There are 250,000 English words. Maybe. Even the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t sure.
There is definitely one word I can do without. I hate it. So far, no one’s spoken it around me. But just reading it sets me off.
Bildungsroman is a highfalutin word that simply means “a coming of age novel.”
My chief beef against bildungsroman is that it sounds ugly. It looks like a Frankenword cobbled together from other unwanted words: – “bil,” which is way too close to a four-letter word that means “to owe money.” The second syllable is “dung,” or excrement.
The other problem is this word sounds ugly. Bildungsroman is not pronounced trippingly on the tongue. It sounds like someone threw a bag of garbage down a trash chute. You can hear it hitting the smelly metal walls as it bounces down to the Dumpster:
Bil (thud), dungs (slam), until it finally lands in a squishy heap of other trash with a splat and a flabby roman.
Bildungsroman first showed up in print in 1906, Webster says. That vintage word year brought us such beauties as banana split. (Can’t you just see one, heaped with whipped cream and slathered with chocolate syrup?)
And useful words like bonehead. (Add a picture of your brother-in-law or boss here.)
Seriously, bildungsroman has German roots. I’m told – okay, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true – that the “German word Bildung refers to forming and shaping, and the first Bildungsromane in 18th-century Germany focused on the hero’s self-formation. Modernists such as Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf adopted and reinvigorated the Bildungsroman form as a means of telling stories about longing and transition.”
Okay, I get it. Bildungsroman allows the worst sort of academic to sound important. But the word is so darn pompous.
I’m not prejudiced against all German words. English has borrowed some fine examples, include schadenfreude. That means “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” It’s how you feel when you see the snippy high school cheerleader who used to torment you now weighs 250 pounds and works at Walmart.
Bildungsroman has no business being used. Stick with coming of age, and let this word die a quiet death.
Okay, I showed you mine. Which words would you wipe out of the English language?
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We all have precious darlings. Sometimes those beloved phrases or oh-so-eloquent descriptions that we’re absolutely certain make a story fabulous, really just need to be cut out with a scalpel. While an editor or good friend may mention them before they get to the printing point of no return, there’s no guarantee that we’ll listen. After all, they’re called “darlings” for a reason.
Right now I’m editing two novels–not quite simultaneously, but at least sequentially, with only a few days in between. (I’m no role model for workflow, obviously.) So I have more than one editor on the line talking to me about how to make the respective novels sharper. But the brutal truth is that I’m good at sniffing out the darn things myself. I bet you are, too.
Are you feeling brave? Because I want you to share a discarded darling or two of your own. But I’ll go first.
“There were no mysteries to be solved in New Belford. The last disturbance was when two drunk brothers got in a fight about which of them should inherit their mother’s small cottage on the lake. The younger brother had shot the older brother, but when he was convicted he cried, saying that his brother being dead was a worse punishment than prison. It turned out there was a second mortgage on the house and neither one of them would’ve owned anything. No mystery there. Just Darwinism at work.”
Reasons to cut:
Unnecessary action, all is exposition, and it has little to do with the story. Plus, we never meet these characters again. The focus should stay on the story.
Now, it’s your turn.
Find a darling from something you’re working on (or have recently finished) and share it with us. Be sure to tell us why you think it’s a good idea to get rid of it–or not!
I’ve been revisiting(read: binge-watching) some favorite films recently, and started noticing how one moment or a single line of dialogue in a movie can reveal everything one needs to know about a character.
These were a couple of my favorite character-revealing moments in film:
Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault: “Round up the usual suspects.”
Captain Renault actually delivers variations of this line twice, and that repetition reveals two important aspects of this secondary character. Renault is speaking to newly arrived German Major Strasser the first time he refers to rounding up suspects, in a way that establishes the French Renault as a compliant bureaucrat who is implementing a foreign power’s bidding. He delivers the line again right after Major Strasser has been shot, simultaneously saving Rick Blaine and indicating that his character has broken away from his obeisance to the German/Vichy Regime.
Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif: “He is dead…(Y)ou are welcome.”
Between the long, slow cinematic entrance (during which he emerges from a distant dust cloud on the horizon to filling the screen) and a couple of lines of terse dialogue, Omar Sharif makes an unforgettable impression as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia.
In that scene we watch Sherif cut down a trespasser on his property, while simultaneously extending traditional courtesy to a visiting stranger.
