Tuesday, March 9, 2010

This. Is. So. Cliche.

One thing I try to avoid when I'm writing is the use of current figures of speech. Not only slang, but also constructions like the title of this post. I know people tend to blog the way they talk in real life (I do, and you can see now why I have so few friends), but for me at least there's a difference between the way I speak and the way I write on teh internets and the way I write prose fiction. A lot of it has to do with the fact that my fictions tend to be based in the past, but when I write short stories, most of them are about action in the current time. Even then, I try to scrupulously avoid modern cliches and slang.

For one thing, slang seems to go out of date pretty quickly. A great deal of "the new smalltalk" (as Henry Higgins calls it) is disseminated through our culture via television shows, and those come and go rapidly enough. Though I do wish "shiny" for "cool" from Firefly had caught on at large. Alas. I digress, though. Slang and au courant constructions date books, and I think that means that they don't age well. Even a fairly well respected book like Kerouac's "Subterraneans," while still kind of shiny, is also embarrassingly doofy in the use of slang, cats and kittens.

But I know that a lot of fiction is written for immediate consumption and the shelf life is not projected into the coming decades for future generations. A lot of stuff is written to be consumed and discarded and replaced by new stuff next year or next season or next fall, and so slang or neologisms that will date books don't really matter, just as 100 years from now nobody will care that the way hippies talked on "Dragnet" is ridiculous. I mean, it was foolish and inaccurate then, but it gets increasingly hysterical as the years pass, and nobody can take Joe Friday seriously either. Again, I digress. It's early, I've had no coffee and I'm getting a cold, so be kind.

In the fiction I write, I will use slang from those time periods, but it's pretty much set dressing and clearly for characterizations. I'm still not sure how I feel about that (it might just be a gimmick, in which case I know where the "delete" key is to be found on my keyboard). But I know that I won't have one of my characters say, "Just. Stop. That. Right. Now." because that's a construction I expect to go away within a few years. I also won't have my characters say "scoop" for "pick up in a car" or "roll me up" for "drop me off in your car at some destination" or "hip to" for "inform about." There's this album by David Bowie from 1975 (I think) called "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" which is a great album, but really, it's just doofy sometimes. "Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah." That's not the sort of thing I want to look back upon in my own work.

Your thoughts? Am I just too fussy about stuff like this? Does it matter? Are current cultural references actually good things, especially in YA or MG fiction or in topical thrillers where I seem to see them the most? Do you even think about this sort of thing, or do you just write the way you write and I should just go have my coffee and let you find your own authorial voice?


  1. True dat, yo.

    I usually avoid current figures of speech not by design, but through my own ignorance of current trends.

    For the most part, though, I just try to use my voice to tell my stories. I won't go on a search and destroy mission for all cliches in a MS, but I do try to be original. That at least minimizes them.

  2. I'm not sure if you mean cliche here - or current figures of speech. I've had readers mark many things on my manuscript as cliche - but they are similes or figures of speech that are dry and overused, not necessarily something that's "hip" at the moment. Is there a difference?

  3. I don't care for cliches -- and try to avoid them. But I have a tough time not using current figures of speech -- particular if they are really relevant to the story.

  4. I agree with Lady Glamis....something cliche, to me, is an overused statement...but I don't consider slang as part of that. I do use some slang in my writing and some pop culture references, though I do try to limit them to those that are not a quick passing thing. But I write romance and chick lit and yeah, I know I'm not writing literature that is going to be around for years and years and studied and read in schools. I know that. I write what makes me happy and what can help someone else escape for a few hours. I know 5-10 years from now, no one will still be reading my debut novel (which is being released in June). So for me, no, I don't worry too much about slang and such.

  5. I do use current figures of speech in my shorter works for MG/YA and even allow a little to creep into my novels. Maybe it's because, in my mind at least, younger readers tend to seek identification much more than older readers (can of worms, here we go) and some current figures of speech may lend the work a more contemporary feel.

    And also, when I think of my MG/YA work, I am thinking more immediate readership and not longevity, if there is readership at all. So if I use some milder versions that won't date quite so quickly, I am fine with that, hoping that what I think is mild and won't date is, in fact, that.

    (I seem to be in the mood to qualify everything I say this morning. I'll join you in coffee now, I think.)

  6. I try not to include the obvious mistakes, such as "dude" or "awesome". Unless I'm writing a tale about a surfer from Malibu. But it's not just slang that we have to worry about. It's definitely cultural language use, and I do think it's important that an attempt is made to do it right. After all, if I were to write something from the perspective of a Russian beet farmer, I wouldn't want him speaking in phrases that don't seem natural. Since we're trying to immerse the reader in our world, we should be taking pains to get it right. And word use is just as important as description. Great post, Scott.

  7. It's nearly impossible to avoid all slang when writing contemporary YA. Without it, you end up sounding too stiff and formal. I've leaned toward expressions that appear to have sticking power and shy away from the more recently coined (or ones that just strike me as annoying).

    It can also be effective to create slang that makes sense within the universe of your story. I've seen that done to great effect in YA.

