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This is probably everyone’s favorite fancy writing tool, but it can be difficult to come up with a good one. The best metaphors are unexpected and apt. They make people say, “I never thought of it that way before, but it’s perfect!” Here are four ways that will hopefully help you find your way to something good.
1. Go to museums. Take walks in new neighborhoods. Listen to new music. Look at fine art—at museums, in books, or online. Read outside your preferred genre. Watch movies. Read poetry. While you do this, collect impressions, emotions, colors, textures, sounds, and smells, and put them in a mental metaphor bank (or write them down, which is probably a safer idea).
2. Think of the most important quality of the thing you want to describe. What else has that quality? Brainstorm a list. Make yourself write down at least seven things, to force yourself to think beyond the obvious. Then pick the one that fits the character, the situation, and the tone of your novel.
For example, there is a minor character in my book who I wanted to describe as totally hot. My first thought was “Greek god” or “Greek statue” but…that’s been done. So instead I focused on defining characteristic (beauty) and the context (minor character; typical teen movie hottie). What I came up with was
- · A fashion model or movie star (too obvious)
- · A sunset (too big)
- · A brand new sports car (too strong an image)
- · A love poem (too artsy)
- · A symphony (lots of people think symphonies are boring)
- · A love song (ooh! This reminds me of boy band love songs and the handsome boys who sing them.)
And so Daniel in Chapter Two has a face like your favorite love song.
3. Another fun metaphor exercise: make a list of random nouns. Pear, boat, padlock, mouse, monsoon, soccer ball. Then pick the first one and ask yourself, “How is a pear like a ____?” and substitute each of the other nouns you’ve picked. Make a list of the ways in which they are alike. For more focus, pick one of your characters, or an important abstract noun like love, or revenge, or guilt, and compare them to your list of random nouns. For even more focus, use important objects or places in your book as your nouns and compare your characters to them.
4. Here’s an exercise that works well for abstract nouns. Holding in your head (or on the page) the thing you want to metaphorize, imagine that it is alive. Make a list of descriptions according to the five physical senses. Take anger, for example. You may have to close your eyes and really imagine what it feels like. Locate the emotion in your body and describe it as concretely as you can. Is it heavy? Prickly? Fizzy? Slimy? Does it move, or does it stay still? What color is it? What flavor? What does it smell like? What does it sound like? How does it move?
I’m sure there are more ways to play around with metaphor. What exercises do you use?
When my son was three, he felt that there was no work of art that could not be improved by MORE STICKERS, MORE COLORS, and MORE GLITTER. Because who doesn’t like colorful and sparkly? Thing is, you and I both know that a little glitter is good, but a pile of glitter glopped on top of half a bottle of Elmer's glue . . . not so much.
In a desperate attempt to get students to write with any flair at all, many language arts teachers push what's easiest for kids to understand: lots of adjectives, adverbs, and thesaurus usage--the puffy stickers, sparkle markers, and glitter shakers of writing. As kids, we were rewarded for modifier and thesaurus abuse because at least we were using adjectives. We were told that this was good writing, when in fact it was just more writing. More glitter. And we can learn all the fancy writing techniques in the world, but if the bones of the writing--the sentences--are hidden under piles of puffy adverbs and sparkly synonyms, anything we do will only make things more . . . more.
So without further ado, three ways to scrape off the excess so you can see the shape of the sentences underneath, and help them become what they really want to be.
1. Adjectives and adverbs: Less is more.
Everyone I know was taught in elementary school to use lots of adjectives and adverbs in “descriptive writing.” It’s counterintuitive—and difficult—to shake our dependence on these so-called “describing words.” But it’s essential because they’re nearly always too much. If you use the right nouns and verbs, you won’t need as many adjectives.
It’s the difference between entering a room and seeing this cat:
Sleeping lazily in the warm, bright morning sun was a cat with soft gold and brown striped fur.
And this one:
A tabby cat basked in the morning sun.
2. Verbs and Nouns: Say exactly—and only—what you mean.
The thesaurus is not a tool to vary-ify your vocabulary (yes, I made that word up). It is a tool to refine it. For example, chortle, giggle, guffaw, and snicker are not interchangeable. They have very specific meanings and should be used in very specific contexts. (And often, laugh will do just fine.) Also, try not to use an adverb with a powerful verb; guffawing loudly is redundant. So is chortling softly.
Same with nouns. If your characters are escaping pirates in a dinghy, don’t call it a yacht, a schooner, or a skiff. If saying “dinghy” twelve times in twenty sentences feels repetitive (hint: it is), maybe you don't need some of those sentences.
3. Unless you are a certified master, go easy on the metaphors.
As a person who draws hearts in the margins every time I come across a lovely metaphor, it pains me to say this. But sometimes it’s necessary. Especially if the metaphor is old and worn out. Let it retire (metaphorically) and spend the rest of its metaphorical days sipping metaphorical lemonade on its metaphorical front porch.
No metaphor at all is better than a bad one. I mean. Does Jane Austen tell us that Mr. Darcy’s eyes are the color of a sparrow’s wing (or tree bark, or a well-cooked steak)? No. I’m not even sure she tells us they’re brown.
I do love a good metaphor, though. Great metaphors can (help) make a book shine. Stay tuned for metaphor madness, coming soon. Well. Soonish.
