books, writing

Oh, Simile, Dear Simile…

blogsimile1Consider the simile.

The simile can be a thing of beauty. It can strike a respondent chord in its audience, both illuminating and inspiring. Used to effect, the simile is like a grace note, adding a touch of richness and life to the overall musical score.

I’m a big fan of the simile, so it cuts me to the quick when I find it wantonly abused. This doesn’t happen often, because most writers have an innate simile-sense. They can test and taste and savor and know when they’ve hit the proper target; when the chemistry is compatible; when the simile zings and flies.

But some writers feel obligated to overreach the simile’s simple purpose. They imagine themselves dazzling the reader with hitherto unperceived comparisons that melt away boundaries and elevate communication to a newer, higher art.

More power to them, because, usually, they fail. They become so entranced with their own words and labored imagery that they force the simile into place with all the finesse of a jackhammer. Such was the case in a book I only today finished reading. The author was working in a decidedly Gothic arena, but was flitting between two disparate timelines. It was ambitious; not totally successful, but palatable. Or would have been except for her slavish inability to write more than a few sentences without feeling the need to bolster her efforts with a simile.

An awful, inappropriate, misguided simile.

For instance: “Momma [was] buried beneath the soil like a broken butter dish.”

Eh? Am I the only one who hasn’t embraced the practice of consigning ruined crockery to the ground? Who takes a broken plate or bent fork out to the back yard and digs it a grave?

Strike one.

And then, at the apex of a particularly emotional scene wherein the heroine realizes her family secret: “…the disparate parts are coming together like bits of a space station locking soundlessly in airless black…”

What the…? Remember, this is a tale written in a very Gothic atmosphere. The space-age imagery was so jarring, it became comedic for me. Instead of aligning myself with the heroine and participating in her turmoil, I was laughing at the writer’s strained effort.

Strike two.

And finally: “…the past dropped over her like a lobster pot…”

That did it. My chuckle became a guffaw. I suppose I could have googled ‘lobster pot’ and tried to discern where this simile was meant to take me, but by then…

…Strike three.

I considered the book a lost cause.

In retrospect, it reminded me of Brechtian theatre where actors suddenly address the audience, make eye contact and explain, the purpose being to snap everyone out of being passive observers and jolt them into a different level of thought and participation. But this wasn’t live theatre. It was a book; a book rife with similes that grasped and labored and went off-track with tedious, and then comic regularity.

So, please, let’s all try to respect the simile. Don’t force it. It’s a marvelous tool that should strike a respondent chord…not one’s funny bone. At least, not in most instances.

And now, I move onward…like a dog scooting its rear across a newly waxed floor…

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writing

Sell vs. Savor

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Writing is a gift.

Not necessarily for the literary efforts produced, but for the satisfaction of the process itself. I believe everyone who commits to it, knows that inner groan of pleasure when brain and keystroke join in a seamless act of creation. Which brings to mind one of the writer’s quandaries.

Do you write to sell, or to savor?

As you work your way up the rejection ladder, getting more and more substantive feedback, at some point a choice will begin to materialize on the edges of your awareness. It begins to shimmer its way into existence when the rejection asks you to submit more material; when it terms your writing ‘intriguing’ or ‘exceptional’ or ‘delightful.’ BUT…(there’s always a ‘but’)…your style doesn’t blend with the publication’s. Or maybe your subject matter needs tweaking before you’ll be awarded the brass ring of being published.

You’ve been diligent about researching to whom you submit. You’ve targeted publications that seem likely to want work like yours. But with the carrot dangling before you…so, so close…you take a longer, harder look at them…and at yourself. You’re willing to edit and rewrite and do it again and again, as long as the core of the work remains true.

Do you continue to please yourself, being faithful to what springs from your soul and hope to find a compatible outlet? Or do you pull that spark of what feels like your essence out, and write what you’re told as best you can, ignoring the deep, inner voice that whispers ‘This isn’t me…it’s not what I meant…’?

There are multiple arguments for both sides. There are varying perspectives from which to view each. There is no right answer.

What there is, is ego and that selfish side of the craft that drives you to write in the first place. If these things tip the scales for you, then you’ll resist compromise and say ‘I’m being true to myself.’

If the lure of being published has the greater weight, you’ll do whatever you have to to get something in print. The satisfaction of being published will silence any voice that queries ‘Did I sell out?’

Luckily, there is also the inevitability of change, of maturation and growth. And that’s the saving grace that can lead to a place where the pleasure of savoring the process and the rush of seeing yourself in print can meet, merge, and become magical. That essential internal spark is always changing. So is your work. So is the marketplace. The longer you persist, the better your chances of finding the niche you were meant to fill.

Write for someone else, or for yourself? Sell or savor?

