The Glitch in the Matrix 2: Heads will roll…

Yes, it’s true: sometimes words can be – as Gollum would put it – ‘tricksy’, and very often it’s those little physical quirks which can cause the most problems.

Consider this conundrum which I heard on TV one evening:

‘My reflection in the mirror looked back at me like a bad smell.’

Huh?? There is a definite aroma of mixed metaphor with that one. Or rather, mixed simile (for the difference check out my earlier post ‘Shall I compare thee….?  To start with, what exactly does a bad smell look like? Even if we manage to sort that one out, what’s the story with it looking back at you? Scary!

So please do take care that your hero is not accidentally foraying into the realm of physical impossibilities as he or she goes about their narrative business. In other words, keep an eye on what your protagonist’s eyes are doing. Are they following people across the street, rolling down mountains, sweeping across rooms or dropping to floors?

The human body is indeed a thing of wonder and it’s amazing what eyes actually can do, but, generally speaking, they tend to do it from the comfort of a person’s eye sockets rather than indulging in some perambulation of their own quite distinct from the rest of the body. Besides all that running, dropping and rolling sounds rather painful and damaging to the anatomical part in question.

Happily, a protagonist’s gaze or stare, on the other hand, can quite easily follow, roll, run or sweep across anything you wish.

The same rules apply to protagonists’ heads and other generally fixed parts of the body, by the way.

Of course if your hero is an animated cartoon character where anything goes, the above may not apply!

For other glitches in the prose matrix, see my earlier post ‘The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers‘.

Shall I compare thee….? Similes and Metaphors

The metaphor is a shorter simile, or rather a kind of magical coat, by which the same idea assumes a thousand different appearances.

Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Poetry Distinguished from Other Writing’, Essays, no. 16

I don’t know about you, but one of the bugbears of my later school and early university years was the unpleasant task of literary critical analysis. All that sterile dissection of imagery, metaphor, simile, allegory—slicing away at a poem, or indeed any piece of poetic literature, to expose its innards and put them on show [metaphor]—it felt like an act of desecration. I was reminded of the frogs I had also been forced to dissect in science class in school: the process was not dissimilar [analogy]. Dead things splayed out, the barely-disguised stench of decomposition and me, standing over them with my scalpel (metaphorical or otherwise) like a reluctant executioner, troubled by the demands of his work [simile].

Yes, in case you haven’t guessed it by now, today’s post is about those wonderful comparative figures of speech available to all writers: metaphors, similes, analogies and allegories.

George Eliot lamented in The Mill on the Floss that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else. And yet surely language would be deadly dull without such comparisons. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the act of comparing things— that bringing together of connections—that helps us to understand and describe not only the world around us, but also our emotions and our experience of things and how they impact on our consciousness. If that all sounds a little esoteric, look at it this way: think of phrases such as ‘drowning in paperwork’, ‘going through something with a fine-tooth comb’, ‘sly as a fox’, ‘not the sharpest tool in the tool box’. The fact is, we all use metaphors and similes in our daily speech. As G.K. Chesterton said, All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.’ So you don’t have to be writing poetry or high-brow literary fiction to spice up your prose with a few well-chosen comparatives.

Let’s take a closer look at our comparison options:

Simile: uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare one thing with another thing so as to make a description more vivid—‘as cunning as a fox’.

Metaphor: compares two things directly by stating that one thing is the other (symbolically, not literally)—’All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;’ W Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7.

Analogy: compares two different things with multiple common characteristics to point out their similarities, for example, comparing ant or bee colonies with human society (or the process of dissection of a poem with the dissection of a frog).

Allegory: a story ostensibly about one thing, but meaning another—George Orwell’s Animal Farm as an allegory for the terror and repression of the Stalinist regime in the early twentieth century Soviet Union.

So, what is the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

A metaphor is more direct and deals with the essence of the something: the heart of the matter (which is a metaphor in itself). With a simile, the two things remain separate—a man’s cunning may be comparable to that of the fox, but the fox and the man remain two separate things. With a metaphor, the man becomes the fox, taking on all its attributes of cunning and general ‘foxiness’—they are no longer two separate entities. Equally, an analogy can contain metaphors within it, but it doesn’t claim that the two separate things are the same thing: for a metaphor, the poem and the frog become one thing (the thing that has innards to be exposed), in an analogy, the poem and the frog remain separate points of reference to allow us examine the similarities in the way they can be dissected.

