Writing With Found Objects 2


Reader Wants Cookie!

We’ll start off our series on the uses, abuses, and avoidance of clichés with how they’re really useful and in fact expected.

Again, note I’m not talking about making your entire book a cliché, or making your story utterly unoriginal (we’ll get to that under abuses.)

Rather, the proper use of cliché is to fill in bits – because no one (NO ONE) can create a whole world out of whole cloth, and if you don’t mention some of the clichés, the readers will put them in anyway.

And the fun part of the filling in bits is as a nod to past things in the genre, to genre tropes that every devoted reader knows, to in jokes and things the reader expects.

Kris Rusch calls these “reader cookies.”  I don’t know if the expression is original with her.

Reader cookies are the easiest of all cliché uses (and it’s a good thing I did them today, when I started off late, and I’m doing this on half a brain!) … and the most difficult.  You have to make sure at the same time that you’re doing a nod thing and that you don’t alienate new readers, because for any genre, your book might be the first that this reader encounters.  You also have to make sure that the reader cookie is fun but won’t make people laugh outloud in the middle of a serious scene.  (I might have failed that last with one of mine, and certainly failed pre-edit.)

One way I did reader cookies in the Darkship world is that the titles are allusions to classics of various genres, but mostly science fiction.  When you name a section Stranger in a Strange land, the reader who knows the history of the field will smile knowingly and feel gratified.  The ones who don’t, don’t care.

(The way I almost failed that, is in Darkship Renegades having Ringo shout Live Free or Die and then being shot while wearing a red kilt.  Then there is the follow up I had to delete, because when someone in the final fight says “Oh, John Ringo, no.”  It’s a climatic fight.  People shouldn’t be giggling while reading it.)

But there is another level of reader cookies, one that is almost expected.  If you’re writing a future world, you should have some cool tech for people to admire.  A world that is just like today is not exciting.  In that sense flying cars (and most Heinleinian tropes) are a cliché, but one that your readers will appreciate.

The same for your other genres.

In historical, I found people love little hidden nuggets of research they can verify and find it’s true.  That is a little beyond the cliché, but not really, since it’s something every historical novel writers tries to include.  (Though hopefully different facts.)  At the same time, some historical figures will be portrayed a certain way.  No, seriously, it’s not worth rowing against the current of the reader’s mind.  People are a mixed lot and when writing of real people, I can make Shakespeare a profligate and Kit Marlowe an innocent, but only for a short story.  If I’d tried that for a novel ten years ago, I’d still be buried under complaining emails.

In mystery there are clichés, like the closed room murder – if you’ve read The Musketeer’s Seamstress, how many of you realized that was what I was setting up? And doing that in the form of a swashbuckling historical?  Reader cookie.

In the same way as in SF, a lot of mystery reader cookies are nods to the history of the genre.  Bodies in the library and a reference to the wickedness inherent in villages bring Christie to mind.  Pfui brings Rex Stout to mind.  Elementary invokes Sherlock Holmes…

By having these nods in there – and the same for Tolkien in Fantasy, btw – you’re assuring the reader that you’ve read the genre, that you’re experienced in it.  More than that, you’re telling the reader that you’re one of them and creating a communality.  You’ll be forgiven a multitude of sins when you do that.  No, seriously.

Give your readers some cookies, and they might even fail to notice that you didn’t serve a main course – that is, you weren’t particularly original.

Be original if you can, of course.  Be as original as you can, I should say.  But keep feeding the readers some cookies – hat tips, allusions, or even clichéd and time honored plot points and world fixtures — and your unoriginalities or failures to soar will be forgiven…. More than if you don’t put those in, at least.

Okay – pardon this disjointed post.  Hopefully it got across well enough.  If/when I publish this series as a booklet I have to clean this one up.

And next week: Filler bits and duct tape.


  1. I love this post Sarah. It is important to remember to add the fun stuff. Peopleay call your work derivative but that’s a good thing. Using the tropes people are familiar with not only makes the reader happy but acknowledges the work of those who have come before you. That’s important too.

  2. I enjoy seeing the hardy perennial “Yngvi is a louse!” in various (older) books. I do not know the origin. Perhaps Yngvi ate the last piece of pie. Still makes me giggle. I really should mention Yngvi in one of my books sometime.

    1. Quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Shea

      In the original story a character in a jail comes to the bars every hour on the hour to announce that “Yngvi is a louse!”. This phrase has moved into the lexicon and has taken on a life of its own in certain SF related circles. Who, or what, Yngvi is has never been determined.

      End Quote

      Eating the last piece of pie or the last cookie is good enough for me. [Wink]

  3. I’m really looking forward to the duct tape. Especially since a number of my worlds are falling apart. In some cases, that’s a feature. But others, I need duct tape!

