Friday, March 13, 2009

Keep Your Salad Fresh

During the first draft of a novel, the writing can sometimes be pretty ordinary. We are intent on getting the story on paper and we write what we are familiar with. The challenge is to freshen everything up in the second draft. Here are just a few pointers that haven't been covered here in a while:

AVOID clichés and shop-worn phrases.

I recently edited a book and the author wanted to keep all the clichés, defending her stance with the fact that people use clichés all the time. She didn’t seem to understand that that is the main reason a good author avoids them. Give the reader something fresh and original. Another author tried to justify her clichés by pointing out how many books get published that have them. My response was that that doesn’t make it okay.

How many times have you read something like: Her heels clicked across the hard tile of the floor? That is okay writing, but it could be stronger. Here is an example I just read: “Her exit was a castanet solo of stiletto heels.” (From Gone, by Jonathan Kellerman.)

It’s possible that Kellerman wrote it that way in the first draft, but I doubt it. Gems like that come in the second and third drafts when an author scrutinizes every word and every phrase to see if he can come up with a stronger one.

LOOK for ways to go against type or what is expected, and be careful about stereotyping characters: The black drug dealer, the Italian mobster, the Irish drunk, the lazy Hispanic.

In a mystery series I'm working on that features two women homicide detectives in Dallas, I purposely developed the white woman with a seedy background and the black woman from a middle class family.

TURN vague words or phrases into specific details that add life to the work. EXAMPLE:

"She danced to the beat of the music" is pretty ordinary and vague.

"Her entire body moved in soft, undulating waves matching the rhythmic bass pulse in Al Stewart’s TIME PASSAGES." Much stronger.

So, look at some of the sentences in your current WIP and see where you can freshen up your salad.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. I love the idea of purposefully putting the white woman in the problematic childhood. It is SO true that tossing those stereotypes on their head really adds some fresh air. Great advice, as usual.


  2. Thanks for all the suggestions. They come in handy now that I'm working on my first revision of my first novel. Love your examples on how to make cliches more interesting.

  3. I really enjoyed this post, Maryann. You offered some fantastic tips and strategies for keeping that word salad fresh! I think sometimes I expect those glistening gems to come out in the first draft, but you're "write!" The first draft is for getting the idea out and on paper. Looking forward to your next post here at the Blood Red Pencil!

    Jenny Bean'

  4. I think I gag every time I see a cliche. However, they do tend to creep into my writing occasionally and then I feel awful.

    I too need to remember that things often sound better after revisions. Sometimes I get discouraged during first drafts when my words seem plain and dull. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Thanks for all the kind words about my post. I am happy that folks are finding the suggestions helpful. A writing instructor once suggested starting a cliche, then turning it on it's head. Sort of what Lauri said.

    Maybe next time I will play with how to freshen up specific cliches. Might be fun to have input from you all, too.

  6. Great post! I sometimes get lazy or don't even realize I'm overlooking an opportunity to pop a phrase into something powerful.

    Thank you!


  7. Good advice, Maryann. Your examples really help to show what you're saying.

  8. Excellent advice, and love Kellerman's twist on the old "heels clicking across the floor" thing. The only time I allow cliche is in occasional dialogue when it specifically defines the character or the time in which the story is set. Otherwise, when I'm editing these go over as well as a lead balloon. ;)


  9. I think you are right about cliches, but some of the examples of "what to do instead" seemed to almost border on over-writing. I guess it's kind of a balancing act.

    ACK!'s kind of like ballet dancing on a high-wire in the middle of a windstorm?


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