Thursday, January 28, 2010

When Cliché Rears Its Head

Clichés are clichés for a reason. They’re often the first thing that occurs to a writer when he or she sits down to tell a story. You reach for a word or phrase and what leaps out at you is the thing you’ve heard a hundred times before. It comes so easily that you hardly notice it. It sounds right because your ear has been bludgeoned too often with it before.

Defeating cliché requires constant vigilance. No one is immune. Recently, I was told by an editor that my phrase, “a thought punched her” should be changed because thoughts can’t literally punch. This is true, of course, but the editor’s suggested replacement was “a thought struck her.” I’m sure “struck” seemed better to the editor because of how common it is.

And so we come to my latest faux pas. In my critique group today, someone commented about the “cornflower blue eyes” of one of my female characters. I laughed because I thought they were making a joke. Then I realized I had indeed described the woman’s eyes as “cornflower blue.” And I had no idea.

Looks like I’m due for another pass through this manuscript.
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47 comments:

Erik Donald France said...

Always good to check for. Similes can work if used carefully. Mixed metaphors seem common in journalism. Seems as if Jon Stewart catches a lot of language hyperbole used be politicians. Fun topic, really.

Cloudia said...

That editor is an idiot.
Being a writer means putting your unique song in the world, not merely producing a workmanlike piece of writing that any other competent writer could do. These self-satisfied "little" types always try to squelch the creatives that come their way. They think they are doing you a favor - great of you aspire to be "adequate."
TS Elliot invented the term "Jelical Cats." Pity the theater if he had been admonished to use a standard term...All words were neologisms once...
End of speech, Charles!


Aloha,


Comfort Spiral

Travis said...

Good tip on the use of cliches. I find that sometimes when I get hung up, I just let the cliche stand until I have time to go back and edit. My progress is generally so slow that I can't afford to get stopped when I can't think of anything better in that moment than a cliche.

It's a good thing we can always fall back on another excellent tip...rewriting is our friend!

Natasha Fondren said...

Okay, I agree with you, but "cornflower blue" is an actual color, so it can't be a cliché, not any more than forest green or sky blue or maroon...

David J. West said...

I'm just curious now, how you came up with cornflower blue. Just flowed that way or what?

But yes I do agree to actively watch for and destroy cliche's.

ivan said...

We must avoid cliches, grab the bull by the horns and let the chips fall where they may.

And yes, agree with Claudia. The editor is an idiot. Your simile is beautiful and image-evoking.

ivan said...

We must avoid cliches, grab the bull by the horns and let the chips fall where they may.

And yes, agree with Claudia. The editor is an idiot. Your simile is beautiful and image-evoking.

Paul D. Brazill said...

A cliche to me is like a red rag to a bull. I avoid them like the plague...

the walking man said...

I don't know about you but thoughts do punch me and the longer I ponder on them the harder they hit.

I must be dense...why not blue cornflower eyes, though they look more purple to me, cornflowers that is.

G said...

I don't think that "cornflower blue eyes" would be considered a cliche.

I mean, you only have a finite number of ways to describe a pair of blue eyes.

Overall though, good points about cliches.

That's one thing that I've been trying to work on, the over use of cliches.

I think cliches are better suited for humorous blog posts.

Thanks for the idea.

Bernita said...

I'm like Travis, in a hurry sometimes to get the point across so I can get on to the interesting bits.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, yeah, I like Stewart for that.

Cloudia, I think some editors don't want to make waves. They'd rather play it safe, but boring, than take a risk at something fresh. But I suppose there are writers like that as well.

Travis, if I leave a cliche in and am aware of it, I put it in red ink so I don't forget it. But yes, I do that sometimes to in the inital pass.

Natasha Fondren, I know and I would love to be able to use those terms but they have just been so overworked. Forest green I particularly love.

David J. West, all I can think of as to the reason is that it popped into my head because I'd read it many times before. I remember seeing it particularly in westerns. I think it has been used a lot in romance fiction as well. I like the sound of it but I just don't think I can use it anymore.

ivan, the editor and I agreed eventually that "punched" was better.

Paul D. Brazill, somehow, those phrases ring a bell with me.

