Painting With Words

As the early third of my book advances to the latter stages of revision and editing, I find myself now — finally — adding the artistic details that make reading so enjoyable. Namely, the similes, metaphors and turns-of-phrase that bring descriptive imagery to life in unique and original ways. Hopefully.

So much of my time spent working on my first novel has been about establishing, iterating, and refining my work process. One of the things I’ve found is that I work most efficiently by eschewing description and metaphor until at least the second draft, if not the third or fourth. By keeping my first draft basic and adjectives sparse, I can drive my story like a snowplow, maintaining traction, avoiding the icy patches that might cause me to slip, slide, and lose momentum of the page.

That there was a simile. A poor one at that, but a simile nonetheless. You know it’s a simile because I’m directly comparing the effort of writing a first draft to plowing snow, my writer’s momentum to traction, and the time it takes to create dazzling figures of speech and imagery with spinning one’s wheels on a patch of ice.

Crazy as a Fox

Google defines a simile as a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid. Similes are often introduced with the words “as” or “like.”

Simon Winchester, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, contained this wonderful quote in his book Outposts. The excerpt is in reference to the Falklands War. Note the simile in the quote by Borges.

And so a small problem became a large tragedy. Thirteen hundred men died, hundreds more were maimed, thousands of million of pounds were expended in an unnecessary war over a piece of territory whose only function was as a symbol of power and strength, and had no intrinsic use at all. ‘Like two bald men fighting over a comb,’ Jorge Luis Borges remarked sardonically when it was all over.

Here’s another example of simile-rich description in Ian Frazier’s book On The Rez.

Le’s appearance has varied over those years. He is about six feet tall, and he has a broad face rather like the actor Jack Palance’s. His eyes can he merry and flat as a smile button, or deep and glittering with malice or slyness or something he knows and I never will. He is fifty-seven years old. I have seen his hair, which is black streaked with gray, when it was over two feet long and held with beaded ponytail holders a foot or so apart, and I have seen it much shorter, after he had shaved his head in mourning for a friend who had died. He has big hands which can grip a basketball as easily as I can hold a softball, and long arms.

Another example, from Chad Harbach’s brilliant novel, The Art of Fielding.

His chest hair waved to the surface like marine flora straining toward the light.

Not all similes work though, as this example shows, author and title removed to protect the guilty.

Of course I recognized Maia, with her nut brown skin and shiny black hair running around like a playful seal on the dock.

This phrase popped me out immediately when I encountered it. Do seals run? Don’t they sort of lurch and lunge and wobble? Or is she suggesting Maia was running around and not her hair? I’m so confused. I suspect the author initially wrote the word puppy, and then changed it thinking it too cliche. The alliteration of playful puppy would be nice — and tempting — but it’s been done to death. Playful seal could work if she changed the word running.

Trapdoor of Depression

All similes are metaphors, but not all metaphors are similes. Google defines a metaphor as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Like the header, there.

An example that I liked in Kitty Thomas’s book Tender Mercies took a cliche and turned it original.

She’d always hated the saying “Misery loves company”. Misery hated company; it only made the blanket of pain that much thicker and impossible to untangle oneself from.

Lauren Groff, in her brilliant novel Fates and Furies, had this wonderful description of a group of friends arriving for a dinner party.

They handed over spider plants in terra-cotta, six-packs, books, bottles of wine. Yuppies in embryo, miming their parents’ manners. In twenty years, they’d have country houses and children with pretentious literary names and tennis lessons and ugly cars and liaisons with hot young interns. Hurricanes of entitlement, all swirl and noise and destruction, nothing at their centers.

Chapter 27 in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a font of wonderful description, simile, and metaphor. I probably highlighted more from that single chapter than in the previous four novels combined. Here’s an excerpt of J.K. Rowling’s work that I particularly enjoyed.

“That,” said Firenze calmly, “is human nonsense.” Parvati’s hand fell limply to her side. “Trivial hurts, tiny human accidents,” said Firenze, as his hooves thudded over the mossy floor. “These are of no more significance than the scurryings of ants to the wide universe, and are unaffected by planetary movements.”

“Professor Trelawney —” began Parvati, in a hurt and indignant voice.

“— is a human,” said Firenze simply. “And is therefore blinkered and fettered by the limitations of your kind.”

An Example From My WIP

Speaking of Firenze, the Italian city we know as Florence, it’s only fare that I share an excerpt from my upcoming book, Tailwinds Past Florence. Here’s a brief excerpt from the first scene.

The road was a cotton-blanketed ribbon of asphalt laid amongst a black forest of Douglas firs and slumbering aspen. The effect was one of a narrow trench cleaved into a plateau of treetops, the two cyclists mere drifters along a paved stream at the bottom of an inescapable gorge. Out in the distance, the steel-blue silhouette of the Rocky Mountains loomed. It was his first time to Montana, but Edward couldn’t shake the feeling that he had been here before. Not in a goose-bumpy déjà vu kind of way, but something deeper. Like a faded memory, played in reverse.

Rather than major in English as I had intended when I went off to college all those years ago, I focused on the sciences, avoiding English classes entirely. It’s not something I regret, as my experience with scientific research served me well as as a technical writer, but it does mean I sometimes need a refresher course in those old high-school language lessons. Though one doesn’t need to be capable of labeling various parts of speech in order to write well, I did find this lesson on metaphor and simile to be helpful. The Daily Writing Tips website is chock full of helpful articles like this.

Post image by Jocelyn Kinghorn, used under Creative Commons.

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