  4. I need filler bits and transitions. Cookies? Yeah, I think I’ve got cookies, but it’ll take a miracle for the candy to last until tomorrow night. 😉

  5. You can overdose on cookies. Probably the worst example would be the later novels in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, where he actually solicited puns from his fans and filled in the story with them.

    (Of course, by that point, the stories were so formulaic you could see where he erased the roman numerals from his outline.)

  6. I recall reading some story or novel in which the protagonist, who I think was going through a tunnel or cave, sees “Yngvi is a louse” scrawled on the wall, then, a bit farther along, sees another scrawl on the wall: “I am not a louse — Yngvi”. Can’t remember where I saw it. At one point I thought it was in Heinlein’s Glory Road, but the last time I reread GR, I didn’t see it there.

  7. For those who have actually _read_ it, “The Flying Sorceror,” is the ultimate “cookie.” “The Number of The Beast,” is the next closest. I picture him writing it, giggling madly as he finds clever allusions to writers and genre. Just like those who have seen “The Muppet Movie,” and can attest to the multiple levels of humor. I saw that one in the theater, and even in the dark, you could tell who the adults were. We got. ” I’d be gone with the Schwinn.” Only a Master can pull off. “I’ve never seen someone so Green, so Blue.” (Fozzie to the camera, about Kermit.)

  8. I don’t think I offer my readers cookies so much as pomegranates. That is, I have a lot of references to other works, but the works tend to be fairly obscure ones, and I tend to bury them.

    I have a walk-on character, for example, who is (police) Captain Clark, I have a character reading a book by Dr. Benway, I’ve named companies Isidore and Bellona, and at one point a character quotes dialogue from a B-movie called “Neon Manics”. One of my continuing characters is named after a manufacturer of builder’s hardware.

    I don’t think this is an ego thing for me, honestly, I think that I do this because I personally enjoy finding the oddball, and I think that it’s more fun for readers to catch something when they know that most people won’t. So maybe it’s catering to my readers’ (presumed) ego.

    1. I tend to plant things that very few people will get (and hopefully that set of people intersects with the set of people who read it).

      When the proof of the world going mad is something like “They made a Saturday Morning cartoon of “Those Annoying Post Brothers”.” that’s going to be a vanishingly small number.

  9. My Virginia foxhunting fantasy has a different sort of in-joke. One of the guerilla cavalry leaders in northern Virginia during the Late Unpleasantness was Colonel (earlier Major) John Singleton Mosby. His troop was known as Mosby’s Raiders, and he himself was often referred to as the Gray Ghost (lots of exciting stories, like Robin Hood).

    As a result, a significant number of gray horses in northern Virginia are named Mosby. I never explain the horse’s name in the books, but any Virginian who knows their history (and they all seem to) will get the joke.

  10. “In mystery there are clichés, like the closed room murder – if you’ve read The Musketeer’s Seamstress, how many of you realized that was what I was setting up? And doing that in the form of a swashbuckling historical? Reader cookie.”

    I remember listening to Peter Schickele talking about how much fun it was, during an orchestra’s first read through of one of his PDQ Bach pieces, watching them begin to realize that underneath all the Mozartian glitz the chord progression was a bog standard blues riff. (The bass section usually figured it out first.)

  11. I remember laughing while reading a book, when the main character notices the book setting on a secondary characters coffee table… a real life book written by the same author under a pen name. Anybody who didn’t follow the author wouldn’t have gotten that (I don’t believe her pen names are mentioned in her bio, but I could be wrong) but I’m sure many regular readers got a chuckle at that bit of subtle self-promotion.

  12. Oh, I just thought of a perfect example of a reader cookie. When Dare is walking through the police station and hears what sounds like an animal growling behind Rafiel’s door.

  13. One of the off and on jokes in the later Rada Ni Drako stories is her battle with a British car’s electrical system. Every so often someone else tries to move the vehicle, and all they do is let the smoke out of the wiring harness. All hail Lucas, Prince of Darkness!

      1. that is better than the strobe light effect of the Ford headlight switch they used for 25 years.

        The fact that I need the VIN number to order a flippin’ fan belt for my truck, because they used three different ones in the four months of that year they made that truck with the motor that is in it, but they still used the same faulty headlight switch that had been faulty for the last 20+ years of Ford manufacture, boggles my mind.

        1. Gotta love ford. At least, unlike a certain dead GM division which shall not be named, you can still find parts for it.

          Or a freakin’ low-run japanese car with a single part-year run of less than 4k vehicles, which may or may not have a totally different car’s steering column in it. *headdesk*

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