10 Stories We Never Need to See in Workshops Again


Several months ago, Indiana Review staffer Joe Hiland wrote a great column about many of the submissions that routinely appear in the I.R.’s slush pile. Its timing was apropos for me, as I've recently felt like an unwitting subject in a perplexing metaphysical paradox: I keep running into the same stories in fiction workshops over and over again.

I’ve been attending workshops in New York City for the better part of a decade. I took an extended break only once, and that was to get my MFA (where, as you may have guessed, I was attending workshops). During this time — and in the course of teaching my own classes after graduating — I’ve read and critiqued literally hundreds of stories. Some of them have been great — a few, fantastic — but there are times when I find myself experiencing these literary Groundhog Day moments. I swear I’m reading virtually the same story I read just a year, sometimes a month, before.

One of the obvious pitfalls of writing is that your story will inevitably be stacked up against every story that came before it.

The workshop is where writers test ideas. Some of those ideas are going to work; a lot are going to fail. Writers need as much encouragement as they can get — Lord knows the job market won’t give it to you — so if you happen to cough up a story that sounds familiar every once in a while it shouldn’t be taken as a slight against your creative faculties. One of the obvious pitfalls of writing is that your story will inevitably be stacked up against every story that came before it. We’re a species that looks for patterns; as readers, we’re naturally going to contrast your work with everything we’ve read and grade for comparison. Then there’s the added fact that writers, almost all of them voracious readers, often can’t help but borrow a familiar device, if only subconsciously, when we’re having a hard time getting from point A to point B. That’s when we need the help of fellow writers who can step in and suggest, as gently as possible: this idea has been done before.

Below are the stories I've encountered most frequently, almost without fail, in everything from your garden-variety workshops, to MFA classes, to private writers’ groups hosting graduates of MFA or doctoral programs. And when I say these stories are common, I mean they’re so infuriatingly boilerplate an instructor could put them on a syllabus as required reading for a primer on the modern writer’s workshop. While each of these stories could still be turned into something special, right now I feel I could lead a happy, fulfilled life knowing I never had to read them again.

1. White kid goes to Europe, finds love and/or cultural enlightenment

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I saw a variation of this story during every semester I was enrolled in graduate school, and encountered identical incarnations of the trust-fund-brat-in-a-strange-world tale during workshops around New York City for years prior. Look, I’m sure your trip to Europe was really swell. The problem is, we don’t want to read about it. As writers, we all face the occasional deficit of ideas, and when that happens we’re often wont to draw from our own experiences. The problem is, for most of us those experiences aren’t very interesting. Fiction is at its strongest when readers are placed in dangerously unfamiliar territory, when the abstract is shattered by an anomalous specific. But here the unfamiliar is painfully familiar; the writer is simply sourcing his/her ideas from a relatively common experience and giving it an idealized outcome he/she wishes had happened (see also: your recent road trip, your childhood experiences at summer camp).

2. Everyone has cancer

Why does it seem half the stories in the world of workshop fiction feature at least one character with stage-four cancer? I know it’s a common affliction, but this is ridiculous. One of the reasons cancer is so often used, I suspect, is because of its rich metaphorical connotations (the idea of being subsumed internally, or an obsolescence of the organic body in an increasingly industrialized world), but I really think the cancer card is played a lot of times because it requires little effort and is a guaranteed win for reader sympathy. There are millions of diseases and disorders and maladies out there. Try giving someone Neurofibromatosis or Hallermann-Streiff syndrome once in a while so I can actually learn something while I’m reading.

3. I’m in the midst of an existential crisis

Good for you. Now, if that crisis manifested itself in the form of a real, tenable conflict threatening real, deleterious effects on your main character, we might actually care. Without the high stakes of a pending threat, the existential crisis is empty storytelling recast as high-art posturing. It’s a midlife crisis story for people who engage in pained conversations about Sartre but are too clueless to realize what they’re actually celebrating is basically “Wild Hogs” without a plot.

4. The dead baby

Look, I’m sure your trip to Europe was really swell. The problem is, we don’t want to read about it.

