The Truth About Clichés

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about clichés. Writers are told to avoid them like the plague. They are a horribly awful very bad idea. A big no-no. Clichés are a sign of lazy writing, amateur writing, and all sorts of other writing that you’d never want to associate with.

Think of the young, orphaned, teenage protagonist who is secretly the Chosen One but doesn’t know it until an old, bearded, magical, wizard-like mentor tells him.

Think of the Super Evil Bad Guy who has a bazillion evil traits and zero good ones, who’s so evil, there’s no hope of redemption.

Think of love triangles, dark and stormy nights, ancient prophecies that always come true, and my personal favorite, quests for magical artifacts.

By the way, I am definitely guilty of most if not all of the above.

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So if you’re not supposed to use clichés, what are you supposed to do? Well, you’ve heard it before. You have to twist the cliché. Do something unexpected with it. For example, if you just have to have a Chosen One in your story, perhaps you could give your protagonist a big ego about his special status. Or maybe the Chosen One isn’t the protagonist at all.

See, agents and editors hate clichés. Readers notice them, too. They roll their eyes and might even stop reading altogether, and that’s the last thing writers want. The solution? Be original.

But that’s not what I’m aiming for. I want to go deeper. Twisting clichés is fun and entertaining, and will probably improve your writing, but there is a line that you are not allowed to cross.

People are afraid of originality.

Let me say that again, just to make sure it sinks in:

People are afraid of originality.

We live in a culture that is addicted to comfort, and can’t handle the unfamiliar. We all have our comfort zones, and we are perfectly happy staying inside them. And yet, we get tired of the same old, same old. If we still read books at all, we are absolutely terrified of anything original. Clichés are familiar, something we know. They’re tried and true, they’re safe. Comfortable. Boring, even. So when authors twist clichés, it’s a win-win. The book still holds that hint of familiarity, and yet it’s something different, something fresh.

But when the author does something completely original – well, that’s when people aren’t sure what to think. Even agents and editors shy away. That’s why J. K. Rowling got twelve rejections before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Sure, there are probably lots of clichés in the Harry Potter franchise, but it’s just that no one had done anything quite like that before. No one knew what to think. And now, twenty years later, millions of other authors have been inspired by her books.

But being original – really original – is hard work to begin with. Even if you do manage to create something amazing, you’ll have to deal with rejections and general disinterest. And I shouldn’t even mention the workload. Tolkien spent years writing The Lord of the Rings. Twelve, to be approximate. And that was just one story. Before that, he wrote The Hobbit, and before that, he was developing the language and lore of Middle-earth.

In conclusion, I highly discourage it. Don’t be original. It’s way too much work. It won’t pay off right away, if ever. Stay in your comfort zone, keep your readers in theirs, and everyone will be okay. Twist those clichés, insert plot twist or two, but don’t go crazy with your originality. Stay safe. No one wants that idea that doesn’t quite fit in with anything else.

Okay. Let me say what I came here to say.

Be brave, dear writer. Pursue things that no author has pursued before. Step out of your comfort zone. Leave behind the familiar. Write about things that scare you, terrify you even. Write about things that make you sad. Write until your tears stain your notebook. Write to embark on a journey of discovery. Write a real, honest story, not the watered-down version that people like. And when you’ve finished, take another step, perhaps the hardest step of all. Let other people read it. It will take them outside of their comfort zones, yes. But that’s good. Let them embark on this journey of discovery, too.

And don’t give up. Giving up will be the easiest path, I can guarantee you that. You may fail. But you can get up again. You can keep trying. You may get ten rejections, you may get a hundred. But you can keep writing. If it’s a story that tugs at your heart and won’t let go, God put it there in front of you for a reason, and you had better keep writing it.

What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) clichés?

What authors have inspired you?

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“What Should I Write?”

It’s the age-old question, isn’t it? Even the most seasoned authors ask it. You know you’re itching to write something, anything, but you just don’t know what. Maybe your mind is completely blank. Maybe you have so many ideas, you don’t know how to choose. Whatever the reason, I can guarantee that at some point in your life, you will ask the question:

What should I write?

