Metaphors Be With You

I’m obsessed with metaphors. Also, I hate them. But also, I love them. This is me writing every day:

*Type along at a brisk pace, realize I need a metaphor, can’t think of one, click over to Facebook, immediately lose an hour of writing time, come back to manuscript finally, give up and put a place holder and keep writing*

I’m not kidding. It happens literally every day.

This is me every day that I’m revising:

*Read through and make a dozen tiny tweaks per page, get to a note I left myself while drafting: Put metaphor here about togetherness. Curse former self and my laziness and lack of wordsmithiness, threaten to punch laptop*

Also literally every time I have to revise.

And yet. And yet I love them. They breathe life and voice into writing. They are the ichor of imagery (ßthat’s a metaphor because why just say they’re essential when I can cast them as god blood?).

So how does one do them better? Or at all?

Two answers: Poetry and Play.

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First, if you’re not in the habit of reading poetry, start. I recently discovered Mary Oliver. I know. It’s a shame that it’s taken me so long, but here we are. And every morning I read a few of her poems before I get start my own work, and she just blows me away. I feel giddy, like I’m going to open my mouth and cherry blossoms or pink balloons will spill out (metaphor!) because I can’t contain the happiness at what she does with language, the way she evokes images and feeling.

This morning, for example, I read a poem she wrote about goldenrod, that maligned flower that is a borderline weed—if you’re my grandfather it’s definitely a weed—and she said this about them:

All day

On their airy backbones

They toss in the wind,

They bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,

The rise in a stiff sweetness

In the pure peace of giving

One’s gold away.

I mean. . . . COME ON. “Their airy backbones”? That’s a metaphor, which I guess I should define. A metaphor is a figure of speech comparing two things that don’t initially seem alike. Backbones? Vertebrates have backbones, not flowers. But she gave the goldenrod one, and now I see it, and that is metaphor. Suddenly the humble goldenrod, even the lowly goldenrod (if you’re my grandfather) becomes majestic, a benevolent god bestowing its gold upon us.

Just . . . gah.

So that’s the first thing: read lots of poetry. Try on different poets until you find the ones you like. Feel the way they work with language. Any time a poem evokes a strong feeling in you, stop and look at the language the poet used to do that. Any time you find your mind’s eye conjuring an image with perfect clarity, examine how the poet drew the image with words. Poets pack so much into so little. Take it apart, find the invisible stitches, and see how it’s done.

Then play. Play, play, play.

I’ve seen several writing exercises for working with metaphor but one I found most effective for easing my creative writing students into greater use of metaphor was to give them a disorder for a day called synesthesia. This is when someone’s sensory wires get crossed. Some synesthetes associate colors with certain sounds, others see colors when they taste certain foods. Imagine you’re a synesthete, or in other words, that you had to describe something using senses you would not normally use to experience it.

For example: stars. We experience stars strictly with our eyes. But what if you had to describe the way a star feels in terms of its sound? Does it sound like shattering glass? The tinkle of a silver bell? The roar of a fire? How would a star taste? Because a star that tastes like wintergreen gum is far different than a star that tastes like spring water.

All of that? It’s metaphor. The next time you’re stuck on a description for something, explore it with a sense you wouldn’t normally use and then figure out how to explain the feel of the thing rather than the literalness of it through a non-dominant sense. Can’t think of a fresh way to describe the way an oak tree looks? Then describe the way it feels through the sense of taste. “The oak tree was Sunday pot roasts and winter flannels.” “The oak tree sang forgotten hymns and whispered wind stories.”

The internet is rife with writing exercises to help you practice metaphor. Here are a few to get you started playing. Try one every day for two weeks and see how it manifests in your writing—clearer voice, fresher imagery—because it will. You’ll find your groove, the ones that feel write to you, and then you’ll have it: the next level of developing your unique writing voice.

Go forth and explore!

http://scotts.members.sonic.net/albany/apages/prompt/metaphor.html

http://anitra.net/kalliope/metaphor.html (Scroll down for the exercises)

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

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While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?

