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.