13th Jun 2010 in Writing
Last year I finished an MLitt in Creative Writing, which involved putting together a 17,000-word portfolio.
In selecting work for my portfolio, I had to read a lot of my own writing. There’s an awkward, self-conscious, masturbatory pleasure in doing this, so I tried to read it in a critical way, as if someone else had written it. This led to me noticing a lot of repetition.
- Girls (always girls – unless it’s a fascinating and unattainable older woman)
- Doors (people hanging about in doorways, doors opening and closing)
- Slightly awkward yet enjoyable sex
- Feet (especially toes)
- The sea
- Cities (unless it’s a misunderstood teenage girl wandering around a suburb at night)
- Fairytales and myths
- Getting drunk
- Run-on sentences
- Overuse of dashes (this is because someone told me that overuse of commas was a sure sign of an amateur writer)
- Everything very short (why don’t my stories last 6,000 words?).
Things noticeable in their absence
- The gender of the narrator
- Old people
- Basic descriptions of how people look (hair colour, eye colour, height)
- No-one drives, goes to work, has accidents, or thinks about money.
Maybe I should try to write a dialogue-heavy, metaphor-free, action-packed story about a married, middle-aged, heterosexual man who likes guns and sports. Or a long, meandering, historically-accurate story about a young boy living on a farm and dealing with his relationship with his father.
Or maybe I should just embrace my personal clichés and write about genderqueer and cities at night and confused girls and awkward sex. But maybe I’ll add some sea monsters and dialogue.
So, writers and other creative people: what are your personal clichés? Do you embrace them or try to write against them?
I don’t think personal cliches are necessarily a bad thing. After all, aren’t they necessary when they come to defining your personal style? I’m all for trying new things, sure, but I think embracing the quirks that define you and your work is a good thing, too.
That said, I write too much dialogue that is initiated by way of phone calls. I probably use one too many commas; other times I don’t use them enough. I often write about writers because I am a writer, and that’s the easiest way for me to put some sort of humanity into the narrative. Old people in my stories often come across with Southern accents, and I spend a lot of time inside my characters’ heads. I rarely go into physical description unless warranted, because I want readers to form their own mental images (the idea being that, if a reader does this, they’re much easier to relate to). I shy away from defining race. A lot of description comes from directed character eye contact.
And so on and so forth.
One of my personal clichés is everything too *long*. Probably because of setting up the politics (and society and economy and other things I won’t let myself create characters until I know about). I wish I could reliably bring fiction in at 3k or less.
The big absence: protagonists in relationships, and especially in straight ones. Currently forcing myself to write some nuclear family pieces because otherwise I will turn out Not Versatile Enough…
Hmm, some of my personal cliches are: in almost each story I write, at least one of my characters has a disability of some sort; and I tend to be “wordy.” The “wordy” part I try hard to work against. As far as the characters having disabilities, most of this probably have to do with the fact I have a disability and through certain characters, I try to work out a challenging situation or a difficult issue. I don’t intend to change this aspect about my writing.
Time loops, airlocks, cigarettes (SO much worse since I stopped smoking myself), the scent of cinnamon, characters in superhero worlds who do not have superpowers themselves, lesbian main characters in premodern societies, groups of misfits that grow to love each other as families, and world-weary wisecracking sergeants.
I worry that with most of my stuff, the leitmotifs have become cliches strong enough that you can write all the beats about six words in.
But I do love those airlocks and wisecracking sergeants.
Characters using sex to express everything except for love, grand epiphanies, teens using Buffyspeak “that’s a stabby looking knife you’ve got there, scary monster-person”, homeless people, more long haired people than are representative of the general population, traveling, transient people, crime, wind pulling words from people’s mouths so that other people can’t hear what they are saying, and strong women who eschew traditional gender roles.
Absent? Mothers, families, characters involved in team sports, people with 9-5 jobs, educated people, people with physical disabilities, bosses, the elderly, probably more I’m unaware of.
Hmm. Looking through my collection I have a problem with using names at all. There are a lot of “the man” references scattered throughout. I also way over use the word “look” – my characters are always looking here, looking over there, he looked at the dog and then he looked back at the gun…I definitely have a penchant for characters who say very little as well.
In terms of what’s missing: strong female characters, happy endings, love, and very few landscapes so far.
Todd, I agree that certain themes and idea make up a personal style. I think I just wanted reassurance that it’s okay for me to circle around the same things a lot of the time! I’ve noticed your phone-call-dialogue thing – you also tend to begin mysteries by way of phone calls. I’m with you on not defining race or other physical characteristics; I like the reader to decide on such things.
Alex, have you tried writing some flash fiction, just as an exercise? I think that hints and suggestion can go very far in world-building, rather than screeds of explanation. I don’t think you have to force yourself to write nuclear families, though – better to stick to what you know, I reckon. Makes it more interesting. How many people do you know in typical nuclear families anyway? Very few people I know are straight and married with kids.
C. Ann, I love that your characters have disabilities; I think that’s great for building up a personal style and tone. Is it always a different disability, or do you stick to the same one/s? I’d love to read some of your writing.
Ellie, your list is fascinating! I’d love love love to read a story about a lesbian in a premodern society. The “world-weary wisecracking sergeants” are perhaps too specific to work in many stories, but perhaps you can make it work. My personal writing challenge for today is to write something involving time loops, cinnamon and superheroes without powers. Thanks for the inspiration!
Avery, I’ve noticed that about the sex in you stories. I’ve tried to write sex without affection, but I can’t do it like you can! The Buffyspeak is something I’ve noticed in a lot of people’s writing. Damn that Joss Whedon. It’s weird because I always seem to write short-haired characters – are we really so unimaginative?
Mark, I avoid names too. Lots of ‘he’ and ‘she’ stories. My characters don’t say much either, mostly because I’m rubbish at writing dialogue! I think there is a strong sense of place in your writing, but you’re write – it’s all very close, no wide landscapes. Have you tried writing strong female characters, or is that a subject that doesn’t really interest you?
And Mark, that ‘write’ in the fourth sentence should be ‘right’, of course. Time for coffee, I think…
@ Kirsty – a little, but not primarily as an exercise to solve that problem… thanks for the idea!
@ Ellie – every walk of life has its world-weary wisecracking sergeants I think… at least, in every organisation you’re going to find *someone* who knows where all the equipment lives, what to do when (insert organisation-specific crisis situation here) and what sort of things one doesn’t need to tell the boss. (I’m sure you could work one into a premodern lesbian cinnamon trading company if you really wanted to!)
[…] recently stumbled across Kirsty Logan’s awesome list of her personal cliches (or, as she calls them, Kirsty Tropes) over at her blog. Her insights into her own writing made me […]
This was so awesome that you forced me to make my own list of tropes. So interesting, and probably a really useful exercise! Thank you!