The Trope Police

Hello, friends! How’s the writing going?

Every so often on Twitter I offer some Query Trends, which are multiple instances of oddly specific things I see in my queries. Lately I’ve been thinking of trends on a larger scale. Not just genre trends, which come and go and come back again seemingly at random, but rather writing trends that I officially see as cliche.

So, what am I seeing that I’d love to see go away (or, at the very least, become severely lessened)?

 

Teenage girls who are super into photography.

Putting aside that the majority of “photography” is being done on iPhones with Snapchat and Instagram filters, let’s talk about this very impractical and expensive hobby that every teenage girl (and some boys!), regardless of background or economic status, seem to have. And not just a vague interest in photography – a full-on I will buy this sophisticated camera with various lenses and walk around with them all the time obsession. I see this in YA most often, but I also see it in Adult fiction with teen characters and, more recently, in the TV show Casual and the movie, Boyhood.

I’ll repeat how expensive of a hobby this is. It’s really expensive. These characters aren’t settling for point-and-shoot digital cameras. They have some serious equipment and in a lot of cases, these are characters specified as decidedly not rich. How are they paying for all of this?

Expenses aside, this hobby often feels forced. Has the “wannabe writer” cliche played out so photography was next “artsy” career path in line? It feels only mildly realistic and for as many teens legitimately interested in technique, I would guess that far more take selfies with friends at parties and call it a day.

We get it; your main character sees the world through a unique lens. But unless they’re Veronica Mars, and photography also comes in handy in their secret side job, consider that you’re possibly using a cliche for no real reason.

 

Powerful women as a technicality (or gimmick).

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then – and only then – can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

I’d love to see a female athlete who trains with her Olympic medal winning mother. Or a lawyer (or future lawyer) who was inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Where’s my teenage Leslie Knope? Where’s my Katniss as an adult? Give me someone who isn’t just propelled into the plot, but drives the plot.

 

The “wild” best friend.

If Writer-Sarah may admit something up front – I’ve totally written the wild best friend story. Most of us who grew up to become writers probably had the wild best friend. I actually love the wild best friend. From Rayanne Graff in My So-Called Life to Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The complexities of friendship, in general, are always interesting to me. That said…

I’ve been noticing two different types, in published books and in even more manuscripts, usually dependent on gender:

  • Girls/Women: The friend who lives without fear of consequence. She says what she’s thinking, she flirts, she’s reckless, and she’s probably a little damaged. She pushes the main character to live life to the fullest and go beyond her comfort zone.
  • Boys/Men: The horndog. The slacker. He makes sexist comments, he gets high, he thinks the main character just needs to relax. He’s the id to the main character’s ego.

Both are cautionary tales. Both serve as windows and mirrors for the main character.

So if I love these types of stories so much, why am I sick of them?

Because they’re all starting to sound the same. In YA, it’s the best friend pulling the main character into a plot, teaching them things about life. In Adult, it’s the best friend who remains so in-name-only even though it’s obvious the main character outgrew them. They become a symbol for The Road Not Taken as opposed to being actual people.

Why else am I sick of these friends?

Because I am SO ready for the “wild best friend” to be our main character! They are clearly the more interesting friend. They deserve more than teaching the main character a valuable lesson, or making the main character feel better about their “boring” life. They deserve to have their own story told.

***

I’ve said before (here) that it’s OK if you’re not completely original. Premises are always going to sound similar; it’s how you interpret them and make them your own that counts. So, sure, a few tropes might slip in and no one will care if the rest of the book is amazing and unique. Cliches aren’t the worst thing in the world, but for a debut author they can be the difference between an offer and a rejection.

 

(OK, if the only thing holding me back in a manuscript is an overused character trope, I’ll probably opt for having a conversation with the author or asking for an R&R.)

 

Keep writing, friends! When your photography-loving main character goes to search for her missing photojournalist dad and takes her wild best friend with her, remember we’re still rooting for you! But maybe just tone it down a bit. 🙂

My Inevitable Prologue Post

Prologue
I had a mini-rant on Twitter today about my deep hatred for prologues. My feelings are of no surprise to people who regularly follow me. I recently compared them to bad pilot episodes and agreed (jokingly!) with Brent from Naughty Book Kitties that they were “abominations.” Still, I received a lot of responses asking why I hated them so much and what would happen if a story made no sense without one and seriously why am I such a hater. Clearly I have strong feelings on the subject of prologues, so I decided to finally turn them into a blog post.

