We all use cliches without thinking, usually because they are truisms that have become so common we no longer notice them. Speech is filled with shortcuts as we aim to make ourselves understood.
The deffinition of cliche is:
1. a trite, stereotyped expression
2. a trite or hackneyed plot or character development
3. Anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse
If it has been heard frequently in conversation, newscast, or advertising, it is probably a cliche or on its way to become one.
Here is a small sampling of cliche phrases:
1. Avoid it like the plague
2. The pot calling the kettle black
3. Like a kid in a candy store
4. Think outside the box
5. American as apple pie
6. Tiger by the tail
7. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
8. Thick as thieves
9. Every dog has his day
10. Tip of the iceberg
11. Smile like a Chesire cat
12. Uphill battle
13. Never say never
14. Laughter is the best medicine
15. Two wrongs don't make a right
16. In a nutshell
17. It's not rocket science
18. At the end of the day
19. Wrap your head around it
20. Time will tell
Yet fiction writers need to look beyond trite phrases and examine their characters and plots for cliche. An example of cliche in a murder mystery plot is when the murderer is the least likely character. We have all seen this used in plots. It becomes a problem when it is no longer a surprise.
Examples of cliche characterization is the dumb blonde or the evil stepmother. A writer must remember the goal is to create fresh stories that entertain. A writer must be certain characters do not fall into categories that have been seen before and hold no surprises. Cliched characters will bore the reader and be rejected by an agent or editor. If a writer does use cliched characters he must be certain he uses a new angle on the old and expected, such as the stepmother who saves the day.
As a new writer, I carefully examined my characters and revised traits that seemed cliche. It was a lesson learned.
Michael Bracken writes in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists: Insider Secrets from Top Writers:
"A writing career is nothing more than a long series of disappointments punctuated by occasional moments of success,” “Maintaining a long writing career involves a little bit of talent, a little bit of luck, and a great deal of determination.”
Every writer knows the road to publication is paved with rejection. There is a learning process that takes place before a writer is savvy enough to attract the attention of an agent or publisher. A new writer soon learns that getting published is as much about what a manuscript is as what a manuscript is not.
That said, I began wondering what the top reasons are that agents or publishers reject a manuscript. For me, it was a learning process in reverse, because it seemed obvious it was best to avoid problems before they occur.
Listed below are some of the top reasons manuscripts are rejected:
1. The opening fails to hook the reader.
2. The point of view isn't consistent.
3. The plot lacks conflict and suspense.
4. Characters are one dimentional and flat.
5. Too many info dumps.
6. Info is inaccurate and lack of research is apparent.
7. Too much telling and not enough showing.
8. Unrealistic development between characters.
9. Sex scenes are not a good fit for the book.
10. The manuscript is riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes.
11. The manuscript was sent to the wrong publishers.
12. The voice doesn't sing.
13. The manuscript is bloated with modifiers and adverbs.
14. Wandering plot or too many subplots.
15. The manuscript is too long (usually over 120,000 words) or too short (under 50,000.)
16. The story fits in no recognizable genre.
17. The conflict is weak or boring.
18. The dialogue is unrealistic.
19. Characters' motives are unbelievable.
20. Ending does not deliver or satisfy.
High on the list of new writer sins is head hopping. It is one of the fastest ways to be rejected by an agent or publisher. To understand head hopping, I first had to understand point of view.
First Person Point of view is when the story is limited to one character's perspective. The main character shares the story through his eyes and tells the story with his voice, such as "I kissed the apple."
Third Person Limited Point of View is when the story is shared in the third person but by only one character's eyes. The story is told by one character throughout, such as "He kissed the apple."
Third Person Omniscient Point of View is when the story is told from various characters eyes, one at a time.
Omniscient Point of View is when the author's voice tells the story. The story is told from a non-character's eyes who sees all, like the eyes of God.
Head hopping occurs when the writer jumps from one character's thoughts to another in the same scene or paragraph. Unlike omniscient point of view, there is no over arching voice in the story, and the view point shifts without the author signaling the change, such as with a chapter break. It is bad writing, because it impedes the reader from connecting with the main character of the scene. Head hopping is a big NO NO with editors and agents because it breaks the reader's intimacy with the story.
And yet, head hopping is found in popular fiction. Nora Roberts, New York Times Bestselling Author, with over 200 titles to her credit, uses head hopping frequently. Here is an example from "Born in Shame."
“Fine. Forget it.” And go away, she thought irritably.
“I’m thinking it’s your eyes.” He knew it was more. He’d known exactly what is was the moment he’d looked over and seen her.
