Sunday 3 June 2012

The Anti-cliché Edit

I knew I was a writer a long time ago, even if it did take me ages to take myself seriously. Probably even before I received some praise from my teacher because I had written in my account of visiting my grandmother that “Sandy, her little brown dog made us welcome.”  That is actually one great big fat cliché but the teacher was delighted because I had taken my work beyond  the very simple level of subject verb object, which is what most other seven-year-olds were producing. I had managed this probably because I had been reading a lot – that too was no doubt a joy for my teacher. She probably hadn’t noticed that it was mainly Enid Blyton.
Yes, I’m currently completing the “get rid of clichés” edit on The Tower, and I would not tolerate that “made us very welcome” phrase in my work, nor in any of my students’ work, nor in any of the texts I edit.
But clichés are there because they work
Yes they are. And often it’s very difficult to express that idea any other way. How else do you describe a bull in a china shop? It’s probably all right now and then. But too many really weaken your work. Close your eyes. Look at your scene. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, feel (in both senses)? Now write. Writing with the senses helps you to avoid cliché and always produces good work. Try these: How do you describe rain to someone who doesn’t know water? What does chocolate taste like? What does orange peel look like? Pretend you’re an alien and look at your own planet differently.
It’s okay if it’s a part of someone’s voice
Yes, you can use them as much as you like in speech – as long as it genuinely is part of the way that person talks.
Borrowing form other language can be effective
Indeed you may have an advantage if you speak another language. You can borrow clichés, sayings and proverbs and they will sound fresh in your own language. An angel is passing, they say in France, when the conversation suddenly stops. Young women shouldn’t eat soup before lunchtime in Spain, if they don’t want to end up as single mothers. Many a Spanish man has taken delight in staying on top of his wife. Germans may tread on your tie, put their mustard in your sausage and find that a problem is in fact nothing but sausage. The Greeks are wary of announcing the spring if they have seen but one swallow.
Avoid the lazy option
If your resort to a cliché, no matter how apt, you are simply being lazy. Use them sparingly even in your characters’ speech. Maybe making up clichés peculiar to your characters is more effective. And even take a little care with borrowing from other languages. Only use the new phrases if they really fit – don’t contrive to find a space for them.    

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