Monday, June 20, 2011

Do Not Do This at Home - or Anywhere Else

Last week at the wifyr conference, I had the privilege of sitting at the feet of master teacher and author, Martine Leavitt – oh, all right, we sat in school desks – but I learned a million and one awesome writerly traits!

On day one, she asked a classmate to write these on the board:

Heart pounding
Throat constricting
Fists, teeth, stomach clenching
Widening eyes
All manner of breathing

Then she informed us: DO NOT USE THEM ANYMORE. Do not use variations, either.

To be honest, at that moment, I gulped and my heart pounded. My stomach may or may not have been clenching, but yup, I did the crazy breathing thing and my fingers were freezing. Why? Because I’m guilty. GUILTY. Guilty.

These words are now so cliché that every editor and agent in the country develops a brain tic when they read yet another one. If you don’t believe me, check out this recent blog by the fantabulous agent Mary Kole:

So what do we do with these *gasp* overused physical descriptions? In the words of Martine Leavitt, GET RID OF THEM. Just do it.

- And on the wise advice of Rebecca (see comment below), don't worry about this on your first draft. Hit it in the revision stage. -

You can only save one tear experience, either at the very beginning of your story, or at the very end of the climax. Otherwise the tears will mean nothing to the reader. Only use the above clichéd words if you can do it brilliantly - and just once in your entire manuscript.

Use your imagination to come up with alternate ways to show how your character is feeling. Read the best modern books to see how it’s being done.

I’d sigh, but that’s out. Instead I’m attacking my manuscript. Time to slash and burn, then use the other two thirds of my brain to recreate. This will be interesting . . .


  1. Thanks, Jonene, for sharing this bit of wisdom. I'd like to add a caution, though. Don't worry about this when you're drafting. This is something to fix down the road. Around draft nine. And don't fuss about it either. I personally dislike overly creative ways of describing emotion. It throws me out of the story. Tell me the character's heart is pounding and it works for me. It's as invisible and resonant as the good old word "said."

    Of course if I had my way I'd never describe ANY emotion in my prose. I'd prefer to let the reader react to the stimulus of the events of the story. Does a reporter at the scene of an accident need to ask the driver how they feel that their car is smashed up, their wife is dead, and their kids are being taken to the hospital?

    Wish I'd been at the workshop. I hope you really enjoyed it. I know my first time I was so nervous I laughed when they set out m&m's on the table because my heart was already going like I'd eaten a whole chocolate cake.

  2. Well said, Rebecca! We have enough of a comlex over the whole writing experience, that worrying about this first draft is a sure joy killer. I'm a little worried about the ninth draft too (of my last ms which I now need to go back into and kill these phrases.) Thanks for your wisdom!

  3. Great post, Jonene. This is something I need to work on. A lot. I'd sigh, too, but now I know it's illegal, and I certainly don't want the secret writing police to come and take me away to prison. I hear it's a bad, bad place where they force you to eat dog food and type out every emotional tag you've ever dreamed up 100 thousand times on a manual typewriter. Scary stuff. I'll just go delete all of them from my books right now. Sheesh. Hee hee.

  4. Leisha, I hope they never come and force you into the writing police. I bet you could scare them silly. (I'm remembering the jammed-finger-joints-from-the-manual-typewriter-days right now.)

  5. You know, no one's ever harped on me not to use those specific phrases. What I've had pounded into me, fwiw, is to never use ambiguous imagery ("her eyes dropped to the table" "she threw up her hands" "he rounded the corner and turned into a gas station") and never use cliches that no one does in real life (people very rarely gasp, you'll note). Where possible, use a simple simile that evokes the *exact* image or sensation you want. And @Rebecca, I agree, the way to get the reader to emote is to not emote for them. The moment the character realizes she's lost everything has *way* more impact than the moment she bursts into tears as a result. Note how often movies cut the scene right at that moment of realization, or alternately have the character do something understated, like sit down and stare off into space, rather than whip up tears and melodrama.

  6. Wow. When I first read that, I didn't know whether to believe your or not, but I must admit, they are cliche! Thanks for the heads up! :)

  7. Emily, it was a bit of a surprise, but now that I know, I see it everywhere. Martine Leavitt gave some examples of other ways and it's a whole new world. You're awesome - sharing your insight about the moment of realization having more impact than a melodramatic reaction!

    Madeline, I had the same reaction when I saw the list . . . and knew my submission was going to be read the next day and it had many of those phrases in it! Luckily the class was kind.

  8. @Jonene, oh, no, it's not a surprise that those phrases are overused and cliche, but I don't believe that they're automatic deal breakers if you use them sparingly or appropriately. I'd take that advice with a grain of salt, is what I'm saying. You've got one published author and one agent who say this. I know quite a few authors and agents and none of them are hung up on this. None of my Clarion West instructors made an issue of it, for example, nor did anyone in Critical Mass, which is one of the most exclusive and well published writers groups in speculative fiction. It's definitely worth being aware of cliches, but working too hard to purge them entirely can overwork your prose. Awareness is good, obsession is not.


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