This is one of my favorites (and much to my chagrin, apparently it’s so common someone mentioned it in the comment thread of the Hiland blog). The plot almost always goes something like this: the story begins in media res, with a married couple who lost a child approximately a year prior, usually as a result of crib death, though sometimes by freak accident (strangely, swimming pools are often involved). Invariably, the couple can’t bring themselves to talk about it, and clinically patient therapists are brought in for longwinded, paint-by-numbers counseling sessions. More often than not — especially if the story appears in an MFA program — it takes a cue from “Hills Like White Elephants,” a work often used as a primer for negative narrative space, and the baby isn’t directly mentioned until well after it’s obvious to the reader. Then, there’s almost always this hilarious moment, typically during the dramatic apex of the story, when someone cracks and says to his/her spouse: “He isn’t coming back! He’s gone! Our child is dead!” If you plumb the depths of horrible human experiences, losing a child is probably the worst, and stories involving the loss of a child have been executed successfully many times. However, even a potentially horrendous subject can become cartoonish when the reader is given a backstage pass to watch the writer pull the strings of melodrama behind the plot.

5. Person enters abusive relationship, leaves a stronger person

It’s infuriating how often redemption is used as a storytelling device. There are entire seasons where virtually every Hollywood film at the box office offers a redemption component. It goes like this: (A story) seemingly innocuous character is beset by challenges, inhabits a world that shuns him; (B story) crazy bad unexpected thing happens to outside world, further challenges character already set back by aforementioned ineptitude; (C story) character finds something in him he “never knew existed,” uses it to overcome said invading force, and is finally validated by outside world. The fact is, this is the storytelling formula for 90% of Hollywood movies at any given time, and tens of millions of Americans sadly pay good money to see what is essentially the same story play out over and over and over again.

I digress. Look, I’m not saying redemption is itself a bad thing — far from it — but fiction works best when you make things uncomfortable for the reader, when you imply that things could always go either way. In the case of the abusive relationship story, the writer has the potential to investigate some of the most unnerving storytelling material ever. There are just so many questions: can you love someone who hurts you? Can some people not love without being hurt? This is fascinating stuff, but instead most of the “abusive relationship” stories today deign upon themselves the entire cannon of Lifetime movies as their direct competition. Women are battered by beer swilling clichés until they finally decide to stand up for themselves and walk out. Here’s my question: why does there always have to be a redemption component at the end? Why does the abusive relationship story always have to resolve in a manner akin to an after-school special? Is it simply to comfort the reader? If so, why are you so hell-bent on comforting the reader anyway? Have we collectively decided that the role of storytelling in modern culture is to serve as a mass anesthetic — even when the alternatives are far more haunting? I mean, if someone entered an abusive relationship and decided to stay, or if they left that person and followed it with another abusive relationship, it would paint an awfully dire picture of the human condition. It would also be more realistic because, let’s face it, that happens.

6. You killed my partner/mentor/wife/husband/child/mother/father

Another redemption story. Here’s the thing: anger is a boring emotion. One of the reasons anger is boring is because it’s a translating emotion; it’s often used as a substitute for what the person is really feeling, simply because it’s easier to display anger than it is to admit hurt or loss. Revenge, the common means by which anger is manifested, is equally boring. The odds are really against you when you write stories like this. First there’s the mountain range of clichés you have to hurdle just to convince us this isn’t the same story we’ve read a hundred times before. Then there’s the fact that the ultimate takeaway — revenge! — isn’t very interesting, simply by virtue of said emotive limitations. Okay, he kills a bunch of people. So, he gets the bad guy. Got anything else?

7. History is really romantic

In choosing to initiate another conversation about well-worn topics, you attach to your story the suggestion of every near-identical preceding work,  giving yourself a significantly deep hole to climb out of...

There’s also a futurized version of this I call “The future is really awesome.” Look, historic stories are great, but the only thing worse than romanticizing the future — We live for hundreds of years! And cars can fly! — is romanticizing the past. Needless to say, if your story takes place in the 1920s you’d be remiss to populate it solely with café fly flapper girls and square-jawed hucksters who run booze for Capone. The world didn't evolve in a carnival of convenience, and treating history like an Instagram snapshot shows a lack of nuance and reveals a writer with a grossly obtuse eye. It’s nostalgia for an era that never happened.

