Thursday, April 12, 2012

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone? Part 2, How and Why to Avoid Clichés

As poetic as the muses may be, I’m afraid that there is no more cliché moment in literature than invoking the muse at the beginning of an epic poem: “Sing, oh, ye muse!” And writers should avoid cliché diction like athletes in training should shun cheese fries and chocolate chip cookie sundaes. Cliché language is the very opposite of what Muse Power brings to our writing, which is the spark of the unexpected but true.
When I’m editing my own writing, I try to do one reading of my work where I’m not thinking about anything except purging cliché diction. I’m not looking at the overall success of the structure, the characters of the story, the arc of the emotion or plot—I’m just marking every cliché expression. How do you spot cliché language in your work? Ask yourself if you’ve ever, even once, read this image, description, or phrase before. If you have, or even if you suspect you have, it’s probably cliché and already overly familiar to the reader.
Why is that a bad thing? Because it doesn’t really register the emotion or image you’re trying to get those words to carry. If you write to your beloved, “My heart burns with desire for you,” it conveys anything but passion, since it seems as though you’re just repeating someone else’s words.
So what do you do when you spot cliché language? View it as an opportunity to go back to the emotion or scene that moved you to put it into words. Re-experience it the way you did the first time. Gather the image or scene deep in your imagination and then live it and describe it again. Instead of “My heart burns with desire,” go back to the source—write “It scares me how beautiful you are,” or something that really gets to that edgy emotion that pushed you to write in the first place. Or take the language you used and bend, twist, stretch, compress, rip, mince, or sauté it. Bring the words back to life.
A thesaurus is often not useful in this regard. A thesaurus is only going to take you to a word on the same level as the one you chose. You want to take your language up to the next level when you are trying to edit out cliché expressions.

In my next blog, I’ll return to the subject of the muse to discuss how that idea can liberate writers to tap into the fountain of inspiration. 

Other recent posts about writing topics:
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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