I found the answer in the most unexpected place.

what should i write

For school, I recently finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. (If you’ve never read it, it is SUCH a good book.) One of the protagonists, Skeeter, is an aspiring author, and she’s wondering the same thing we all are. What should I write? An editor from Harper and Row advises her this way:

“Don’t waste your time on obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.”

-Elaine Stein, The Help

I won’t spoil the story, so if you want to know what Skeeter decided to write about, you’ll just have to read it. But today, I have a list of tips to help you figure out what to write. If you’re already in the middle of a writing project, that’s awesome. Go you! But if you’re truly stuck, try some of these tips:

1. Make a list. Make a list of all the things that bother you. Don’t put every little thing on there, though, like “I hate the way my little brother pesters me all the time.” (Although, that would probably make an excellent children’s book!)

2. Cross off the obvious ones. In other words, don’t waste your time. If you’re going to write something, and write it well, you have to be passionate about it. No one could write a 500-page book about the behavior of particles on the subatomic level, unless they were in love with quantum mechanics.

3. Get specific. If “world hunger” is on your list, write about the child who has to work long hours to help his family eat. Write about the single mom with five kids who goes to the soup kitchen every night. Write about the man who gets a nineteen-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to help his starving relatives. (Actually, don’t do that one. Victor Hugo already did.) A statistical report on world hunger is great if it’s a school assignment, but if you want to capture the attention of humanity, write in the details.

4. I know, I know, not everyone writes about deep issues like that. But you don’t have to write about something sobering. I once wrote a book that was honestly very fun (and easy) to write. It was part comedy, part adventure, and part fantasy. I had a hilarious time, and yet I was still writing about something that bothered me. Nothing very sobering, just something I’d noticed that impacted me enough to write about.

4 ½. It might happen by accident. In my previously-mentioned book, deep questions of morality arose toward the end, even though I never planned it that way. Stuff like that usually happens to me when I write, though, so it wasn’t really a surprise.

5. Draw from your own emotions. What makes you deeply sad, anxious, or upset? What makes you cry? What makes you cringe in fear? What makes your heart break? What makes you twitch with agitation? Whatever the thing is, write about it.

6. What are the things that no one ever says? I can’t really define this one. But sometimes, it is painfully obvious that people aren’t saying what needs to be said. Other times, it’s no so obvious. Maybe it’s a certain facet of the Gospel that’s often overlooked in fiction. Maybe there are certain rules of writing that drive you crazy because you know they need to be broken. The point is, don’t always write about something obvious; that’s why Elaine Stein added that part about “particularly if it bothers no one else.”

That’s all I have for now. And that’s just one way to look at it. There are so many other ways to figure out what to write!

What’s your best way to decide what to write about?

Have you ever written about something that bothered you?

Using Music as a Writing Tool

Ah, finally. A post about music. I’ve been waiting to do this for a long time. I love music, don’t you? One minute you can be sitting at your desk staring at a blank piece of paper, and the next minute you’re in a completely different world, and with each pulse of the music, the story moves along as if it had a heartbeat of its own.

Music is strange, to be sure. It affects us in ways we can’t often explain. If you think about it, all music really is is just a series of random sounds and tones. If you know the science behind sound waves, you’ll know that music is just a bunch of air molecules bumping into each other, with varied frequencies and amplitudes, interpreted by your brain as sound. And how did we ever figure out how to get these sound waves so precise so as to tell a unique story with every song?

Using Music as a Writing Tool

It blows my mind every time I think about it. Music can speak to us in ways words could never do. Somehow, simple melodies can make us smile or cry uncontrollably, feel nostalgic or uneasy, or even leave us with a sense of mystery. We get chills by listening to that epic masterpiece and compulsively dance along to the rhythmic beat that we can feel in our chest.

