Oh, My, God, Cliches!


Shut up. Shut up already! I hate cliches as much as the next guy, but the difference between me and the next guy is that I’m better equipped at identifying them. I think a lot of people don’t know what a cliche is and start labelling things cliche that are not. I think maybe film has something to do with this. Recycled plot arcs, the hero’s journey, the girl meets boy etc. narrative of the rom-com, they’re things we grow up with, they’re things that go through the wash and come out a slightly different colour but they still do the same thing. We see them and recognise them and think, oh for the love of god, the boy and the girl get back together at the end? How cliche…

When it comes to books, there’s so much more going on. What makes the hero’s journey cliche in a book is not the narrative arc, it’s the generic prose, it may have an archaic tinge to it, that formal third person epic quest narrator that tells us the same story over and over. Cliches aren’t in the story, but how we tell them, how we string our words together. It is cliche to start a story with “once upon a time” or “it was a dark and stormy night”. Where these were once unique, they have now been done to death. Same with emotional eyes in poetry. Or the ocean. So many poets describing so many eyes and emotions, it becomes boring and repetetive. You might as well leave it blank and say “insert generic eye metaphor #307”.

For crying out loud! When will that goddamned prince come save me from this abomination of literary proportions!?

In the literary world, what some people may call a cliche is probably just a trope. A trope is a device you can use, which your readers are already well aware of. For instance, the hero’s journey is a trope because it a familiar narrative arc where the plot follows a familiar pattern. It is to be expected. Writing it in a bland, stereotypical, or well-exhausted way makes it cliche. You’ve probably heard the saying “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. If you read a trope and you’re thinking cliches, there’s probably a cliche somewhere in there. On the other note, a capable write will be able to write a story following a hero’s journey narrative arc, or employ other such plot arcs or tropes without coming off as cliched. If you do it well, people may not be able to tell that tropes are present until they probe a bit closer. You could even call attention to the trope or cliche to subvert its meaning, which I think is a trope of its own, called “lampshade hanging”. You see it often enough in films where something happens that seems like a plot hole until a character from within the narrative calls attention to it, before carrying on like nothing happened.

So now that we know that cliches are more a by-product of bad prose than a bad story, we can move on to beating the cliche. This is the easy part. Once you step back and have a look at your writing and figure out it lacks character and intrigue, you just need to have another crack at it. Get those creative juices flowing. Aim to write a story that no one else can write. Each narrator you create will have their own voice, and while they may just be average joes, nobodies thrust into the chaos of your story, the only person that thinks like your character is your character. The only person that thinks like you is you. From your word choice to your phrasing to your punctuation, it all needs to be framed around a narrator who thinks like a real person, existing outside of stereotypes and bland, repetitive writing.

Even in "The Road", while the setting is bland and uninteresting, the prose is anything but.

Now, I’d hate to sound like I’m endorsing realism over other genres here, so I think it’s necessary to point out the distinction between a realistic narrator and a realistic narrative. While a realistic narrative sounds like it could happen, a realistic narrator can be as reliable or unreliable as they choose, as you choose. The narrator thinks and acts and says how people think, act and speak. They can exist in whatever world they please, but in the telling of their story, there will be things they will choose to omit and things they will choose to include, and the things they include, they will describe in a way that is particular to their character.  If the character doesn’t care, why should the reader? If the character is merely a vessel for the author to tell the story, that’s no good either. We need the narrator to draw us in, to provide us with details, with senses and feelings and thoughts that feel as though they were real even if the narrator were living in a world of fairy floss. The narrator needs to transport us to their world the way that only they can. Details that no one else has described before. Thoughts and ideas that feel human but are somehow different, unique to the narrator. You can be anybody, anywhere, anytime, doing anything. It doesn’t have to be a real time, place or person, but you need to be able to take us there, make it real, kill the cliche where it stands, and erect a flag that states that your literary world is the only one of its kind, and that you have taken the time and effort to ensure that this is the truth.


Monopoly is the worst game ever


Ok, this topic doesn’t directly apply to writing, but I’ll bring it round. I’m going to pre-emptively call this out as a long-winded rant in the making. Bare with me.

To start off, I’m not talking specifically about the game “Monopoly” as much as I’m talking about what it represents in the real world. It is a small-scale version of the capitalist society in which we live, in all its flaws and failings. Let’s look at the game.

