Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sometimes we drool


Here's the thing. Sometimes we talk and write in tired language. Cliche this and that. During revision, one of my goals is to see where I used such line filler as I went dancing merrily on following my story's dangling carrot. I made this sparse word cloud of a few cliches at wordle.net, which you must go toy with if you haven't.
I've been thinking a lot about revision, and was tickled pink (yes, I'm doing this on purpose because actions speak louder than words, ha-ha) to find a great article by Alexander Chee on the way Annie Dillard taught him to write and rewrite. She told her students to triple space between lines to leave space for her to comment, and she always had a lot to say. Among the things Chee discovered was a "museum of cliches in my unconscious."
Chee illustrates how she attacked passive voice, imprecise language, weak verbs, and gives an example of an exercise that I think would blow us all out of the water (sorry, I'll stop doing this). Dillard asked the class to write an essay. Then she told them to take scissors and cut out the best lines. Those were pasted on blank paper. From there: rewrite.
I can see the genius in this. It's not enough to have a few brilliant lines or some great passages if they're strung together with throw-aways. Chee says he learned his voice was trapped and needed to be cut free.
Only by dissecting each line during revision will we not skip over lazy language. Literary agent Nathan Bransford noted a few examples that showed up often in his first-paragraph contest: last thing I expected, consumed with fear and washed over me. I used them to make the word cloud above. Let's play with them but not pad them around our gems.
Have you caught yourself using cliches or been startled by how often people use them in speech?

14 comments:

Natalie said...

I catch a lot of cliches when I revise but I'm sure there are still some hiding in my manuscript.

Suzyhayze said...

I had a class with Alex Chee at the Wesleyan Writers Conference. I was never the same again. He is amazing.

Donna said...

Darn amazing how many unoriginal phrases I can come up with in speech and prose. Yikes!

MG Higgins said...

Yes. All the time. I'm obsessed with getting rid of cliches and spend lots of time on that in revisions. Then it's alarming how many I still find when I re-read a manuscript after it's sat for a while.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Natalie: Yes, they are almost invisible little buggers. I just found one today in something I've read a dozen times.

Suzanne: You lucky thing! I can imagine a class with him is fantastic.

Donna: I'm amazed at it, too. Quite horrifying, actually.

Melissa: I swear they wear Harry's invisibility cloak.

storyqueen said...

As much as I use them in writing (which I hate), I think I use them even more when I am speaking (which I hate even more.) I find that I get stuck on some lame cliched old phrase and will use it over and over again for a bit until I want to stick long knitting needles through my ear into my brain and stir. (I almost said "until it drives me crazy" but I caught myself.

Museum of cliches indeed.

Abby said...

I do this too. I'll think I've caught all of them, but they're always popping up. Thanks for the link. :)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shelley: Eeek, knitting needles in brain! *eyes bulge* But, yes, more acceptable than a cliche. :)

Abby: They live to pop up, I swear.
Great essay, isn't it?

Yvonne said...

Our speech is riddled with clich├ęs and they keep popping up in my writing as much as I try to eliminate them. The only time I think it is ok is in dialogue, because, after all, that is the way people talk.

Thanks for the link to Chee. You've given me my assignment for the day!

Linda Kage said...

I feel like I'm one big cliche when I write. So, how do I break the mold (oops, there goes another)?

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Yvonne: Right, they can be used in dialogue, but even there I think they should be used sparingly to give a character that distinction of speaking in cliche. I find it numbing if everybody does it all the time as I have found in a couple of books. I have a family member who speaks mostly in cliche, and I've come to realize it makes for no originality of thought.

Linda: Hahahahaha! Yup, they just keep on coming. So I just we keep deleting until they get the message.

Sliding on the Edge said...

Cliches are so easy to use, especially when you're buried in writing the first draft. I do a careful search during my rewriting and even then I'm shocked at those sneaky creatures that pop up out of blue. They're the last things I expected. :D

PJ Hoover said...

It's so funny. I try to catch cliches everywhere now. In my speech. In my emails. In my writing. That said, sometimes there is no substitute!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Lee: Sneaky, yes, and hard to catch. The little buggers.

PJ: I think they clone themselves. Replicants everywhere! True, sometimes it is hard to say any other way or it fits a certain character to say it.