Black as Ink

A phrase in the book I’m reading slapped me in the face. It wasn’t a literal slap, of course, but the phrase was so incongruous that it took me out of the story as surely as a slap would have done. What was this brutal simile? It wasn’t anything special, to be honest. In fact, it’s so common as to seem almost invisible, but I noticed it.

As black as ink.

That’s it. Not a big deal, right? And yet, when was the last time you saw pure black ink? For me, it was decades ago, when I bought some calligraphy supplies with the thought of learning how to do fancy lettering. That ink truly was black, totally opaque, without a hint of light or any other color. Even back then, black wasn’t the only ink available for calligraphic needs, or any needs. My mother used a fountain pen for many years, and that ink was blue. When I was in school, perhaps middle-school age, cartridge pens were all the rage, and I used the peacock ink. Such a gorgeous color! And not black.

Nowadays any ink we see is generally in ballpoint pens, and although black used to be the prevalent color, blue now seems to be preferred for official documents, which is odd to me. Doesn’t blue tend to fade into the “blue nowhere” of computer screens? And yet, any bank document or other official paper I’ve had to sign recently required a blue signature.

I once had a multitude of pens with bright non-black colors. I just checked my ballpoint pen stash, and I have a red ink pen as well as a green one, though the green is dried up. So, since I tossed it out, I guess I can’t count green among ink colors. Nor can I count purple, though once I had a ballpoint pen with that color ink that I used up.

There are still a lot of pens around with black ink, though none of those inks are truly black. Some are charcoal, some are rather translucent with a tinge of blue or red, others are a muddy black, and some are licorice color (which is a very, very dark brown unless one is talking about red licorice).

Some printers do use ink instead of toner, and again, there are more colors available — and necessary — than black. My printer uses cyan, magenta, and yellow, which along with the black, can create just about any shade or hue of any color.

If the book had kept my interest, this rather inoffensive though clichéd simile would have passed unnoticed, so that’s two strikes against the author — ill-chosen words and a less than compelling story.

I’m just glad that people who read my books are kinder than I am, and refrain from pointing out my own literary faux pas. I do try to remove anything I would not like to see in a book, but some phrases are so common as to be invisible — such as “black as ink” — so who knows what cringeworthy phrases are buried in all my rhetoric.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God

The Powers That Be

In almost every book I read lately, the author mentions, at least once, “the powers that be.” The expression irritates me because . . . well, because it’s irritating. It’s a cliché, and like so many clichés, it’s too general. If “the powers that be” refer to the people who decide what is allowed or acceptable in a group or organization or government, then in any given situation, the powers that be are different. For example, if the author is referring to the board in charge of a homeowner’s association, then those powers that be are completely different from those governing a country.

So to use the phrase “the powers that be” is not just a cliché, but it’s also pure laziness on the author’s part. If “the powers that be” in a book are important enough to be mentioned in such a haphazard way, then they are important enough to be mentioned more specifically, by occupation if nothing else.

Sometimes the author puts those words in a character’s mouth, which is even worse because truly, no one ever uses that phrase in everyday conversation. They say, “the cops” or “the governor” or the “president’ or they mention the person by name or title.

I took time out of from this diatribe to see where the phrase came from, and it’s an old one. Many centuries-old phrases come from Shakespeare or the bible, and this one is no different. Do you care to hazard a guess before I tell you?

If you guessed the bible, you’re right. The first time the phrase showed up in print was in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament: “Let every soul submit himself unto the authority of the higher powers. There is no power but of God. The powers that be, are ordained of God.”

The King James version is: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: The powers that be are ordained of God.” (Romans 13:1)

It seems to me the common literary usage has come to mean something, if not completely different, then a sideways skew, because in no usage I’ve ever read do “the powers that be” have anything to do with getting their authority from God. Generally, they are given their power by other (secular) powers that be or they take upon themselves whatever power they have.

Another phrase I frequently come across in books are “the authorities,” which basically means the same thing — that the author is too lazy to figure out who those authorities are. I have to confess, I think I might have used “the authorities” once for that very reason: I didn’t know who my particular authorities would be, so I copped out.

Now that I got that off my chest, I can go back to reading the book, though I imagine I will still grit my teeth whenever I come across either “the authorities” or “the powers that be” just as I grit my teeth and bear it whenever I come across authorities or powers that be in real life.

***

What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

Click here to buy Bob, The Right Hand of God

A Store Walking Down the Street

I recently came across this sentence in a novel: “It was the kind of store I loved to see walking down the street when I was a kid.” Whoooo. I’d like to see any kind of store walking down the street!

I was thinking about that particular gaffe while I was walking down the street today. I happened to see something that made me realize the sentence wasn’t totally ludicrous — a house rolling passed me. Okay, it was being towed, but still, it was moving along the street instead of being securely attached to a foundation.