Of course in literature, dialogue and prose must establish the essence of a character without any assistance from camera tricks and musical scores. In your own writing, can you think of a moment or a line of dialogue that revealed the true nature of one of your characters?
By Sue Coletta
First, let’s define the word “muse.”
A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.
An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.
What happens inside the brain?
Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.
Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?
First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.
Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.
The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.
During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?
Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.
The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.
What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer?
Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.
Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …
During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.
High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.
You can read the full report here.
Let’s break it down in easier terms.
The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.
“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”
He discovered more differences.
Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.
Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.
What’s the best way to summon creativity?
Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.
Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?
When I was a kid the hero I most wanted to be was Zorro.
I never missed an episode of the Walt Disney series starring Guy Williams. What I loved about Zorro was … everything. Cool black mask, black outfit, cape, hat, horse. But most of all his sword. Man, Zorro could blade it with anybody. And whenever he carved a Z in a shirt or on a wall, I thought it the neatest calling card ever.
In second grade I went to Halloween dress-up day as Zorro. I even sang the theme song for the class. Zorro! The fox so cunning and free! Zorro! Who makes the sign of the Z …
I remember finishing the song and waving, just like Zorro does. Check it out:
Some years later I was enraptured by the classic Rouben Mamoulian version of the story, The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power. (I was thrilled, as a film major at UCSB, that I got to chat with Mamoulian, who was our guest one fine day.)
Talk about a perfect adventure movie. First, you have Power at his most handsome (most people don’t know that he was a superb, stage-trained actor as well) poised against the quintessential villain, Basil Rathbone. Lovely Linda Darnell was the romantic interest, and frog-voiced Eugene Pallette played the padre (carrying over from Warner Bros. his Friar Tuck act in The Adventures of Robin Hood).
Plus, it takes place in Los Angeles! What more could I ask for?
You know the basic story. A corrupt Alcalde has deposed Don Alejandro Vega. He levies heavy taxes on the peons, enforced by his militia. Vega’s son, Don Diego, arrives from Spain to find all this out. Posing as a dandy who dislikes violence, he secretly becomes Zorro to steal the tax money for return to the people, and eventually forces the corrupt Alcalde to leave Los Angeles and re-appoint his father.
It’s all great swashbuckling fun, and leads to what I consider the best swordfight ever filmed. And why was it so?
Because both Power and Rathbone were expert fencers. That was part of their theater training. So there are no doubles and no trick photography. These two really go at it in a choreographed masterpiece.
In fact, take four minutes to enjoy it:
Now, I have a theory that the heroes we loved as kids greatly influence what we write as adults. In my own novels I know I’m always looking for justice. I love characters with a moral code and who know how to fight—physically or mentally. Some wit helps, too.
Just like Zorro.
So … when you get stuck wondering what to write next—either in a WIP or in developing a new idea—go back to your childhood. Brainstorm with:
- Who were your heroes?
- What was it about them that you loved?
- If they could talk to your protagonist and give advice, what would they say?
In fact, why not answer these questions in the comments about one of your childhood heroes?
By Mark Alpert
Novelists can learn from filmmakers, and vice-versa. For today’s lesson, I’d like to direct your attention to a short film written by Rotem Weiner (see photo above), an actress I met last month at the 2017 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival in New York City.
For the past few years I’ve served as an emcee and panel moderator for this festival, which showcases a wide variety of short, provocative films. The event is organized by video impresario Dan Fine, who receives hundreds of submissions every year from filmmakers around the world. Dan and his team of curators view all the submitted videos and select the best ones for screening at the three-day festival. Many of the works are experimental and abstract — they’re more like artworks than traditional movies — but some are short narrative films that tell quirky stories. A good example of the latter is Rotem Weiner’s film, “Bench,” which was selected for this year’s festival and screened at the Downtown Community Television Center on Lafayette Street.
Born and raised in Israel, Weiner came to the U.S. to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is famous for teaching and promoting the techniques of method acting. In “Bench,” she plays the role of Emma, an eager young woman trying to find a job in New York City. The film is nineteen minutes long, but I want to focus on just the first three minutes, which show Emma waking up in her apartment and preparing for a job interview. This is really just the introduction to the film; there’s no dialogue during this sequence except for a few curses muttered by Emma while she brushes her teeth and puts on her makeup, and upbeat guitar music plays in the background. But the brief sequence does an excellent job of introducing the character of Emma and making her likable. This is also the primary task of the opening pages of any novel, and as with any other task, there are some basic rules for doing it right. So let’s analyze how Rotem Weiner creates a likable character. (You can view the video here.)