Puzzling

First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

From Passenger to Pilot

As I draft this post, I’m sitting in an Airbus A320 from KDTW to KDEN at flight level 370. I don’t know this because I have a great deal of aeronautical knowledge or because I was even particularly paying attention to the pre-flight speech; I know this because my aviation-obsessed son did a little research before I left.

Jack spends his time watching instructional videos and studying navigation charts. The reward for getting his work done is ten minutes of YouTube aviation channels. It is a powerful motivator. My son is passionate about flight to the point that it’s not enough to fly on an airplane, to be the passenger. He has to become a pilot.

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I think this is not unlike the reason we write. We love story to the point that it is not enough to be along for the ride. We need to be the one charting the course, the one taking others on the journey. But in order to do so successfully—in order to make the jump from passenger to pilot—there’s a tremendous amount of work that must take place. Skills to be acquired. Forces of physics and nature and mechanics to understand. We must learn how to chart the course, how to navigate it safely, and how to listen to the essential voices from the ground that are guiding us in the right direction.

Writing is an art, certainly, but I think all art requires this study and work, unglamorous though it may be. I remember coming to an elementary school arts night and being amazed at the quality and technique of the self-portraits the kindergarteners drew. Just as I was marveling at how many of the kids I could actually recognize from their portraits, I was shocked to hear a parent complaining that art should be free expression and that all the portraits looked the same. Yes, all the portraits looked similar in that they all looked remarkably like human faces. Drawn by kindergarteners! Of course art is expression, but we must first acquire the tools and skills with which to express ourselves. As a friend in theater education says, “If we want kids to think outside the box, they first have to understand the box.” Certainly this is true at any age.

And so it is with our writing. We can take our stories to new heights and undiscovered places—but we must do so with an understanding of the principles and potential dangers, of the layout of the land and the craft that’s taking us there. We keep our skills sharp by attending a conference, taking a class, reading a new book on writing or creativity. Only then can we have the soaring sensation and the breathtaking beauty we first fell in love with, and only then can we share those things with our readers as well.

What will you do this summer to become a better pilot?


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

Set the MOOD…

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 2.47.15 PMPlay a game with me for a moment and pretend that you’re sitting in a movie theater, and a picture of a field, grass blowing in the wind comes into view.

Trailers for the new films have begun.  

The music starts, and immediately you know what kind of movie this is going to be – or you at least have an idea.

A certain type of score would have you looking on the horizon for zombies. Another would have you looking for a couple racing through the field, laughing and smiling together. Another would be the pre-empt to an explosion.

Take the examples of theater seating in the graphic – each one has a VERY different feel, even though they’re all theater seats.

Too bad we can’t supply our novels with scores, huh? And unless we’re picture book or graphic novel writers, we don’t get pictures either…

We’s stuk wif usin’ wordz.

I began re-reading Pet Sematary (Cemetery) by Stephen King, and it got me to thinking about mood.

What is it about the beginning of this book that sets the tone for a horror story?

I mean, really… Here’s the bullet list of what happens:

  • A family moves into a house.
  • They visit the friendly, elderly neighbors who offer them goodies and beer.
  • The kid happily explores the new house. The younger kid is unsure, or not born, or… I can’t remember now, I re-read a few months and SO many books ago…
  • The dad begins his job.
  • The family take a hike up a flowered hillside and through a lovely forest to a little cemetery where kids bury their pets.

So, why does the hair on my neck stand on end as I read about the family’s trek through the woods? Or when they cross the highway to their friends’ house? Or when the door creaks during the day? Or when the elderly neighbor is telling a story?

Is it because I know this is Stephen King?

Is it because the blurb revealed more information than blurbs normally do? (Random thing to never forget – sometimes MORE information can up the tension, not lessen it)

Is it the odd hints that the neighbor mentioned? Or the fact that a large truck had killed more than one living thing in front of the man’s new house?

Or is it more subtle? Is the tone hidden in subtext?

Did the author use words that aren’t used in general fiction but in horror?