Something else I saw: a henpecked rooster. Not a pretty sight! That poor thing was pecked raw by the hens. I will never again use the word henpecked, though to be honest, I’m not sure I ever did.

Many words outlive their usefulness and become meaningless clichés, such as pitch black. Does anyone today even know what pitch is? I had to look it up. It’s a black, sticky substance from the distillation of tar. What about hair the color of a raven’s wing. Have you ever seen a raven’s wing up close? Perhaps you saw a crow. I don’t know enough about birds to tell the difference, but I do know that comparing hair to a crow’s wing doesn’t portray the same poetic image. And why are writers still referring to the squeals of stuck pigs? Some clichés are of more recent standing, such as a stuffed briefcase. If you saw someone with a briefcase, how would you know how full it was?

Clichés, poorly constructed sentences, and unnecessary bits of exposition should be eliminated during the editing process. Today’s Daughter Am I blog tour stop includes a segment of Daughter Am I that remained in the book up until a week before publication. It’s not a bad excerpt, but it added nothing except a bit more history to a novel that already had a lot of history.

You can see the segment here: Dead Darling from Daughter Am I.

DAIClick here to buy Daughter Am I from Second Wind Publishing, LLC. 

Click here to buy Daughter Am I from Amazon.

Click here to download 30% of Daughter Am I free from Smashwords.

Click here to read the first chapter of Daughter Am I.

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The Proverbial Cliché

The only writer worse than one who falls back on clichés is one who prefaces the cliché with “proverbial.” That construct has been used so often it has become a cliché in itself. Even worse, it draws attention to the writer. It says that the writer is too lazy to come up with something original, but he or she knows it’s a cliché, so it’s okay.

No, it’s not okay. I admit that sometimes only a cliché will work, like the tip of the iceberg; it’s almost impossible to come up with another metaphor for something that is mostly unseen with only a bit showing. But if you are going to use a cliché, use it proudly. Don’t hide behind the mealy-mouthed “proverbial.”

In the past few months, I’ve come across:

The proverbial iceberg
The proverbial whipped puppy
Capture the proverbial brass ring
Out like the proverbial light
Bite the proverbial bullet
Kick the proverbial bucket
Shining like the proverbial beacon
Deer in the proverbial headlights
Proverbial duck to water
Wither on the proverbial vine
Needle in the proverbial haystack
Sleep like the proverbial top
The proverbial red herring
The proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan
The proverbial proverb

Okay, so I didn’t see the last one, but at the rate authors are tossing “proverbial” our way, it’s only a matter of time.

Note: all of these proverbial clichés were found in books by brand name writers. Another example of don’t do as they do.

Diatribing Show-n-Tell — My opinion on writing

Karl C. Klein, today’s guest blogger and the author of Unnatural Girl, soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, has consented to show and tell his views on writing:

I’m new to writing. I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. I’ve not been writing since before I born, having grabbed the doctor’s pen soon after sliding into the world, scribing some Hemingway-ese prose on my swaddling blanket.

I’m a newbie, a neophyte, a rookie, a babe, a novitiate, a novice, newcomer, fledgling, tenderfoot and a greenhorn.

I’m wet behind the ears.

I’ve been reading many critiques over the past couple years to the point where my teeth want to turn around in my head and eat my brain. (Normally I say “until my eyes bleed,” but since I’m going to climb all over cliches, I thought I’d use something fresh).

If we feel the need to suggest that someone not ‘tell’ but rather ‘show’ his or her story, he or she is not to have clue what we’re talking about. (Remember, I’m a neophyte, an outsider who doesn’t know the jargon.)

“Critics too often forget they’re supposed to help, not hurt.” Lewis Black, from his book.

“Show not tell” has become a cliche, something else a writer should avoid. On some critiques, I can see the critic with her chin raised, slashing at the air like swatting flies.

I have never in any of my critiques used the expressing in any way: “show not tell,” or in any form.

I think the writer, when told something like this, should ask: “Why?” and get a better answer than: “Agents and Publishers say so.” We can and should ask why if we don’t understand and we should demand an answer.

Here’s my general advice to writers seeking their voice (when we begin writing, that’s what we do in a long, painful process — we seek our voice, which is not to be mistaken with the generic voice ‘agents and publishers’ would like to mold their writers)

This applies to third person, but much to first person, too.

Let me get this out of the way:

Don’t preach — ever. If you want to make some spiritual, religious or social point, write an essay. It’s fine for your characters to have a point of view, but keep it real. (Which is not to say the story shouldn’t make a point — even my parabolic stories look like the message is incidental).

(here’s the show and tell in a way that’s easily understood):

Let your characters tell the story. In third person, I don’t want to hear nothing from the narrator. No opinions and no hyperbole. Nothing will set my teeth on edge quicker than in 3rd person the narrator stating: “She was beautiful!”

