Beating Clichés With a Dead Horse

With my cut back on blogging, I’ve been spending more time writing scenes and short stories that I hope can be used later as inspiration for a cohesive novel. I’m trying to manipulate some of these powerful memories into fiction. And guess what?

It’s hard.

It’s good practice, but it doesn’t really come naturally to me.

I’m running into the usual problems; avoiding clichés, adverbs, and showing the story instead of telling it.

I don’t really worry about any of those things here on the blog, and it is a relief to write in a conversational tone using words and phrases that are familiar even if they are over-used.

Yesterday, I was trying to write a scene about a series of severe nightmares I had as a pre-teen. These nightmares were the result of reading Pet Semetary when I was way too young, and then watching the movie. That story still freaks me out for personal reasons even though it is nowhere near King’s scariest work.

I was googling the book and the movie to fill in some details that I had forgotten, and came across a picture of Zelda, the sister who died of spinal meningitis. I had a bad dream last night, just from seeing that picture again. I don’t watch scary movies anymore because I am a weenie.

This is what my writing has come to. credit:

My mom dealt with these nightmares in a really interesting way, and when I’m done with the scene, I might post it here with her permission. But as I was writing, it didn’t take long to run into my first cliché.

I woke up in the middle of the night. It was pitch black.

No. What does that even mean? How black is pitch?

It was so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.

Why are you trying to see your hand in front of your face instead of reaching for the lamp? Do people really do that? Hold their hand up and try to see it? If someone did that in front of me, I would probably hit their hand. But I guess I would miss because it would be too dark to see it. Stop being so literal. This is why you never finish anything.

It was dark as night.


It was dark, you know that kind of dark just before dawn; really, really dark? I’m talking moonless, night dark.

That is the worst sentence anyone has ever written. Thanks for making everyone who has ever tried to write feel better.

Do you see my dilemma?

I’ll work it out, probably by omitting the obvious. Unless you sleep with a night-light, it’s probably understood that when you wake up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, it is dark.

Even though it’s probably cliché to write a post about clichés, especially if I tell you to avoid them like the plague, I’m still going to give you a list of the funniest clichés and idioms I found this morning.

  1. Are you a man or a mouse? I am both. They call me Mouse Man. I think it’s because of my ears. Or maybe it’s all this cheese I’m holding.
  2. All that glitters is not gold. That’s a misquote. Shakespeare said glisters. Is glisters still a word? If it’s not it should be because it rhymes with blisters, and that’s not easy to do. New word for mouth herpes–fever glisters. Stay gold, Pony Boy.
  3. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. That’s okay, I’d rather eat cake than have it anyway. Nom.
  4. Box of fluffy ducks. What? Well now I want a box of fluffy ducks even though I’ve never heard anyone say this. Thanks.
  5. Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Hehe, okay, I won’t. Do you know how hard it would be for me to get in a position to pee on you and then convince you it is rain? On asparagus day?
  6. Hoisted with your own petard. I love learning new words. Petard is a small bomb. The phrase means you were injured with the same device you intended to use to injure others. Google tells me péter in French means to fart; therefore, you’ve been hoisted with your own fart. Genius. How can I eliminate this now?
  7. Show them how the cow ate the cabbage. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Slowly? Do cows eat cabbage slowly? Adverb. Damn.
  8. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one. Well, technically, you can, but if you’re already swinging a dead cat like a sicko, you might as well aim for the others. Whack-A-Mole.
  9. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Lots of cat haters around. Is there? More than one way? Because it really seems like there is only one way to skin a cat.
  10. Like taking candy from a baby. Those babies never fight back. Silly babies. More candy for me.

At this point I don’t even know what I’m looking for anymore. Is it okay to use idioms, but not clichés? Are they all acceptable in dialogue?

Even though I don’t understand all the rules yet, I’m trying to eliminate them from my writing. The exception, of course, is in the first draft because they are natural place holders that you can go back and edit after you dump the idea from your brain.

