I’m reading a book right now that, like the debate about the list of books for feminist readers of YA in Anne’s post, raises questions about conventions.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones covers everything from ADEPTS to ZOMBIES and includes travel guide icons both typical (Food, Lodging) and atypical (Evil, Magic) as well as Official Management Terms, defined as “words which the management has dreamed up for use every time a certain thing, fact, sensation, or person is mentioned.” In Fantasyland, for example, stew (an almost ubiquitous food) is always thick and savory; you get a sense of wrongness or a feeling of being watched when assassins are approaching; and the occupants of hovels always eke out a wretched existence.

Most kinds of writing have conventions, certainly, just as most occupations and avocations have shared vocabulary. So when does convention become cliché? When do we depend too much on convention or cliché to do the emotional work that our characters and scenes should be doing instead?

Just as an exercise, try writing, in any genre, a scene heavily laden with overused words, phrases, and actions. Now rewrite the same scene with unexpected language. The key word is rewrite: my own first drafts are filled with flat language, clichés, filter words. Rereading those drafts, seeing my writing eke out a wretched existence, I am filled with a sense of wrongness. Revision is a chance to make my writing thick and savory.

And watch for other Tough Guides as listed in the front of Wynne Jones’s book, including The Tough Guide to Time Warps (out last century), The Tough Guide to the End of the World (coming soon), and The Tough Guide to Black Holes (unaccountably missing). Did I mention that the book makes me laugh out loud?