The person with the most money holds all the swing. This would be fair enough if everyone were in contention to be the highest bidder, but even three or four corporate fat cats can crush the poor man, given enough time. When things break down, one man rules the boardgame and everyone else is sleeping in the gutters tonight.

You're fucked

It doesn’t matter if a person plays fair or not, the game goes to the highest bidder. It’s about greed. Now, I’m a writer. It’s a path I chose. The prospect of fame and fortune at the drop of a hat is extremely unlikely, and I’ve submitted to the fact that I probably won’t live in a mansion, have a supermodel wife, or drive a billion dollar rocket car that can fly and float on water and shoot laser beams from its headlights and cook me breakfast in the morning. I don’t think I could live like that. Anyway, here’s the basics of how the economy works: You’ve got supply and demand. If something is in high demand, the supply needs to match it. If the demand is down, and the market is flooded with shit we don’t need, it trickles down the businesses until the bottom-line employees suffer for it. And the blame lies not with the suppliers for creating too much useless junk, it lies with you, the consumer, for not spending enough money to spread about the economy.

Getting your value for money is a thing of the past. It’s so shit, but it is what it is. Companies compete against companies, and it’s at this level where the monopolies come into play. You know, the word “monopoly” isn’t just a name for a board game.  A dictionary definition of monopoly is the “exclusive control of a commodity or service in a particular market, or a control that makes possible the manipulation of prices.” If you own all the major media outlets, you can control what is being said, you can charge what you want for advertising, because there aren’t any other options.

The only way for the consumer to win is if they put the blame back on the supplier. No demand, no market, the monopoly shifts to accomodate for what the consumer wants. Or you could always provide your own services to a smaller market where the focus is not on how much money you can squeeze from the petty consumers, but how much of the market you can steal from the guy with the monopoly by actually giving people what they want.

Hmm, something's not right here...

Maybe I’m just cynical from working in retail for a few years now, but really, some businesses are just shitting on the people who line their pockets with the green stuff. If you look at the whole brand-war between Apple and Microsoft, you’ll probably see there are assholes on both sides of the fence calling the shots. iPods are designed to be used with iTunes, where you’re supposed to buy and download music off the Apple store. It’s the given thing. Sure, there are other online music stores, but iTunes has flooded the market and thus they were able to apply DRM to their music so that they control when and where you can play your music. Granted, I have an iPod and I use iTunes, and I’m happy with them, but if they were so inclined, they could jack up the prices of their music, charge a fee for software updates, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

Now, this brings me to the topic of eBooks.

Kindle dominates the disembodied hand market ages 19-35

eReaders are fantastically frustrating. If you buy anything off Amazon, you either need a Kindle or kindle software on your computer or portable device. So you’re stuffed if you have an eReader that isn’t a Kindle and you want to buy something on Amazon. But the thing is, it’s a relatively new market, so what’s going on is that several other companies that hold a share in the ebook market have brought out their own eReaders that are designed to work specifically for their website, their ebook formats. They’re all competing for the monopoly over the market and none of them are willing to adapt to each other’s formats and technologies. The only way for the consumer to win is if they just download various eReader programs for their computer or phones and forget getting an eReader until the market becomes compatible.

I got an eReader for Christmas, and it’s alright. I’ve read a couple of books on it, and I don’t completely hate the idea of reading off a screen on a small, hand held device. But it’s not a Kindle. It’s not a Nook or a Kobo or whatever the fuck Sony called theirs. And thus I can’t buy anything off Amazon to read on it, and I think this is the case with several other major ebook retailers. I’ll come right out and say it. I think it’s fucking disgusting. It’s greedy and stupid for any one company to think they have the right to buy out the entire ebook market over another company. I’m just glad they’ve started making their ebooks available on phones through free software. Hopefully it’s a sign that this shit will settle down soon.

I’m pretty sure Amazon’s going to win the market, considering they have a wide range and decent prices. I think there still needs to be some improvement on the prices, but I think part of that is the publishers’ fault. I know a lot of small press authors have their ebooks set around $2-5 as opposed to $10-20. If you can buy the real book for a couple of bucks more, the decision is pretty much a no-brainer. Why should people pay so much for something that’s just a digital version of something physical. Same with mp3s priced against physical CDs. I still buy CDs because I can still get them for $10-20, which is around the same as what I’d be paying for the downloads anyway.