8. Outcast faces torment, finds community of likeminded outcasts. Watch out world for awesome cadre of outcasts.

Teenagers like this brand of underdog story because it’s cathartic. In order for adults to write it however, they have to wade through a brine of clichés. The thing is, I’ve read this story so many times I’ve now been conditioned to hate the underdog, because while the underdog used to be an agent that broke clichés, now the underdog is the cliché. At this point I’m waiting for a story about a roving band of dumb jocks who beat up nerds with impunity, get the girls, and discover some boundless elixir of chicken wings in the Amazon. Because even though that story would suck, at least it would be different.

9. Vampires

Seriously, it’s 2012. Enough already. And when I say vampires, I also mean …

10. Zombies

The only thing worse than the corny “zombies take over” concept (or the “zombies become a metaphor for consumerism” trope, which would have been poignant 40 years ago) is its twee hipster equivalent, the I-know-I’m-writing-a-story-about-zombies-because-I’m-making-a-comment-about-zombie-stories. Look, you can make a “comment” about whatever you want, but the ultimate take-away is that in the course of doing so, you just wasted a considerable amount of your creative life for the sake of giving the world another goddamn zombie story. And yes, my qualifications for a zombie moratorium include zombie love stories, zombie noirs, zombie mysteries, zombie teen lit, zombie westerns, zombie dramas, zombie comedies-of-error, and zombies with cancer. To say these are over-fished waters is an understatement. The lake dried up a long time ago. I mean it. For the love of God, please stop.


Given everything I’ve said — just because the stories I've mentioned are wearingly, painfully familiar — that isn’t to say someone couldn’t hypothetically come along to offer a new twist on an otherwise tired tale (yes, even stories about zombies and vampires). The problem is, in choosing to initiate another conversation about well-worn topics, you attach to your story the suggestion of every near-identical preceding work, thereby giving yourself a significantly deep hole to climb out of just to get the story started. In other words, you have to convince us that this zombie story isn’t like every other one before it — you have to convince us that the world needs another zombie story — just to get us to the point where we would be automatically if you had come up with something original to begin with. Understanding this, I hope you’ll see my larger point here: storytelling's preferred currency is always new ideas.

Find out about Jon Gingerich's Fundamentals of Short Fiction class, which begins Jan. 17!

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago December 20, 2012 - 12:28pm

Thank you for coming out and saying it about the vampires and zombies.  Enough is enough.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books December 20, 2012 - 12:34pm

I want to read a story where someone combines all 10.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 20, 2012 - 12:38pm

Great work, Jon, I couldn't agree more.

GaryP's picture
GaryP from Denver is reading a bit of this and that December 20, 2012 - 12:40pm

I'm taking this as a dare to include all 10 tropes in a single story. At flash length.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies December 20, 2012 - 12:49pm

Sitting in a Paris Cafe, Reginald threw down his copies of Twilight and Cell, the hospital and his cancer treatment a distant memory, his aborted child and lost wife but a ghost, the memories of her abuse a dark echo, and stared at the lights on the Eiffel Tower, waiting for the doors to lock and close, the meeting on, the revolution planned, the murder of his parents running ice through his veins—vengeance a dish best served cold.

Did I get it all?

Skygrotto's picture
Skygrotto from Southwestern Ontario is reading Europe: A History by Norman Davies December 20, 2012 - 1:07pm

What a relief to have never written any story that can be categorized in the 10 abovementioned categories.

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Coin Locker Babies December 20, 2012 - 1:39pm

Same here, grotto.

And don't forget the breakup story. I read far too many of those when i was workshopping.

Philip Hopkins's picture
Philip Hopkins from Knoxville, Tennessee December 20, 2012 - 1:54pm

A synopsis:

In the 1930s, a young man from the hills of Appalacchia has a brutal confrontation with his stepfather, whom he blames for the deaths of his cancer-stricken mother and infant brother. After wandering aimlessly in the midst of an existential crisis, he signs up for the military only to find himself in WWII Europe. While there, he encounters a group of aristocratic vampires and is turned by one of them. He is, however, a tormented outcast among this group due to his socioeconomic status. His moment of acceptance and cultural enlightenment comes when he discovers an infestation of zombies. With his newfound friends and sense of self-confidence, he returns to the vampires, and then later America, in order to seek revenge.