The more you think about it, the more you realize how odd music really is. People dance or do gymnastics routines set to music. And the music isn’t there to amplify the beauty of what the person is doing; it’s the other way around. We dance because we feel deeply how beautiful the music is, and we want to express it somehow. There’s a reason movies have soundtrack, and there’s a reason that some stories are completely set to music (ahem, musicals. They’re the best.) It’s because music is a deeper level of storytelling; it captures something that words could never capture.

people-2585962_640There’s a reason we sing songs when we worship God. It’s because something inside of us is captivated by the beauty of God. He is incomprehensible, his beauty beyond human explanation or expression. I think, in a much smaller way, music is similar. We know how beautiful it is because we feel it deep inside, but we can’t explain it.  Besides, God specifically designed music as a form of worship. The Bible says that the angels in heaven sing songs to God.

There’s a reason people like to listen to music when they work out, or when they study. All sorts of scientific and psychological experiments have been done on that, but you don’t have to be a scholar to know that it works. I personally love listening to music when I study, and contrary to popular belief, you can listen to genres besides classical (although, I do love classical music–Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Scarlatti, and Shostakovich, just to name a few!) Most days though, power metal is my favorite, and if you know me, that might come as a surprise. You can thank my dad for that. (Theocracy is my favorite band. You should look them up.)

Music is also a valuable writing tool. Because it is a deeper form of storytelling, I like to listen to it when I write. It usually inspires a phrase or a paragraph, and sometimes entire scenes that I never would have thought of on my own. It makes the writing process seem like magic (most of the time. The writing process is fickle, as you probably know.) Whenever I go back and read stuff I’ve written previously, there’s always a little bit of music there too. Between the lines. I associate certain characters with specific songs, and sometimes listening to a song will bring back emotional memories of entire books.

If listening to music while writing is more distracting than helpful, it can still be a valuable writing tool. You can listen to it before you start writing, to get your brain into writing mode. If you write historical fiction, you can find songs written in that time period. You can even find song artists’ voices that sound like your characters. Unless you just really hate music (which would be sad), I highly encourage you to try using it for writing.

Music gives us something we couldn’t express or understand otherwise. All music tells a story, because every composer, every songwriter, has something to say. Much like authors write books because they have a message for the world, songwriters write music because they want to convey something to their listeners. I’m going to close with a quote by an author whom I love and look up to:

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

-Victor Hugo

How have you used music as a writing tool?

What’s your favorite music to listen to?

How (not) to Be the Next C.S. Lewis

Hi everyone! Today, you get the privilege of listening to some of my totally random thoughts. My brain is fried, and this is the only blog topic that came to mind: other authors as role models.

When I first started taking writing seriously, I wanted to be the next Ted Dekker. That was probably because I was completely obsessed with his books back then, and he was the only author I read for an entire year and a half. I wanted to write those edge-of-your-seat-the-entire-way-through books. Books that were a picture of the Gospel.

And then I read Harry Potter. My vision changed. Now I was determined to be the next J.K. Rowling. What writer doesn’t want that? What writer doesn’t want to rock the world with a single book that ends up being pretty much the #1 bestselling series on the planet? And here we are, twenty years later, and she still has a huge following. That sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

And then I decided I could do better than that. I adjusted my vision a bit, and decided that I wanted to be the next Tolkien instead. I wanted to be the founder of a completely new genre (Tolkien is often considered the father of modern fantasy). I wanted to write books so memorable, that people would still be reading them eighty years from now. (Yes, The Hobbit was published eighty years ago.)

Then I changed my mind again. After reading The Screwtape Letters, I decided that I would be the next C.S. Lewis. I would write fiction so real that it’s almost inseparable from reality. I would write about the Christian faith within a fictional work.

the next cs lewis

Most professionals will tell you not to try to “be the next [insert your favorite author here].” I have come to agree with them, for two main reasons. First, favorite authors change (as you can see from my list). And second, the best authors were themselves. The best authors weren’t trying to live up to the standards set by other authors. The best authors were defying the norms, sometimes going directly against current trends.

But if you asked me who my four absolute favorite authors were, I’d tell you the four listed above. Trying to imitate them has given me a deep liking for their books. Theirs are the books I will always go back to, no matter how old I get. And even though I no longer want to be any of them, my writing is still very much influenced by them. For example:

All of those authors taught me to love fantasy, and now it’s the main thing I write. Beyond that, there is one thing all these authors have in common, and that is their stories are pictures of the Gospel. I will always write stories like that. I can’t not weave the Gospel into my fiction. It’s like an instinct; I couldn’t get away from it even if I tried.

