Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stock Phrases

Thank you to everyone who voted and weighed in on the phrase "coming of age," which 66% loathe, 33% love, and the silent majority is silent because I didn't give them an option. Sorry!

My own personal feeling on the matter, after great reflection and meditation, is that I don't actually have a problem with the phrase per se and to reiterate again for the uninitiated, I would never reject a query for something trivial like a simple phrase. Even if you misspelled it and somehow turned it into a rhetorical question.

However, in defense of nitpicky posts like yesterday's (and others you see around the Internet from fellow agents who have been turned into raging beserkers by pet peeves gone wild), I like to call attention to these things from time to time because they provide a glimpse into the repetition repetition that we see in our inboxes inboxes.

And ultimately, what I'm trying to get across is that it's so so so important for authors to take a big ole weed wacker to their queries and take out any stock phrases and cliches. I understand that these are extremely difficult to spot because 1) you don't read 1,000 queries a month and 2) cliches are such a fabric of our speech that they're like breathing -- you don't know you're doing it until you choke on something.

But sometimes I think authors self-concsciously use phrases like "coming of age," "trials and tribulations," "more than they bargained for," etc., because they sound right. They sound like phrases authors would include in their pitches. But that's precisely the wrong instinct. In fact authors should go in the exact opposite direction -- rid your query of phrases you've heard before, write with originality, and you will have taken a very prodigious step toward crafting a query that stands out and sounds original rather than one that blends into a very crowded crowd.






41 comments:

ORION said...

And yet you still see these cliches on the back flap of books - and authors don't write these - the publisher does.
When i talk to readers they seem to find security in the well-worn phrase- it tells them what kind of book it might be.
interesting...

Dan said...

Dear Agent,

If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? What if the tree falls because a space monkey crashed into it?

SPACEMONKEY GO HOME, my 320,000 word epic, tells the coming of age story of a young space monkey who gets more than he bargained for when he volunteers for an expeditionary journey to Mars. The trials and tribulations take place not only in space but in his heart.

If you wish to represent my debut novel, please get back to me ASAP so that I can inform the other 1,500 agents I have queried.

Sincerely,

The Next J.D. Salinger

(PS - Do you have any favorite cliches or cliches you love to hate?)

Nathan Bransford said...

Patricia-

Marketing, cover copy, and advertisements are definitely different ballgames. In those cases there's a certain degree of branding going on, and messages are signaled to the reader with stock phrases.

I think the ultimate goal of a query is slightly different from advertising though, even if the boundaries aren't easy to define.

Lauren said...

One of the first things I remember hearing about the how-to of writing queries was to think of it as writing advertising copy, or a very very short marketing proposal. I still hear that kind of thing at conferences sometimes: "Think of it as an ad for your book!"

When many people think of the language of advertising, they think of trumped-up language and recognizable phrases that have had all the meaning worn out of them.

Perhaps that's part of the reason behind so many well-meant query letters going out with cliched language in them.

When I first heard the advice to write the query (or at least the pitch paragraph) in the voice of your manuscript, that's when query writing began to click with me.

Nathan Bransford said...

Lauren-

Yeah, I think you're right about advertising. I also think people have a tendency to write in the style of the voiceovers of movie previews (i.e. "In a world where..."), which also isn't a good model for query writing.

Queries are just their own kind of thing because they're accomplishing a different task. Advertising is planting a relatively simple message around a product so the person can remember it, and to do that they often use or slightly tweak common phrases. Movies trailers are more about remember specific images, not the words of the guy who's doing the voiceover.

But with a query, it's more important to be unique and yes, as you say, to write it in the voice of the manuscript.

I'm not an advertising expert and I don't write cover copy, but I do know that the best queries are ones that utilize a small number of words and don't rely on crutches.

Adaora A. said...

So really, it's one thing to attract an agent, and it's another thing to attract the reader. Agents want something that stands out and interests them. The public however, can usually be lured in by the usual shebang which graces the back flap of a new novel.

Joanne said...

Unless it's given a fresh, new spin, I can see staying away from stock phrases in queries. They're too much of a catch-all. But it's that very quality that makes the stock phrases more of a tool in promo & marketing books, identifying a theme, maybe, for the reader?

Nathan Bransford said...

I think another difference between cover copy and a query letter is that with cover copy, the reader doesn't generally need to be convinced that the writing is good. There's a certain assumption there merely from the fact that it's published and in a bookstore, there are blurbs, recommendations, etc. If the writing is good, the cover copy will probably just come out and say it.

