Using The Cliche Tip

When I was a new writer, writing my very first book, my husband was very impressed by a scene in which a slave says three lines and immediately has a personality and completely steals the chapter.

It was in a way an harbinger of things to come, but it still makes me wonder if he was right that it was a sign I’d be a great author.  I wonder, because knowing when to use cliches in the right place is incredibly useful in creating a novel and getting subtext to the reader without adding YET another subplot to your book.

This is particularly important as the age of Indie publishing dawns.  (It looks like a dawn to me.  Of course, it could be a raging forest fire in the horizon.)  Why, because we’ve determined – we being those of us who buy and observe ebooks and their marketing – that people will pay $4.99 for fifty thousand words.  They will also pay 4.99 for 100,000 words and 4.99 for 150,000 words.

Why this is, I don’t know, but there seems to be a hard set price at around $5 that people don’t like going over.  If you have a big name, or if it’s a sequel to a book with a lot of readers, they might go as high as $6.99, but at that point, as far as I can tell, you’re losing more in readers than the increased share of the price will bring in.  From 50k words on down to 20k words there are price breaks along the way, hitting at 20k (though you can get away with 11k to 15k if it’s really good) at 2.99, and 30 to 35k words at 3.99.   Of course, this all varies wildly with “book that’s part of a series” and “Popular characters” but this is the way to bet.

Oh, I have some idea as to why the different formats support different sizes.  If I remember the goatgaggers came about because paperbacks were going to be 8.99 anyway, even for small ones (having to do with requirements for half recycled paper in the books.  How do you know recycled paper is a bad idea?  Because recycling it costs more and causes more damage to the environment than just harvesting the trees that are grown for paper – no, boys and girls, no one is cutting down old growth forests for pulp.  Yes, of course you thought they did.  We all did.  Keep that mind.  It’s important later.  Politicians know that too, this is why they make the grand gestures that actually make things worse.  They are masters of the cliche) then why not charge a couple bucks extra, but make the book two and a half times as large.  VISIBLY larger, and therefore speaking to that back part of the human brain that says “more for the money.”

In ebooks, you don’t see that.  You see a description that either sounds interesting or not, and a price.  If the price is 7.99 or 8.99, that description had best be fantastic.  The bar to cross is much higher.  

Yes, if you buy a book and it turns out to be only 50 pages, you get upset.  I have, when romance writers charge 2.99 for their short stories.  BUT speaking as a reader, if it’s a hundred pages or more, I’m willing to go up to 3.99 or thereabouts.  And if it reads as substantial as Agatha Christie, well, 4.99 is about right.  (And I have to argue with myself a lot less to get it.  Treacherous is the human brain and all that.  Two books at 50k words a piece at 4.99 are the same as a 150k book at 9.99 – but that’s not what it FEELS like.)

As a writer with limited time, the strategy for maximizing money is obvious – one should return to the techniques of the pulps and write shorter books.  It is a fact modern readers fail to appreciate that most of the Agatha Christie books, most of the Rex Stout books, the Heinlein books pre- 70s and a lot of others maxed out at about 60k words.  This was the novel in the times novels were wildly popular.  It was also something that could be consumed in about an hour, by a fast reader.  (I’m not sure if this had anything to do with their popularity, but I’m throwing it out there.)

The problem is that I came into the field when the novel had come to mean 100k or so words.  This length became hard and fast in my brain.  Impossible to dislodge even over the first five years in my career when the goatgagger of 220 to 250k words became all the rage.  The one goatgagger I tried to write suffered from subplots that had little to do with the main plot.  Of course so did a lot of the bestsellers, but that is no excuse.

The sad thing though is that of right now, I can see writing a goatgagger more easily than a 50k story.  A goatgagger could be a trilogy published as a single book.  A 50k story, however, requires learning a new way of writing.  And I’m trying to learn it in experiments you’ll probably never see.  (This is, right now my second job, trying to retool for the indie market.)

Yes, I could write it as an episodic novel but each of the episodes requires the same techniques as a shorter novel, to fully work.

Okay, Sarah, you’ve convinced us.  Small is the new massive and this has something to do with pulp.  BUT what does that have to do with cliches?

