At one point, I considered writing a Chick Lit novel about an plucky MIT neuroscience grad student looking for love in all the wrong places. That idea died pretty quickly, but not before I read Cathy Yardley's Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel.
In my next post, I'll share some tips from the book that I found helpful. For this post, however, I have a question which requires some background.
Chicklit observation #1: All aspects of writing are important to Chick Lit, but Yardley emphasizes two in particular: voice, and characters. Strong chick lit novels are almost always character driven and have a distinctive writing style.
Chicklit observation #2: Yardley also provides an amusing list of cliches to avoid, including: urban location, glam industries, the simply marvelous gay friend, the evil boss, the cheating lover, dates with Mr. Wrong, simultaneous confidence-stripping life disasters, name brand fashion, witty banter (often in a coffee shop), and pop culture.
Random observation #1: A large proportion of the cliches in observation #2 (oh look, they're bolded!) relate to the aspects of writing from observation #1 --- quirky characters, situations to prime a character for development, or a chance to show off a distinctive and witty voice.
So here's my question: Coincidence ... or not?
Let me explain. All genres emphasize their own sets of writing technique. Fantasy and Sci Fi can't exist without world building and strangeness. A successful thriller needs its tight plotting.
At the same time, all genres have their cliches, as illustrated quite beautifully by the winner of the fantasy portion of Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest.
A quest is not to be undertaken lightly--or at all!--pondered Hlothgar of the Western Boglands, son of Glothar, nephew of Garthol, known far and wide as Skull Dunker, as he wielded his chesty stallion through the ever-darkening Thlargwood, beyond which, if he survived its horrors and if the royal spittle reader spoke true, his destiny awaited--all this though his years numbered but fourteen.
So do is it the case that the aspects of writing that define a genre also give rise to the majority of its cliches? Is fantasy predominantly plagued by "been there, done that" worlds? Are second rate thrillers certain to make use of cheesy cliffhanger devices?
One could even make up a story about how it happens. As a genre develops, writers and readers absorb the characteristics that define a genre and emphasize it. But for that very reason, these defining characteristics get worked and reworked until they turn into cliches. If that's true, then it would get progressively harder and harder to write fresh fiction as a genre becomes established.
I keep going back and forth between "Duh, that's true by definition" and "Nah, fantasy books have character and voice cliches just as often as worldbuilding cliches." What do you think, dear readers? And perhaps more importantly, how does a genre writer maintain freshness and creativity in their fiction?
I love chick lit and have thought about writing one, but every time I try, it turns into a cliche-riddled crap fest by page 2.ReplyDelete
When reading chick lit (and I've read a lot--both good and bad) I've noticed that the books that stand out read less as romance novels and more as stories about a woman's relationship with her friends and family (and herself of course).
I think cliches are generated as people remember elements of classic genre books they have loved (ex: Bridget Jones's Diary for chick lit, LOTR for fantasy) and re-use them when going to write their own novels. Voice and character cliches can happen in any type of fiction. For example: just before our last critique group, Peta and I were talking about the excess of children's novels featuring a main characters who love to write/love big words/want to become a writer. In adult novels I've seen a lot of (award-winning) novels within the last five years about a man who grows up in a bad family situation, says a lot of bad words, and thinks constantly about sleeping with women who don't want to sleep with him.
And world-building occurs in all books, not just fantasy, and as such cliches are inevitable in non-fantasy books as well. I'm drawing a blank for an example right now but I know I've seen it in "regular" fiction.
I wonder whether the cliche-ridden nature of most writing is due to an understandable wish to write books like those one likes to read (whoa... rough sentence, but I'm not editing it). There's only one person who could have written Bridget Jones' Diary the way it was, and that's Helen Fielding. There's only one person who could have written Metamorphosis, and that's Franz Kafka. I can emulate my favorite authors, but that likely won't produce anything new and interesting.ReplyDelete
What I can do, however, is tell stories that only I know. There's only ever been one of me. But the beauty of it is that my experiences, while unique, are also common to most other people. That's the point of contact in fiction, no?
I think my point (I had one, I swear) is that most writers could find wonderful resources of freshness and creativity if they'd only look to their own lives and experiences for them, instead of to their favorite books.
> If that's true, then it would get progressively harder and harder to write fresh fiction as a genre becomes established.ReplyDelete
Nail, head, bam.