But with a query letter, the job is different -- not only does a query letter describe the plot, but it's also supposed to reflect and show the author's writing ability. So I think there's more responsibility for the author to write the query as well as possible, and good writing doesn't typically involve cliches.

Erik said...

I think if you look at each post so far, you'll find that every one of them contains at least one word or phrase that can be considered cliche.

Is that horrible writing? Perhaps it is. But this is how people talk and think. The goal of writing is to get into people's heads, so why wouldn't you use words and phrases that make the entry easier?

Nearly everyone does this. I generally do not, but I can't get work as a writer so who the fuck am I?

All I'm asking is that the writerly world be a bit more honest about the situation - cliches are a very big part of writing in the majority of cases.

Nathan Bransford said...

erik-

For the record, I don't hold up my blog posts as some paean of good writing, and yes, it's how people think and speak and write blogs and advertising etc. etc.

But it shouldn't be how people write query letters!

A Paperback Writer said...

My least favorite cliche is "each and every," which I hear in speech often. UGH.

Erik said...

Nathan, there's not a problem of any kind as far as I'm concerned. We all understand each other, and will continue to unless I take off auf Deutsch.

I think that we all have to remember that if you want to make a living as a writer, you learn certain skills. Some corners of this world seem to encourage cliche, such as advertising, some do not mind, such as journalism, and some abhor it - that's the book writing part.

The fact that these phrases are used so easily by everyone, even here, is what I find fascinating. I think you have a great topic because I do think that most of the writing world (that is, the part that pays) relies on cliche. It's part of our language.

So if we deliberately exclude them from a 300 page novel, what do we really have? What do I have when I tend to avoid them like the plague. :-)

Precie said...

I do know that the best queries are ones that utilize a small number of words and don't rely on crutches.

Well said. After all, if a query is an agent's first impression of a prospective client, why give said agent any doubts about your writing abilities?

Anonymous said...

I don't use any of the common phrases in my query but still get rejections. I do get some partial requests, too, though. But then the partials get rejected. I don't use the cliche's in my novel, either.

After taking on more than I bargained for when setting out to write--nay, sell!--a novel--my storytelling is now coming of age.

Ulysses said...

I side with Sam Goldwyn: "Let's have some new cliches."

I guess the advice here is the same as that for comparison blurbs. It's alright for your back cover copy to say, "The next Harry Potter," but putting that phrase in your query letter is not wise.

nymeria87 said...

I guess it's obvious that the point of a query is 'advertising' your book and your individual voice with a heavy emphasis on 'individual' which excludes stock phrases per definition. Sure, there are some figures of speech etc that come up, but I think erasing the one or other 'stock phrase' in queries will definitely result in the query being more concise.

Looking at phrases like 'coming of age' etc. I'd personally have a problem with them because they're such gummi-phrases. You can stretch them into all kinds of directions without being specific. The fewer, the more specific and precise the query, but that's just my two cents.

~Nym

Adaora A. said...

I wonder if any author ever called their book the next [insert classic author ] who turned out to be the agents favourite author. I wonder so many things when excellent topics like this come along.

Anonymous said...

Cliches are unimaginative and lazy. I was recently slammed by an editor friend for using cliche after cliche. After re-edit number nine million (cliche specific), my MS has matured greatly.

Removing and manipulating cliches is a pain in the ass but that is why writing is an art. To make it good you have to put in the work and learn from it.

That said, I can't get an agent's attention to save my life so I'll shut up and go away.

Erik said...

People, I think this is easier than you are making it out to be.

Say the phrase "Coming of Age" out loud, over and over as you close your eyes. Do you see anything?

I see something between Huck Finn and the Bill Murray's "Meatballs", plus a few other scenes from books and films and my own childhood.

That's one powerful phrase, isn't it? Three words can create quite an image, and it's one that is generated subconsciously. If you want to sell someone something, why wouldn't use use literature and their own childhood to do it?

Now, let's say you have something new that you want the world to regard as yours and yours alone. Do you want these images in the reader's head, or do you want to put new ones in?

Reading is writing, writing is reading. These images go in and out of the conversation. But they are very powerful.

The big question, in all of this is a rather simple one:

Do you want the stock images in people's heads, or not?

Sometimes you'll say yes, and sometimes you'll say no. But if you're gonna call yerself a writer, ya better damned well do it deliberately.