It shows two possible things about the suppliers: that they either don’t know/understand the market at all, or that they don’t care. I personally believe it’s the latter, because it supports the idea in my head that the modern day big businessman is a greedy, profiteering son-of-a-bitch.

Well, at least I’ve chosen my path. I just want to provide people with quality, entertaining, and at times, confrontational writing at an affordable and fair price. That’s why I’m keen on small publishers and literary zines. It’s not about pulling a fast one over the people that make you rich, it’s about earning your money.

Basho on my mind


I’ve got my fair share of favourite writers, as I’m sure most writers do. Some are more influential than others. Some are influential for different reasons. Although I think I tend to talk about postmodern/cult/bizarro authors a bit too much when over the past couple of years I’ve built up a fondness for poetry. It started with Dorothy Porter and her verse novel, The Monkey’s Mask, and I’ve slowly started adding poetry collections to my book shelf. I started writing poetry in my first year of uni for course work. Just basic stuff. Form and meter and such. It was fun, but nothing really revolutionary. The next year at uni, I had a semester of straight up poetry. Yeah, we went back and looked at form and meter and feet and all that stuff, but we had a lot more time for it.

Now, I think poetry is one of those things, you either love it or you hate it. You can lose yourself in it or you think it’s a load of wank and you don’t get it. I used to hate it, back when I was gothic horror all the way. But the best writing (I find, anyway) has a poetic colour to it. It does something other than describe, other than tell a story. I remember writing the exercises and assignments for that class, and out of our assessed exercises, there was one form I had trouble with. The haiku.

I know what you’re thinking, it’s just 5, 7, 5. How can you stuff that up? As far as form goes, you can’t. Even an extra syllable here or there, or a missing syllable, no big deal. I mean, you look at the traditional Japanese haiku, they lose their form in translation. So what does that mean? A haiku consists of more than just its syllables. And that’s where one of my favourite poets comes in with his inspiration and his Jedi mind tricks.

These are not the words you are looking for...

Matsuo Basho. I think he’s the most well known haiku poet. I believe he wrote a considerable amount of tanka as well, but anyway… Basho. One of his haiku lends itself to Dorothy Porter’s verse novel, the Monkey’s Mask. And it goes like this:

Year after year

On the monkey’s face

A monkey’s mask.

So what is the haiku about? If you ask some people, they’ll say nature and seasons and the like. While that’s not a wrong answer, it’s only really part of the truth. To me, at least, the haiku is about capturing a very specific image, or a very specific moment, in which you find the spirit of nature, the essence of the poem. You need to be in a particular mindset to write good haiku, which is why, I guess, I haven’t written a haiku since I blundered that exercise in class last year. I think for Basho there was some sort of Zen/enlightenment stuff inspiring his poetry, but I think what I really took from all of that is capturing a specific tone of voice. Getting into a particular mindset and writing from that view. Crawling up inside the head of your narrator and sitting there with a tape recorder and a notepad.

Now I get it

If you think of your narrator simply as a vehicle for your own voice, you can end up in all sorts of trouble. The biggest problem is coming off as a preacher. You don’t want your writing to be all about imposing your beliefs onto the reader. The thing is, there is your mind, which thinks a certain way, and there are billions of other minds which thinks their own certain ways, and then there are the fictional minds of all the characters thought up by a lot of these billions of minds. Now, I don’t want to say that you can’t believe in what you write about, because that’s not true. I believe Basho was quite in touch with nature, and that is why he spent so much time writing about it. But there are more than one Basho-mind at play here. There is the Basho that experiences this nature first hand, and then there is the Basho that writes about it afterwards. Basho the poet is constantly refering to the character of Basho ‘the man in touch with nature’. It’s not about writing about what you see and feel that is important. It’s easy enough to say “there are birds sitting on a tree outside my window” or whatever. The trick is in going to that mental state where he is at one with nature and drawing the character’s thoughts together in a way that captures that state of mind. I think the reason why Basho was such a well-known and celebrated poet was because he spent so much time in character, really getting to know the mindframe of his nature character.

To know yourself, you must see yourself and understand yourself.

