One of the toughest things for any writer to do is to keep her or his work fresh. Though it is true for all writers, it seems especially true in the YA market, due to the fact that over the past few years, YA has absolutely taken off.
I recently saw Neil Gaiman speak in Vancouver where he answered questions from the audience. One of the questions was: What is the difference between writing children’s books and adult fiction? To which he replied jokingly that in Children’s books, “you can’t leave the boring bits in.”
The same is true for Young Adult fiction, and clichés are certainly boring.
Let me start with the definition of a cliché: In language, a cliché is a trite or hackneyed expression that has been used so often it has lost its originality and impact. In literature, it refers to a plot or character development that tramps familiar ground.
I took the subject of clichés up with several authors I know from various genres: Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and Contemporary YA. Here are some of the things they have to say about clichés and how to avoid them:
Q: What are some clichés in YA fiction?
“I love clichés, and I use them all the time. They are fun to play with, twist around and turn upside down. I love making the reader believe they know what’s going to happen right before an unexpected turn takes them off guard. But, I don’t love all cliches. An overused cliche in YA fiction, and one that drives me crazy is the “nice girl falls for the jerky guy” cliche. You see this in Twilight (although I LOVED the first Twilight book I must say), Fallen by Lauren Kate (the love interest actually flips her off the first time their eyes meet), and countless other YA novels.
Why do nice girls always have to fall for the jerky guys? What is that telling all of the young ladies out there? That jerky guys are worth their attention? That they should put up with crap? Sure, girls are drawn to the bad boys, but that doesn’t mean they should choose to be with them. There are a lot of nice guys out there, and you can’t discount them just because they don’t play hard to get.
In my YA sci fi book, Colonization, I turn this cliché on its head. Annie, the main character is drawn to a jerky guy in the beginning. But slowly throughout the course of the book, the nice guy wins her over. In the end she has to choose between them, and you’ll have to read the book to see what happens!”
Q: Are any clichés acceptable? If so, how?
“I think teens are even more aware than adults of how many clichés the adults around them fit, and teens themselves rail against those clichés. A teen’s ability to see the life clichés around them is interesting and can give insight into his or her inner monologue and thoughts on the future.”
“An editor friend once passed along some wise words. She said cliches are perfectly acceptable in dialog, because that’s how people talk all the time. We use cliches as a crutch and to save time. They’re short-cuts when we want someone to understand us. However, in other types of writing, we should avoid them at all costs. Unique twists are good, as are newly invented similes and metaphors.”
“I think our work will always include some things that could be considered cliché by different sects of people. There’s not always much we can do about that. I do, however, try to make a specific pass through my manuscript drafts with an eye for this. When I find something that sticks out to me as a cliché, I think it’s important to ask why it’s in there. Have I included a dark brooding stranger coming into town because I’ve seen it work in other books and movies? That’s probably not a good enough reason. But if I’ve included a red-headed best friend (also, from what I hear, a cliché) because she’ll be performing in a production of Anne of Green Gables within the novel and coming to terms with what she considers her personal flaws—well then that seems like a pretty good reason to keep her as a redheaded best friend. I definitely think this is something that should be looked at and evaluated on an individual basis. And sometimes I think it’s possible (and maybe even more effective) to make adjustments to a cliché situation or character so it’s not so stereotypical, without making huge changes to a manuscript.”
Q: How do you avoid clichés in your writing?
“Shouldn’t we salute clichés? Haven’t they evolved to give us comfort and security in our language? Conversationally, they’re like verbal shorthand letting us get ideas across with maximum efficiency. Should they be used in fiction? Only with the greatest skill.
To avoid verbal clichés, I listen hard to how people speak. I listen for words that are hollow and thoughtless. I relish expressions of substance and meaning. To be honest, my spoken language is hardly cliché-free and in writing I have to ruthlessly self-edit for unintended weasel words. Finally I do the bravest thing of all: I give my work to talented critique partners who don’t hesitate to identify any descent into the murky world of lazy language.
For me it’s easier to avoid them entirely, if I can.
The quest to avoid literary clichés is a lot more challenging. The primary way to escape this trap is to fall back on that most important part of a writer’s training: read widely and read lots. Read analytically.
To identify worn-out plots or characterizations, I subscribe to a number of editing and writing feeds. These help identify banal patterns that I may not have noticed myself. Occasionally I google ‘clichés in YA fiction.’ There are lots of opinions out there on this subject, But they are just opinions.
Like everything in writing, the harder I work at avoiding clichés, the easier it gets. Isn’t that a cliché though? But isn’t it true – so doesn’t it underscore why clichés persist?”
Q: What do you look for when you’re editing to get rid of clichés?
“When I first started writing, my work was littered with clichés. They were everywhere and I decided to fish or cut bait…wait, no…get the heck out of Dodge…love ’em or leave ’em…uh, hmm. Sorry, I had to have some fun with the topic!
What I meant to say is, that once I became aware of clichés in my writing, I stopped writing them. I have a short list of things I watch out for when I write— commonly used words, pitfalls of mine that I’ve previously identified, that sort of thing. When I’m done, I run the MS in parts, through Edit Minion.
Editminion.com is a free, on-line editing tool that will pick up clichés, along with the other items such as the dreaded adverbs, common misspellings, and frequently used words. You might also visit http://clichesite.com/ for a list of cliches. They help to weed out clichés. Naturally, I can’t catch everything, so thank goodness for editors and all that jazz. Hmm.”
I wanted to thank all my friends and fellow authors for taking the time to answer these questions. Because life is not without irony, as I pull this post together, I’m sitting in my living room listening to a crazy storm outside, the clichéd “dark and stormy night”. 🙂
I hope you found this post informative. I certainly did. I’d also love to hear from you about your experience of clichés. Do you love them? Hate ’em? Which ones have you read recently in YA fiction?
Or, if you have any questions of your own, or any advice for getting rid of clichés in your writing, I’d love to hear about those too!