Thursday Boggle #111

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Boggle 111

A No Go or a No Brainer? Clichés in Dialogue

If writers were to take an oath, like medical practitioners do, and pledge to do no harm to the art form, one of the foremost promises of the oath would be to refrain from using clichés and idioms. These tired phrases add nothing to writing, their use overdone, their meaning undermined. On the contrary, they take from writing: its originality, creativity, and poetry.

No one wants to come across a cliché in a book. It’s a cheat. A writer falls back on clichés and idioms literally for a lack of better words. Like stereotypes and tropes, clichés are familiar and easily understandable and thus boring. There’s no beauty, no surprise, no provocation. Nothing in a cliché warrants a reader’s pausing and dwelling on it, other than to issue an annoyed eye-roll. Same old, same old.

Yet I wonder if clichés can have a spot in writing. People use clichés every day in their natural speech—that’s part of the reason why these phrases are clichéd. Putting such common phrases into characters’ dialogue would be realistic, then, would it not?

Real people stutter, repeat words, misuse words, rephrase themselves midsentence, and use clichés. Real people are not as witty, pithy, snappy, quick, or eloquent as fictional dialogue makes them out to be. A character who speaks with filled pauses, idioms, their own catch phrases, and the like, would be realistic, representative of real speech patterns.

As with any other element in fiction, however, there’s a limit to how realistic dialogue can be.

As an example, a book I proofread recently featured two characters who have deep insecurities and anxieties that manifest in halting, stuttering dialogue and inner monologue. Their speech and narrative were choking on ellipses. These two characters could not complete a sentence without ellipses interrupting their words.

While their dialogue portrayed their insecurities well and characterized them effectively, and was realistic, the dialogue was unbearable. Not sixty pages into the book, and I wanted to remove each and every one of those ellipses. They slowed the dialogue, interrupted its flow, and were plain annoying. I came to loathe those characters because of the way they spoke. Realistic? Yes. Enjoyable? Hell no.

So what about clichés? They are realistic for dialogue, but they might also have the effect of normalizing and monotonizing characters as they do for narrative. Could they be sprinkled in with a light hand for effect, or would their presence at all be offensive? Should writers stick to the oath and leave it at that?

Thursday Boggle #110

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Boggle 110

Writing under the Clock

Don’t look at the clock when trying to fall asleep. The time will only add stress and increase how long it takes to fall asleep.

The same should be said about writing. Do not look at the clock. The time will only add stress and increase how long it takes to write.

For me, anyway. I am not a fast writer. Not only do I take a long time to formulate my ideas and figure out what I am going to write, but I also take a long time figuring out how I am going to write and put those ideas into words.

I can waste away first one, then two, even three hours contemplating my writing without having written anything. A quick glance at the clock, of course, sprinkles a dash of frustration and a hint of panic into the blend that does not enhance the creative juices. I’m still an undercooked chicken.

I’ve come across a few tricks that are said to improve writing speed or at least coax some ideas onto the page:

  • If writing on paper, keep the pen moving on the page. This could mean squiggles, doodles, and smiley faces, but do not stop the pen. The physical movement keeps your thoughts active.
  • If writing onscreen, keep typing. This is a bit harder to do onscreen than on paper because you can’t doodle with your keys. However, you can retype the last word, phrase, or sentence you typed until fresh words come to your fingers.
  • Set a timer for a short period, such as twenty minutes, and write as much as possible in that time. When the timer buzzes, finish your sentence and then stop writing. No, really, stop. Imposing a time crunch might help you focus more, but it also leaves your writing midthought so that it might be easier to start and continue through later.
  • Write for a short period of time every day. You can do this trick in conjunction with the one above to keep your time consistent. Writing every day, even for a short time, exercises your writing muscles. Gradually, writing will become easier and you will have less time between the staring-out-the-window, staring-at-a-blank-page phase, and I’m-on-a-roll-writing phases.

The last trick worked best for me. I developed a routine of writing every day at the same time. At first, like committing to a workout regimen, I dreaded sitting down to write. I didn’t want to devote a half hour of my day to writing. The first few sessions were embarrassing; I barely got any words down on the page before the timer went off. How out of shape my writing muscles were.

But I stuck with it, and though the first few weeks were the toughest, I came to enjoy my writing sessions. I looked forward to them. I wanted to continue with what I had written the previous day. I also increased my time to one hour, then an hour and a half. It wasn’t long before I had to force myself to stop because my stomach told me in loud remonstrations that lunchtime had passed.

What I learned in trying to write faster is that there is no get-fast-quick trick. I might as well stick a straw in my mouth, hold my breath, and waggle my arms about. Nothing will help me speed my writing other than writing itself. In writing, the clock can be both the instrument of panic and failure and the instrument of anticipation and success.


Thursday Boggle #109

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Boggle 109

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rating clarification: 2.5 stars

Oscar Wilde is deliciously quotable in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I could flip to almost any page and find a thought-provoking, reflective, or simply charming phrase. His writing is extravagant, built on detailed descriptions of luxurious places, objects, and pastimes, and long bursts of narcissistic, gossipy dialogue.

Wilde’s three main characters, Dorian, Basil, and Lord Henry, are just as flamboyant as Wilde’s writing. All three are consumed with the ideal of the aesthetic. They obsess over appearances, that of themselves and others, as well as art itself. As such, they converse much but say little in the way of meaning and substance. Lord Henry’s hedonistic rants are especially ostentatious, full of wit and pretension. He would be my favourite character to quote.

Like a true artiste, Wilde matches the form of his art to its content. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an essay on aesthetics, beauty, and art for art’s sake. As Wilde said in defense of his novel, “All art is quite useless,” and goes on to prove it in his almost garish writing.

For Wilde to so poignantly prove his own point, I would have rated this book much higher—except that the book is so boring. The corruption of Dorian’s picture doesn’t happen until a good bit into the plot, and the plot itself is uninteresting. Too much foppery and gossip for my liking. In addition, Dorian’s corruption is told through exposition rather than scenes, and the ending is, well, neat, but unsatisfying.

Wilde is too good. He proved that art is useless. I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of the characters or be moved by the story. I can’t like this book purely for its aesthetics.

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Thursday Boggle #108

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Boggle 108