I never rely on stock images because I prefer to build my own world. This has cost me gigs, I'm sure. People rarely seem to understand me. You don't want to simply avoid cliches unless you're willing to constantly build mental images from scratch.

That's the power of language, folks. How do you want to use it? How much subtext are you willing to work into your private speech?

pjd said...

My manuscript has not yet been published, and I've recently revised it. Can I pitch it as "new and improved"?

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hey - this is why we're all watching Mad Men!

I liked the scene where newbie female copywriter interacts with experienced male copywriter about an airline ad - plus a Frank O'Hara poem at the end "Meditations in an Emergency," first published in 1957, oh yeah!

From thebestamericanpoetry.typepad.com:

"O'Hara's poems perfectly capture the pace of a New York day in 1962. He is a master of the art of gentle self-laceration: "Now I am quietly waiting for / the catastrophe of my personality / to seem beautiful again, / and interesting, and modern.""

Here's full link if interested:
http://thebestamericanpoetry.
typepad.com/the_best_american_poetry
/2008/07/
frank-oharas-me.html

***
Want to post more about stock phrases, but a bit busy at the moment. But have been looking for a 1957 copy of the O'Hara book...I have been able to get older copies of Edna St. Vincent Millay (that much-maligned poet) online.

JES said...

Cliche hunting is kinda like a game of whack-a-mole: hammer one down and two or three others pop up. What I want is a giant... giant cliche press to wring them out of the whole damn manuscript at once.

(Failing that, of course, I'll happily settle for Lucille Ball stomping all over the pages, getting them all purple.) (Yes, THAT kind of prose.)

Lupina said...

Nathan, in a world full of stock cliches, is the partial a horse of a different color when it comes to cliche use, or do you generally find partials as much of a thorn in your side as queries when it comes to overused phrases?

I haven't seen Madmen, but I'm terribly excited that the 5th season of The Wire is due out in August on DVD!

Anonymous said...

I'm a former advertising copywriter (Joshua Ferris-style agencies), and I can tell you that it's not the phraseology so much as the Idea. Idea is king. If a certain cliche serves the idea, fine, use it. The copy still has flow, sing and dance. No flow, sing or dance, and you're fired.

That said, I agree with Pat (Orion).

I also think that having strong feelings about a certain phrase is a sign that one needs to get a life and grow up. (I'm envisioning a kid who won't eat his veggies for no other reason than he thinks he doesn't like them.) If the phrase clarifies, use it. That's why it's there. Sometimes things work for a reason. (Now there are some cliched thoughts.)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

So really, it's one thing to attract an agent, and it's another thing to attract the reader.

Quite a big difference, I'd say. The agent isn't looking for something to read by the pool, s/he's looking for something to pay some bills. Editors are the same way. I regularly choose stories for my magazine that I know will speak to our readers even if they don't speak to me personally.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

When I first heard the advice to write the query (or at least the pitch paragraph) in the voice of your manuscript, that's when query writing began to click with me.

I like the above comment.
------------------------------

Cliches are the bane of my existence.

Anonymous said...

Nathan -

I know what you're saying, but I have to point out that in your two featured examples of stellar queries (Anatomy of a Good Query I and II), both writers use a number of these stock (or maybe simply weak) phrases.

"...the last thing she needs."
"...is always worth the price."
"...unique and often humorous journey."
etc...

I'd like to see a good query that avoids phrases like this entirely. I know none of mine have.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

That's a good point!

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I think that definitely necessitates a further clarification. This may be a case where the bad queries (which I don't really show) are more illustrative than the good queries -- I receive some queries that are basically a long string of well-worn phrases. That's more of what I'm talking about.

I'm not trying to say that people should eliminate every common phrase from their query, because that's basically impossible. But I am suggesting that people take a close look at which phrases they're using -- if they work, that's great, if there's no way around the phrase, that's fine.

But this post is more aiming for the people who don't give their use of the phrases thought, and those are the queries that are deadened by cliches.

Julie Weathers said...

"I like to call attention to these things from time to time because they provide a glimpse into the repetition repetition that we see in our inboxes inboxes."

Thank you.

This is what many of us forget I think. It might seem like a small thing to us, but after an agent sees it for the 39th time that week, it has to be irksome.

This is why I like to see agents point these things out every now and then.

All right I have to get back to work on my romance, thriller, mystery, epic fantasy with humorous overtones fictional novel (c) now.

Marva said...

First post I see is orion's (hi, Pat!). Thanks for that. I was going to say it, but probably not as well.