I think I will start highlighting mine in red font. It’s always more fun to correct big, red mistakes.

Do you have any clichés you struggle to eliminate? Or any that make you laugh?

Please share if you do.

Have a great weekend!

About these ads

25 thoughts on “Beating Clichés With a Dead Horse

  1. This made me laugh! My kids tell me I’m the queen of cliches. One of my favorites…. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I use that one a lot!

  2. I don’t have as much trouble with cliches (in my fiction–on my blog I rather enjoy them) as I do with over-repetition of certain words. I’ve spent the week going through my manuscript and realize I have a love relationship with the word “just.” Used it so many times. I also seemed to enjoy “starting to.” Needless to say I’ve been doing some chopping.

    Very funny commentary on those cliches, by the way. :)

  3. What I like – no, adore- about your writing is what you’ve displayed in this post. You are exceptionally funny and a certain real warmth exudes from your work, making me feel like I know you, or want to. Your writing makes me want to be your friend, and THAT is what will and does draw in your audience and what will keep them reading, in my opinion. So, then, when telling your nightmare story, pick your voice. How would you tell it if you were speaking to a class of psychology students who were studying dreams? How would you tell it to a family member? As to cliches, I made s list very much like yours- hilarious! My personal cliche demons include: “as it turns out”, “drawn into”, ” wouldn’t you know?”, ( well, wouldn’t you? ) ” well”, ” owing to the fact that”, and so on. That was another one. All these little filler phrases have no place in good writing. As to descriptive writing, instead of telling what it IS or is LIKE, turn it into what it isn’t . I woke up and opened my eyes to utter darkness, surprised not to find even a pinhole of light from anywhere”. See, I was able to insert TWO glorious clichés there, not just one. How about, ” the complete darkness of my room made opening my eyes scarce relief from the nightmare. I might still be asleep. No, maybe this is what death feels like, just blinking in the dark and praying for light that never comes.

    • Thank you so much for saying that, and I appreciate your advice. Thinking about it in those ways will probably help a lot. And your two attempts at describing darkness are good! I especially like the last one because it’s almost exactly how I felt that night.

  4. I love this post and I completely relate, especially to the part about how nice blogging is, because you can be casual, and use comfortable, overused phrases, because you’re tone is conversational.
    Also, just thought I’d mention that as much as they should be avoided like the plague, cliches and idioms can be very effective in conveying character and establishing character’s voices — as long as it’s done on purpose and for a good reason. For example, Jane Austen (effectively) uses lots of sea and navy idioms and cliches in the dialogue between the naval officers in Persuasion.

    • Glad you liked it! I figured they were okay in dialogue as long as they are conveying something about the character. Just my newb writer flailing :)

  5. Can I play whack-a-mole with a dead cat? Maybe the Mouse Man? I love when you talk about writing and language. Thanks for a good laugh this morning, I really needed it.

    P.S. Here are two of my favorite Shakespeare quotes:
    “Oh thou idol of idiot worshippers”
    “If thy mind wert clean enough to water mine ass”

  6. I don’t have trouble with cliches, but sometimes I like to look up the history of them. Also, a box of fluffy ducks sounds really cute.

  7. Ah, thanks for the great laugh this afternoon! I think it’s okay to slip one or two into someone’s dialogue. We do use them, after all. So isn’t it realistic? I think so.

    But remember—don’t worry how things sound in the first draft. The important thing is to get the ideas out there. There’s plenty of time in revisions for cleaning up the words.

    • I’m glad you got a laugh today over here! Thanks for the advice; I still get so hung up when I try to write just about anything that is not a blog post. Hope you have a great weekend!

  8. I have real respect for all of you who take this craft seriously. The best writers are plagued with worries of their short comings, unlike myself that just throws some words down and hits publish. You make this look easy, keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Chris! You are better than you give yourself credit for, and one thing is consistent with your posts–you make me laugh every time. Except when you write about zombies, and then you usually give me nightmares because zombies freak me out.

