Are you killing a friend?

dandelion.jpg

This morning I found, in the middle of the curly, box leaf, and Redbor kale, a stack of dandelion greens for sale. $1.99 for a small bunch. I stood and calculated the economic windfall that might be reaped from our lawn. There wasn’t enough potential to cover the cost of building a farm-stand out front but I appreciated how one man’s taraxacum is another man’s poison.

So I googled the yellow blossom. Did you know that it was only in the twentieth century, with the invention of the lawn, that dandelions became the enemy of yard-proud people everywhere? In her book, The Teeth of the Lion, The Story of the Beloved and Despised Dandelion, author Anita Sanchez makes the case for the good side of dandelions, including:

  • They are a green and growing first aid kit. For millennia, dandelion tonics have been used to help the body’s filter, the liver, remove toxins from the bloodstream.
  • Dandelions are actually good for the lawn and garden. Their wide-spreading roots loosen hard-packed soil, aerate the earth and help reduce erosion. The deep taproot pulls nutrients such as calcium from deep in the soil and makes them available to other plants. Dandelions actually fertilize the grass and other plants.
  • They are more nutritious than almost all other vegetables grown in a garden. They were named after lions because their lion-toothed leaves healed so many ailments, great and small: baldness, dandruff, toothache, sores, fevers, rotting gums, weakness, lethargy and depression. Not until the twentieth century was the underlying cause of many of these symptoms realized: vitamin deficiencies. Dandelion leaves have more vitamin A than spinach, more vitamin C than tomatoes, and are a powerhouse of iron, calcium and potassium.

Gardeners hate dandelions partly because it’s the thing to do, the accepted attitude, handed down from generation to generation. Does that make it a gardening cliché? Has it lost its relevance from overuse? I agree that dandelions are an aesthetic blight in an otherwise perfect lawn. But is it necessary to flood the world with chemicals to eradicate them?

In developing memorable stories, it’s important to know which dandelions stay and which ones go. Some clichés will never be eradicated. Perhaps Roy Huggins explains it best: The cliché flourishes in the creative arts because the familiar gives a sense of comfort and security.

So maybe not all clichés are wrong in fiction. Could it be that they are a kind of shorthand that acts as a springboard to other creativity?

When you’re writing and editing, do you occasionally let a cliché slip in? Where have you encountered clichés in fiction that seemed to work well, that you didn’t mind reading because the rest of the story was awfully well told?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Atriplexmedia

The unexpected

Word count: 428            Reading time: 1-2 mins

On a recent ferry ride home from the Gulf Islands, I sat in front of a couple who talked non-stop the entire trip. They spoke French with soft Parisian accents and as I eavesdropped, trying futilely to pick out words, maybe even sentences, I pictured them as the epitome of Gallic sophistication: young, stylish, poised.  

When we approached Vancouver and everyone started to head back to the car deck, I got my first good look at them. They were seniors. Senior seniors at that. He was short, stout, and balding and wore a Harley Davidson hoodie stretched over his pot belly. His jeans were rough and torn but not in a fashionable way. He walked round-shouldered and slumped. Her thin, brassy red hair lifted off her head in a frizzy peak. The Kelly-green vest she wore clashed with the gaudy orange underneath it. Enough gold hung around her neck to pay the National Debt. I laughed at my clichéd assumption and enjoyed the surprise of how they really looked.

I love surprises in fiction too. But I don’t like being deceived or manipulated. I don’t want to get to the end of a story or chapter and find out that sequence was just a dream. I don’t want to be led to believe that the main love interest was cheating on his or her partner only to find out it was just a close friend or relative who was being embraced so passionately. And I sure don’t want a new character or device introduced at the end of a novel, a Deus ex machina solution to a complicated problem.

As I work, I love uncovering the surprises in my own stories and characters too but these appear slowly. In the first draft I find out who the players are. The second draft helps me get to know them better. It’s only in the third or fourth revision of a novel, as I push along the question of what if, that my characters start to reveal their idiosyncrasies and unusual interests. Between each revision, I follow the advice of Steven Pinker and give them all a rest, “Write many drafts, separated by a long enough interval so your writing will seem strange to yourself.” When I go back to a work after a long interval, it’s like opening the box of Christmas decorations from the far corner of the basement: full of delightful things I’d forgotten were there.

Where are the surprises in what you are writing? How do you uncover them?

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Photo by: Royce DeGrie

Hitting the frog and toad

Word count: 343           Reading time: 1-2 minutes 

When the LM takes a motorcycle trek, he always avoids what he and his mates call the super slab – those long boring bits of multi-lane highway that are the most efficient routes from A to Z. Efficiency is good, it has its place in our lives but, for a truly pleasurable experience, the road not commonly taken offers so much more.

Clichés are the super slab of our language. I love them. They allow us to converse in shorthand. How are you today? Can’t complain, no one listens. Fair to middling (or muddling for variety). When I first moved to Australia the idiom no worries was unique to that culture but it’s crossed the Pacific and is as common here now as the ubiquitous have a good day (which I notice has been upgraded in some places to excellent or awesome day). Idiom becomes cliché when it’s over-used and no longer exclusively understood or used by a particular group. On that basis I suggest that no worries is no longer an Australian speciality, it’s a cliché.

Still clichés let us travel from point A to point B with a minimum of thought and a high degree of efficiency. Like the super slab they are soulless experiences. A problem for writers is that clichés are so fixed in speech they can creep into our writing if we aren’t vigilant. Luckily we have sites like ClichéSite and the westegg ClichéFinder to double check any phrase that pops into our heads a little too easily. It’s also possible to cut and paste whole tracts of prose into another ClichéFinder site for easier identification.

At the end of the day we all know better than to use the really tired clichés (that one alone is rated journalism’s worst by Chris Pash), but what about cliché characters? How do you avoid them? Do you use The Female Character Flowchart to make sure your protagonist can hold her own? Or do you go to sites like listal to make sure you haven’t taken the super slab by mistake?

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Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM