How to murder your brilliance in one simple sentence

So there I was, jogging my little heart out on the gym elliptical machine, reading a book I was thoroughly enjoying. The voice was wonderful, the story fun and entertaining. I was enjoying reading something outside my normal pleasure reading repertoire. The narrative was filled with witty, self deprecating womanly angst that we’ve all been through at one time or another. Har har, ohhh, so been there, babe. I was totally engrossed until I came across this one line.

“I threw up a little bit in my mouth.”

I stopped ellipticating and re-read the line. Eeeeeek!!! Did I read that right? Gah. Did she really use a line that is on virtually every blog or writer’s board? Furthermore, how in the name of St. Syntax did this tiny, weency sentence pass the author’s editor? I would have zapped that little blighter with a flame thrower.

What plays well and elicits a snork from readers on internet boards and blogs does not mean it’s going to have the same effect in a book. I wanted to scream “NARC!”  To me, it’s as bad as trying pass off “It was a dark and stormy night” as your lead-off sentence and not expect howls of “ya gotta be kidding” to ricochet off your quill.

Writing a recognizable sentence and attempting to use it as your own is akin to a perspiration stain on a wedding dress. You can look past the stain and look at the overall wedding gown, but your eyes can’t unsee the stain. And you’ll begin to wonder about the bride’s ability to take care of the situation.

Ok, maybe I’m overreacting, but what this innocent little sentence did is take me out of her story – which was bad because it was a pivotal part of the story. Instead, I stared at the offending sentence and wondered what the author was thinking. Was she that unable to figure out how to express utter shock? Or did she really think this wouldn’t be seen as a literary faux pas?

We writers are word whores. We can’t help it. We see clever things and want to adopt them for our own writing. But there is real danger in adopting something that virtually everyone knows isn’t your own. For one thing, editors can fall off gym equipment.

Change up an internet cliche so that it becomes yours. After all, there are a gajillion ways to express shock to the point of feeling sick, so write that instead. You’re supposed to be clever and unique, so go write your own brilliant stuff. Besides, and be honest here, how many of us have EVER thrown up a little in our mouths? Isn’t that an all or none proposition?

And that’s why it works so well on a board – it conveys shock and dismay as only internet-speak can do. But keep in on the boards and out of your book.


20 Responses to How to murder your brilliance in one simple sentence

  1. That line was funny the first time it was used, in a movie. But I don’t understand why everyone keeps repeating it.

  2. I agree, David. It goes beyond cliche. It’s just plain painful.

  3. Lauren says:

    There are some cliches I adore. They just sound wonderful. It doesn’t mean I use them, but I definitely like them.

    This one, however, is a major turn-off for me, not because it’s a cliche (though it is and is annoying based on that alone) but because it is a rotten and sickening visual image.

    I’m sorry. It’s sick, and not in the sense the author means. I just don’t want to see something like that in my mind. So if I come across this phrase anywhere I just stop reading. Right then. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the post/essay / op-ed piece / comment / article/ book. It’s distasteful in the extreme. And it’s an automatic sinker in my opinion.

  4. Darn it, Lauren, quit beating around the bush and tell us what you really think.

    I agree that this particular phrase is lame. Frankly, I felt it an immature choice of words.

  5. Karen Gowen says:

    Another one to avoid– the elephant in the living room. And “too much information.” “24/7” Got any others? My trite expression list is about 30 years old. It desperately needs updating.

  6. Voidwalker says:

    Unlike “It was a dark and stormy night,” the phrase that the character used was a something that people say…and say a lot. People don’t say, “I felt the gastric juices building as I tasted last night’s dinner.” That’s unrealistic, much like the gangster drinking tea (as mentioned in a previous post)

    So, if a character is being normal by saying things that people often say, then why is that so disruptive to the read?

  7. Voidwalker: Because fiction has to be more convincing than real life.

  8. So, if a character is being normal by saying things that people often say, then why is that so disruptive to the read?

    Because this is a sentence I only see on blogs or boards. I have never heard anyone say “I threw up a little in my mouth.” It doesn’t roll off the tongue. I really think we avoid being cliche in our speech. While this was narrative and not speech, it struck me as a huge clunk. Especially since she’d already established a clever, unique voice.

