Ask the Editor: What’s the Difference Between a Trope and a Cliche?

Dear Alex,
I’m writing a young adult fantasy novel. I’ve researched the market, so I know what other authors are writing and I know what sells. My question is this: must I write the one thousandth novel about a “chosen one” who saves the world? It seems like such a cliché. On the other hand, if this is a trope that readers expect, what’s the harm in using it? Maybe I just don’t understand the difference between a trope and cliche, so I guess that’s my real question: trope, cliché, what’s the difference?
–Hashi

Hi Hashi,

A trope is an ingredient. Let’s say your son has asked for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. He wants bread, cheese, and butter, toasted up medium well. Think of those ingredients as tropes. They are essential to make that particular kind of food. In romance, you’ve got the meet-cute, the first kiss, the happily ever after. In mystery, you have the dead body, the misfit detective, and the midpoint plot twist. Other tropes, like the chosen one or the fired cop solving the crime anyway or the marriage of convenience are perfectly fine. They are the bread and butter and cheese of our books. You literally can’t make a book without them, just like you can’t make a sandwich without bread.

A cliché is like an ingredient that’s been sitting out on the counter too long. So long, in fact, that it’s gone bad. The bread is moldy and the butter is rancid. It might have been fine once, but now it’s spoiled. If you make a grilled cheese sandwich with moldy bread, it will still be a grilled cheese sandwich, but your kid won’t want to eat it.

Clichés are things that have been done to death, such as the villain’s monologue or the literal saving of a cat. These have been done so many times, in fact, that they are ripe for parody. So when we’re watching The Incredibles and Buddy says “You caught me monologuing,” we laugh because it’s such a cliché that it’s funny.

In short, tropes are good. They are the healthy ingredients that make up our stories. Readers want them and love them. Clichés are tropes that have been on the shelf so long that they’ve gone bad. They are not healthy or good for readers, or for you.

And the terrible part is, we are never sure when a trope becomes a cliché. Here’s my thought. If you’re using a trope and still getting a good story out of it, something that feels like a fresh take (using fresh ingredients) then you’re absolutely fine. You don’t have to subvert the trope or turn it on its head, you just have to make sure you’re bringing something fun and new to the table. Maybe you’re writing the cynical detective story, but instead of a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all, he’s twenty-two. Why such cynicism in one so young? That’s your story.

The other way to make a trope work for you is to reach deep within yourself to bring the most authentic, heartfelt version of that story into the world. Think of it as artisanal grilled cheese on sourdough bread with local farm cheddar and hand-churned butter. So to take our cynical detective story, perhaps he fits the stereotype to a T. He’s sixty years old, lives alone, trusts no one, keeps a bottle of Scotch in his file cabinet and a loaded pistol in his pocket, and solves crimes between benders. How did your detective get this way? What heartbreaking part of his backstory could you explore? (By the way, if you want to see this done well, read the Matthew Scudder books by Lawrence Block. Tropes galore. Awesome books.)

You’ve got to go deep if you’re taking this approach to fiction, though, and it has to be one hundred percent sincere. You have to write that trope with all the honesty and emotion you have, because the moment you wink at the audience, you’re done for.

However, where things go badly is when you’re using a trope in a lazy way, just coloring in an outline that someone else has made, with nothing new and no sincerity. If you “write to market” in this shallow way, you’re using rancid ingredients and you’re going to end up writing a cliché.

So go ahead and use those tropes! They are the vital ingredients your story needs. Just be sure you’re using the best ingredients you can find and you’re treating them with respect. And then, cook them up and serve them to a happy audience.

Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex K.

Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How do I Make the Stakes Meaningful?

Dear Alex,
I got some disappointing feedback from my beta readers about my fantasy novel. They said they had a hard time getting into my book, and it didn’t hold their interest. I understand that story stakes are the way to make readers care, so I made the stakes as big as possible. If my heroes don’t prevail, the entire kingdom will fall. So why didn’t my readers care about my story?
–Daniel

Hi Daniel,

I’m sorry that your betas couldn’t get into your fantasy novel. I’m sure that feedback wasn’t easy to hear. But looking at the story stakes is an excellent first step toward a solid revision.

I admire your commitment to making the story stakes as big as possible, but the paradox is that bigger isn’t always better. As humans, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around mass suffering, and we tend to go numb when an entire kingdom is at stake. One death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.

Instead of trying to go bigger, I suggest the opposite approach. Bring your story stakes down to a human level. Make the stakes matter more by making them more personal.

