At the End of the Day . . .

When I was a graduate student, I had a professor in a creative writing workshop who would occasionally pick apart someone’s story in front of the entire class.  It wasn’t for the faint of heart.  But it was educational.  There were about fifteen of us in the class, aspiring writers all.  We would craft short stories, bring them to class, and share them with each other, critiquing our stories and writing comments in the margins.  For the most part, the professor,  a balding, bespectacled gent originally from London, served only as a moderator, facilitating the discussions and making sure the group stayed on topic.  But every now and then, he would decide to single out a particular story, and use it as an illustration of what not to do.

One day, he chose the topic of cliches.

cliches1

 

“You should never insert cliches in your story,” he said.  “It’s okay to use them in some dialogue.  People, after all, frequently speak in cliches.  But never use them in your narrative description.  Avoid them like the plague.”  (I admit, I nearly raised my hand here to tell him he’d just used a cliche to make his point on avoiding them, but, wisely, I just listened.)

cliches2

 

He then proceeded to eviscerate one young woman’s story, pointing out no less than half a dozen time-worn phrases in her ten-page piece.  I felt bad for her–brilliant as he was, this professor was not known for his tact.  Nevertheless, some of his lessons have stuck with me over the years, and whenever I edit one of my stories, I tend to keep an eye out for cliches.

I can’t guarantee that The Eye-Dancers is cliche-free.  Far from it!  But, with hope, there are very few cliches in the book.  In fact, if anyone can spot a cliche in the first three chapters, which are included on this website, please contact me, and I will send you a copy of the book for free!  Let’s call it The Eye-Dancers cliche challenge.

This gets me thinking about the entire creative process–from typing that first word, to sharing your work with others, to submitting it for publication.  It’s a challenging thing.  Looking out for cliches can sometimes take a backseat to the seemingly more important items on the writing list.

I mean, executing a story idea is no small feat.  It takes time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears.  Inspiration, after all, is 99% perspiration.  And coming up with a new twist for a story isn’t easy.  You have to push the envelope, think outside the box, and make sure you come up with an idea that hasn’t already jumped the shark.

Staring at a blank computer monitor, the cursor blinking, as if taunting you, can be intimidating, but trusting the creative process is essential.

blankscreen

 

The key is to type that first word and then keep going, keep working, and keep chopping wood.  If the idea takes flight, you will feel like a kid in a candy store–it’s almost too easy, too much fun!  Putting the pedal to the medal, you may speed right through the story, feeling like a champ.

But then you step back, inhale deeply, and take the time to read through what you’ve written during that whirlwind first-draft cyclone.  You may groan.  The rose-colored glasses are off now, and you see the results as clear as day.  The idea may have been worthwhile, the writing, in general, may even be passable.  But, being a first draft, the manuscript is littered with inconsistencies, poor sentence construction, the works.  The job of turning out a polished, completed story has only just begun.

snoopy

 

Knocking on wood, you hope you can start again at the top, put your nose to the grindstone, go the whole nine yards, and produce a top-notch piece of work.  There is still much to do, but it’s time to roll up the shirtsleeves, raise the bar, and shoot for the stars.  It’s easy at this stage to want to rush through the edits and just say the thing is done.  But patience is a virtue, and, if you’re planning on submitting the story for publication, well–you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Everything needs to be perfect, and you have to give 110%.

Finally, after a second and third, and fourth edit, the story is finished!  The problem?  You’ve read, reread, edited, and reedited the piece so many times, you’re bleary-eyed and tired of it.  You decide to set it aside for a day or two, then read it one last time before sending it out.

When you read it again three days later, you are satisfied–it’s ready.  It’s time to submit the story, sink or swim, do or die.  Who knows what the editor will think of it?  All you can do is send it off, and let the chips fall where they may.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

And then you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait . . . and finally, after five months, a postcard arrives in the mail.

“Dear Writer,” it reads.  “Thank you for sending us your work and giving us the opportunity to read it.  However, we regret to inform you that it does not suit our needs at this time.  Thank you again for thinking of us.  Happy writing!”

