One for the writers: some thoughts on clichés.

There are clichés and there are clichés. Some popular writers fill novels with them. They work, that’s why people use them. Experienced readers, however, can find them off-putting.

There is nothing new under the sun, apparently, and we are told that even the most original plot ideas have been used before in one way or another. Some pundits have worked out that there are only seven real story lines. Others twelve. I know what they’re getting at, but I personally think that there are as many plots as there are stars in the universe, each as full of possibility as the last.

Plot clichés then, are the known and familiar planets; our Solar System, if you like.  Well charted, studied through millions of telescope lenses over the years. They are great stories, and every other story, will to some extent, be interpreted through familiarity with them.

These plot clichés have their basis in biblical stories, Greek myths and fairy tales. They are satisfying because many evolved from oral tradition, and stories that grow in this way become better with each telling—sharper conflict, more rounded characters, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Others come from the great storytellers of the last five hundred years or so. The classics. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Would we have had Harry Potter without Tom Brown’s School Days, Goodbye Mr Chips, or even Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers?

Other plot clichés have been done so many times you need a very original slant to make them interesting: man (or woman) loses their memory. Good man spawns evil son. Ne’er do well child of tycoon has to prove himself. The Cinderella idea of a girl with a great heart surrounded by a family of monsters. The ugly duckling plot has been explored in almost every situation. The prodigal son. Kane and Abel. Need I go on?

Be aware, however, that certain genres basically run with one particular plot, and then it becomes a convention rather than a cliché. Cosy romances all have pretty much the same set-up. Australian Rural Fiction often uses an outsider-coming-back-to-the-country plot. These genres generate their readability from their wealth of characterisation, and the strength of the setting.

There is only one way to avoid writing clichéd story lines, and that is to read widely in your chosen genre. Then, if you do use a plot cliché as a framework, you’ll dust it off, give it fresh characters with compelling voices, make it mean something new.

Characters can be clichés too. They’re called archetypes. We all know a friendly mechanic in blue overalls, a funny dentist who hands out lollypops, a depressed, rebellious teenager, or an adult who never grows up, but once you get to know them, you find that they all have unique qualities of their own.

Elements of clichés exist in all humans, but unless you’re writing something deliberately basic, you need to make your characters complex and interesting. Clichés are neither.

The late Robert Graves, in his wonderful poem, The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers, advises that you should populate your novel with random travellers on a train, or a tea shop. Try having a look next time you’re waiting for a coffee. These people are all interesting in their own way. Describe some of them. I often take a notebook to public places and write short, descriptive phrases about everyone I see.

It’s amazing how few outright clichés you will find. Much fewer than in the latest Hollywood romantic comedy. Best of all are the characters that raise questions in your mind. An elderly woman wearing a red coat and blue beret holds a faded biscuit tin. What’s in the tin? Why is that teenage girl holding hands so tightly with that sad little boy? Make your characters fidget, look around, and get jealous. Make them do real things that real people do.

Most, but not all, clichés are based on looks. Dialogue helps too. As we walk down the main street of our town we are constantly assessing people. That kid with a skateboard tucked under one arm, baggy shorts and his cap on backwards, he’s a skater. Smokes dope, does graffiti and wags school, doesn’t he? Not if he’s your nephew, because then you know that he also collects rare coins, came second in his school in maths, and is a talented long-distance runner. Or the old man driving down the road at seventy km/hour. If he was your grandfather you’d know that he raced for Holden at Bathurst in the 1960s.

The thing that separates clichés from real living characters is detail. Clothes, age, facial features and hair colour are a great start. But readers need more than that. They need to know the characters’ experiences—what made them as people. The great writers of commercial fiction can paint these details in very quickly, with just a few strokes of the pen (or keyboard). The finer points of character, in genre fiction, are best fed into the story a little at a time. Literary writers will slowly build immensely detailed characters.

Don’t write nationality clichés: the disciplined, obedient German, the gruff, penny-pinching Scotsman, the loud American, the ocker Aussie. People might see these as insulting. Or jobs: The boring accountant, the stern headmaster, the selfish (or selfless) politician.

One way to stop yourself writing lots of clichés is to stop writing so fast! Writing 1500 words in an hour is not writing—it’s putting a stream of consciousness onto the page. Your brain is assembling images into words as fast as it can. The quickest way it can do this is to use clichés. They are a kind of image shorthand.

