessant requests to go outside and inside and outside again. I'd never re-screened a door before, and I'm happy to report it turned out well. Proud of my accomplishment, I moved on to planting the vegetable garden (spring recently sprang here) and doing some routine yard work. By the time I was done, my nails were a dirt-caked mess. The palms of my hands sported a few blisters. Ooooh, pretty.

In the afternoon, I made my valentine some tea and partook of some of those yummy chocolates.

Before long it was time for dinner. Despite the romantic holiday, I didn't make anything fancy. Packaged three-cheese tortellini with red sauce and a salad. For my valentine, I made crab-stuffed ravioli (also packaged--I'm not that great in the kitchen) and hoped his taste buds were functional enough to register the crab (his favorite).

After dinner a migraine like you wouldn't believe bloomed behind my right eye. I curled into the fetal position on the couch and cried. Ow.

My valentine found a heavy pillow and put it on my head because even though it's a weird thing to do, he knows it helps (cranial pressure + sound dampening = ahhhhhh). Then he left me alone and let the kids know to leave me alone and I fell asleep and slept until the pain was gone.

Not your typical Valentine's Day. Certainly not your clichéd Valentine's Day. But definitely love. Lots and lots of love.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Luck, Astrology, and Cliches (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Happy Friday the 13th!!! My favorite day of the year because I was BORN on Friday the 13th so I get to claim it as my lucky day... At least that is what I heard somewhere... or maybe I made it up? Either way I am claiming it because I can use all the luck I can get, especially after Mercury Retrograde, which just ended on Wednesday, thank goodness!

Blaming Mercury Retrograde seems to have become more and more of a thing in recent years--at least it is on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. On the flipside, I also see a lot of people (like my husband) rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, and saying that they are sick of people who put so much weight into astrology. I may be pushing the boundaries by talking about this as a cliché , but hey this is YA Outside the Lines, and also much as I love and adore and believe in astrology (see my Literally The Best Thing Ever: Astrology piece on Rookie for proof of that!), I am aware that I am reducing situations and my own personality to a cliché sometimes when I talk about it. For example, I am a proud Cancer and I've got all the moodiness, sensitivity and homebody-tendencies to go with it. Occasionally during those moody bouts, I will say, "Ugh, I'm being such a Cancer." For the most part, I comment on this to snap myself out of it, but sometimes I do use it as an excuse to wallow. Similarly, I like to have Mercury Retrograde as a scapegoat. 

However, I try not to oversimplify. That’s what creates a stereotype or cliché—boiling it down to ALL CANCERS ARE MOODY ALL THE TIME or NOTHING GOOD CAN HAPPEN IN MERCURY RETROGRADE EVER. I actually moved across the country during Mercury Retrograde, which I will admit COMPLETELY TERRIFIED ME. I thought for sure the car would break down or all our stuff would break or something. There were a couple of hiccups, but compared to what COULD happen in a cross-country move, it was really nothing. How do I explain this and my belief in Mercury Retrograde? For one, I did a lot of careful planning before the Retrograde period (and whether or not the Retrograde is real, I thank my paranoia for making me extra vigilant). For two, I was making this move to re-invent and re-invigorate my life and that’s the kind of stuff that Mercury Retrograde is actually all about, at least according to this article, which I quite enjoyed. Well, either that or it’s my born-on-Friday-the-13th bad luck reversal thing kicking in. I also did sell my memoir while Mercury was in retrograde (though my agent and I have an agreement about avoiding actual contract signing if we can help it. She shares my feelings about astrology and signs from the Universe in general; one of many reasons we work so well together.)

Basically, the way I keep myself from being crippled by superstition or clichés is by making sure not to pin EVERYTHING on them. I believe in good luck when I think it will give me the energy I need. I use the idea of bad luck when I do need to vent or blame a string of unfortunate, miserable things on something, but then I try to reframe it either by using a situation like Mercury Retrograde as a way to really WORK on my communication and planning so things don’t go wrong or taking the time to reflect, rejuvenate and revise. I will say that astrological clichés are one of my favorite writing tools, though. When I’m building a character, I always figure out their sign and it helps me figure out what their strongest personality traits are and what matters to them.

