If you set out to write a novel, you can’t be scared of a little cliché. After all, writing a novel is cliché in and of itself (see artist Cory Arcangel’s book Working on My Novel, which is a collection of tweets about—you guessed it!—working on a novel). Throw in the famous quote that there are only two stories to be told (which has been attributed variously to John Gardner, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, among others)—“man goes on a trip” and “stranger comes to town”—and it starts to seem that writing something that hasn’t been written before is an impossible task. And it is. So don’t even try.
Wait! I’m not telling you not to write a novel. Not at all. What I’m saying is don’t set yourself up for failure.
To convince yourself that nothing is worth doing unless it’s 100 percent never-been-done-before is to boob-tape yourself into a garment bag of fear. From there, trapped inside yet peeking out through the zipper to scoff at those both less cliché-phobic and more prolific, you tell yourself you’re just waiting for a worthy idea while you’re really just doing nothing. This gets boring, and weirdly sweaty, fast. Embrace the cliché and set yourself free.
When you allow yourself to embrace the cliché, you gain the space to sit with an idea, even a bad one, for a while before chucking it off to the place where all clichés eventually end up (Pinterest, maybe?). Getting to know a cliché gives you time to examine it, look for new angles and peel back the layers. Sure, sometimes these clichés really are all puff and no cream, but just as often it will turn out that they are hiding something truly original. A novel idea, if you will.
My upcoming YA novel is called The Babysitters Coven. I had the title way before I had the book, so I knew from the first sentence that I wanted my story to sidestep clichés but wallow in tropes. It took me a while to differentiate between the two, though, and doing so took a lot of trial and error.
One of the biggest YA clichés is the love triangle—that situation when a girl has to choose between two equally hot/nice/smart guys who just happen to represent totally different sides of her life. Love triangles are appealing to read, because it’s fun to imagine yourself at the center, and at first it seemed like it would be fun to write, too. I sandwiched my protagonist between an older bad boy and the literal boy next door, but soon found myself bored with the whole situation. There was really no tension—she was 17, she wasn’t trying to get married, so why couldn’t she just Netflix and chill with them both? Also, spending too much time with these dudes really seemed to slow things down (as is often the case in books and in life). I finally gave her one love interest, but made sure he was integral to the plot, and not the plot itself.
In those early drafts, my MC first had zero friends, then that evolved to one friend who was a real bitch. I finally settled on her having one friend who was awesome, because I figured this was both the most aspirational and the most realistic. Writers tend to be outsiders, so we almost always want our characters to be outsiders as well, but giving them no friends pushes them too far outside—even sociopathic Villanelle wants someone to watch a movie with. The best-frenemies-forever thing has also been done to detrimental death. There is no shortage of stories where female friends stab each other in the front, back and every other available body part. To be consistently exposed to this narrative is to eventually come to expect it. My main character’s relationship with her best friend ended up being one of my favorite parts of my finished novel, because I think it shows how fiercely loyal and supportive teenage girls actually can be.
Teen movies were a huge source of inspiration for me, because I love nothing more than witty dialogue set against a backdrop of cafeteria dregs and locker malfunctions. As soon as I started writing my book, I knew I wanted it to have jocks, gym coaches and plenty of cheerleaders. The jocks and coaches came to me pretty quickly, but it was harder to figure out how to throw a cheer squad in the mix. In the beginning, I made one of my main characters a cheerleader, but that seemed too predictable. However, when I took the cheerleaders out completely, it felt like a missed opportunity. My goldilocks moment came in the form of a crucial cameo at a major turning point that also ended up being one of the funniest scenes for me to write.
My book will be published this September, and it’s equally thrilling and terrifying to create something out of nothing and then put it out into the world. The entire process has infused me with a tremendous respect for any and all attempts at art, and I know I would have never been able to finish it if I had let fear of cliché get in the way. It takes effort to turn banal into brilliant-ish, and I’m proud of myself for writing what I consider to be a pretty original story about high school, female friendship, and what happens when a stranger comes to town.
Kate Williams is a writer based in San Francisco. You can pre-order her forthcoming debut novel, The Babysitters Coven, here.
Photo by Mary Evans/UNIVERSAL PICTURES/Ronald Grant via Everett Collection.