Cliches, Tropes, and Overused Ideas, Oh My!

You know them, you hate them, you’ve used them. Just a few things to avoid to improve your writing and give you new ideas.

Overly Used Adverbs
I quickly and intelligently typed this creatively thought out blog and hurriedly posted it neatly on the nicely put together and beautifully designed web site.
Boy Meets Girl
Never heard that one before. Wait, yes, yes we have. In every chick flick and in books like those by Nicholas Sparks. This is a common idea and while entertaining, it is hard to do in a new and refreshing way. Find a new idea that can present a conflict and interest your audience. Just because everyone can relate to this does not mean it should be a go to topic.
Unrequited Love
Shakespeare’s been there and done that, as have many others. Don’t be one of them. This is an instant source of conflict so many turn to it as a story idea. I’d rather read a story about two people who are happily in love but have another great source of conflict. Be creative.
Feisty Female
Why so feisty? Many protagonists,not just female, are given strong and independent personalities. In life people are not always this way and it is important to give your characters realistic traits.
The Big Misunderstanding
It’s not what it looks like! Movies and tv shows are known for doing this more than books but it is still common. This is when the entire plot is changed by a misunderstanding or missed opportunity that can often be fixed easily. If the misunderstanding is so trivial it can be fixed with a phone call or text, find a deeper conflict.
Mean Girls
Girls are mean. No, they are not all blonde or cheerleaders, nor do they need to be in every story. This is common in teen fiction but the idea of the mean girl is seen frequently. There are frequently bad guys in stories but get creative with who yours are. Throw the story for a twist and make it someone no one expected.
Dead Parent
Parents do die. Perhaps not as frequently in life as in literature. Cinderella, Jane Eyre, and Wizard Of Oz are a few examples where the main characters parents are missing. This is an instant source of conflict or drama and can add depth to your story. It has been done many times though so you should possibly look for something new.

This is nowhere near all of the cliches that are seen frequently in literature. Here are some websites to give you a better idea of how not to use cliches, and a more comprehensive list of them:

Today’s Top News Stories

Child Becomes Youngest University Student, Throws Nut Into A Cup

LUANDA, ANGOLA—Although there has been much controversy with the diminished quality of the American education system, history was made in Luanda, Angola Thursday when 14-year-old Djimon Chumbra officially became the youngest student to be admitted to The University of Luanda, the country’s most prestigious and only university. Kandeh Bumkella spoke on behalf of the university’s acceptance committee when he explained that Chumbra passed the entrance exam with “flying colors” when she exemplified extraordinary skill at throwing a nut into a cup. She was also asked to take on the task of slitting a goat’s throat, releasing the blood into a gourd, and mixing it with the goat’s milk. Chumbra is looking forward to broadening her horizons and would like to someday be a successful accountant. Chumbra is excited about her first courses at The University of Luanda: An Introduction to Snare Building, The Fundamentals of Basket Weaving, Foods and Other Things That Look Nice But That You Will Never Get To Try, and Tactics of Avoiding Guerrilla Warfare 101.

Study Shows That Drinking Gasoline Will Not Prolong Life

CHICAGO—An official statement was released by Dr. Dimitri Nomochov Tuesday morning in Chicago in which he stated “we’re pretty much almost positive that gasoline has no benefit in prolonging human life and it’s probably not a great idea to drink it.” The statement follows after a period of ten years doing extensive research by Nomochov and his team at the American Institute of Experimental Research. Nomochov states that the team’s most recent experiment in which they paid several homeless Chicagoans to drink numerous cups of gasoline over a course of several days was the most revealing because several of the subjects became overcome with nausea and eventually unresponsive. When asked if they were one hundred percent certain of their find, Nomochov revealed that the team can no longer afford to carry on with the study since they spent most of their grant money on Mentos and Diet Coke.

