Category Archives: Writing tips

It’s a bird, it’s a plane…No, it’s Figurative Language Man!

Seems I’ve gone into the Superhero business. Figurative Language Man takes to the skies like a pelican with vertigo, fighting the good fight to make writing sparkle like sunlight on a mountain lake.

Okay. I hear you. That’s as corny as a hushpuppy. Maybe, but I have your attention pinned like a bad wrestler. So I’ll get right to the point. Why should you use figurative language? It paints pictures in your reader’s minds.

Let’s look at four types of figurative language: Simile, metaphor, personification, and hyperbole. Wait! Before you run screaming into the night, I promise to make it simple.

SIMILE
Simile is a comparison using “like” or “as.” For example, his eyes were as hard as cats eye marbles. See? We just took two fairly unlike things and magically combined them into a simile. Similes can really pop off the page. Don’t just say that someone is not trustworthy. Instead try, “He is as treacherous as a snake.”

At all costs, avoid the dreaded adverb (see above posts). “He ate hungrily” is both boring and redundant. Try this instead: “He devoured his meal like a Hoover Wind Tunnel.”

Also, avoid clichés. Use similes that pair unlikely comparisons. For example, “The girl grinned like a coyote with a mouthful of cactus spikes.”  Now you’re getting it!

METAPHOR
Some folks find metaphors more confusing. They are a colorful way of comparing, like similes, but they eliminate the middlemen (like or as).  Here are a few examples:

•  Her eyes are precious emeralds.
•  His pitching arm is a mighty catapult.
•  He’s a knife in the back to his enemies.
•  That mutt is a walking stink bomb!

Be creative. Don’t be afraid to use wild comparisons. Your readers will thank you for it. Just yesterday I got the following email:

“Dear Figurative Language Man,
Thank you for using such strong metaphors. I especially love the boy vomiting  a waterfall. Will you marry me?”
–Simma Lee

But just so you don’t set your expectations too high, not everyone is as dazzling as Figurative Language Man. You have to take it in bite-sized pieces. It took me more than 50 years to get marriage proposals from my blinding prose, and I can’t even use them. My wife won’t let me.

PERSONIFICATION
This is a “fifty-cent” word. Say it at parties so everyone can see how literate you are. Look a girl or guy in the eyes and say, “You are the personification of perfection.” See if that doesn’t melt a heart or two.

But what, exactly is personification? Put simply, it’s giving human qualities to things that are not human. And no, I don’t mean politicians. I mean things that actually are not human, like trees, rocks, forces of nature, and more.

Some examples of personification:
•  The flower opened her petals and smiled at me.
•  The trees tangoed in the wind.
•  The mountains, dressed in their winter cloaks, have receding hairlines.

HYPERBOLE

The easiest way to describe hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration to the point of humor. All “Yo Mama” jokes are hyperbole. We’ve all heard these. “Yo mama so fat that when she wears high heels, she strikes oil.” Or “Yo mama so hairy she uses Carpet Fresh for underarm deodorant.”

More examples of hyperbole:
•  Your nose is so big, a bird could build a nest on it.
•  Are those your ears, or are you wearing bowling trophies on the sides of your head?
•  He has enough dandruff to powder a white Christmas tree!

So there you have it. Practice the art of figurative language and your writing will shine like bling at a mall kiosk. Who knows? You might even get marriage proposals like Figurative Language Man.

So keep on writing. The more you do, the better you become. Until next time, metaphors be with you!

Can cliches kill? You can bet the farm on it!

No cliches

Clichés can kill your writing faster than you can say, "One fell swoop..."

Aah-ite! If there’s one thing I find even more annoying than pronouncing “all right” this way, it’s gratuitous use of clichés. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you hear them everyday. They’re as common as flies on poop! In fact, they’ve become so ubiquitous, our ears are becoming numb to their presence. What does this say about folks who toss clichés around like fairy dust? What does this say about all of us?

Ever kill two birds with one stone? Or clean them out in one fell swoop? I don’t know about you, but I never keep my eggs in a basket. They sit in their cozy cartons in the fridge. They’re on the shelf just under the butter and right next to the clichés.

Just like that fridge, our brains are like automated cold storage devices, with shelf after shelf of accumulated thoughts and ideas. Some ideas are edgy and fresh, while some are as stale as last week’s milk. It’s time to rearrange our mental shelves and toss out some of the spoiled verbiage we’ve collected.

“But I like that cliché,” I hear you saying. “It makes me feel warm and fuzzy, and surely everyone will recognize it and be comforted by its familiarity.”

Not so fast! What does familiarity breed? Not prize roses. But here I go having to use a cliché to explain why we should eschew clichés!

