Saturday 28 November 2009

The Metaphor

What makes one story stand out from the rest?

Stories are about painting pictures with words. Our canvas is the blank page and beautiful language is our paint. A painter will mix primary colours and experiment with tones and texture to produce his masterpiece. For writers, one way to lift the quality of our work is to enrich it with figurative language.

Shakespeare memorised over 200 different figures of speech which he used in his poems and plays.(1) But don’t panic yet! You’ll be surprised at how easily you can use figurative language in your writing. After all, we use it all the time when we speak. How often have you said, “I’m so mad I could chew nails?” That’s a figure of speech. A hyperbole to be exact: a figure of speech that deliberately exaggerates to emphasise a specific effect (in this case, the emotion of anger).

There are two main categories of figurative language(2): tropes and schemes.

A scheme(3) is when a writer changes the ordinary arrangement or structure of the words to create a special effect. A common example of a scheme is the climax, which arranges words in an order of increasing importance.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

For a list of the different schemes click here.

The second category of figurative language is a trope(4) . This differs from a scheme in that the writer brings about a conspicuous change in the literal, or standard, meaning of a word or phrase. Under this category we find the simile (as Robert Burns would say, “O my love is like a red, red rose”)(5), the oxymoron (as Milton would say “Yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible”)(6) and the metaphor.

For more tropes, click here, because today we’re going to concentrate on the metaphor.

A metaphor is when a writer transfers a quality or attribute from one thing or idea to another in such a way as to imply some resemblance between the two things or ideas:

Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.(7)

In each metaphor, there is a tenor and a vehicle. The tenor is the subject that the metaphor is applied to (“life”) and the vehicle is the metaphorical term itself (“a walking shadow”; “a poor player”).

Some ancient metaphors have become so much part of every-day language usage, they’re called dead metaphors(8). How often have you heard someone say, “I’ve had a full life”? Here the quality of a container is transferred onto the concept of life. But where did the metaphor originate? Because it's been around for so long, it’s hard to trace its roots and is thus considered dead.

An inactive metaphor is a metaphor that is another well-used part of language, but its origin and metaphorical meaning are still identifiable. An active, or live, metaphor is one that is new to language and may not be immediately apparent. These are the metaphors we, as modern writers, invent. When inventing a new metaphor, be careful not to mix it up. Don’t start by calling something a rose, and end by calling it a bird.

Do you think you know all there is to know about the different types of metaphors? Not yet. Richard Nordquist identifies thirteen (yes, thirteen!) different types of metaphors. Click here to explore the difference between an absolute metaphor and a conventional metaphor, or between a mixed metaphor and a submerged metaphor. My favourite is the example Nordquist gives of a visual metaphor:






In this double metaphor e.e. cummings associates loneliness with the falling of a leaf, and also visualizes the experience by isolating letters as they fall down the page. Brilliant!

The e e cumings poem is just one special sample of showing(9) why figurative language is a vital tool that every writer should use and use well. When using figurative language, always remember that "less is more",(10) otherwise there's a possibility that our writing will move from colourful to flowery. And, instead of having a masterpiece, we'll have a cliche.______________________________________________
1. Figures of Speech by Richard Nordquist
A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams3. Schemes (linguistics)by Wikipedia
4. Tropes (linguistics) by Wikipedia

5. A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns
Paradise Lost Book 1 by John Milton
Macbeth, Act V, Scene V by William Shakespeare

9. Alliteration: a scheme, wherein the repetition of speech sounds in a sequence of nearby words produces a stylistic effect. Usually only applied to consonants such as the “s” sound in this phrase.
10. Oxymoron: apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another.
A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams
The Critical Idiom: The Metaphor, Terence Hawkes
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

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Saturday 14 November 2009

Where am I?

The last few posts have been strictly business. Today I’m going to get personal and chat about where I am on my own writing journey. In addition to keeping to my blogging schedule (be sure to check the sidebar under "Coming Next"), I’m currently busy with three writing projects.

Project A:

This has been a long arduous process, beginning with registering for my Master's degree in November 2005, dancing through The Rewrite Reggae , and culminating in its current phase called The Query Quandary. The Double-Q has as its core the question: when is enough enough?

The rejections are pouring in, and not one of them has been more than a form letter. Does this mean my story is awful? Or does it mean I’ve simply targeted the wrong agents?

I’ve had two publishing professionals (one an editor, who earned my undying gratitude by comparing my revised novel to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”; one an MD of a publishing company) tell me I’m talented, so I suggest my story can’t be as bad as the 60 or so form rejections (with 15 replies still outstanding) imply.