You have to stop, not let your mind choose the easiest pathway, but give it time to find an original and creative idea.

Sometimes that superfast writing is great for an action sequence, or riffing on a theme, where you just open up and see what comes out, worrying about editing later, but if you do it all the time, the editing will be beyond you. And you want to be editing something that’s at least half decent.

Look at the world through your eyes, not someone else’s.

Occasionally clichés can be used to enhance the vernacular of a particular environment: ‘Stone the Crows, Mary, get off your high horse.’

The only way to avoid clichés in your chosen genre is to read, read, read.

Have some fun. Turn archetypes on their ear. Use thoughtful, original detail. If there is a secret to writing, that’s probably it.

© 2018 Greg Barron

Browse titles at ozbookstore.com

Do I read as well as write? Of course I do.

Writers are readers too. In this post I’m going to share my development as a reader. Some of you will relate to the books that were pivotal enough for me to remember. Others will have had an entirely different literary experience.

At the age of six or seven I read my first proper book with chapters. It was called Double Trouble for Rupert. My brother got it from Scholastic’s Lucky Book Club. I can honestly remember understanding at the time that I had just been given the key to a door, and that I could open it whenever I liked.

I read the Hardy Boys detective novels, Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven, and Archie comics. My far-seeing parents gave me a boxed set of Angus and Robertson Australian classics. We were living in Canada by the time I was eleven, and I missed my country. Ion Idriess, Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd, Miles Franklin, Lennie Lower and Tom Collins, took me home.

By the age of thirteen I was reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. I loved Alistair Maclean’s Ice Station Zebra. Desmond Bagley. Dick Francis. Hammond Innes. In between thrillers I still delved into my stack of Commando war comics, or snuck back to Richie Rich, Donald Duck and MAD magazine.

At fifteen or so I read When the Lion Feeds and worked my way through all of Wilbur Smith’s African adventures. I still think he is the most vivid writer of popular fiction on the planet, though his early books were far better than some of his later ones.

In my early twenties the university crowd turned me on to the literature of the day. Peter Carey’s Illywacker was mind-blowingly original, and showed me my country with entirely new eyes. It had paragraphs I needed to read over and over just to savour the way the words sounded. I discovered F Scott Fitzgerald. I felt like I lived a hundred lives in Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia.

At the age of twenty-seven I was living on a remote cattle station in the Territory. I read The Shining, alone in my caravan with a shotgun on my lap, while the curlews screamed, down towards the river. One night, over at Florina Station homestead, drinking beer with the ringers, I found Larry McMurtry’s  Lonesome Dove on a shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks and asked if I could borrow it. Another vivid writer, the best dialog I’d ever read, and such characters! The Wild West came to life in my mind.

A few years later, Peter Watt showed me that Australian History could be written into colourful novels just like McMurtry had done with the Wild West. I read Jon Cleary, Thomas Keneally. I struggled with other books that I was told I should read. Colleen McCullough showed me that deep research could go hand in hand with great fiction. Tom Clancy impressed me with his polish and knowledge of militaria.

I started writing seriously not long after that, but did I stop reading?

Never! The books on the shelf next to my desk are by Sebastian Faulks, John Steinbeck, James Clavell, James Michener, Stephen King, Ken Follett, Bryce Courtenay, Kevin Powers, Neville Shute, Gary Jennings, Leon Uris, Kurt Vonnegut, and contemporary Aussie authors like Steve Worland, Tony Park, Stephen Horne, Rachael Johns, Majok Tulba, Favel Parrett, Karly Lane, Kylie Ladd, Nicole Alexander, Margareta Osborn, Felicity Young, Helene Young, Tony Cavanaugh and many more. The picture attached to this post is my bedside table, and it has a different pile of books again, about half of which I’ve finished reading and been too lazy to put back on the shelf.

The books you read say a lot about who you are. So if I’m over at your house and I head straight to the bookcase … I’m just curious, okay?

Cheers

Greg

Not that I am a complete introvert or anything, but I’m starting to get butterflies over my first ever panel chair at a writers’ festival. I’ll be sitting down with four amazing writers and asking them, “Why is fiction so hard to write? Or is it?”

The panel is made up of:

1)      Mark Dapin, journalist and author of a number of books, including the excellent R&R, set in Vung Tau during the Vietnam War.