You can try to make sense of yourself, or you can use your writerly senses of observation and the processes of understanding and apply them to your fictional characters. This is where Basho has really inspired me. Looking at the mind. How a character talks, how a character thinks, your word choices must be your narrator’s word choices. When I write, I become my narrator. I get into the mental state that is how they think and I think like them, I see things how they see things, and I let them speak and act through me onto the page. You need a certain state of mind to write haiku, yet you don’t need any of that for Western literature. Sit down and write and hope some “divine inspiration” hits you. No. I don’t have muses coming to me from another realm to give me the gift of talent. I write the way I do because I get into a mental space where I can write and observe and act out a fictional landscape in my head. I control that. Sometimes it comes together, sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on the level of control.

My narrators aren’t wise and noble storytellers. They don’t tell things as it is. They tell things as they see them. Facts are subjective. Word choice is subjective. A lot of third person narratives (think LotR, Harry Potter, a lot of popular literature) tries to brush over this idea of subjectivity and present you with an impartial, third party ‘objective’ narrator. They bring along a narrator that isn’t part of the story, and they write like this person knows everything. They structure their sentences clearly and grammatically, their word choice is elaborate and intriguing, yet it doesn’t get in the way of the most important part of the narrative: the story.

This is when you get a thousand Tolkiens writing with a thousand identical narrators. And the narrators from text to text, from genre to genre, they’re indistinguishable. What happens when you acknowledge the existence of your narrator is you bring them to life and give them a voice. You can get inside their head and grant them the ability to become unique and original. This is where you get unreliable narrators or narrators who interpret a story in their own way. They become more involved and the narrative becomes as much about the narrator as it does about the story.

Like the haiku, it is as much about how something is said as it is about what is said. People talk about finding your poetic ‘voice’, this applies to prose too. If you can get in control of your narrator, you can write about things you wouldn’t normally write about, or you can play around with language and grammar, use words you wouldn’t normally use or not use words you would normally use, so you’re speaking to your reader as your narrator would. The reader may not like your narrator, your reader may hate your narrator, but your narrator is not you. You have created the narrator to act that way, and if they’re a massive bigot, then that’s something your readers will pick up on, and that’ll lead some of them towards thinking what you’re trying to say about your narrator.

I mean, just look at American Psycho.


Research is for Grishams


Research. It’s one of those things that makes aspiring writers cringe. Some writers seem to rely heavily on it, some writers seem to simply not care. I suppose it all comes down to what you consider to be “research” and how you choose to apply it. I remember when I was a teenager reading Harry Potter and the Tomorrow series and various other young adult or fantasy or sci-fi books, I think I was about fourteen or fifteen when I wanted to start reading more ‘grown up’ books, I guess you would call them. So I went to my parents and asked to read one of their books. My parents were always good in that they read a lot and they encouraged my brother and I to read a lot, and while my brother didn’t really get into reading, I loved it. Now, my parents love crime fiction. They’re fans of John Grisham and over the years they got into Dan Brown, Harlan Coben, Lee Childs, amongst others, but to me, John Grisham is the one author that defines their reading habits. They’ve got all his books and have read all his books and when I asked them for something to read they gave me one of his books. I think it was called The Partner. From what I remember, it was about a partner at a law firm (hence the title) who finds out his partners were planning on cutting him out of some multi-million dollar lawsuit, or something like that, so he swipes the cash and does a runner. A lot of technical legal stuff going on, and the part of the book I remember the best is probably the acknowledgements, where he thanks the lawyers and firms and other resources and such.

It makes sense for an author such as Grisham to put a lot of research into their work to better ground it in reality, so that even in the event of a lawyer picking up one of his books, they’ll see, sure, he’s taken some creative license around the plot, but on the whole it’s plausible. He’s gone to the effort to make sure there’s no plot holes. This is more important when writing realism as opposed to, say, fantasy or surrealism or something. But that’s not to say that research is only for fact-checking chumps who don’t know everything already.

You rang?

While you may not be one of those authors who need to know what prostitutes charged in western Europe circa 337 BC, you don’t want to be one of those people who thinks writing is just something you do because it’s easy and you don’t need to do any research because you only need your imagination. If you’re one of those people, you can get out now, unless you’re willing to put in the effort to become a real writer. Now, this brings me to a broader definition of research. I’m just making this up as I go along, but I think it can be split into two sections. Reading as research, which teaches us how to write (or how not to write), and world building as research, which fills in all the plot holes and makes sure your fictional world works.

