Friday, September 23, 2016

Metaphors in Your Story--What Are They, How to Use Them, When to Use Them

I'll never forget the first year of my MFA.  I had a great adviser, a well-published writer, who was also a minimalist.  I am not.  I love lyrical prose.  So we were an odd match that turned out to be one of the best parts of my expensive education.

As my adviser, Rebecca required me to send her a packet of new writing every two weeks.  She would read the pages and mark them up, then return them to me.  her handwriting was atrocious but her comments were stellar.  She didn't hold back.  If she loved something, she raved.  If she hated it, she said that too.  She assumed, rightly so, that at this point in my writing career I was past coddling.  I just wanted the straight truth.

I went overboard on the lyricism one month.  Probably because I was reading Virginia Wolff for an assignment.  I loved her images, her metaphors, so I got very poetic in my pages. 

Rebecca didn't hold back, as usual.  Page after page with a red slash across all the writing.  About ten pages of this, and she just wrote ENOUGH! in big letters.

She did take time to explain.  And assign me away from Wolff and towards minimalist writers--writers who use no imagery at all.  I needed a strong dose. 

It took some months to recover from working with Rebecca but my writing was a lot better.  I didn't abandon my love for lyricism, metaphor, and poetic image in my writing.  All these devices are lovely.  But only if and when they serve the story.

A writer in my part 2, Your Book Starts Here online class recently emailed me with a great question about metaphor.  "Recently I've read some articles on metaphors," she wrote, "and how we should perhaps plan a whole revision around inserting metaphors in each scene.  Is this good practice, or do you think they should just arise from the story...or at least not be placed in every scene intentionally. I know metaphors help create that picture/meaning in a reader's mind, but how methodically should we do it?"

Magic of Metaphor
When you pair an object, movement, or other element with an image that is not related--her hands were small doves--you expand a reader's involvement with image in your writing.  Image connects with theme, or subtext.  The greater meaning.  Implying that hands were small doves gives an immediate impression of fluttering, perhaps of plumpness, of the shyness that doves can exhibit. 

Some writers, like Ray Bradbury who famously said "I am a metaphor machine," use a metaphor in every scene, as the writer in my class alluded to.  This requires a lot of natural skill with images, first.  Also, it requires enough detachment from your love of image to see if the metaphor is indeed serving the story or weighting it down unnecessarily, as in my experience with my adviser, Rebecca.

Used with skill, metaphor can enrich your writing tremendously.  Unlike simile, which uses "like" and "as," metaphor just places the object with the image--no explanation or comparison words required.  Metaphor asks the reader to leap into image without help from the writer.  Simile feels tentative.  It can sound cliche.  That's because so many writers start with simile; it's easier, it's more common.

Some writers call metaphor a "dangerous" writing tool.  If you'd like to get started using metaphor, one helpful technique in this excellent article from The Write Place is to comb through a chapter and locate all the similes.  Then replace them with metaphor.  Similes offer placeholders--you already know you want an image comparison there, but maybe you couldn't think of a truly original one when you were drafting.  At revision, you can go back and see how many you can replace with metaphor.

Some writers work with extended metaphors.  I teach this technique for those ready to build theme--because an extended metaphor, or an image that recurs throughout the book, immediately evokes subtext or thematic meaning.  Extended metaphors are tricky, nearly impossible at early drafts.  Revision-stage, they are fun to work with.

Danger of Metaphors

Two common warning signs that your metaphors aren't serving your story:

1.  If you use too many metaphors all at once, the reader gets image overload (back to my experience with Rebecca).  Instead of writing ENOUGH! on your pages, the reader will just stop reading.   How many is too many?  The best way to answer this is to read a chapter from a favorite published novel or memoir.  Count up the metaphors.  There might be one per scene, one per chapter, or one per page (one per page is a LOT, so be wary of this unless you are incredibly skilled).  Test it out in your own writing.  Read it aloud, get some feedback.

