Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules! (The Graveyard Book)

If you hang around writing blogs and craft books well enough, you'll start absorbing commonly held principles of good writing. Two common ones are:

1. Don't break point of view (POV). Headhopping is disorienting for the reader.
2. With each progressive scene, increase the stakes and the tension. If the novel still works without a particular scene, take it out.

Hmm, take a look at this scene from The Graveyard Book. There are four characters here -- the two children Scarlett and Bod, Jack who wants to kill them, and the mysterious Sleer monster.

[Scarlett] gulped. Her mouth was dry, but she took one shaky step forward. Her right arm, which had been twisted up to the small of her back, was now numb. . . .
IT HAS BEEN SO LONG, said the Sleer, but all Scarlett heard was a slithering noise, as if of enormous coils winding around the chamber.
But the man Jack heard. "You want to know your name, boy before I spill your blood on the stone?"
Bod felt the cold of the knife at his neck. And in that moment, Bod understood . . . .

Hmm. Sure looks like head hopping to me.

As you might guess, The Graveyard Book doesn't follow the second principle either. Rather than being a tightly knit plot with constantly increasing stakes and tension, the book is rather episodic in nature with each chapter narrating a different adventure. While the stories are loosely tied together at the end, you could almost certainly remove some of the chapters, and someone who hasn't read the book before wouldn't even notice.

Well then, aren't you folks happy to have found my blog? If it weren't for me pointing these slips out to you, you would have all thought Gaiman a good writer. Well, now we know better. I take back all the good things I said about his subtle narration style and characterization. Too bad the Newbury and Hugo committees didn't talk to me before giving him all those awards.

Um... right.

So what lesson do I actually draw from this? Well, it's kind of ironic to say on this blog, but writing is an art, not a science. Sure, there are rules of thumb, and I'm not disparaging them or the people who give or use them. In fact, I follow rules 1 and 2 pretty closely in my own writing -- it's harder to make mistakes that way. But it's nice to have a reminder that these rules are not gospel, and that it's possible to break them and still win every book award in 2009.

What are your thoughts on rules? Do you follow them? Break them? Wish you could break them but don't think you could pull it off?

Two Tips for Finding a Nonfiction Voice

Note: This post originated from a comment Max Atkinson recently left on my blog about finding a voice in nonfiction. Although this blog is about fiction writing, the issues he raised (level of formality in prose) applies to both fiction and nonfiction, so I invited him to expand on his comment for this guest post.

The recent post on ‘Voice finding techniques from Cathy Yardley’s book prompted me to enter a comment about my experience trying to find a voice when writing non-fiction, and I’m grateful for Livia’s suggestion that I should expand on the points with some actual examples.

By way of introduction, here's a slightly abbreviated version of what I said in my original comment:

1. As a former academic used to writing for learned journals in the social sciences, I was given a great tip from my agent after he'd read the first draft of my self-help book on public speaking and presentation (Lend Me Your Ears). I was, he said, writing too much in the third person and it would read more easily if I addressed the reader directly in the second person. So I went through the whole thing again changing it as he suggested - and was amazed how much more accessible it became.

2. I also decided to use many more elided forms that are so common in spoken, but not written, English than I'd ever done before when writing books and articles - 'wouldn't' for 'would not', 'it's' for 'it is', etc. This again made it 'sound' much less formal and stilted to the reader than when I'd used the full forms.’

The following example comes from an early chapter in the book where I wanted to translate some fairly technical material on turn-taking in conversation (originally derived from a paper published by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson in the journal Language in 1974) into prose that would be accessible to anyone. My aim was to explain why ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ are OK in conversation but awful in speeches, and why pauses cause trouble in conversation but are good practice in speeches and presentations.

Here’s what it would have read like if I'd continued writing in the third person and used full rather than elided forms of subjects and verbs:

One of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new conversational turn. The previous speaker has just finished, and it is now time for someone to come up with an immediate response. But the next speaker is not always quite ready, and needs a moment or two to think what to say. If he or she delays, it might create an embarrassing silence and give the wrong impression. So the obvious solution is to start immediately, even if it is only to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. The noise kills off the silence at a stroke, shows that the next speaker has started to reply and reassures others that he or she is not being difficult or impolite.’

And here’s how it was actually published in Lend Me Your Ears (pp. 48-49):

One of the commonest places for ums and ers is right at the start of a new conversational turn. The previous speaker has just finished, and it’s now time for someone to come up with an immediate response. But you’re not always quite ready, and need a moment or two to think what to say. If you delay, you might create an embarrassing silence and give the wrong impression. So the obvious solution is to start immediately, even if it’s only to say ‘er’ or ‘um’. The noise kills off the silence at a stroke, shows that you’ve started to reply and reassures others that you’re not being difficult or impolite.