Go and read any Harlequin from the seventies and eighties when they held the length at around 50k.  It is almost exclusively cliches.  (There was a joke, for a while, around writers’ email lists that when you wrote your first romance you’d get a letter from the “dark haired virgin” – this was a woman who sent a letter to every new romance writer begging for a heroine who was a dark haired virgin.  I don’t know how much of that is apocryphal or if she still does it, I never wrote an official romance.)

The joke/story worked, because a dark haired virgin was hard to find.  The innocent virgin was usually a blond, while the experienced mistress/woman of bad repute was dark haired.  Why?  Well, for goodness sakes, because that cliche starts with the picture books.  (And Pratchett had delightful fun with it in I Shall Wear Midnight.) And the books were short. You had to get your bang as fast as possible.  You didn’t have time to fight pre-conceived notions.

When writing short, what I did in that very first book, making what should be a secondary character with a walk-on part become a full fledged individual is baaaaad.  Well, it’s bad for my pocket book and my writing speed.  Why?  Because if I make a character live and breathe in three sentences, the reader (see yesterday’s post on foreshadowing) expects him to be part of a major subplot, with his own growth line.  And that means the book SWELLS up, like one of those sponge dinosaurs thrown in a glass of water.

I’m happy to report I have mustered that much.  My walk-ons are now fully walk-ons and I let my brain pick up cliche-1 or cliche-2 out of the back regions.  In case you have not noticed – have you? – all my hostlers tend to be fat and jovial.  That’s because the name is attached to the (British) Robin Hood series which aired in Portugal in the late seventies.  Hostlers are fat, jovial and often red faced.   Going against that cliche in my own head means I’d give the so-and-so’s a chance to grow and become individuals and then you’d have the tale of the hostler with the unfaithful wife and the incurable disease.  And then at the end I’d need to tie his growth to the main story and next thing you know, people are sending me letters begging for a hostler series.

The devil is in the secondary characters, and in keeping them properly secondary.  If I’m going to spend a ton of time in someone else’s head, then by gum and golly, they’re going to be people.  I can’t help it.  It’s like a disease.  My subconscious starts spending a lot of time around a critter’s head, and next thing I know the critter has a mother, a wife, two sisters, a cat he loved in childhood and  OCCASIONALLY searing memories of something or other from childhood.  I can’t help it.  It just happens.

This is why Witchfinder which was planned to be 90k words or thereabouts, is now becoming something that will end at around 120 or 150k words.  It was supposed to be a mostly Seraphim book – I have the outline, I SWEAR – but not only has his half-brother/valet developed a plot line line of his own (bursting out of his “clever servant” cliche jacket) but now his little sister is developing her own too which will involve extraordinary gifts and a star crossed love, and his little brother though a late comer will, I swear, steal the show just to upset me.  And don’t get me started on his father who is supposed to be decently dead.  (Flash – Dukes don’t know their place.  Oh, wait.)

And please, don’t tell me to keep the books first person there.  Do you guys know how many letters I got after Darkship Thieves asking me for novels featuring Nat and – I swear I’m not making this up – Fuse?  FUSE!  And of course there will be novels featuring them, because the moment I read that, my subconscious goes “oooo” gets the jump on the conscious, clobbers it on the head and starts spinning stories.

So, how do I feel about this?  I don’t know.  Part of me resents the fact that I can’t write 50 thousand word novels when they sell as well or better than longer ones.  Look, this is the thing…  I know the gentleman who visited to defend non-fiction writers talked about my art.  (Rolls eyes.)  Which is a fundamental misunderstanding of what I’m trying to do.

Is my writing art?  Don’t know.  Don’t care.  To me art is that extra dimension, when breath from the gods blows upon the book and it lives.  It’s not something I can invoke at will, particularly when I MAKE MY LIVING FROM THIS and must finish books in time to pay tuition or get the car repaired even while sick, angry, worried, or other mind-impairing things.  What I CAN and try to do is write the best book I can in a way that it will sell the most.