I pointed to works by Nora Roberts and wondered, if Nora Roberts can do it and be accepted by readers, why can't I? What I had to learn was established writers can get away with head hopping, but new writers cannot. This was frustrating for me at first, because I write romance, and often in a scene I would like to reveal both character's thoughts. I had to learn that if I want to attract the attention of a publisher, I can not head hop.
If someday my following is as large as Nora Roberts, I may get away with shifting point of view. In the meantime, no head hopping is my rule. It was a lesson learned.
A hook is writer's bait, intended to lure the reader in. Also known as a literary hook or narrative hook, it means a snappy opening to get the reader's attention. A writer has to grab his reader, hook, line, and sinker. Snag that reader, reel him in, and make him want more.
Most potential readers glance at the back book cover to determine if they want to give the story a second look. Next, they may read the first sentence or paragraph of the first chapter. The story has to hook them or they won't continue reading.
Many literary agents confess they give queries from their slush pile their attention for four seconds. In four seconds they must be hooked or they move on to the next query. Four seconds! That means the first sentence must be stellar.
I began investigating great first lines in novels to examine their hook. Here are some examples.
1. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." From "1984" by George Orwell.
2. "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." From "Pride and Prejudice" by Ann Austen.
3. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York." From "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath.
4. "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person." From "Back When We Were Grownups" by Anne Tyler.
5. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." From "Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens.
I took another look at my own writing, and reviewed my opening paragraph. I confess, I thought I had a great hook, but on closer examination I realized my hook came down the page. The four second rule screamed "Re-write!" It was a lesson learned.
I became intrigued with the principles of improvisational comedy after reading "One for the Money" by Janet Evanovich. The author of the highly successful Stephanie Plum mystery series, Evanovich is one of the richest authors in the world, according to Forbes.com. She has stated in interviews she learned to write dialogue by getting up on stage and doing improv acting.
I had to know more. My dialogue could use a punch. What was the secret of comedy that was eluding me? I did some research on improv, and learned there are basic principles. Here are a few:
1. Be willing to fail spectacularly. Take risks, there are no consequences.
2. Action beats inaction.
3. Let go and flow.
4. There are no mistakes, only interesting choices.
5. Trust yourself. There are an infinite number of ideas to dig you out.
6. "Yes.... and...."
The final item I listed is the most powerful improvisational comedy principle of all. "Yes... and..." means to accept what is given and to build on it. It implies acceptance and moving forward. "Yes.... and...." acknowledges the reality of the moment, but also inspires taking it to the next level.
I began thinking about the "Yes.... and...." principle, and suddenly I felt free. My writing improved. My characters became interesting. Their dialogue became unpredictable. Plot twists became the norm, and I was having fun.
I am not suggesting all fiction authors should write comedy, but I am saying if a writer is not enjoying their craft, it shows. How can an author expect the reader to enjoy his work if he did not enjoy writing it? The question is worth considering.
Not every author uses a pen name, but a lot of them do. Ann Landers, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Nora Roberts, and Dr. Seuss are all pen names. Benjamin Franklin first wrote under Silence Dogood. Stephen King also writes under Richard Bachman. The list goes on.
I was not convinced. Did I really need a pen name? I work hard at my writing and I am proud of it. I yearned to see my own name upon a book cover.
There are many reasons for pen names, including privacy, writing under multiple genres, safety, desire to reach a new audience, and so on. The list of reasons is as varied as reasons to write in the first place.
Still, I was not convinced. Did I really want or need a pen name? I found advice that a pen name should be short, catchy, easy to spell, and memorable. That is when I knew I needed one, because my given name was none of those things.
I began my quest to find a name for myself, and soon realized the difficulty. Give me a baby to name and I can come up with many great possibilities. Give me a character to name and I'll find names that range from sasssy to classy. But I couldn't name myself. The problem was every fabricated name made me feel like a fraud.
My mother's maiden name is Allison and my grandmother's maiden name is O'Dell. Allison O'Dell seemed to me to be the perfect name. I could see it on a book cover. It had a nice ring to it. I felt good honoring my mother and my grandmother. But then I discovered there are many Allison O'Dells in this world when I searched for the name on Google and Facebook.
The discovery led me to a new set of considerations. I wanted a name that would not be commonly confused with someone else. A pen name should be easily remembered and yet unique. I wanted to come up on Google and Facebook as the only possibility. If I was to be a successful writer I would need a website with my name as a dot.com.
One day it hit me to form a contraction of my given name. I used basic elements of my real name but I shortened it up. Suddenly I didn't feel like a fraud. It felt right. I nearly fell off my chair when a search of Google and Facebook turned up nothing.
Now I am writing full speed ahead with my shiny new pen name.