I don’t claim to have completely cracked the problem of writing readable non-fiction, but I do think the changes made it more accessible than it would have been had I stayed with the first version. And that's why the emails, reviews and comments I've had from people saying that they found the book very readable has been more rewarding than they realise.

Max Atkinson is a communications researcher and consultant specializing in presentation and public speaking. You can see more excerpts from and purchase Max’s book Lend Me Your Ears here.

Seven Reasons Agents Stop Reading

I recently attended an event where agents talked about what makes them stop reading a manuscript. To find out the 7 tips I gleaned from that session, see my guest post on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog.

Also, my manuscript was critiqued at that same session. I wrote about agent feedback on my particular excerpt here.

Strong and Memorable Characterization in The Graveyard Book

I've officially developed a writer crush on Neil Gaiman. There's just so much good stuff in The Graveyard Book.

Last time, we talked about subtlety in narration. In this post, I'd like to focus on characterization. While Gaiman doesn't do anything incredibly new or unheard of in The Graveyard Book, I found his character descriptions to be effective for three reasons.

1. The descriptions are strong, either in emotion or word choice.
2. The descriptions are specific. This works two ways. First, he uses words with focused definitions. Also, the descriptions are specific in the sense that that they apply only to that character -- you can't easily transplant them to describe a similar character in a different book.
3. The descriptions are memorable and quotable.

Lets jump into examples. I'll focus on Silas, one of the main characters. We first encounter him shortly before the excerpt discussed in the post on narration. This is our first impression of him.

The man Jack was tall. This man [Silas] was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man's clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business -- and he did not like to be noticed -- were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked up at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.

Great use of comparison here to give us a strong impression of Silas's unsettling presence. Those who read the last post will remember that the man Jack just murdered a family in cold blood. If we now read that Silas is even darker and more disturbing than Jack, we pay attention.

Silas eventually becomes caretaker to Bod, the toddler whose family Jack killed. In this next example, Bod reflects on what Silas means to him.

Silas had brought Bod food, true, and left it in the crypt each night for him to eat, but this was, as far as Bod was concerned, the least of the things that Silas did for him. He gave advice, cool, sensible, and unfailingly correct; he knew more than the graveyard folk did, for his nightly excursions into the world outside meant that he was able to describe a world that was current, not hundreds of years out of date; he was unflappable and dependable, had been there every night of Bod's life . . . .. most of all, he made Bod feel safe.

This passage has more telling than showing, but again, look at the strength and specificity of the words. He doesn't just give good advice, he's "cool, sensible, and unfailingly correct." How dependable is he? He's been there "every night of Bod's life."

I especially like the last sentence of this next excerpt.

Bod shivered. He wanted to embrace his guardian, to hold him and tell him that he would never desert him, but the action was unthinkable. He could no more hug Silas than he could hold a moonbeam, not because his guardian was insubstantial, but because it would be wrong. There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas.

You could almost get the same meaning by saying that Silas is aloof and not physically affectionate, but it wouldn't quite have the same flavor and certainly would not be as memorable. It also wouldn't be as specific to Silas as a character. There are many people in the world who are unhuggable for various reasons. However, it is much harder to find people who you don't hug because it "would be wrong."

And finally, this is my favorite passage. In this scene, the living and the dead gather for a lively dance to celebrate a snowfall. Bod is caught up in the celebration and excitement.

Everyone, thought Bod, everyone is dancing! He thought it, and as soon as he thought it he realized that he was mistaken. In the shadows by the Old Town Hall, a man was standing, dressed all in black. He was not dancing. He was watching them. Bod wondered if it was longing that he saw on Silas's face, or sorrow, or something else, but his guardian's face was unreadable. He called out, "Silas!" hoping to make his guardian come to them, to join the dance, to have the fun they were having, but when he heard his name, Silas stepped back into the shadows and was lost to sight.

The emotion here is really powerful. For me, this was the moment that really connected me to Silas and made me respect and care about him.

Here's a writing exercise inspired by all this talk about characterization. Pick one of the characters in a work in progress, and write some sentences describing the characters, trying to strive for strong, specific, and memorable language. Feel free to share them in the comments. Or, if you can think of any memorable character descriptions from books you've read, please share them too!

Agent Feedback On My First Page -- More On Internal Observation and Point of View

Note:  Hello First Page Blogfest folks.  This link is out of date.  The newest version of my first page is here.