Reading as research is basically just reading on a level where you pick up on an author’s techniques and style. The more you read, the more natural this becomes. You pick up on things most readers don’t pick up on. Why? Because the author doesn’t want you to. They want to naturalise their story, like it appears straight up as you see it on the bookshelf. When you start reading into techniques and stylistic choices, you stop reading the book as an entire, fully formed experience and you start reading it as a constructed text. There’s nothing natural about it. The author constructs that characters and settings and narrative, and it doesn’t just fall into place. The hero’s journey is heavily formulaic. The use of motifs resonate the themes.  Signposts act as clues that slip into your subconscious so that you forget about them until they become of use to you again. Everything an author does, they do it to deceive you. As soon as you become aware of what authors will do to fool their audience, the more ammunition you have to do the same. A writer must also be an avid reader. It also helps part of the “research” process to look into particular genres and styles that you’re interested in. if you know what other people have done in the past, you know what to do to differentiate yourself from those writers.

"Bugger off, I'm writing Hamlet!"

World building as research is entirely subjective to the world(s) in which your writing takes place. In my last post, there’s a conversation in the comments section about Tolkien. He spent decades creating Middle Earth. The Tolkien books published posthumously through his son were taken from the extensive notes. Now, you could argue that world building isn’t really research at all. But that’s not the way I’m choosing to read it right now. Think of it as researching within an incomplete text. Once you get the foundations down, it becomes a matter of filling in the gaps. For writers of realism, or real-world based texts, this filling-in-the-gaps is an issue of solid fact-checking research. For something fantasy oriented, it’s not so much. It may be something or other that you may verify online, but on the whole, nothing too excessive. I guess what I want to say now is that writing something surreal or fantastical or other-worldly does not excuse you from lazy writing. While Grisham knows the legal procedures and details and such better after he wrote his books than he did before, what he’s really doing as part of his research work is getting to know his story world intimately. He knows everything, he wrote the damn thing. Just as Tolkien knew everything about Middle Earth. It’s not just the laws of the land you need to know, but everything. Your characters, plot and setting are the basics. Your narrator.

Coming back to the idea of the story as a construct, the thing about your story is that you need to realise that you’re not just channeling your “muse” or whatever divine inspiration you write with, but you choose every detail that happens in your story, and every detail is significant. If you choose to include or omit something, that is your intention, that is your fault if you didn’t mean thigns to happen that way. If you know what you’re doing, you can construct your story exactly as you want it. You can insert plot holes in your story if you like, so long as you mean to put them there and so long as there’s a reason behind it. Your readers don’t need to know that reason, but you need to know they will probably tweak on that and see that something is going on. The last thing you want is to blunder blindly through a story to find you’ve created a world full of Mary Sues.


So I guess you could say it’s not so much research you’ve got to worry about, but knowledge and effort. If you put the work into your story, and you know what your story is doing, and that is what you decided you want it to do, you’re on to a winner. You’ll look like a fool if you stumble your way through a writing career without fully knowing what you’re doing, without having complete control over your language and your story. The more you read, the more you research, the better prepared you are to face whatever criticisms the literary crowd may want to throw at you. Professional writing is a career, and in every career you’ll probably find those lazy sacks of shit who cut corners and ruin things for those trying to put an honest day’s work in for an honest day’s pay.

I’ve come across writers who are surprised that writers like Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk can constantly pump out new material. I’ve reached the point where it doesn’t surprise me the slightest. They invest so much time into their work, writing every day, that it pretty much is a full time job (well, more than that, a full time job you take home), and writing is just another day at the office, churning over new ideas daily, showing the initiative to prove their worth at every opportunity. If I had the funding to write full time, no job or uni, I’d be doing the same thing as them, putting my time and resources towards the one thing that would reward me the most: writing.

Why style is better than content


For me, writing is about saying something the way no one else can. I’ve kind of turned off epic sci-fi and fantasy over the past few years (not that I really got into it) because a lot of the writing feels like much of the sameness. Extensive world-building, which by no means is a useless skill, third person omniscient narrator, the hero’s journey, quite formal prose, full and descriptive and similar sort of writing styles from book to book and author to author. Similar sort of narrative arcs, and all that sort of thing. I mean, sure, you get some authors in these genres that are just completely something else, but I guess that’s similar with a lot of other genres.

