Thoughts on Writing: Clichés vs. Strange Metaphors and Similes

As writers, we’ve been warned so many times to avoid clichés that it’s become ingrained in us to avoid them like the plague. 😉 As a result, writers turn formulate some truly ingenious and clever metaphors. Some of them have me thinking, “I wish I’d come up with that!” An example I can think of off the top of my head is from one of the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

Harry put his face into his hands, blocking out his bedroom, trying to hold on to the picture of that dimly lit room, but it was like trying to keep water in his cupped hands; the details were now trickling away as fast he tried to hold on to them….

When I first read it, I remember thinking how unique it was. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (I believe), there is a line about Harry feeling like he’s missed a step on the stairs. Most everyone knows how that feels can immediate relate to Harry.

However, sometimes the unique metaphor/simile doesn’t work and throws me out of the story. Even though I’m a huge fan of Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy, I still remember when I read her book City of Bones and there was a line that went something like, “the moon hung in the sky like a locket.” That immediately pulled me out because I had to stop and think about it. I realize I may be in the minority to have that opinion about that particular comparison.

In Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian, he writes:

The New Scotland Yard hummed along pleasantly in the morning like a gigantic scientific experiment. Identically uniformed constables streamed in and out of the front gate and up into the five-story as if they were tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide in a great bunsen burner.

Sometimes metaphors and similes don’t quite land. While it’s important not to use clichés, I think it’s also important not to overdo them to the point where they feel jarring. They should paint the scene while still staying consistent with the rest of the writing!

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Writing Lessons from Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power, and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.

I read this book because I was curious after seeing the movie trailer on TV in January and February. This post has light spoilers.

  1. Know how to accurately represent your character’s voice. The main character is a teenage boy, but he doesn’t speak like one. He sounds like a 16-30 year old woman.
  2. Don’t stereotype your setting. Even as someone who’s never been to the South, I cringed at some of the stereotypical representations of people who live there. (Do people in the South really wear Gone with the Wind-esque dresses to prom?)
  3. Edit!!! Thirty pages into this nearly six hundred page book, I realized everything I’d read so far could be cut out. That thought struck me again and again as I waded through this book.
  4. Move at a snappy pace. There were long passages were absolutely nothing happened. In a book with a threat hanging over the story, I expected a faster pace and more action.
  5. Keep out irrelevant information. I didn’t need to read passages in Gaelic, Latin, and what was supposed to be old English(?) as the characters read them–especially since the response to that was almost always, “This doesn’t help at all.” I found myself skipping those sections more often than naught. It would have been enough if the characters had simply commented on the more relevant sections.
  6. Show us the main characters falling in love. The YA market is sadly overrun with paranormal romances where the leads fall in love because it’s destiny or for no discernible reason whatsoever. In addition to being frustrating, it also gives readers unrealistic ideas of love.
  7. Don’t interrupt the tension of the climax. The big event of the story is on the brink of happening and…there’s a surprise birthday party?
  8. If you use parallels, symbolism, etc, make sure they work. I thought this novel was trying to parallel the American Civil War to something because it was brought up over and over and there was a reenactment on the same day of the climax. I was kind of lost as to what the Civil War really had to do with anything.
  9. Black and white doesn’t fly anymore. The idea of Dark Casters and Light Casters really bothered me, especially since they don’t have a choice. I know it’s the curse, but I find it hard to accept that someone’s true nature can just be erased and he or she can become fully “evil.” Since the Dark and Light was first mentioned, I kept waiting for the idea to be subverted, but it never was.

Poem: From Ballad by Maggie Stiefvater

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 12.01.45 AMMaggie Stiefvater is absolutely incomparable. This, unsurprisingly, is one of the reasons she’s one of my absolute favorite authors. Ballad isn’t my favorite of her books (that honor goes to The Raven Boys, although I also love the Scorpio Races and the Shiver trilogy). Despite that, I found parts that spoke to me to the point where I had to jot them down or find some way of keeping them so I wouldn’t ever forget them.

I think any writer can relate to this. We will live forever because of our words. Because of them, we’ve been immortalized. This short poem from Ballad captures that idea so simply and beautifully.

Mystical Monday: Ten Writing Lessons from the Diviners by Libba Bray

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City–and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult–also known as “The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies.”

When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer–if he doesn’t catch her first

(from book description on GoodReads)

(I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there still may be some light spoilers in this post!)