Ted Dekker taught me that *SPOILER ALERT* the author is actually allowed to kill the main character. *END OF SPOILER* My overall writing style is also a bit like Ted Dekker’s (at least I think so. If you think differently, let me know. 🙂 )

Like J.K. Rowling, my books feature super evil villains, complex plots, and shocking endings. I’ve also started sorting all my characters into Hogwarts houses. It really helps early character development!

And like Tolkien, I write epic fantasy with quests that span the entire world and WAAAAAAY too many characters.

And finally, like C.S. Lewis, I have recently started writing stories that leak into reality a bit too much for my comfort – intentionally. (If you haven’t, you should read The Screwtape Letters. It scared me.)

As you can see, the authors we love do shape our writing. And why wouldn’t it? If you like to read a certain type of book, you’d probably write similar books, right? If you’re a writer, I highly encourage you to study your favorite authors. Study their books. Stalk them on Facebook. Find other people who love their books as much as you do, and talk about them. (Unless the author in question is Ted Dekker. He has no fandom, which makes me sad, but if you’re looking for a fellow fan, you can talk to me. It gets lonely over here with a big empty green lake all to myself and no one to dive in with me. And you’ll only understand that last sentence if you’ve read his books.)

So yes, learn from your favorite authors. But don’t try to BE them. It won’t get you anywhere, because you will never be able to. You will only get discouraged, because every writer has their own unique set of gifts. You can learn new skills and implement them into your own writing, but you will never actually be that author. And that’s the important thing to remember.

Who is your favorite author?

Which authors do you look up to as role models?

Worth It

You sit down at your desk every day, diving deep into your mind, scavenging for a few rusty words to pen down. It wears your brain down, and you sigh in frustration as you look at the few measly pages that took you all of two months to compile. You look again at the story in your mind and realize that it isn’t much more than that. Is it even worth it? Aren’t there a billion other people who could do the exact same thing as you are trying to do?

No. No, there are not. Because no one else views the world through the same set of eyes.

Let me tell you right now, that if you have ever asked yourself those questions, you are not alone. I think I ask them myself every day. Some days, writing is awesome. Some days, I clock in around 6,000 words and am completely ecstatic with the way the story’s going. And some days, it feels like I’m writing with my own blood and I’m deleting every fifth word. I want to scream at my computer and throw my notebook out the window so the wind can carry the pages to someone more capable than I.

But there is no one else that can write the story for you. This world has 7.6 billion people, and only one of them is capable of writing that particular story. Only one. And that person is you.

worth it

Let me phrase it this way. You know the Harry Potter theme? Yeah, that song that, when it starts playing, instantly makes you stop whatever you’re doing and get choked up with emotion? No? Maybe that’s just me. But there is something quite magical about the music in Harry Potter. Whenever the theme song plays, it makes you think of the story and the characters and the magic.

Now let me ask you something. What if the director had gotten Hans Zimmer to write the soundtrack? It’d be amazing, no doubt, because Hans Zimmer is insanely talented (think Pirates of the Caribbean). But it would be much, much different, because only John Williams could have written that magical tune that we all know.

Now what if Tolkien decided to give all his notes about The Lord of the Rings to a trusted friend? What if he taught him all the lore of Middle-earth and told him the detailed histories of the hundreds of characters? What if he gave his friend all the maps, alphabets, even rough drafts of chapters? I think we still would have ended up with a very different book, don’t you, precious?

God gave you the gift of writing for a reason. He’s going to use it someday. Even if just one person in the entire world needs to hear your story, it will be worth it. And you’re the only person who can write it. Don’t give up. Try again, yes, restart, rewrite, scream and throw your notebook at the wall if you have to, but don’t give up.

