Friday, October 17, 2008

Writing Like Butter, Part One

In which I tackle lumps in your writing porridge.

It's like Hanukkah early in my house. I'm about to finish the book I'm reading (more on that later), and was wandering the bookshelves, wondering what I should read next. There, tucked away with old baby books and my Japanese text from first year of college, was Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. Which I have never read, and which I had totally forgotten The Mighty Thor and I had bought ourselves cheap at a local indie one day.

I love Wallace Stegner. Crossing to Safety is on my top ten novels list.* So I grabbed Angle of Repose and fondled it like the last piece of candy in a plastic pumpkin months after Halloween but well before Valentine's Day.**

"Yum," I thought, reading the first paragraph. "Smooth."

"Smooth" is a word more used for brandy and pick-up lines than writing. But it's what I'm thinking about today.

I want my writing to be smooth. I want it to go down so smooth the reader forgets he's reading. I want him so into the story and the character that years later he'll start to relate something he thinks happened to him and only halfway through the story say, "Wait, that was a book."

I do not want my reader to be interrupted by lumps in my writing porridge. You know the lumps. The ones where, in the middle of losing yourself in literary deliciousness, you stumble, and look up, and say, "What?!" and remember that someone sat in a chair in some Starbucks and made up everything you've been taking so seriously.

Today, the lump on which I'm choking is the unnecessary or ridiculous metaphor. An okay metaphor makes the reader say, "Yes! I never realized the connection there. I understand perfectly." A great metaphor slides along with the rest of the story into the reader's subconscious where it deepens his understanding or makes him smile or reflects the main character's take on the world around him, all without the reader really noticing.

A bad metaphor makes my reader say, "Huh?" and look up and realize, yeah, maybe he should mow the lawn after all.

This week, the New York Times ran an article on an infection that's defying antibiotics in kids. It's a pneumoccal infection, the article told us in pretty scientific language, of which there are many kinds. Researchers are hoping to find a common link between the pneumococci, "in the way a quiche, an omelet and a custard pie are all versions of eggs."

What?! I don't even get the metaphor. A quiche is a "version" of an egg? Like Quiche = Egg 2.0?

Two other examples I read recently (quoted with permission):

"Her head hung low like a sock with a tennis ball inside." Huh? Her neck was stretched three feet and made of wool?

"He stumbled, flipping like a dead leaf dancing down the street in the autumn wind." Okay, I made that one up to make a point. Dead leaf dancing = nice visual image, though overused. Doesn't fit a guy falling at all. Also, if your metaphor takes longer than what it's supposed to be illuminating to read, something's wrong.

My advice? Cut them all. All your metaphors. Put back in the ones whose absence seriously diminishes the voice, or without which the visual image is not as clear. Oh, and same goes for similes, okay?

Now, go write like butter.

Stay tuned, soon, for more lumps. In the meantime, if you want to read more fabulously bad metaphors, click here.

* Along with about 19 other novels.
** Yes, I know that's a terrible metaphor. Keep reading.


J. Thorp said...

The egg metaphor is bad for another reason -- namely, you should generally avoid comparisons between bacteria and food unless you want to make your reader nauseous ...

Jacqui said...

Oh! I hadn't even thought of that!

sruble said...

Well they all have eggs in them.

Sometimes odd metaphors are cool, because they make you think, but only if they also work. When they make you think that the writer has no clue, that's not good.

Jacqui said...

sruble, you are absolutely right. The night I posted this, I went to a David Sedaris reading and he used slightly off metaphors to make excellent humorous contrasts. Brilliant.