I think in the million and a half words I’ve committed to manuscript, I’ve used ten exclamations marks. Again, ‘showing.’

If you unfurl your scene clear and sharp, the characters should show the reader everything the reader needs to know without ‘stage direction’ (telling) or what I call “movie scripting.”

I say it this way: Have faith in your reader.

1) Don’t preach
2) Let the characters tell the story
3) Have faith in the reader
4) Avoid movie scripting
5) Avoid wordiness
6) Don’t default (assuming stereotypes as universal concepts)

Telling:
John walked into the room, approached the table, greeted Sally and sat on the chair. Sally greeted him back and asked if he’d had breakfast. John wasn’t one for breakfast, but knew it was polite to accept something offered. He told her no. She asked if he wanted eggs.

Better:
“Hi, Sally.” John dropped to the chair.
“Good morning. Had breakfast?”
“Nope.”
“Eggs?”
“Love ’em?”
“How do you like them?”
“Hell, I like ’em fine!.”

There’s a best kept secret rule in writing:.

Only one point-OH-view per paragraph. If you keep this rule in mind, you can cut out 96% of your ‘saids, asks, questioned,’ etc. Why do you wish to do that? I’m glad you asked.

If you look at the dialog above, you that see no ‘saids’ are needed. The quotes indicate direct speech and the way I laid this out, it’s obvious who’s saying what. Said’s would merely be wordy and get in the way. When reading, MOST people skip them anyway.

next line:

Sally got up from her chair.

“from her chair” is wordy. We can have faith in the reader to know she was sitting on a chair.

Sally stood.

When I do a critique, if I find the writing heavy with movie scripting, I’ll copy-n-paste a few paragraphs and mark in red what I find wrong, then rewrite the section, explaining each suggestion and why I feel it makes the writing better.

Needless to say, I invest a great deal of time in my critiques.

Good writers work in groups. Great writers work alone.

Why Should I Read Your Novel? Why Should You Read Mine?

Why should I read your novel? Why should anyone? Only you know the answer to that, and you tell us by the story you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create, the themes you choose to develop.

We read not so much to escape our lives but to add meaning, understanding, and depth to our days. If we find nothing but the same old stories told in the same old ways, we come away from the experience intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. If the characters don’t change in a fundamental way, if they don’t struggle with an idea bigger than they are, we don’t change either.

Too often when I finish reading a book, I wonder why I bothered. The story is stale, the characters undeveloped, the stakes trivial, the theme banal. This is particularly true of books written by prolific authors. After three or four books, they plagiarize themselves, using the same basic characters and plots they did before. Perhaps their first book was fresh, with something new to say, but that something becomes stale with each succeeding book.

Not being a published writer myself, I don’t know how to keep that from happening, especially in today’s book market where an author is expected to churn out a clone every year. And new writers are being steered into that same pattern. We’re told to write in the genre we read because obviously we like the genre and because we are familiar with its conventions. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps we should write in a genre we don’t read so we don’t keep perpetuating clichés. We might unwittingly rehash old stories in the unfamiliar genre, but there is greater chance of saying something new.

My current work-in-progress is developing into an allegorical apocalyptic novel, which is bizarre because I don’t read that particular type of book; I don’t even know if that is a type. What isn’t bizarre, though, is all I am learning by writing in an unfamiliar genre. I may very well be writing a clichéd story — I have no way of knowing — but at least I am coming to it from my own unique viewpoint, not the distilled vision of all the authors who have gone before. And I am learning more about writing from this novel than any of my previous ones because I have to pull what comes next out of the creative ether, not from my memory of the stories I have previously read.

Without a mystery at its core as in my previous works, I have to search for other ways of adding tension to the story such as the inner conflicts that beset my hero. How much freedom is he willing to give up for security? How much security is he willing to give up for security? How much of freedom and security are illusory? And I am becoming cognizant of theme, symbols, and other mythic elements as ways of unifying disparate parts of the story.

So why should you read my book when it’s completed? Because, if I do it right, it will be an entertaining way for you come to terms with one of the major dilemmas facing us today, and it will take you into the life of a character whose conflicts and choices will help make sense of your own life.

At least, that’s the way story is supposed to work.

Stories, Cliches, and Finding the Truth

We are steeped in story. From birth to death, story forms our lives. For some people — writers, quasi-hermits, employees of the publishing, movie, and television industries — story is their life. More stories are available to us in more media than ever before in history, including the stories we share with each other and ourselves. What is a daydream if not a story of the future we tell ourselves? And at night, while sleeping, our dreams tell us other stories. No wonder we have such a hard time finding a story that is not clichéd.

