As writers we know we must avoid clichés ‘like the plague’ and make sure we come up with exciting new ways to describe the heroine’s ‘peaches and cream’ complexion and the hero’s ‘rugged good looks’.

It was ‘the longest journey starts with a single step’ which set me off. It was how someone had begun his memoir. He had asked me to read and critique it. What he really meant was for me to read his work and tell him it was wonderful but by the time I’d underlined a dozen clichéd expressions in the first few pages I couldn’t oblige. He had had some amazing and exciting life experiences, which would make for a terrific memoir but he’d somehow reduced most of it to clichés and stereotyped descriptions. Every time he referred to his mother, he called her ‘me dear ol’ mum’. Every single time.

When we discussed his manuscript a couple of things became clear. One, he didn’t understand the concept of a cliché and two, even after I had explained, he was still not going to change that opening line for anyone – it said exactly what he wanted to say. That’s the thing about clichés, isn’t it? What once was an original, clever, telling expression becomes a kind of shorthand, the meaning of which everyone understands having heard it or read it countless times.

A dictionary definition: A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning, or effect, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

Salvador Dali said: “The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”  A clever statement – but not original. Dali swiped it (tweaking it slightly) from a French poet, Gérard de Nerval who said it first.

The expression, in its original form, ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, is attributed to Lau Tzu, Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism. It would have been considered a clever analogy then, now in the context of my would-be memoirist’s beginning it seems lame and unoriginal. I wonder what Lau Tzu would think if he knew how his comment is used – overused – today.

I wonder if any of us will ‘coin a phrase’ so fresh and clever and original it will be used by other writers for years to come.

I discovered (Wikipedia and other online dictionaries) the word cliché comes from the French word for a printing plate cast from movable type – which is also called a stereotype. When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Cliché came to mean such a ready-made phrase.

And have a look at this wonderful site which lists hundreds of clichés and over-used expressions. I love the comment regarding clichés in the intro to the collection: ‘They make for great book titles, but lousy writing’.


Image courtesy of Pixaby

Which ones ‘set your teeth on edge’?


Mary Smith – an update on a new book

My latest book, Castle Douglas Through Time, came out yesterday and I’m very grateful to Susan Toy of ReadingRecommendations for this lovely post.

Reading Recommendations

Mary Smith was previously featured on Reading Recommendations in March 2016. She’s back now to tell us of a non-fiction book, on which she collaborated with photographer Allan Devlin, that’s just been published.

Castle Douglas Through Time
by Mary Smith and Allan Devlin
Published by Amberley Publishing
Genre: Non-fiction, local history, photography

The market town of Castle Douglas, beside Carlingwark Loch in the southern Scottish region of Dumfries and Galloway, is relatively new, though the area has been inhabited from prehistoric times and the Romans had a military base close by. In the fourteenth century, Archibald the Grim, the 3rd Earl of Douglas, built Threave Castle nearby.

The town came into being thanks to fertiliser found in the loch and wealth merchant William Douglas, who laid out the present town in 1792. Though his dream of creating a cotton industry failed, Castle Douglas became a flourishing market town. The…

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My name is Mary and I am a procrastinator.

Procrastinate: vi to defer action; to put off what should be done immediately. n procrastination.

The way it goes is as follows. I sit at my desk to write. I check my emails, reply to anything urgent. I take a quick look at some of the blogs I follow. I leave a comment, like and share. It seems rude not to like and share and it only adds a few seconds to the time already spent reading and commenting. After another quick check of my emails I resolutely close down the programme.

I open the WIP file, realise I’ve finished my coffee and nip downstairs to make a fresh one. I notice the kitchen floor needs sweeping so do that while waiting for the kettle to boil – then realise it really needs to be properly mopped. And the load of washing is finished, which I should hang out.

Back at my desk I switch on Outlook just to check no urgent emails have come in, clear out the spam – seems to be an awful lot of invitations to subscribe to funeral plans which make wonder if someone knows something I don’t, in which case I should make the most of the time left to me. Resolutely close down email programme and, oh, look, it’s almost lunchtime and so it goes – and that’s without admitting to the time spent playing spider solitaire.

I’m glad to know I’m not alone in needing help with my procrastination problem. Recently my writers’ group had a session on this very topic – and almost everyone confessed. Various helpful strategies were described and advocated by those who had tried them and found they worked. They included the Pomodoro Technique, scheduling a fixed length of time each day or even a 500-word-a-day spreadsheet.

I decided on the spreadsheet with a target of 500 words a day. It was duly sent to me – a truly magnificent piece of work which added up each day’s words and showed how far ahead or target I was, or how far behind. I started off really well but began to feel a bit uneasy. I’m a freelance journalist – but did the commissioned 800-word article count? No, the group decided – that was cheating.  What about the words written for my blog? That was okay but definitely not words written for work.

Some days, I write a lot for work, usually after interviewing someone or carrying out research and struggle to fit in time to write another 500 words. Or, I might be working on a poem – definitely not 500 words. I was beginning to feel like a failure.

dscf0857Someone suggested setting a timer for 15 minutes. This idea is based on an ebook called The 15 Minute Writer, based on the premise that everyone can manage to find 15 minutes in which to write – it’s only a couple of games of spider solitaire, after all.

It has been wonderful. If, as usually happens, by the time the timer goes off, I’m immersed in what I’m doing, I can carry on. If it’s a struggle, at least I’ve done the 15 minutes – and earned a break.