I’ve started to get into the James Bond series of books. I read Casino Royale a while ago and finished Live and Let Die not too long ago. Now, Ian Fleming is a decent writer. He’s great at the whole “espionage” thing, but I can be sure each book in the series will carry that consistent style of prose that’s pretty much just storytelling how James Bond gets himself into another tight situation  and manages to give the bad guys the slip at the last minute. He’s a fomulaic writer, and that’s fine if you want consistency, and he did pump out a book a year until hid death. I wouldn’t put him on a list of my favourite authors though.

Tuxedo man saves world and girl without breaking sweat

So why is style better than content?

I guess the big thing for me is that if you’ve got a  story, you’ve got a synopsis for it, and you’re only trying to tell your story as clearly and distinctly as possible, if someone else comes along, takes your synopsis and does the same, the two stories would be more or less interchangeable. The language you use would differ, of course, and the details you use to draw the reader in would be pretty much the same, but essentially, they’re focussing on the same key points as outlined in your synopsis.

Note how the details distinguish your story from the other writer. Think about why you chose those details. It’s part of the world-building process. This is your story, make it real with all your specific little sensory perceptions that draw the reader in just that bit further. Details make a story believable. You’ve got your third person reliable narrator, and with all they’re saying, the reader should believe your story, right?

Well, here’s where I feel authors really come into their own. Style is a details job. Work the details in your favour and your story will be completely different to Johnny Uninspired over in the corner there with the exact same synopsis. Firstly, I think people tend to assume narrators need to be reliable? Yeah, that’s a big fat misconception. Turn them into a lying, theiving bastard and watch the reader sweat. “Oh I don’t know what to believe anymore, these concrete details the narrator is feeding me sound a bit ridiculous, I think he might be lying but I have no way of knowing for sure.” When you make your narrator unreliable, you not only keep the reader second-guessing, but it’s a good way to hide certain plot points without needing the logic to line up perfectly.

Who knows what to believe anymore?

Next up, just go crazy with your details. Describe things that are strange or obscure, focus on things that people don’t normally notice, or focus on normal things in a strange way. After you do this for a while, you’ll notice you’re not only making the world around you seem more bizarre and fantastic, but you’re making your narrator seem more interesting as well. It doesn’t even matter if the narrator’s in the story or not, they’ve still got a character. If you can give your narrator a unique voice, it doesn’t matter what’s happening, you can still make things seem interesting as filtered through your narrator’s obscure mind.

You can write about whatever and turn a fresh perspective on it. You can make going down to the local shops seem like poetry, you can tell stories that no one else will think to tell, you can change the plot entirely, make it about anything. Genre constraints? Fuck genre constraints. I hate it when books are just derivatives of other books in the same genre. I hate seeing stores stocked out the asshole with supernatural young adult romance novels, the next big thing that could be written with a dictionary/thesaurus and a genre style guide.


Pride + Prejudice + Zombies = New York Times Bestseller!



Two books I recommend when it comes to style are:

Eeeee Eee Eeee, by Tao Lin, and

The Bizarro Starter Kit Purple, an anthology of weird stories.


Eeeee Eee Eeee is a story told with an unreliable third person narrator, and it reads as if the plot doesn’t matter, and I think that’s because the book reveals more about the narrator than it does about the characters in it.

The Bizarro Starter Kit Purple is one of three Bizarro Starter Kit anthologies, and the only one I have read, but this is a great text for examining style vs content. It’s almost a certainty there will be stories in here you won’t like, or you’ll like less than others. Some stories I thought were brilliant, others I thought were good, some just seemed to be dripping with weirdness and violence for the sake of it. The thing is, each author has his/her own style, with varying degrees of uniqueness. It’s just one genre, but it’s the genre of the weird, eclectic and creative. It’s about letting go and finding yourself in a weird and disturbing place.


If I’m going to tell a story, I feel that it has to be something worth telling, and that it has to be something told in a way that only I can tell it. Sometimes it feels as if originality is hard to come by these days, but really, I think it’s just a matter of looking in the right places.