This is a teaser for my upcoming guest post on Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog. I recently attended the Writer Idol event at Boston Bookfest. In my guest post, I will summarize general tips that I learned from the event. In the meantime, since my manuscript was among those randomly chosen for critique, I thought I'd share the excerpt and the feedback I received.

This is how the event worked. An actress picked manuscripts at random and read the first 250 words out loud for the panel and the audience. If at any point a panelist felt he would stop reading, he raised his hand. The actress read until two or more panelists raised their hands, at which point the panel discussed the reasons they stopped, or in cases where the actress read to the end, they discussed what worked. Helene Atwan (Director of Beacon Press) and agents Esmond Harmsworth, Eve Bridburg, and Janet Silver (all from Zachary Shuster Harmsworth) served on the panel.

Lets jump straight to my excerpt. Savvy readers will notice that it's actually 253 words (I'm sneaky like that).

Maybe James wanted her dead. The thought didn't occur to Kyra until she was already coiled into a crouch, ready to spring off the narrow sixth floor ledge. She supposed it was a distant possibility, but she did not let the thought interrupt her jump. She was in no danger here.

Silently, the thief launched herself off the ledge, clearing a gap of three strides before softening her body for the landing. She alighted on the ledge of the next building and placed a hand on the wall to steady herself. For a second, she froze, her senses alert, looking to see if her movement had caused any disturbance. Her amber eyes scanned the buildings, but the night was as silent as it had been a moment ago. Six stories below her, the pathways were empty. Kyra relaxed. Tucking away a stray brown hair that had escaped its ponytail, she allowed herself the luxury of stopping to ponder her new theory.

She had already spent the last two days trying to figure out the aloof stranger's motives. It was not surprising that James had come to the Drunken Dog. Many did the same when looking for something the authorities would not approve of. It was his request that made him unusual. He wanted to hire a thief and was willing to pay. The amount he offered was carefully chosen – high enough to be tempting, but low enough that only someone confident in his ability to complete the task would attempt the job.

Well, first of all, none of the panelists raised their hands. That was a big relief because the vast majority of the excerpts had didn't make it to the end before two hands went up.

Now on to the feedback, which I'll do my best to reproduce here.

Eve Bridburg: Eve said she would keep reading.
Esmond Harmsworth: He would keep reading, but was wary of the "Allowed herself the luxury of pondering..." portion. Many of the excerpts they saw today were trapped in a character's head, which can be claustrophobic and distancing to the reader.
Helen Atwan: The jump was the most interesting part of the excerpt, although she agreed with Esmond on the "trapped in a character's head" point.
Janet Silver: Thought the excerpt was very cinematic, and had already cast Angelina Jolie as the main character. [I beg to differ on this one. Angelina Jolie is too buxom and flashy. I'd go with Natalie Portman.]
Eve Bridburg: She spoke again to play devil's advocate, saying she didn't mind the portion with the character's thoughts because it sets up the mystery for the reader. While she agreed with Esmond's general principle, she thought it was okay in this excerpt.

I later emailed Esmond to make sure I understood what he meant. He was kind enough to clarify that he has nothing against deep POV (where the reader sees everything from one character's point of view), but rather was warning against overly lengthy or obvious rumination inside a character's head, which can distance the reader rather than draw him closer.

Incidentally, Kim Davis of Kim's Craft Blog recently wrote about this in an excellent post on first person vs. third person.

Well, for one thing, the first person tends to solve a big problem that newer writers often have writing in the third person--namely, distance. Newer writers frequently have trouble backing off from their characters and seeing them from the outside, and so they tend to write exclusively "inside the head" of their main character. This is especially a problem, as I have noted, with autobiographical fiction where the writer identifies strongly with the main character. The effect, in third person, is that of looking from the outside, but looking only with laser-like focus at the inside of a single character. This creates a very claustrophobic feeling for the reader in the third person. If the writer switches to the first person, we are still inside the main character's head, but at least we are looking outward, at the fictional world, and the distance/claustrophobia problem is solved. This, by the way, is why you will note that many debut novels are written in the first person.

The entire post is quite good. I highly recommend reading the rest of it.

It's a delicate balance -- staying in a character's head but not getting trapped in there. How do you maintain that balance in your writing?

P.S. For the curious -- I decided to keep the passage as is for now, mainly because the camera zooms back out in the next paragraph. Actually, because I tend to write from movielike scenes in my head, my problem is more often that I forget to say what the character is thinking at all. But the suggestion is well taken, and I'll definitely be aware of that risk as I revise further.

