12.08.2006

Crapometer Cliche

Dearest Miss Snark,

Since another round of the CoM is fast approaching (hooray!), I was hoping for a little of your snarky wisdom to help with a hook/query/synopsis-writing problem I'm currently facing.

Here's the thing: My novel has quite a cliche element in it (a portal to another world). It really is necessary for the story, and I've tried very hard to make it seem un-cliche-ish in the novel. But I'm having a hard time doing that same thing in the query and synopsis because of the space limitations. And if it sounds cliche and boring there, then probably no agent is going to want to read the whole manuscript to find out that it (hopefully) isn't really cliche and boring. So if Your All-Knowing Snarkiness can give any advice on presenting cliche elements in a non-cliche way when writing hooks/synopses, I would be extremely grateful.

Sadly, I can only tell you if it works or doesn't.

That's why you are the writer; the one with imagination and vision.
I'm the agent: cold cruel and critical.

You might try looking at all those books that made portal a cliche and see how they described it.

24 comments:

Rowan said...

I would suggest (as a longtime reader and aspiring writer) of SF/F, that it depends on the way you use it. My current WIP has travel between worlds, but I treat it like a tool, not the point of the work. It's kind of like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars or the Enterprise in Star Trek. Sure those are two of the most memorable things in each franchise, but they're just tools. I say focus on the story, the mechanics are just the tools to make it happen. I don't know your work, but I suspect the action, characters and plot are more important or interesting.
Of course, not being published, take my advice for what it is.
Best,
Rowan

Anonymous said...

You might want to check out "Magic or Madness" by Justine Larbalestier. She has a portal between two cities, Sydney and NYC. While not another world, it may help with the cliché problem.

Kit Whitfield said...

Can you think of a synonym for 'portal' that doesn't have cliched connotations? That's a dodge that would depend on skilful execution, of course, but it might be worth thinking about.

katiesandwich said...

Is it possible to write your hook without mentioning the portal? Probably not, I'm guessing, but if the portal is insignificant enough that you could leave it out of the hook, then you wouldn't even have to explain why your portal isn't cliche; the agent would figure out why as he or she read your work.

I have to ask, though. Are you SURE your portal isn't cliche? I mean, earlier in the process of writing my WIP, I was convinced that this magical item in my work wasn't cliche like all the others that appear in fantasy books. But I stepped back and took a very, very close look, and I discovered that I was wrong. So I rewrote the story so that... well, I won't go into detail. But sometimes I think we get so attached to our work that we can't see its faults, and that includes not being able to tell if something is cliche or not. I'm not saying your portal IS cliche; I'm just suggesting that you might want to really check and see that it's not.

Our Novel Editor said...

Any agent willing to overlook "a portal to another world" plot device (no matter how cleverly done), is probably willing to overlook that aspect of the hook. As long as the rest of the book sounds interesting and original.

So I say just describe as best you can and then focus on making the rest of hook better.

Shouga Tea said...

You can always underplay that aspect. Find a creative way to not make it obvious that it's a device. In 250 wds, surely you could focus on something else. It's what to focus on that gives me the trouble...
Anyway, a device is a device. That's clearly not what you're working with to get your book original, so focus on something else.

Anonymous said...

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has a portal to another world in it. CS Lewis called it a "wardrobe." Or maybe it was the Lion? No... no... it was definitely the wardrobe.

Have a portal. Have two. Have ten. Call it something else, or don't. Just make the words that come before and after "portal" interesting.

Kanani said...

If you ascribe to the notion that everything has been written before, you'll see that the portal itself doesn't have to be a cliché. What determines whether or not it is, is the strength of your writing.

Go ahead, keep the portal. Instead, look at how your writing holds up. Are the descriptions you use to describe the environment or experience devoid of expressions you've heard before (clichés). Are you specific when describing things? Are the characters reactions genuine, do they grow or discover something about themselves through the course of the novel? Is your dialogue fresh, do you only use the most potent lines?

I think there are lots of things that make something add up to a plot or character cliché. But just having a portal alone doesn't necessarily make it one. It's all a part of the problem the novel presents to us as we're writing it.

Swordswinger said...