Some genres have personal stakes built in. Maybe you’re writing literary fiction where the stakes are the heroine coming to grips with her family’s history. Maybe you’re writing romance where the stakes are a couple’s true love. Maybe you’re writing a YA novel about a kid overcoming a learning disability and finally getting that college acceptance. It’s awesome when the stakes are on that personal level, because when readers connect with the characters, they will care intensely about the outcome of the story.

But that’s not the kind of novel you’re writing. You’re writing a fantasy with much bigger things at stake. That means you’ll have to work even harder to make those stakes personal.

The only way that stakes matter to readers is if they’re brought down from the global to the human level. Do whatever you can to tell us why the fate of the whole world matters to this hero. Who is he fighting for? His family? His parents? His lover? In what way will those people have their lives ruined if he fails? Get very specific here. Give the readers enough details to truly understand how important this goal is to this very small number of people that the reader has come to love.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is a sprawling, epic adventure where the entire fate of Middle Earth is at stake. If Sauron takes over, everyone will suffer for generations. That’s huge. But why do readers care? They care because of Frodo. He’s walking to Mordor with barely any resources, trying to destroy the One Ring, and for what? For all of Middle Earth? No. Frodo cares about his family and friends. He cares about the other hobbits. He cares about the Shire. That is who Frodo is fighting for.

You absolutely should have stakes as big as the world if that’s what your genre demands. Readers of fantasy love to see epic battles and political intrigue and great evil ravaging the land. But make sure that you’ve also made these things matter to one person, or a family, or a small group of heroes.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Ask the Editor: How Can I Make my Heroine Three-Dimensional?

Dear Alex,
My critique group says that my heroine is a “Mary Sue.” She’s too perfect and therefore unbelievable. I tried giving her some flaws in my next draft, but now my critique group doesn’t like her at all. How do I balance it out so my heroine is neither a goody two-shoes nor an unlikable witch?
–Cindy

Hi Cindy,

I sympathize. Making a character three-dimensional is tough.

Nobody wants to read about someone who never makes a mistake. In fact, the entire point of a novel is to watch a heroine grow and change. She can’t do that if she’s already perfect. And if all the other characters in the novel already love her, there will be no conflict.

Most writers realize that their heroine needs some flaws, but they aren’t sure what kind of flaws to give her, so they choose things at random. Suddenly, their heroine is clumsy, or short-tempered, or her house is always a wreck, or she’s late for everything. Any flaw that sounds interesting or fun gets thrown into the book.

The problem with this? Readers will feel the randomness. Your character won’t seem well-rounded. She’ll seem scattered, and therefore, readers won’t believe in her.

Instead, look at your heroine’s strengths. What are they? Make a list on paper. Now turn them upside down. What are the downsides of those wonderful positive qualities you gave your heroine? Is she extremely independent? That probably also means she isn’t good at asking for help when she needs it. Does she see the best in everyone? That can also mean she’s naive, and lets people take advantage of her. Is she brainy? In what ways can you make her “too smart for her own good” as she only sees the high-minded, logical answer to a problem, never the down-to-earth practical one? Is your heroine very athletic, winning every race or match? In what ways is her competitive nature going to be a problem for her?

You can also flip this. If you’re having trouble thinking of the downsides of your heroine’s strengths, you can also look at the upside of her flaws. Perhaps you have a character who is very cynical, always looking for hidden motives or waiting for the other shoe to drop. That’s the person who will spot danger first, long before the other characters see it.

You can give your heroine any strengths. You can give her any flaws. But it’s crucial that you make one the mirror image of the other. If you want to make a well-rounded character whom readers will believe in, you need to make these positive and negative qualities mirror one another. Her good traits are her bad traits, and vice-versa.

Keep writing. You’re doing great.
Alex K.

About the editor: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor with over a decade of experience helping writers. She is the author of The Big-Picture Revision Checklist, which is out now.

Internet for Your Ears

I visited the Rebel Author Podcast!

This week, I was the guest on The Rebel Author Podcast where host Sacha Black interviewed me. We talked about key lime pie, why Facebook is unnecessary, and…oh yes. Writing craft! Lots of writing craft. Sacha had lots of great questions about THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST and I had answers!

You can listen to The Rebel Author Podcast on your favorite podcast app or on YouTube (look for episode #106). Here is the direct link to listen online. Be aware that the interview starts at the 13-minute mark if you want to jump directly to it.

Happy listening!

My First How-to Book is Here

Like a book coach in your pocket.

