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Writers fear the word “cliché” almost like it’s catching, a sort of literary herpes. The problem with clichés is that we’re surrounded by them—in speech, on television and movies, on billboards. Clichés are the currency of communication in both speech and the media, so it can be hard to disentangle them from the air we breathe.
Fun fact: The word cliché began with the printing press. In those days, when you wanted to create a page of text, you had to assemble it letter by letter. Words or phrases that were used a lot started to come pre-assembled to save time. These pre-assembled stereotype blocks were called “clichés.”
Sayings and slang are one type of cliché. Think: “On a dark and stormy night” or “happily ever after.” The first guy who said, “It’s raining cats and dogs” must have seemed like a genius. But when you hear that phrase now you don’t picture the dogs, the cats, the sounds of their furry bodies smacking the ground. And that’s the problem. If good writing intends our readers to engage, then clichés encourage us to disengage.
I love this alphabetized list of cliches from the How to Slay a Cliche website:
but here are other types of clichés so insidious we may not even recognize them: descriptions like a “pounding heart”; characters that are all good or all bad like the jock, the cheerleader, or the villain; plots that unfold/resolve in predicable ways, like “the butler did it” or waking from a dream at the end of the story.
Any overworn idea can become a cliché. I once had an editor tell me that all my characters “rolled their eyes”. Not believing her, I did a search through my manuscript and found over 100 instances! Needless to say (cliché!) I have not had a character roll their eyes since.
The sin isn’t in writing clichés, the sin is in not revising them. Each mindless cliché is instead an opportunity to say it in your own, unique, fresh, fantastic way. And that’s the real problem with clichés—they aren’t your original creative wonderful fresh brilliance but a mosaic of everyone else’s rehashed ideas. You don’t want your readers to disengage from your writing because it’s been said a million times (cliché), you want them to be on the edge of their seats (cliché). But if you’re using predictable combinations of words or writing about predictable situations, then your reader is more likely to tune out (cliché) rather than tune in, because he or she has already “been there, done that” (cliché.) See?
So here’s my favorite technique to inoculate yourself against clichés:
Step away from your work for one hour and instead write a story using as many clichés as possible. Cliché phrases, ideas, concepts, idioms, characters, descriptions—really do it up. This will be liberating and fun and ridiculous.
Then after an hour, return to your editing and watch all your own clichés pop right off the page.
“Step right up and meet a woman so determined to be a star she’ll try anything, including spray on Instant Fame! Meet her reflection, who dreams of a life of her own and manages to find love on the Internet! See the man desperately trying to earn a world record in the most bizarre way possible! Learn the origins of the Four-Legged Woman and the Human Skeleton! Clown mothers, suicidal ringmasters, cult leader who teach the cha-cha and Alaska Jackson’s Traveling Medicine Show…each one takes center stage in this vaudeville of flash fiction. Flash fiction, microfiction, short-short stories… regardless of the name, it’s all the same—a compressed story that packs a punch. Enter a cabaret of the weird, the absurd, and the bizarre with this bold and bawdy new collection.”
Well, readers, I promise you this collection is like none other you’ve read and I’m thrilled that Nancy’s Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities, published by Big Table Publishing, releases to the world October 26th. This latest is “pure Stohlman,” as Pamela Painter so aptly puts it.
Told in a series of connected flashes (actually microfictions, some as brief as one sentence), this book tells the story of circus clowns and sideshow performers, with Nancy’s inimitable style and wit and what James Thomas describes as “brilliant performance art on the printed page.”
The pieces are so inventive and daring, with a voice that leaps off the page. Nancy deals with deep truths in a way that bucks straight realism. As she puts it, she feels most comfortable telling her stories “slant.” One of my favorites is this mind bender:
I was backstage. The crowd was applauding. I peeked
through the heavy maroon curtains and there was my Future Self
in the spotlight. She saw me and her face opened like a flower to
I walked on stage and sat next to her. Then I noticed I was
sitting in a chair labeled “Before” as the audience clapped and
I love what Steven Dunn has to say about this collection:
“Nancy Stohlman’s writing is so damn sharp here. And each of these shards that make up Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities is connected by this silly-sad-hopeful-absurd-melancholic web that catches everything you do not want, and you’ll find yourself longing for what’s not caught. But you will end up caught in the web too, with all of that mess. I’ve never read a book like this, and I’m excited to hear all of the conversations surrounding it.” ~Steven Dunn, author of Water and Power and Potted Meat
If you’re in the Denver area, why not treat yourself to the book’s official release and performance on Friday, October 26th at the Mercury Cafe ballroom?
Read more about this collection in Nancy’s interview at Pen and Muse.
Watch the trailer!
Cath Barton has not only released her first book, The Plankton Collector, but she will be joining Kathy Fish and I in Casperia, Italy, in May! Cath and I chat about novellas, flash fiction, and the beauty of a good writing challenge.
Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?
Cath Barton: I am actually lucky – I retired from the day job some years back so my time is my own. My challenge is to discipline myself! Sometimes I get up very early to write, though the pressure of a deadline can have me writing at all hours. My husband (who is also a writer, and also coming on retreat next May) built a wonderful room at the bottom of our garden – when I really need to focus on a story I’m writing I work down there on a laptop with no internet access.
Nancy: You are no stranger to flash fiction. How have you seen it evolve since you first started writing it?
Cath: Gosh, there is so much flash fiction being written now, and so much that is so good. And yet you’ll still hear people – writers even – asking – What’s flash fiction? Of course it covers so much, but one thing I’ve learnt is that if every word counts in a short story, every word that’s understood counts in a flash. I really got that from your Sculpting Flash Fiction course, Nancy.
Nancy: Aw, thanks for saying so, Cath. It was such a pleasure to work with you! And congratulations! You have a novella just out, ‘The Plankton Collector’. Tell us a little about the impetus for the book.
Cath: Thank you! At the beginning of 2015 a fellow member of a local writing group came out with a challenge for the group – Who’s going to write a novella this year? I found myself putting my hand up, even though I hadn’t thought about such a thing before that moment. I do like a challenge! So I did it.
Nancy: Wow, I love that! The Plankton Collector is your first book – so exciting! What advice would you have for another writer working on their first book?
Cath: It is exciting! And I’m so fortunate to get a book published. I entered my novella in a competition and won, with part of the prize being publication. The thing is though, that if you love to write, that needs to be your primary impulse, rather than the hope of publication. I read this just yesterday – “In the end people will judge you anyway, so don’t live your life impressing others, live your life impressing yourself.” I do so agree with that.
Nancy: React to this quote by Joseph Chilton Pearce: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”
Cath: If you are moved to create, the thing you create is neither right not wrong, it just is. You have to work to make it your best of course. But no-one else can create that thing – that story, in the case of a writer. Only you can write your story. We each have to find our own voice, and learn to trust it.
Nancy: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Cath: I’m not a very manually dexterous person, but I love doing origami, creating little boxes and other 3-D forms out of sheets of paper – it’s magic.
Nancy: Wow. The things we find out in these interviews! Anything else you want to add?
Cath: Just that I’m really looking forward to writing – and eating, and drinking! – with you all in Italy next Spring! Perhaps I’ll slip some origami paper into my luggage too…
Nancy: Please do!
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her prize-winning debut novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1
Many thanks to the amazing Karen Stefano, author of The Secret Games of Words and a forthcoming memoir, Vigilance, for inviting Nancy and me to take part in her wonderful podcast series. Here, we talked about all things flash fiction, about our flash fiction retreats, and did a “mini workshop” of our own flash stories. Have a listen!