What about you? Do you believe in this stuff and use it to explain/justify everything? Think it’s clichéd or have stereotypes about people who do? Or do you take an approach like mine?

Now I’m off to enjoy my lucky day—and I did just Google that superstition. Apparently there are a couple of beliefs floating around: if you were born on Friday the 13th, you are either unlucky for life OR Friday the 13th is your lucky day. I’m choosing the latter, so I’ll be sending an application for a writer’s residency in today. If it’s not too cliché to ask, cross your fingers for me!

Thursday, February 12, 2015


I'm up to my eyebrows in copyedits for my very first indie release--an NA rom-com. I'm not new to a book with romantic elements; PLAYING HURT, a YA romance, released in '11. Maybe because I've walked this territory before, it seems incredibly easy to rely on repetitious descriptions. After all, love stories are in and of themselves somewhat repetitious by nature.

But the somewhat pre-established pattern of falling in love doesn't make a romance easier--it's more challenging. Like pop songs. NOTHING should be easier to write than a pop song--in theory, anyway. You go into it knowing it's going to be about a relationship, that it's going to have three major chords, that the pattern will be: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. So much of a pop song is predetermined, it seems like it should be simple. Add four rhyming words and shake! Pow! Pop song completed.

Anyone who's tried writing songs knows that it ain't easy. To find a way to say something new? To make anyone who listens to the song feel the same emotion? To make it catchy? Have a hook you can instantly hum along to? Seriously tough stuff. (It's surely why we have so many one-hit wonders.)

Romance novels are every bit as much work. But the payoff is that when a romance is written right, it has the ability to be every bit as moving and infectious as a pop song...

Least Cliche' Author Ever, by Brian Katcher (contest for a free book!)


 Every story we write, no matter how original, has been told before. Every one. There are really one about a dozen general plot out there.

But there's one author who always manages to take me by surprise and come up with an original plot. Every time. Every time. 

Here are the summaries of some of his books (though not his most well known novel). Can you figure out who I'm talking about with a minimum of googling?

*A supermodel who has lost her lower jaw in a drive by shooting goes on a crime spree with a transwoman. They are both unaware they used to be brother and sister.

*A fourteen-year-old girl dies in an accident and finds herself in hell. Hell is filled with discarded candy. The gross kind. Licorice bits and stuff like that.

*A kid from a nameless foreign country is adopted by an American family who is unaware he's a spy. The entire book is written in broken English.

*A guy figures out that if you deliberately infect yourself with rabies and then go for a long drive and you start operating on autopilot, you can achieve the perfect mental state that allows you to time travel. He prevents her own birth which makes him immortal, and then uses eternity to compete in good-natured urban demolition derbies.

*A dozen or so people lock themselves in an abandoned theater, telling their life stories while chopping off their own body parts to eat (while they're surrounded by food). You will become physically ill when reading the swimming pool scene.

*A cult member records his story while riding on a doomed plane with his psychic girlfriend.

So who is this master of the original plot? The first one to answer in the comments section gets a copy of my new book, THE IMPROBABLE THEORY OF ANA AND ZAK.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague (by Tracy Barrett)

In Renaissance Europe, a popular form of entertainment was the commedia dell’arte, where itinerant troupes of actors would wander from town to castle to city and put on semi-improvised plays in exchange for a place to sleep, some food, and, if they were lucky, a small payment. The lady of the manor or the mayor of the city or some other bigwig would give them a theme—two lovers overcome peril and unite happily, a scheming lord attempts to defraud an honest tradesman—and off they’d go.

As a shortcut to the audience, each actor took the part of an easily recognized character. Harlequin always dressed in many colors (think of the jack in a deck of cards) and was a comic figure, servant to the Doctor; Isabella always wore the latest fashion and was usually the love-interest; etc. Spectators knew exactly what to expect of each one.

Good thing we don’t have stock characters like that anymore, right?

Wrong. Many authors still rely on clichés as a kind of shorthand. Three that I see repeatedly are the mean cheerleader, the dumb athlete, and the close-minded Christian. I’m sick of these, and not because they reflect on me personally—I am not now, nor have I ever been, a cheerleader, an athlete, or a Christian—but because it’s such a lazy way to make a reader feel comfortable.

