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Friday, April 17, 2009


As writers we're cautioned again and again to avoid cliches in our work. Something close to the kiss of death, the publishing community warns. So, I try to ignore those tasty little tidbits, and come up with my own more creative twists when a catchy phrase is needed.

However . . .

In a recent Reader's Digest issue the subject of TIME was raised, and a number of cliches were listed. My critique partner, LA Mitchell, writes fascinating stories about bending of time, slipping through time . . . well, you get the jest. So, I studied the cliches closer, thinking to send them to LA and allow her convoluted mind to ponder them. What would she do with them? Turn the trite diatribes into dialogue? Universal themes?

Then it hit me . . .

Each of these nuggets described a personality trait. As a student of human behavior (something every writer should ascribe to), I wondered how effective a cliche could be in filling out the character sketch.

For each cliche, I could name at least one person I know, say fairly well, who could tattoo these words on their foreheads as a life's motto. Don't worry. Names have been eliminated to protect, well, me, from retaliation.

Better late than never. This one definitely struck close to home for anyone who knows my family. Certain members believe, nay, cherish the opportunity to make the mantra of 'better late than never' into gospel. These are the individuals who have never been punctual, indeed, can arrive thirty minutes to an hour late and still consider themselves on time.

Sound familiar?

Now, step beyond the personal and take it to a character level. Would this particular flaw round out a formally flat or static character? Or could this trait be reminiscent for the hero or heroine? One that he/she dealt with their entire life and made certain to emulate the complete opposite behavior? Could this be a source of fun in a romantic comedy between the hero and heroine?

Is it possible to take this cliche and tweak it and actually use it as a theme? Are some things worth waiting for? Even the things that show up late? Really late? Perhaps almost beyond patience?

History repeats itself. This cliche is all to often a hard and cold fact. Ever met someone who's married more than once? More than twice? More than three times? Talk to them about their exs. Chances are there will be startling similarities. What about the person who constantly changes jobs? Always on the move, seeking greener pastures? Again, personality traits are clear with this type of behavior and this cliche.

Considering that the human body regenerates itself with new cells every seven years, perhaps it's inevitable that we can't remember all our mistakes and kill the 'bad-choice' repetition. Or perhaps, life really is a circle and we end up where we began. Whatever the fault in the gene pool, this is a wonderful opportunity for writers to exploit, and yes, that's the correct verb, in order to humanize their characters. Writers are required, should be by a univeral writing law, to use every tool at their disposal, which includes observing and then committing to page the faults and follies of the human race.

How about these cliches?
Consider these:
Let bygones be bygones
Time and tide wait for no man (or woman)
To every thing there is a season

Each cliche is more than a song verse. Even more than just a simple cliche.

By studying underlying meanings of these phrases and applying to human tendencies, characters can be enriched. Depth is what makes each of us fascinating. The same is true -- more than true -- it's mandatory for characters. Without layers, backstories, idiosyncrasies, flaws, blemishes, and assets characters are, look-out here's the 'B' word -- BORING!

More than any cliche has ever been the kiss of death, a boring character will execute a good story -- perhaps even a great story.

Could you use one of these cliches to broaden the horizons for a character? Used another familiar cliche?


Do stop by the porch anytime. I'll be here, swinging on the porch swing and studying a cliche or two.

Until then

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sniffing our way to good writing . . .

A few days ago, hubby dear and I were strolling the dog when the scent of potent Tar, from a nearby road project, filled the air. Tar -- is not a good smell to me; it's normally one that makes me want to hold my nose. Okay, if it's strong enough, I will hold my nose. Stinky Tar became our conversation focal point. We walk a long way, all right? My hubby shared that he loved that smell, quite a shock to me for in the 20+ years we've been enjoying wedded bliss, I was none the wiser that Tar could make him yearn.

When hubby was a youngster, dear old dad worked in the oil field as a drilling superintendent. Dad was out at the platform for long hours, but occasionally, my hubby in kid-form went along. My father-in-law was a big man, with the most enormous hands -- real workman's hands -- I'd ever seen. He was strong, and in-charge, and more than likely larger-than-life to my hubby. These were precious times, stolen away from the demands of a busy job and my hubby remembers the smell of Tar, of strong oil, which is apparently the same scent, quite fondly. In fact he loves the smell of Tar.

Here's the connection to writing:
It's not the scent of Tar or not Tar that's the question. It's the motivation behind the Tar which makes the scent important to writing, to any potential story.

A quick trip down research lane, and I discovered that our noses are capable of sniffing between 4,000 and 10,000 odor molecules. The younger the nose the more molecules it can sniff. In addition, all Olfactory Receptor Neurons are contained inside the nasal cavity, measuring an area no larger than that of a postage stamp. Pretty compact for all those different scents. Even more interesting, is that each ORN (Olfactory Receptor Neuron) works like a lock and key. Each of the millions of receptors can latch onto only a specific odor molecule. When you smell spaghetti sauce, you don't think it's scrambled eggs, or corn beef on rye because those ORN's have latched onto the specific odor molecules which tell the brain that it's spaghetti for dinner. With this explanation, it certainly enlightens as to why the sense of smell is so pure, and can be used to help deepen any writing.

So how does this help?

Sniff chlorine! Most of us immediately think -- pool. That could be a great smell for the character if summers and swimming were major family activities. However, it could be equally black if the character worked as a lifeguard until a kid in the pool drown on his/her watch. Now, that would be a smell to turn a character's world upside down in an instant.

How about asphalt? To me, it's memories of long, hot, fun-filled summer days at a major theme park. Great childhood memories. HOWEVER, consider the same theme park, but now what if the character remembers it as the last scent before overheating from a secret teenage pregnancy and passing out in front of the church youth group?

What about popcorn? A friend recently shared that she'll sit through any movie for the joy of theatre popcorn. And apparently, it's the smell she can't live without. How could a food be used to deepen writing? Folks who work in donut shops, cookie factories, even chocolate stores will attest that the smell quickly becomes something to tolerate, and not the great scent of the masses. By giving a character an abhorrence of anything sweet, backstory can be revealed. If the character worked in a chocolate factory to put a younger sibling through school while giving up that opportunity for themselves, and then the sibling throws away the education -- the smell of chocolate could well make the character sick.

Smelling is about more than mere sniffing.
Before any character loves the smell of gardenias, consider why this particular fragrance could deepen intimacy between the characters; how this one smell could turn or alter the plot; or this one scent could be used to reveal emotional character backstory.

For something contained in an area no larger than a postage stamp, the right smell can deliver great emotional punch to a manuscript.

Any smells that get your nose sniffing?

Feel free to share. And make sure to drop by my porch anytime.

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