Subtle Narration in the Graveyard Book

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There are several ways to present your story's universe to the reader. One way is to have an omniscient narrator tell the reader the details they need to know. This happens in the opening pages of The Hobbit, in which the narrator tells us everything about hobbits -- where they live, what they look like, what they eat, etc. (Although it's been a long time since I read The Hobbit. Correct me if I'm mistaken.)

Another approach is to reveal things in a less direct way. Neil Gaiman is a master of this technique.

Take the opening scene of The Graveyard Book. It begins at night with the man Jack, who has stabbed to death all the inhabitants of a house except one. The family toddler has managed to escape his crib and wander out of the house into a nearby graveyard, where some friendly ghosts hide him. The man Jack realizes the toddler has escaped and pursues him to the graveyard. He climbs the fence to look for the child, but he runs into a stranger who tells him he has to leave the graveyard. They have the following conversation.

[The stranger] selected one large key from the keyring, said "Follow me."
The man Jack walked behind the stranger. He took his knife from his pocket. "Are you the caretaker then?
"Am I? Certainly in a manner of speaking," said the stranger. They were walking towards the gates and, the man Jack was certain, away from the baby. But the caretaker had the keys. A knife in the dark, that was all it would take, and then he could search for the child all through the night, if he needed to.
He raised the knife.
"If there was a baby," said the stranger, without looking back, "it wouldn't have been here in the graveyard. Perhaps you were mistaken. It's unlikely that a child would have come in here after all. Much more likely that you heard a nightbird, and saw a cat. They declared this place an official nature reserve, you know, around the time of the last funeral. Now think carefully, and tell me you are certain that it was a child that you saw."
The man Jack thought.
The stranger unlocked the side gate. "A fox," he said. " They make the most uncommon noises. Not unlike a person crying. No, your visit to this graveyard was a mis-step, sir. Somewhere the child you seek awaits you, but he is not here." And he let the thought sit there, in the man Jack's head for a moment, before he opened the gate with a flourish. "Delighted to have made your acquaintance" . . . .
"Where are you going?" asked the man Jack.
"There are other gates than this," said the stranger. "My car is on the other side of the hill. Don't mind me. You don't even have to remember this conversation."
"No," said the man Jack, agreeably." "I don't." He remembered wandering up the hill, that what he had thought to be a child had turned out to be a fox, that a helpful caretaker had escorted him back out to the street. He slipped his knife into its inner sheath. "Well," he said. "Good night."

I'm more impressed here by what Gaimen didn't write than by what he did. If I were writing a scene like this, I would have been tempted to write a few lines like the following.

The man Jack hesitated, confused. What was he going to do with the knife again? He put it down and shook his head. He supposed it was a rather silly idea after all that the child would be in the graveyard...


Well, thankfully, Neil Gaiman is not me, and we instead get this deliciously subtle passage -- the type of passage that makes the reader go, "Wait, did he just do what I think he did?" A few pages later, he finally slips in a confirmation, almost as an afterthought. The following passage is from a conversation between Siilas (the stranger) and a ghost.

"You are a wise woman," said Silas. "I see why they speak so highly of you." He couldn't push the minds of the dead as he could the living, but he could use all the tools of flattery and persuasion he possessed, for the dead are not immune to either.

In other parts of the book, Gaiman is even less direct. For example, he drops many hints about the true nature of Silas's character, but he never really comes out and says it. For me, this was really fun as reader because it allowed me to be an active participant in exploring the world Gaiman created. It wasn't just handed to me on a plate -- I actually had to pay attention.

So what are you thoughts? Is your writing style subtle or straightforward? What style do you prefer to read?

First Person Present Tense With Multiple Narrators?

Anonymous 11/10/09 asked the following question in response to Blue: First Person Present Tense at its Best:

Hopefully this is not a ridiculous question: is it acceptable to write in FPP [first person, present tense narration] through multiple characters? To rotate the narration through the experiences of different characters throughout the story?

Yes, that's certainly acceptable, although there would be challenges. You'd probably want to write the voices with different styles to differentiate them. But this seems like a good question for my readers. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of multiple first person, present tense narrators? Can you suggest any books that do this?

Voice Finding Techniques from Cathy Yardley

It was great to hear everybody's opinions on genre and cliche. As promised, this next post is less philosophical and more practical. My favorite chapter from Cathy Yardley's Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel concerned voice -- that unique aspect of your writing style that differentiates your writing from others. It's sometimes hard to figure out what your voice is, and I liked Yardley's ideas for identifying it.