  8. Most of my recent projects are set in the here/now. I really don't worry about using slang because . . . well, at some point during the final (re: right before publication process) some editor is going to go "ya know, i'm just saying, but this slang's gotta go, maybe replace it with something more hip, more happenin', dig it?".

    I don't liberally use slang through my writing, just a phrase or two here and there to make things more real, with the knowledge that at some point I'll have to update the slang to fit whatever year (hopefully soon) book gets published.

    I do try to avoid the cliches, though in a future project, first few chaps written for good measure, I take a very tongue in cheek attitude with the 'voice' and use cliches, a few adverbs, and lots of other things that might irritate certain people. I'm such a rebel sometimes. Ha!


  9. I agree with Lady Glamis. I don't think cliches are the same thing as current figures of speech.

    I try to avoid using cliches in writing. Using slang to convey time period is good if it isn't overdone and you don't use obscure language readers won't understand. We're all familiar with phrases that were popular before our time. ("cat's pajamas," calling a woman a "dame," etc.)That kind of language works toward setting, as long as it isn't used so much as to be distracting.

  10. In my own writing I've found I tend to use older slang that's been around for twenty years or so, because, well, I'm old now like you Mr. Bailey.

    In every one of my works there is at least one person that says, "groovy" or "cool", but never "far-out", and it also depends upon whom is speaking. I'm not going to let a 15 year old girl say groovy, but I will let her mother or her grandmother.

    It's how we used to talk.

  11. Michelle has a good point, one I thought of while I read you post Scott.

    Cliche to me is an overused phrase that kinda shows laziness on the Author's part. Like: jaw dropped to the floor; eyes filled with tears; looked deep into my eyes. Those are some of the phrases I'd mark as "cliche" during a critique.

    Slan is different, and though I agree it can be over-used, there are times when it's needed to help date a novel (mine is littered with mental health and substance abuse communities) and set character.

    I try to use the slang and cultural norms only when necessary - though some of that could also be laziness on my part not to come up with better verbiage.

    Points well taken.

    And yes Scott; you are being too fussy. But if you can write your novels and get impart the appropriate atmosphere without slang or cliche language; then you are writing with a distinctive style. And isn't that what we all strive for?

    I say "good job", and have some of that skill rub off on me, thanks very much. :)


  12. I have been known to use slang. The trouble being, of course, since I'm such an old fart, the slang may be anywhere from the 50's on up. I also spent a lifetime in the military and that can introduce an even wider range of slang. One just has to be consistent in its use.

  13. The first thing that popped into my head as I was reading this was how much I love period pieces, that feeling of seeing how things like language bring back a time. I love when a story does that so well that it becomes timeless because it fits so tightly to a time. It becomes universal, and I love that.

    I do avoid cliches and phrases. I think it's fine when writers use them intentionally, but when it bugs me is when writers use it as a shorthand to keep from having to figure out how to express something themselves.

  14. I admit that my post was not well thought out today; I say again that I think I'm coming down with something in the way of a headcold. I feel a bit feverish. And then I say: What Davin said.

    P.S. Welcome back, Big D! Tell us stories from the mysterious East!

  15. i hate hate hate using very modern language, and i can't stand figures of speech. however, sometimes language may come out weird and antiquated when trying to avoid that style. i like writing to sound universal, or to just be extremely poetic and go off on its own (james joyce-style).

  16. Dude. This is, like, so 4 minutes and 38 seconds ago. I mean. Dated language moves on out in the blink of an eye.

    I think it actually depends on the kind of book you write. Not just YA but commercial YA tends to have more slang, band names, etc. Meg Cabot really lets them fly, but they are fun if you read her books when they first come out. If not, they can be distracting and detracting. More literary YA tends to have less of them, but when I go back and read older Newbery award winners they are still dated. I think it's very hard to completely avoid current literary currents.

  17. Lotusgirl beat me to it. I also think it depends largely on the type of book you're writing. If your story is based in the past, I would think that some cliche/figure of speech adds to the validity of the character.

  18. Scott, that's great---"I'm just saying, this slang's gotta go, dig it?"

    Slang is a fabulous tool in the hands of an astute writer. You use it the way you use dialect: to identify the specific, unique, telling details of the way a particular group of people talk. Raymond Chandler made his own up and was amazed to see the real LA underworld pick it up. According to Chandler, Eugene O'Neill also used "the big sleep" throughout The Iceman Cometh, apparently under the impression it was a street term.

    Like all techniques (especially profanity), slang has to be used sparingly and focused on only the most unique, colorful instances to avoid deadening the effect. The power comes from the contrast between the slang and ordinary mainstream language.

    "That is so, like, 4 minutes 38 seconds ago. Dated language moves on in the blink of an eye."


  19. Cliches bad, I agree. As for current slang and figures of speech, I think that depends on whether you're telling a story that's closely tied to the time in which it takes place. Look at P.G. Wodehouse, for example. Sure, the language is "dated" but it doesn't detract from the story because the era and the story are tightly coupled -- just try to imagine "What ho, Jeeves" set in 1980! -- so they enhance each other. The language helps build the ambience of the story.

    Where I think au courant language doesn't age well is when you're telling a story that you /don't/ want tied to particular time; in that case, later readers will be distracted by the lingo rather than drawn in by it.


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