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.