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‘.

Love at First Draft xxx

Congratulations to all those who took part in NaNoWriMo last month. I hope you are all basking in the delight of having the bones of your next first draft safely stored away!

Ah, first drafts—the writing equivalent of love at first sight! A whirlwind romance, a lovers’ tiff and break-up, followed by a hot, sexy weekend together in Paris all rolled into one! In other words: ecstatic, chaotic, wonderful, infuriating,  heart-breaking and inspirational.

So to ease the process along, here are a few first draft ground rules:

  • Firstly, there are no rules! And even if there were rules, they were made to be broken. It’s your first draft, for goodness’ sake! All yours, just for you, for your eyes only! Enjoy it! Just get it down on paper or computer screen—you can sort it out later!
  • Accept and rejoice in the fact that it is in the nature of first drafts to contain some or all of the following:
    • Clichés
    • Typos
    • Coincidences
    • POV shifts
    • Unbelievable leaps out of character and back in again.
    • Extraneous characters you didn’t even know existed until you started writing.
    • Lots of other good and bad stuff.
  • Don’t be afraid to play around with your novel. Write scenes you know from the outset will never make it—write five versions of the same scene—even if you know all five are ‘wrong’. Ask yourself a lot of questions about the book: ‘what if’, ‘why’, then write down all the answers regardless of what they are. There is no right and wrong in writing—only what works and what doesn’t—but deciding which is which comes at a much later stage in process – that’s what editing is for.
  • Take active steps to shut off the editor in your head: if typing on the computer is encouraging you to edit, try writing with a pen and notebook for while. Try free writing – jotting down the first thing that comes into your head – just to get the creative juices flowing. Experiment a little, and find out what works best for you.

 

  • Remember that you are unique: what works for someone else will not necessarily work for you—find your own process and inspiration. Equally, each book you write is unique: the process you used for your first book, may not work for your second. Don’t forget, you’ve progressed as a writer, and learned from the experience of book 1; book 2 will be different, so don’t give yourself a hard time when it is.
  • How to’ books, blogs and other people’s advice are not ‘rules’ you have to follow: they are possible ways which might work for you when you need to troubleshoot a particular issue that’s causing you problems when you come to review or edit your work. You’re not at that stage yet, so forget them for the moment.
  • Don’t show your work too early; make sure you and your first draft are strong enough together before you start showing it off.
  • And remember, it’s a first draft, so ignore all of the above and just write!

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.

Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focussed on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.

 

Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.

 

For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?

The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers

 

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, 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 (or 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!

Even if you get it right, you should still spare a thought for the perils of overuse. Opening with a participial phrase 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.

And so it is Christmas….

Where did December go? First there was the monthly round-up of competitions and, then…well, not a lot, really.

Apologies for the radio silence, but Book Nanny was editing. Not that I’m complaining; I love my job, and working with talented writers is a great big Christmas present in itself.

Hildegarde's WinterdoerfchenLet’s face it, there is so much to like about Christmas, but, from a literary point of view, keep a watchful eye out for the over-frequent use of the word ‘like’ in your writing. There is no denying that it is a very useful little word and very easy to, eh… like. It pops up frequently  to describe how things feel, look or seem, and authors will often choose ‘like’ over the perhaps more formal sounding ‘as though,’ particularly in novels with a more contemporary or conversational style. ‘She felt like her whole life was over now that Judy had got that job.’ Or, ‘It looked like Jonathan wouldn’t be going anywhere fast.’

And don’t forget its integral role in similes. ‘His coat flapped about his lanky frame like a tattered flag on a flagpole.’ ‘The jewels on her midnight blue dress twinkled like bright stars in a night sky.’  ‘He cowered in the corner like a whipped dog’.

Repeated three or four times in quick succession – familiarity will quickly breed contempt. If the only thing that stands out in your prose is the repetition of the word ‘like’, even the most original and beautiful comparisons can begin to sound a little hackneyed. As my Nanna used to say `A little goes a long way’. But then she also used to say ‘A little of what you fancy does you good.’ And I would tend to agree with her!