A likable character has to want something very badly. In the introduction to “Bench,” the main things that come across are Emma’s hurry and worry. We see her running late, rushing through her morning rituals, and practicing a businesslike greeting in her bathroom mirror. By the end of the three minutes, it becomes obvious that she’s rushing off to a job interview, but before we even realize what her goal is, we’re already rooting for. That’s because the specific goal doesn’t matter; what makes the character likable is the strength and fervor of her desire. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby wants Daisy; in Moby Dick, Ahab wants to kill the eponymous white whale; in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister; in Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen wants to sit on the Iron Throne. Some of these desires may be obsessive or irrational, and the objects of the desires may not even be worth all the fuss, but as long as the characters yearn desperately for their goals, readers will yearn along with them. It’s a weird human instinct that probably got incorporated into our DNA during the Paleolithic Era, when a crucial trait for survival was the ability to sense when our fellow hominids had discovered a new source of food; an ape-man who took a lively interest in his comrades’ quests for sustenance could share in the rewards by following his more adventurous companions to the newly discovered berry patches or zebra carcasses. We have evolved to be eager followers of our comrades’ passions.
She has to face obstacles. It wouldn’t be much of a story if the main character gets what she wants right away. And if she achieves her goals too easily, we might even start to resent her. The obstacles make the quest more interesting and involving; when they arise, the reader shares the frustration and disappointment that the character is feeling, thus strengthening the sympathetic bond between them. In “Bench,” Emma’s first obstacle is that she doesn’t have enough time to get ready for her interview, and then her problems multiply: she sticks herself in the eye with her makeup applicator, there’s no coffee left in her kitchen, and when she runs to the neighborhood coffee shop to pick up an iced latte (or whatever), someone bumps into her and spills the stuff all over her shirt. (This last disaster has become a bit of a cliché — didn’t it also happen to Emma Stone’s character in La La Land?) The overall effect is to create a likable character through the viewer’s involvement in her struggles. We know nothing so far about her background or political beliefs or moral qualities, and yet we automatically like her.
She has to overcome those obstacles through her unique skills, resourcefulness, and bravery. The character’s attitude toward her problems is also important. If all she does is complain about her troubles, then the reader won’t want to spend any time with her. If the obstacles subside because of mere luck or assistance from other people, then the reader won’t have any reason to admire her. But if she cleverly overcomes the challenges, ideally in a way that the reader would’ve never thought of, then the admiration for the character will be enthusiastic. We see some of these qualities in Emma in the latter part of “Bench,” when she befriends a homeless man in a park next to her office building. (Yes, she gets the job!) In The Hunger Games, we admire Katniss’s archery skills and impertinence; in Game of Thrones, we admire Dany’s fierce charisma and determination (not to mention the way she rides those dragons). If I may return for a moment to my “hungry ape-man” metaphor: Who would you rather follow on a dangerous hunt across the African savannah? A hapless, hopeless hominid headed for extinction, or a big-brained, tool-using Darwinian winner?
Her challenges have to be relatable. In “Bench,” the viewer has extra sympathy for Emma’s dilemmas because they’re familiar. At one time or another, we’ve all worried about being late to a job interview. And most of us have also experienced that mad “chicken-without-a-head” feeling that overcomes you when you’re running late and making a mess of things because you can’t think straight. But a good writer can also make extraordinary problems relatable by connecting them to more mundane troubles. For example, the young hero of the science-fiction novel Ender’s Game faces an unprecedented galaxy-class challenge: he has to save human civilization from destruction by learning how to vanquish the space fleets of an insectoid alien species known as the “buggers.” His training, though, takes place at a space-station facility that feels a lot like a high school, albeit one with cutthroat competition among the students and a lot of manipulative, tough-love teachers. Ender has to face down violent bullies and turn a group of nerds and losers into a championship-winning team. Sounds familiar, right?
I’d like to wrap up the discussion by addressing an issue that applies just to female characters. Recently, my editor at St. Martin’s Press noticed something odd in my fiction, specifically an early draft of my next novel. The book’s heroine, in a moment of tension, starts “fidgeting.” Although there’s nothing wrong with feeling fear or anxiety, this particular expression of the emotion seemed a little unbecoming. After my editor pointed it out, I asked myself: Would I ever write that a male hero was “fidgeting”? Wouldn’t this physical action make him seem less heroic, less competent, less deserving of admiration? And if it was uncool for a male hero to fidget, why was it okay for a female to do it?