But… but… but…  But writing 50 thousand word books involves working mostly in cliches.  And the problem with cliches is that they are so often wrong.  At best they’re a radical simplification.  At worst, they are an outright lie.  Take the “all virgins are blondes.”  I distinctly remember being a virgin, and I was dark haired.  Worse, I had streaks of red in my hair.  Which means I should have been the local slut.  Now, yes, anyone thinking they have to be sluts because they’re dark haired is insane, but that’s because it’s a cliche that ALL of us know it’s wrong, pretty much.  So the cliche is silly, but it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Other cliches do.  Though Ric was wrong to assume I was using the cliche of the “tortured homosexual” – (mostly because these two people are well… far from perfect people, and both are mostly victims of themselves regardless of their society and its issues and also because though ONE of them is at the center of the solution to the book, the solution has to do with his birth, not his orientation.) BUT oh, heavens, the cliche exists.  It exists to the point of calling up widespread prejudice that doesn’t exist in most places, anymore for the purpose of serving the plot, giving people the impression ALL gay people are beat up every other day and twice on Sunday, while walking to the convenience store for milk, in your average suburb.  (The same applies to “tortured person of color” and “tortured immigrant” and “tortured minority of some description” – the end result being that book my kids had to read in school about the pagan, handicapped, lesbian Latina who can never do anything, because everyone victimizes her .) Or the cliche about all evil in the world coming from truly bizarre sexual wishes suppressed (or expressed.)  There’s this television mystery series, which I’m actually enjoying around the edges, (I’m watching it free with Amazon prime, and I think it’s a British series) but my husband and I joke the solution to the mystery is always kinkier and kinkier sex.  We’ve taken to guessing how bizarre the sexual act at the bottom of it will be next time.  We’ve now had homosexuality between married people, middle aged transvestite, incest, swinging and more incest.  I understand the same thing applies to the “new” Miss Marple TV series, where they’ve defaulted to all sorts of sexual stuff as the reason for the murders, etc. as though people had NO OTHER impulses or reasons to do things.   It’s like their answer for everything is “Sex” which of course is cliche from the seventies.  

And this cliche brings my objection to “cliches” to the fore – no matter how useful they are.  Using “sex” as the answer for everything is not only wrong, it can be harmful.  It makes young people think sexual orientation or what anyone does in bed or even what they WANT to do in bed matters much more than it does and determines people’s moral character all along the line (which is bad for both sides of the debate).  It also propagates the idea there’s no escape.  If you have a truly depraved instinct — say an attraction to clown noses — you can give in to it and let it ruin your life, or not give in to it and go insane.

Of course, some sexual impulses, judged under the “this is bad for a lot of other people” or “this is causing suffering to innocent creatures for the sake of pleasure” are PLAIN wrong, (like crushing small cute animals.  ick.  Or pedophilia.)  And impulses that aren’t wrong (including good old heterosexual desire can be PLAIN wrong in CERTAIN circumstances and in certain places.)  And of course you can control yourself without going insane.  Most of us do.  EVERY DAY.  But since it’s not something people talk about that much, it’s easy to have the idea propagate that if you really HAVE to mate with cabbages and DON’T give in to it, and give in to it in a public and noisy manner, you’re going to start killing the neighbors and stuffing them into garbage bags.  (Yes, some people do.  Those people tend to have OTHER issues too. For the record, Splendor in The Grass is full of sh*t.  If she couldn’t handle NOT having sex without going insane, she was certainly not ready to HAVE sex.)  If your sexual bend runs towards live chickens, it’s probably better if you repress it.  Dead chickens?  Well, keep it to yourself buddy.  Keep it to yourself with the door locked and the windows down.  Your mind should still be in control of your body no matter how many modern novels say we have to give in or become mass murderers.  Or to allude to Rex Stout’s masterly summation, there’s more to being humans – and to caring, and to having adventures, and, yes, even to committing murder – than the appetites we share with dogs.

But the idea that sex is at the bottom of everything is a cliche – and one easy to default to, because so much of the “serious” TV and movies we see do.  Freud, though no longer taken seriously, has percolated through our entire society.  Cheap pop psychology makes you sound “deep”  (Fortunately I’m virtually immune to TV, unless I’m ironing, and I NEVER read “serious” literature. :-P I have an old college injury.  It only hurts when I read literature.  Of course, it is a problem too, because I don’t know what readers expect.  And yes, that is bad.)

Mostly what I tend to do, because the same thing happens to me with “niche cliches” as happens to secondary characters is take the cliche, start off with it, then spin it around and rearrange it so its own mother wouldn’t recognize it.

Take, for instance the cliche of the cruel father, so useful in fat fantasies of the seventies and eighties that featured a girl MC.  People starting Darkship Thieves would be excused for thinking I’m going that way and pounding on the patriarchal society, etc.  Only… that’s not *precisely* the point.  There are reasons for the cruel father, and he’d be (has been/and others are) just as cruel to a boy.  Because my mind can’t leave cliches alone.