But they do exist. In fact, anyone can write a non-clichéd story if he or she does the work to find the truth of the story, but all too often writers with nothing to say look to books and movies for the truth and end up with rehashed forgeries.

Stories of pattern killers (serial killers by another name) became clichéd very quickly. How many times have we heard or read that same bit about the killer being a white male between the ages of . . . Never mind. You probably know it better than I do. Because so many writers borrowed their truths from previous stories about pattern killers, the only thing new they had to add was the grisly murder pattern, each one more gruesome than the last. The way to tell a non-clichéd serial killer story is to find the truth: in a bizarre sort of way, a pattern killer story is romance between the killer and the hunter. Their relationship forms the story, not the murders. And, on a deeper level, it is the story of the hunter finding the killer within himself. Thomas Harris portrayed this brilliantly in The Red Dragon, but when he wrote Hannibal, he chose grisliness over truth. You may not agree with me about the truth of the pattern killer story, but that is my truth. It is up to you to find your own truth.

So how do we do we find the truth for our stories, not just pattern killer stories? By going small, by knowing everything possible about our characters, the streets they walk, the way they think, the places and people that make up their world. David Morrell traveled to get the feel of his settings, and he took survival courses to find out what his characters would experience in wild, but not all of us have the time, money, or inclination to travel to distant places or to take physically taxing courses. Nor is it necessary. We can find the truth in our own neighborhoods. We can walk the streets and take note of everything we see. How do those streets differ from any other we have traveled? By being true to character and place, we find the small bits of action that tell the story’s truth. We are used to thinking of action scenes as car chases, fights, and other horrifying events, but an action scene can be as subtle as a look or a touch of a hand. That is where the truth lies, in the unexpected details.

A story, when set in a particular place with a particular character, will have a truth that no other story has. If we have the patience and skill to find the story’s truth, our truth, we can tell it without reducing it to cliché.

A Classic Catch 18

Agents, editors, and fellow authors keep telling us unpublished writers we need to be better than published writers to get noticed, so any debut novel that is published should be spectacular. Not so.

I just finished reading Alafair Burke’s first novel, and I was unimpressed. The words were strung together in a readable manner, but it was filled with clichés and generic characters, something you and I could never get away with. But then you and I are not the offspring of well-known authors. (She is the daughter of James Lee Burke.)

Perhaps she and her editor have not read enough fiction to realize that her characters were typical of those in the lawyer mystery genre, but there is no excuse for her use of cliches. Within a couple of chapters I found: “keep your nose clean,” “nip it in the bud,” “a hundred and ten percent,” “hot and steamy sex,” “keep the eye on the ball,” “going down in flames,” “get her ducks in a row,” and “cut and dried.” Uninspiring, to say the least.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe there really are no editors any more. Maybe all that counts is who we are and who we know, not how we write. I wonder if, in today’s market, a book like Catch 22 would ever get published. I don’t know what the editor saw in it, but it must have had some spark that inflamed her into cutting apart the manuscript sentence by sentence and reassembling it into its present form. The title certainly didn’t capture her attention. Originally called Catch 18, she changed it to Catch 22 because Leon Uris had come out with his book Mila 18, and she wanted Joseph Heller’s book to be different.

I know I keep attacking the system’s lack of editorship, but I lose out twice — once as a reader and once as a potential published writer. I always thought one of the benefits of finally getting accepted by a publisher was being able to work with an editor, but it seems as if that is a rare occurrence. And the consensus regarding my works is that they need a good line-editing.

So the problem is that I need to be a good enough self-editor to get the attention of an editor, but the only way I can do that is to have an editor help me.

Sounds like a classic catch 18 to me.

On Writing: Coeds with Intestinal Fortitude Eating Veggies

Coed is a term that was born in the nineteen thirties when women enrolled in previously all-male colleges, and it is a term that should have died there. Writers today are careful about not using other sexist terms, but coed is still prevalent. Short for coeducational student, it is demeaning when used as a term for a college woman. It says that men are students, and women merely co-students.

Writers who do not fall into that trap often fall into another, calling a man/woman team, such as police partners, a coed team. Unless it refers to education, it is meaningless. When applied to unisex restrooms, coed might be appropriate, but then, as adults, what can we learn about the opposite sex in a restroom that we don’t already know?

So, do your writing a favor, and can the coed.

Intestinal fortitude is another term that ties my guts into knots. I suppose with all the indigestible food that we eat nowadays, intestinal fortitude could refer to the digestion process and the garbage that goes in one end and the crap that comes out the other, but any other application is ridiculous.

So use plain old fortitude or have the guts to say guts, and leave the overly cute and clichéd intestinal fortitude in the toilet where it belongs.

And don’t get me started on veggies. I will merely say that kiddies might need to be coaxed to eat veggies, but we are adults, and we should eat vegetables and write vegetables.