The tone or mood of this book is created using ALL of these things. Given the bullet points of things that happen in the first third of that book, the novel could be a general fiction, literary fiction, coming of age, romance, MG adventure, almost anything… But because of the small clues laid out by the author, that novel sets up the horror from the beginning.

Mood comes from setting, language, actions, and thoughts of the MC, and the words the author chooses to use to convey those things.

What does your character notice in the room? Is it the pretty inspirational cross-stitched image? Or the knife that sits on the edge of the counter?

Do legs create a feathering caress as they cross, or do they cross like bent scissors?

Does your MC notice lips, eyes and build, or do they notice the escape routes in a room?

Very often an allusion or mention of death is made near the beginning of a horror or thriller. Very often the idea of kissing, swooning, love, or forevers is brought up in a romance. A hint of longing for something more interesting often accompanies the beginning of an adventure novel.

I still remember when I was in a class at a writing conference, and the teacher said – I always think about what I want the reader to feel when I sit down to write a scene.

And those words totally struck a chord with me, followed by a very loud DUH.

HOW DO I WANT MY READER TO FEEL WHEN THEY READ THIS SCENE? Excited to see the new guy the MC will notice? Anticipating the next clue? Covered in goosebumps afraid for the MC to move forward?

So.

Lay clues in movements, gestures, reactions, setting, dialogue, which all tie in to characterization. (YES, this post comes from a lover of fab characters).

Easy, right?

My two pieces of advice are this:

  1. Read first chapters (or whole novels, of course) of books similar in feel to yours.
  2. Study authors who are brilliant at subtext and craft.

Michelle Hodkin, V.E. Schwab, King, Gaiman, Laini Taylor, Adam Silvera, and Maggie Steifvater are all authors whose words I love. They’re all people whose novels have a very particular tone that is reflected in word choice EVERYWHERE, right from page one.

There are a TON more names that could be added to this list – I’d love to hear yours.

Happy Writing!

~ Jo

15542025_1223168831094378_3374041445764046667_nJolene Perry is the author of 9 nationally published YA titles. She edits queries at Quirks and Commas, and occasionally posts about writing, being a literary agent intern, and writerly life, on Been Writing? You can find Jo on her website HERE.

Good Writing vs. Good Storytelling

A couple of years ago, I developed a sneaking suspicion that I might be a good writer—sometimes a very good one—but not a very good storyteller.

Then I went to grad school and found out I was right. No one told me. I just figured it out after taking apart scores upon scores of novels and analyzing out which ones failed, which succeeded, and why. I could see the problems in my own writing far more clearly when I returned to it.

So, here’s the difference: good writing erases the outside world if just for a moment or a scene. Good stories always draw you in but then keep drawing you forward.

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I recently joined a critique group of writing pros. Everyone is either agented or published and they all have excellent insights. One of my critique partners after seeing my work for the second time said, basically, “It’s like this. If you grabbed a jar of spaghetti sauce from your pantry and we all had to write a paragraph about it, yours would be the most polished, but NOTHING would happen. Words come really easily to you.”

Correct. She’s absolutely correct. It’s exactly what I had diagnosed in myself and I’m especially guilty of this in the early stages of the story. This is largely because I’m a character-driven reader and writer. I’m perfectly happy just following my character around, taking in what they see, watching how they interact with people, observing them. I don’t really need a lot to happen to them. They’re just interesting to me in the same way that real people are interesting to me.

But. That’s not great storytelling. So . . . what to do? How to get to good storytelling?

The solution is NOT to plot.

You maybe weren’t expecting that, hm?

Yeah, me either, because I’m actually a plotter. In fact, all the romantic comedies I’ve written have come really easily to me because the goal, the protagonist’s heart desire, is always obvious: it’s the Adorable Love Interest. I just get to have the fun of getting her there. However, when I write outside of romance, I really, really struggle. The plots get fuzzy. But honestly, that’s kind of silly when the solution is the same. Regardless of genre, you must know your protagonist’s DEEPEST desire. It’s just more clear in romances.