When someone angrily calls my book out (and let me just admit here that I’m terrified of that day), I will of course indicate my desire to listen and learn. I will vent, and then calm down. I will address my accuser respectfully, remembering that her anger is quite likely rooted in pain and a desire to protect others.
Next, I will assure my accuser that I meant no harm. I will offer a reasoned, calm defense of my perspective, my motivations, and my characters and plot so that she can understand the underlying message of the book. I will remind her that I’ve tried to do everything right—research, interviews, sensitivity readers. When I reach for my laptop or phone to do this, dangle a Twix bar in front of me, then toss it a few feet away. While I scamper off to retrieve and eat it, grab my laptop and phone and hide them. Hide them well. Don’t give them back until I understand these very important steps:
Step 3: Resist the temptation to explain your book. It’s natural to want to defend your poor little book and its characters, into which you’ve poured so much love and effort. As a sensitivity reader, I’ve even had POC writers do this after I send them my comments: I did that because I wanted to show…; That’s just his personality; My Asian friend said it was okay. In fact, I had these very same thoughts when my sensitivity reader gave me her very gentle suggestions on the Latina characters in my book. I may even have expressed them. I can see how urgent it must feel to explain things to a critic who obviously missed my point or they wouldn't be so furious. If only they understood what I really meant, I'd think, they'd see that we're on the same side.
But here’s the thing. When you explain that your book isn’t really racist, what you are really doing is dismissing the validity of your critic's reaction. You’re saying, in effect, “You shouldn’t feel offended; if you'll let me explain, you'll see how wrong your feelings are.” It doesn’t matter how pure your intentions may have been, or how hard you worked to avoid stereotypes, or how complex and layered the plot is. The reader takes away only what is on the page, not what was in your head when you put it there. And if what is on the page is offensive to the reader, you can’t argue with that. You can’t tell people how to feel, especially when you have no understanding of why they feel the way they do (see Step 2). You must respect their experience of your book—and instead of thinking, “But how could I be expected to know?” maybe try for, “I should probably educate myself about this issue.”
If that’s not enough to convince you, then maybe this will: If you defend your book, you will go—in the eyes of already-upset people of color—from Probably Nice But Clueless Person Who Wrote a Problematic Book to . . . Racist Person Who Dismissed Valid POC Criticism And Defended Her Racist Book.
Yep. Just sayin’. It's ugly, but it's true.
Oh. An addendum to Step 3: Leave your sensitivity readers out of it. You’d think it would help to let people know that there are people of color who read and liked your book and didn’t find it problematic, right? Sorry, but no. Your sensitivity readers are not responsible for giving you POC street cred. Here’s why:
One reader cannot stand in for an entire population of people. I mean, yes, that’s kind of their job. But their experiences are individual. And so are their critique styles. Some Asian readers don’t mind the Asian Tiger Mom stereotype; others are tired of it. Some readers may straight-up tell you, “Do not let this go to press until you change X, Y, and Z;” others may say, “This stopped me, and here’s why. Can you think of ways to change it?”
Once the suggestions have been made, it’s out of the sensitivity readers’ hands. You as a writer might take the advice, or you might not. That’s your right—it’s your book, after all. But since the reader won’t know which revisions you’ve made or how you’ve made them, you MAY NOT imply that they gave you their stamp of approval when all they gave you was advice, and probably polite advice, too, because they don’t want to antagonize you.
Step 4: Apologize…the right way. There are plenty of websites that explain how to write a proper apology, so I won’t go into a whole lot of detail about all the parts, but here’s a short list tailored to our particular situation:
Take full responsibility. Don’t shift the blame to your editor, don’t hide behind your sensitivity readers. At the end of the day, you are the one who wrote the book. Own it.
Acknowledge the pain you’ve caused. Maybe you still don’t find your book offensive (hopefully you’re trying to figuring it out), but surely you can step out of your own perspective and see it from another person’s point of view. Do that.
NEVER say, “I apologize if you were offended.” This may feel to you like you’re gently reminding people that you meant no harm. What it sounds like to others is that you’re downplaying the harm.
Go ahead and say that you never meant to hurt anyone. But only say it once, maybe twice at the most. The more you say it, the more it sounds like an excuse. Also, don’t talk about how awful you feel that people have been hurt. Don’t go on about how truly nice and not-racist you are, and how your friends all think so, too, and how heartbroken you feel that people might now mistakenly think that you are racist. Don’t, for the love of Pete, bring up your POC best friend/significant other/sorority sister. I get it. I’ve wanted to do all of these things, because I want to be liked and understood. That way, people will see that I’m a human being, too, I think. They won’t be as angry at me for screwing up. All that good stuff about you (and me) may be true. But if you've written something offensive, the real, hard truth is that no one cares how you feel, how nice you are, or if you are loved by a person of color. No one wants to hear about you and your poor feelings. People are hurt and angry, and they only want to hear that you know you screwed up and that you’re sorry. Because that’s the point of an apology.
Offer to make amends. If you are a well-intentioned as you say you are, do the writerly thing: show, don't tell. See if you can delay publication and do a revision. Or if your book is already out there, maybe revise for the paperback, à la Julie Murphy. Donate money or volunteer for a cause chosen by the people your book has offended.
There’s probably lots of stuff I’ve left out. I’m just kind of flying by the seat of my pants, here, trying to remember everything I’ve heard and learned over the past year. Feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.
Also, Check out Part III of this series (2 years late): Do NOT release the hounds! Or: What to do when your book gets called out and your friends want to defend you.