1. Analyze Your Writing Yourself Yardley suggests going through your writing and highlighting anything that grabs your attention. Do your characters have witty and quotable conversations? Does your narration use colorful or realistic descriptions? Do you tend to write in formal or colloquial language? Once you have things highlighted, you can look for trends. "That's going to be your voice,your best selling point.", says Yardly. "That's what you should be emphsaizing in query letters, synopses, and in your novels themselves."

2. Get Volunteers to Analyze Your Writing For You If you have trouble with part 1, try getting a group of people who enjoy your genre and have them do the same thing. You can get a group of writers and have a voice finding party! Interestingly, Yardley emphasizes that this is not a critique session. All feedback should be positive and encouraging.

3. Tape Yourself Talking Make use of modern technology and record yourself telling a story. Then go back and analyze what you hear. What kind of words do you use? How much exaggeration vs. straight out description? Do you make the listener feel peaceful and comfortable, or do you get her all riled up?

4. Priming Your Voice If you want a particular flavor in your writing, Yardley also recommends priming your voice by reading something that will influence your writing style. Recent guest blogger Peta Anderson once told me that she uses this technique. Before she works on her current work-in-progress, which has a teenage boy narrator, she reads other fiction with teenage male protagonists. Actually, Peta has a great series on her own blog on finding your voice. Go check it out!

Have you identified your voice? What makes your writing uniquely yours?

Writing Lessons from Gossip Girl

Note: Those who hang around my blog know that I like to take examples from published stories and extract writing tips. My critique buddy Amitha Knight does the same, but with TV shows. She is the author of today's guest post. Check out Amitha's blog Monkey Poop for more TV related writing tips and publishing news.

It's no secret that I love Gossip Girl. Even if you don't, you have to concede that it is a very successful show.

Here are some tips on crafting characters I've come up with from Gossip Girl:

#1 No one is perfect

Don't be afraid to have your main character make mistakes. The bigger the mistake the better. On Gossip Girl, everyone's favorite Love-to-Hate character Blair isn't the only one who messes things up for everyone else. Remember Dan's affair with a teacher? Yikes. And what about when Vanessa lied to her friends so she could be the head speaker at an important event?

#2 Bad things happen to good characters without fail

As a writer, I am often afraid to let bad things happen to my characters, but isn't that how we capture an audience? If nothing scary ever happened, how could we ever relate?

Ex: Jenny quits school to pursue her dream of being a fashion designer, but things do not work out, and she ends up practically homeless. Another example: Serena is pretty and popular, but her fame often gets in the way of her friendships and relationships and often leads her down the wrong path (drinking too much, meeting people who want to take advantage of her, etc.).

#3 Likable main characters don't have to like each other

Chuck and Dan don't have to get along for us to like them. In fact, it's fun watching them argue with each other and realizing that they can both be right and both be wrong at the same time. This happens in real life all the time. Personality conflicts can make enemies of good people. Likewise, people who start off as best friends don't have to stay that way...

#4 People change, but not completely

Blair has grown from the first season--she is more trusting of others and has more self-confidence--yet she is still as conniving and manipulative as ever. She just feels bad about it more now than she did before. If Blair ever stops doing despicable things, I'm pretty sure I'll stop watching the show.

#5 They look great and (more importantly) even the "poor" characters wear great clothes you could never afford

Okay, not so sure how to turn this into a writing tip. Anyone?

But not every episode of Gossip Girl is perfect. Episodes that fail for me often contain one of two things (and hopefully not both):

#1 Plotlines designed to shock and as a result feel forced (kind of like this poster)

Ex: Big news! Serena killed someone and is keeping it a secret from everyone. And when the whole secret comes out we learn…oh wait. it was on accident and not really her fault. Lame.

#2 Poorly disguised rehashing of plots

Ex: In previous seasons, Dan realizes over and over again that he has changed as a result of knowing rich people (yawn). This season, Vanessa realizes she has changed as a result of going to a private college with rich people (oh please!).

This second sounds like obvious advice but, take a look at your work and you'll be surprised. I've had to delete several chapters once I've realized how similar the plotlines were to another story I had written (sometimes even within the same book). Those of you working on series have to worry more about this than other since you have to be really careful that the cool thing you pulled on your character in book 1 doesn't get pulled again in book 3 (or 5 or 7).

Any Gossip Girl fans out there? Have you learned any valuable writing tips from watching this show?

Images from CW and anatomyofamuse

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Genre, writing, and cliche, oh my!

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.

-Stuart Greenman

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?