2.  If you mix metaphors, the image falls flat.   "She was a caged animal, riding a slippery slope of fear."  The two images (caged animal and slippery slope) don't connect at all.  The reader will be confused or turned off.  End of story.

Your weekly writing exercise

Check out this great article on metaphor use--one of the best.  It's called "Do Your Metaphors Rock?" and although it talks about song lyrics, the techniques are useful for any kind of writing. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Can You Use Both First and Third Person Narrators in Your Novel?

A few of my private clients are playing with the idea of using both first person and third person narrators in their novels or memoirs.  It's a fairly radical approach to storytelling but not impossible.  I've gotten the question enough times in the past weeks--the idea must be trending!--that I wanted to address it in this blog.

Many writers work with first-person narration in their first books.  It's way easier to get to know a character if you write them in first person (the "I" point of view).  Third person (the "he" or "she" or "they" point of view) is tougher--it can feel more distant to you, the writer.  Often to the reader as well, when you're learning.  So opting for first person is a great way to get deeper into who this person is.

Of course, memoirs are almost always written in the first person.  Why not?  It's you who's telling the story, not a distant third person voice.

When you switch back in forth, there's an immediate hurdle for the reader.  We go from close up to suddenly distant in voice.  Like a camera focusing tight on something in the street, then zooming out at light speed to view the larger city.  If you decide to switch, you need to be an awesome transition writer. 

Here are a few books that use both first and third:  The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George.  There are others, but actually not that many.   You can read what other writers think about this question here.

If you decide to explore this very interesting idea, be sure to check out books that already do it successfully.  Study the transitions the author uses.  How he or she moves from a section written in first person to one written in third person. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to play with both voices in a current scene--find out which one works best for bringing your narrator to life on the page.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Refresh Your Writing Brain (and Inspire Your Book) with an Image Board This Week

Writers gather around the big classroom conference table.  It's the first evening of my weeklong writing retreat.  I ask each writer to grab a stack of magazines and begin tearing out photos.  The room gets quiet as everyone moves into their image brains. 

After about half an hour, a small pile of images sits next to each person.  When they have enough, they move to their individual writing desks.  They find their posterboard, gluestick, and scissors and begin to make an image board.  The image board is a visual map of their book-in-progress--but crafted in a very non-linear way.

I'm a great believer in image boards.  I like to make them in my writing notebook, one for each new book I start, several for characters, even an image board for the setting I'm writing about. 

At the last weeklong retreat I taught, I brought my current struggle to the activity.  I'd been working hard to write the two main characters in my novel and make them more unique.  Words hadn't helped--so far.  When I opened my writing notebook to a spread of two blank pages and began two image boards (one for each character), a million lightbulbs began going off in my writing brain.  After the image board session, I ran back to my room and started writing new scenes.

I'd gotten a new level of understanding about my two characters.  My image boards had shown me what words hadn't.

Image boards vary by writer.  Some are very literal:  a collection of realistic images that depict different parts of the story.  Other writers go for metaphor--choosing images that hint at meaning, like a dream collage.  I use both.  If I need physical details about a character, I might comb for red hair, long limbs, a crooked smile.  Pasting in the realistic images, I suddenly "see" my character on the page.  But maybe I'm using the image board to go deeper into theme.  Then my image choices are more metaphoric.    

Many published writers use image boards to refresh the writing brain and inspire their books.  I read about a well-known writer who starts seven bulletin boards in her kitchen at the beginning of a new book.  She tacks up photos she's saved or strips of color or shape torn from magazines.  Over the course of writing the book, she narrows the seven boards to one. 

Sue Monk Kidd, author of the novel, The Secret Life of Bees, describes in her memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, how she discovered the key to her novel via a photo of a black Madonna.  She placed it in the center of an image board and literally built the rest of the book via images collected as she wrote.

Images take you places words can't.  They work as lubrication for the imagination.  Sometimes, as in my example above, you "see" things in your image board that surprise you--and send you in new and exciting directions for your book.