The other thing which helps is that we all report back on our success or failure each time the group meets – that’s a huge incentive to get writing.

How about others? Do you sit at your work space and write without any procrastination? Or, do you find washing the kitchen floor suddenly holds great appeal, or walking the dog even though it’s raining? Did you find a way to overcome the problem?

Take Five Authors: A round up of this year’s news

I can’t believe the first month of 2017 has almost gone. It’s scary, isn’t it?

So far, this month I have corrected the proofs for for Castle Douglas Through Timecastledouglasthroughtime, which comes out on March 15. It is already available for pre-order on Amazon. It’s a photo-led local history book in a ‘then and now’ format in collaboration with photographer Allan Devlin. This is the second book, published by Amberley Publishing we have worked on together. Dumfries Through Time came out in 2015.

They are fun to do, although collecting the 90 old images we need is more than a bit daunting.  Allan then has to take photos of the same places as they are today and I do the research and write the introduction and captions. The research part I love; writing captions which have an upper word limit of 80 words, not so much. Our town has a rich history and it is really difficult to convey that in so few words. Of course, we cheat a bit and have several photos of Carlingwark Loch, for example, so I can tell a bit more of the story through a series of images.

66-bThe week before the launch party for Castle Douglas Through Time I am teaching, with historical novelist Margaret Elphinstone on a creative writing course here in south west Scotland. Juliet, who owns Durhamhill and the llamas and organises the courses emailed today to say places are filling up. There’s another returnee (always flattering but means Margaret and I have to come up with new exercises each time!).

She also wrote: ‘The llama shed is getting a new surface outside. Alan woke me up in a panic at the crack of dawn to say a lorry driver delivering stones had let the llamas out through the gate. I staggered from bed to the drive with a migraine and fell flat over the load of stones – then had to finish sorting out myjane-oz last year’s accounting stuff for the last minute dash to my long-suffering accountant but a hired hot tub for the hen party who were arriving this evening wasn’t heating up properly and Lettie [she’s a llama] was shivering because she had to be shut out in the wind while the builders sorted the stones around the llama palace. Fortunately she loves hot water and drank half a bucket and stopped shivering.’

Are you, as I am, wondering if it was the hen party’s hot tub water the llama drank? And don’t you just know a creative writing course with this woman present is going to be an absolute hoot?

I am about to send a very slim collection of short stories to an editor and hope to publish The Thing in Your Eye and other stories (working title) in mid to late spring. I don’t write many short stories but enjoy the form. Some of these have won or been placed in various competitions and, as it’s a long time since I published any fiction, I thought it was time to get them out there. I’ll have more news of this to share in a future blog.

As for my New Year resolutions – well, I’ve been good at turning down projects (other than a couple of magazine feature commissions) which would take me away from this year’s main project of turning my blog My Dad’s a Goldfish, into a book. So far, I have cut the opening, which worked fine as a blog post but not as a memoir and I’m looking forward to really getting stuck into this next week.

Depending on when you read this post I’ll be on a train to Glasgow or delivering a talk, to an audience of about 70 sex educators (Sexpression), on sex in Afghanistan, or I might be on a train back home. Leave your comments and I will respond as soon as I’m back at my desk. I don’t have a smart phone, thank goodness.

Changing reading habits

It was a holiday in Turkey some years ago which was the catalyst to a major change in my reading habits.

I’d finished the last of the books I’d brought with me – three days before our holiday ended. We were staying in a small town which had shops selling hand-painted pottery, gorgeous silver jewellery and clothing – but no books. The DH, who listens to audio books, panicked at the thought of me being without a book for three days. I panicked at the thought of being without a book to read by the pool, in bed and – terrifying thought – nothing to read on the plane.

Somehow – I think we have Google to thank and the Brits who love cats – the DH tracked down a source of books. In an estate agent’s office discovered a narrow, but tall, set of shelves crammed full of paperbacks. They’d been donated by cat lovers who support an organisation which neuters cats. Disaster averted, I made my selection. The DH gave a donation to the cat neutering charity. I think, in fact, he ended up sorting out their website. On my next birthday I received a Kindle. Now, as long as I didn’t forget to pack the charger, I’d never run out of books on holiday.

kindleI loved my Kindle. I think it is the one piece of technology I embraced with total enthusiasm. I built up my virtual library, discovering new-to-me authors, finding favourites from childhood, (which are still in the attic but clicking that ‘Buy Now’ button is so much easier than hauling down the loft ladder and rummaging around). Reading in bed was so much easier. I also saved lots of money with so many 99p and free books to download. It meant I no longer left little lists of wish-list books around as Christmas neared.

Then, something happened. I was reading a review of the latest book by one of my favourite authors. I clicked on the link and discovered the Kindle price was only slightly less than the print price. Finger hovering over the buy button I could almost feel the book in my hands, the solidity of it, feel the page and hear it flip over, could almost smell it. I saw myself pick it up, flipping through to where I’d stopped reading, maybe re-reading a paragraph on the way. I bought the print book.

Since then I’ve bought more books. The Kindle is wonderful, especially for holidays, but I am so enjoying the joy of feeling a ‘real’ book in my hands again. And I can leave little wish-lists around the house – so helpful when people know what you want in your Christmas stocking.

Are you a Kindle reader or a real book reader? Or do you mix and match?

Happy Christmas!happyChristmas2.png