Get Out of the Writing Rut: Writing Exercise

Have you ever wanted to write something, but as soon as you sit down inspiration simply will not come? Don’t fret. This is common for many writers, but to skip any future afternoons spent staring at the wall begging a muse to bestow you with a stroke of creative genius, I have included a writing exercise that I have used over the years to get out of a writing rut.

First, get four pieces of paper that are all different colors. If you do not have this take four different colored pens or markers and color the back of each sheet a different color.

Then take one of the sheets and cut it into four sections. On one section create a character including name and personality. On another section come up with a setting (a rural town in the middle of May, etc). On the third section write out a plot. On the final section write a specific mood you want the story to convey (happy, sad, mysterious, etc). Do this with the other three sheets, coming up with different characters, settings, plots, and moods each time.

Now take all the characters and put them in a hat, shoebox, anything that you can mix them up and choose one at random (No peeking!). Do this for the settings, plots, and moods, but be sure to put each section in a different box. Once you have chosen your four slips of paper make sure each piece of paper is a different color or has a different color dot.

You should have four story elements. Your challenge is to use these to come up with a story. Don’t be scared if they don’t make sense together, that’s the fun part.

Happy writing!

On cover letters

I’ve just read this article by Michael Nye, the editor of The Missouri Review, about writing cover letters to literary magazines. While we here at the Sequoya Review don’t read cover letters (since we are such a small staff and know all of you anyway, we do it blind), if you want to submit to almost any other magazine a cover letter is nigh-required.

Nye’s best advice is this: “Short and sweet is really the way to go here.” I tend to agree, whether you’re talking about your past publications, figuring out a subject line, mentioning a previous meeting with the staff, or whatever. Don’t talk about the submission—it’ll speak for itself, good or bad. It’s really pretty simple but apparently a lot of people overthink it, so don’t sweat! If your writing is good, it’ll get published. Simple as that.

On Throwing it into The Fire

Recently I was defeated. I spent a week and a half writing a story. It turned out to be junk. I spent three days trying to fix it, and ultimately came out defeated in the process.

Harry Crews, author of A Feast of Snakes, in an interview–you can watch the clip here:

–stated that he had burned half a novel. “I had taken a wrong turn,” he said. Crews says the amateur, or the coward, takes a wrong turn yet continues, because he or she doesn’t want to do that all over again. The artist, he says, takes the work and throws it into the fire, and does it all over again. I’m paraphrasing, slightly, but yes––how often do we try and take a story or poem we know is sorry and turn it into something, well, less bad? We take our joke amateur piece through about four workshops and by the end we’re left with a turd wrapped in gold aluminum foil.

I have a kind of nine circles of hell on my laptop for my writing. Three circles, really. The semi-occasional polished pieces go into a folder, very lamely titled Stories Turning Out Well. This folder is displayed on my desktop, in the buff before my eyes each day, to give me hope, I assume. Then there is the folder titled, simply, Stories. This is for junk I wrote when I first started, as well as writing exercises I’ve done on my own and in my various workshop classes. The third folder, which lies within the Stories folder, is also called Stories. Yes, it is not a very creative folder name, but consider it a testament to the lack of creativity of the work that gets tossed in there.

My new story is going into that folder. But I guess I’m no Harry Crews. I didn’t hit the delete button; I certainly didn’t burn it in a barrel behind my house like a madman, the way I picture Crews doing it. But as a young writer I like to hang onto my mistakes, so that maybe one day I can look back and read over the bad stuff, perhaps a way of gauging how far I’ve come.

And I guess my point is that young writers, or writers in general, must be willing to accept failure. If we can’t accept failure we’ll destroy our potential as artists.

I spent three days changing every damned sentence of a story that had no potential. After you do that kind of hasty editing, you come out with some creature of a very botched surgery job. Once I had exhausted myself, I couldn’t understand a line of my story. And failure, its liable to make you want to drink yourself to death. I felt the brief gust of melancholy when I realized it was hopeless. But a writing buddy had referred me in the past to the Harry Crews interview. I watched it again, and now the only thing on my mind is the next story.