Let’s look at this from the point of view of an agent or publisher considering investing time. money, or both into your literary gem. Your opening “hook” is magnificent. She’s hungry for more. Her eyes tear at paragraph two and are slammed by the commonest of clichés. Her breathing slows, her eyes glaze over, her ears fill up with wax,  and she chucks your masterpiece into the slush pile.

Why do clichés invoke such a strong reaction? Simple. They represent a commonness of thought. What agent or publisher wants to represent common thoughts? Chances are good if you have a cliché right there on page one, you probably have them strewn about like unexploded land mines all throughout your work. Let’s face it, choice of common words or phrases indicates a lukewarm or common intellect. It’s a real deal-killer!

Even some of the devices we use to spice up our writing can be hackneyed and cliché. For example everyone knows (and I do speak for everyone!) that use of simile and metaphor can make your descriptions really pop. That is, unless your similes and metaphors are worn out clichés.

Here are some examples:

Similes
The track star ran like the wind.
The old cur dog is ugly as sin.
The diva sings like a canary.
The deputy is as dumb as a box of rocks.

Metaphors
She’s a brick house.
He’s a real dog (unless you’re referring to Old Yeller).
She’s the apple of my eye.
He’s a real live wire.
You’re all that and a bag of chips.

Elderly mother

Yes, Mom can proofread for you, provided she is educated and can recognize a cliché..

So what’s the best way to exorcise the cliché demons in your writing? Try a two-fold approach. First, show your work to someone whose opinion you value. Yes, it can be your mother, provided she is educated and knows how to spot a cliché. Second, let your work sit on the shelf for a few weeks, then when you go back to it, you will see it with fresh eyes.

When you or your mother find worn-out clichés in your work, show no mercy! Remove them immediately. Send them to Bit Heaven and don’t look back. Then find some unique way of expressing yourself. Be bold and daring. What’s more unique — a rumble of thunder or a complaint of thunder? Train yourself in the art of “convergent divergence.” That means take concepts that don’t seem connected, and make them seem like they’ve always been together.  Put them in a blender and spin out some traffic-stopping similes.

For example:

John sat alongside the road like a bucket of old paint.
The spider’s webbing stuck to Ely’s finger like a radioactive booger. (Forgive the 16 years I spent teaching middle school!)
Brittany grabbed the football player like a famished Venus fly trap.

Now you’re getting the spirit. So don’t just sit there like an elephant’s used  facial tissue. Start cranking out your masterpiece without using worn-out clichés. Even your mother will love you more!

Until next time, may your similes shine and your metaphors move. Happy writing!

More on adverbs and a way to find paying markets

Following My Own Advice
A few days ago I was preparing an excerpt from a novel in progress for submission to a writer’s grant. Before I sent it out, I wanted it to be the very best example of my work. I decided to take my own advice (see the “vivid verbs” entry below) and eliminate adverbs in favor of stronger verbs.

Here’s what I did: I used the “find” command to search for “ly.” It’s amazing how many adverbs I found in my 49-page excerpt. Then each time an adverb popped up, I deleted it and used meatier verbs or other forms of description.

For example, I found a sentence that read, “Kenny looked at Gema suspiciously.”  After I finished yawning at the plainness of this, I came up with the following fix: “Kenny looked at Gema, his eyes bloated with suspicion.”  In this example, the verb “looked” was adequate, but following it with an observation about his eyes really made the sentence sing.

So I urge you to try this exercise. Run your masterpiece through the “find” command and search for the “ly” words. You’ll be amazed at how much power you can add to your writing.

Finding Paying Markets
In my last entry I promised to share a great tool for finding paying markets. It’s called “Duotrope’s Digest.” It’s an ingenious search engine, in which you enter your parameters, and it returns a list of paying markets for your work.

Use this great search box to find paying markets

Begin by going to: http://www.duotrope.com

You will be taken to the search window (example on left), where you type in your criteria.  For example, under Genre, type “Science Fiction” or “Romance,” according to what you like to write. Choose your length, pay scale, medium, etc., then hit “Search” and in seconds you’ll have a list of markets that will accept your submissions. It couldn’t be any easier.

At this time, Duotrope is free, but they accept donations to keep them running. Try out their service and then don’t be stingy. Drop a few dollars their way as a thank you for all their trouble.

Thanks for stopping by. Until next time, may you follow your bliss into the clouds and soar on wings of storytelling power!

Show, don’t tell! (Or “The attack of the dialogue from hell…”)

Dialogue from hell:
“Oh, Sam, I haven’t seen you since we were children. It’s been 30 years! Where have you been?”

“Remember that day in school, Pete, when the English teacher we had for three years, Mrs. Mooney, accidentally flung the pointer across the room and it embedded itself into my brain, and you all watched in horrid fascination as I fell to the floor and began to twitch like a frog getting electric shocks?”

“Yes, Sam, I remember the expression on your face as you bit your tongue.”