You read the note again.  It’s frustrating.  After all the work, all the revisions, you don’t even receive a personal response.  Dejected, you wonder why you bother, but then you realize–there are so many other outlets where you can submit your story.  There are other fish in the sea!  Rejuvinated, you send the story to five other places within the next couple of days.  After all, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!  Besides, rejection is as much a part of the writing life as, well, writing.  It’s par for the course.  Some of the magazines you’re submitting to inform that they do not want simultaneous submissions–but this doesn’t seem fair.  So you simultaneously submit anyway!  Living dangerously can be fun.  And you need to break a few eggs if want to make an omelet.

Meanwhile, as you wait to hear back from these five new outlets, you are working on a novel–a vast, multi-layered tome that will likely take months, maybe years, to complete.  And then the process will begin anew–perhaps querying agents, publishers, networking.  Maybe you will try the indie author route.  So many options!  Life is a bowl of cherries.

One day, months later, while working on chapter twenty-one, you receive an email from one of the magazines where you submitted your short story.

“Dear Writer,

“We regret to inform you . . .”

rejection

 

You sigh, print the email, and toss it into a rejection pile on the edge of your desk.  You toy with the idea of wallpapering your room with these slips.  Oh well.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.  The story is still under review elsewhere.  Maybe someone is considering publishing it.  You never know.  Your fortune can change in the blink of an eye.  And truth is stranger than fiction.

A week later, another rejection slip–snail-mail.  But this one has a handwritten note!  “Great prose.  Keep up the good work.”  A rejection never felt so good.  You pin the slip on the wall, and get back to the novel.  There are still a dozen chapters to write, and hundreds of pages to edit, watching out for, among other things, all those pesky cliches!

“The life of a writer,” you say with a smile.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

63 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. The Other Side of Ugly - To Whom it May Concern:
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 14:08:37

    At the end if the day it IS worth it! Thanks Mike for writing about the hardships and frustrations of being a writer looking to get published. Cliches … Sometimes they make the point. I think if they come naturally to the story we shouldn’t avoid them because someone said to. Just saying 😊 happy day friend.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 26, 2013 @ 14:19:10

      You’re right, Sheri–sometimes a cliche can work in a story. And knowing when to keep one in is very much a “feel” thing, as is often the case with writing. It is an art, after all, and not a science.:) So yes, in that respect, I agree–hard-and-fast rules like “never use a single cliche” are often too rigid. Always great to hear from you!

      Reply

  2. honeydidyouseethat?
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 15:04:24

    Love reading your mini lessons on writing. As for cliches, “Every thing is as clear as a bell!” Couldn’t resist.

    Reply

  3. Anne Chia
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 16:00:48

    Lovely read. Cliches are great sometimes, depending on the type of writing. Some fiction just isn’t write without one or two cliches 🙂

    Reply

  4. Christy Birmingham
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 16:37:45

    Knock on wood that I only use cliches sparingly 🙂 Lolllll!!!! I am happy to nominate you for The Very Inspiring Blogger Award today. Congrats 🙂 You can read the full details in my latest post: http://poeticparfait.com/2013/04/26/very-inspiring-blogger-award-and-smiles/

    Reply

  5. mlbk7
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 18:07:19

    Heartbreak. None of us likes to be told our baby is ugly. When you pour your heart and soul into it until its ready to be born. But sometimes it could be something real small. Timing, the editor, the title the name of a character something so minut can change the results and then submit it again to become a best seller. It happens, winning the prettiest baby contest….
    Great reading here as always. xo

    Reply

  6. Carol Wuenschell
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 18:13:21

    I had fun reading this. Thanks for brightening my day with all those cliches.

    Reply

  7. 2embracethelight
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 19:38:10

    Hi Mike
    Awesome writing advice. I am sure I have used some cliche’s. Now I shall be more in tune with that. So your writing professer is continuing to teach here. 99% persperation huh? What a smelly lesson! You always provide such insight.
    I appreciate that.
    Yisraela

    Reply

  8. merrildsmith
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 22:43:31

    I enjoyed reading this. It reminded me of the play, “Seminar,” which is very funny, about a former literary giant who critiques the work of four aspiring novelists in a weekly writing seminar. His comments are rather harsh. Did he target cliches? I don’t remember, but perhaps at the end of the day, that’s the burning question–although probably not. 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:15:31

      Writing seminars and workshops can be tough places! Some of the criticism is pretty pointed. But it helps to thicken the skin of writers, and whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger! (Even three days later, cliches are still on the brain.:)

      Reply

  9. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 23:13:48

    Ah yes. The rejection notice. The last time I moved into a house (nearly 40 years ago) I brought with me a box of rejection notices planning to wallpaper my painting studio with them. After a few years of procrastination I threw them out. I continued “writing” my stories in paint and clay.

