Friday, September 23, 2016

Metaphors in Your Story--What Are They, How to Use Them, When to Use Them


I'll never forget the first year of my MFA.  I had a great adviser, a well-published writer, who was also a minimalist.  I am not.   I love lyrical prose.  So we were an odd match that turned out to be one of the best parts of my expensive education.

As my adviser, Rebecca required me to send her a packet of new writing every two weeks.  She would read the pages and mark them up, then return them to me.  her handwriting was atrocious but her comments were stellar.  She didn't hold back.  If she loved something, she raved.  If she hated it, she said that too.  She assumed, rightly so, that at this point in my writing career I was past coddling.  I just wanted the straight truth.

I went overboard on the lyricism one month.  Probably because I was reading Virginia Wolff for an assignment.  I loved her images, her metaphors, so I got very poetic in my pages. 

Rebecca didn't hold back, as usual.  Page after page with a red slash across all the writing.  About ten pages of this, and she just wrote ENOUGH! in big letters.

She did take time to explain.  And assign me away from Wolff and towards minimalist writers--writers who use no imagery at all.  I needed a strong dose. 

It took some months to recover from working with Rebecca but my writing was a lot better.  I didn't abandon my love for lyricism, metaphor, and poetic image in my writing.  All these devices are lovely.  But only if and when they serve the story.

A writer in my part 2, Your Book Starts Here online class recently emailed me with a great question about metaphor.  "Recently I've read some articles on metaphors," she wrote, "and how we should perhaps plan a whole revision around inserting metaphors in each scene.  Is this good practice, or do you think they should just arise from the story...or at least not be placed in every scene intentionally. I know metaphors help create that picture/meaning in a reader's mind, but how methodically should we do it?"

Magic of Metaphor
When you pair an object, movement, or other element with an image that is not related--her hands were small doves--you expand a reader's involvement with image in your writing.  Image connects with theme, or subtext.  The greater meaning.  Implying that hands were small doves gives an immediate impression of fluttering, perhaps of plumpness, of the shyness that doves can exhibit. 

Some writers, like Ray Bradbury who famously said "I am a metaphor machine," use a metaphor in every scene, as the writer in my class alluded to.  This requires a lot of natural skill with images, first.  Also, it requires enough detachment from your love of image to see if the metaphor is indeed serving the story or weighting it down unnecessarily, as in my experience with my adviser, Rebecca.

Used with skill, metaphor can enrich your writing tremendously.  Unlike simile, which uses "like" and "as," metaphor just places the object with the image--no explanation or comparison words required.  Metaphor asks the reader to leap into image without help from the writer.  Simile feels tentative.  It can sound cliche.  That's because so many writers start with simile; it's easier, it's more common.

Some writers call metaphor a "dangerous" writing tool.  If you'd like to get started using metaphor, one helpful technique in this excellent article from The Write Place is to comb through a chapter and locate all the similes.  Then replace them with metaphor.  Similes offer placeholders--you already know you want an image comparison there, but maybe you couldn't think of a truly original one when you were drafting.  At revision, you can go back and see how many you can replace with metaphor.

Some writers work with extended metaphors.  I teach this technique for those ready to build theme--because an extended metaphor, or an image that recurs throughout the book, immediately evokes subtext or thematic meaning.  Extended metaphors are tricky, nearly impossible at early drafts.  Revision-stage, they are fun to work with.

Danger of Metaphors

Two common warning signs that your metaphors aren't serving your story:

1.  If you use too many metaphors all at once, the reader gets image overload (back to my experience with Rebecca).  Instead of writing ENOUGH! on your pages, the reader will just stop reading.   How many is too many?  The best way to answer this is to read a chapter from a favorite published novel or memoir.  Count up the metaphors.  There might be one per scene, one per chapter, or one per page (one per page is a LOT, so be wary of this unless you are incredibly skilled).  Test it out in your own writing.  Read it aloud, get some feedback.

2.  If you mix metaphors, the image falls flat.   "She was a caged animal, riding a slippery slope of fear."  The two images (caged animal and slippery slope) don't connect at all.  The reader will be confused or turned off.  End of story.

Your weekly writing exercise

Check out this great article on metaphor use--one of the best.  It's called "Do Your Metaphors Rock?" and although it talks about song lyrics, the techniques are useful for any kind of writing. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Can You Use Both First and Third Person Narrators in Your Novel?


A few of my private clients are playing with the idea of using both first person and third person narrators in their novels or memoirs.  It's a fairly radical approach to storytelling but not impossible.  I've gotten the question enough times in the past weeks--the idea must be trending!--that I wanted to address it in this blog.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Refresh Your Writing Brain (and Inspire Your Book) with an Image Board This Week

Writers gather around the big classroom conference table.  It's the first evening of my weeklong writing retreat.  I ask each writer to grab a stack of magazines and begin tearing out photos.  The room gets quiet as everyone moves into their image brains. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding Close Readers--How to Be Smart with Feedback on Your Manuscript

Feedback is a tricky process.  Lots of danger if you choose feedback partners that have something to prove--they're smart, literary, better than you could ever be.  Or if you exchange with readers who just don't put in the effort, time, attention.  Both extremes can wear a writer out, best case.  Worse case, they can cause you to lose faith in your book.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing

I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books.  I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tips for Surviving a Manuscript Read-Through (The Essential Last Step before You Send Out Your Book)


Most of my students and coaching clients know about the read-through.  It's a full-manuscript read that you do at several stages in the book journey:  after your draft is complete and before you revise, and before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Pause Breaks to Strengthen the Pacing of Your Story

Right now, I'm working with a writer who is studying pacing:  specifically, how to pace her chapters.  She tends to deliver too much--too many images, too many ideas, too much happening--all at once.   It feels like a freight train coming at the reader.

So we're studying the writerly device of pause breaks.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing against an Edge: How to Push Your Intimacy on the Page


On Sunday, I'm heading to Madeline Island, a lovely spot in Lake Superior that happens to house an equally lovely arts school where I've taught every July for the past seven years.  Because I have a group of very edgy and wonderful writers coming for the week-long retreat, I've been thinking about edges.  How they exist in our writing and our lives.  How we push against them to establish our authenticity and intimacy on the page.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Where to Begin Your Book: How to Choose the Best Opening


Lots of writers struggle with the opening to their books, no matter what genre.  I'm working with one client in my retainer coaching program who is writing a very large story--it spans thirty years or more.  It's a memoir, and a lot has happened to her in her long life, so choosing the starting moment is very challenging for her.

We begin by asking what this book is about.  "My life," she answers, and that's true.  But I ask again, "What's it really about?" 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summertime, and the Writing Is . . . Gone? Five Ways to Fit Writing into Your Crazy Life!

This week, try one of these five ways to fit writing into a busy summer life.  They've all worked beautifully for me--and I still get time to enjoy that camping trip!