“That was horrible, Pete, but not as horrible as when Mrs. Mooney tried to give me CPR. My God, that lady’s breath was high-octane.

“You’re right, Sam. Do you remember how she would pull that little flask out of her desk and take a quick gulp when she though nobody was looking?”

“Oh yes, Pete. Her little whiskey flask. I had forgotten that.”

Have you ever read dialogue like the brief, painful exchange above? It reads like two characters on a low-budget TV show. On TV they can’t help talking this way — the producers simply don’t have the budget to show the pointer flying across the room and embedding itself deeply into Pete’s brain. All they can afford is a scene of two talking heads blathering on and on about it. However, if you write dialogue like this regularly, you’re either in the wrong business, or you’re on some mind-numbing chemicals.

Here is a cardinal rule of fiction writing: Show, don’t tell. This applies to novels, short stories, screenplays — in fact, it applies to most everything.

How can you improve the mess above? Try something like this:

“Shut up,” Mrs. Mooney shrieked. “You know I detest talking in my class!” Emphasizing the word “detest,” Mrs. Mooney swung her pointer like a conductor’s baton. To her horror, the pointer left her hand, shot across the room like a spitball on steroids, and embedded itself an inch into the frontal lobe of Sam’s brain. Sam crumpled to the floor and began twitching violently, like a frog being electrocuted in a science lab experiment. Mrs. Mooney furtively scanned the room; all eyes were glued to poor Sam’s floor ballet. Leaning down over her desk, she slid open the drawer, found her secret flask, and took a deep gulp of whatever cheap bourbon she kept in there. Then a light went on in her eyes, and she raced across the room, dropped down beside Sam, and began administering CPR.

Okay, I agree. The paragraph above won’t win the Pulitzer for fiction, but it’s quite an improvement over the cheesy dialogue at the top of this post.  Don’t tell your readers that someone is angry. Show him banging his fist on the desk. Don’t say someone is embarrassed. Show her face reddening and her posture becoming crouched and defensive. Always show, don’t tell.

Here’s an exercise to try: Perhaps you have written a short story or a chapter from a novel. If not,  take the time to write a few pages about something that happened to you. Then read it carefully. If you find yourself telling, rewrite those parts so you are showing. For example, if you said, “I got angry,” cross that out with your editing pen and replace it with, “I threw the book halfway across the room, just barely missing Brian’s head.”

Next time we’ll take a look at an amazing market finder for writers. Until then, may your words sprout wings and take flight, lifting you far above the troubles of the world.

Using Vivid Verbs

Americans are adverb addicted. We need a twelve-step group for it. “Hello, my name is Ashley and I’m addicted to adverbs.” In my years teaching middle school English, one of the hardest things to get across was the use of vivid verbs. Adverbs flitted about like love bugs on the freeway, but juicy verbs were scarcer than well-mannered students. What a shame for future generations of writers. Why are vivid verbs important to you as a writer? There’s  a plethora of good reasons, but let’s start with two. First,  vivid  verbs help to paint strong images on the canvasses of your readers’ minds. Second (but probably worthy of the number one slot), if you use adverbs to hide your inability to dredge up vivid verbs, agents and editors will find a quick reason to reject your manuscripts. Yes, you heard it clearly. The overuse of adverbs can get your work rejected by overworked  agents and editors. They’re just trolling for a reason to chuck your masterpiece into the rejection heap. Then they can move on to the remaining thousands of manuscripts clamoring for their attention. Sloppy or gratuitous use of adverbs is one of many reasons manuscripts are rejected. So, you may be  asking, what are some examples of using dull or clichéd adverbs instead of sparkling verbs? Here are some examples from my students. •  The deer ran swiftly across the field. Yawn… We all know deer are legendary for their swiftness. Try catching one on foot some day. He’ll run you ragged. What would be a better way to say this, using a vivid verb? Try, “The deer flew across the field.” Or perhaps, “The deer shot across the field.” Both of these conjure a stronger image than the bland adverb “swiftly.” •  The girl’s eyes shone brightly. Boring. Instead, try, “The girl’s eyes sparkled.” Or maybe, “The girl’s eyes glowed.”  Throw in a simile if you wish, and take it a step further. “The girl’s eyes glowed like a brush fire.”  We’ll explore the use of similes and figurative language in another blog entry. What if you’re not a walking storehouse of vivid verbs? Don’t despair. There are endless online help sources. One useful place to start is this Thesaurus.com.  Here’s a link to their verb lists: http://thesaurus.com/browse/verb Here’s a simple exercise to try: Take a page of your writing and see how many adverbs are there. Then replace most of the adverbs with a vivid verb. Your writing will thank you for it. Until next time, may your fingers fly across your keyboard and your imagination soar into the stratosphere. Keep writing! –Hank