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THE RULES AND HOW TO BREAK THEM: PART IV by Miko Johnston

PART IV:  Avoid clichés like the plague.

In the final installment of this series, we’ll look at clichés, often considered a hallmark of drivel by readers, critics and writers. But are there times when they can work to a writer’s advantage?

Clichés may be overused phrases, but that doesn’t take away from their truthfulness. Old habits do die hard, divide and conquer works, and we’ve all had fair weather friends. Since we instinctively understand them, clichés tell us a great deal in shorthand when used thoughtfully.

In my novel, A Petal in the Wind Book II, one character says early on, “I’m an awful flirt and thoroughly incorrigible,” a deliberate use of a cliché. Does that make you think this character lacks imagination or conforms to whatever prevails? Then I’ve accomplished my goal. I’ll note that he is secondary to the story, not one of the stars. He’s also a minor adversary and the butt of humorous misfortunes; a jester in my court of characters. And since it was said ‘aloud’ as part of his dialog, it sounds more natural. People use the occasional cliché when speaking. Some, like my character, rely on them because they’re not effective communicators, and that’s the point. It’s not always about what someone says as how they say it.

If you choose to include a cliché in your story, use it to reveal character as well as make a point. Limit it to dialog, preferably of a minor character, and only when it won’t taint the drama or emotion of the moment.

 

Before I end this series, here’s a ‘bonus’ rule, a tricky one: Read your work aloud.

Hearing your words does help improve clarity and flow. It also catches repetition and awkward phrasing. The only problem is if you’re doing the reading, you know your work well, perhaps too well. You emphasize the right word in a sentence, or you read something that isn’t there but should be – ever catch an error on a fifth proofreading?

My computer has a dictation system. “Vicki’s” dull monotone doesn’t dramatize the reading, so I can hear if my words fall flat. Other than stumbling over some ethnic terms, “she” provides a helpful service. Reading your own words works best when the writing is fresh. Otherwise, if your computer doesn’t have a dictation system, ask someone else to read it back to you.

 

Rules should serve to guide, not impede, us. Too often writers slavishly follow the rules, while others ignore them without understanding their purpose, which leads to bad writing that reinforces the importance of do’s and don’ts. So how does a writer know when to follow the rules and when to break them? If you’re unsure, then think – what will serve the story best? Improve the pacing, define a character, or set up a situation later in the story? When in doubt, remember this: readability supersedes rules.

A FEAST FOR THE SENSES by Ann Adams

Rowena Williamson’s “Sheila,” in the WWG anthology Take Our Words for Whidbey, is such a  sensuous story that the reader hears, sees, touches, and smells what the viewpoint character hears, sees, touches, and smells.

SOUND

“Her answer confused me. Sheila, perhaps? But not quite. The sound that waves make over pebbles.”

“What language was this, this sibilant, whispering tongue?”

“’It’s an Orca, a killer whale,’ I said, suddenly aware that my own words were full of sharp peaks and edges.”

“‘Orca,’ she said, and laughed at herself. The ‘c’ in the word came out in a guttural throat clearing.”

“In the night, through my open window, I heard seals barking in the water below. Then in my half-sleep, I heard my door squeak open and felt one side of my bed lower.”

“I heard her coming up the path, singing that tune in a wild minor note that sounded like a lament.”

“She continued to walk the beaches, often, at low tide, even at night, to a certain point below the house where there was always a whisper of sand and pebbles slipping down the bluff.”

“I heard a keening cry that might have been a gull.”

SIGHT

“I turned my head on the pillow, and looked at her sleeping face, surrounded by tangled black hair, long lashes fanning out on her high cheekbones.”

“I picked up my binoculars and looked down at her and saw, as she turned her profile to me, the track of tears on her cheek.”
 
Color:

“She lay on some sort of rug, not a beach towel, dark brown, nearly black, the color of her hair and eyes. Her skin was very white, blue veins showing, and her lips were red.”

“I knew that the sky would stay pale, almost green, till well past ten o’clock.”

“The big windows to the west caught the last of the sun and framed the reddening clouds. Pink light filled the room.”

“She watched, her black eyes taking in the turning on of the stove, the blue flame of the gas.”

Shape:

“She stood naked behind me, her dark eyes shadowed, her smile showing pointed teeth.”

“The tide was going out, and the wild race of waters wound the kelp in swirls and tangles.”

“I turned the glasses to Sheila and watched as she strode into the water, the waves curling around her calves.”

“I nodded, then looked beyond her through the window, where the last of the tattered clouds hung in red rags.”

TOUCH

“She moved easily over the pebbly surface.”

“I could feel the wild pulse in her wrist.”

“I inhaled the scent of her and felt her hand trace my face.”

“I held up the pelt, the softness of the fur rubbing against my skin.”

“That night we made love and I held her to me, my face buried in her hair, and I felt her wet cheek against my own.”

SMELL

“The house was surrounded by huge round pellets of new-mown hay, its scent colliding with the smell of the drying kelp on the shore.”

“The scent of the heating soup began to fill the kitchen.”

TASTE

There is no description of taste in this story, but don’t we all agree that these passages are delicious? Aren’t they a feast for the senses?