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Cliches are the Opposite of Truth: KILLING THEM ALL

14 May


Cliches are your worst enemy as a writer.

They’re death to you because a cliche is someone else’s thought, and, worse, it’s a phrase or image from your culture’s collection of junk-thoughts that are most often said to fill up dead, silent, useless space.

Such words are not golden. They’re trash.

Cliche is the mark of someone who is uncomfortable with their own turn of phrase, who doesn’t know how their own creativity works. That’s the opposite of a writer’s task.

Cliches are fine for office emails. But as a writer, you must l-o-v-e LOVE creating your own original thoughts, striking your own observations. Simply repeating the stock phrases, pieces of wisdom, plot devices, character traits, and story lines of so many others is inexcusable for a writer. Read tons and learn to spot tired cliches (or better, trendy statements that will SOON be cliches). Weave diamonds with your sentences and make reality out of thin air.

To do that, you need to write in the truth of the truth. You can’t do that if your brain churns out cliches, which are sentiments, ultimately. Symbols of feeling, and not a feeling itself.

“That’s the way it goes.”

“It is what it is.”

“I love her more than life itself.”

“Curses, foiled again.”

These are symbols of feelings. They’re melodrama, not drama. You can write a cliche in the first draft, that’s cool, if it’s a place marker for where you can drive in your shovel and dig up the gold later.

Let me show you exactly how to do this. Answer me, por favor: In the story you’re writing right now, what does your main character want more than anything? Write it out in a single sentence as an “I” statement. Make it emotional. Make it hurt. Break your own heart with that sentence.

If you need some inspiration, take Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride as an example: What does he want more than anything? Revenge. He says it when he first meets the Man in Black and repeats it frequently throughout The Princess Bride. He wants to kill the six-fingered man and pay him back for killing his father. Boom. That’s it.

Now…that’s a cliche. And in the storybook world in which writer William Goldman operates, he lets that tired cliche stand through the whole movie. But he is going to deliver a twist that makes it all work and freshens the cliche with real feeling. Goldman knows that revenge is not the heart-breaking “I” statement, nor is it the real truth of Inigo Montoya, the real feeling that his character feels in the pit of his heart. REVENGE is something fine to write on a note card next to your hero’s name. But when writers say “write the truth,” this is what they’re really talking about:

“I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

That’s the line. Montoya doesn’t want revenge, really, and Goldman knows it. But he holds it back, let’s Montoya come to that line in the most dramatic moment so the line is yanked our of him. Finally, facing the villain of his dreams, Montoya says, “Promise me riches! Promise me everything I desire!” He doesn’t say, “Ha ha! Vengeance is mine!” or “Now I have you!” Goldman is too good a writer for that. In the final moment when Montoya finally has his quarry cornered, Goldman let’s the real feeling out, and it’s like a gunshot. We realize this is not just a cliche storybook fairy tale. There’s a true feeling to be experienced.

That’s your goal in writing your character’s greatest want. If you can’t give yourself a sob, raise a shiver in your own skin, or imagine readers looking up from your book in sheer awe when you distill that character’s longing down to a single sentence (and then use it when it’s most effective in your story), then you haven’t hit the truth of your character’s truth yet. Get closer. Jump the rails and sneak past the symbols of feeling, the sentiment and cliche, the stories your teachers, friends, parents, and family approve of. And write the fuck out of that character.

4 Ways to Write Compelling Characters

20 Mar


Depicting characters — especially supporting cast members — means finding the elements that will tell the most about these people in the least number of words. Do this effectively, and you’ll not only have a living, breathing, interesting person on the page — you’ll have hooked your reader, too.

Many sources on writing that address character will focus on developing a character study — write 36 pages of character descriptions  or you “don’t know your character.” Write down their innermost secrets and the truth they’ve been hiding since childhood. That’s all fine. Do that if it fits your project and/or works for you.

But eventually there’s another step so crucial that it will feel like stepping off a cliff from the 36-page character study: Boiling that preparation down to what actually appears in your story.

This post is going to look at writerly devices for describing characters and doing it economically so that your reader feels they are in the hands of a writer who knows what they’re doing.

Let’s look at 4 methods: Magnification, Compare & Contrast, Listing, and High Concept.


Let’s start with walk-on characters and small parts. Magnifying is maybe the most common method of depicting characters, small or large, and one of the first that you’ll learn to master: Show readers one significant detail, blow it up, and encapsulate the whole character with that significant detail.