Chapter One
Prologues are generally used for the following reasons:

1. Foreshadowing events that won’t be known until later in the novel.
2. Introducing a character who will be very important, but who we won’t meet until Chapter 7.
3. Giving back-story (a la Star Wars) that might take a reader out of the narrative if it’s presented later.
4. Offering the main character’s reflective voice before diving into the story that leads him or her to that point.
5. Using the past as a means to set up the present or give a detail about the main character.

The necessity of prologues are greatly exaggerated. For each of the above intentions, there is an argument against them. Remember I speak only for myself on this blog, and not for all agents, or even my own agency. If you are 100% convinced that your prologue is necessary, then good for you for having confidence. Send it to every agent in the book. But, consider the following rebuttals before sending it to me:

Numbers 1 and 2.
I’ve mentioned before (Things to Avoid) that I thought 99% of prologues can turn into the first chapter. I’m revising this previous thought, however, because sometimes prologues take place in another world/time/setting. In these cases, prologues cannot be used as the first chapter because it would be out of place, so instead just delete them. Forcing a reader to immediately swallow very important information, before they know it is important, won’t intrigue them as much as it could confuse them. A prologue used in this way isn’t confusing by itself, but when paired with an often radically different first chapter, the shift can be jarring. It forces the reader to begin the novel twice, and you don’t want them to spend what should be the second chapter thinking about what it was that they just read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for foreshadowing. That said, using an entire section of your novel to accomplish it isn’t as exciting for the reader as other forms of foreshadowing. Revealing seemingly unrelated details within a chapter in a clever, precise way will make readers intrigued. Savvy readers will want to know how and why these details will influence the story.

The same is true for introducing a character who doesn’t show up “officially” until much later in the novel. By that time, the reader has forgotten everything they were supposed to retain from the prologue because the novel itself has taken such a consistent turn elsewhere. By the time your foreshadowed characters return, the most the reader might say “Oh yeah, him.” The ends do not justify the means for a pay-off this insignificant. Instead, drop hints throughout the narrative that a very important character is about to be introduced. It will make meeting him that much more exciting.

Number 3.
Now, I love me some Star Wars and actually think all of the back-story about the wars make sense before the movie begins. This is an instance of a prologue working, but is it absolutely necessary? Not really. We get a sense that there is a war going on just from watching the movie. Obi-Wan and Yoda help us out along the way for anything involving Luke’s father. Everything else is just fluff that we can take or leave, none of which really influence the plot. Plus, if you’re worried too much back-story will take a reader out of your narrative, then you are more likely having a “showing vs. telling” problem rather than a plot problem, which, lucky for you, is fixable.

Numbers 4 and 5.
These two are tricky for me because sometimes it is nice to have a reflective voice or know a character’s past/lineage before meeting them. In these cases, just make them your first chapter. A reflective voice sustains throughout a novel regardless of prologue, and if you use your past correctly, it will be popping up again in the present fairly quickly.

I understand why writers add prologues. They are a good starting off point and help you get your thoughts together. They can answer the questions “What story am I going to tell?” and even “Where will this story end?” That’s all well and good, writers, but what ends up happening in these cases is that your prologue can read like an outline.

When you’re ready to query, go back and read your prologue. The writing might be top notch, but ask yourself if everything the prologue was meant to accomplish isn’t answered in a more thoughtful, organic way throughout the narrative. If it is, then delete your prologue. And if it’s not, then reconsider your prologue’s connection to the narrative as a whole. You see why I’m so against them. They’re self-indulgent and rarely enrich the story in a meaningful way. Even in the rare instance where the prologue actually works, I’d still rather see it tossed aside and begin the real story right away.

Does this mean I won’t accept submissions that have prologues? Of course not. I feel disappointment when I see them, but I would never begrudge someone a request just for having one. I will warn, however, that I skip them completely every single time, and I am never, ever confused when I keep reading. (If I am, there is usually a larger issue involved.)

Epilogue
Epilogues are also self-indulgent and generally useless, but I have slightly less venom for them than I do for prologues. My main reason for immediately putting an X through an epilogue is that epilogues tend to tie a neat bow around a novel, rendering the final chapter useless. Why bother coming up with a great ending line and powerful resolution if you are only going to undo it all with an epilogue?

Sometimes writers use epilogues to foreshadow the next book in a series. To me, this does your novel a disservice because all books should be able to stand alone, even if they are connected. More so, a brilliant cliffhanger ending will make readers want to buy your next book way more than a teasing epilogue would. If I had my way, my red pen would also extend to the ghastly ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After hearing that Ms. Rowling wrote it because she felt these characters deserved a future, my opinion of epilogues being self-indulgent was cemented.