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to grab some old magazines and tear out 20-25 images that speak to you.  Do it while you watch a movie or as a break after work.  When you have a small pile, begin to glue them onto a large sheet of paper or into your writer's notebook.  Don't worry about being an artist.  Just arrange the images in a way that pleases you.  Your non-linear brain will take over and often create amazing juxtapositions that tell you a next step about your book. 

If you have ten minutes, freewrite about what you see in the image board.  Let it surprise you!

This fall, I'll be teaching four workshops and retreats that include this image board activity.  There's still room in all of them.  Click on the link below to find out more (you'll be taken to the sponsoring school's website).  Maybe see you there!  Be sure to bring a couple of magazines. . .

Twelve-week online storyboarding class, starts September 21,
Week-long storyboarding retreat, September 19-23, Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Storyboarding workshop, October 15, Grub Street in Boston
Storyboarding workshop, October 21, The Loft in Minneapolis 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Finding Close Readers--How to Be Smart with Feedback on Your Manuscript

Feedback is a tricky process.  Lots of danger if you choose feedback partners that have something to prove--they're smart, literary, better than you could ever be.  Or if you exchange with readers who just don't put in the effort, time, attention.  Both extremes can wear a writer out, best case.  Worse case, they can cause you to lose faith in your book.

A blog reader, Jason, is from the Midwest.  He's writing historical fiction and has been through his share of writer's groups.  Good ones, bad ones.  But now that his novel is ready for whole-manuscript feedback, he wants to play the feedback game a little smarter.
Even though he's in a couple of writer's groups, nobody is at his stage--they are still crafting chapters.  He needs a few really good close readers for his entire manuscript.

He's been in my classes, so he knows these readers will mostly be reading for content and structure.  Waste of time to spend effort on language-level editing at this stage.  In other words, it's too early to work on the proper placement of commas and clauses.
The content (what the story is about) and the structure (how it flows) comes before any fine-tuning.  He doesn't want to get hung up on word choice, when he really needs big-picture comments. 

He emailed me this week for suggestions.  What are some good ways to find close readers who can give your whole manuscript good attention?

I've only found  few whole-manuscript readers in writer's groups I've attended.  Like Jason, most of my colleagues in writer's groups are working on earlier stages, building chapters or developing characters or researching.  Most meetings focus on snippets of a story.  That's absolutely necessary, and yet there's a point where a writer needs more. 
You can hire someone.  There are plenty of published writers, writing teachers, and coaches who will give whole-manuscript critiques for a fee.  That can range from $1000-2000 (or more).  But before Jason pays for professional-level comments, I suggested he take two online classes this fall.  Use the classes as a way to find good readers. 

In workshopping classes, like the ones I teach online for the Loft (see sidebar to the right for more information--they begin September 21), you'll get to post work and hear comments from both your peers and the instructor.  Some intermediate level and advanced level groups will have small work groups to share chapters.  You give and get feedback each week.  You can learn a LOT about your fellow writers, their skill at giving suggestions that open doors for you as a writer. 

Close reading isn't an easy skill to learn.  It usually comes after years of giving and getting feedback. 

The way I usually tell a good close reader: 

1.  They write more than a few sentences in response to your post.
2.  They both compliment and offer suggestions--never just what's wrong, but also what's going well.
3.  They welcome suggestions on their own work and take the time to say thanks or respond back in some small way, so the exchange is alive and mutually beneficial.
4.  They listen to your requests about what you need help on.  They don't get sidetracked with the language-level edits when content and structure help comes first.

My best readers have come from classes I've attended.  Some are fellow students, some are instructors.  After the class, I'll email them privately to ask about exchanging a couple of chapters, then see how it goes.  If they are interested, if the good feedback continues, and if they are steady with their writing and the exchange continues past the first weeks, I know I've got a good partner.

It's taken about three years, but I now have five really good close readers, each with a different specialty.  One is great on details, another really good with characters, a third excels at plot.  We exchange large sections of our manuscripts.  Some read whole manuscripts, some only chapters.