Jack Kerouac was a master at this maneuver. Streaming down the river of “On the Road,” we meet far more characters per square inch than most novels, and as an observer of human beings, Kerouac is excellent at defining and painting a character in a very short amount of space. Here he keys on a man’s laugh and magnifies it to cosmic proportions:

Mr. Snow began his laugh from the supper table when his old wife said something casual; he got up, apparently choking, leaned on the wall, looked up to heaven, and started; he staggered through the door, leaning on neighbors’ walls; he was drunk with it, he reeled throughout Mill City in the shadows, raising his whooping triumphant call to the demon god that must have prodded him to do it.

This is as much as we get to see of this man and his laugh — Mr. Snow is pretty much gone from “On the Road” after this description. But what a walk-on. This man’s laugh is memorable both to the narrator-character of Kerouac and to the reader who gets to see him for merely a flash, just as the real-life hitchhiker Kerouac probably did, fitting the entire theme and m.o. of “On the Road” in one sentence.

Try it yourself. Describe a memorable character in your life by magnifying a key detail about them, and do it in just one sentence.


People make a lot of Charles Dickens as an actor and theater man, but more importantly to his career as an author, he was a reporter and editor who wrote in shorthand. While his characterizations owe a great deal to the farces he loved and to theatrical caricatures in general, his ability to quickly and realistically characterize owes far more to his observational skill of real people.

Below, meet Scrooge and his thematic counterpart Mr. Fezziwig from “A Christmas Carol,” which is a very short story and relies on brevity in much the same way that Kerouac relies on it. Here we get two VIP characters, a paragraph each.

Scrooge: Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

And Fezziwig, Scrooge’s boss when he was a young man who had once gone by the name “Ebenezer”:

Old Fezziwig rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself…and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: `Yo ho, there. Ebenezer. Dick.’

To compress these characters, Dickens keys in on telling details and contrasts them: One skinny, one big. One mean, one jovial. One solitary, one expansive. Both have loud voices, but one is grating and the other is comfortable and fun. As a result, we know these two by how they stand apart from one another.

This contrast is further sharpened by the love that Scrooge shows for Fezziwig while recollecting the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Past, for how different his delightful former boss is from the mean, dried up old man that Ebenezer has become. We’re shown so many layers of contrast, teasing them out by one of the characters being contrasted. Brilliant.

Then there’s Pride and Prejudice, in which master-of-character Jane Austen does the same thing as Dickens, but in a deft, single paragraph, describing Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, the parents of the books’ main protagonists. Here, Austen is comparing and contrasting these key secondary characters:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Unlike Dickens, Austen doesn’t rely on physical description for these compressed comparisons. Indeed, she uses fairly abstract language, which is necessary in order to set up the comedy of manners to follow: One is an odd mixture of parts, the other is easily understood. The lion’s share of Pride and Prejudice is dialogue (which is excellent too of course), so this is pretty much all the contextual description we get for these two characters before the witty repartee starts. One would think for how heavily Austen leans on dialog that her ability to describe might suffer, but not so. She’s a master at telling us exactly what we need to know about her people. To pull off Austen’s technique, you’ll have to distill and condense character information into hard, little diamonds — more like writing poetry.

Stop and try your hand at this method of characterization. Take two vastly different family members, childhood friends, or work colleagues, and compare and contrast them in just one or two paragraphs. What details are most important for you to show the contrasts? Which characteristics best spark against each other and make for good comedy/tragedy/action, etc.?


Listing character traits may sound easy, but you have to know why certain details must be mentioned and when to stop listing. Otherwise you wind up with, well, dull lists, random detail, and a boring read.

Read this paragraph from detective mystery master Raymond Chandler. This is from “The Big Sleep,” a description of a VIP character, the younger Sternwood daughter, Carmen.

She was twenty or so, small and delicately put together, but she looked durable. She wore pale blue slacks and they looked well on her. She walked as if she were floating. Her hair was a fine tawny wave cut much shorter than the current fashion of pageboy tresses curled in at the bottom. Her eyes were slategray, and had almost no expression when they looked at me. She came over near me and smiled with her mouth and she had little sharp predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pits and as shiny as porcelain. They glistened between her thin too taut lips. Her face lacked color and didn’t look too healthy. “Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

Chandler’s method is quite similar to Dickens who lists physical descriptions of both Scrooge and Fezziwig. But why these details? Why this list? Because this list tells us tons about the main character detective Philip Marlowe — he’s the narrator and main character of “The Big Sleep.” So we’re not just getting a list of Carmen’s characteristics in this paragraph, we’re getting a picture of how this private eye thinks,a man who sounds like he’s reporting details to a cop or fellow detective so that we might identify Carmen Sternwood if we bump into her. In this way, Chandler makes the reader complicit in Marlowe’s jaded, seen-it-all-before attitude. “She smiled with her mouth,” Marlowe says. It’s as if he’s saying, “She doesn’t smile with her eyes. Fake smile, because she’s not interested in actually making friends if you know what I mean.”