    Reply

  10. Clare Gage
    Apr 26, 2013 @ 23:45:39

    Ah, cliches! A few years ago I wrote a paper for a writing class where I decided to argue for the cliche. I got an A and the instructor said it was the best paper she had ever read *shines finger nails* .. someone has to stand up for the cliche. And yes, I wrote the entire paper in cliches. Over the top? Yes 🙂

    Reply

  11. mummyshymz
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 00:49:56

    Lol. I shall print this out and use it as part of a lesson -“circle as many clichés in 1 minute”. Nice post!

    Reply

  12. Lyn
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 07:23:05

    Nothing wrong with clichés, they’re the spice of life; they’re what makes the world go around 🙂
    Another great post Mike. a vast, multi-layered tome that will likely take months, maybe years, to complete mine took me two years to write while working full time. Then it was edited, put in a drawer, edited some more, put in a drawer. Overall, it’s taken me almost six years. But now my editor says it’s done. Phew!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:21:22

      That’s great to hear, Lyn! It takes a lot of persistence to complete a long writing project. Congratulations! You went the whole nine yards! Sorry, there I go again.:)

      Reply

  13. skywanderer
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 07:53:27

    Wow – you can even create a fresh, original story from a sort of “cliché idea” (rejection notice and writer frustration).

    Very amusing, inspiring and superbly written story!

    Reply

    • skywanderer
      Apr 28, 2013 @ 05:39:52

      Mike: just an addition, to make this clear: I very much like this short story, too.

      Your writing is definitely the very opposite of clichés, in every sense. Very enjoyable and captivating style, rich in novelty and thought, and with a variety of topics that many can relate to.

      Reply

  14. mcwoman
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 12:00:30

    You are such a clever one — loved the post, Mike. Just one question — do you have a book of cliches? I find it very interesting to learn where these over-used phrases originated.

    Reply

  15. picturemereading
    Apr 27, 2013 @ 13:06:07

    This is a great post!

    Reply

  16. worldsbeforethedoor
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 10:33:19

    Haha!!! I was beginning to think you would write the whole post as one cliché after the other! Very nicely done. I know that I have to watch out for these little pesky bugs. They roll off the fingers just a bit too easily! Thanks for reminding us to go back and edit! Needs to be done!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 29, 2013 @ 16:26:11

      Always great to hear from you, Abby! And you’re right–cliches do have an annoying tendency to roll off the fingers. They tend to litter first drafts like, well, as you said it, pesky bugs!

      Reply

  17. redpeffer
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 18:44:27

    You’re so right, the art of rejection is so much easier to bear when couched in certain ways and conversely so hard to bear when dealt with dismissively. As ever, it’s down to the importance of ‘words, words, words’ (ironic that I’m quoting a verbose character, but there you go!)

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 29, 2013 @ 19:23:38

      Yes, there is nothing worse than the form letter! I understand why they send form letters–they are inundated with submissions, but it’s always a wonderful touch when they send even a very small personal response. Of course, it’s even better when they send an acceptance letter.:)

      Reply

  18. FreeRangeCow
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 19:07:08

    And herein we have a post that made me laugh and cry. The paragraph of nothing but clichés made me giggle. Then you follow up with the rejections. Sigh. And to get a rejection that leaves you hopeful seems like a horrible oxymoron! ;o)

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 29, 2013 @ 19:25:40

      Well, when I write something that makes someone both laugh and cry, I consider that one of the highest compliments! And, you know, all’s well that ends well! Sorry, there I go yet again! Always great to hear from you!