At least, that's how I see it. As you say, genres ARE genres exactly because books that fit the genre fit some pattern of readily identifiable tropes.
And familiarity breeds contempt.
When the genre is new--say, vampire books--it was easy to be fresh. (Not necessarily easy to be _good_, but easy to be _fresh_ anyway.) Anne Rice was out there breaking new ground. I imagine it was hard for her to find an agent/publisher who was willing to say "Hm. Main character is soulless bloodsucking demon. Yeah, let's give that a try." But once she did, she set in motion a whole new sub-genre that has led us now all the way into the *yawn* Twilight.
Twilight may be entertaining, sure, but is it fresh? It's hard to imagine how it possibly could be, now that we've had Anne Rice around for a few decades now, now that we've had Buffy (the movie) and Buffy (7 years worth of TV episodes) and Angel (5 more seasons of must-watch TV) and Christopher Moore's "Bloodsucking Fiends" and "You Suck," and who can even keep track of what all else.
Sci-fi had its heyday after notions of space and science became mainstream when Sputnik freaked out the western world. But then after a while it was all weird aliens and robots and rocketships and started to feel done to death. The genre dwindled noticeably down from that heyday until Sterling came in and invented cyberpunk, giving Sci-fi new life by introducing to it a whole new set of tropes. That is, he broadened the pattern of readily identifiable tropes that constitutes Sci-fi. If he hadn't done that, I don't know that Sci-fi would have lasted as well as it has. (Although to be fair, other writers have helped, too, Neal Stephenson perhaps chief among them.)
So yeah. Genres get old. They get worn and tired. This is why they say "don't write for the market" because by the time your slick vampire book is written, edited, agented, and sold, the genre may well have gotten old. People may well have gotten tired of it.
Any genre is doomed to die (except, perhaps, Romance but that seems to have other neurogical factors in play that you might want to blog about sometime), unless a clever writer can come along to re-define or broaden that genre's definition.
Which, of course, is a pretty tall order for someone writing in a well established genre. So yeah, it's hard to stay fresh.
I agree with Jason (above) and you when you write, "As a genre develops, writers and readers absorb the characteristics that define a genre and emphasize it. But for that very reason, these defining characteristics get worked and reworked until they turn into cliches. If that's true, then it would get progressively harder and harder to write fresh fiction as a genre becomes established."ReplyDelete
I think genre characteristics, though, present a bit of a double-edged sword. Yes, the fabulous gay friend is cliché for chick lit, and yet some of the best chick it novels I can think of exploit that gay friend and make me want one of my own (as if finding a fabulous gay friend is like finding a pair of fabulous shoes). If authors write it well, I have no problems with, say, witty banter in coffee shops. It's when writers don't have a solid grasp on their genre and style that adding in genre-related clichés becomes painful.
And I think we could argue that no story is truly fresh. Take love stories, for instance. People argue that Shakespeare wasn't even fresh with his ideas, and Shakespearian love themes are still rather popular. Young love doomed from the start? Check. Two lovers, each from a different place in society? Check. Messy love triangles? Complicated paths to true love? Love that takes time to develop because first impressions were deceiving? Check, check, and check. Should we be overly concerned with being fresh? Maybe not. Maybe we should instead be more concerned with letting a story organically develop--even if it means your main character has a cheating lover.
In the end, I think I'd rather read a well-written cliché than a poorly written fresh concept.
> In the end, I think I'd rather read a well-written cliché than a poorly written fresh concept.ReplyDelete
True. The irony, though, is that you don't get the choice. The fresh concept is REQUIRED to be well written in order to overcome the industry bias against anything they don't know how to market.
So if it's kind of chick-lit, but not really because of X-Y-Z new thing, and it's not really mainstream because it's too much about characters than plot or whatever--in short, if they can't readily pigeon-hole it--then it had better be hella good or there's no way it's ever going to get published.
At least, not through a traditional publisher.
And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Fresh concepts SHOULD be well written. Otherwise, what a waste!
A quest is not to be undertaken lightly--or at all!--pondered Hlothgar of the Western Boglands, son of Glothar, nephew of Garthol, known far and wide as Skull Dunker, as he wielded his chesty stallion through the ever-darkening Thlargwood, beyond which, if he survived its horrors and if the royal spittle reader spoke true, his destiny awaited--all this though his years numbered but fourteen.ReplyDelete
This is the most staggering genius I have ever read.