Cliche or convention?

by M.J. Hearle

I recently read a bad review of Winter’s Shadow. Don’t worry – I’m okay. It was touch and go for a few hours there, what with all the crying and self-mutilation, but I came through the experience a much stronger person. Apparently, I’m not the world’s greatest writer? This, I’ve come to terms with.

In all seriousness, the critical response to my first book has been overwhelmingly positive. Surprisingly, so. After all, the paranormal genre doesn’t sit much higher than bodice-rippers in the mainstream’s esteem, so I was prepared to be dismissed, if not outright sneered at by the critical community. Of course, I knew the book wasn’t literary junk food. Winter’s Shadow might not be fine cuisine like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but it’s more than a mouthful of empty calories.

Getting back to this bad review – one of the major criticisms levelled at the book (and to be fair the reviewer did have some nice things to say as well) was that certain elements of the story were clichéd. Specifically, the characters of Winter, Blake, and my description of their love affair. The reviewer accused this relationship as being highly derivative of the one depicted in Twilight. Just like Bella, Winter a shy, withdrawn girl with a troubled family history is drawn to a mysterious handsome stranger, Blake. Blake happens to be a supernatural creature who in turn is drawn to our heroine because of something unique about her, not unlike Edward’s fascination with Bella and her tasty blood/imperviousness to psychic intrusion. The fact that I created an entirely new supernatural mythology didn’t impress the critic because they couldn’t get past the fact that the romance was something she felt like she’d read dozens of times before.

Right, this is the part where I’m supposed to defend myself and poke holes in her critical attack. Unfortunately, I can’t. The reviewer was absolutely right in calling out the similarities between Winter and Blake/Bella and Edward. I’m surprised more reviewers haven’t taken me to task with similar misgivings. Of course, Winter isn’t Bella and Blake isn’t Edward – I do think the reviewer overlooked the shading I employed to make my characters a little more human and less Harlequin romance-esque than those in Twilight  –  but sketched broadly both sets of characters are unmistakably similar.

You know, what? I did this on purpose.

When I first set out to write Winter’s Shadow, I was not (and still am not) an expert on the genre. I understand horror fiction and dark fantasy very well, but paranormal romance – not so much. What I did know was that the genre had certain conventions – and I’d ask you, Welcome Reader, to pay specific attention to that word ‘convention’ as we’re going to come back to it. The dominant paranormal romance story conventions that I discovered in my research were these –  introspective teenage heroine; handsome, mysterious stranger; small town setting; a passionate romance fraught with obstacles; and a supernatural element usually directly connected to the handsome, mysterious stranger.

Astute readers will see that I employed all these conventions when writing Winter’s Shadow, but before I get accused of writing to a formula or being a hack, let me explain: I did not use these conventions to create the story. The creative inspiration arrived purely and without contrivance – what I did was use these conventions as a framework to hang my fledgling narrative.

In Stephen King’s afterword for Nightmares & Dreamscapes, a collection of his short fiction, he explains the genesis of each story, describing how he got the idea and what he was hoping to achieve. One of the stories is about a young couple who stumble into a haunted town, and King owns up to the fact that there are probably plenty of readers who feel like he’s revisited that particular creative well too many times. He defends himself by saying there are only so many narrative conventions one can use for a scary story, and that just because he’s used a similar setup before doesn’t mean he’s copying himself. King compares writing fiction to playing music, using the Blues to illustrate his point by saying that while there are basically only three chords available to the Blues musician, within these limitations lies infinite room to riff and experiment.

Winter’s Shadow may use similar chords to those found in Twilight but I think the music I’m playing sounds a little weirder, a little more interesting and (…dare I say it? Why not – it’s my blog) a little more accomplished. It was a conscious decision on my part to hit certain familiar beats, knowing full well I had some decidedly outré elements up my sleeve that I wanted to include as well. Rather than risk alienating a portion of the readership unfamiliar with my new mythology, I wanted to ease them into the book with some established conventions.

In preparation for this blog (who am I kidding – I spent five minutes on google) I tried to track down the difference between cliché and convention and was surprised at how there didn’t seem to be a clear distinction between the two terms. Harold Ramis (director of Groundhog Day) supplied the best summation I could find:

‘When something (a story point) is done badly we call it cliché, when it’s done well, we respect it as a convention.’

Comparing the number of bad reviews to the good ones, I’d venture to say that I largely succeeded in avoiding cliché with Winter’s Shadow, despite this particular critic’s thoughts. I suppose it depends on your milage. If you’ve read a million YA Paranormals you’re probably going to be less tolerant of certain conventions than you are of others – no matter how good the writing is. In any case, the main lesson I took away from reading the bad review was this: when putting your work out there in the public arena, it’s important to remember that everybody’s entitled to their opinion.

Even when it’s wrong.

M. J.