Ready to follow Chandler’s lead? Make a list of details about an important person in your life or a key character in your story. How are these characteristics more than just a collection of details? Do they characterize the narrator or someone else in the story somehow? Does the sum of these details tell us something more than just the details you’re listing?


The novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is about a community of people who are, taken as a whole, an actual, functioning character in the story. In the first pages of Zora Neal Hurston’s brilliant book, we see a woman coming to town after burying dead bodies and we get the reactions, judgments, and harsh assessments of this community as it examines her:

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.

Having a group act as a single character challenges our ideas of what identity and personhood is — or what a character can even be. Who is this woman character to the group? Can a group show agency, change, volition? Can they together be personified as a main character? In a book about alienation, what does it mean that a main character is an entire group? These are the central questions of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” of course, a book that tracks these ideas forward into questions of which characters have true, individual voice and what liberty means to the other characters who clearly do not?

Matching voice with theme is a skill found in the terrain of literature (“The Big Sleep” is literature from my POV, not solely a mystery) and “They’re Eyes Were Watching God” is written in a high language that poetically contemplates vast human concerns, not merely plot points. “Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.” This is the kind of line that might get cut from a story concerned only with whodunnit, finding the dingus, killing the monstersand nothing else. But in a story about liberty and voice, Hurston absolutely needs to write and save that line, let us read, re-read, and contemplate what it all means. The character of the community is seemingly a “free” voice and at liberty to judge.  How do we know? Because we are reading words without masters. She’s defining the character of that communal voice and judgment, every bit as much as Dickens describing physical detail of Scrooge’s voice sounding gratin, shrewd.

Try this. Take a theme from your story or your life (desire, aging, grief, birth,  greed) and personify it as an actual character. How real will this character be? How might it change and go through crises? How might be this abstraction interact with other characters? Allow yourself to be poetic and see if a more florid language allows you freedom to describe this character.

Did this help? What other methods for getting characters on the page work best for you? Report back and let me know if this post and/or these exercises were of use to you! I’d love to know.

How I Write a Story

27 Jun
ImageIt’s a little like asking how do you dream. I don’t really kn ow and lots of writers DON’T know. Effective writers channel their dreaming brains in effective ways, I think. This is how I often do it. 
A story always starts with an image or sentence that gets stuck in my head. I’m convinced this is pathological — an OCD or some kind of spectrum disorder tick — many, many writers that I’ve spoken to know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not a playful, whimsical thought or daydreaming. It’s THERE, like a sliver — stuck, and not necessarily pleasant. If I concentrate on any given story of mine, I can remember the tick that started it:
A saint bleeding on her penitents.  A swordsman at the bottom of a latrine, digging through composted poop, looking for…something.

(It doesn’t matter if you know these stories, by the way. They’re just examples, and I’m mostly listing them for my own amusement.)

The heads of three giants poking up through a highway.

A tarot-reader at a restaurant is approached by a magical creature for a reading.

Undead sailors walking across a frozen harbor from their ice-locked ghost ship 

A warrior who ate her enemies and referred to them as “Trophies/Ingredients.”

“‘Apartment.’ Get it? We were ‘meant’ to be ‘apart.'”

Whatever the snatch of text or the image is, I can’t put it aside. My brain returns to it all day-long for days. The story itself usually comes out in layers of paragraphs, more than in a linear narrative, but a straighter through-line emerges once this process gives way to actual storytelling.
My favorite stories to write are the ones whose germ turns out to be the last scene/image. (That’s how my first book “Patron Saint of Plagues” was written.) If the ending is in place and a main character hasn’t emerged, I concentrate on that before anything else. When I started writing “Alone in the House of Mims,” I thought the main character was the drag queen, Honey, from “Lark Till Dawn, Princess.” Honey sort of took over my poor brain before I realized she needed her own story, setting, etc. It’s interesting though.Both stories are about performance and authenticity — read them both, and you might see that they they are just two trees growing out of the same trunk. That’s how I think of them.
Anyway, once the main character an ending are in place, I start the outline, storyboard, and/or block out scenes that carry me up to that first/final germ. “Magician and the Fool” was the opposite of PSOP in this way — the initial germ was the beginning — and I think the book suffered because I didn’t have the ending in mind from the very beginning. That said, I think that book contains maybe my strongest exit (and some of my best prose). I love to read stories that leave me with one, potent, final image.

