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We’ve all seen it. The nick-of-time rescue. The bomb diffused with one second left. The suspect bolting when the cops show up, resulting in a parkour-style chase around the city. These, and many others, are standard tropes in film and television. Sadly, they and their ilk show up a lot in fiction writing as well. I’ve even poked fun at some of them before (“Attack of the Killer Clichés”, “Return of the Killer Clichés”).

It’s time for them to die. Really. NOW.

They used to have their place on (rare) occasion. But speaking as someone who watches a lot of streaming video while playing with string, I’m sick of seeing them EVERYWHERE. And, with the crush of indie publishing, fan fic, and writer’s “critique” sites, I’m seeing it more and more in fiction as well.

That’s just lazy writing, people.

Not that I haven’t done my fair share of tropes and stereotypes. Part of my reason for doing this piece is to remind myself of all the bad writing habits I have, and possibly figure out how to fix/avoid them. As opposed to just avoiding my writing all together…

 

Minion tea[4]

…and dark chocolate…

 

So, why do we have such tropes in the first place? One word: drama. We’re trying to up the drama quotient. For a story to be successful we need to have tension and consequences and challenges for our characters to wade through. If there’s no risk for the character(s), there’s no reward for the reader(s).

But there’s a bazillion ways to cause trouble for our characters. It’s time to get inventive. We writers are really evil geniuses channeling our Dr. No selves onto the page, so let loose your inner demons and give the world you’ve created something to REALLY worry about. And I don’t mean turning that bomb they’ll need to diffuse at the last second into a dirty bomb, or a bio-bomb. Been there, done that, played the video game.

No, if you need to blow shit up, do it metaphorically instead of literally. If your characters are well developed (see “It’s Made of People”), it should be easy to come up with stuff to throw in their way. What’s the worse possible thing (or person) that could happen to them? Why does it need to happen? How will it advance the story or the character’s development? Everything you do on the page needs to keep things moving forward, in some fashion, for the overall arc of your writing.

That doesn’t mean leaving out things that can add depth to the world you’re creating, though, just because it doesn’t directly affect what’s happening. Black-clad mercenaries are a dime-a-dozen. But mercenaries who collect butterflies and read Harry Potter are something else again. Now you have some depth you can dive into. Will any of that be pertinent to your story later? Maybe. Maybe not. Right now, though, it gives me-the-reader something interesting about your character I can latch on to. There’s more there than black leather and a gun. That could mean there’s more to your story than the usual revenge/redemption/killer rampage most mercenaries inhabit.

 

Dominatrix Minion

That’s not the kind of black leather I meant. Now I need the eye bleach…

 

But what if I REALLY want to blow something up?

Then blow it the fuck up. Make it spectacular. Make it a surprise. Make it heart-rending. Make it anything but the usual. I don’t want to see your hero rushing in at the last second, huffing about how the bomb squad won’t get there in time and is it the red wire or the blue wire as he bites through both with his teeth to save the day. I want to see him crushed by defeat because he DIDN’T get there in time. Or horrified because he didn’t know the bomb even existed. Or secretly elated because now he has the perfect excuse to go on a murderous rampage.

Okay, yeah, that’s another trope, too. Sorry.

The point is, do something DIFFERENT. If you’re finding yourself falling into the same old comfortable ruts for plot points and character development, get out. Pretend it’s Opposite Day and you’re playing a game of Calvinball. Be wicked. Be absurd. Be outrageous. Kill the hero, because he’s not really the hero, his female sidekick is – psych! Don’t kill anybody, because the bomb was really a dud! The bomb DOES go off, but the entire city is coated in glitter! Anything but the usual.

And how do you know if it’s the usual? Just ask yourself: have I seen/read/heard this before? If you have, how important is it to keep it “normal?” What happens if you do THIS instead? If the ticking time bomb is integral to your story, what are you doing around that to make your characters and story different?

 

minion-emergency-helpame

Read a book, they said. It’ll be fun, they said…

 

There are occasions when we depend on tropes and stereotypes as a kind of shorthand for the reader. It can make for less explanation/exposition, and allow us to get on with the real reason this story needs to be told. But we should never depend on them. The world is comforted by formula – the tried and true (see Hollywood) – but we writers need to constantly rail against the expected, the normal, the usual, and really dig into exploring our worlds to the fullest. Whatever your genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, we want the reader to be entertained, enthralled, surprised – not bored or disappointed. Give them predictable and they’ll give you the cold shoulder. Writing is lonely enough – we don’t need to chase off any readers in the process.