I was being sexist. It doesn’t matter whether the character is male or female — heroes don’t fidget. So I changed the wording in the next draft. (The novel will be published about a year from now. Working title: SUPERHUMAN.)
For your reading pleasure, I have an anonymous submission entitled DRESSED TO KILL from a brave author. I’ll have my feedback below, but please feel free to provide yours in the comments. Let’s help this gutsy author with constructive criticism.
Dressed to Kill
We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.
“Do you think he killed her?”
“This is my baby brother we’re talking about.”
“Megan, you do realize she was a first class slut?” I looked at my husband. What would he know about it? He’d barely said two words to Annabel since she’d married Ted. In fact, at Thanksgiving, every time Annabel walked into the room, he’d found an excuse to leave. Although I had to admit, his characterization of my sister-in-law was, not to be morbid, dead on.
“Good. Then there’ll be a long line-up of suspects the police can focus on,” I replied.
“Should we let your Dad know?”
No way. Wendell Jenkins was an opinionated, blustery man, just as likely to tell you to go to hell as to take your side. He raised me to think I could be anyone I wanted and I loved him to distraction. But right now, my brother needed understanding and compassion. Not traits in abundant supply in my father’s arsenal.
“I’ll handle this for now. We can always involve them later.”
“Do you think they’ll arrest him?”
“They’ll have to deal with that pesky little thing called motive.” It didn’t seem to matter how badly Annabel treated him, he always came back for more. I always assumed it was love.
“It’s usually the husband.”
“Not this time.”
In our family, Ted had been the kid who collected stray animals like charms on a bracelet—not only the obligatory cats and dogs but iguanas, rabbits, even a snake he kept in a jar by his bed. He read voraciously—books with animals that talked, and went on adventures, and tolerated their human owners with a droll sense of humor and a wink. And God save you if he caught you fiddling with the microscope he used to analyze the fur and feather samples he gathered in the woods behind our house. So none of us batted an eye when he enrolled in vet school. Fait accompli, as they say in France. Not that I’d ever been to France, but you get my point. My brother was the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Doolittle.
So no way did he tie his wife to the swing-set in their backyard, stuff her panties in her mouth, and slit her throat.
APPEALING VOICE – I really liked the voice of the character and the author’s ability to write clean, flowing narrative with dark (tongue in cheek) humor. The talent of the author is definitely present, but this opener is mostly dialogue with a sparse set up of the one line – ‘We’d been driving for ten minutes when Mark broke the silence.’
TENSION DRAINER – If this was MY brother, I’d be more frantic and not so calm. The distance of this dialogue, coupled with the calmness and the humor, drains the emotional stress from the intro.
ALTERNATIVE INTRO – I would’ve preferred this woman and her husband be screeching to a halt outside her brother’s home while the police are still there. The chaos of a crime scene, mixed with a doubting brother-in-law and a concerned sister and her distraught brother in handcuffs would make a more interesting start.
LESS TELL, MORE SHOW – The way it reads now, this is a way to have characters “tell” what is happening, rather than “show” it. The inner monologue of the sister (even as engaging as it is) covers for a back story dump of the brother’s past. If the intention is to have these characters provide witty, dark-humored banter, they would still need more action, such as a crime scene, to draw the reader in more.
TO BE, OR NOT TO BE…FUNNY – This line veers the intro toward dark humor – ‘Fait accompli, as they say in France. Not that I’d ever been to France, but you get my point. My brother was the modern-day equivalent of Dr. Doolittle.’ But this left me confused with whether this is a cozy mystery with grim humor, after I read the last line, revealing the murder.
MISPLACED GORE OR SHOCKER WITH INTENTION? – The ending of this brief submission shocked me with its gruesomeness, coming off a calm discussion. It’s not enough to make the reader turn the page and keep going if the tension is diffused by humor in the midst of graphic violence. I’m confused on what type of book this is. If the characters aren’t taking this seriously, than how can I as a reader, unless the author fully embraces humor with more, over-the-top situations.
COZY THRILLER? – I’ve read about a new genre called cozy thriller, but I haven’t read any books with this genre bender.
