A while back I got one of those nice rejections that makes you want to smile as wide as the nearest river and cry yourself a river all at the same time. The agent loved my pacing and “strong sense of narrative,” but thought I used too many “familiar turns of phrase.”
My critique partners all said, “No way.” (Love those guys!) But I decided to read through my manuscript again and see what the agent meant. And I found plenty. I found a handful of phrases that my CPs probably glossed over because they’re not actually clichés, but that made the writing more accessible. Things like: Yesterday afternoon, excitement to go out with Vincent had me jumping out of my skin…
Not so bad, right? However, I realized something important. Those familiar phrases are a fabulous opportunity to strengthen your character’s voice. Would Sophie actually think the words jumping out of my skin? No, probably not. She’d say something related to dancing – leaping off a stage or pirouettes in her stomach. No, even better, fouettés in the stomach because that involves a bit of a kick. Comparing her excitement to a ballet term makes Sophie a more genuine character and reminds the reader about her connection to dance.
Here’s another example: …I jumped out of bed, blood rushing through my veins…
Do people really jump out of bed? Not once they’re older than about nine years old. The blood rushing is probably a cliché, so it definitely needed to be changed. Here I chose to just delete the clichéd description and tell the reader how Sophie is feeling. Sometimes a well-placed tell is more effective than overly physical showing. (But that’s for another blog post.)
And another: My skin crawled.
Okay, apparently we should avoid the word jump unless it fits the action, and stop using the skin to describe emotions.
You get the idea, right? Those three examples are all from the first three chapters. Two of them got deleted and one changed to enhance voice. Bing bang boom I’ve got a stronger beginning.
If you’re brave enough, post your own example in the comments and how you think you should improve it.