That's just about got everything. I'm sure some might quibble with whether or not 1930s counts as romanticized, but with enough bad writing, I'm sure it could be done.

leahzero's picture
leahzero from Chicago is reading everything Fitzgerald wrote. December 20, 2012 - 1:54pm

It falls under Existential Crisis, but what about the lit fic staple Middle-Aged White Academic Finds Himself Through an Affair With His Student/Housekeeper/(Insert Exoticized Ethnic Woman Here), replete with Cringe-worthy Sex Scenes We Will Later See As Contenders in the Annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards?


Surely that deserves its own category.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer December 20, 2012 - 2:37pm

I wrote a vampire story once, just to say I did it. It had a different twist, which is what everyone says that writes a vampire story.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading Adjustment Day December 20, 2012 - 2:43pm

Cancer is a less effective plot device in Canada:


bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. December 20, 2012 - 2:51pm

Every writer has to write their 'dead baby story'.

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck December 20, 2012 - 2:52pm

Damn, now I have to scrap my story about a vampire with cancer who goes to Europe to find the man who killed his parents and finds enlightenment. 


I've been concerned about coming up with original story ideas. It seems like nothing is totally original anymore -- in fact, it's true. Good to know some of the ones that are way overdone. 

Meryl S. Fortney's picture
Meryl S. Fortney from Harrisburg, PA is reading The Explosion of Your Face December 20, 2012 - 3:28pm

I actually combined zombies, extraterrestials and a terrorist splinter group to bring on the end of the world for my six book series. And only the first 2 have anything to do with Earth. If you ask me, I think that eventually everything will be cliche and, apparently, nobody will be allowed to write about anything.

Michael Varian Daly's picture
Michael Varian Daly December 20, 2012 - 4:03pm

Zombies never die.

Frank Chapel's picture
Frank Chapel from California is reading Thomas Ligotti's works December 20, 2012 - 4:50pm

Now we all know what kinda books to send u for christmas. Mwahahahaha!

edmonn01's picture
edmonn01 December 20, 2012 - 5:55pm

thank you jon i needed the constructive critcism im working on a zombie story but with your advise i know what i need to do to make it original.!

Christopher Lesko's picture
Christopher Lesko from Ohio August 25, 2020 - 8:47pm


toasterlizard's picture
toasterlizard December 20, 2012 - 7:44pm

"entire cannon of Lifetime movies"?

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch December 20, 2012 - 9:16pm

For a while, many stories had a "gay reveal" - maybe this, too, should be banned.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... December 21, 2012 - 8:16am

Hmmm...I kind of think the reason for #2 may be more akin to your argument against #4: let's face it, that happens.

I think the issue, as it often is, is bad writing. Something written about any topic listed, when written well, would avoid the pitfalls Jon lists in his elaborations. For instance, I'm not going to sit here and pretend that Breaking Bad isn't well written because Walter White has cancer. Sure, a good chunk of why Bad is so good is because of the visuals and, you know, Bryan Cranston, but the dialogues (and, more frequently, the monologues) amaze me. And I'm fairly certain most of the stories Jon's read about cancer haven't gone nearly as far off the deep end as Walter.

Also, and I hope Howie would agree, my "You killed my partner/mentor/wife/husband/child/mother/father" story...doesn't feel like anything Jon describes.

A lot of the reasoning here jumped out at me, too. Does the world need any one specific story? [Rhetorical question - I'm not sure I really want to enter that philosophical prison cell. I might never leave.] And I have a sinking suspicion that "new ideas" are really "ideas reader x hasn't encountered before." And what makes a zombie story special? It seems to me that the underlying concept is that your story, regardless of subject matter, shouldn't read like a plethora of others', and I guess I can get behind that.

P.S. The greatest vampire story I ever read was written by my roommate, and I've read plenty of 'em.