Mark, yes, I've had thoughts that certainly punched, or it felt like it. Cornflower blue is a fairly common phrase in certain types of writing, particularly westerns in my experience. But also in romance. So it tends to evoke a kind of romance image for some readers. It does for me, although I never even noticed this one until it was pointed out. I'm not sure what it's origins are.

G, yes, I think cliches work nicely for humor. They call attention to themselves there. I think I've just read cornflower blue too often.

Bernita, I do that sometimes too, or just leave blanks in the page. I like to mark them with red when I do though, so I won't forget.

writtenwyrdd said...

Yep, cliche is easy to drop in and overlook in edits. It ticks me off when people tell me "but such-and-such can't literally do that" when you use a verb like 'punched' as described. Of course words can't punch; but haven't they heard of metaphore or simile? Can't they think beyond a little and literal box? Bleh.

sage said...

Cornflower blue sounds so lovely (and in your defense, you can get blue corn chips!)

Christine Purcell said...

Sometimes when I get the cliche blues, I will just mix up the order of the words. Like "don't bite the bed bugs." :)

Middle Ditch said...

I try to avoid them as much as I can but alas it's not always possible. What on earth is wrong with cornflower blue? It is a striking colour and to use this for a female character is, for me anyway, excellent. And yes, that particular editor is an idiot. Struck is the cliche whilst punched is so much you.

laughingwolf said...

oh yeah... constant vigilance is required

another thing really bugging me: overuse of "THAT"... 90% of the time it's not required, regardless how much it seems to be loved by the writer....

Paul D. Brazill said...

speaking of cliches...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIZVcRccCx0

BernardL said...

The editor story is funny. I liked the punched thought better than the thought that struck. Since a thought can't do either I say go with colorful. :)

Voidwalker said...

LOL... It's always fun to go back and read something you'd written and find stuff that just makes you want to say "When the heck did I write that?"

Charles Gramlich said...

writtenwyrdd, I know, and to reach for something new often requires stepping outside the literal. I have a hard time with that phrase too. Visualize it and it works.

sage, yes, it is a lovely phrase. I wish so many others would never have used it.

Christine Purcell, that's cool. Makes you take another look at it for sure. I have a bed bugs story that appeared on micro 100.

Middle Ditch, well I think it just has too many romantic connotations, although it is a lovely phrase.

laughingwolf, I've fallen into the "that" trap myself. I usually have to do a global search for it in my manuscripts to make sure I haven't overused it.

Paul D. Brazill, I'll check it out.

BernardL, that was my feeling. Hey, I don't often do subtle anyway.

Voidwalker, I literally couldn't remember putting it down, and that's not common with me. I usually do remember my wording and phrasing, if not exactly then pretty closely.

m.m.Fahren said...

Charles, it's a match of punching and striking till the poor unthinking woman is bludgeoned to death by blunt-tooled wordsmiths. Like me. Funny. And we all are in on it. I happen to like cliche's. If they don't wield a punch, they sometimes take you on the shy.

But hey, the cornflower blue. . .it was. . .interesting.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, last night over dinner I was saying to Laurie - we were "celebrating" a poem acceptance at one of the bigger small mags and an invitation to write a review - how very conscious I am that I'm not a good prose writer and that I have to work very hard at it and she simply noted the obvious, which hadn't occurred to me - the reason I was getting better and getting invites is that I do work hard at it, indeed.

Your lesson is the same. It is work. Somehow, we forget that. It may come easier to some but, to be any good at it, it takes work.

Stay vigilant with those clichés - they do come like second nature; they can be a kind of shorthand, particularly when we are thinking fast, which serves a good purpose. Getting it all down while its white hot, working with the details after it cools down.

Steve Malley said...

I don't even want to THINK about cliche at this point in my own work-- I'm sure the ms is riddled, but that'll be another pass...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Darn-I had just done a post on that. Are we living in the same head lately?

ArtSparker said...

Yes, it's funny, there's a thin line between outré and original.

How about " a thought sat nervously in the anteroom of her brain, fiddling with its hat and sighing".

Paul D. Brazill said...

ArtSparker, I love that!

Charles Gramlich said...

m.m.Fahren, interesting! You are far too kind!

Don, yes, fortunately this piece wasn't at the point of being sent out. It was going to go through several more read throughs first so I probably would have caught it somewhere in that group. Indeed, it's sometimes amazingly hard work.

