HWSWAnswers: Revision, Cliches and Tropes

Cate asked:
Any tips for revising? Right now I read it and fix the parts I don’t like, then my beta reader reads it and I fix the parts that she doesn’t like. Which works good for putting out a finished product that is lacking in bad parts, but seems a little lacking for putting out a finished product that is rich in good parts.

I trust my antenna for revising. If something bothers me, like the 707 above, it’s wrong. Needs to be fixed. I print out every 25,000 words or so and get the red pen out because it looks different on paper. With this new mss I’m going to print out a good draft, then randomly pick individual pages and line edit those without focusing on story until I do them all.

First figure out what the main plot of the book is. If your discovery drafts are like mine, they’re all over the place. Nita had a romance plot and a supernatural mystery plot and one of those had to be the main plot making the other a subplot in service to the main plot. It’s a romance, so I could cut a lot of the mystery stuff that couldn’t be connected to the romance.
Then sort everything into acts and find the turning points and make sure the turning points come from the main plot. Then makes sure the turning points turn all the subplots and character arcs, too. That’s hugely helpful for focus. Quick and dirty analysis: Boil every act down to a one sentence description of the main plot in that section, then put them together to see if they make a four-sentence summary of the plot. Do the same for subplots and then go back and look at those things in the story to see if you can focus those elements even more.

Then look at your important characters’ arcs and make sure they’re all active throughout the acts. It’s very easy to drop a supporting character you’re going to need later, but even if that character’s arc is minor, you need it in every act for that sense of continuity and so that the reader doesn’t forget the character and wonder who the hell they are when they show up again. You can also do the four-sentence exercise to make sure your arcs are smooth.Read the story on the screen, read the story on paper, read the story out loud. Then send to the beta readers. Look at what your betas tripped over, not at the solutions they propose (you’re writing this, they’re reading it, all that matters is what threw them out of the story as readers).There’s a lot more, but that should help get out of the piecemeal rewrite problem. Look at the shape of the big picture (collage really helps me here).

Everyone has to find their own process. Try different things.

Could you be more specific? I know you rewrite these days.

I start over several times in the course of a mss. Especially if I have a moment of enlightenment that something needs to change. So I’ve always rewritten. I’d say by the time I get done with the “first” draft, I’ve rewritten most of it five or six times.
That’s in addition to the print outs every 25k or so.

which brings us to Mary’s question:

Mary M asked:
How often do you and Bob print out your works in progress to review? Do you notice things on the printed pages that you don’t notice reading on your computers?

I usually don’t do a print out until I’m on the final-final draft or thereabouts. It’s such a waste of paper otherwise.
And the differences are HUGE. I always find a ton of stuff on the paper draft.
Another way to find things you’ve missed: Read it out loud. (Again, not until you’re in final-final range.).
Seeing it on paper is completely different from seeing it on screen; hearing it is completely different from seeing it.

Around every 25k. Also I convert the mss to mobi, or the new epub, for Amazon and read it on my kindle. Looks different like that. And self-publishing, always have to read on Kindle before hitting publish.

Oh, that’s an excellent idea.

Cate asked:
Jenny has said that plot is not the part of writing that comes naturally for her. Any tips for a non-natural plotter trying to learn how to plot mysteries? (Why can’t a book be 100% great banter?)

The four-act structure with turning points is the only thing that saves me. Pairing four acts of main plot structure with four acts of subplot structure and four acts of character arc is what gets me through, along with clear goals and arced sub-goals. But I can’t do that until I have most of a discovery draft done. Also doing a genre read helps with plot: I was all over the place with Nita until I reminded myself that it was a romance and therefore every scene had to attach to the romance in some way. That’s a huge help for focus.

Plot is not a problem for me. I’ve never run into a plot I can’t fix. I trust my subconscious more. If I put something there, even if it doesn’t make sense, I leave it. Because it will make sense later. That works both ways though. By putting it there, my brain remembers it and then later on I start connecting the dots and looping. I think looping is a key thing to understand. That means everything you write is important so there are no throwaways. I did cut something from Shane yesterday, but it was because my reason for putting it in was stupid: I had the royal couple fly in on a purple 707— why? Because there is a purple 707 lots of rock bands, including Led Zeppelin used. Cute right? Does it add to the plot? Now that I’m near the end: Nope. It’s a distraction. And the big thing is the 707 doesn’t fly any more so I had someone explaining why this one was still flying and did it have anything to do with the story? Nope. Cut it. Only two paragraphs, but it was a distraction. Kill your darlings.