It’s here! THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover everywhere books are sold. You can order it online or at your local bookshop. I don’t think any libraries have it yet, although it wouldn’t hurt to ask. The point is, the book is published and you can get your copy today.

One reader compared THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST to a high-priced book coach. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but…

Wait. Yes I would.

For five bucks and a hundred pages, you can have your own guide to novel revisions. THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs.

I wrote this book to help writers who struggle with revision, but all writers will benefit from taking a second look at their drafts.

Your book coach pocket guide to revisions is here.

How Many Stars Should I Give This Book?

It’s not what you say about books, it’s what you do with them.

Being a writer comes with a long list of occupational hazards. Wrist strain, numb butt cheeks, isolation, insomnia, and the inability to browse bookstores without buying an armload of books.

But the worst one is that I’ve become such a picky reader. I can’t help it. I always see the scaffolding as well as the building, even when I’m reading for pleasure. I tried belonging to a book club once but quit after three months. Readers discuss books very differently than writers do and I was not a good fit for this club at all. I wanted to talk about the way the book was written while the other members wanted to talk about how much fun the characters were and how much the plot surprised them.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the five-star rating system and how difficult it is to rate the novels I read. I have friends who give five stars to every book they finish, on the assumption that if it’s good enough to finish, it deserves the top rating. If they abandon the book halfway through, they simply don’t rate it at all. But if everyone rated books this way, there would be nothing but five-star reviews on every book.

I’ve been thinking about a system that’s a little more nuanced and also accounts for my picky nature. I tend to overthink things when it comes to books (and you know, life), but this new system cuts through the indecision quite neatly. I can reliably rate paperback books based on where they end up after I read them. My new system goes like this.

If I finish a book and immediately pass it on to a friend with my recommendation, it gets five stars.

If I finish a book and then put it on my keeper shelf, it gets four stars.

If I finish a book and slide it into a little free library or the charity bin, it gets three stars.

If I couldn’t finish it but it went into the charity bin anyway, it gets two stars.

If I couldn’t finish a book and I threw it into the garbage can, it gets one star.

Yes, I throw away books. Not often, but it happens. I won’t toss a book simply because I didn’t care for it. A book that wasn’t to my taste might be right for someone else. Nor will I throw out a book for being of poor quality. Lots of bad books are published every day. They’re annoying but harmless.

However, I will throw a book into the garbage if it’s offensive. There is no reason to keep books that are racist or sexist or otherwise designed to hurt people. Destroying a single copy of an offensive book won’t stop the other copies from existing, but it certainly makes me feel better.

So there you have it, the Alex Kourvo book disposition rating system. No rating system is perfect, but I feel like this one might be better than most, as I’ve neatly rated my books based on where I’ve put them.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who knows what to do with her paperback books.

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist

How to Revise Your Novel the Easy Way

I have a new book coming soon! THE BIG-PICTURE REVISION CHECKLIST is going to be published in paperback and ebook October 1st, and the ebook is available for pre-order now!

I’ve been teaching writing workshops since 2014, and have talked to hundreds of new writers. All of them love to write. None of them like to revise. Revision is overwhelming, frustrating, and messy.

But what if it didn’t have to be? What if revising a novel was straightforward, with step-by-step instructions to get it done? What if there was a checklist for revision, with good examples to follow and great instruction along the way?

The Big-Picture Revision Checklist is the guide you need to revise your novel. It will help you make likable protagonists who are flawed in exactly the right ways, and antagonists that readers love to hate. You’ll crank up your story stakes and pinpoint the five crucial scenes every novel needs. With in-depth chapters and examples from contemporary fiction, this clear-eyed manual gives you all the tools you need to bring your book to the finish line.

The book is short and to the point, so you can get to revising your novel right away.

Pre-orders are available wherever books are sold, including Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon. When the book is published, local bookstores can order paperbacks for you.

Get The Big-Picture Revision Checklist for a step-by-step guide to a polished and professional novel you’ll be proud of.

Three Books to Bust Writer’s Block

Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.

The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?

Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.

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If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.

If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.

On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.

So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.

Five Books for Writers that Aren’t About Writing

Sometimes the best how-to books don’t look like how-to books.

On my other blog, I review how-to books for writers. I learn a ton from them, and I love sharing what I’ve learned. But there’s another kind of book I review: the ones not written for writers that writers can learn a lot from anyway.

Here are my five favorites.

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book explains all the different ways humans justify our actions. Our brains can trick us into thinking everything from bickering with our spouse to going to war is perfectly rational. We all work very hard to maintain our positive self-image, and when we do something that’s not in keeping with the great person we think we are, we are quick to think up excuses that make perfect sense in our own heads. This book taught me how to write convincing villains who do all the wrong things for what they think are the right reasons.

