A lone walker at the base of a mountain range

Writing experiment #3: using metaphor

This is the third and final instalment of my posts about new writing techniques I tried out on my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’. In posts one and two, the experiments I talked about were purely technical, and while there is room for refinement I am largely happy with how they turned out.

The final experiment I tried concerns what I think of as the art of writing – language, story structure, the nebulous stuff that goes into a story, rather than the method one use to write that story. And of the three techniques I tried, this is the one that left me the most ambivalent about the result.

The technique? Inserting metaphor into my writing.

The joy of metaphor

I’m not at all ambivalent about the desirability of metaphor in writing. A metaphor casually inserted yet perfectly evocative is a thing that fills me with wonder every time I encounter it – from Seanan McGuire’s description of condensation writing the secrets of the universe” on the inside of a submarine in ‘Each to Each’ to the many, many well-turned metaphors I’ve lately been admiring in M. R. Carey’s tautly brilliant book, The Girl With All The Gifts:

A weight of guilt you haul around with you like the moon hauls the ocean”

In an age of rust, she comes up stainless steel”

some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl ‘I’m here for you’, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement.”

So I know well how I love a good metaphor – but how to transform that delight as a reader into facility for metaphor as a writer?

But where are my metaphors?

Looking back at my writing to date – and this blog is just as good an example as my fiction – I’m painfully aware that I just don’t tend to think in metaphor.

Oh, I love a good analogy when I can come up with one – ten months later I’m still tickled by the idea ofhallucinatory tapirs. But that kind of analogy is something created for the specific purpose of explaining a phenomenon that’s hard to comprehend – a comparison I can describe and explore at length to make sure it is fully understood.

But when it comes to describing the familiar, I find that my default state is very literal-minded. And yet those are the metaphors I most delight in: simple phrases or sentences that capture the essence of a person/thing/situation in a way that makes immediate sense even as it casts its subject in an entirely unexpected light. When I read that anger crossed someone’s face “like sparks struck from grey stone” (Carey again), it tells me as much about the face as the anger, while skilfully dancing past such well-worn descriptors as stoic or indeed stony-faced.

How is is that I notice and admire this kind of thing so intensely in the writing of others, yet my own writing is so barren of metaphor?

Wax on, wax off

It’s easy for me to throw that question out as a lament. But now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, the most obvious answer is: because I’ve never practised writing that way. I’ve never even thought to.

I’m lucky that some aspects of fiction-writing seem to come naturally to me, but like any skill there are plenty of others that I can only achieve through hard work and dedication to pushing myself up the learning curve. Somehow it had just never occurred to me that metaphor was one of them.

When I came to revise the first draft of ‘Leaving Dreamland’, one particular description stood out to me as just… not that interesting. It provided useful information about the setting, but as it stood it was drying factual, totally lacking in emotional resonance.

And out of some patient corner of my subconscious, the thought reached out and grabbed me to try rewriting this passage as something more metaphorical. Up until that point, for all my admiration of others’ skill with metaphor, it had somehow never occurred to me to deliberately try to write my own.

Just keep climbing

So how did it work out? Like I said at the top, I’m ambivalent about the result.

I like my rewrite much better than the straight description, but I feel strongly that I am still at the base of this particular mountain. My suspicion is that when I’ve had a few months – or maybe a few years – to hone my metaphors, I’ll look back at this first attempt as uncomfortably amateur.

I still submitted the story, though. If I hold off submitting my fiction until I have every skill down completely perfectly – well, I’ll never submit anything at all.

Image by Marjon Besteman-Horn from Pixabay
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Two hands working with a lump of clay

Writing experiment #2: setting word count goals

Following on from last week’s post, the second technique I tried out in writing my latest story might sound strange for someone trying to “embrace my inner pantser”. For the first time, I tried breaking my story down into sections with individual word count goals.

Divide and conquer

I was inspired to try this approach by one of my current favourite writing podcasts, Start With This, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale.

Several times now, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have described how, when they planned out the Night Vale novels, they assigned each chapter a desired word count and then divided up that number to assign each element within the chapter its own word count goal. In doing this, they took the daunting work of writing a 100,000-word novel and broke it down into a set of small, far less intimidating tasks.

As it happens, breaking big, overwhelming tasks down into smaller, more manageable steps is already a common recommendation for ADHD brains. So as soon as I heard about this idea I was interested. But the technique as implemented by the Night Vale creators entirely contradicts my current pantsing focus – I don’t want to spend that much time planning out my story structure in advance instead of getting on with writing it.