Last question:

CologneGirl asked:
So if you’re still looking for questions, here’s mine. I’m sure you’ve been talking about clichés before, probably sending them to writer’s hell. But what I observe is that a lot of readers seem to like them since the bestselling books very often have them. Maybe we could talk about them a little more – how to evade them, how to put them to good use, and what is the main difference between clichés and tropes? (Forgive me if I ought to know that by now.)

Mega-bestselling authors can sell their laundry list. Well, maybe not, but often I find some writers get to a point where their books blur together and are full of cliches.
Twisting a cliché is fun. For the climactic scene of Shane I’m going to pit two people against each other that are totally different.
When I read a book or watch a show and I can predict everything that’s going to happen? That’s all cliches. I like it when I get the unexpected.

Let’s start with the differences which are, uh, fuzzy.

A trope is a plot, phrase, metaphor, whatever that has been used so often it has become a literary genre or standby. The marriage of convenience plot, “it’s better to have loved and lost” phrase, fire as a metaphor for passion, etc. A trope is usually literary although I see no reason not to define in terms of storytelling in general.

A cliché is a trope that has been used so often it’s basically worthless, worn out, devoid of any deep meaning. It’s that t-shirt you love that you should have thrown out five years ago. “Cliché” is also a kind of insult which “trope” isn’t.

Having said that, the word “trope” is so general that I’m not sure how much good it is in actual analysis. I think you have to give examples so people know which subset of tropes you’re talking about. “I find the trope of the marriage of convenience is overused to the point of cliché.” “I think the Fake Date trope is just a modern variation of the marriage of convenience.” “I’m really tired of the trope of the character who’s been hurt so much in the past that she/he/they can never love again.” “I really hate the trope of the one-night stand who finds out the next morning that that person is the new boss.” So to answer your question:

Readers like tropes because that particular trope is the kind of story they like, it fits their fantasies best.
But readers don’t like tropes because they know what’s going to happen, so they’re boring and predictable.
What readers want are the same old tropes made new, new wine in old bottles. The same but different.
The mistake writers make is writing the same, but not different.
I always go back to Shakespeare for this because he stole most of his plots, but he’s still a genius because nobody wrote them as well as he did. So assuming you don’t write as well as Shakespeare (me neither), the things you do to make tropes new are your author’s voice, the world view of the story, turning a key part of the plot upside down, fabulous characters the reader wants to spend time with, great worldbuilding . . . the list is endless. Anything that makes the reader say, “I love this kind of story but I haven’t read anything like this before.”

So the Chosen One story is a trope, but Harry Potter when he hit the scene was a new take, well-written. Same with Neo in The Matrix.

The Sinner Trying To Outrun Hell is a trope, but The Good Place zigged and zagged with a compelling protagonist and cast of misfits.

The Superhero trope has been around forever, but Iron Man made them snarky, fun, sexy, and rebellious and started a movie dynasty for viewers who’d never read a comic book.

Generally speaking, you can look at any story that caused a stir, that became water cooler talk, and it’s probably a trope that’s the same but different.

Example from my writing:
In a late rewrite, I realized I’d subconsciously taken the very old trope of the Demon Lover for the Nita book. It’s usually about a woman who takes the Devil as a lover, but when he leaves her, she marries someone else so that when he comes back to find her years later, he punishes her for her unfaithfulness in a horrible supernatural way (I think the first one was drowning her in the middle of the ocean to take her to Hell). Needless to say, the Demon Lover is not a romantic comedy trope, so I had to work the “same but different” approach: Nita falls in love with Nick, who’s going to be the Devil, but at the halfway point, he “goes away” because he loses his memory, and keeps coming back to her as a new Nick, becoming a new lover each time, annoyed because she slept with the other Nicks while she tries to convince him that they were all him. And she does go to Hell in the end, but it’s a romantic comedy so she comes back to Earth with him and lives happily ever after.

Same: Devil as lover, abandoned, tormented by his jealousy when he returns, ends up in Hell.
Different: Doesn’t betray him, chooses to go to Hell, returns triumphant with a happy ending.

Also change in the writer’s voice:The Daemon Lover ballad, 1648

“O what a black, dark hill is yon,
“That looks so dark to me?”
“O it is the hill of hell,” he said,
“Where you and I shall be.”