What Worked:

  1. Fleshing out the setting. Ms. Bray did an incredible job with the setting and atmosphere. This novel is set in the 1920’s and the world is absolutely brought to life. The characters speak very strongly in vernacular, but she does a great job of making it feel genuine and real. Plus, I’ve noticed since her Gemma Doyle trilogy that she does a fantastic job with creepy. This is a supernatural murder mystery, and the reader can feel it. I was immersed so deeply that I sat and read instead of doing other things I should have been doing (i.e. writing).
  2. Flawed characters. The protagonist, Evie O’Neill, isn’t always likable, but she is relatable. I know people provide that writing advice all the time, but it really does make a difference. Even if I didn’t like her in a moment, I could still relate to her. I understood her motivations, and she came off as three-dimensional.
  3. Forcing the protagonist to face the antagonist alone. Speaking specifically about my WIP Synchronicity for a moment: there was something bothering me about the end of Synchronicity, and upon reading The Diviners, I realized what it was; a group of characters fight the antagonist in the end. It makes for a much more compelling and dramatic ending when the protagonist is forced to face the antagonist alone, particularly when she is outmatched in strength and/or skill. (This also happens at the end of every Harry Potter book with the exception of the third and the possible exception of the fifth).
  4. Placing hints throughout that so the idea of sequel doesn’t come out of nowhere. It seemed like a the Big Bad was defeated toward the end of the novel – and while the antagonist of The Diviners was certainly defeated, there was a phrase repeated throughout the book that comes up again at the end.
  5. Bringing threads together just enough to get the reader intrigued to read the sequel. These threads were mentioned at different points in the story and seemed completely unrelated. Some of them even seemed like little throwaway details to make characters more three-dimensional. When the connection between these details were revealed and the book ended, I immediately jumped on Google to make sure there would be a sequel. There is a sequel, but it isn’t being released until Spring 2014!! 😦

What didn’t Work:

  1. Backstory info dump. This is probably because there are just so many characters in this novel, but there were quite a few times that a character’s backstory is told to the reader. Oftentimes, the reader would be in the dark, wondering about the character’s mysterious past only to have it all blurted out suddenly. Although it was nice to finally find out what the secret was, it would have been nicer if the layers were peeled away, and it was revealed a bit more slowly. I think it would have been more rewarding for me, as the reader.
  2. Having SO many different perspectives. I’m of two minds about this because it wasn’t pleasant to be in the perspective of a murder victim, but it was nice to have the murder victims feel like real people rather than just corpses placed in the story for the sake of having murder victims.
  3. Jumping perspectives within one scene. Since there are are so many perspectives, there was often more than one represented in one single scene. It could be a bit confusing and also through me out of the scene because I had to think about which character was thinking a particular thought or feeling a particular emotion.
  4. Hasty editing. At times, I was brought out of the story because, for example, in one line Sam said something…and in the next line Sam said something. Was Sam replying to himself? Plus, there were a few instances where I thought the author stated too much. Take this excerpt: “Evie shivered. From what they knew, John Hobbes had been anything but a lovely man. He’d killed many people and taken body parts from them…” (442). The paragraph continues in this vein when it could have ended after “John Hobbes had been anything but a lovely man” or even just “Evie shivered.” As the reader, I remember all those other details and understood through his actions that he wasn’t a lovely man. I didn’t need to be told it as well. If excesses like these were cut out, the book would have been a bit tighter.
  5. Love triangle? This is just a quibble (possibly because I’m a Sam-Evie shipper) but it bothered me a little that Evie has feelings for Jericho all of a sudden. It seemed that Ms. Bray was laying the groundwork for Evie to fall for Sam (and I still hold firmly to this idea) when Evie suddenly liked (and kissed) Jericho. Not that I don’t like Jericho – I just find Sam to be a much more interesting and dynamic character. Also, there’s definitely more chemistry between Sam and Evie! I think the reason it turned out this way is because Ms. Bray wanted to set up a love triangle. *sigh*

Mystical Monday is about anything fantasy/supernatural/ethereal in honor of my YA Urban Fantasy novel, Synchronicity.

Writing Lessons from Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Last year, Annabel was “the girl who has everything” — at least that’s the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store.

This year, she’s the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong.

Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen’s help, maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends.

(from the Goodreads page)

Lessons:

  1. The main character saves herself. Ms. Dessen’s books tend to be a bit formulaic. The main girl has some sort of problem and meets a guy who is passionate about something. In this book, the guy is Owen and the passion is music. She uses Owen and his passion for music to help with Anabel’s personal growth. However, in the end, Anabel is the one who takes that last step to save herself. 
  2. Using flashbacks to reveal the backstory. In a book I read recently (that I will discuss on Monday), there is a great deal of backstory info dumping. Just Listen uses flashbacks to show us what happened instead of just telling them to the reader. I’ve been struggling with the idea of using flashbacks for awhile. If anyone has any ideas for a more elegant but still effective way of conveying backstory, I’d love to hear it!
  3. However, flashbacks shouldn’t interrupt a scene. I can think of at least one instance where Ms. Dessen started a scene and then suddenly jumped back a few hours, recounted what happened then, and then came back to the point where she’d started the scene. That threw me out of the moment when reading it.
  4. Symbols and motifs aren’t just for classics. The front of Anabel’s house is made of glass with certain parts hidden away. Anabel talks about how what you see isn’t the whole story. This theme is brought up again in different ways (such as with Anabel’s modeling and the rumors people spread about her at school). Using symbolism can illustrate the theme in an intelligent way.