Is there a bit of pride in that?  Well, yes, but only in the same way I’ll tell you that I can’t sing – or rather, that I sing so badly I could clear packed buses at rush hour.  If you’re blessed with this sort of thing, you might as well take pride in it, because it ain’t going away.

BUT again, it will cause a problem with writing shorter.  A serious problem.  On the other hand, using cliches CAN – though it isn’t necessarily needed, not in all of them – become poisonous and lies that can – eventually – infect the whole society.  On the one hand I write to make money.  On the other hand, I have to wake up with myself and look in the mirror, because otherwise I’ll probably put my toothbrush in my eye.

The electronic drawing programs I use have “tips” that you can put on the “airbrush” – sky tips, and rose tips and…  So that if you’re drawing a bunch of fiddly stuff that’s not important in the big picture, you don’t have to slave over it.  Very useful.  In the same way I tend to think of cliches as a “cliche tip” – if you have a walk in character, why give him the complex back story and the searing experience with the cat and the three men dressed in clown suits?  On the other hand, if you have a cliche character in a more substantial position, you have to look t it very carefully and wonder whether you’re propagating a lie that does actually have consequences.  The thing is, you have to be fully aware deviating from the herd in that one will cost you time and money and it’s doubtful it will gain you that many more fans, at least for a while – so you should only do it if you ABSOLUTELY have to… like, if you can’t look at yourself in the morning if you don’t.

Lately I’ve found that those “Background tips” on the drawing brush are less convincing and more “fakey” than if I just use some quick techniques to do the background in a way that suggests it but doesn’t fully show it.  I’m not absolutely sure if that’s a metaphor for writing or not.  All I know is that this is going to require learning a lot of new techniques.

Note that I’m giving away stuff at Mad Genius Club.

Also, Mike Kabongo has a post tangentially related to this – in the sense of finding “new” stuff to read which is NOT a cliche.

49 responses to “Using The Cliche Tip

  1. ppaulshoward

    What did the slave say? [Color me curious]

    • scr*wed if I remember. It was 27 years ago. BUT what he said cast a whole new light on history and also made him an iconoclast and possibly innocent. (Slavery in a society that can (and does) put magical binds on people, is the equivalent of prison, so it’s “for cause”)

    • ppaulshoward

      [To activate follow-up comments emails]

  2. I dunno — I can envision a murder perpetrated by the husband of a heterosexual lesbian (??? Who can keep up with the infinite perversions the human mind concocts? she likes sex with men who are dressed up as women) who finally snapped from irritation at the discomfort of having to shave all the body hair and worse, the annoyance inflicted by its growing back.

    Sometimes, as Terry Pratchett has shown, the only thing to do with cliches is to explode them.

  3. I have never taken to t eh idea that a longer novel is better, nor that it represents more value for the reader’s money. As I’ve said erstwhile and elsewhere, Heinlein only needed 300 pages for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress … if you’re taking up more of my time you best justify it.

    Because that is part of it. There are two separate costs in a novel: the cost of its purchase and the cost of the time spent reading it. That second cost is the higher of the two. It is the opportunity cost of reading some other novel or novella or short story collection or even a news article about proposals for space exploration and industrial processes. Because you cannot read everything (believe me, I’ve tried.) So any single thing you read is at the expense of something else you could have read (which may well be reason to skip the rest of this comment.)

    To me the goatchoker novel is evidence of a lack of skill and discipline in the writer. Call it Phillip Jose Farmer disease — his Riverworld was one of the worst offenders of this ilk. Interesting characters, fascinating proposition, but no ability to stay on plot and get to an ending. I see similar flaws in George R. R. Martin’s current books — too many characters running off in too many directions. Truly, i appreciate a writer who doesn’t waste my time, who is concise and effective. And yes, I recognise how hard it is to write tersely effectively. I have long appreciated Blaise Pascal’s apology: “I am sorry I have had to write you such a long letter, but I did not have time to write you a short one”

    Minor characters don’t need to be cliches, but if it helps you, the writer, stay on point with the plot, okay. When I see a character in a red shirt I know not to become emotionally invested in him (her) — although sometimes a writer can make that character one whose death makes you weep.

    • the writers were NOT the offenders in the goatgaggers. Publishers were. there were things you had to do to get promo, etc.