Finally, a word of warning: metaphors and similes can indeed be ‘magical coats’ lending your prose richness, depth, colour and meaning, but, as you’ve also probably noticed by now, many of the metaphors in daily use are also stock phrases and clichés, so be careful how you use them. For helpful hints on the use of similes and clichés check out my earlier posts here and here.

The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers

Dangling participles

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Sighing as he sits, the mirror behind the bar catches his weary reflection. ‘How’s it going, DP?’ says the barman. ‘Not good,’ says the dangling participle, ‘subjectively speaking, I’m feeling a little mixed up.’

Yes, we’re on the thorny subject of dangling participles. Look closely at the second sentence in the above paragraph, and ask yourself, who is sighing and sitting? The DP or the mirror behind the bar?

How about these other examples:

Driving to work, the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Turning the corner, the hotel appeared in sight. 

Being in bad condition, I bought the book cheaply. 

So here’s the tech speak: an introductory participial phrase should give more information about (modify) the subject of the main sentence. In the above cases, the subject of the main sentence is ‘mirror’, ‘sun’, ‘hotel’ and ‘I’ respectively. See the difficulty? The mirror isn’t sitting and sighing, presumably the sun wasn’t driving to work, the hotel didn’t turn the corner and, equally, I bought the book cheaply because it was in bad condition, not because I was. So the modifier is misplaced or dangling.

And the glitch in the matrix reference? Well, there is a scene in the film The Matrix where a cat climbs a stairs and the film glitches: it’s as if the cat imperceptibly rewinds itself and there is a moment of double-take or déjà vu. For me, dangling participles cause the same kind of problem in prose. Your reader may or may not be able to tell you the technical reason for the stumble or the double-take, but they will clock it on some level, and it could have a detrimental effect on their enjoyment of your writing, particularly if there is more than one or two in the manuscript. So, next time you lead with a participial phrase, please make sure there’s nothing dangling!

Using introductory participial phrases

Even if you get it right, you should still spare a thought for the perils of overuse. Opening with participial phrases can give a sentence fluidity and sense of energy, but check out the following:

Leaving his office, Johnny saw Simon was still working late. Stepping out into the street, he noticed the traffic was at a standstill. Raising his arm, he hailed a taxi cab. Riding in the taxi cab, Johnny noticed the taxi driver was actually a large seething mass of green alien plasma. Being alarmed, he shouted at the driver to stop. Being really annoyed by all the participial beginnings, the driver did not oblige. Hurtling through space in an alien spaceship, Johnny wished he’d been more careful with his sentence openings.

Yes, this cautionary tale of alien abduction is obviously an exaggeration of the problem, but it serves as a good illustration of the dangers of unintentional patterns in your prose which can ruin the effect of what you are actually trying to achieve.

Murder at Cliché Manor 2: Revenge of the Stereotypes

DI Findlater turned to the attractive blonde lolling seductively in the doorway, whose ample chest threatened at any time to burst out of the impeccably tailored, tiny-waisted, blood-red designer jacket stretched to full capacity across it. 

‘Parker, don’t just stand there. Go do something useful.’

DC Denis Parker flashed a sultry look in Findlater’s direction before disappearing into the hallway with a smoky-voiced ‘Right you are then, Sir.’

Sergeant Webster glared after him.  Someone needs to explain the meaning of the word ‘plain’ to that guy,’ he growled, ‘as in plain-clothes detective.’

Maybe the maxim that there are only seven or eight plots in fiction, and everything else is simply a variation on a theme, is true. Likewise, there is a good reason that many of the clichés and stereotypes in genre fiction are so prevalent: they work well. Comedy often works by turning a stereotype or cliché on its head, whereas drama needs conflict. So enter the maverick loner detective with a drinking problem, a bad attitude to authority and a broken marriage. Yes, it’s a cliché, but with built-in conflict from the get-go!