Much of my wandering around in the beginning stages of a story is a symptom of a few things: I may have started with a cool hook and tried to craft the character that lets me make that hook happen. I can’t possibly know that character’s deepest desire without doing some serious sidewriting and character exploration. It could also be that I THINK I know the character’s deepest desire but I haven’t gone nearly deep enough yet.

But I make both of these mistakes over and over and over, so I’ve been trying to figure out an efficient self-monitoring test to make sure my story is staying on the rails and moving forward, not following my character around to moon over flowers or injustices or grades or whatever may be preoccupying her.

This may sound totally obvious to most of you, but the closer I get to internalizing this, the sharper my storytelling is becoming. The test is just asking myself these questions:

  1. What is my character’s deepest desire?
  2. Does this desire set up high enough stakes in the story, at least at key points, to make the reader uncomfortably tense?
  3. Is this scene (ask about EVERY scene) connected to this desire, either driving her toward it or away from it? If not, the scene needs to, or it needs to go.

Time after time, I find the first question is the hardest to answer. If anyone has some great tricks for figuring out their character’s deepest desire, TELL ME. Until then, I’ll be over here writing beautiful prose about jars of spaghetti sauce.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..

13 Ways to Get OUT of Your Writerly Funk

FUNKSometimes we have a retreat, and we want to write ALLLLLLL the words ALLLLL day, but we get there, and… our brains don’t cooperate.

Sometimes we’re trying to finish a project over several months time, and it’s just not…happening.

 

Here are few tips to help you reset and start writing again:

1. Take a break. I know there are a TON of writers who say you have to write every day. You do not have to write every day. And most importantly, you need to not feel guilty about taking breaks. (If you’re at a retreat, don’t be afraid to step away from the computer for a while).

2. Remember that publishing is not personal. Sometimes passes (the nice way to say rejections) can get you down, but you HAVE to keep in mind that it’s the RIGHT project, in front of the RIGHT person, at the RIGHT time. That’s a lot of things that have to fall into place for a YES. Move forward. Prove them wrong.

3. Sometimes we have this precious chunk of time – a couple hours with a babysitter, or away from work, or at a writing retreat, and the words just aren’t coming. Remember there are a TON of non-writing things you can do to move your MS forward. Character sketches, character and setting pictures, storyboards, use a pacing or plotting tool to set up where your story is going next… Just because you’re not putting WORDS into your story, doesn’t mean you’re not putting WORK into your story.

4. Pick ONE thing you know is coming up in your story, and write that – even if it doesn’t come next, which brings me to…

5. Don’t be afraid to write out of order. Now, if you write the ending early on, chances are you’ll have to redo it when you get there, but it gives you SOMETHING to write. Sometimes writing ANYTHING will lubricate that sticky brain.

6. THEATER EXERCISES! Look up breathing, and characterization exercises. Getting into your character’s head can be a brilliant way to unlock those words, which leads me to…

7. Write something unrelated from your MC’s point of view. Maybe an essay on their thoughts after the end of the novel. Maybe an essay or their thoughts on one of the things you’ve put in your story to torture them.

8. Ask yourself, Did I make this big enough? The plot, the plot points, my main character – will be people be rooting for this to work out? Is there something else I can do?

9. Set the mood: Gum, snacks, drinks, music, smells… Maybe go a step further and pick stuff your MC would like.

10. Prep before your writing time. Try to think ahead…

11. Set a timer – YOU HAVE TO WRITE ANYTHING FOR XX MINUTES, and then you can break.

12. MOVE YOUR BODY. I promise that moving your body, lubricates your mind. Yoga, walking, stretching, running, swimming, biking… Bonus if it’s something your MC would like too 😉

13. DON’T PANIC. Finding yourself in a funk happens to everyone 🙂

HAPPY WRITING!!

~ Jolene

17361785_1313033622107898_5983686946276267719_nJolene Perry writes YA fiction for AW Teen and Simon Pulse. She writes about writing on BEEN WRITING? And you can stalk her on her website HERE. She’s also the vice-chair for the LDStorymakers Conference. YOU SHOULD COME…. Join the Tribe…