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The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
Introverts may have the perfect temperament for writing, but we do not have the perfect temperament to deal with the rest of the world. Our culture values extroversion to such an extent, it’s considered the norm, and introverts are considered oddballs. We can’t quiet the whole world, but we can cope with it, and even thrive.

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Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This is a book about change. Most writers want to change something about their writing life, whether it’s working at a different time of day, trying a different genre, or simply turning off the internet and putting butt-in-chair. It turns out, change is driven by three different things: planning, motivation, and the environment. People can achieve remarkable changes by working on just one of these, but lasting success relies on all three.

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Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin
I’m interested in anything that can help me be more productive, and cultivating better habits is the number one way to do it. I have often said that it’s not inspiration that makes a writer. Nor do you have to have a lot of free time, a set schedule, or a deadline. Those things help, but are nothing without the consistent output of words, day after day. In other words, what a writer needs is a habit. This book takes you through every step of habit formation, from initial inspiration to follow-through.

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Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy
Years spent trying to cram writing into overstuffed days has led me to read dozens of time management and organization books. This is my favorite. It’s less a time-management book and more an anti-procrastination book. By focusing on priorities instead of to-dos, I’m able to get the most important things done without over-scheduling myself.

I love diving deeply into the craft of writing, and that’s where I focus most of my attention when reading how-to books. But these five books have helped me become a happier, more productive, and better writer, even though they had nothing to do with writing itself.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers. 

Unexpected Tools for Writers

Some non-writing things that help me write better

Most writers use the same tools to get the job done. We all have a library of how-to books, both inspirational and instructional. We all have computers with useful software. Many of us also have things like kitchen timers for writing sprints. But I use three tools that most other writers don’t. I’ve been using each one less than a year, but in that short time, they’ve become essential.

1. Alphasmart Neo.

Remember these from the 1990s? Before laptop computers became affordable, these little word processors were state of the art. I thought they were outdated, but after hearing my friends rave about them, I decided to try one myself.

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The Alphasmart has a keyboard and a tiny screen. You type, the Alphasmart saves your text, and when you’re done, you use a USB cord to transfer the words to your computer for editing. It weighs almost nothing and runs on three AAA batteries that last about six months.

I love it because literally all I can do with an Alphasmart is type. That means no Twitter, no Google to “just look up one little thing” (that leads to hours of browsing), no email. Even better: I can’t really edit on the Alphasmart. Scrolling backward is tedious, and not worth it for more than a few sentences. It’s much easier to just write myself a note in the text, telling myself to fix it later, and then push forward.

You can’t imagine what this has done for my productivity. I’ve gone from 1000 words an hour on the computer to 1500 an hour on the Alphasmart. And I think they are better words, too.

Back in the day, when these were new, they were a couple hundred dollars. Now you can get them used for $35. Amazon and eBay always seem to have a dozen or so, but they aren’t being made anymore, so the supply is finite.

2. Fitdesk

Writing is appallingly sedentary. People always tell beginning writers that the secret to success is “butt in chair.” Unfortunately, that’s also the secret to numerous health problems. But what choice do writers have? We need our fingers on a keyboard, which means we need to be sitting still. Some people use a standing desk, but that doesn’t incorporate movement.

Even worse, I live in Michigan, where the winters are cold and dark. If I want to get out for a walk, I have to use limited daytime hours, which are also prime writing hours.

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A Fitdesk solved that problem neatly. It’s an exercise bike with a desk on it. Now I sit and pedal and the more I write, the fitter I am. The pedals are silent, and not at all distracting. I’ve had my Fitdesk for six months, I weigh five pounds less than I did when I got it, and I feel amazing. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m missing by not exercising outside. I just pedal and write.

3. Gunnar Glasses

Although I write on the Alphasmart, I edit on the computer, staring at a screen for hours at a time. My eyes always gave out before my creativity did.

Until I got Gunnar Glasses.

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They look ridiculous. I don’t care.

The glasses block the blue light and glare that can cause “computer vision syndrome.” When I wear my Gunnars, I can edit for a full day without eye strain. Plus, I think they are a subconscious signal to my mind. Glasses on? It must be time to work.

I don’t need these three things to write. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I will happily write anywhere. But I like having these tools.

One helps me write faster.

One helps me edit longer.

And one makes me happier while I do it.

Who wouldn’t want that?

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping writers.