Steve Malley, that's what another pass is for. I make them until I'm sick of my own work a lot of times.

pattinase (abbott), could be. Or maybe we're both channeling some dead person somewhere.

ArtSparker, well that's beautifully wrought, although for a less violent story than mine is. :) You've gotta use that in a story, though.

Paul D. Brazill, yes it was.

L.A. Mitchell said...

It happens to all of us. The downside to taking cliche-busting risks is that sometimes it leaves us with the absurd hanging out. I'll go for fresh and absurd any day.

jodi said...

Charles, MY blue eyes have been described as "cornflower" in color! You know when you get that thought or idea that literally takes your breath away? That's getting "punched" allright! I think that DOES happen--at least to me!

Ocean Girl said...

"Cornflower blue" is the color of incredibly blue eyes. People lucky enough to have such beautiful eyes are especially likely to enjoy the plant's beneficial effect on the eyesight, according to folklore - and a decoction of the dried flowers has been used to treat eye inflammations. In folk medicine the leaves or seeds steeped in wine were taken as a cure for pestilential fevers.

Excerpts from Herbs 2000.

jennifer said...

I've heard the phrase "corn flower blue" (I believe it is a Crayola Crayon Big Box shade) and I could imagine exactly what you were trying to describe. I understand the need to keep cliches to a minimum but if the reader is able to really understand what you are trying to say, isn't that a good thing?

Somtimes it seems that everything has already been said - it's hard to word it in a new way.

I hope that you have a wonderful weekend Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

L.A. Mitchell, yes, I've been known to reach too far, but I'd rather take chances than play it safe

jodi, I was just describing that way I feel when certain things hit me. Lana has blue eyes. They're a little "feral" rather than cornflower.

Ocean Girl, I did not know that. Thanks!

jennifer, well, cornflower isn't as big of a cliche as "the thought struck her," but it has been around enough to carry connotations I didn't really want for that character. It's true that it's very hard to find new ways to say things. Much has been said and resaid.

TechnoBabe said...

These days my memory isn't what it once was, so I would be happy to remember the cliche's. Smile. I know what you mean, though. Your editor wanted the word softened. Replacing the word didn't change the reality though, did it? Did you change the word to "struck"?

Akasha Savage. said...

I like the phrase 'a thought punched her'...much better than 'struck' !!

Charles Gramlich said...

Technobabe, I won that argument.

akasha, with judicious use I think punch certainly works better.

Mimi Lenox said...

I like "punch" as opposed to "struck" but that's just me. It packs a...well...punch..
See, now I'M doing it.

Tom Bailey said...

Cornflower blue is an interesting discription. The only thing I have ever seen that is cornflower blue is a chip to be honest.

Tom

Harry Markov said...

Yeah, I know how that is. At the time of writing, these do not come to light, but we often get the cringes later on, when we see the result during editing...

Charles Gramlich said...

Mimi Lenox, it works for us both!

Tom Bailey, it's a phrase I grew up hearing. I'm not sure exactly where the origins come from.

Harry Markov, thank goodness we have an editing phase eh?

Rick said...

Crap, Charles. I just used that cornflower blue thing myself half an hour ago!

SzélsőFa said...

as a far extreme example, in his strong want to avoid cliches, a writer might easily end up saying nothing at all.

X. Dell said...

I'm not familiar with cornflowers, but my instincts would say that they're yellow, not blue. After all, corn flour is definitely yellow.

cs harris said...

At least cliched phrases are fairly easy for a character to spot. Cliched situations and characters can sneak past if you're not careful.

SzélsőFa said...

I did some google research:
cornflower (called wheatflower in Hungarian) has one of the nicest shade of blue ever created.
it also is a kind of cliche in the Hungarian folk tales, as in the expression 'a cornflower-eyed girl'

Mary Witzl said...

But can't people have cornflower blue eyes? Or china blue, or brown like topaz? Gee...When it comes down to it, lots of things are cliche. But there are times writers end up going through mental gymnastics trying to find uncliched ways to describe something, when a cliche is what's called for. It's not the cliches I mind so much as the predictable, hackneyed cliches. And I'd rather have a couple of cliches any day than overly expositional dialogue or characters who never stray away from stereotypical behavior: the dumb hick, the vapid blonde, etc.

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