“That guy drives like a bat out of hell,” I once said to a friend.

“What an amazing image!” my friend said. “It sounds like something Dante would say!”

Not the usual reaction to a cliché, right? But my friend had never heard it before—he’s Italian—and if you think about it, it is an arresting image: a dark, winged creature hurtling through the gaping maw of the netherworld. Once it was an arresting image to English-speakers, too, but overuse has stripped the phrase of its power. As Julie Esbaugh said in a recent post in Pub(lishing) Crawl, The first time someone said,  Actions speak louder than words, it probably sounded profound! But now that expression has lost its freshness and therefore, its power.” (Here are some wonderful examples of visual translations of idioms unlikely to be familiar to English-speakers.)

Last month, Alison Flood listed some of her own most-disliked clichés in an article in the Guardian. Theyre worth studying!

It’s fun for an author to come up with new metaphors and similes, and it’s fun to come up with characters that buck a stereotype. More importantly, unexpected characters are more believable and fresh to the reader.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sometimes Love Means Letting Go (Sydney Salter)

I've had a lifelong love affair with books. I love, love, love, LOVE books. I won't even leave my house without a book (what if there's a freak traffic jam on the way back from taking my daughter to school?!?!). Thus, I have many shelves of many books.

My away-at-college daughter recently said, "it's hard to convey to people the library-slash-pet* vibe of our house."  *three dogs, two cats, two tortoises, two bunnies, a bearded dragon and a rat.

Letting go of books has always been difficult to me. I tend to shelve them like trophies--even those, like the literary criticism I hated reading in college, that feel more like participation ribbons than actual accomplishments. 

Not only had I run out of shelf space, I'd run out of wall space. So what did I do? I bought another book! The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Phase two is getting rid of books you don't love.

I spent hours removing every book from my shelves and stacking them in my living room. Over the next three days, I examined each volume. Do I love you? Kondo also reminds us that many books have served their purpose in the act of being read. Others you might think you want to read, but never do. Those books tell you something about yourself too. And you don't need to keep them anymore. 

I donated more than a thousand books to charity on Monday. Thank you to the other great love in my life--my husband--for carting off all those brimming boxes.

My shelves now house books that I truly love, or books that I'm eager to read. You can see that I still have, ahem, quite a bit of love on my shelves. It was also a little embarrassing to have the mailman show up on Saturday with the latest selection from my Powell's Book Club. 

The empty shelf space is ready to hold the books that will inform and delight the future me. And that's a lot more exciting than a dusty old how-to-feed-your-toddler paperback! 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Clichés, Readers and Writers

  1. 1.
    a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
    a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usuallyexpressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lostoriginality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser.
    (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, characterdevelopment, use of color, musical expression, etc.
    3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse."the old cliché “one man's meat is another man's poison.”"
    synonyms:platitude, hackneyed phrase, commonplacebanality, old saying,maximtruism, stock phrase, trite phrase; 
    old chestnut
    "a good speechwriter will steer clear of clichés"

Wow. Sounds terrible, right? What author would want to be accused of writing anything that is described by the words above. And yet I have to ask myself, what do readers want? 

When it comes to YA I often wonder if original thought can actually be a tad disappointing. I've read lots of reviews of YA books where readers don't exactly appreciate what's "original" - they want the guy and girl to end up together, they want the estranged friends to make-up and be besties again, they want redemption, they want to feel good when a story ends, etc. Twists and turns are nice, but at the end of the day, it feels like they kind of want what they want. 

I guess what confuses me the most is what's considered "original." I mean, is there really any story line that is original anymore? They've even distilled down every story into 7 basic plots (overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth) - and those plots go back ages. 

So as authors how do we write "original?" Let me tell you, it sure isn't easy. When I'm writing, I have a heightened sense for "cliche" - how I describe things, analogies, synonyms, comparisons, you name it. Everything feels like it's been done before, so how can I, one little writer, expect to do it all "originally?" 

It's hard. And wondering if readers will accept your version of "original" can make you second guess yourself. Because original doesn't necessarily mean better. But it's a risk worth taking. Even if it isn't easy.