CRAFT: Filing off the serial numbers

What are the clichés that agents and agency screeners/first readers hate to see?

Miss Snark talks about them. Rachel Vater lists them on her LJ. There used to be many “What Not to Do” lists floating around the ‘net, including the Turkey City stuff. But maybe we could think about them in a more general sense.

Think about the plot “twists” that you see all the time on television and in newer movies. Aren’t a lot of them “yawn-worthy” to those who’ve seen other movies? Tonight, hubby saw a promo for a new film, and said, “Why don’t you write a mystery in which the detective is the dead person?” I rolled my eyes. That has been done SO MANY times since the 1930s movies . . . and was probably done in ancient Greece and Rome . . . and in Biblical times. Yes, the plot recycles well, and readers apparently buy it and viewers watch it, but that’s because it’s already OUT there. In order to get our work out there, it must sell, and in order for it to sell, it has to blow away everything the agency’s screener has seen, and it has to charm the editors’ bosses. The bar is ever-higher.

Chances are that the first reader has JUST seen one or more of these tired old tricks in the manuscripts he or she has just plodded through, and so it’s likely that you’ll lose your big chance. And all because of a tired idea.

“There is nothing new under the sun”: yes, I know. However, there are bits that have been old since before Vaudeville. Let’s see if we can identify some of the danger zones in general.

Watch out for a spot in the story when it’s simply ASSUMED that “anyone would do this.” In a bad cliché, the motivation is never explained or pointed out, but simply assumed. “Anyone would’ve dumped him after that!” shouts the script. But would ANYone? Why? Why is that the ONLY thing anyone would do? People are different. The more different your character is, of course, the tougher it may be to sell the book . . . but the more memorable she’ll be for those readers who like her.

Movies and TV have warped the idea of plausible motivation. Anybody who lives in poverty escapes into drugs and takes the easy out by becoming a pusher . . . never by any other method. Any older cop who gets a new partner starts out bitter and angry because the old one was shot in front of him, but soon becomes a mentor to the new kid and saves him/is saved by him. Every teen girl ignores the nice guys, wants to be Just Like some popular girl, and tries to date the most popular jock at any cost. All hookers are really Julia Roberts and would never roll a trick. But WHY? Because the script says so. And we don’t want to have a dump of backstory *yawn* so that we can understand why, unless you’re Big Steve King, who gets away with that just about every time he introduces any character in his more recent books. We have to figure out ways to make stories more interesting without resorting to the old tropes or to just “turning the old trope on its head,” which by now is also a hoary old trope.

I’m not sure whether the current policies in publishing are encouraging this mistake on the parts of writers. They SAY they want All Fresh and New, but when you send in something that isn’t just like what they’ve seen before with a few tweaks and a new coat of simulated chocolate-stuff, they send the rejection of “I couldn’t love this enough.” So they keep getting that same old stuff. What do they really want? They don’t KNOW. But they know it when they see it. “Bring me another rock!” (GRIN)

Does everyone who works for a corporation dream of breaking out and becoming an entrepreneur? No; many engineers I’ve worked with were perfectly happy where they were, and wouldn’t know what to do if they were suddenly put somewhere else. Not too many real women have a thing for bums and drifters; in stories, though, perfectly sensible women run after the Bad Boys and let them act crazy and say, “He’s special.” Yes, we write about that person who is “special” but who can still be identified with. Still, we need to watch out that we’re not copying stuff we’ve seen on TV and read in novels all our lives. Some of that stuff is strictly made-for-TV, like the June Cleaver family and the “overnight sensation” novelist.

Be sure that your story is worthy of readers suspending their disbelief. Look twice at your plot points and see whether you can make them fresher or more logical.

How are you going to do that? Hey, if I knew THAT, I’d be charging for this advice. I’m bringing it up in hopes that somebody wants to discuss it. We don’t have all the answers here at Casa el Dumpo, but we’re overstocked with questions.
* * *
“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”–Kurt Vonnegut


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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