I used to give up after a couple of tries at the same story. Right now, I am starting–for the third time this month–a new story. Seventh time if you count what I tried to do two years ago. It’s getting old. I’m tired of this endless cycle of not being able to find that sweet spot where the story resides. But God gave me a talent and a desire to write, and if only one person in the world reads this story, that will be fine by me. If I am able to express God’s beauty and love through this story, then it will be worth it.

So go on, dear writer. It’s worth it.

Do you often find yourself discouraged and wanting to give up?

What’s your motivation for when writing gets tough?

How to Find Inspiration (also known as How to Force the Muse to Pay You a Long-Overdue Visit)

I have read many posts and articles about how to find inspiration, or, in many cases, how to let inspiration find you. No doubt you have, too. And in this post, I’m going to try not to repeat the tips that are used over and over again. This post is not about how to let inspiration find you. It’s not about waiting for the muse to show up. This post is about how to summon the muse.

music-1874621_640Music. I’m listening to music right now… the organ is booming, and the chandelier is rising, and the opening notes of the prologue are just so inspiring because they are telling a story. Every note is perfectly timed, perfectly tuned. Every sound you hear, every breath you take, is in sync with this glorious unfolding story. The notes fill your chest, and the story itself takes root and blooms inside of you. If you close your eyes, you can see something… an inkling of something beyond your imaginings.

That was a little bit random. I wasn’t planning on including it in this post, but I rather like it. (Yes, I was listening to The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, if you’re wondering.) I hope to do an entire post or two about music one day, because I believe that music is one of the driving forces behind the entire universe. Don’t ask me why – I just do. There has always been something symbolic about music… Aslan created Narnia with a song in The Magician’s Nephew. Tolkien used music to illustrate the fall from perfection in The Silmarillion. And I use music to create my own worlds and my own characters.

Music always tells a story. There is always some sort of idea that the composer is trying to get across to his listeners, if not an entire story. There are always emotions that are carried in the music. So to find inspiration from music, simply pick a song that you like – one that has always grabbed you and taken you by the hand and swept you away to the realm of imagination that is reality in some abstract, mysterious way… Try not think about anything as you listen to the music. Don’t try to get inspiration, or it won’t work. Let the music itself guide your thoughts. In your mind you’ll start to see the story playing out. If you’re trying to get past writer’s block, you can think vaguely about your story you’re working on, but mostly let the music direct you. It’s surprising what you can come up with.

It is a little bit hard to get to that state of mind where you’re not thinking about anything at all (especially if your mind is always busy like mine), but even just listening to music helps me when I write.

book-863418_640Books. This one seems obvious: Read other people’s creative works to learn how to do it yourself, and to get your mind off your own book. But that’s not exactly what I’m going to say, because everyone else says that. I’ve discovered that rereading old books actually gives me more inspiration than finding a new book to read. Go back to your childhood and reread your favorite books. Those books that you loved so much because you weren’t quite old enough to fully analyze a story, and you were just there for the sake of the story itself, and you didn’t have that annoying voice in your head analyzing the author’s every word…

I find myself captivated by the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with reading new books, but I’m just more inspired when I reread books I’ve already read three times.

book-1209805_640The Gospel. I have gone to the Bible many times for inspiration. Most of the time I wasn’t even looking for it, but the inspiration just popped out at me. The first time something like that happened, I just happened to be reading in Romans and I realized that the character I had just created was a perfect illustration of some aspect of the Gospel. It was pretty awesome. Besides the obvious fact that the Bible is the greatest story of all time which contains absolute truth, sometimes you can get wonderful ideas for stories.

Sometimes reading the Bible feels only like a duty and you don’t really take the time to truly appreciate the words of it. The Bible is the Word of God, so it makes sense that we should hang on to each word as we read it, our breath catching in our throats as we see the story that is unfolding before our very eyes. And we know that every word of it is true, which only makes us doubly excited. And when we look at whatever we’re reading in context of all of Scripture… the feeling is indescribable.

(Normally I would take that as a challenge and attempt to describe whatever it is I had said was indescribable, but for now I am going to leave it for you all to discover.)

So that’s my take on where to find inspiration. Are there any important things I’ve left out? Is there anywhere you go to for inspiration that I didn’t mention? You can let me know in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!