The Devil in Nita Dodd, god knows when it will published:
“It was dark, pitch black, and even though Nita knew she was screaming, she couldn’t hear anything.
You’re okay, Nick’s voice said in her head. You’re safe, I’ve got you. Nothing can touch you here.
Where is HERE? Is this Hell?
No, this is between Earth and Hell. This is a hellgate. We’re just staying here for a few more seconds, then we’ll go back to Earth.
“Nita thought about it. It was quiet. And warm. And her mother wasn’t there. And Nick was. I like here better.

The same but different.

I know, long answer. I am a wonk.

Interesting. Yes. Readers do have a set of expectations. If they’re reading a mystery, they expect a mystery, not something else. If you go too far out of what they expect, most of the time they go WTF? Every once in a while, someone breaks that and it works, but those are few and far between.

jenny 5:38 PM
So, the same but different. Good luck with that.

Bob Mayer 5:39 PM
Yeah. It’s like when someone tells me they’ve written a thriller mystery.
Pick your poison.

The problem with trying to combine two different genres and probably two different tropes is that you have to pick a lane, one has to be dominant, and you to do it while you’re subverting the genre/trope to avoid reader boredom. Yes, that’s difficult. Pick one.

Same with a plot. You have one main plot. One thing pulling the train. Not two. I’ve found science fiction writers have so many good ideas, they lose track of what’s pulling the plot. Unless its Snowpiercer.

Do I want to know why Snowpiercer is the exception?

It’s a train.


And that’s it. We’ll be back next week if more questions pop up in the comments.

Same bat channel. Same bat time. Is that how it went?

I don’t know. I don’t remember that.

Regardless. Batman survived. That is all.

I do remember the Superchicken theme song.

“Fred, if you’re afraid you’ll have to overlook it,
Besides you knew the job was dangerous when you took it”


I use that all the time.
“Overlook the fear,” I tell myself. “You knew the writing gig was dangerous when you took it.”

There’s much to be learned from the television of the last century.

And now, really, we’re done. Say hi to Gus and Scout for me.

Stay safe!

Jenny: You, too.

(Note: First part of this Slack chat is in previous post.)

30 thoughts on “HWSWAnswers: Revision, Cliches and Tropes

  1. Thank you for dealing so elaborately with my question. I walk away with the understanding that it’s all a matter of talent in dealing with well-worn themes in an innovative way. And yet, it pains me when
    * she sees him with another woman and will run away instead of asking him what that is about, because
    * of course the other woman is his sister
    * he had a bad childhood which makes it impossible for him to open up and let someone love him, unless it’s the heroine to whom he tells his story as soon as the campfire is lit (or the Bordeaux wine is poured, depending on the amount of money he’s got)
    * she is an innocent virgin in the Regency era but when she meets the right rake, she will turn into a sex-craving nymph as soon as he has deflowered her

    … you get my drift. I could continue this, but I guess I better go and clean my bathroom now.

    1. These aren’t only clichés, though; they’re psychologically unconvincing. Of course you’re fed up; you’ve been sold short. Find some better storytellers!

    2. Actually, I loathe all of those, too.

      I HATE the Big Misunderstanding in any romance, not just because it makes them idiots but because is also undercuts the romance. The Big Misunderstanding almost always comes at the 3/4 point, and by then they should trust each other enough to ask, “Who was that person?” I undercut it every chance I get. That’s why there’s a scene in Agnes when Agnes and Maria look in a room and see Shane on top of a writhing stripper, and Maria says, “He’s having sex with her!” and Agnes says, “No, I’m pretty sure he’s killing her,” because at that point in the relationship, she knows her guy.

      Don’t get me started on the Wound from the Past. I fully recognize that it happens in real life, but when it’s the driving force in a story, it means flashbacks and assumptions that everybody would react the same, and I hate it.

      The Regency nymph problem is one reason I like Last Night’s Scandal so much. Olivia’s been out of control all her life, flouting convention since she first appears in a previous book at 12, so when she’s broken ten engagements by the time she’s 23 and ends up in a remote castle with a boy she’s adored now all grown up, it’s not that surprising that she falls so cheerfully and with enthusiasm. There’s this great line that Peregrine writes her from Egypt when they’re teenagers that says that when he dies and they cut open his brain, they’re going to find “Olivia. Suddenly. Unexpectedly.” written on it. It’s one of those books that sets up the physical relationship so well that I believe it, even though she’s unusual for the time period. There’s another place where he tells her she has to marry him because he’s ruined her, and she says that she was always going to be ruined by somebody, it’s just in her nature, and she’s glad he was the first, and he says, “FIRST?” outraged. It’s a story that takes the unbelievability and makes it a character trait. Such a good book.