      Reply

  19. Charron's Chatter
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 19:52:26

    Top to bottom, side to side, I relate to e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g written herein. Yes, that one personalized rejection can have you bouncing with renewed creative drive (and most importantly, belief) and that masterpiece written–only to discover its oh-so-many flaws–just happened with my latest piece!! Three revisions later–and I am finding the gem hidden in the chaffe…

    Writing takes YOU–not athe other way around, and oh what beautiful captivity. 🙂 To me, words are codes I can re-imagine—sentences: math problems–always has been, and always will be. Maybe since Dad was a mathematician..hehe…

    Interesting as ever, you scribe you. 🙂

    Reply

  20. rockhouse54.wordpress.com
    Apr 29, 2013 @ 23:44:18

    excellent!

    Reply

  21. fortyoneteen
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 03:55:33

    Wait, wait, wait – are you telling me I have to avoid cliches AND the plague! I can’t possibly do two things at once! ha ha. Mike, I love this post, and it is so cool to read about your process. You know, coming from someone that just writes and sits on the work. Good on you for being so brave to get your wtuff out there, and to persist through the knock backs.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 30, 2013 @ 18:33:49

      Thank you–it’s always great hearing from you! And you know what they say–if you fall down, you have to pick yourself back up and keep trying! Is that another cliche??:)

      Reply

      • fortyoneteen
        May 01, 2013 @ 09:20:05

        What’s a couple of cliché’s between friends? Well, actions speak louder than words, so I am off to put the nose to the grindstone and write a cliché free piece… or not! All talk and no action really! Thanks for the chuckle Mike 😉

  22. becky6259
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 05:42:15

    Sounds like your professor was related to a few I had! Good post on the rewards of hanging in there!

    Reply

  23. redpeffer
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 06:55:10

    By the way, when I referred to a verbose character, I meant Polonius, not Hamlet! It could be said that Shakespeare mastered the art of cliche!!

    Reply

  24. Kim 24/7 in France
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 07:12:15

    Great post and got me wondering if I used any cliches in “Solitary Desire” – mais, oui, I’m sure one or two got by me 🙂

    Reply

  25. Nadyess
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 21:44:54

    Great post and I enjoyed reading it. Must be very difficult to avoid cliches in your stories especially when they are important to your story. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      May 01, 2013 @ 12:10:48

      Thanks! I always enjoy hearing from you! I think it’s next to impossible to completely avoid cliches in a first draft. The trick is–you have to catch them in the editing process . . .

      Reply

  26. Carrie Rubin
    May 01, 2013 @ 14:30:56

    Glad I was never in that professor’s class. Then again, I’ve had some doozies myself. Some people find that kind of teaching helpful, but I think there are better ways to analyze students’ works without making them feel terrible about themselves. And I’m not just referring to writing classes but any type of class. I don’t think I would have lasted a day in that guy’s class. 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      May 01, 2013 @ 16:03:14

      Hi Carrie! I agree–he was a brilliant guy, but really had no tact. He had a reputation, too, and I knew before I took his class what I was in for. All in all, it was a good class to be a part of, but I absolutely agree–there are much better ways to analyze and critique work.

      Reply

  27. Sue Dreamwalker
    May 03, 2013 @ 18:25:22

    Constructive criticism always better than someone who pulls our works to pieces… Its so easy to dash someone’s dreams and ideals with flippant remarks that cut deep…

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      May 03, 2013 @ 19:41:55

      Hi Sue! I couldn’t agree more. I enjoyed this class because I liked the workshop aspect, and sharing work with fellow students, and reading their work. And the professor was very insightful, and taught me a lot. But yes–he was tactless and often rude, and I only hope his criticism did not ruin some of the other students’ writing aspirations in that class . . .

      Reply

  28. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    May 04, 2013 @ 07:24:08

    Love that t-shirt – like the plague!!!

    This is a great article, really interesting – writer to writer. Great stuff, Mike.

    Reply

  29. reocochran
    May 20, 2013 @ 21:53:47

    Dear Mike, I am afraid the professor would probably “flunk” me! And I had straight A’s except for an occasional errant B! I use cliche’s to make a point and to reach the masses! I am not trying to be really deep in my retelling the love stories or relationship situations (mine or others’!) Thanks for checking me out so regularly and giving me a “like!” You are very prolific and interesting to read!

    Reply

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