Mary Naiad Lopez's picture
Mary Naiad Lopez from Miami Fl is reading Lables in the bathroom December 21, 2012 - 9:02am

Every story has already been written. It is difficult not to be a cliché, which is as difficult as not reinventing the wheel. Pick your poison.

dangermouseforpope's picture
dangermouseforpope December 21, 2012 - 9:49am

In the future, in a world where zombie vampires and vampire zombies use human beings as furniture and rule a rotting planet with a complex theocratic system that only a mute robot understands, a lone caucasian cyborg is sent back in time to 19th century Europe by the ghost of his dead baby to search for a cure for cancer which is hidden in a commune in the South of France. He falls in love with a free spirited farmer’s daughter who treats him poorly before dying of cancer. He then discovers that there is no cure for cancer after all so he spends many years travelling back and forth through time suffering different forms of existential crises. He forms a commune of cancer survivors in the heart of China all of whom find themselves drawn together because of their love of their own navels. They work out a way to solve the zombie vampire and vampire zombie hegemony but then they all go into remission and die of cancer before they can travel forward into the future to put their plan into action. Their remains become the seed for the zombie-vampire takeover.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer December 21, 2012 - 10:17am

We've joked around about it a lot, but you can point to a lot of examples of all of these that worked, even recently. For example, vampires and zombies. God knows, I could go the rest of my life without seeing another vampire or zombie book, but they are still getting published and people are still buying them. I've been hearing since college that vampires and zombie stories are tired. They've been done. No one cares anymore. Since college, we've had Twilight, Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, 30 Days of Night, Priest, True Blood, and a bunch of other very popular vampire franchises. Not to mention, The Walking Dead is one of the most popular shows on television. 

I am reading Horror Writer's Association stuff, right now, that authors want considered for Stoker awards, and there are still a lot of vampire and zombie stories being published. Some are better than others, but when it comes down to it, it has nothing to do with the vampires or zombies. If it would have been a good book without them, it is a good book with them. If it would have been a crappy, contrived book without them, then it is a crappy, contrived book with them.

Mostly, we just need to avoid writing shitty stories, regardless of what is in them.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing December 24, 2012 - 3:50pm

Fuck, man! I'm in the middle of an existential crisis brought on by the fact that my dead baby had cancer and turned into a mutant vampire zombie. Then I went to Europe.

Now you're telling me that to top it all off I don't have anything worth writing about. Bummer.


underpurplemoon's picture
underpurplemoon from PDX December 25, 2012 - 12:43pm

Great article, dude!

Michael Wais Jr's picture
Michael Wais Jr from Los Angeles, CA is reading "The Iliad" December 30, 2012 - 5:00pm

There's one huge cliche that people have overlooked since one of my favorite contemporary classic TV shows went off the air and almost completely disappeared from the collective consciousness:

*Only gay men get AIDS.

This is inaccurate and leads to the type of "consolation" or "wishful thinking" that is similar to what's said here about the ways "abusive relationship" stories can spoonfeed the reader.

"Life Goes On" was such a pivotal prime-time show because its remaining three or four seasons dealt with AIDS in a spot-on way, especially because- wait, who knew- heterosexuals can get it too??? (I think that's a major reason why the show doesn't see a DVD release and a lot of networks almost never mention the show or run reruns of it.)

Consider how this cliche is tired and worn out in this way (I'm referencing something William Burroughs said in an interview where he abhorred how some people from the AIDS generation believed that being gay "causes" AIDS in the same way that religious fundamentalists do, completely overlooking the fluid exchange or penetration of orifices with veins or blood vessels that can rupture that can cause HIV transmission.):

A 40-year-old virgin man who is gay (meaning he gets excited seeing other men, whether or not he acts on it) is mormon and abstains from all needles or any other drugs and alcohol and has no sexual contact and doesn't even french kiss anybody because he's such a "good and faithful mormon" (almost as devout as the legendary mormon superhero "Orgazmo"). He wants to declare his secret, affectionate, and coy crush on Richard Simmons when Richard Simmons comes to town, but the problem is the protagonist can't tell Richard Simmons that he is infected with HIV.

Well, if he never did the nasty, never got transfusions or sold blood/plasma in an understaffed hospital with poor and lazy sterilization techniques, or never tied one up HOW did he get HIV transmitted to him???!!!

And hence putting gay men and AIDS together is an unecessary, stupid, illogical, and non-scientific cliche. If somebody did a stage-play about someone like Magic Johnson and AIDS it would be light years ahead in the originality department at the rate of that cliche.