      1. “she is an innocent virgin in the Regency era but when she meets the right rake, she will turn into a sex-craving nymph as soon as he has deflowered her”

        I dislike this one, but it also intrigues me because this was the line we were sold when we were kids. I’m thinking primary school, maybe grade 5/6, back in 1960/61 in Launceston, Tasmania. The whisper behind the girl’s toilet was that once a girl had sex, she became a nympho and couldn’t do without it. We were both frightened and awestruck by the idea.

        I wonder where that came from. A cultural fear of women’s sexuality? A fear of women getting out of control?

        1. I don’t know, but what a great premise for a story. “A virus sweeps London and suddenly women are not only having lots of sex, they’re getting very choosy about who they get naked with since they now have a basis for comparison . . .”

          1. I read that story! Scratch My Itch by John Michaels © 2003. Description: There’s a plague about. Any woman who catches it needs sex. Has to have it. With any man who’s around. So why the hell is Jack looking for a cure?

            I have it on a thumb drive.

      2. I read one big Misunderstanding that did kind of work for me. Once he was by himself, immediately afterwards, he figured out that he was wrong and tried to fix it right then. He accepted that she had a right to be angry and hurt and left her alone. But did send a note. It was in character, but he had just started therapy, so he was working on not being the kind of person that assumes the worst. I remember reading that and thinking, okay that kind of works. But mostly I don’t like them.

      1. It was on the old website. I’m trying to remember. It was one of those lists that everybody contributed to. Wonder where that went. (A lot of stuff went when Mollie made the website more professional.)

    3. I just saw someone promoting a book and it made me wince; these are actual promo quotes for a book: “A sexy billionaire playboy” “A secret marriage of convenience” “Feelings . . . lots of unexpected feelings”

      1. Some of the Book Bub promos do that for me, too. So many billionaire SWAT team members, can he protect her?, the next morning they realized he was her new boss . . . .

    1. I get reviews that say, “There’s always a dog in Crusie’s work” even though nine of the twenty books I’ve written have no dog.
      On those reviews, somebody always says, “Where’s the dog?”

      I saw one review that said “There’s always a house that needs fixed up.” I did four books that had some reference to fixing a house: there’s a short section about peeling up linoleum in Getting Rid of Bradley, a short section about wallpaper in Welcome to Temptation, a bigger negotiation theme in The Cinderella Deal that echoes the negotiation in the relationship, and then a major plot aspect in Crazy for You where the antagonist uses the house renovation to sabotage the protagonist. Four books out of twenty and yet that reviewer said I always used old houses that need to be renovated.

      That kind of review annoys me. I actually try NOT to repeat myself. Are the spaces where people live important in my books? Yes, it’s call setting, and it’s a major component of writing story. Is food important in my stories? Yes, people have to eat and the choices they make and their relationship to food in general is very telling. Dogs? Okay, that’s a personal quirk, but eleven out of twenty is not “most” or “all.”

      No matter who you are, the world will try to define you and put you in a box, but in publishing it’s insane: “She always does that” and “She didn’t do that this time, what’s wrong with her?” “Romance is such a cliche” and “She didn’t write a classic romance this time, what’s wrong with her?” “All her books are alike,” and “Why is she doing supernatural?” Why is she collaborating? Why wasn’t there a dog?”

      Yes, I know I’m the luckiest writer in the world, just needed that moment of spleen, thank you, rant over.

      1. I always liked what Terry Pratchett said:

        “Of course I listen to my readers! So the next book will be:

        Set in Ankh-Morpork/not set in Ankh-Morpork. With lots of the good old characters/with a whole cast of new characters. Written like the old books, which were better/written like the later books, which were better. With lots of character development/none of that dull character development stuff, which gets in the way of the jokes. Short/long.

        You want fries with that?”

    2. Deb, I see the same thing in advertising. I tell my husband, “The client wants something creative.” Then he and I chorus, “Not THAT creative!”

  2. Cate asked: (Why can’t a book be 100% great banter?)

    Well, it can, IF the banter carries the plot. I should know; I’ve done it. (It isn’t selling, but that’s because no one knows it exists. The few dozen people who managed to find it like it a lot.) I recently had a reader tell me she read it twice, back to back: Once fast, for the plot, and then again slowly, for the language. So it CAN be done. But it’s impossible to market, thus highly inadvisable.

