A while back I was reading a short story to a group of writers and must have used a well worn expression. At the end of the reading there was a short discussion and one ‘literary’ minded scholar looked at me with arched eyebrows and commented that he was certain he had read that expression before—making it plain as a pikestaff that he believed it was a cliché. But I was cool as a cucumber, letting the remark run off me like water off a duck’s back.
This raised the question as neat as a nail regarding use or overuse of clichés or familiar expressions that have become part of everyday speech. Many manuals on writing throw up their hands in horror and rail against the use of familiar expressions or maxims or clichés but sometimes this is a well tried and tested way of getting your point across.
My response to this criticism at the time was measured and succinct. I pointed out that I was not a ‘literary’ writer. I wrote pulp fiction though even this is not strictly true, for in the writing world, pulp fiction refers to a particular period in publishing. But I like to feel I would fit in with that gang.
Pulp fiction was a term applied to the mass publication of stories in magazines which were printed on cheap pulpy paper and churned out in ever increasing numbers during the nineteen thirties and forties and into the fifties. The magazines were published weekly and had a price tag of ten cents, an outlay which made it available to a whole spectrum of readers. Writers of these hastily penned stories included such names as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Max Brand and H.P. Lovecraft.
My own favourite of the period was Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote science fiction and penned the fabulous Tarzan stories. I think I must have read everything he ever wrote and could still pick up any of his books today and engage with it.
Interestingly enough one of Burroughs’ books, John Carter of Mars, was made into a film in 2012. Wouldn’t you know I had to go and see it when it was released! It was panned by the critics but it held me spellbound. Anyway I divert my omnibus down a one way street, so, on with it, as the nun said to the bishop.
What did I mean when I said I was not a ‘literary’ writer; for ‘literary’ quite literally means—according to my online dictionary— concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form. In other words the quality of the writing has to be taken into consideration—a well turned sentence and the use of an extensive vocabulary etc.
So what the academics are on the lookout for in writing, is serious, succinctly constructed material, usually fiction written for an educated, well-versed audience by skilled authors devoted to the art of good writing. How’s that for a mouthful? Examples of this would be writers who enter for literary awards—to name but two: Man Booker and Nobel.
None of the authors mentioned as pulp writers, even though very successful in their chosen genre, would qualify for these so called ‘literary’ prizes. I think I read somewhere that Stephen King, one of the most successful living writers, has never been recognized by any literary cadaver—sorry, I mean body.
So which field do you mooch around in? Are you a ‘literary’ writer or a commercial fiction author? As for me, I regard myself as an entertainer. I write to give people a taste of pleasurable escapism. By no standards is my writing ‘literary’ only in the general sense that it is script.
Most of you reading this are readers. You read a book either for knowledge or entertainment, or as my online dictionary puts it: to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. And that is what I hope I do for my readers.
So don’t worry about clichés and using common or garden words in your writing. Write for your unfussy readers that just want to bury their heads in a book and forget the world around them. He or she is not critical of your writing style. They just want to lose themselves in the make-believe world you have constructed for them. But use them sparingly. Don’t overegg the pudding.
With this in mind I composed the following:
My feet were heavy as lead as I contemplated the road ahead of me. It was as hard as flint and black as coal and ran straight as an arrow. I was thinking that you could lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, or as Dorothy Parker is reputed to have said: ‘you can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think’.
But then the thought crossed my mind that more haste makes for less speed and at least it wasn’t raining cats and dogs. No, the weather was as dry as a bone though it has been claimed that every cloud has a silver lining. Then again it is also true that what goes around comes around. But all these sayings were as old as the hills and only time will tell if they will last as long as Methuselah was reputed to live.
There I go, like a fire station burning down, wittering on like an old fart relating his shaggy dog story. So I shall finish on an upbeat note – if we are not as slow as the tortoise, we can all live and learn.
Now have a go yourself. See how many proverbs, sayings, maxims etc. that you can use in a piece of writing. Most importantly have fun. Enjoy what you are doing.
About the Author
Philip is a vegetarian living in the UK. He has two children and five grandchildren. He writes Westerns and has 15 published. He is the author of Winged Destiny and The Caves of Bluestone on BigWorldNetwork.com.