Want to lend a hand? Crowd-sourcing FARM FACTORY INC

29 Jan

Hi friends — I’m well into my next book project, the writing and editing of FARM FACTORY INC., a mystery/thriller with a dairy farmer as sleuth, uncovering a flu outbreak and a string of murders in the sordid underbelly of the corporate farming world.

Think Fair Food Fight meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

barth 1I’m very excited about this book, but I’m at a tipping point. I need time to finish writing and editing with the book as my primary focus, but rather dire financial pressures are steering me in other directions (I’m on the verge of needing to leave my apartment).

So I’m offering a screaming good deal on Tarot readings to buy myself some time and raise cash for this project. Let’s call it a “Barth-starter” campaign, instead of a Kickstarter.

$75 for an hour-long Tarot reading or $100 for a reading and a smaller follow-up. It’s a great way to map out the new year and see your own life through a totally different perspective.

ALSO: Everyone who buys a reading now will receive a personal thank you in the book’s acknowledgments for helping to make it happen at this crucial moment.

If you’re ready, here’s how you can help:

Take your choice of readings, make a payment through Paypal to me at barthanderson atsymbol gmail cotty com, and I’ll automatically receive an email notification. When I do, I’ll contact you shortly to make an appointment for your reading.

I can read cards long-distance via Skype, Facebook, chat, email, etc. Whatever you prefer.

(If you’re in the Twin Cities region, just message me, and we can make arrangements that way.)

One last thing:

If you feel moved to help Factory Farm, Inc. see the light of day but aren’t into this woo-woo mystic hubba-hubba stuff, you can:

a) make a $75 donation through Paypal and your name will be added to the Acknowledgments List in the book.

b) still help by cutting and pasting this message into a Facebook status update (adding a personal touch would be awesome, too!) or forwarding this message to anyone who might be interested in a reading.


Please share if you have friends who need a 2013 reading. Thanks!

5 Ways for Writers to Use Pinterest

22 Feb

Everyone tells writers that we need to use social media to market and connect, but few tell you how to really do it.

Pinterest is a great example.

The latest in a long line of new social media  “platforms,” Pinterest is deceptively simple, so it’s easy to dismiss. The site is powerful because unlike Twitter, Facebook, or blogging, Pinterest is completely oriented to the visual. Users “pin” photos from elsewhere on Pinterest or anywhere on the net to “boards” that they’ve created, divided into subjects that interest them (“My Style,” “Cars I Love,” “Books I’ve Read,” etc). Friends and followers can see what you’ve discovered and say, “Hey! That’s pretty cool. Imma pin that, too.”

Like Pinterest, I’m visually oriented, too, especially in my writing process. Before I even start a draft, I collect photos on the Internet that help me imagine what I’m writing about. So Pinterest has been very fun for me to play with.

While creating boards for various works in progress, I realized I could do the same thing for two of my books that have already been released. That sparked a couple other ideas that were fun to dol and, simultaneously, helped market the books. Just playing with Pinterest in this way, I now have a pretty decent following on my boards for The Patron Saint of Plagues and The Magician and The Fool (the traffic on Pinterest is swift and bubbling along right now).

So here are five suggestions about using Pinterest, for your creativity, your drafting process, and the marketing of your published works. I haven’t used all of them yet, but I’m very eager to get going!

My "Patron Saint of Plagues" board

1) Create a Cast List for Your Book

Come up with a Hollywood cast list for an imaginary film version of your book, short story, or script. Who would play the lead, the villain, the love interest? Make a “book board” on Pinterest, using the title or working title of your book, and “pin” images of actors there.

Would Jessica Biel or Lindsay Lohan play your lead? Ryan Reynolds or Chris Pine for the love interest? Put them all up on your book board so you can see them and decide who looks “right” for the part.

If you have books published already, Pinterest can be an excellent way to engage with established fans of your work. Email die-hard readers you know and ask them to contribute their own ideas about who should play certain characters to their own Pinterest board.

NOTE: Make sure you have at least one image that links back to your website so people can learn more about you. (Pinterest isn’t great for textual information AT ALL.)

