Cliché as landmine: Use the unoriginal to inspire better edits

red flagEditing your novel manuscript can be a painful, embarrassing process. For me, one of the many humbling things I find in a stack of freshly drafted pages is how often I’ve been entirely unoriginal. During the first pass of anything, I am mortified at how easily cliché has crept into my work. The result is pages of red circles looping around phrases that are trite or overused and red Xs through scenes that stray into the predictable or formulaic.

But I’ve learned to appreciate these lame phrases or overused devices in my early drafts for one reason. They are the landmine flags I’ve planted for myself. Beneath the cliché is a lazy or undeveloped idea I’ve left buried in the first (or third) draft. They each serve as proof that I haven’t completely thought through a character’s history or motivation. I don’t know my own story well enough yet to let it speak for itself.

One might argue that there a fine line between cliché and universal human experience. While it’s true that the common storylines have developed for a reason, the most resonant novels take something wholly unique and turn it into a shared and powerful emotion. Thanks to On the Beach, I’ve faced nuclear annihilation, I’ve time-traveled my way into conscripted slavery via Kindred and journeyed through space in The Sirens of Titan. A predictable turn of events in an early draft is my warning sign to ask two questions: What emotion/shared experience am I going for? Where can I turn the scenario and inject some novelty?

It’s not always a plot issue. I often find an obvious cliché in my dialogue or the action of just one character. That’s my cue to stop and ask who is this person trying to fool? Sometimes they are fooling themselves. Other times I’ve been ignoring who they really are. Usually a character that is acting in a predictable way is too far on one side of the spectrum. No one is pure villain or hero. What’s the clichéd culprit’s perspective on the story? What character flaw am I missing in the good guy? Switching POV as an exercise to someone who hates or loves the character helps me clear up the angle I’ve missed and can add some hidden dimension to a flat character.

The clichés I find most difficult to tackle are the tiny ones. They are embedded in phrases and descriptions. Usually, I’ve backed myself in a corner and used some lame descriptor because I haven’t really pictured the person, the object or the place. When I run into this, it’s time to go get up from my chair. It’s time to see, smell, hear and feel whatever it is I’m trying to describe. Sometimes, this requires a nap or a box of crayons since whatever it is I’m describing doesn’t actually exist.

Busting up cliché’s can be a time-consuming and slow process. It often leads me to discover things that would be easier for me to keep buried. New motivations or more details require more maintenance and more development. However, setting off these landmines is also rewarding and has led me to some of my favorite discoveries and inventions. So, be careful out there and good luck demining!

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