    1. I haven’t read your book so this is NOT about it, but . . .

      Dialogue can’t carry a plot alone because character isn’t just about what people say, it’s about what they do, and how their bodies react to that action. Character is action, not dialogue, and characters who only banter are hiding their feelings because banter is a verbal duel designed to hide feelings. The three ways characters display themselves on the page are through their bodies, especially their involuntary reactions (most honest), their thoughts (kind of honest although we lie to ourselves in our thoughts all the time, ducking the things we can’t face), and their dialogue (least honest and most effective when the reader knows the character is using words to mask and deceive). So a book that’s all banter kneecaps character.

      The reason banter can be fun is that the reader knows the truth both characters are navigating.

      1. Banter reminds me of the appetizer and dessert of a meal. It may be the your favorite and most enjoyable part of the meal, but without something a little more substantive to go with them, you will not be satisfied for very long. I adore banter, both on the page and in real life, but it isn’t much help in the face of a real problem.

  3. Thank you for the Super Chicken theme! It turns out that I have been singing it wrong all these years, but I am happy to get the exact lyrics now. I also think that George of the Jungle (from which Super Chicken came) is a great example of subverting a popular trope. In the Tarzan movies, Tarzan saves hapless city folk from the dangers of the jungle using his superior strength and knowledge. But George is dumb as a post, thinks an elephant is his pet doggie and keeps swinging into trees. He inevitably has to be rescued by the very well educated Ape (who is always shown wearing glasses and reading a book). The artwork may be rudimentary, but the stories and music are always great. (Then away he’ll schlep on his elephant, Shep…..Watch Out For That Tree!)

    1. Thank you all for these “blasts from the past.” I was forever and always a fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle with Dudley Doright, Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy, Sherman, Fractured Fairy Tales, Aesop and Son. And George of the Jungle with Superchicken. And Underdog with Tennessee Tuxedo and Commander McBragg. Also Pink Panther with the Aardvark and the Ant.

      I don’t particularly remember the episodes, but there were all those Catch-phrases. “No time to explain, Fred – into the super coupe!” “Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” “Again? That trick never works.” “I’m doing the best I can for you, Fred.” “Shep not elephant! Shep just great big peanut loving doggie.” “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here.” “Waitaminute Ant! I vant a verd with you – and the verd is STOP!”

      Totally unrelated to those cartoons, there’s “Help, Cecil, help!” – “I’m comin’, Beanie Boy!” But I’m old. How many folks remember Crusader Rabbit and Raggs?

      1. I do! I loved the way Crusader Rabbit was drawn. He was clearly done by someone who didn’t want to copy the Disney models.

        jinx VII

  4. Thank you! These answers and yesterday’s answers were very helpful.

    Also, Jenny I can not tell you how helpful your suggestion to pay attention to the problems beta readers point out, not the solutions they suggest, has been over the years. You say a lot of helpful things, but that might be one of the most helpful recommendations.

  5. On rewriting/revising:
    I love doing it. It’s my absolute favorite way to get back in the groove when I feel a) stuck b) gloomy c) uninspired. It’s also a great training exercise. Seeing what I liked before, thinking ‘hmm that’s maybe not so great, how can I fix it, or does it even need to be here.’

    Currently rewriting/revising/expanding my second-ever romance novella. It will now be a novel, so the arc needs to be different, and I know a lot more about these characters than I did in 2012. Banter has been chopped. Scenes about other people have been chopped. It’s about more than just that first flush of romance. The new book will be about a whole relationship, discovering and coping with the ways ‘happy ever after’ evolves.

    On tropes:
    I’ve used the coming-out storyline several times in my M/M books. It’s different every time because the people, their partners, their circumstances, their motivations are different. The support they need from their friends is different. Family reactions are different. Career implications/consequences are different. My MCs are nearly all in their 30s or older, so they have fully-formed lives; coming out has ripple effects.

    I think this is one reason I stopped reading much historical romance. I was seeing same/same treatments of a very limited range of storylines. (Seriously, how many dukes can there be?) Where people tried to do something ‘different’ I was seeing such anachronistic language/behavior that I’d get completely flung out of the story. And everything happened if not in a vacuum then certainly in a capsule, like a particular friend group was the entire world.

    1. I’m a lot more confident about rewriting. The first draft of anything is completely free, aanad then I hit a wall and have to, you know, work at it. But once I get a complete draft, which takes months, I know the characters so much better that the rewrite is then logical.

      I’ll buy almost any anachronism, impossibility, plot hole as long as the characters are marvelous. And don’t smirk unless they’re asshats.

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