You do not need them, writers, and I will almost always tell you to delete them. Other agents might not mind epilogues as much. Personally, I enjoy when things aren’t completely tied up at the end of a novel. I don’t always need to know that the main character will live happily ever after, even if their story ends less optimistically. (Note: This does not mean plot can remain unresolved. I’m referring to emotional resolution or certain aspects left open to interpretation.) So, no, I do not like epilogues either. But, at least they’re not prologues.

Read. Prey. Exploit.

By now you have probably heard of the ghastly “James Frey Fiction Factory” news that broke over the weekend. In case you were away, this paragraph from the NY Magazine article sums it up:

“This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.”

Gross, right? The always brilliant Maureen Johnson had an equally brilliant blog post about it as well.

Writers, if this is not evidence of the importance of agents, I don’t know what is. Desperation to get published is never an excuse to settle for anything less than what you deserve. What’s more, Mr. Frey is going into my old stomping grounds – the MFA classroom – to prey on his victims. What strikes me as odd about this is that the average MFA candidate is not taught “high concept,” or even knows what it means, and they usually scoff at genre fiction, but it seems as if that is all James is looking for.

The desire to get published and work with “super famous author” can make a person compromise their style, and I am not above advocating “commercializing” a novel for the sake of publication. But! You should never, ever compromise your ideals – whether it’s in your writing or in your own self-worth. You are worth more than $250. Much, much more.

Speaking from an industry professional’s point of view, this is appalling on many levels. It is an agent’s job to protect the writer from contracts like this. Not only would the writer not get paid nearly enough for their work, but Frey makes it so his company can decide not to pay you at all. Add in a little stripping of rights, final say, and ability to protest and you have a nicely packaged fascist agreement. Writers, this is not the future of publishing. And while I know all of my loyal readers are too smart to fall for a contract like Frey’s, there are others out there who hide behind larger advances and prey on the un-agented, feasting on their unprotected, and often uninformed, flesh.

My anger toward this is not motivated by selfishness. Yes, the very essence of my job is being tossed aside and put into question by this “other option,” but there’s a reason agents become agents. And it’s not fame or fortune, trust me. It’s also not to force writers into a bureaucracy and reap so-called benefits from them, like some writers (usually the rejected ones) sometimes believe. We get into this business because we love books and writers and want to see them succeed. And yes, the more money you make, the more money we make. This is our job, after all. While I can’t speak for all agents, I’ll say that a huge commission check is just an added bonus. Most of us do this because we honestly love it. We’re your advocates and protectors who speak on your behalf because too many people like Frey exist.

Now, there’s that other side of me. The one who is now going to speak as an MFA graduate. What makes me afraid of this Fiction Factory is that I know how many people will be tempted to take Frey up on his offer of doom. I have many opinions about my MFA, not all of them positive and most of which having to due with it being an expensive and useless degree. But, I entered a “NY literary scene” I was desperate to be a part of and it did, truly, make me a better writer.

That said, all I “learned” at The New School was how to be a better writer. My writing seminars and literature courses only had one educational motive – craft, craft, craft. No one ever bothered to prepare us for actual publication, or even how to go about getting an agent. If I wasn’t already interning at an agency at the time, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the actual logistics of getting published. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned the word “published” at all, but we were all forced to attend a three-week seminar on teaching. I guess for when we all failed and needed a fall-back career. No one went to this seminar after the first meeting, myself included.

Writers, as followers of blogs you know this, but as a reminder: getting published is not just (finally!) seeing your book in print. It’s, ideally, your new career, and like any job, you are guaranteed protection for your contributions to “the company.” We’re like your boss, but instead of enforcing a dress code or making you attend awkward office parties, we just pay you. While it’s a fun and rewarding business, it’s also a business, and to think otherwise is irresponsible. This is one of my biggest problems with MFA programs. Writing for the sake of writing is all well and good, but if you want to turn it into a career, writing students are discouraged more than encouraged, and are rarely, if ever, given the facts.

If all you want is to just see your book in print, then self-publishing or Frey-style rip-offs probably would suit you just fine. But if you want to be an author, then hard work, perseverance, and having “the system” give you your due is what will make you successful. The easy way out is very tempting, especially in a business that makes you wait for every little thing, but giving in to a Frey contract is against your best interest and just plain heartbreaking for those of us who know better. You deserve more, writers.

The Obvious Symbolism Police

Yesterday via Twitter, I wrote (probably with more snark than necessary): “Your daily writing tip from the Obvious Symbolism police: Avoid beginning your novel with your MC waking up. Even if they wake up a vampire.”

This got me thinking of other cases of the obvious or cliche that I see more often than I’d like. Back in January, I offered a list of specific phrases to avoid, which I still stand by 100%; this Top 5 list is more like my Obvious Symbolism complaint. Apologies in advance for sounding like a snooty liberal arts writing professor, but you’ll thank me later.

