Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Similes and Metaphors That WORK

One thing I love about writing is using figures of speech such as similes and metaphors. Doing this well is important--and I'm still learning how to do it.

Simile Definition
A simile compares two things, usually using the words LIKE or AS. This is extremely helpful when world-building and introducing objects unfamiliar to the reader; a link can be made to a more familiar object or concept.

Example of a simple comparison: Her hair was as golden as daffodils in the sun.
Example to clarify or reveal an unknown: Jon looked up to see a robot built like a champion wrestler.

Metaphor Definition
A metaphor is a direct comparison that says something IS something else, an equation. It is thus more powerful than a simile. It can be symbolic, like a heart "breaking."

Example: The long fingers of the setting sun stretched across the valley.
Example: Jeanine enters the room, a brilliant peacock in a crowd of pigeons.

Does the sun really have fingers, and is Jeanine really a peacock? Of course not. But when the comparison is made, the reader immediately gets a proper image.

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Here are some guidelines for using these figures of speech:

1. Don't mix and muddle
Compare one thing to another, but make sure the things are actually similar in quality and function. Don't have a character's anger burning as it washes over them like a flood.
2. Fit them to the character
If your character is a city-girl, don't have her look at something and be reminded of a meadow or farm animal. This is especially important for novels written in first person, where all narrative and description are filtered through the viewpoint of the main character/s.
3. Fit them to the story, tone, or genre
If you write science fiction, don't use agricultural similes. If your novel is totally serious, be careful using quirky or humorous comparisons. Stay consistent with your voice.
4. Fit them to your reader
Especially if your readers are pre-teens or teens, try not to compare things that are obtuse, over their heads, or references to the past (songs, movies, actors). Your comparison will be lost and therefore worthless. Keep your audience in mind.
5. Keep them simple
Don't use convoluted comparisons, long-winded sentences, or needlessly complex images. Ask yourself: do I really need all those adjectives (verdant, sparkling) and prepositional phrases (of the sky, in the meadow, by the house)?
6. Keep them low-key
Go for memorable, but not so stunning or unique that it jolts a reader right out of the story. I personally love to pause to savor a lovely simile, but others DO mind.
7. Don't be cliché
If you've heard a comparison before, don't use it! Stretch yourself. Invent unique comparisons--or introduce a fresh element to a known cliché. (Although clichés often work well in parody or spoof writing.)

Common clichés:
My hands felt cold as ice.
The stars in the sky sparkle like diamonds.
Razera's eyes, as black as coal, stared into mine.
He lay sprawled across the garage floor, as dead as a doornail.
Tania's grandfather is a bear in the mornings before he has his coffee.

Example of freshening up a cliché: Lila's thoughts spun like a blender on crack.

YOUR TURN
Do you like to use similes or metaphors in your writing?
When you read a stunning simile or metaphor, do you pause to enjoy it, or does it jar you out of the story and disturb your overall enjoyment?
Can you rewrite one or more of the cliché sentences above to make them more unique?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Picture Books: An Overview


I don't talk about picture books (PBs) much on this blog because I focus on novels--middle grade or young adult. But when I first started writing in the 1990s, my daughters were young and I thought I'd like to write and illustrate my own PBs. I worked up some dummies, did a few watercolor paintings, etc. I lived near one of the largest libraries in the Portland, Oregon, area; it was wonderful! I have fond memories of doing PB "research" with my daughters, reading books to them every night before bedtime.

After a while I decided novels were my "thing," and moved on to more verbose pastures. However, here are some things I've learned about picture books over the years:

THIRTEEN Picture Book Tips
1. Picture books are for children ages 2-8. PBs are a great intro to art and books for kids!
2. It is NOT necessary--or even advisable--to work up your own illustrations. Only do so if you are a professional artist, and be sure to say the text can be considered separately.
3. Editors keep artists' samples on file; they enjoy creatively matching text to art styles.
4. Often publishers pair a debut PB writer with an established illustrator for better sales.
5. Nowadays editors like their PBs to be 600-700 words long. Some even say 500.
6. Needless to say, if you want a satisfying beginning, middle, and end in less than 700 words, you need to write tight, clean, and concise stories.
7. Be spare with adjectives. In most instances, it's not advisable to describe colors, sizes, styles, etc. This will needlessly restrict the illustrator. Only include if crucial to the plot.
8. A writer's/illustrator's conference is a great place to connect with agents or editors. Check your local SCBWI for event dates; attending can be a worthwhile investment.
9. An agent is helpful to have, though not as many of them handle PBs. (Mine does.)
10. Most editors say not to include art or illustration notes with submissions.
11. Research. Read to see what works and what is being sold. Focus on the more recently published books, as they are more indicative of the current market.
12. Just because PBs are short, doesn't mean they are easy/easier to write!
13. As with novels, VOICE is very important. Don't be dull, even with nonfiction PBs. Be fun and imaginative. Use lively verbs. Feel free to use onomatopoeia words like clank, boom, and boingggg! Engage your young reader.