Jason needs to consider the time this method takes, and weigh it against the high risk (in my opinion) of contacting unknown writing partners and the high cost of hiring a professional reader.

Your weekly writing exercise this week is to assess where you are in this process--how close are you to needing close readers?  Who do you have in mind?  Get started now, before your manuscript is ready, and try out an exchange.

Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing

I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books.  I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas. 

This summer, I took two classes on revision. 

We posted our writing for feedback.  Writers were experienced and got mostly positive comments, but occasionally we'd see this:  "I love your writing but can you make it a little crisper?"

Crisp writing.  What is that?  Tight, toned, well paced, fairly bouncing off the page.  Stands out to a reader, an agent, an editor. 

Easier said than written, I think! 

Crisp doesn't usually appear in early drafts (if it does, you might be holding back too much, wordsmithing too soon!).  Early drafts are about content and structure, exploring what you want the writing to say, what flow you're after.  It takes a while to get these two aspects solid.  In books, even longer.  I find about 80 percent of total time with a book, from idea to publication, is spent on content and structure.  So if you're still there, don't worry too much.  Take your time--you need to get this part right before you begin to work on tightening the prose.  Otherwise you'll have beautiful sentences that mean nothing.

But once you're ready to crisp it up, here are some global searches that help me a lot:

1.  Search for "was" and "were" and "are"--any form of the verb "to be."  E.B. White who coauthored the famous book The Elements of Style, talks about this being a blah verb, one that doesn't provoke imagery or excitement in a reader.  It's true--and when you do a search for "was," and begin to see how often you use it (was staring instead of stared, for instance), you'll be stunned.  Replace with more direct, active, vivid verbs.

2.  Then search for "-ing."  Again, this form of the verb denotes progressive movement, rather than anything sharp and decisive.  You'll need it sometimes, but writers use it a LOT more than they should, IMHO.  Replace where you can.

3.  Look for repetitive sentence patterns.  My unconscious pattern is groups of three actions in one sentence (they sat, ate, then left).  Find yours--easier with feedback from a close reader.  Then vary, vary, vary!

4.  Watch out for your use of sentence fragments.  These are great little punches every now and then but like any device, they can be overused. 

5.  Cut some of that imagery, especially as "stage set" at the opening of a chapter or scene.  Do you need to set the stage?  Can you just jump right into action?

6.  Search for "-ly" words, the dreaded adverb which Stephen King rails against in his writing-craft book On Writing.  Delete whenever possible. 

7.  Search for "suddenly," "finally," and "at last"--these can create melodrama, so be sure you need them when you use them.  I'm guilty of three to four "suddenly's" in one page!

There are more, but this should give you a good start.  You will be amazed at how much your writing crisps up!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tips for Surviving a Manuscript Read-Through (The Essential Last Step before You Send Out Your Book)

Most of my students and coaching clients know about the read-through.  It's a full-manuscript read that you do at several stages in the book journey:  after your draft is complete and before you revise, and before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent.

The goal of the read-through is to see your work as a first-time reader would.  That's important because most writers wear blinders.  We mentally skip over stuff in our own writing.  We just don't catch it all.  Reading as a reader would, allows you to see your manuscript from completely different eyes.   But it requires several steps.  All are vital to making this work.

1.  Move your manuscript out of Word or Scrivener.  Within a text-editor, it's nearly impossible to read as a reader.  Print it out or send it to your e-reader.  I use Pages on my ipad. 

2.  Set aside time to do this.  It's onerous.  I find it usually takes me two weeks. 

3.  Read aloud if you can.  You'll catch a LOT more this way.

4.  Don't edit as you go.  I can't emphasize this enough.  Just mark the spots that catch your attention and may need fixing.  In Pages, I highlight the word and click on comment, but leave the comment blank.  It creates a yellow highlight on the page, which I come back to when I'm ready to fix.  If you've printed out the manuscript, even easier--use a colored highlighter and make a slash mark in the margin.