1) Waking up in the first sentence. As I already mentioned in my above tweet, this is a weak way to start your narrative. We don’t need to see how “ordinary so-and-so’s day was” when suddenly something out of the ordinary happens that sets the whole novel in motion. What we do need to see is the thing that actually happens, and we’ll know through your superior skills of developing and building a character that it’s out of the ordinary. That said, creating a nice scene that evokes the setting we’re entering, which may or may not lead to a character waking up, is acceptable as far as the O.S. Police is concerned.

2) Water = New Beginning. Baptism, rebirth, cleansing, etc. Water is literally used in these acts; therefore, water is usually used when a character is metaphorically reborn. Sure, Don Draper swimming in a pool when he decides to write his Jerry Maguire-esque letter to the editor is a nice image. Likewise, a threatening storm, a peaceful rain, or a dramatic gaze at a waterfall can all be beautifully written. Unfortunately, the symbols water represents are overdone and often transparent.

3) Colors. Specifically, I’m referring to black and white. Using black to symbolize death, danger, or something evil vs. using white to symbolize purity, hope, or “good” are pretty standard. Ask yourself if your story has to follow those standards. Other colors used as themes are gray (bleakness, blandness), yellow (both cowardly and bright, happy); blue (tranquility); or red (passion, scandal, love). There is nothing inherently wrong with using colors, but use them sparingly.

4) Ask not for whom the bell tolls. No one cares anyway. When a character’s days are numbered or their path to redemption is suddenly made clear, writers will often add a physical symbol (bell ringing in the distance, a song plays on the radio, etc. It’s safe to say that a person’s self-discovery and/or demise is not brought on by one thing. In theory, your entire novel should have been leading up to this moment. No gimmicks necessary, unless said gimmick has been a major part of the narrative the entire time.
5) It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s… cliche! Sorry J-Franz, but taking flight, or being obsessed with things that do, is a wee bit overused when portraying characters who are discontent and just want to escape. Or, to put it more literally, to fly away. This logic also applies to obsessions with the ocean, boats, or other methods of transportation that move through something vast and symbolic.

As with everything, there are always exceptions to all of these rules. The above-mentioned Mr. Franzen is proof of that. But, like with all exceptions to rules, it’s better to assume you won’t be one of them when you query an agent. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Once you get taken on, sell your first novel, and establish a career, then you’re safer to play around with the “rules.” But until then, the Obvious Symbolism Police will be watching.

Things to Avoid

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, I noticed that the use of the rhyme “faded” and “jaded” appeared all-too-frequently in song lyrics and it made me want to scream. While (I hope) you don’t resort to rhyming in your prose works-in-progress, there are several words, phrases, and devices that show up in literature that I beg you to steer clear of. (Ending a sentence with a preposition is NOT one of them.)

1) Doing anything “with a start.” This phrase is most commonly used when a character wakes up. Has anyone ever used this phrase in real life? If it’s not said in life, it should not be said on the page.

2) “Ravenous.” In general, I’m a fan of this word. It always implies intense hunger, lust, or both (!). But, I see it so often in all genres of literature that it’s beginning to lose its impact. The thesaurus is your friend, which is how I assume the use of this word came about in the first place, and now it’s time to find a new “original” and amplified way to say hungry.

3) Describing silence as “deafening.” It’s not.

4) Wearing Cutoffs. Part of the reason why Tobias’ cutoffs on Arrested Development were so funny is because cutoffs in general are ridiculous and haven’t been worn since the days of Wham. Yet, more authors than you would think often describe their characters wearing cutoffs.  No gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. are spared. Sorry, but unless your M.C. is attending a Village People reunion concert, painting a house in 90 degree heat, or is a never-nude, cutoffs are just not acceptable.

5) Prologues. This might be a personal preference, but I think using this device to tell your story should be abolished from literature. 99% of prologues can be turned into the first chapter and the other 1% can be revealed throughout the work in flashbacks, background info, character building, etc.

6) Pillow-fight fantasies. This is for the men out there who are attempting to write in the voices of women. Very rarely do I find a male author writing from a female POV who doesn’t make their M.C. get her period, masturbate, or look at herself naked somehow. Fellas, really? Do you think we all sit around drinking cosmos while talking about shoes and multiple orgasms too?

7) “Needless to say…” I attribute my dislike of this phrase to a former journalism professor who simply said, “If you don’t need to say something, then just don’t say it.” I completely agree.

Feel free to add to this list. I’m sure there are many more cliches and pet peeves to know and avoid.