To live without cliché

Not so long ago I came across this quote: “One of the virtues of being young is that you don’t let the facts get in the way of your imagination.” Sam Levenson.  (The quote is the from The Pregnancy Journal – a wonderful book for those of you fellow bloggers who are pregnant  – and there seem to be a few now!)

I was reading my draft, making notes, and thinking about the novel. This quote made me wonder if I could see the whole novel as it is, rather than how I think it is, and whether I could break away from its present state to make it more complete. Was my mind closed to all the possibilities this novel held? I hoped not, and tried to approach the novel with new eyes, seeing it as a stranger would, new to my world and people,  not as someone already in  love with it.

I identified many many things, but I will mention the few lag spots I found. Shorter sections that did nothing really to move the plot along. My novel has a lot of internal tension,  but there needs to be some external tension – a driving force for this internal struggle and development. I began creating scenes and additions, consciously doing so. For me, a draft is written entirely by the subconscious. I trust it, and let it be. But, the editor has to be very conscious, and truthfully I don’t trust my conscious as much. Was I creating cliché scenes, straight from Hollywood? I wanted the scenes to be original, not so predictable, and I wondered if this was possible. At least, I thought, if they are predictable, let them have good cause.

In the end, I discussed the possible scenes with my family and friends, and judged their reactions. Some good, some bad, and knew what ideas to discard and which ones I could think about some more.

Last week was March break and a great week with the kids! I was surprised when I got back to work yesterday for a tiny wee bit at how much my subconscious had developed these scenes. They grew into their own meaning, and as I wrote three sections in, I saw how they had moved from being a cliché into their own. I have not been allowing myself any breaks in work, trying to get as much done as I can before the end of April. I was upset by the break in work (but not with the week with my kids), and it was such a gift to come back to it with these surprises. Sometimes the universe does give us what we need. (Anyone singing now? You can’t always get what you want….but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need….)

I look forward to catching up with all of you, and have a great writing week!

34 thoughts on “To live without cliché

  1. Life often does get in the way of our writing, but we need to remember ,that although we are writers, writing is not our entire life. You wil never regret time spent with your kids.

  2. I think it’s amazing how often there is a synchronicity in the thoughts among us writers who blog. I’m nearing the end of what I hope is my last pre-agent round of editing and I was just starting to write a post similar to this … though without the pregnancy aspect. 🙂 I wish I could truly see my book with fresh eyes.

  3. Great post Jennifer, and beautiful photograph.

    I’d love to know how you saw your work with the eyes of a stranger. The only way I can even come close is to be away from a piece for a year or more. I’m currently re-reading a novel I wrote about 6-7 years ago, and now I feel like a stranger — everything is fresh, but I don’t want to wait that long. 😦

    1. Oh Cathryn that is such a tough question for me to answer!
      Somehow I manage to step outside of the story, and look at it purely annalytically. For me, this process begins with asking myself lots of questions. What does this show about the character (s)? How do they interact with each other and what does it mean? What do the words on the page show me? Can I see what is happening? I have to pretend I do not know them or their outcome. In this way I catch elements that appear out of nowhere, or character indescretions, or even developments that although make perfect sense to me are not fully developed on the screen. In one sense, it’s as though all my backstage info has to come to the front.
      One of the ladies in my writing group says the same thing as you – she wants to see her novel as a stranger would, but she doesn’t have the time to put it away for so long. One of the things she does is change the font. She says just this perspective alone helps her.

      1. Thanks, Jennifer. I think after asking myself similar questions, it’s the pretending I don’t know the outcome that I wrestle with. Maybe I just haven’t tried to do that, thinking it’s impossible, but perhaps not.

        I also have the song in my head now!

      2. Don’t think it’s impossible, Cathryn! You’ll block yourself! It’s really the first time I was able to do that with this novel – I don’t know why…

  4. Just this morning I was working on a story and I had nothing. So I spent an hour developing a character’s backstory. Then I moved on to reading…I left the house around eleven, and I hadn’t been in the car five minutes before I had something.

    Sometimes all we need is a break, to release our minds from our own clutches. I think this is fascinating.

    1. Hi Cynthia! I love what the mind does when left on it’s on….now I’m discovering what it can do when I prod it 🙂
      (Or I will be when the gastro/flu leaves our home……seems with little ones there is always something in the house! It does ease up, right????)