2)      Debra Oswald, head writer of the tv series Offspring and novelist. Her latest book Useful is both hilarious and has some of the most real characters you’ll ever meet in a book.

3)      Jane Messer writes short stories, radio plays and novels, the most recent of which is the fabulous Hopscotch. She is also the Director of the postgraduate Creative Writing program at Macquarie University

4)      Graham Potts is a serving member of the Royal Australian Air Force and has just released a cracker of an international/ action/political thriller.

Come and join us at the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, Saturday June 11th, 2.15 pm in the atmospheric Memorial Hall.

For more details check out:

http://bellingenwritersfestival.com.au/brwf-2016-program/

Finally! Lethal Sky is out today. In all good bookshops across Australia, New Zealand and online.

Finally! Lethal Sky is out today. In all good bookshops across Australia, New Zealand and online.

A light aircraft flies over Sydney carrying the spores of a deadly microbe, enough to render the city uninhabitable for decades. Intelligence agent Marika Hartmann races to the scene, unable to shoot the plane down for fear of releasing the spores.

In Europe and America a swarm of terrifying new weapons, armed with the same bio-agent, gather in the skies. In this new world where drones scan our lives from above, and industrial powers spread their lethal hardware worldwide, who can be trusted? Who will be saved?

If you like Matthew Reilly, Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum you’ll love this one.

Booktopia: http://bit.ly/1iKiXBe

Amazon: http://bit.ly/R4GiTt

iBooks: http://bit.ly/R4Gz8P

Google Play: http://bit.ly/R4GYYL

Acknowledgements and Thanks

Acknowledgements and Thanks

With the release of Lethal Sky just one week away, I thought I’d take the opportunity to thank all those who helped with research along the way.

David Andresen was kind enough to take me on a tour of the microbiology lab at St Vincents Hospital, explaining the operation of equipment from Maldi-TOF machines to spore cracking robots. John Carroll made sure I didn’t make any errors in the handling of powerful road bikes. Michael Garrett advised me on HyperSpectral imaging and aeronautical engineering. Former US Special Forces operative, call sign: ‘BlackSheep,’ read my manuscript to check for realism and accuracy, he will also launch Lethal Sky at Gleebooks on July 5. A very special thank you to Kelly Inglis, Author for her help with the microbiology background detail in the book. Kelly took valuable time away from her job as a lecturer and her own writing to make suggestions and explain scientific concepts. She read certain sections several times, followed by the entire manuscript. Thanks so much. Chris Morgan from our water police helped with suggesting a suitable police boat to be seen on Sydney Harbour. Shannon Ward helped enormously with details about light plane operation and was also brave enough to give me lessons. Michelle Garrett helped out with some French translations.

Thanks to all of you. Lethal Sky is a far better book because of your input.

With a sigh of relief from both myself and HarperCollins editorial staff, the final version of Lethal Sky has just gone off to the printers for a July 1 release. This one is especially exciting for me, because it’s the first of my thrillers that features some Australian locations. Thanks to all involved and I can’t wait to hold the finished product in my hands.

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The Mother of a Soldier

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A couple of years ago our local hall had a second hand book sale, hundreds of dusty titles on four rickety trestle tables. I purchased a number of books, and at home I went through my acquisitions one by one – checking the binding, reading the front sheets, overjoyed at these inexpensive additions to my modest collection. Amongst my purchases was a century old Catholic text called ‘Mary’s Praise on Every Tongue,’ by P.J. Chandlery, bound in blue cloth. A golden nativity scene in the shape of a shield adorned the cover.

When I picked up the book and flicked through, a loose paper caught my eye. It was a poem clipped from a newspaper, butter yellow and creased to leathery softness, as if it had been handled a thousand times. This snippet of forgotten literature was called ‘The Soldier,’ and credited to some long ago wordsmith called Florence Earle Oates.

Dear God, I raised my boy to be a soldier;

I tried to make him strong of will and true;

I told him many a tale of deeds heroic—

The noblest and the sweetest tales I knew…

Turning back to the front papers I found the original owner’s name, and the date, March 1915. An image came to me of a mother’s lonely vigil while her son huddled in his trench and clutched his Lee Enfield ten thousand miles away.

Over the following days I could not get that mother and her son out of my mind. What had happened to him? Had he returned? I needed to know the result of that vigil. How much information did I need? I had a name and hoped it would be enough.