  9. Voidwalker says:

    While I cannot defend the worth of the phrase, I can say that I’ve heard it used in speech a lot. David mentioned that it became popular in a movie, this is true, but that movie targets a very specific humor type. I know a lot of people that fall into that category of humor, so I’ve heard it said maybe more than a “Monty Python” humor kinda guy/gal. I guess it doesn’t seem out of place for me, because of that, BUT, you know the voice of your novel’s character and can tell if it was indeed out of place. I default on saying it must have been, or you wouldn’t have written this post 🙂

  10. Steve says:

    I think perhaps this phrase is specific to a particular demographic and/or subculture. I’ve never heard the phrase or seen it online before just now, and I’ve been actively Internet-aware since 1991. If the writer’s intended audience would be aware of the phrase as a cliche, then I agree it might have an unintended effect. And I agree on its own merits, lacking context, the image is gross. I myself have a strong stomach, but most of my friends would be offended to hear it, especially if they happened to be eating.


  11. catwoods says:

    Oh come on. Hasn’t anyone vurped in their mouth before? Just a little?

    That would be vomit-burp for those who don’t share my children or their horrendous sense of humor.

    *puts horns and pictchfork away*

  12. jane howatt says:

    In my own humble Momdog opinion, the bravest move in writing is to just say “No!” and throw the darn sentence in with the coffee grounds.

    NO! This sounds as horrid as a beagle baying at the moon. What was I thinking?

    No!I have never felt like that in my entire life! Give that stale emotion to Aunt Millie for Christmas.

    Then write exactly what you want to say. That is what my brilliant Pomeranian does when he writes stories.

  13. ludovicah says:

    Context, its all about context. I can imagine a 15-25 year old saying it, and I can also imagine using “net-speak” to lock into a particular demographic. I’m not going to pass judgement. Teenagers REALLY DO say “Oh-Emm-Gee!” and “LOL!” and “pwnage” etc nowadays and that’s very indicative of character/age

  14. louise says:

    I wouldn’t particularly be overjoyed to read it, but it wouldn’t put me off the book. I’m far more put off by reading bad language – especially if the author is trying to build up the tempo with the language (then I’d stop reading).

  15. yearzerowriters says:

    The cynic in me says MOST possible word combinations have been brought together in literature. Why is this one any worse? Maybe if writers started really pushing language into genuinely new forms and metaphors, the 200 year old art form of the novel might be able to compete better in the 21st century with all the other data streams that assail us. The linguistic experiments of Joyce, Pound, Faulkner et al died out for whatever reason by the 1960’s. Yet to my mind there was plenty mileage still to be had.

    marc nash

  16. That word combination isn’t an experiment by the writer. Instead, the writer used an expression that first showed up in a movie a few years ago and since then has been used widely and become trite and stale.

    Speaking for myself, I can’t stand the pointless, distracting experiments of Joyce, Pound, or Faulkner. I love novels that use the language well and tell a good story. That’s the real art of the novel.

  17. Ludovicah, you make a good point – audience. This particular book was chick-lit, which encompasses all ages of women. Had this been YA, I wouldn’t have made such a deal about it. But I see lots of old bats my age reading this genre, and they would gag at this sentence.

    My point with this post was to remind authors to be mindful of what makes sense in their story. This was such obvious net-speak, and it had no place in the scene. It just stuck out there like a wet booger.

  18. You’re right that it doesn’t show a lot of imagination, though I suspect the writer was trying to hit her demographic, maybe even reference the line in “Dodgeball,” which is where I first heard it.
    Rather than recycle the trite, I like to reformulate it. I wrote a piece where the narrator was speculating about love, and then he said, “And then she had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘I’m sorry,'” which would have been trite if I hadn’t altered it, because it would have been a line from a silly old song. But changing it slightly worked for me.

  19. mo says:

    It doesn’t sound like the author is describing a ‘vurp’ of bile as much as she’s grabbing some hipster credibility with a joke that’s overused and already on its way out of vogue. A young woman reading this twenty years from now won’t get the joke. She’ll just be blindsided with the mention of vomit.

    I know the pundits waffle on the wisdom of using slang–“It makes your dialogue more realistic!” vs. “It quickly dates your work!”–but I think when the slang involves disgusting imagery, you need to ask if intentionally disgusting your audience at this point in the story is your goal.

  20. Sally Zigmond says:

    I, too, must be an internet and modern culture innocent because I’ve never read or heard the sentence before. But I can see how it’s a poor selection of words because, when you think about it, it doesn’t say much at all. We all know the feeling but it’s badly expressed, cliché or otherwise.

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