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. 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.