  5. Time out from writing is often useful; you (I, at least) process stuff subconsciously while doing mundane tasks like shopping and cooking. Often some of that involves appreciating that the last 500 words I wrote are trash and need rewriting or some new connection/transition needs making between sections. But that’s par for the course, I suspect. Oscar Wilde once said, when asked what he’d done with his day, that he’d spent all morning putting a comma into a piece and all afternoon taking it out again.
    Often, in conversation with my partner, she says something that resonates with what’s going on in the back of my head and to her great annoyance I dash to the computer and make a note of it – which often becomes an extended note that takes an hour or so and gets properly worked into the story later on. It’s one of my major failings and I appreciate that she puts up with it!.

    1. I love that quote, Jon! I have indulged myself in that way a time or two myself….
      And I know what you mean about patient spouses! I don’t write things down (althoug I should) it’s that I seem to turn some many converstaions into discussions about issues I’m having in my writing.

  6. Hi all! I recently stumbled on the blog here and like what I have seen. I find one of the best ways to “see” my writing with a fresh pair of eyes is reading it aloud to another person. It forces me to experience the work through their eyes and also helps me build confidence in what I have written. As for cliche writing I don’t even think about it until returning to revise, if it strikes me as cliche days or weeks after I’ve written it then, hopefully, I can see a way to adjust it to become more unique.

    1. Hi Jodi – thanks for stopping and the comment!

      You are absolutly right, reading out loud to another person is a great way. I do that only with my shorts! I don’t anyone would have the patience to listen to 85 K words. LOL. A little back we were discussing the software that reads back to you. Now that I think would be something!

  7. Jennifer,

    Sorry it’s been a while. Love the new layout of the blog, and the post is, of course, quite thought provoking!

    Oh, the external tension aspect is so difficult for me! Regarding cliches and originality, though, I think there can be too much emphasis on a truly original plot. I sometimes wonder if I want my characters to take part in an unrealistic action for the sake of being different. I think, Oh, if they did X, that’s too Hollywood… but maybe, if they did Y, it wouldn’t make any sense for the character development.

    For the sake of the characters and readers, the external tension might need to be in the form of a story that we’ve often heard before. What separates cliche from a meaningful plot for me is how well the action matches the characters’ development. There’s always the example of Shakespeare (bad example, I know because a.) I’m certainly no Shakespeare! and b.) everyone uses this example– a cliche in itself!). His plots often weren’t original, even for the time. What gets me when I’m reading (or better yet, watching) Shakespeare is the understanding I gain about human nature as his characters live (and die) through these pretty typical storylines dealing with revenge, desire, and so on.

    Anyway, best of luck as you continue to revise and edit!

    On the pregnancy front, hope you’re doing well in the home stretch and that you’re feeling well! 🙂


    1. Christina! So great to hear you!

      “For the sake of the characters and readers, the external tension might need to be in the form of a story that we’ve often heard before. What separates cliche from a meaningful plot for me is how well the action matches the characters’ development.” Very well put!
      I was having a dilema with a bithing scene just this week. I didn’t want to go the route of typical near death scenes. Instead, after struggling with ideas, I realized the whole point is to further on the relationship between one married woman and one single man. Seeing it that way chagned everything. He became invloved in the birth, and voila, there was tension and purpose. I’m learning how to simplify my scenes, how to target exactly what is needed in each one, and in this way they become more complex.

      Would love to hear how you’re doing.

  8. “For me, a draft is written entirely by the subconscious. I trust it, and let it be.”

    I think I would be a lot more productive if I trusted my subconscious more. I’ve noticed that writing very early in the morning before the coffee has kicked in makes it harder for my conscious mind to pipe up with criticisms. I’m glad your break has helped your subconscious to do its work.

    1. Helen, when I used to dance my teachers always told me I was at my best when I was either sick or exhausted. There is no energy for criticims in those states, and the creation can come out. It’s the exact same thing with writing. it’s great you’ve found a time when you can write in peace from yourself!

  9. I’m currently catching up with my blogging friends. I kinda wished I’d read your post before publishing mine, but then I wouldn’t have blogged tonight! Late at night is when my internal editor quiets. Every other time, my conscious mind and subconsious bicker, lowering productivity. One of these days, they’ll figure out how to get along, and I’ll complete one of my novel drafts.