And the reason that that cliche works is because it signifies an "Other". The subconscious reasoning is, "If you're a man attracted to women, you won't have to worry so hard about the potential of getting AIDS."

It's almost like the notion that there should not be a law forcing adult movie stars to wear condoms while shooting porn. I had a couple of friends before who did some pretty... um... "hot" movies before they started to live in typical, boring lives and they said themselves that when there is testing done for porn, not all diseases are checked. That's why there was that big syphilis scare when syphilis paid a visit to some porn stars and made itself a tenant in Aletta Ocean's bloodstream. Of course syphilis wasn't one of the most "popular" VDs for a while so it's easy enough to see how that could be overlooked. And if you have sex without a condom and especially if you have sex with a lot of people you will get a VD and it's stupid to not take responsibility for it and suck it up. But the reasoning is, "Porn... Testing... Everything's safe." And the notion of catching something that doesn't even show immediate symptoms is disregarded.

So, you see, the creation of stories where AIDS and being gay are linked together as a stereotype really don't work and are overdone.

Even doing a storyline about a junkie who gets AIDS would be slightly less cliche.

Some people have to resort to prostitution in inner-city areas and you can also say HIV is put in a position to more easily cause harm to inner-city communities because of the lack of care for social hygiene, carefully prepared food, and leaving everything dirty. There is reasoning like that that even makes a protagonist who is an ethnic minority getting AIDS much more plausible and much more original.

That's why I'm tired of gay men in storylines or movies getting AIDS. It's become a way-too-tired cliche. I think AIDS should be distributed equally to characters of all shapes and sizes, no matter whether they like to swallow hot dogs or eat hairy tacos. I want to see straight people get AIDS (and hopefully a straight person who looks like my ex-girlfriend too. lol!)!

Ryan Peverly's picture
Ryan Peverly from Ohio is reading The AEgypt Cycle by John Crowley January 3, 2013 - 2:42pm

Several years ago, in college, a friend and I came up with what we called The Hierachy of a Cool Story. Basically, it was a list of 10 subject matters that we considered cool and judged the coolness of short stories on (we were in a short fiction class at the time). Zombies and vampires were on that list. This was 2004ish.

Reason I bring it up is I'd like to know if the rest of our list is outdated in 2013. Here it is:

2. Superheroes/Superhumans

3. Gangsters

4. Samurais/Ninjas

5. Extraterrestial Lifeforms

7. Wild West Gunslingers

8. Medeival Knights

9. Bounty Hunters/Hunting

10. Witches/Witchcraft

Let me know, and then politely bury your head in Harold Bloom's ass (or whatever anti-genre fiction douchenozzle you admire most). Spouting this bullshit (my favorite: "The world didn't evolve in a carnival of convenience [it can if I want it to, it's my story], and treating history like an Instagram snapshot shows a lack of nuance and reveals a writer with a grossly obtuse eye [how so?]. It’s nostalgia for an era that never happened." [Aw, man. Reimagining history from a nostalgic perspective was No. 11 on our list]) sure does make me think you've locked yourself in a box where taking ideas, overdone or otherwise, and making them your own (like romanticizing eras or snapshots that didn't exist if I'm to understand your criticism correctly) is for some reason in poor taste. It's not. Everyone from Twain to Kirkman has used ideas from this list. Both are heavily admired by their respective audiences.

And isn't that what writing is all about anyway? Doing it for yourself, finding your voice, your audience, making art, leaving something behind for future generations no matter how good, bad or ugly it is? I mean, I could go out and write a story about a dead baby right now and, if it's done well enough, win a Pulitzer, be optioned for a film and live comfortably for the rest of my existence. My point in this diatribe is that if someone has a story they want to write, we shouldn't discourage them from writing their story, regardless of its subject matter. Writing is writing is writing, and if that's what you want to do, please don't be discouraged by people who say your idea is overdone and outdated, even if it's the 14th publisher that's rejected you. Everyone has a story to tell. Find yours, even if it includes such ideas. You could make a zillion bucks off it, or it could leave a lasting cultural impact, or it could completely suck and be right up there with Gingerich's "God's Country". Don't forget who you're writing for. Chances are it's not anyone else but you.