However, accepting the limitations of a genre doesn’t mean a writer can sit back and lounge on their clichéd laurels. Colin Dexter’s detective Morse and Val McDermid’s psychiatrist, Tony Hill, are both loner mavericks, but there is a world of difference and individuality between them. Equally, there are considerable differences between, say, Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist, Kay Scarpetta and Kathy Reichs’s forensic anthropologist, Temperance Brennan.  In each case, the author has given their creation a unique background, setting and voice. The same holds true even when working within the confines of historical events or characters. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are wonderful examples of how an author can use a unique point of view and style to turn a stereotypical Tudor bad guy into a fascinating portrayal of an intelligent and complex man.

The key to avoiding clichés is to make clear choices for your character. What interests you about them? What makes them unique and individual in your view, even if the situation they are in, historical or otherwise, is a seemingly stereotypical one? What is it about their behaviour, their decisions and choices that differentiates them from all the other people in the same situation? Once you’ve decided what it is – that’s the angle to explore in your writing.

The same holds true for linguistic clichés and phrases. Where it is clear that your use of a particular cliché or phrase is intentional and a character choice, a reader is less likely to have a problem with it. You can also get away with more in dialogue because people often use clichés in everyday speech, but, please, always in moderation: you don’t want to over-spice the stew. However, be very wary of randomly sprinkled clichés and well-worn phrases in the actual body of the narrative: you can almost certainly be guaranteed that that’s where they will come across as lazy or unimaginative.

Murder at Cliché Manor

It was a dark and stormy night, and the victim lay sprawled across the library floor like a worn-out phrase. DI Findlater cut an impressive figure: tall, dark and handsome, his aristocratic features silhouetted in the flickering of the gas lamp above his head.  

So, what have we got then, Sergeant?’ he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the whistling wind and rattling windowpanes.

Sergeant Webster pulled a dog-eared notebook out of his shabby coat pocket and grumbled loudly. He was like a bear with a sore head ever since his wife had left him due to his workaholic nature and heavy drinking. And he was not happy to be back in the crumbling old mansion. 

‘It’s the same all over again, Guv,’ he replied. ‘Just like last week’s case: Totally Unimaginative. Only this time, the deceased’s name is Overused. Completely Overused.’  

How do you like the opening section of my new opus? Great, innit? It’s clear, with gothic ambiance and lots of information about the main characters from the offset. So why is everyone sniggering? What do you mean, it’s full of clichés? Of course it is. That’s the whole point.

Or, as Sherlock Holmes might say in one of his more flippant moments, ‘I rest my case.’

As you can see from the above, clichés work on two levels – in the choice of language and in the creative choices such as character, setting and plot.

The problem with linguistic clichés is that they are victims of their own success. They are pithy and precise, leaving no room for ambiguity: perfect shorthand to get meaning across quickly and clearly, which is why they are so useful in everyday speech. The downside is that they are completely unoriginal. And therein, as Hamlet would say, lies the rub. Clarity is vital for communication, but most readers (and writers) are looking for a little more.

Clichés and stereotypes such as the maverick cop, the tall, dark, handsome stranger, the mysterious gothic mansion  and the flashy Manhattan penthouse, turn up regularly in fiction and film and, as with their linguistic cousins, it is usually a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’.

The worst effect of the cliché is that it deadens originality and spoils a writer’s unique voice. Everything you write should be uniquely yours – readers will clamour time and time again for your maverick cop as long as she or he doesn’t sound and look the same as fifty others. So, use clichés and genre tropes sparingly, if at all. Don’t allow your prose become boring and unimaginative. Give your characters an original voice and keep your readers hooked.

Are we there yet? Knowing when to edit.

013zBelieve me, the quickest way to a bad editing experience is to have your manuscript edited too soon. There is no point wasting money on a copy-edit (that is, one that deals with spelling, grammar, punctuation, consistency, and so on) until the structure and the story are completely sorted, because even the slightest redraft can result in most of the copy-edit, and the money you spent on it, vanishing into the Recycle Bin before your very eyes.