Happy Christmas!

Who nose what there talking about? (words and other confusions)

‘For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, – I declare by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.’

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 1761.

Through meaning 007The gentleman in Tristram Shandy may be fairly certain of his nose, but words and their meanings can be pretty tricky to pin down at times. For example, does our gentleman above mean the nose on his face or is he talking about having a good nose around or into somebody else’s business? Out of context it’s not entirely clear, is it?

One of the sly ways in which words can trip us up is by having two completely opposite meanings at the same time. These contronyms or Janus words (Janus being the Roman god with two faces) can be relatively common words such as ‘weather’ (‘the boat weathered (withstood) the storm, narrowly missing being dashed against the rocks weathered (changed or worn) by time’), ‘fast’ (to move quickly or solid and immovable), or ‘trim’ (‘she trimmed (cut away) the rough edges of the pocket, then trimmed (added to) it with a pretty silk ribbon’). By the way, ‘fast’ also falls into the homonym category – words which are spelled and sound the same, but have different meanings – think ‘fast’, as in not eating.  What a star!

Next on the confusion list are homographs: words that are spelled the same, but have different pronunciations and meanings. For example, ‘lead’ (as in down the garden path or what you walk your dog with) and ‘lead’ (the stuff you put on your roof).

Through meaning 010But the real celebrities in the world of confusing words are the homophones – those awkward blighters that sound the same, but have completely different spellings and meanings. This category contains such everyday bamboozling classics as ‘to’, ‘two’ and ‘too’; ‘their’ and ‘there’; ‘principal’ and principle’; ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’, and, of course, every author’s favourites – ‘write’ and ‘right’. Rite? Grate, glad we’re all singing from the same him sheet. Otherwise it wood bee such a waist!

Yes, the sad truth is that these sneaky saboteurs of clarity can fool spellchecks and intelligent beings alike. No-one is safe, but a stout dictionary of any nature (physical or virtual) and/or a good copy editor can go a long way to keeping them at bay. If in doubt, check it out. The truth (or at least the correct spelling) is out their. Oooops…

I’ll put a spellcheck on you … !

I have a confession to make. I am something of a spelling nut. It’s all my father’s fault. When I was very little, he made me do my spelling homework with uncharacteristic vigour. I have never forgiven the word ‘soldier’ for the torment it caused my eight-year old self.  It took me days to get it right. But I never forgot it. And so began my obsession with the correct spelling of things.

As a twenty-something I was accused of being a schoolteacher (??) because I asked a waiter in a trendy restaurant why there were so many spelling mistakes and typos in their printed menu. And I don’t care what anyone says, spelling errors (for whatever reason) in business correspondence and documents make the writer and the company look unprofessional.

It is even more unforgivable when they crop up in a manuscript. After all, words are the foundation of a writer’s craft – they should be loved and cherished, and, most of all, spelled correctly! Call me old-fashioned, but I am regularly aghast at the amount of writers from all walks of life who rely solely on the spellcheck function of their word processing package to check their spelling. It’s the ‘if-there-are-no-red-wavy-lines-then-it-must-be-ok’ attitude. No consolation to the top-level Personal Assistant who sent her CV to a prestigious financial firm stating that she was an expert in dairy management.

Or how about the viscous serial killer? The police caught him easily because he was so thick (sorry, I couldn’t resist that one!). And if another person tells me they are loosing their mind, I can guarantee you that I will lose mine! Please don’t even mention predictive texting, because I am liable to start chewing the furniture.

Anyway, the moral of this sad little tale is: please, if in doubt, look it up in a dictionary. And double please – don’t rely on the computer spellcheck!  Why? Because it just checks spelling – it won’t check your work for reason, sense or context. Why should it? That’s your job!

As for me, I’m off for lunch: stir-fry vegetables with rice and a delicious desert of dark chocolate mouse to follow.  Yum!