If it's the fact that it's called a portal that's worrying you, well...access, aperture, approach, archway, avenue, conduit, door, doorway, egress, entrance, entranceway, entry, entryway, exit, gate, gateway, hatch, hatchway, ingress, ingression, inlet, mouth, opening, passage, passageway, porch, port, portico, postern, revolving door, threshold, turnstile, vestibule, way, way out...

Sorry. There was an online thesaurus, there was day-job boredom...what can I say?

I'll get me coat.

Word verif: mlweucsp. The sound you make when you realise the bowl of liquid you were very carefully carrying has passed its vital point of balance.

RyanBruner said...

Remember that it isn't the WORD portal that is the cliche, it is the concept...or rather the USE of the concept...that is cliche.

You can have portals and call them something else but still be a cliche. But you can also have portals and call them portals and have them not be a cliche.

Follow the advice given here.

I do recall Stephen Lawhead's use of the portal as being rather unique, tying it to something historical.

And the movie/TV show Stargate is all about a portal (or portals). Again, the usage of the portal is what isn't cliche.

Don't make your query hinge on the whole "portal" aspect, and you'll be fine. (Or not, I suppose, depending on how the rest of the query goes!)

BuffySquirrel said...

I was curious to see how the portal in Alan Garner's Elidor was described, as that has to be one of the culprit books.

So I ambled over to Amazon.

"The four Watson children explore an abandoned street in post-World War II England. When they go inside a ruined church, they are transported to another land--Elidor."

Short and to the point. No "portal". Whether it would pass muster with an agent nowadays is another matter. Isn't Rachel Vater one of the anti-portal people? She sometimes answers questions on her blog over at Lit Agent X.

Anonymous said...

Err, just don't call it a Stargate and I think you're fine. There are certain givens in SF, portals have become like robots. They're there, people use 'em, no bog deal. Give me a cool world on the other end.

Cynthia Bronco said...

Ditto Katie and Kit, I was going to say the same thing.
I'd better get busy writing my own crapometer entry.

kis said...

Ooh, conduit is the perfect synonym for portal. Hey, um, sworswinger, couldja do me one for talisman?

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I find a disconnect between editors and agents and readers of Sci Fi on the portal issue. A lot of readers like it. (I tried to write mine out, my crit group--a very picky, well-read bunch--wouldn't hear of it.)

I abide by these usage rules though: it must make sense to the story and character, it must have defined rules, and it must not overshadow any other aspect in the story.

Besides, don't we all wish we could step into another world sometimes? People do pretty often--sure it takes a few hours or a day to get there, but still...

A Paperback Writer said...

Swordswinger, I am amused.

Kanani said...

No, it doesn't matter what you call it.
It'll be a cliché if the prose around it is careless and has been heard a million times before.

Anonymous said...

I have a portal that leads to George Clooney's bed.

Kara Lennox said...

Portal is a cliche? Dang.

Simon Haynes said...

"Word verif: mlweucsp. The sound you make when you realise the bowl of liquid you were very carefully carrying has passed its vital point of balance."

I thought that was "O sh-t!"

katiesandwich said...

Wow! I never thought of the Stargate as a portal, but it totally is. And it's the freakin awesomest portal EVER!

My character Daniel is named after guess what archaeologist?

The Cliche/Portal Girl said...

Wow, thanks for the great feedback, everybody! You're all incredibly wonderous and brilliant and helpful. *gives out virtual hugs and $20 bills*

Anonymous said...

My question would be, while the portal may be necessary to your story, is it entirely necessary for your hook? If you have only 250 words, maybe they would be better employed describing something more integral about your story. If the portal is merely a tool, then gloss over the tool and concentrate on what it accomplishes. Concentrate on what makes your plot unique.

Though of course, if your character gets puking sick with motion sickness very time s/he uses the portal, that in itself could break the cliche bit all to heck. *G*
Cheers ~

G. Atwater
*who is also desperately struggling with how to make a cliched concept, which is not cliched in its execution, sound un-cliched in summary. Argh*

Swordswinger said...

Glad I amused, Paperback. Kis, sorry - not so many for Talisman but here goes...amulet, charm, cult object, fetish image, juju, luck-piece, lucky piece, madstone, mascot, periapt, phylactery, thing, trinket.

'Thing' is probably the least helpful thesaurus entry I've encountered in a long career of thesaurus-searching.