    1. Hi Ann – sorry so slow to respond. Funny, how you said on your blog you were worried about your post seeming unoriginal. Exactly what we’re discussing here. Of course, you realized that yours was entirelly original, and it made me think that most probably so many times we feel we are using a cliche without realizing our own unique view of the world and proximity to our characters puts add a whole different dimension to it. Thanks, Ann 🙂

  10. I feel like a kid in a candy store. For the last hour I have been jumping from blog to blog to yahoo group to blog (yes, I followed you here from another blog)and I can feel my anxiety ebbing away from me. I decided to start a blog as a means of accountability, after years of 11th hour writing, I need a deadline to get going. The past couple of weeks though, I have had to take ownership of other bad habits I must overcome. My simple blog, much like my attempts at short fiction, has declared itself “Full-Length”.
    Your post very eloquently told me that I was going to be okay. My WIP (took me a moment to pick up what that stood for) has been a WIP for about eight years. I have five almost complete rough drafts – with varying formats (tv show treatment, screenplay, novel, and even a brief moment as a comic book). I was never able to complete them due to one of two reasons: 1)I became distracted by another writing project. 2)I knew something was terminally wrong but couldn’t identify the cause. My blog, which technically I haven’t started yet, will, I hope, counteract these two issues.
    My fiction is purely subconscious writing. My non-fiction is purely conscious writing. Unfortunately for my fiction, my conscious writing has garnered more deadlines. I am so excited to find an environment of writers, just typing this obscenely long post makes me itch to write some more. Thank you so much.


    1. I’m sure Jennifer will reply also but it’s good you’ve been moved to pick up your WIP again. Is it really accountability, though, or just a case of ‘I don’t know what I want to say until I’ve written it down’? I can’t remember where the quote comes from but it’s always seemed apposite.
      Eight years – my longest project, which was admittedly a nonfiction/academic piece, was 13 years from inception to publication. Now that _was_ too long!

      1. Was that a dissertation, Jon?
        There were some phd students in my lab that were going on 10 years…and some research certainly does take that long and longer.

      2. Nope – the PhD was only 4 years! It was a book on the history of crime and policing in Hong Kong, co-written with someone else and started when we both worked there. We worked on it through several changes of job each, and my co-author moving every year or so between HK, Australia, the US and the UK. It also went through a couple of changes of purpose, starting with the idea of including some material on the PRC that we later ditched because it made the book seem broken-backed. And it survived two changes of publisher as the original one was taken over and then the new one bought out by a bigger one. At several points in the process, I lost contact with my co-author for a year or more and thought the project had died. It all worked out in the end, though the last edit had to update the earliest sections by adding in over a decade’s worth of statistics, politics and policymaking.

      3. I find this quite inspiring, Jon. You kept on with the project despite it and I find that very impressive.
        I have a collaboration that I am doing for a set of chidlren’s books that has come to a halt the last few months because we became overly busy and had mistmatched schedules, and after reading this I gained heart!

    2. Hello Fionna! What fun reading your comment and thanks for leaving it. Your blog is a great idea and pls let us know when you have it in swing!

      When I began writing (about my second year into it), one of my very close friends began dating a screenplay writer. When I met him and we spoke about writing, he said it took 10 years on one project before it began producation to hit the screen (Poor Boy’s Game). I thought – well, it certainly won’t take me that long. Ha ha. That silly girl I was sure learned her lesson. I have been writing on and off again for six years now (with child bearing breaks in between lol) and see how 10 years is a standard target.

      Good luck!

      1. Okay, I think that I am starting to get the hang of this technology bit. I miss my number 2!!!

        On the upside, it is easier to type when in the passengers seat than write by hand. I have been banned from the drivers seat while the trailer is in tow… something about slamming on the brakes… I don’t know.

        anyway…my point: OR search Confessions of a Coffee Shop Whore

        I have four posts up so far – no fiction yet as I haven’t figured out how to keep them in their category and not on the front page.

        —in reference to long-term projects—
        I have a science fiction story… that started as fantasy when I was in the 9th grade. I had one image that grew to a scene. I liked the scene and could never get it out of my mind. I was 14 when I was in the 9th grade… I will be 31 in a couple of months.
        I went back to college for this story because I KNEW that there was some science to back up the story, I just didn’t understand how. Imagine my surprise when I realized that ideas I had through fiction parallel ideas Stephen Hawking had through cosmology… how cool is that? I still don’t understand how to tweak science to fit my fiction, but I am getting closer.

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