Turn the formulae on their heads. Find the peculiar, the wretched, the dangerous, and let us have it. Always challenge yourself. You’ll be a better writer, and I’ll have more cool things to read.

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I’ve been told I give good advice. I have a knack at separating my logical self from my emotional self and making solid judgments based just on the facts. That would be the scientist in me, I suppose. But it only seems to work when dealing with other people and their problems. When it comes to my own, well, you can just forget that whole logic thing.

It’s not like I don’t know what I need to be doing for my health and career. I just can’t seem to convince myself that it’s all that important. I understand on an intellectual level that my depression is behind that malaise, but most days my intellect is on standby while the raging force of “Meh. I’ll do it tomorrow.” runs rampant. It doesn’t help that in the last three years of actively trying to become a real paid fiction writer there has been nothing but a solid line of rejections. The depression loves that kind of shit.

That’s when I go look at my log of submissions. Yes, I keep a log. Don’t you? If not, how the hell do you keep track of where you’ve sent what? Even if it’s just sticky notes all over your workspace, you have to keep a record of what you’re doing. Otherwise you might submit something a second time to someone who’s already rejected it. I’ve already mentioned websites like AgentQuery and QueryTracker, which can help with both finding places to which you can submit, and with tracking those submissions. They are valuable resources I’ve visited on occasion myself. But, being the old-fashioned fuddy-duddy that I am, I keep my log on an Excel spreadsheet.

Looking over said log, I see that I’ve submitted queries for my novel to nine different agents, two of which requested additional pages before rejecting it. I’ve also sent it off to one grant program (rejected) and one publisher who had an open call (rejected, though it did end up in the final 10% before that fatal note), while it’s still pending with a second publisher. To view these numbers logically, one can see my submissions are only a drop in the bucket (see Literary Rejections for some real eye-openers). I follow several other writers and they routinely send out agent queries numbering in the double digits WEEKLY. Admittedly, most of them are doing literary fiction, not adult genre fiction, which seems to have a much smaller pool to drink from (though everybody seems to want Young Adult stuff in just about any genre. Thank you, Harry Potter and Twilight.). But the point my depression keeps nagging me about is, they’re working harder at it than I am.

My short stories haven’t faired any better. So far I’ve had four I’ve tried to sell. The most recent rejection did include a P.S. about how it had been a “difficult decision” to pass on that one, but stuff like that just reminds me how not good I am.

And there the beast has grabbed me again. I’m a lousy writer who’s too lazy to do what it takes to make it in the business. A closer inspection of my logs proves that, as there can be months between a rejection and the following submission. To make matters worse, I haven’t worked on any new short stories at all since July, despite having two started, and the latest novel hasn’t been touched since June. I really suck.

So when I give people advice like “keep pushing through,” “write everyday, no matter what,” and “one word is better than none,” I’m really just a lying hypocrite offering up empty platitudes because I want to be the good guy. There you go, readers – the truth of my parasitic existence.

I never intended for this blog to be a diary of my depression. It was started initially to force myself to write on a regular basis, to try and get into a groove and develop my skills as a writer. It then morphed into various rants, some occasional cool and fun things I wanted to share, and the rare but hopefully helpful writing tip. I wanted others to see what it was like to be middle-aged and trying a new career when the corporate world no longer wanted you. Maybe even show those others like me they weren’t alone. I suppose depression is part of that – I certainly have enough friends in the same boat with the same problems – but I don’t want it to be the defining thing about me, or this blog.

No, I want to be defined by my talent. I want to be successful, to have thousands of followers and a three book publishing deal and be invited to writing conferences because I’m just that damn cool. I want to be able to share with you my accomplishments, not my demons.

But then I realized maybe you need to see how hard it is for someone else, before you can really understand that it’s not just you. It just is.

By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

Stephen King, On Writing

And that’s why we have to keep pushing through.

 

© 2014   Cheri K. Endsley   All Rights Reserved.

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