      No, in 100k words — TMIAHM — you don’t need cliches. When you bring it to half that, you do or you simply are going to blow the count. For now I’m resigned to blowing the count. It’s just for me anyway, no editor breathing down my neck. So… thank heavens I write fast.

      • Well for me this is good, really. For regarding Witchfinder, after a rather nice set up you have left of Marlon’s father and his machinations out in the cold for some time now…and I do hope, after such a nice set up, that it was not all for naught.

      • I am perfectly willing to blame publishers for all manner of sins, including (or even particularly) this one. For is it not the publisher who has acted as intermediary, telling the writer what will sell (and telling the reader what is worth buying)? Is not a professional publisher a guarantor of quality? (I apologise for any screens that must now be wiped.)

        Funny, when I think on it; it seems likely that the same people excoriating Walmart for forcing its suppliers to cut costs and exploit labor to bring their product to market according to Walmart’s standards … are quite as ready to praise the role of professional publishers for doing quite the same thing to authors.

        • The difference between Walmart and the publishers is that Walmart is in no danger of going bankrupt. This indicates that it actually knows what its customers want unlike the publishers.

          • because it pays attention to what sells BUT also to what influences that sale, if that makes sense. For years publishers have paid attention to what sells, but NOT to the fact that covers, placement, promotion, etc. make a difference

    • I don’t have a problem with goatgaggers; if they are GOOD enough. If the author is good enough to make an interesting story that flows fast, and it is 1300 pages long, I’m happy. But if it is just a decent story, not one that will keep you up all night reading it, I better get to the good part. If I read a decent story, and it is 60,000 words, I’ll probably try the next one by that author, hoping it is better, but willing to be satisfied by a decent quick read. On the other hand, if it 600,000 words, it better be riveting start to finish, or I’ll skip over the next one by that author.

      Some authors that write really good novels, just cannot write a decent short story. I don’t know why that is (other than the obvious, that it is a different writing style) but it is so common that I hesitate to read short stories in order to judge a new author; because around half of my favorite novel authors are terrible short story writers. (and some of them don’t publish shorts at all)

    • Meanwhile, I have a friend who loves Doorstop Novels. The thicker, the better! He called my duology — clocking in around 250,000 words, total — a “rapier” compared to the “claymores” he usually preferred. He also reads very quickly.

      (As a side note, a chunk of that word-count is a consequence of going, “You know? Screw the idea of the no-account orphan street kid with no family.” And so one of the protagonists developed four adoptive siblings, at least one of whom was a meddler herself. Voops.)

      • My greatest antipathy towards doorstop novels is I don’t think anything over 500 pages belongs in paperback — it puts too much stress on the spine. So, if you’re forcing me to read you HB, you’d best make it worth my while.

        • Ah, but pixels put no stress on the spine! :)

          • <looks at Pixies bowed under… Oh, wait. Pixels, not Pixies! Beth, I don't have a problem with long novels, and of course some people love them. I just resented being pushed in that direction. Though it's easier than 50k words. I tend to be a little wordy

            • (Don’t ask what happens to Brownies!)

              Is okay — I didn’t think you had a problem with them. Just pointing out that some people did like those giant things, and mourn their passing. (I’m actually one of them, to a certain extent… >_> )

              • The issue here is not whether readers like their novels long, short or somewhere in between. The issue is why the novel is the length it is. Writers should not pad or trim their tales according to any reason other than what make for the best story.

                While on the subject, I doubt I am the only reader irked by trilogies that are really just one novel hacked into thirds. Tell a complete story in each book.

                • I hate trilogies like that. I have a habit of picking a book up who knows where by a new author. If it takes me half the book to figure out what is going on, and nothing is resolved by the end of the book, I’m not happy.

                • Yes. I am very irked by that too. BUT if you’re publishing in paper, sometimes that’s needed. So… three cheer for the ebook revolution?

              • Not everyone is Tolkien, and some might argue that he wasn’t either. ;-)

                If I simply wanted words for the sake of word I would pick up the complete OED…that is if I could afford it. (But, oh, oh, wouldn’t it be delicious!)