The agents I targeted are those whom I felt would most likely “connect” with my story. Do I do more agent research? Or do I say enough is enough? If this novel was meant to be published, surely it would have happened by now? And, as nothing has happened beyond rejection after rejection, I believe it’s just not this story’s “time”. It may lie in a drawer forever, unwanted by others (but never unloved by me, its proud author). It may one day be dusted off, resubmitted and (gasp) published. But that time is not now. Enough is enough.

Buuut...there are two more possibilities before I finally, for the last time, definitely can say “enough is really enough”.

As I've only targeted agents, I am turning my gaze towards approaching publishers directly. There are four independent (and reputable) publishing housing which offer a glimmer of hope. One in the USA; two in the UK and one here in South Africa. I’ve sent a query off to the USA publisher. I just have to decide whether I wait for their response, or do I query the others while I wait?

The other option is self-publishing. While I admire authors who have enough confidence in their work to put up the money themselves, I'm unable to overcome my own prejudices (there, I’ve admitted it) about self-published novels. I have wrestled with these prejudices, but am quite unable to overcome them (or my fears) sufficiently to go ahead and self-publish.

When all other avenues have finally been closed to this sad, unwanted manuscript of mine, I would rather post it free on the internet. The risk here is plagiarism. When the time comes for me to make this decision I will weigh up that particular risk against the satisfaction of knowing at least one reader - out there in cyber space – may gain some enjoyment and entertainment from my novel. That, surely, is better than having it lie, lonely and unread, in the bottom of a drawer. What do you think?

Project B:

I swore off writing romances in 2004 after the second rejection of a romance that I’d rewritten to editorial revision requests. Never, I said, will I ever write another romance. The moral of this story is “never say never”. My crit partners (lovely ladies, one and all) have nagged me into entering the Harlequin Mills and Boon Modern/Presents 2009 competition. I tapped out the first chapter in four days, submitted my entry and have since been steadily writing away.

Set in Johannesburg, the New York of Africa, my hero is a sophisticated self-made mining magnate and my heroine the privileged, protected daughter of an old mining family. He thinks he’s too old for her. She thinks he only married her for her family’s connections. Can Nicolo overcome his jealousy and fear of losing her as he lost his mother at a young age? Will Desiree realise that Nicolo wouldn’t have cared if she’d come to him in rags? Can these two very different people learn to trust each other again? Only time will tell if Nicolo and Desiree will live happily ever after!

I am having such fun writing this story. And it’s an excellent training ground for my Muse to ready itself for …

Project C:
This is where my writing heart lies.

Different in tone and style to both project A and project B, project C also takes place in South Africa. My protagonist is a white, South African male who fought in the South African Border War in 1980/81. Often called South Africa’s Vietnam, the complex moral and political issues surrounding the Border War take little or no account of the ordinary man who – brought up on the warrior myth – fought in a war that history has condemned. These soldiers were winning the war on the battle fields, but were called to surrender when the political arena changed. What effect did this have on these brave men who only wanted to be heroes, but whom history has called the perpetrators of evil?

At the moment, I’m conducting war research. This includes a long reading list of historical books of the Border War, personal accounts of soldiers who fought there and some of the more recent novels from the South African genre “Grensliteratuur” (literally, “Border Literature”). With the help of an old school friend of my husband, Colonel Young of the SANDF, I’ve completed a questionnaire and have begun the process of sending that out to ex-Border soldiers. Plot and character ideas are coming thick and fast, and by the time I’ve finished my research (Target Date: 15 February 2010) I should be able to do my mind-map. And then it will be time to go back to basics and the ABC of writing (Apply Butt to Chair)!

Left: "At Thy Call We Did Not Falter" by Clive Holt. One of the research books I'm reading on the South African Border War, the title is a play on words from the English translation of the old national anthem "Die Stem". The original line reads "Ons sal antwoord op jou roepstem" ("At thy call we shall not falter"). This national anthem enjoyed equal status with the struggle hymn "N'kosi Sikelel i'Afrika" until 1997, when both were merged into a new, hybrid national anthem.

There is no doubt in my mind that this story will be politically incorrect. To the victors the spoils, and that includes writing history from a single perspective. But history – particularly South Africa's complex and often misunderstood history – should by no means be a single-faceted record. I hope that I can add some understanding, perhaps even some healing (one of the many important responsibilities of stories), to the personal sacrifices of the soldiers – white, black and san – who fought on the “wrong” side of the South African Border War.