So when you know its hopeless, just throw it into the fire, and think about the next story or poem. This may seem like a common bit of wisdom, but consider it a reminder. Watch the Crews video. Keep writing, dammit, and don’t be afraid to reject your own work. Because you’re better than that, right?

Aesthetic & form

Friends, the Sequoya Review is coming together again, earlier this year than any other. Usually, we are so busy in the spring, scrambling to get everything together–the pieces, the look and feel of the magazine, the website–that we have hardly any time to think about aesthetic as a concept. We have been forced, in the past, to sort of blindly grope around the subject of “good” work, using our intuition alone to guide us.

However, by moving the process to the fall we open up for ourselves a large swath of time. We are able to consider this concept of artfulness, and incorporate that into our selection process in a way never before possible. So, with this in mind, what is art? What are we to publish, as the Sequoya Review? I hope to answer this question, rudimentally and tentatively, now; moreover, I hope to spark some discussion in this matter, so that we can come to a better conclusion of who we are and what we publish. I hope that crowd-sourcing this endeavor may prove more fruitful than just laying down rules myself. My thoughts on the matter follow.

  1. The Sequoya Review is, first and foremost, a student publication. We provide a voice to the student population at UTC, fostering creativity here and giving it an outlet, holding up student work and showing it to the world at large, both academic and layman. This means we publish only work by those who are current students at UTC, however it does not mean that we should demand any less in the quality of the work; on the contrary, the students at this university have truly good work which deserves better than intellectual coddling.
  2. The Sequoya Review publishes good work. This is the crux of the matter: what is “good” work? Surely some definition is needed in order to proceed. Of course, with the different genres we publish it may seem difficult to give an across-the-board definition of aesthetic; but I believe that there are some qualities necessary to any work that we publish, and those are completeness and emotional truth. Of course, the work in question must be complete, which generally means some sort of tension and resolution. These are easier to delineate in what I will call the “timely” works, such as poetry, prose, and music, in which the piece unfolds before us through time as we read or listen to it; in visual art this is harder to do. However, if we look at a complete piece of art, it should have some element of tension within it (perhaps the creative process of the artist?) as well as a resolution (which, in the parenthetical case, would be the piece itself). In regards to what I’ve called emotional truth, I mean that quality of a complete piece that resonates with the viewer–that part of the author’s self that comes through in the recitation, reading or viewing of the piece itself. It is the connection that the producer makes through his art, the reaching-out into the world that causes others to recognize it as art. I feel that these two qualities cause a creative work, whether it be verbal, visual or aural in nature, to be what we call “good work.”

That’s a preliminary sketch of where we might be going as a magazine, but of course I can’t pilot this thing myself. We are a collective of students, and as we publish students we are also interested in what those we may publish have to say. So what do you think? What is “art”? What is “good”? Tell us in the comments.

‘Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately…’

Rejection. It is quite possibly the dirtiest word in the English language. The average human being will undergo some form of the R-word approximately 3,127 times over the course of their lifetime, according to made up statistics. For writers, the R-word becomes the reoccurring billboard on Career Highway, with ‘NO’ dressed up and posed in various attitudes in bad fluorescent lighting; ‘Your piece wasn’t the right fit’, ‘We appreciate you thinking of us, BUT…’, ‘We are unable to give you an offer at this time’, and sometimes “Both myself and my assistant are considering legal action against you for wasting our valuable time with your relentless tripe” (visit oddee.com’s “10 Funniest Rejection Letters” for more).

Any editor will tell you that it isn’t personal; they aren’t R-ing you as a person, they are just R-ing the way you choose to express your person. Just because you write boring science fiction doesn’t mean that you, yourself, are boring… or so they would have you believe. So how does the sensitive writer avoid the slings and arrows of the editor’s pen and make it into at least a ‘maybe’ pile? John Scalzi, the author of the blog post “Ten Things About Literary Rejection” says that “I read each story until it no longer works for me…Like pornography or a good melon, I know entertaining work when I see it.”
It’s nice to know there’s a process. John does, however, reference Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s article “Slushkiller”, which provides basic manuscript characteristics contributing to rejection. Number one on the list is that the author must be functionally literate…seems easy enough. Number eight is a bit more biting; “It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels”. And even if you can accomplish making your problems worth the read, you still might be rejected on the basis of number eleven, the publishing “…house isn’t going to get behind it”.

