Between a Rock and a Can of Worms

Last Thursday, a guest came and talked to the kids in my creative-writing workshop in Brewster, New York. Our visitor was Patricia T. O’Conner (spelled correctly with an e), word maven and author of many books about English. I discovered Pat because I often listen to the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC (online or at 93.9 FM, 820 AM) and I always listen when Pat is on, which is the third Wednesday of every month at about 1:30 pm. Pat is delightful, and she and Leonard Lopate have great fun with our wild and wayward language. To the workshop kids, she discussed etymology in general, the roots of some particular words, and a few reasons for the oddities of English spelling and punctuation. She was wonderful, and the kids were, too, asking questions, taking notes, obviously fascinated.

Before she came, I wasn’t sure her presentation would fill our hour-and-a-half, which it did, but I prepared for any leftover time, just in case. In her books, Woe Is I Jr. and Woe Is I for grownups, Pat devotes most of a chapter to cliches, so I prepared a bunch of writing prompts for the kids, which I will use tomorrow, involving cliches. You get to try them out first.

Cliches survive on their power. Some, like “blanket of snow,” are just catchy ways to capture an image. But others have tremendous depth. They’re great, except for the small detail of having been way overused.

These prompts go back to my post about the whited sepulcher (WS). You can revisit it or just recall that a WS is a person who seems good but is really evil. I picked cliches that I think are meaty.

• Between a rock and a hard place. What is the rock and what is the hard place that motivates your WS? I harbor the happy idea that villains are villainous out of internal or external desperation. How does this operate in your villain? Invent a scene that shows these forces at work.

• Makes him (or her) tick. This is similar to the first prompt, but you don’t have to treat it the same way. Maybe visit the WS’s childhood and write a flashback that shows how he became bad.

• Calm before the storm. Write a scene with rising tension that reveals what sets your WS off. You may want to bring a victim into this scene.

• Can of worms. The brain of a WS is likely to be an unpleasant place. What goes on in the mind of your WS? Write what she thinks before she falls asleep or when she wakes up or when walking down the street. Consider how her thought process may be different from the thoughts of ordinary people – more chaotic, more disciplined, more or less fully formed. Pay attention to the way you think so you have a model to move away from.

• Cut to the chase. Write a tense beginning that shows your WS in action.

• 24/7. Show how your WS never has time off from his evil. Maybe his thoughts won’t give him a break. Maybe as soon as he performs one heinous act, the urge rises instantly to perform another. Maybe he ticks off his villainy the way we check off items on a shopping list. Comedy is always possible.

• World class. Show your WS getting the best of another baddie or a clever and powerful good opponent. Let your reader see what the WS’s victim (not super powerful, not extraordinarily clever) will be up against.

If your WS keeps turning into a hero, don’t worry about it. She may show her awful side eventually, or not. Just keep writing.

When you play out a cliche without using its words you freshen it up and get to the core that made it a cliche. By the way, Pat says, and I agree, that cliches are fine, sometimes great, if used well and sparingly. They’re also impossible to eschew completely, so don’t go on a witch hunt (cliche!) to eliminate every one.

Here’s a link to Pat’s scintillating website:

Have fun with the prompts and save what you write!

  1. What great exercises! I really like how your writing prompts can be applied to a work-in-progress.

    I've really enjoyed your book WRITING MAGIC that I got at the Texas Book Festival 2 years ago. (And your program was interesting and you were so kind at the signing too!) I was trying to figure out how I hadn't come across you blog before, and I finally found that it is relatively new. I love the direction you are taking with it.

  2. I've been thinking about cliches some more. Many of them are very descriptive, and people may use them when they are trying to describe something much more exactly than "plain" words would, like writers trying to come up with more descriptive language. I wonder how many cliches come to us through literature, and how many just spontaneously arise in the language and how they manage to stick?

    Oh, that sounds like something I could definitely research for a while to procrastinate instead of writing! 🙂

  3. Thank you for the writing prompts. I am an 18 year old writer — one of many. Ideas and inspirations come in many forms, but I really appreciate your work most of all.

    Cliches have unfortunately whittled down to nothing more than informal phrases (even if they convey great, simple truths). I enjoyed your post on how to transform triteness into story material. "Diamond in the rough" is one of my favorite cliches because it holds promise.

    I'm looking forward to the mystery novel and wish you all the best in the writing/editing process. Meanwhile, this blog is definitely something I will continue to read!

    Leah Burge

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