And that, dear blog readers, is where I currently am in my writing journey. Where are you currently at in your personal writing journey?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Evaluating your own work

Author and writing teacher Laraine Herring has posted an excellent hand-out that she gives to her advanced fiction students to help them evaluate their manuscripts. Click here to read it.

Sunday 1 November 2009

WRITING TIP: Examples of Types of Dialogue

In the comments section to my previous writing tip on DIALOGUE, some readers asked for examples of the different types of dialogue. Here they are, taken from the excellent book called “Writing Dialogue” by Tom Chiarella:

Directed Dialogue:

Excerpt from a conversation between a radio talk show host and a listener [Pg 23-26].

“Who’s next? Gil on the car phone. What’s shakin’, Gil?”
Dead air.
“Speak, Gil.”
“Is this…?”
“Go on.”
“You’re on the JOC.”
“Am I on?”
“Not for long, Gil, the way we’re going. This is supposed to be entertainment.”

As Chiarella points out, the radio show host is the active presence in the conversation. He directs the conversation to force the listener, Gil, into speaking.

Misdirected Dialogue:
Excerpt from three people in a restaurant [Pg 31-32].

1. I need a beer. Could I have a beer.
2. I saw Marnie today.
1. Beer, please.
3. Where did you see her?
1. You know. By the fire station.

3. No kidding.
1. Her hair has grown.
3. I would imagine. How do you know?
1. I’m not blind.
2. Are you eating?

The conversation meanders across several topics, with random comments being made by other speakers. This type of dialogue most closely resembles real conversation.

Interpolated Dialogue:
Excerpt from Anton Chekov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog” [Pg 27 – 29].

Already he was tormented by a strong desire to share his memories with someone. But, in his home it was impossible to talk of love, and he had no one to talk to outside;… And what was there to talk about? He hadn’t loved then, had he? Had there been anything beautiful, poetical, edifying or simply interesting in his relations with Anna Sergeyevna? …

One evening, coming out of the physician’s club with an official with whom he had been playing cards, he could not resist saying:
“If you only knew what a fascinating woman I became acquainted with at Yalta!”
The official got his sledge and was driving away, but turned suddenly and shouted:
“Dmitry Dmitrovich!”
“What is it?”
“You were right this evening: the sturgeon was a bit high.”

Those words, so commonplace, for some reason moved Gurov to indignation, and struck him as degrading and unclean. What savage manner, what mugs! What stupid nights, what dull humdrum days! Frenzied gambling, gluttony, drunkenness, continual talk always about the same things! Futile pursuits and conversations always about the same topics take up the better part of one’s time, the better part of one’s strength, and in the end there is left a life clipped and wingless, an absurd mess, and there is no escaping or getting away from it – just as though one were in a prison.

In this example, just as Dmitri is about to reveal the high passion in his heart, Chekov uses interpolated dialogue to create a moment of inner clarity. In the commonplace reality of the dialogue about an overripe fish dinner, Dmitri has an epiphany about the ordinariness of his life. In the narrative, Chekov strips Dmitri’s life to its dull essence and what remains unsaid is that this woman is merely his attempt to escape the boredom of a life he knows he cannot escape.

Modulated Dialogue:
Excerpt from a lunch between a young girl, her erstwhile boyfriend and his father [Pg 34-35].

“Holy smoke,” I said, to be polite. In truth, I thought that was a pretty good bargain. Suppose he botched a liposuction or misaligned an implant? If I were an insurance company I would not have insured [him] for any amount.

He went on to say that some fathers, himself and Ronald Reagan included had a lot at stake…“My heart aches for the President,” he said.

“Excuse me,” I said. I wanted seconds before they wheeled the roast beef away. It was already three o’clock, and the steamboat round was carved down the middle like a saddle. The waiter in charge of slicing meat was standing over by the aquarium with two other waiters. I waited politely by the meat, plate in hand, but they were engaged in an argument, and a partially melted seahorse made of ice stood between me and them. They didn’t notice me.

In this scene, dialogue is used to lead the reader into specific details in the restaurant, as observed by the protagonist, and helps create a setting that emphasises the father’s dialogue for the inflated egotism it is (the partially melted seahorse implies faded glory).

Each of these examples shows that, irrespective of the type used, expertly crafted dialogue can add an extra dimension to your story and your characters. Which dialogue type do you use most often in your writing?