2) Be Your Own “Location Scout”

Movie producers hire people to scout out possible locations for filming particular scenes in their movies. You can do something similar by searching for images of landscapes, buildings, animals, skylines, crowds, maps of locations, or cultural tidbits (food, clothing, etc) from your book.

I did this for my book The Patron Saint of Plagues which is about a horrifying urban outbreak in future Mexico City. The book proved proved slightly “prophetic” in that a swine flu outbreak did occur in Mexico a few years after the book came out. For my Patron Saint board on Pinterest,  I found images of Mexico City doctors and patients from that outbreak to use as location shots for my Patron Saint of Plagues storyboard. This added a fun, creepy note of realism to the book board, I think.

Another tip! Upload videos to YouTube that you yourself have taken of various book locations (maybe in your own city or on travels), and pin the YouTube page to your Pinterest board.

3) Seeds

You’d be surprised how many readers and fellow writers would like to know what you read and which books might have influenced you as a writer. Create a Pinterest board featuring books, authors, and/or movies that influenced your thinking about this particular book. Which reads planted seeds in your brain, inspired and delighted you? Are there scenes from movies that helped shape your book?

Take some time, and dig deep. You may discover there were books that you didn’t even realize had planted important seeds in you.

I was influenced by an array of short stories, movies, and books for The Magician  and The Fool, a thriller about the search for what might be the oldest tarot deck. You can take a look here.

Important: Pin images that link back to your favorite bookstores and give them some all-important, authory love.

4) Soundtracks

Most writers have VERY specific music in mind for their stories. Link to music videos or Grooveshark and Spotify website URLS to create the soundtrack for your book.

5) Action!

Are there scenes in movies that remind you of scenes in your book-to-be? Epic battle scenes, shots of costumes from period pieces, or snatches from documentaries covering topis intersecting with your book can be great to have on hand when drafting scenes.

You can also use movie clips in your writing process the same you way  you used actor pics to describe characters. Video may be even more useful than stills, right? Is there a particular dancer whose movements you’d like to be able to describe when writing about one of your characters? A swashbuckler? What about accents? Limps? Facial expressions?

Maybe there’s a very particular chemistry you want to strike between characters. The delivery of actors in certain scenes from old films (Robert Redford’s humiliated squint after he admits to Paul Newman that he can’t swim in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) can help you improve the blocking of scenes, better characterize emotional responses, sharpen dialog, and otherwise flesh out your story’s action.


My one problem with Pinterest is that it’s not possible, right now, to re-order and organize your pins very easily.  I really wish it had more of a mind-map ease to it, so that I could use it more freely for the brainstorming phase of writing. As is, if you want to create a sequential, linear storyboard on Pinterest, you’d have to design it ahead of time and pin the pics in the order you want them to appear — which sort of defeats the purpose of using Pinterest this way. (For what it’s worth, Facebook photo albums can be reorganized far more easily.)



How to Storyboard (YouTube)


Free Storyboard Pro Software (for filmmakers) for Brainstorming and Mind Mapping (I use this)


New Blog and The “Food Mystery”

30 Jun

I’m Barth Anderson, and welcome to my new blog Con Gusto.

Con gusto is a lovely junk drawer of a Spanish phrase that can mean anything from “to taste” (as in, adding a spice to meet one’s liking), to accomplishing tasks with pleasure, eagerness, relish. Comer con gusto means to eat with a lusty appetite.

Some of you know me from Fair Food Fight, where I write under the name “El Dragón.” Y’all know that I blog con gusto.

Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about writing and books, two of my great loves. I miss writing about writing and reading, so that’s what I’m going to hit here on Con Gusto.

Well, that and food politics. I’m pretty obsessed with that, whether I’m writing at Fair Food Fight or here. And I’ll still write about issues facing small farmers. Oh, movies, too. And, music, probably. And stuff that makes me laugh. There’s a lot that I do con gusto.

I’m also starting this blog because I’ve begun work on my third novel (you can read about the first two books here), and I’m hoping to have a first draft/treatment finished in the next six weeks. This book doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s about a murder that takes place on a dairy farm and the shock waves its discovery sends through the food world. Let’s call it food noir, with a jaded organic inspector, an emergent super-flu, a supertasting clairgustant, and dead bodies getting dredged up in manure lagoons.

These are a few of my favorite things.

So throw me on your blog-reader and you can track the growth of this book from seed to store. Bueno? Claro. Thanks for stopping by.