If the editing process is just as subjective as the art of writing, how is it possible to know what kind of writing will get published? How can you give everyone what they want and still keep something for yourself? As a currently unpublished writer, the author of this post doesn’t have the answers to these questions. You, the reader might be asking a question of your own; why is this person qualified to give me advice on becoming successful in this craft? The author of this post doesn’t have an answer for that question either. What the author does have is a guestimate , a shot in the dark, an angler fish in a deep sea trench; the successful writer is adept at drawing on personal observations and experiences in order to create a work that produces a sense of truth identifiable to the reader. It is absolutely personal. However, because writing is such a direct reflection of personal thoughts and ideas, the difficulty lies in being objective about one’s own work. Just as a mother is often the last to know she has an ugly baby, so it is with writers and their word babies.
Take this post for example. Were “reoccurring billboard on Career Highway” and the following personification really necessary? Was “angler fish in a deep sea trench” effective or clearly trying too hard? The author and perhaps one other reader might find these additions amusing, but readership doesn’t count if it’s only you and your mother. Part of being a successful writer is learning when something works and when it doesn’t and having the wherewithal to change it.

If you received a rejection letter in the past few weeks from the Sequoya Review, take heart. The literary staff members are by no means trained professionals; they are really just a band of ambitious writers elbowing for space on the page themselves. What they do have is a commitment to making this edition of The Sequoya Review the penultimate (or as close as they can get anyway). It is the absolute truth that the caliber of the submissions made for some knock down drag outs during the editing process. So instead of plotting your hateful revenge on the staff, take comfort in the fact that someone might have endured a wicked atomic wedgie in support for your piece.

Rejection is the name of the game. Everyone knows you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. A lesser writer might now include a message of hope in a few cleverly constructed anecdotes, like Gone With the Wind being rejected by twenty publishers, or an editor telling F. Scott Fitzgerald, “You’d have a decent book if you got rid that Gatsby character”, or maybe even Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team. However, this fledging writer is learning to work smarter, not harder, and that less is sometimes more. So instead, just this:
Keep writing.

Writing Exercise

For those of you who may be having problems with your writing, here’s a quick exercise to help out:

Pick up the book closest to you and turn to page 74.

Go to the second paragraph and pick out the first interesting word you see.

Do this now! (Before you keep reading.)

Now that you’ve made your decision, take your word of choice and make it the first word of a poem.

So, lets say your word is “auxiliary,” you might begin the exercise by writing something like, “Auxiliary efforts are fruitless. Crash the plane, close the cell-walls of your birthright, your veins.”

Continue reading

Dreaming of Prose: a Prompt

This week’s prose prompt asks you to pretend you are dreaming.  Write in detail about the dream you are having.  You can use stream-of-consciousness, or you can plan it out.  In this prompt, you can have a lucid dream where you direct the action and choose who, what, when, where, and how. How does the landscape look?  Who are the other characters in your dream?

Post what you come up with in the comments!

Cracking Open the Capsule: Prompts

This week we have two more prompts for all you aspiring writers. Read them, reread them, use them (they’re great on toast) and post your creative findings in the comments.

Underline a part in your writing that feels weak.  Instead of getting rid of it, write it at the top of a new page, probe it, crack it open.  What’s the image inside?  What treasures might be buried underneath?  Or put an equal sign next to a sentence or word that’s vague and clarify what you meant to say.

from Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard

If you were to assemble a time capsule of your entire life, what items would you select or make reference to?  Reflect on things you have done and events that have happened in your lifetime.  What would the time capsule look like?  Why did you choose the items that you chose? Where would you bury it?