Smashing Clichés

Movies featuring things blowing up are popular. People like to watch demolitions, from buildings to demolition derbies. And then there is art-to-be burned, such as Burning Man and Zozobra. When I lived in Virginia, I used to clean the park where I ran and sometimes enlisted the help of several boys who played there. One day, they found a large toy firetruck in the stream and pulled it out—and proceeded to smash it to pieces with rocks. This was obviously more fun than playing with it.

Someone has been making faces on the trail where I run in the desert. Not walking along being silly, but arranging pebbles in smiley-faces on top of the rocks that mark the edge of the trail. The first one didn’t annoy me, but then they multiplied. I don’t mind intriguing, meaningful art made among the desert rocks. A labyrinth. A miniature Stonehenge-like creation. A rounded lava rock that looks like a fertility goddess surrounded by a little maze and an altar. A small rock nestled in a hollow in a large rock just because it fits so perfectly. Such arrangements fall over gradually or get covered with sand, and nature looks natural again. Someone left a small painted rock near the trail, red white and blue with the Texas flag’s star, the name of a soldier who died in combat, and few words of love and honor. It means something. No one moves it. Perhaps he used to love this trail and used to hike it with the person who left the rock. But smiley-faces? Twenty or more of them? That’s nineteen clichés too many.

On a lovely, sunny, seventy-degree winter day, I got tired of them and gave a swipe at one as I passed. No effect. The pebbles had been glued to the trail-marker rock. What the heck? Did the face-maker think this stuff should be permanent? I soon found that a quick kick could dislodge most features of the glued-on smiley-faces, and it felt good. Can I justify it? Maybe not, but to me, gluing all those faces along the trail was arrogant. If they’d been arranged lightly, without attachment, I might have knocked one aside and been content, had my fun like the boys smashing the toy firetruck, and forgotten about it. Nature would have blown them away eventually.

Writers are regularly advised to “kill your darlings,” those scenes we love that weigh down the pace, or those wonderful (to us) witty lines that don’t serve the story. We have to weed out clichés and our favorite over-used words. They can have an effect on readers like seeing twenty-plus smiley faces, an intrusion on the flow of enjoyment. Today I noticed that someone else had destroyed smiley-faces. There were face-pattern glue marks on some rocks with branches laid over them, as if my fellow self-appointed curator of trail art was saying, “Don’t even think about putting that back.”

Sometimes I store my cut scenes and lines for a while, in case I want to put them back, but ninety-percent of those darlings never return. Nothing in the first draft is glued in place. I have to destroy in order to create. Fortunately, I enjoy revision. It’s a lesson in non-attachment, and almost as much fun as smashing a smiley.

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Continuing Education

I just finished a two-week intensive course on plot arcs. Writers aren’t required to get CECs the way health and fitness professionals are. I don’t have to renew a certification or have to take a certain number of courses per two-year period to prove to anyone that I’m keeping up my skills. But I have to keep learning.

People sometimes ask me why I go all the way to Albuquerque to take yoga classes every couple of weeks, classes I don’t get CECs for. The other teachers in T or C are good, after all. But they’re my peers. We’re equals. While I enjoy their classes, I also want to study with someone more advanced than I’ll ever be. I get excellent critiques from other writers, my peers, but I took a class with my editor’s editor.

It forced me to outline my work in progress before I completed the first draft, which I don’t usually do until I’ve improvised the whole plot, so it was challenging. I’m not sure my outlines made sense. But the ideas the instructor brought to the course did. Her structure for pacing and tension, for weaving in secondary storylines, and the key elements that need to take place in various portions of a book, will help me when I revise. She said she admired my bravery in staying with my “pantsing” (writer-talk for flying by the seat of your pants through the first draft) style while being required to outline. Maybe that was a diplomatic word for stubbornness. I don’t think I was brave. It’s just how I create. When I make plans, my characters seldom go along with them. I look forward to applying what I learned in the course when I do the major revisions in the second draft—once I know what everyone is up to.