On Cliches and Ideas

One of the basic rules of writing: watch out for clichés.

We are taught from the very beginning that clichés are bad; it’s a rule we learn right alongside ‘show don’t tell’, and before anyone lets us in on the sin of adverbs.  But, I ask you, what makes a cliché what it is: ‘a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse’ (thank you, dictionary.com)? A sentence, phrase or idea becomes a cliché through overuse. Overuse happens through popularity and truth.

Knowing this, I have decided to flaunt the rule and throw out the age-old, cliché question “where do you get your ideas?” to the Guild. Not everyone has chosen to answer this; some will tell you about their writing process and planning, but I like clichés (read my books, if you don’t belive me), so I am going to attempt to divine for you just where the hell some of the stuff that comes out of my head originates.

To be honest, the answer to this question is not an easy one. Just where ideas and concepts come from often gets lost in the haze once the process of plotting, writing and

Sorry this isn’t Tinkerbell, but I wanted to avoid a lawsuit

editing gets steam rolling ahead, but there is nothing magical about them, at least not for me. I wish I could tell you my Tinkerbell-looking muse descends from on high to touch her wand to my head and, voila, a fully formed story spills from the tips of my fingers, through the keyboard and onto the screen. I wish I could tell you that because it would be much easier than the reality of it, and because what young man hasn’t wished for a visit from that hot little fairy?

No, my muse is far less attractive. Most often, instead of taking the form of a petite, blonde, winged woman capable of performing magic and causing a stirring in a young man’s jeans, my inspiration comes in the form of an ugly newspaper article, an unattractive overheard conversation, a homely bit of someone’s actual past, an appalling (or sometimes not-so-appalling) picture, or plain old loathsome hard work. To illustrate, let’s have a look at my novel On Unfaithful Wings, the first book in my Icarus Fell series.

Are you ready? You might be disappointed. Are you sure? Okay.

Definitely NOT that Potter kid. DO NOT SUE!

There was no inspiration for the overall story. It came from a conscious decision and lots of hard work and brainstorming. I had finished the first two books of my “Khirro’s Journey” epic fantasy series (which will be available before the end of the year) and I raised my head long enough to have a look at what was going on in the marketplace. Do you know what I saw? Urban fantasy. Everywhere. Upon realizing this was the case, I decided that I, too, should write an urban fantasy, so the hard work began. Everyone was writing about vampires and werewolves, schools for wizards, and various cross-breeds of characters making careers as detectives and policemen to others of their ilk. So I decided my story should involve angels, which weren’t very prevalent in urban fantasy at that time (there are lots of them now, though. It seems the universe provided the idea to many of us around the same time). Next came trial and error in the character planning and plotting. No good-looking, brooding hero for me; give me a complicated, under-achieveing anti-hero with a sarcastic streak any day, and Icarus Fell was born. The story developed through writing and an attempt to make his life as pathetic as possible: make him an alcoholic, divorced from the love of his life who now hates him, his mother dead (and a nun, to boot). How else could I abuse the sarcastic bastard? How about have his wife tell him, after thirteen years of fatherhood, that his teenage son isn’t really his? That last tidbit was inspired by the true story of someone my wife knows.

Not so glamorous, is it?

My arms and chest with some other guy’s head photoshopped on. I swear!

The second Icarus Fell novel, All Who Wander Are Lost (watch for it coming out later this month), sprang directly from the first as the next logical (to me) progression of the story. The idea for the third book, which I will begin writing soon, came at the gym while I was zoning out on the elliptical trainer. It’s not so much an idea as a combining of three bits of short stories I’ve begun and not finished over the last few years (my head is not really  in short stories anymore, but if you want a taste, you can check out one here and a piece of flash fiction here). Again. more sweat (literally) than the usual romantic notions.

I guess the true answer to the question “Where do you get your ideas?” is that they come from every where and no where. For me, writing is an organic process (I can’t believe I just wrote that; I think I’ve been living on the west coast too long). I search for the idea where ever I can find it, then I hammer at it, ask questions, throw in a bunch of “what-ifs”, and obsess about it until it’s outlined. Then I start writing and screw up my tidy little outline until the book is finished. Then I edit it to cut out the crappy, uninteresting parts, the unoriginal ideas, and the clichés (well, some of them), and it’s not unusual that, at the end of it all, the finished product and the original idea may bear little resemblance to one another. No dreams, no lightning strikes, very few lightbulbs appearing above my head. Unglamorous, but true.

If all that disappoints you, then disregard what I said. What actually happens is I go to bed each night and leave my laptop on. When I get up in the morning, there are 2000 words written on my computer screen. And a new pair of shoes sitting beside it.



5 comments on “On Cliches and Ideas

  1. In my opinion, a legitimate question should never be considered cliché just because it gets asked often. If that’s the case, then “What’s your name?”, “Where did you go to school?” or “What do you do for a living?” should all be considered cliché because I get asked those things all the time. I think our industry loves to label things cliché, just for the sake of being able to sound superior by avoiding the question … *nose in air* “I won’t answer THAT – it’s so cliché.” I like your answer, BTW, and I wish more people were willing to share theirs instead of avoiding the question.

    • I think it’s high time we embrace the cliche. I’ve toyed for years with the idea of having a character who’s in love with them and uses them all the time. Just haven’t had the balls to actually see if I can have people accept that or not.

  2. Oh if only those 2000 words could write themselves! But I’m like you, my ideas come from the smallest of things and sometimes from no place at all… there’s nothing really magical about it. When people ask me what was my inspiration for my book, I just tell them that I wanted to write something, and the book was born.

    • I can ask my elves if they’ll pay you a visit, if you like. Be warned, though: they drink lots of coffee and spend more time blogging and on twitter than they do writing some days.

  3. I really do like the idea of you (and writers in general) using angels in nontraditional ways, or portraying them as ‘fallen’ or ‘descended from grace.’ I myself wrote a psuedo-angel novella that I plan on putting it for free later this year that runs along the same ‘descent’ theme, and while I plan to write more angel-esque stuff, I’ve decided to shy away from the love interest/romantically-bound heavenly creatures. My thoughts on angels and their interactions with humans would take too long for me to delve into in a comment, but I think you can get what I’m going at, haha.

    Like you said — cliches can be turned into beautiful things. It isn’t about having a unique story a lot of the time (because honestly, lots of stories aren’t unique anymore)–it’s about making something unique OUT of your idea. That can be your location, characters, setting, etc.

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