Some of that shop-worn backcover drivel keeps me from buying the book. I think the authors are wising up, but the publishers still want drivel.

Mary said...

One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Different agents have different tastes. And though some advise that a query should read like back flap copy, that doesn’t neccessarily mean they’re inviting clichés.

But in some contexts, clichés can be effective and/or amusing.

In comedy, for example, with the exception of “coming of age”, I’ll laugh out loud at a creative use of clichés.

Steve Stubbs said...

I'm confused. "Coming of age" is a genre, is it not? If it is a cliche, would not "commercial fiction" be a cliche as well?

I always thought agents rejected coming of age novels because they do not sell, and, being the greedy money monsters they are, agents are looking for something that will sell. It is appalling, but agenting is not often pursued as a hobby.

What agents do for fun I'll never know. Count their doubloons, probably. Or collect European muscle cars and yachts.

Yo ho ho and a bottle of Red Bull.

gingersea said...

So... I don't suppose you'd be interested in a query for a book where the hero finds the trials and tribulations of coming of age more than he bargained for...
;-)

Nancy D'Inzillo said...

"So really, it's one thing to attract an agent, and it's another thing to attract the reader." True enough, but I still don't understand why cliché is all over the back of book covers. As someone mentioned in this long thread, the idea of marketing is to create something memorable, a catchphrase if you will, so why for the fragrance of cheese do people use clichés in that attempt?

Albeit, I'm an editor and look at things as much from the publisher's side of reading things as from the reader's, but I absolutely detest the amount of cliché people use in marketing. Moreover, especially when it comes to books, it doesn't make anything stand out to me, it just makes everything run together, which is why I promptly forget the cover matter of most of the books I've thumbed through in a bookstore on any given day

As for cliché being a powerful tool that taps the whole database of human memory, most clichés used are actually so conversational that I don't bother to think any more about them. I read over "coming of age story" and think, "Oh, another one of those." I've READ about Huck Finn. I want something new.

I say this to writers of the world not only as an editor, but as a reader (and will do my best to remember it in my own writing): please, don't use clichés and believe they're going to hook anyone. It's probably unavoidable you will use them at one point or another, but make what's supposed to be the catch your original voice. It's the unique quality of YOUR writing—not my associations of some well-toted phrase—that will get me (and keep me) interested.

Erik said...

As for cliché being a powerful tool that taps the whole database of human memory, most clichés used are actually so conversational that I don't bother to think any more about them.

That probably is true - it's less effective than people think. Ad people like "evocative" words, but probably miss the mark most of the time.

This is a good topic. I'm going to have something to think about for a while.

Anonymous said...

I only saw the show Mad Men once and thought it really awful and boring too. Having strong connections from that time and period, it is totally made up.
More than catch phrases, I find conjunctives and poor uses of English (like: ya goin? for a museum ad campaign or any other ad campaign) more annoying.
But when a character uses a manner of speech, it can be very revealing, entertaining, provocative. (Yeah for characters!)
Irony for a writer struggling to say something unique in a world that likes serials.

Anonymous said...

This conversation also makes me think about the visual artist's dilemma.
They need to make work that is in their own style, BUT then they also need to present work that repeats that style for a given show, so that their audience can get their language or style.
An artist, who doesn't understand the world of galleries and exhibitions, may have created 24 completely unique pieces that really reveals how original all of their work is. But it won't typically be wanted for an exhibition because it doesn't have a catch point, a repeating element.
The public wants unique AND same the same.
(I went to a garden party...)

Anonymous said...

Get it. Got it. Good.

Julia said...

Here's the thing: I used to write bookflap copy. Do you know who writes bookflap copy? Aspiring novelists in their early 20s.

THIS IS WHY A) BOOKFLAP COPY READS LIKE BAD QUERY LETTERS, AND B) BAD QUERY LETTERS READ LIKE BOOKFLAP COPY.

Also, the aspiring novelists in their early 20s are generally supervised by a failed novelist in his (usually) late 30s or early 40s.

I loved to describe books as "kicky" and "quirky" in my bookflap days. If I ever use either word in a query (or in my writing, except in the dialogue of idiot characters), I hope that Ceiling Cat will strike me dead.

So, yeah, don't write your query letter to look like bookflap copy. If the person who wrote the bookflap copy knew how to write a query letter, they wouldn't be doing the bookflap copy.

Anonymous said...

Book flag copy writer. Terry Norman said the same thing at the writing class. It's probably true.

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