The key to a good edit is to know your manuscript and to choose the right type of edit at the right time.

Let’s imagine you have reached the end of your first draft. So, the next step is to send the manuscript to an editor? Actually, no. The next step is to give yourself a well-earned pat on the back for finishing the draft in the first place. Then shove the entire manuscript in a drawer (or the computer equivalent of a drawer) for a period of time and forget about it. Most people recommend two weeks proving time, I personally would suggest a month, or longer, if you can manage it. Go and write something else – a short story, a poem or flash fiction, assuming you aren’t already diving into your next novel.

DSC00072When you are ready, take out your novel and read it straight through, just as you would any other book.  This should give you a clear idea as to which parts of the story are working, which parts aren’t, and what, and where, the main problems are. Time for draft two, and, perhaps, even draft three or four, who knows? Repeat the process for each draft, and when you have the manuscript as good as you can get it, structurally-speaking, you can edit it yourself, checking in particular for obvious typos and spelling mistakes. Then send it to your beta readers: fellow writers, friends and family whose judgement you trust and who will be honest with you. Once you have all the comments back from your readers, proceed to draft and self-edit number whatever we’re at.

Now your manuscript is ready for a substantive edit.

Heart writing 001Many writers are sorely tempted to skip this step mainly due to the expense of hiring a substantive editor. But you should remember that the story is one of the most important elements of your novel (character being another). Forgive the bluntness, but there is enough evidence out there in the marketplace to show that a rattling good story will sell a book, even when the prose is fairly pedestrian. Hiring a substantive editor to help you get the story right could be the best investment you make. If you really can’t stretch to a full substantive edit, at the very least, have it professionally critiqued, so that you are sure there are no major plot, character or pacing difficulties lurking in the manuscript just waiting to pop out and infuriate your readers.

Now, fast-forward another draft or three to the point where you are absolutely certain there will be no further amendments to the story or structure. Congratulations, you’ve made it! It’s time for a copy-edit.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.

Let the right one in: choosing an editor

DCFN0008.JPGYou’ve made the decision that your book needs editing, but how do you go about hiring an editor? A good working relationship with an editor can be of tremendous value to an author – a bad one can leave an author demoralised and upset. As with any other business relationship, putting a little effort into finding the right editor in the first instance can save you a lot of heartache at a later stage.

Here are 5 tips to help you make a choice:

  1. Be clear about what you want, what your book needs and what editing stage it is at.  Don’t waste your money hiring someone to copy-edit text that is likely to be removed in the next draft. If you are still working on your story or structure, hire a substantive editor instead.
  2. Word-of-mouth recommendation. Ask your writer friends, their friends and their friends’ friends about their editors. If they are happy to recommend an editor to you, you are already off to a good start. If none of your friends write, this may be a good time to join a writers’ group and link up with like-minded folks at writing workshops, seminars and on social networking sites. Ask questions, find out what’s good and what is to be avoided.
  3. Picture3BAsk for a sample of the editor’s work and/or client testimonials. Most editors will be happy to provide these for you. They’ll often ask for a sample of your manuscript in any event, so that they can judge the editing work involved. An editing sample gives you a chance to see how the editor treats your text and how you respond to editorial criticism and amendments.
  4. Shop around – don’t feel obliged to plump for the first recommendation. You may have a glowing editor recommendation from your five best writing pals, but if they are all writing romantic comedy and your book is a gritty, intrigue-laden fantasy epic, the editor may not be the one you are looking for. Use your instinct – if the editing sample and other testimonials feel right to you, then go for it. If not, make further inquiries.
  5. Be reasonable with your editing budget – remember, if you’re looking to pay peanuts, you risk attracting monkeys. When properly done, editing is a skilled and time-consuming process. Heart writing 001For that reason it is also expensive. Also, most good editors will be busy and you may need to book an editing slot with them beforehand to ensure they are available when your manuscript is ready for editing. So plan your budget and your publishing deadlines well in advance.

For more details on substantive (structural) editing, copy-editing and manuscript critiques, check out Book Nanny’s website at www.booknannyfictioneditor.com.