  9. It’s been a long, hard cliche-ish kind of day, following a hard day’s night (for real, and thanks for that cool way of describing it, John & Paul!) and I am totally burnt. Which is all the more reason that I am delighted with your post, cause it made me laugh, even though I’m too tired to concentrate on and absorb some of your more complex ideas here. (said w/o sarcasm)

    Loved your list of cliches, and related quips! Very funny stuff! :-D

    “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” befuddled me for many years, until one day I just told myself to stop thinking about it and stop being befuddled by it, cause that’s a very silly word, and it isn’t worth getting into a big kerfuffle over it.

    Do I have any clichés I struggle to eliminate? Or any that make me laugh? Well, although I think that we’re good blogging friends, Rachelle, I just don’t think that I’m ready to discuss my struggle to eliminate with you, and I’ll bet that you aren’t ready for that either. Am I right? Or just very, very, wrong for making that joke? I think it’s probably the latter, rather than the former, and that’s a phrase that seems like a major affectation, so I’ll stop using it, until I forget to remember to stop using it. “Old age is a shipwreck” – John F. Kennedy (could follow this with an awful joke, but I won’t.)

    But enough foolishness! Here are my three biggest goals as a writer:

    1. I want to be able to write a one sentence chapter in a book, and make it as inscrutable as William Faulkner’s “My mother is a fish” and be considered as great an author as Faulkner is.

    2. I want to write run on sentences that are longer than most paragraphs, and use the word “and” at least 7-10 times in my run on sentences like Ernest Hemingway frequently did, and attain Hemingway’s stature as an author, so I can then laugh derisively at my most annoying former English teachers, who spilled red ink all over my compositions like blood spurting from a stuck pig. “Hey Mrs. Colby! Bleed red ink all over this! Oh, but maybe you’d better not, cause I think you can get in trouble for defacing a literary classic in a public library… hahahahaha!!!”

    3. I want to be the next James Joyce, and write my own “Ulysses”; a book so filled with extremely abstract stream of consciousness writing, that it is all but incomprehensible to anyone who reads it. (except for the brief but very pornographic passages, which are graphically and unmistakably clear) And of course I want my version of “Ulysses” to be hailed by academia and the most renowned literary critics as a great literary classic.

    And then after achieving this lofty goal, I want to say in an interview with The New York Sunday Times, “Hey everybody! Except for the raunchy parts, my book doesn’t have any real meaning at all. I just wanted to see how much I could mess with your heads, and get away with it, and I did it! Pretty cool, huh?”

    Nah, scratch those three goals. Maybe I’ll just write interminably long blog post comments like this one, for the rest of my days – Or until my ISP shuts me down for nonpayment. Because it’s good to have realistic goals… LOL :-D

    • Hahaha! Struggle to eliminate…totally didn’t mean it that way, but that’s funny. I would like to achieve those same three goals as a writer! Great comment! Again :)

      • Thanks! And thanks even more, for putting up with me! Lol :-) Oh, I know you didn’t mean it that way at all, and I was just being a total wise ass about it, and you are very gracious to call my crude humor funny.

        Hey, I figure that if that way of writing made those guys famous writers, then why not you and me too?

        All joking aside, I’m not sure what they were thinking in my high school, when they gave us a book like Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” to read when we were only in our junior year, since I think it is challenging reading for college students. I was so bugged by reading it at the time, that after seeing that infamous one sentence chapter “My mother is a fish” I handed in an essay assignment on the book, in which I wrote only one sentence, which read “My father is a tadpole”

        But my English teacher failed to recognize my brilliance, and handed my work back to me, along with a stern warning to take my essay assignment seriously and do it over, or I’d get a failing grade for her class. Just no sense of humor at all in that woman! Lol

      • I think “My father is a tadpole,” is brilliant, and I can’t believe your English teacher didn’t recognize that! :) I tried to read, “As I Lay Dying,” recently and it was one that had to go back to the library before I finished it.

Okay, you talk now.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s