Luckily, I stumbled upon my own way to make use of it: in editing.

Too many words

The anthology I was writing for stipulated a word limit of 6,000. So inevitably, the first draft of my story came in closer to 8,000 words.

I always go over-limit on my first drafts, and figuring out where to wield the scalpel can be a torturous process. But this time, inspired by Start With This, I decided to try something new.

First I broke the story down into its component sections: not just scenes, but sub-sections within scenes, each of which felt to me like a separate element that had its own purpose in the story. For instance, a single scene might start off with a descriptive element setting up a new problem, move on to an action sequence where the protagonist tries to solve the problem, and finish with a cliffhanger as an even greater problem is revealed.

For each of these sections, I made a note of the current word count. Then I looked at the purpose of each section and how many words I was spending on it, and tried to identify sections that felt bloated. Finally I made a second list, this time of each section’s word count goal.

Finding shape in the clay

The Night Vale creators talk about how, with experience, you can get a feel for the right sort of word count for different kinds of story elements. Even though I don’t yet have that kind of experience, I think I have a decent sense of some basic “rules”: action sequences should be short and punchy, as should scene-setting and background information – to avoid info-dumping – while moments of reflection and character development, solo or in conversation, should be longer and more drawn-out to give the reader time to reflect in turn.

Starting out, my shortest section was 100 words and my longest section 1,200 words. After editing, the two longest sections remaining were each around 800 words.

Once I had made a commitment to reducing the sections that felt too long for what they meant to achieve, I found it much easier to get out the scalpel. I no longer felt like I was facing cutting 2,000 words out of my story – rather, I was cutting 50 words out of this section, 150 words out of that one.

More than that, having stopped to think about what each story element was there for, I found it far easier to identify which sentences and side-tracks least served that element’s purpose. I was able to cut with confidence, carving away the excess to better reveal the shape of my story.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
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A jubmle of letters on wooden cubes

Writing experiment #1: writing out of order

In my last post I talked about using three new (for me) techniques in writing my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’. The first, and probably the single most useful, was letting go of the need to write in a linear fashion.

I’ve always written stories from A to B. Without really thinking about it, I’ve always assumed that was how you were “supposed” to write them – in the same order you would read them.

As part of that, I never started writing until I had a firm idea in my head of the story structure – which events I was going to depict in writing, and the order in which they would happen. While writing, I might jump back and add something I only thought of later, or leave a note for myself on something to add when I get further along, but when I sat down at the keyboard, my focus would be, OK, what happens next? And if I had an idea for a moment or scene that didn’t obviously fit into the story structure as I envisaged it, I usually discarded it unwritten.

But this time, as part of my general commitment to writing every day and trying in general to be more fast and loose with my writing (emphasis on fast), I decided to embrace my inner pantser, write whatever came to mind, and worry about structure later.

Continue reading “Writing experiment #1: writing out of order”

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Last week’s score: stories 1, blog posts nil

Welp, even with my new fast-and-loose approach to blogging, last week got a bit much for me. I guess I’ll just have to make two posts this week to make up for it!

Apart from work busyness and getting sick last week, my third (and far more interesting) reason for not blogging was that I was up to my eyeballs in story feedback and editing, culminating in the submission last Thursday of my latest story, ‘Leaving Dreamland’, to the Rebuilding Tomorrow anthology. Cross your fingers, cross your toes, cross your eyes for me.

Whether I make it into the anthology or not, it does feel auspicious to have kicked off the new decade by completing and submitting my first fiction project before the end of January. I don’t want to read too much into this (gotta be kind to myself), but it’s a good start.

Even better, especially given how long it’s been between stories, is that I actually feel like I’ve grown as a writer rather than stagnating or, worse, going backwards. I took three new approaches to my writing for ‘Leaving Dreamland’, and I’m very happy with two of them and at least halfway happy with the third.

That growth hasn’t come from nowhere – hell, if the key to becoming a better writer was not to write then I’d be a bestseller by now! But even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been regularly tuning into several great writing podcasts. It was both satisfying and deeply relieving to find, as I wrote ‘Leaving Dreamland’, that some of their advice and ideas have stuck with me.

Over my next few blog posts (which I am writing and uploading right now, because I hear having a buffer is a great way to not miss a week any time your week doesn’t go to plan…), I’ll talk about the three things I tried for the first time on this story, and how and why they worked for me as a writer.

Until next time!

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