Paratropers: the special forces of literature
It’s amazing how many clichés one can fit into a single paragraph.
Clichés are the bane of every writer. It’s hard to avoid them; after all, they are clichés, familiar and comfortable, poised to slip through our fingers onto the page when our guard is down. They’re like poltergeists, invisible and sure to come back to haunt us.
How do we avoid them sneaking past the gate to the starting stall? A good editor is invaluable of course, though for me the problem with an editor is a bit like the problem of having a house cleaner: you want to make sure that the house isn’t untidy when they arrive. It’d be embarrassing for the cleaner to see how much of a mess you allow your house to become. Likewise, I hate the thought of my editor seeing my manuscripts in a mess, littered with cobwebby adverbs, untidy adjectives and yesterday’s unwashed thoughts still piled by the sink. That means trying to vacuum up all the clichés before the editor knocks at the door.
Some writers rely on their own careful editing and re-editing, picking over every expression, every description, every word. A good writer needs patience, a good eye and the ability to stay awake during the tedious slog of proof-reading. Even punctuation, which I sometimes think is becoming an arcane art, doesn’t escape scrutiny. Everything is suspect, everything is important. As Oscar Wilde once confessed,
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”
Now, you may feel that Wilde’s poetry would have been better with more punctuation and fewer words and I’d be hard-pressed not to agree with you – but that’s a different issue. The point is that editing one’s own work is laborious, dangerous and futile. It’s hard to get the distance one needs to do a good job. And a writer also has to have the knack of being able to read something they might have lived with a long time (as Madeline Miller did with her Orange Prize-winning novel, Song of Achilles; it took her 10 years to write. Few relationships last long without the ennui of familiarity setting in.)
One technique is to pretend that they’re not clichés, but tropes. It’s hard to pull off, but it might work. We’ve managed to make a pretty good job of masquerading many things trite and even downright stupid as ironical. You can’t use clichés and pass off their usage as being ironical, though. That’s so last year, apparently.
Novelist Ian McEwan has admitted that he has a couple of trusted friends to whom he gives his manuscripts for a first reading. The treacherous rocks of clichés and over-used phrases are marked with ‘FLF‘ – ‘flickering log fire‘, McEwan’s working euphemism for a cliché. I rather like the idea of having trusted friends who can be relied on not to spare the horses as they ride roughshod over one’s manuscript. I must get out more and find a friend or two who might fit the bill. Try as I might not to write them in the first place, they occasionally slip past me and I need my own literary SAS to root out clichés, hackneyed tropes and tired expressions. My very own paratropers, so to speak.
To make it all the more difficult, sometimes what appears to be a cliché might not actually be one. Let’s take a simple example, which is by no means uncommon these days (it would hardly be a cliché if it was): a description of clouds moving across the sky. Where clouds once might have floated or drifted across the sky, they now ‘scud’ (even clichés are subject to the long fingers of fashion). Recently, I came across it in Hilary Matel’s Bring Up the Bodies (which, by the way, deserves all the praise heaped on it):
‘Sometime before noon, clouds scudded in from the west …’
I must confess, this jarred with me when I read it; Mantel’s prose usually has the elegance and strength of a double-helix and this seemed well, trite and clichéd. Then I read on:
‘… and rain fell in big scented drops; but the sun re-emerged with a scorching heat, and now the sky is so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.’
In the context of the whole passage it’s beautiful, the cliché evaporating like the scudding clouds. You realise it’s not really the clouds scudding here; it’s the courtiers around Henry, and the last part of the sentence – brilliantly simple – gently insinuates into our minds the clever Cromwell, the ever-aware counsellor with a tinge of intemperate cynicism.
It’s not always so easy spotting the clichés, then. Which makes it even harder to find someone you trust who can spot the weeds without wanting to pull out the hollyhocks as well.
Some clichés, of course, should be forgotten just because they don’t work, at least for me. I’ve never been able to read the description of a dark-eyes, dark-haired young man with six-pack abs and a glabrous chest without picturing Tony Curtis in Spartacus (who, admittedly, didn’t sport the six-pack; more a couple of slabs of Philadelphia cheese). Perhaps it was also that there was actually a character called Glabrus in the film (Marcus Publius Glabrus, possessor of a very fortunate ‘L’ in his middle name, without which he might have been mistaken for a Roman trend-setter) but I can’t help but think that the word was coined just for Mr Curtis and it should rest in peace with him.
Clichés aren’t restricted to just turns of phrases; there are clichés of plot, character and even emotional responses. (I’m never completely sure where the line between convention and cliché lies in such stories.) Some writers of formulaic stories deliberately utilise these and would be horrified at the devastation an eager paratroper could wreak on the essential conventions agreed between writer and reader. And although an editor with different sensibilities is required for such books, one is still essential. There are such things as clichéd clichés, misplaced clichés and even unsympathetic clichés.
Finding someone else to root out those nasty bits you don’t want in the finished book has another advantage. While they are poring over your manuscript being cruel to be kind with their unkind cuts, you can light the flickering log fire, pour a glass of wine, pull up a comfy chair and curl up with a good book.
And smile smugly at all the clichés you spot.