The set up in this opener should be better, in my opinion. Clearly, the author can write, but I would prefer a better place to start. Less telling, more showing.
BETTER START IDEAS:
1.) Have the brother be the opener. Does he wake up from an unexplained stupor to find his wife dead in a gruesome state?
2.) Does a neighbor accidentally stumble upon the sight of the dead wife in the backyard, glimpse the husband on the scene, and assume the worst to call 911?
3.) If this is supposed to be filled with dark humor, have the sister and other ladies show up for a game of cards or a murder mystery book club, only to find her brother covered in blood with no explanation. Some of the ladies could applaud the dead body and the performance of the brother if they thought this was a murder mystery put on for their benefit. The sister could be frantic, trying to stop the ladies from trampling the crime scene, while she struggles for the truth from her brother.
CONCLUSION – Bottom line, there is much to like about the writing of this author, but the set up needs work. I also want to have a better feel for what genre this is supposed to be.
1.) What feedback would you give this author, TKZers?
2.) What genre do you think this is?
3.) Have you ever read a “cozy thriller”? What would make a cozy thriller in your opinion?
FIONA’S SALVATION $1.99 ebook
Can she survive the truth of what really happened to her?
By PJ Parrish
I don’t want to burst your bubble, but coming up with metaphors and similes is hard. Bad ones are a dime a dozen and coming up with good ones is like banging your head against a brick wall. You will be tempted to farm the over-tilled soil, tread the road already taken, resort to the tried and true. But you have to look through the rain to see the rainbow.
I guess you know my topic for today. I’ve written about it before here at TKZ, but I read something on this subject yesterday that had an impact on me, and I’d like to share it.
First, I don’t know about you, but I could use a quick primer of definitions.
Allusion: A brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. He’s a real Romeo. She’s on a quixotic quest. This will open a real Pandora’s box
Then we get to the Three Amigos – analogy, metaphor and simile. Even as an English Lit major, I got these confused. Still do. So I found this easy guide on Daniel Miessler’s blog:
Analogies compare things so that you can see a relationship between them. There are many ways to do it, but the key thing is comparing one thing to another.
Similes do this by saying something is “like” or “as” something else. He’s like a wall. She’s as smart as a whip. Her temper was like a storm.
Metaphors do this by saying something “is” something else. That test was murder. The company was a sinking ship. The campaign is a dumpster fire.
Got it? Now here’s what got me thinking about this — a feature called New Sentences in the Sunday New York Times magazine. In it, Sam Anderson analyzes a metaphor from Paul Yoon’s short story “The Mountain.”
She reached down with a gentleness that reminded Faye of an arm underwater, the completion of a stroke.
Anderson then weighs in with the story’s context:
In the middle of the night, a woman sits alone on the ground, ill and exhausted. She is a factory worker in China. A truck full of people happens to pass by. It stops. A woman inside reaches down in a gesture of care – a surprisingly tender moment in an otherwise brutal world. The narrator’s description is perfect.
Describing nonverbal communication is tricky. As human animals we are fluent in a vast, complex language of gesture and posture and expression. But how do we translate that nonverbal language into verbal language? There are plenty of words for it: People smirk, loom, flinch, slump, scowl, tremble, stride, nod, stare. Even such vivid verbs are only rough approximations of the expressive richness of the motions they describe.
An arm reaching down is one of the more familiar movements in the human lexicon. It can express all kinds of things, from menace to boredom to exhaustion. The narrator’s description here transposes that familiar gesture into a different element altogether. The end of a swimming stroke is something we normally don’t see; it happens as a kind of footnote, underwater to the visible part of the stroke. The drag on the arm, which in the swimming stroke would be provided by the resistance of the water, is here a result of an emotion, a gentleness.
I love that. Love the swimming image and love what Sam Anderson saw in it.
Metaphors and similes are maybe the most precise tools in our writer’s toolbox. We all know how much beauty and power they can add to our fiction. But like anything powerful, they can backfire badly. (See first paragraph). When they work, they elevate your story, illuminate your characters and make your readers go, “Yes! I know what that is like!” When they fail, they make you look like a fool.
Coming up with rich and original metaphors and similes is really hard. No other way to say that. And in the heat of a deadline or the frustration of the daily writing grind, we’ve all veered off onto the cliche road. If you find yourself going there, read THIS. It’s a handy list of bad metaphors. Avoid them like the plague.