  4. A master of the stock situation, quotable quotes and cliché was P.G. Wodehouse. I advocate that writers of any genre fill themselves to the gills with copious servings of Wodehouse for his exemplary prose style and plotting, as well as for his deft ability at sliding in apt tags of the great poets.
    See, for instance, an sustained appropriation of Shakespeare in Chapter 7 of Money for Nothing (1928). Hugo, after starring as Brutus in an ill-starred attempt to perform a duologue from Julius Caesar, and having helped himself to a generous amount of scotch, discovers Chimp Twist, a burglar:

    “Well, well, well!” said Hugo. Remember March, the Ides of March remember! Did not great Julius bleed for justice’s sake? What villain touched his body, that did stab and not for justice? Answer me that, you blighter.” […]
    “Now see here…!” began Chimp, with a feeble attempt at belligerence.
    Hugo checked him with a gesture.
    “There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not. Must I give way and room to your rash choler? Shall I be frighted when a madman stares? By the gods, you shall digest the venom of your spleen, though it do split you. And what could be fairer than that?” said Hugo.

  5. As I have a 45 minute commute, I have been listening to H. Beam Piper audio books driving to work (free on Librivox.com, btw).

    What drives me crazy is his apparently effortless to use cliche descriptions to create something original and fresh.

    One example from Space Viking:
    —-
    “Lord Trask does not approve of the Tanith Adventure,” he said scornfully. “He thinks we should stay home and produce wealth, instead of exporting robbery and murder to the Old Federation for it.”

    The smile remained on Otto Harkaman’s face; only the friendliness was gone. He unobtrusively shifted his drink to his left hand.

    “Well, our operations are definable as robbery and murder,” he agreed. “Space Vikings are professional robbers and murderers. And you object? Perhaps you find me personally objectionable?”

    “I wouldn’t have shaken your hand or had a drink with you if I did. I don’t care how many planets you raid or cities you sack, or how many innocents, if that’s what they are, you massacre in the Old Federation. You couldn’t possibly do anything worse than those people have been doing to one another for the past ten centuries. What I object to is the way you’re raiding the Sword-Worlds.”

    “You’re crazy!” Basil Gorram exploded.

    “Young man,” Harkaman reproved, “the conversation was between Lord Trask and myself. And when somebody makes a statement you don’t understand, don’t tell him he’s crazy. Ask him what he means. What do you mean, Lord Trask?”

    “You should know; you’ve just raided Gram for eight hundred of our best men. You raided me for close to forty vaqueros, farm-workers, lumbermen, machine-operators, and I doubt I’ll be able to replace them with as good.” He turned to the elder Gorram. “Alex, how many have you lost to Captain Harkaman?”

    Gorram tried to make it a dozen; pressed, he admitted to a score and a half. Roboticians, machine-supervisors, programmers, a couple of engineers, a foreman. There was grudging agreement from the others. Burt Sandrasan’s engine-works had lost almost as many, of the same kind. Even Lothar Ffayle admitted to losing a computerman and a guard-sergeant.

    And after they were gone, the farms and ranches and factories would go on, almost but not quite as before. Nothing on Gram, nothing on any of the Sword-Worlds, was done as efficiently as three centuries ago The whole level of Sword-World life was sinking, like the east coastline of this continent, so slowly as to be evident only from the records and monuments of the past. He said as much, and added:

    “And the genetic loss. The best Sword-World genes are literally escaping to space, like the atmosphere of a low-gravity planet, each generation begotten by fathers slightly inferior to the last. It wasn’t so bad when the Space Vikings raided directly from the Sword-Worlds; they got home once in a while. Now they’re conquering planets in the Old Federation for bases, and staying there.”


    Piper neatly works in cliches (Space Vikings are professional robbers and murderers and are raiders) and then neatly twists them around (that they are robbing and raiding the planets they are operating from.

    To an extent Trask’s thinking is a cliche, too — that the economic pie is finite when dealing with ideas and innovation and that transfer of talent is a zero-sum game. But that’s okay, because it makes Lucas Trask a more interesting character.

    It drives me crazy because it seems so simple, so effortless, so imitable — and it isn’t. I wish I could write like that, but simply cannot.

    Oh well. I can still read it.

  6. pohjalainen

    As a reader I’m quite fond of cliches, also with main characters, but then preferable when they turn to have some twist to them. The fat jolly hostler turns out to be the devious mastermind behind the whole plot. The knight in shining armor actually is the hero (well, they do have been somewhat devalued as heroes lately, it’s much more likely now he will turn out to be a stupid bore and his sidekick the actual hero), but one with a sense of humor, and he will perhaps refuse the princess and ride to the sunset with the barmaid.