Many writers cringe at this guideline.  They feel they'll forget what idea or fix they had, when they come back later.  In my experience, this rarely happens.  I always seem to remember why the sentence or word didn't work. 

If you start editing, you slip back into writer mode.  You have to start over as a reader.  Trust me on this one.  I have read many manuscripts from clients or when I worked as an editor that lost their juice midway.  I suspect the writer did well in the read-through until this point, then got seduced into editing and never regained the reader viewpoint.

5.  It's best to read the entire manuscript before going back to edit individual chapters.  You'll catch chapter-to-chapter transitions this way.  If you only look at individual chapters, you'll miss this and your book may feel like separate anecdotes rather than a sequence of chapters.

Once you've completed your read-through, take a break.  Several days, a week, even.  It's been hard work, so relax that brain. 

Then, when you're ready, come back to the printout or the e-manuscript and look at what you highlighted.  Let the ideas and fixes begin to pop into your mind.  Bring up each chapter on your computer and start repairing, expanding, deleting. 

I recommend a final read-through, after you make these corrections.  Sometimes, I do several more.  After all, I only get one chance with most editors and agents.  I want to make the book the best it can be.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're not ready for a full manuscript read-through, try a couple of scenes or chapters.  Print or send to an e-reader and practice reading as a first-time reader would.  Highlight, don't correct yet, and see what you find. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Pause Breaks to Strengthen the Pacing of Your Story

Right now, I'm working with a writer who is studying pacing:  specifically, how to pace her chapters.  She tends to deliver too much--too many images, too many ideas, too much happening--all at once.   It feels like a freight train coming at the reader.

So we're studying the writerly device of pause breaks.

Very simply:  in any genre of book, readers need time to absorb stuff.  They hate not keeping up.  They will vote by putting the book down, in all likelihood, if they get confused by too much coming at them.  You're not there to urge them to pick the book up again--"It gets really good in a couple pages!"--so as a writer you have to anticipate this.  By putting in those pause breaks.

In fiction and memoir, these are reflective scenes.  The narrator (main character) might take time to think about something, reflect on it.  And the reader can do the same.   If you're writing a novel, memoir, biography, or other narrative story, you can use reflective scenes as your pause break.

Nonfiction has three devices to create pause breaks:
1.  Story (illustrative anecdote)
2.  Exercise or practical application
3.  Visual change (sidebar, box, different font, cartoon, etc.)

In a chapter, consider the main event--action or idea--and ask whether you've incorporated any pause break.  Maybe not in every chapter, especially in a fast-paced story, but soon enough that the reader can take a breath. 

If you have too many pause breaks, there's a sense of stall-out.  That's something to watch for, as well.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Look over two or three chapters in your current manuscript--they can be rough or polished--and ask yourself where you've placed reflective scenes or another device that gives the reader a pause to absorb what's been delivered, what's just happened.  Do you need to re-flow any part of your chapter to allow for this?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing against an Edge: How to Push Your Intimacy on the Page

On Sunday, I'm heading to Madeline Island, a lovely spot in Lake Superior that happens to house an equally lovely arts school where I've taught every July for the past seven years.  Because I have a group of very edgy and wonderful writers coming for the week-long retreat, I've been thinking about edges.  How they exist in our writing and our lives.  How we push against them to establish our authenticity and intimacy on the page.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Where to Begin Your Book: How to Choose the Best Opening

Lots of writers struggle with the opening to their books, no matter what genre.  I'm working with one client in my retainer coaching program who is writing a very large story--it spans thirty years or more.  It's a memoir, and a lot has happened to her in her long life, so choosing the starting moment is very challenging for her.

We begin by asking what this book is about.  "My life," she answers, and that's true.  But I ask again, "What's it really about?" 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summertime, and the Writing Is . . . Gone? Five Ways to Fit Writing into Your Crazy Life!

This week, try one of these five ways to fit writing into a busy summer life.  They've all worked beautifully for me--and I still get time to enjoy that camping trip!