YOUR TURN
Have you ever written a picture book?
Can you add anything that would be helpful for aspiring picture books writers?
What's your favorite picture book? I love Kevin Henkes, like his Sheila Rae the Brave.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

WRAPPING UP: Final Lines

Thanks to everyone who played the Continue This Story game last week! It was fun. If you missed it or still want to comment/play, click HERE.

Two weeks ago I posted about the importance of having a hook or intriguing beginning as the first line of a novel. But what about the ENDING of your story? This line (or lines) is also important. It is the last thing a reader reads, and will be what stays in his/her mind--or not--after the book has been put down. And if an ending is satisfying, a reader is more likely to pick up other books by the same author. The best end lines leave people with a sense of satisfaction, and sometimes even smiles on their faces.


So it's crucial to have an ending that satisfies and feels complete.

How do we as writers obtain this satisfying ending? Here are some ideas:

NOVEL/STORY ENDINGS
1. A satisfying and complete ending doesn't necessarily mean everything ends happily.
2. An ending needs to tie up loose plot threads--without over-explaining.
3. Even with the first book in a series, the plot should be/feel tidied up and complete.
4. The rhythm and wording of a book's final lines sound different. Readers should not turn the page and be surprised they've already reached the end of the book.
5. Try not to wax too poetical at the end, or give a lot of lush description. It's not a good time for readers to tune out and have their eyes glaze over.
6. Don't moralize or give in to the urge to insert your opinion about the story.
7. Avoid cliché endings: riding off into the sunset, sweeping into a passionate kiss, etc.
8. End on a tone that is consistent with your genre/story; stay dark, lighthearted, etc.
9. Your character should change by the end; they must grow from their journey.
10. Don't be longwinded, and don't go on and on after everything is settled.
11. Be sure your ending sentence is memorable, not trite or blah.
12. Beware of ending on a passive or weak note by using weak verbs, structures, or ideas.
13. Ask your critique buddies if your ending lines are satisfying and sound complete.
14. A lot of times the ending line is set apart by itself, having its own paragraph.
15. Be aware that some genres typically end a certain way: romances almost always end happily, dystopian or sci-fi novels typically end not-quite-so-happily.

CHAPTER ENDINGS
1. Chapter ending lines also sound different and more "final" in rhythm and wording.
2. Chapter endings should make people turn pages and stay up late to keep reading.
3. Most of your chapters should end mid-action or mid-scene rather than on a restful note at the end of the character's day, or when things have been wrapped up.
4. Not ALL chapters have to end on a gripping page-turner note; variety is good.
5. A "page-turner" moment doesn't have to be earthshaking, but it should contain enough tension, conflict, and interest for the reader to be curious about what happens next.

YOUR TURN
What is your favorite ending line from a book?
Which do you think is more important: a strong beginning line or a strong ending line?
Are you a fan of happy endings--do the books you read have to end happily for you to like them totally?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Continue This Story!

When my sister and I were young, we'd play a game where we made up a story, each saying one word to further the action. That was fun and imaginative--though slightly limiting since we only added single words. For my SCBWI-Oregon retreat in October, we went around the room with a microphone to continue a story, each of us contributing an entire sentence. It was a great ice-breaker, and amazing to see how many people could think of cool sentences on the spur of the moment.

So let's have some similar creative fun in the comments!

Think of this as an exercise to practice starting a story, or just being creative with words.

YOUR TURN
Complete the following story by adding ONE sentence.
YES--you may post additional sentences if there have been 3 people in between!

Your starting sentence:
Late again for practice, Dana Maguire paused at the edge of the shadowy forest, clutching her flute case and wondering if she dared take the short cut to Jared's house.