    Most perhaps Joss Whedon type of stuff, when you start with some cliche – blond bimbo – and then turn it around – she is actually the vampire slayer. Love that, not so big a fan of his otherwise, he tends to kill off characters a bit too freely to my taste. I happen to like happy endings too. Don’t have to be all roses and sunshine, but at least ones where the main characters are in some ways better off than when they started.

    I’m not so sure what to think of those as a writer though, that kind of stuff has been used a lot lately so it’s not exactly fresh anymore.

    On the other hand, as you say Sarah, you’ll never know what will sell so maybe it’s just best to write what you like yourself.

    As for the supporting character cliches, like those too, but even there I find it nice if there is something just a little bit off, at least when said supporting character shows up for more than one or two scenes.

    • [Y]ou’ll never know what will sell so maybe it’s just best to write what you like yourself

      Or, in the immortal words of Ricky Nelson,

      you can’t please ev’ryone so
      You got to please yourself

      ALTHOUGH, if you discover that your fan base is starting to creep you out …

      • LOL. My first published short was a vampire short. I’m still somewhat skivved byt he woman who told me she kept Thirst on her bedside table… four years later. Ick.

      • Hmm, I think I’ll worry about fan bases only if I manage to get one first.

        But you are right, while it’s probably impossible to have fans without getting at least a few creepy ones in the bunch, if it starts to look like they all are… okay, you did creep me out a bit here.

        But it might make a good horror story.

  7. I notice some fans of a certain space navy author are starting to wince at the goat chokers, in part because when a minor character gets a two page description of his background and home life, you know that he’s dooooommed! And given the body counts in some of those books, yeah, I can see why they are hitting 700 pages. It’s become its own cliche.

    • The last time I read one of those, I discovered that if one skimmed the irrelevancies the actual length of the story was about like a paperback novel from the Fifties and Sixties, maybe fifty or sixty thousand words. I blame Dragon Naturally Speaking. It apparently makes it easy and fast to add padding (says the guy whose first effort came out over 500 pages using all kinds of “packing” tricks in the design).

      • It DOES. Dragon, I mean. I had to use it for my third Shakespeare book because I was so depressed (long story) if I sat down to type it was JUST too much effort. So I dictated and transcribed. I cut out 2x as much as I left in the book. EVERYTHING got described. I went on AT LENGTH about every pebble (I SWEAR.) It encourages verbiage.

  8. Two data points:

    (1) A Wise Old Editor (Gerard Vanderleun if you must know, and he’s actually not a lot older than I am but whatever) told me once “there’s a reason newspaper columns are always about 750 words.” And no, it’s not because newsprint is expensive.

    (2) Compare and contrast the uncut version of Puppet Masters (which I believe may be the first place I heard of some new writer named Hoyt) with the original as-published version. While I bow to almost no one in my admiration of RAH (“almost” because I have to admit I never named a child after him), and while there were some things that became a little clearer in the longer version (because Heinlein apparently cut by marking out words and lines with a fat black marker and then retyping, no rewriting for him) I think the original 60K word version reads better than the uncut 85K.

    • THAT one I’m not sure of. Other uncuts I agree with you, but that one, it looked like what was cut (in that case, from what I heard, by editorial fiat) was the character development, without which I had to work twice as hard to get why the guy was doing things. I’m lazy. I preferred to have it spoonfed.

      On the size of a post — mine are way longer here, precisely because I write in what time I have leftover. writing short requires multiple edits for me. It is something I’ll do for a submission, but NOT for a blog. I’m trying to train myself to “think leaner” in fiction, but in non-fiction I anticipate the stupid comments and try to “write the world” which I realize is a flaw.

      • Yeah, you’ve got a point — although I think the uncut Stranger also showed similar signs. But I remember in PM when Sam gets tongue-tangled in the Congressional hearing because someone accuses him of being an actor, and in fact he had done some summer stock, etc. That was all a lot clearer in the 96K (I looked it up) PM, and I still remember hitting that point in my first reading of PM and having a momentary wtf? Maybe the ideal PM would have been 75K.

        To some extent this is just Heinlein geekery, though — the real point is that ebooks *will* enable us to write to the natural length.

        • yes. And some of my books do want to be those trilogies that are only one book — sword and blood, which is why I was gagging so badly on the middle sequel (it’s black moment and setting up for climax) — though most of mine seem to be 100k. I’m trying to change that… I think it’s a habit thing.
          BTW, you should have email from me.