Where to go for good inspiration? The Bible is rich in beautiful metaphors. The main one, of course, is Jesus’s description of himself — “I am the good shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep.” — John 10:14-15
Ditto for Shakespeare who told us that our world is a stage and we poor novelists are merely strutting our time upon it. When Romeo describes Juliet, it is with this beautiful Valentine: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”
Back in my lit classes, I had several forced encounters with TS Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So many in fact, I grew to hate this poem. Last spring, when I was winnowing out my books in anticipation of our move, I found my college copy of Eliot’s collected poems. Don’t know what made me go back to Prufrock, but I did. Do you remember the opening line?
Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.
And go I did. I couldn’t stop reading after that. The sparkling and startling metaphors and similes kept coming and coming. Sea imagery about mermaids “combing the white hair of the waves blown back.” “I am pinned and wriggling on the wall.” “Ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And of course, the fog — “a yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.”
Why does the fog image work? It conveys mood. The fog is a menacing beast stalking a city of “one-night cheap motels and streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent.” Eliot has said this was inspired by the yellow smog he saw spewing from factories in his hometown St. Louis. But he was also a cat lover — he wrote the book on which the musical Cats was based – so the feline image is there.
Compare this to Carl Sandberg’s fog which “comes in on little cat feet and sits looking over the harbor on its haunches before it moves on.”
Why does this work? It also conveys mood, in this case mystery and silkiness. It is accurate and immediately recognizable (who hasn’t seen a slinking cat?). Even its alliterative “H” makes you think of softness, like a slow exhale in misty air.
Back to Prufrock…
I always thought this was an odd line — “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” When I was in college, I figured this was a metaphor for indecision, which relates to the opening image of paralysis (etherized patient) and a later reference to Hamlet. But when I read it recently, it was though the lens of a 66-year-old woman, so the metaphors and similes now seem to be more about rationing your time on earth at the expense of experiencing joy. Eliot was a mere pup of a grad student when he wrote this, but said he was imagining his narrator as a “man of about 40.” So who knows?
It does make me think of one of another of my favorite metaphors, from Groucho Marx: “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.”
So how do you know if your metaphors and similes are working? Boy, I wish I could tell you for sure, but there’s no easy way. It’s a feeling, I think. It’s like that finding that sweet spot in the tennis racket – you can just feel it. Or when you hit a homer. You know you’ve connected and that it’s going out.
Let’s extend the sports metaphor: I don’t play golf but my best friend Linda does. She took a lot of lessons, trying to do all the right things with her grip, stance, breathing, etc. But she could never seem to hit a good tee shot. One day, frustrated and angry, she finally “let it go” and just hit the ball. It went far and true. She realized she was getting so hung up on the all rules about technique that she had lost her natural flow.
The great golfer Bobby Jones tells the story about his father’s frustration during a round of bad ball striking. Angrily he made a perfect practice swing and asked Jones, “Now what’s the matter with that swing?” To which Jones replied, “Nothing. Why don’t you use it sometime?”
My friend Linda got rid of her golf instructor. Her game is improving and she’s having fun. So it is with metaphors and such. If you try too hard, you’ll whiff every time. Many of you participate in the National Novel Writing Month exercise or write poetry, and I’ll bet you come up with some great creative stuff only to tense up when you turn to your novel. I know I’ve seen writers in workshops produce terrific stuff — amazing themselves! — when I give them five-minute writing drills.
Well, maybe you have to learn to use the rhythmic swing you’ve developed during “practice swings” and use them in actual play. You’ll feel it when it’s good.
And when it’s bad? Come on, you know what that feels like, too, right? When you’ve laid down a metaphoric mound of writing poop, you know in your gut it’s bad. Because it didn’t come from your experience but from somewhere else. Or worse, from somebody else.
Here’s a rule. Yeah, I know, we don’t have rules, but I’m breaking the rule and giving you a rule.
If you’re ever in doubt as to whether or not you’ve pulled a metaphor off, cut it out.
That’s it. Don’t listen to your ego (“But I worked so hard to come up with that!”) Don’t listen to your inner artiste. (“But it’s so beautiful!” Yeah, just like all babies are beautiful, right?) The first goal of fiction is communication, reaching your reader emotionally. You don’t need to dazzle and you don’t want to distract.
Now go hit some tee shots.