Anna Morrison's picture
Anna Morrison January 3, 2013 - 8:28pm

Might have to rework my story about the European Zombie and Vampire in an abusive relationship after the death of their child

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines January 6, 2013 - 10:27am

The synopsis' in the comments section are some of the best reader comments on the internet. Gold stars all around. 

When I studied with Cheryl Strayed, she relayed a story of when she was a first reader for a writing contest. She said the stories lamentably fell into one of four categories: 

1. My very interesting trip 

2. My incredibly fucked up childhood 

3. What I did with my vagina 

4. Someone I loved died. 

She went on to say that despite wanting, quite desparately, to love an author's work she found she simply couldn't, by virtue of lineal and formulaic writing. Ironically, her metoric success in 2012 with WILD contains all of the four aforementioned categories, except, she so masterfully utilized the vertical axis in her storytelling that despite knowing more or less how her story ended, readers were compelled to flip the pages. As much as I appreciate Jon's hilarious and warranted cautions about writing stories from this "No-No" list (or Cheryl's list of 4 categories) good storytelling can always do whatever the hell it wants. 

Vinny Prochelo's picture
Vinny Prochelo January 8, 2013 - 12:22pm

Good write up, thanks. 

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast January 11, 2013 - 4:59am

@drea - no category for 'what I did with my penis'?

(which would also cover those hundreds of sex-change stories currently seeking a publisher)


drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines January 11, 2013 - 6:06pm

@Cath, Nope, and I even went back and checked my workshop notes. But literally and figuratively, one could be swapped for the other. 

Lauren Ward's picture
Lauren Ward January 16, 2013 - 9:19am

What about a European kid goes to America and finds love and/or cultural enlightenment?

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list January 16, 2013 - 8:14pm

There are a few cliches that didn't make the list, but as a reader I've grown tired of these conventions.

1. Teen girl/boy discovers super power when mysterious and handsome boy/hot girl shows up to reveal that they are special.

2. Young, inexperienced college girl gets a sexual awakening through her meeting with a handsome, rich man. Usually a mentally/physically abusive stalker type. But we excuse those abusive/stalkery tendencies, because he's so darn handsome and can give her multiple orgasms.

3. Poorly written werewolves.

4. Poorly written dystopian.

You covered my others: zombies, vampires, white kid goes to Europe. Does this mean that I don't have favorites in each of these categories? No. I have a lot of favorites, but the publishing industry has a way of killing the shiny/fresh feeling of all concepts. One gets popular and as a result we get 1,000 books that try to capitalize on the success. I came up with a unique concept (in my opinion) and haven't been able to get it published, because there isn't a market for it. That is usually the rejection I get. "The story is good, but I can't sell this" or variation of that. Doesn't fit the current market well enough. Yet, I thought that was the point? You want unique, right? One of life's frustrating conundrums.

Edward Young's picture
Edward Young June 14, 2013 - 4:13pm

Outstanding post, excellent advice. At the risk of being a sniveling grammar snool, however, I must point of this glaring redundancy - an automatic "F" in some of the hallowed halls I was expelled from:

"One of the reasons anger is boring is because~"


J.R. Griffith's picture
J.R. Griffith from California & Oklahoma is reading The Kouga Ninja Scrolls August 20, 2013 - 4:24am

If I read or see one more version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, I'm going to scream. It seems like every show on television does a "creative" version of it. If I was the head of a network or studio, I'd fire anyone who was so uncreative that they turned in a script plagiarizing a 170 year old story.

Jim Blake's picture
Jim Blake December 14, 2013 - 12:50pm

These lists have little meaning - like saying don't write a country song about lost love, trucks, short levis on cute girls or beer - COUNTRY SONGS WILL BE ABOUT THESE THINGS FOREVER - The trick is to take one of the "worn out" topics and add new life - this takes skill, hard work, lots of thought.  Fresh topics are for amateurs who want to impress fellow writing program students.

Richard Grigonis's picture
Richard Grigonis July 14, 2014 - 12:12pm

Swimming pools are often cast as dangerous things (#4) because... they are. Ask any insurance company. Statistically, the most dangerous thing you can have on your property is a swimming pool. They're up there with trampolines.