I obtained the war record of the only WWI digger who could have matched the name on the book’s front pages. It took about two weeks to arrive. Before I opened the envelope I reread the snippet of poetry, imagining the solace a mother might have drawn from those gentle words—of how they might have filled the silent, endless nights. I thought of Gallipoli, Verdun, and the Somme, where sixty thousand men died in a single day.

Inside the envelope, a neat printed folder protected the loose photocopied sheets. Opening this, I read every word—the personal details, the postings and misadventures that had punctuated Harry’s journey to France. I learned that he had played the piano, and that just days off the boat he had copped some shrapnel.  Six weeks later, he was back at the front, and mentioned in dispatches, for bravery.

I read the telegram that told his parents of his death. My mind’s eye saw the telegram boy, and the priest’s tragic walk through the garden and up the steps. I pictured her face when she heard the news. I felt what she felt, my chest ached with her pain.

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 And so I raised my boy to be a soldier;

A patriot soldier, brave, devoted, free.

And now, and now¾with grateful trust, O Father.

I give him to my country and to Thee.

From a forgotten poem I learned what it is to hate war. I learned what it’s like to be the mother of a soldier.

 

Greg Barron 2014

Sailing the world seemed like an idyllic lifestyle change for ex-model Victoria and her husband Peter Holt-Bennett. That was before they discovered the realities of seasickness, sandflies, isolation and desperate pirates off the west coast of Africa.

Half-starved, AK47 toting gunmen, led by a soldier of fortune called Drake, board their luxury catamaran off the coast of Guinea. Terrorised and violated, the hostages must attempt to raise five million dollars to save themselves, and their four year old child.

While their lives hang in the balance, a team of crack 2CG operatives, led by Marika Hartmann, launch a do or die mission to save them. But Drake is more than he seems, and the stakes are higher than anyone could have imagined. Battling against modern weapons coupled with malicious stone-age beliefs, Marika will match wits with a man who appears to anticipate her every step.

VOODOO DAWN will be released globally this Saturday March 1 by HarperCollins Books Australia. Preorder at: http://amzn.to/1ldWEWk

Writing in Myanmar

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Yes, getting a book published is hard everywhere, but a chance encounter in Myanmar gave me some perspective on just how hard it can be.
I met Min Wun* at a Buddhist monastery in Yangon. He showed my family and I around the prayer halls and living areas. We got to talking (he speaks English very well) and discovered, to our pleasure and surprise, that we are both writers.
He asked me if it’s hard to get published, in the West. I said yes, and summarised the decade long apprenticeship that preceded my fiction deal with HarperCollins. I asked him the same question.
Well …

Min Wun comes from the north, from one of the six Kachin tribes who have been fighting the Burmese military for independence, for decades. His family were too poor to offer him more than a cursory education, but he was determined. He worked hard, and read every book he could get his hands on.
His excellent results, and single-minded determination forced his parents to find the money to send him to a school beyond the usual fifth grade. He dreamed of university and beyond. He dreamed of being a writer.
When he was sixteen however, the Kachin Independence Army had other ideas. Min Wun’s English skills and intellectual aptitude made him a hot property. He was drafted into the rebel forces, an assault rifle thrust into his hands.
For two years he was sent on hazardous undercover missions. He went on armed raids, and scouted out military bases. He saw his people’s villages razed and bombed by government forces. He lost friends and family members to the war.
Finally, however, he saw an opportunity. Min Wun was able to leave, walking eight hundred kilometres to Yangon. As a Buddhist, he was welcome to stay at the monastery where I met him, and was able to enrol in a literature degree at Yangon University.
In the darkened rooms of the monastery at night, he found time to start the novel he had always dreamed of writing. But publishing, in Myanmar, is controlled by state-run publishers. Min Wun didn’t want to write sycophantic stories praising the government. He had seen terrible things. He wanted to expose. He wanted to write the truth. (See example below of the standard regime propoganda in the frontpapers of Burmese books)
Foreign publishers are his only chance, and Min Wun now writes in English, working to finish his novel and saving enough money to submit his work to an English language publisher overseas. Another problem looms in that now, as his university course is almost finished, he has to pay the monastery back for years of free board with two years of service as a Buddhist monk. The demands of this life will make writing very difficult.
It’s amazing how travel can teach us that things aren’t so hard for us, after all. I’m in touch with Min, and will help him as much as I can with his dream. After all he’s been through, it’s the least I can do.

* I have changed Min’s name for his own protection.

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