Hitting the frog and toad

Word count: 343           Reading time: 1-2 minutes 

When the LM takes a motorcycle trek, he always avoids what he and his mates call the super slab – those long boring bits of multi-lane highway that are the most efficient routes from A to Z. Efficiency is good, it has its place in our lives but, for a truly pleasurable experience, the road not commonly taken offers so much more.

Clichés are the super slab of our language. I love them. They allow us to converse in shorthand. How are you today? Can’t complain, no one listens. Fair to middling (or muddling for variety). When I first moved to Australia the idiom no worries was unique to that culture but it’s crossed the Pacific and is as common here now as the ubiquitous have a good day (which I notice has been upgraded in some places to excellent or awesome day). Idiom becomes cliché when it’s over-used and no longer exclusively understood or used by a particular group. On that basis I suggest that no worries is no longer an Australian speciality, it’s a cliché.

Still clichés let us travel from point A to point B with a minimum of thought and a high degree of efficiency. Like the super slab they are soulless experiences. A problem for writers is that clichés are so fixed in speech they can creep into our writing if we aren’t vigilant. Luckily we have sites like ClichéSite and the westegg ClichéFinder to double check any phrase that pops into our heads a little too easily. It’s also possible to cut and paste whole tracts of prose into another ClichéFinder site for easier identification.

At the end of the day we all know better than to use the really tired clichés (that one alone is rated journalism’s worst by Chris Pash), but what about cliché characters? How do you avoid them? Do you use The Female Character Flowchart to make sure your protagonist can hold her own? Or do you go to sites like listal to make sure you haven’t taken the super slab by mistake?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM


Feeling Resource-Full


Word count: 268                 Reading time: 1-2 mins.

One spring when I was a teenager, a dream came true with the gift of riding lessons. What I learned about horses in ten short hours stayed with me through my own horse ownership and beyond.

Still, when I started to write fiction, I thought I could do it without the help of good instruction. For one thing, I thought the creative process was meant to be inherently obvious. The other dilemma was the worry that someone would call my bluff; they would say I had no business trying to write.

So I wrote in isolation until I stumbled on a course with Kathy Page on Salt Spring Island. The island setting was magical. Kathy was warm and helpful.  At the end of that workshop, she offered a further online course that was enormously productive. After that I joined a cyber-class with Pearl Luke. Pearl’s weekly lessons were rich in writing technique and involved a group of five critiquing each other’s work. I met my writing partner in that critique group and that was an unexpected bonus.

Currently I’m taking Sarah Selecky’s course, Story is a State of Mind and it’s the best online classroom I’ve found so far. It is also the most reasonably priced and allows a person to work at his or her own pace. Margaret Atwood called this course “smart, encouraging, practical.” How much more of an endorsement does anyone need?

If you’re not in a writing class now, how do you hone your craft? Did you just jump on that horse and ride? Or are you home-schooling yourself with reference books and courses?


Photo by: Melinda Fawver

What's so funny?

Word count: 210                      Reading time: 1 minute 

Who was that lady I saw you with last night?

That was no lady, sir, that was my wife.

In his book A Voice From The Attic Robertson Davies attributed the earliest known version of this joke to Hitard[1], court jester to Edmund Ironside in the 11th century. Nine hundred years later, I laughed when I heard it.

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,” said Mel Brooks, perfectly summarizing the difficulty in writing humour. If you’re trying to write humour, how do you know what will make a reader laugh? My ethnic roots are English so sarcasm is bred in my bones. In fact I have to censor myself in polite company because a lot of people not only don’t laugh at my jokes, they find them offensive.

According to the website How Stuff Works we are thirty times more likely to laugh in a social setting than when we are by ourselves. Reading is a solitary experience so that brings us back to that first question, how do you coax a chuckle from a person sitting alone with your work? Do you ever know with any certainty what will bring a smile to your reader's face?


 Photo by: Geoffry Kuchera

[1] Robertson Davies, A Voice From The Attic, (Penguin Books, 1990)

Do you think it's sexy?

Word count: 326                               Reading time: 1-2 mins

In her blog Discover Your Inner Geisha Leslie Downer advises that the kimono should be worn low at the back, to reveal the nape of the neck. Because almost every other part of a woman’s body was concealed, the nape of the neck was held in high regard in the Japanese culture. In this portrait, Powdering the Neck, by Utamaro the poem in the upper left corner compares the graceful line of the courtesan’s neck, her hairpin and her white powdered face to snowy, moonlit landscape[1].  It’s an erotic work from a pre-eminent artist of the Ukiyo-e movement.

Years ago I scuba dived with a guy who always walked behind me as I clambered up the beach with my tonnage of gear. We dived together in spring and summer and I invariably wore clunky European sandals because they were like 4WD at the end of my legs. On our last dive together my buddy confided he had a foot fetish and I had a particularly good pair. Shortly after that we went our separate ways but the foot fetish comment stayed with me for a long time. For one thing it made me realize how varied sexual preferences can be.

Then along came E L James and her admitted mid-life crisis which she turned into the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. It’s billed as erotic romance. I’ve also heard it called bad writing with lots of excellent pornography. Maybe this fetish-based literature is just the 21st century equivalent of the nape of the neck, one of the last few taboos that remained, and has now been revealed to mainstream readers.

If your work involves characters over the age of thirteen, you probably need to know something about their sexuality. How do you know if your character has a nape-of-the- neck tastes or salivates at the sight of certain body piercings? Does he or she have a chest in their bedroom full of ropes and riding crops?


Print: Utamaro


[1] Wendy Shore, Ukiyo-E, (Shorewood Fine Art Books 1980)

What do you know?

Word count: 240           Reading time: 1 minute 

Write What You Know. A one-second Google search attributes that quote to Mark Twain. WWYK is such an absolute Writing Truth that if you haven’t heard it from a teacher or read it somewhere, you probably can’t call yourself a true writer.

A couple of weeks ago the LM* and I went to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in Washington State. Photos don’t do it justice. Walking the acres of vibrant flowers is a sensual experience. The colours infuse the air with an energy that cannot be captured in a flat medium. I’ve seen it, felt it, smelled it, and touched it, so now I can entertain the reading public with a story about it, right? Maybe – if that story involves vampires, quirky S&M relationships or other forms of high fantasy.

WWYK would be a limiting truth if it meant writers should reduce themselves to simple, physical experiences. I interpret it to mean: write honestly, write from the heart. Physical details can be researched and discovered but an open soul is what makes writing resonate. If you’re writing about life in a parallel universe and you bring strong emotions to the page, it won’t really matter whether you’ve visited Planet Xenos or not; readers will be too captivated to notice.  

Do you limit yourself to the things you’ve seen and done or do you leap into new worlds and go where they lead you?

* Leading Man


Photo: Alan Bolitho, LM