Do both. Strive for that magical moment of overlap.

Just don’t ever stop.

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writing

The Dispersion Factor

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No one is an endless fount of pithy comments, scintillating ideas, and inventive ways of expressing them.

It’s a scary thought that we’re not.

I once read a story about a little girl who talked too much. Somewhere along the line she was warned that each of us has a finite number of words to spend. When you reach the end…that’s it. No more. Silence. If she squandered her stock of words, she’d be left to finish her life in wordless isolation.

If that’s true, it becomes imperative that you spend your words wisely. Choose them with care. Focus them toward your goal.

But that’s hard to do in these times when writers are told to keep a public profile. To blog and tweet. To maintain a constant presence via tumblr, facebook, instagram, ask.fm, and a host of other venues.

I understand. I really do. But all the time and energy invested in those adjuncts to a writer’s ‘real’ work have a draining effect. You’re taking a big, ol’ handful of your limited supply of words and tossing them into the wind. Instead of focusing them, aiming them at a target where they might find a lasting home, you’re dispersing them to fall at random. In random patterns. On random ears. Before random eyes.

Wasted words? Or are they dispersing like dandelion seeds; their purpose being to find new ground where they can take root?

Hard to say.

Only time will tell if they’re flourishing elsewhere, or simply gone; victims of the wind.

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writing

Cooking Up a Story

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Comparisons between creating on the keyboard, and creating in the kitchen keep popping up.

Unusual, since I’m more likely to use my oven for storage than food prep. Nonetheless…

A good chef will tell you, ‘If you can’t be proud of it, don’t serve it.’  That philosophy has been behind many a late dinner service. But the end result is that all is forgiven once the diner digs into his perfectly produced, delicious repast. He’ll likely deem the meal worth the wait.

The “If it isn’t ready, don’t offer it” philosophy becomes more problematic when applied to writing. Our hungry, hopeful patron may be the editor or publisher, but we have to contend with an intractable extra ingredient.

The deadline.

For most of us who are submitting to calls that will draw hundreds or thousands of entries, we can’t expect to deliver the goods late and justify our tardiness by pointing out how it’s worth the wait. The diner at our table won’t bother sampling. There are no extensions in our kitchen.

Getting a manuscript in on time is a perfectly legitimate, understandable expectation.

But then, you stumble across the call for submissions that stills your world because it seems tailor-made for you. Right up your alley. Posted with your name all over it…

…and it ends in an hour.

So. Do you rush to pound something out with no time for anything other than a quick proofread, and shoot it off to this perfect destination where you just know you belong?

Maybe. It’s a gamble. It’s taking a chance on leaving a bad taste in someone’s mouth. Maybe it would be wiser to let them go dinner-less.

The deadline is an ingredient in the writer’s world that can trump all the other lovely things on the plate. It looms and we are under its gun.

I don’t think chefs suffer that fate quite as stringently. But I could be wrong. After all, my oven is used for storage.

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writing

The Description Duality

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I am a bona fide description junkie.

Can’t get enough.

I dive into pages of language paying homage to the precise angles of parquetry; the multi-hues of honeyed sunshine pouring through jewel-toned panes of leaded glass; the wealth of colors and textures in a garden lush with twining, scented blooms.

These things make my toes curl. As long as they’re about environment. As long as they allow my imagination to follow their path and build, layer upon layer, a space of some sort. But pay that much attention to describing characters and you’ve lost me.

It’s the difference between world-building and backstory.

To me it’s the difference between being a participant or an observer.

Once again the concept of show vs. tell rears its quixotic head. Show me a place I can inhabit as a reader and I welcome infinite detail. Use that same level of description to paint a character and I’ll wonder why I should be interested in this passive creature who wavers into view via words instead of his own actions, or feelings, or thoughts.

As a reader, I know what I like; able to scan a dust-cover or blurb and instantly discard or covet.

As a writer, I fall into the trap, carried away on the tide of my own creation.

It’s difficult to read your own work without making the unforgivable mistake of falling in love with it to the extent that you’re blinded to its faults. That’s why everyone tells you to lay the story aside for a few weeks, months, years even. However, if you don’t have that luxury, if a deadline looms…you have to develop the skill of being able to split from your work.

Because the only way your opinion of your own work counts, is if you can confront it as a reader plain and honest.

No patting yourself on the back for a particular turn of phrase.

No thinking cleverness can disguise a lack of heart.

It’s hard. I’m not sure if anyone can do it consistently. But it’s the only way to know if your backstory is as enticing as your world-building. And for those of us who are unusually description-susceptible, it’s a necessary sort of schizophrenia.

Otherwise, we’d sink beneath the surface, sucked into the creation that will never be anything but a playground for one.

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