      • On writing long, I just sort of envy you. My mother was frightened by a Hemingway short story while pregnant with me, or something.

    • While I bow to almost no one in my admiration of RAH (“almost” because I have to admit I never named a child after him) …

      I could never name a child after him, because I could never name a child Robert. Why? Well, My given name at birth was Robert. (Robin was a nickname for Robert, but it was the name I used all my life, so I had my name legally changed to Robin shortly after college, so that my legal documents would be in the same name everyone knew me as.) My father’s name is Robert. (He goes by his middle name.) My grandfather’s name is Robert. (He goes by Bob.) His father’s name was Robert, and so on, and so on, back six generations. I am the seventh Robert Munn in a row, and I have decided that I will not give the name Robert to any child of mine.

      Now watch me have to eat those words in twenty years… :-)

      • Yeah, one of the things that gets to me is that Robin is of course a male and romantic name in the UK, but here it’s a girl’s name. As for naming kids one thing… Our younger one, Marshall, goes by his middle name. And me? I changed my name completely. Strangely, it wasn’t even Robert!
        Oddly, Robert Anson is perfectly happy with his name.

        • One of the (dubious) benefits of having a love for Baseball is that it implants in one’s head such trivia as

          Robin Evan Roberts (September 30, 1926 – May 6, 2010) was a Major League Baseball starting pitcher who pitched primarily for the Philadelphia Phillies (1948–61). He spent the latter part of his career with the Baltimore Orioles (1962–65), Houston Astros (1965–66), and Chicago Cubs (1966). He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Roberts_%28baseball%29 ]

          So, of course, Robin is never just a girl’s name. Although the Robin Roberts who accompanied me to my senior prom was quite definitely a girl (and, IIRC, daughter of a Baseball fan.)

        • Robin is more often a woman’s name than a man’s name in the U.S., and when I get mail from people who don’t know me it’s usually addressed to “Ms. Munn”, but there are enough famous male Robins (Williams, Hood, etc.) that I haven’t had anyone look at me oddly when I introduce myself.

          I checked once: the U.S. census has name-frequency data from the 1990 census. And in that census, Robin was the 100th most popular woman’s name, with 0.208% of all women in the census data being named Robin. And it was the 375th most popular man’s name, with 0.032% of men being named Robin. This is the same percentage as names such as Garry (with two r’s), Jonathon (spelled with an o) and Dominic: so while a slightly odd name for a man in America, it’s not like I’m a boy named Sue.

            • I just gave myself an idea for a short story: a young man whose parents named him Sue, who’s trying to hunt down Johnny Cash so he can punch him in the face for giving his parents that idea.

              • Well, this is all begging we could talk about my name. The officials at the hospital were reluctant to fill in the paper work and came three days running to explain to Momma that she had a baby girl. She kept telling them that she was aware of that.

                • LOL. In Portugal there was a fashion for this, in my generation. I don’t know how old you are, but I presume five years either side, since our spawn are about that. So there your name would be perfectly normal. :)

  9. Well, you’ve just given me another reason why I don’t like short stories – yes, they are cliché, especially the characters, and I read for characters most of all. Short stories, especially SF&F ones, tend to be about ideas, usually with a depressing twist ending. Just not enough there for me. (The only short stories I like are with a familiar continuing set of characters like Sherlock Holmes, but those are really episodic novels.)

    It is possible to have walk-on characters with personality (walk-ons who speak lines, that is, which may not really be a walk-on). Terry Pratchett comes to mind – he often starts with a cliché and twists it, or gives it some depth, or exaggerates it. I don’t expect those characters to appear anywhere else in the story, though some of his walk-ons have walked into many of his other books (serial walk-ons?) I think you can also make that kind of character work if there’s a purpose, if that character has one shining moment in that one scene, maybe says something that needs to be said that no one else could say, or performs some random act that affects the main character deeply (which is another kind of cliché, I suppose).

    One thing I’ve found is that you can just say “hostler” or “footman” and leave it to the reader to fill in the details. I’ve been amazed at characters that I have not described physically at all, but readers develop a definite idea of what they look like.

    • yeah. I realized, now I’m putting my short stories up, I want to rewrite most of them into novellas or short 20k word novels. Which will be a long-term project. …