This was originally a speech I gave back when I was in a public speaking group called ToastMasters; it was later published in this form as an article. It covers the three basic uses for metaphors, similes, and analogies, and the dangers associated with over-using them. As with most aspects of writing, it's all about balance. A version of this piece also appears in the book, How To Write Magical Words.
Metaphors, Similes, and Analogies, Oh My...
By Edmund R. Schubert
I was reading an article in National Geographic this past summer abut the intelligence of swarms. It talked about how any large group - everything from bugs to birds to a herd of buffalo - can take on an intelligence much greater than that of the individual components of the group - and how scientists are applying some of the principals of swarms to solve human problems. Included in that story was an example of a trucking company that had developed a computer model for routing its trucks based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants, a species of ant known for laying trails by depositing pheromones.
Everybody get that? Let me repeat it: a trucking company developed a computer model for routing trucks based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants, a species known for laying trails by depositing pheromones.
Okay, I like to pretend I'm a reasonably intelligent guy, but my first reaction was, "What...?"
But here's the thing: In the next paragraph, the writer of that article gave me something I could sink my teeth into. He gave me an analogy. He said that what the ants (and therefore the trucking company) were doing was like when someone goes into the forest to collect berries. Over time a path is worn in the ground to the best places to find berries.
Now that I understood. Algorithms and ant pheromones? Not so much. Berries in the woods? Now you're talking my language. And that's kind of ironic, really, because, the language we're talking about is pictures. Word pictures.
Writers (and speakers) are all trying to communicate a
message, and to do so as clearly and effectively as possible. So what I want to
talk about today is the power of metaphors, similes, and analogies. I'm not
going to bore you with dictionary definitions of these terms, but the essence
of all three is that they describe something by comparing it to something else.
There are a lot of ways to do this, and a lot of reasons to do this. You might be trying to describe something unusual - Argentine ants and their pheromones, for instance - so you compare it to something people are more familiar with. This helps them understand what you're saying.
On the other hand, you might be talking about something very basic, like writing, and want to jazz it up. Writing in and of itself isn't terribly hard; you've all been doing it since the first or second grade. But you want to make it more interesting, to catch people's attention, so you might describe it using cooking terms. You might say that writing a story is like cooking a meal, and that if all you give people is meat and potatoes, they certainly won't go hungry, but nobody's going to rave about your cooking, either.
If you want to present a meal that really satisfies, you've
got to spice it up a little. You've got to throw is some oregano, some thyme,
maybe a little parsley on the side. Well, okay, skip the side of parsley.
Nobody likes that stuff. Using parsley as a garnish is like using cliches in
your writing. Don't waste people's time.
You also have to be careful not to get carried away. If you noticed, I got kind of carried away with my analogy here and it turned from using cooking to describe writing, into using writing to describe cooking. As with herbs and spices in good cooking, you want to make sure you don't over-do it. A little salt makes everything taste better, too much and it overpowers the meal. Everything in moderation.
Another advantage of using metaphors, similes, and analogies is this: they help people remember your keys points. By using one of these comparative devices, you are subliminally telling people (by placing extra emphasis on it) what your most important points are. That helps to reinforce those points in their minds.
Let's say you're writing a magazine article about gardening, and you're trying to describe the perfect soil to plant rosemary in. And say the perfect soil for planting rosemary is rich but pale and very dry. Well, that's not terribly evocative. But if you say it needs to be rich, pale, and very dry - kind of like Bill Gates... Hopefully you'll get a laugh. But more importantly, you've reinforced your point by drawing extra attention to it, making it one people are more likely to remember.
The last thing you want to remember is to make sure your metaphors and similes work with the subject matter you're trying to describe. I remember one time a friend told me about someone who came to his writer's group with a mystery story. And in this story the author had portrayed a particularly gruesome killing. He had the police at the crime scene trying to figure out 'who done it,' and suddenly the author describes the fingerprints the detective found like this: "Detective Spade studied the bloody print on the victim's slashed throat and couldn't help but notice how much the swirling pattern reminded him of the tiny whirlpool his toilet made when he flushed it." That doesn't add anything; in fact, it's a terrible distraction. It's counter-productive. You have to make sure your comparative descriptions fit with the tone of the subject matter.
Metaphors. Similes. Analogies. You can call them word pictures if that makes you happy. But I would say that more important than what you call them, or the differences between them, is remembering the power they have when used correctly. The power to clarify, the power to enliven, the power to reinforce. The power to make your writing really stand out - as if it were covered with Argentine ant pheromones.
BYLINE Indicates who the author is. May sometimes include promotional material on the author. Example: Edmund R. Schubert is a freelance writer and editor. Information about his novel, Dreaming Creek, can be found at his website: www.edmundrschubert.com.
COOL DOWN Setting aside your writing for anywhere from a few hours to a few months (for book projects) to allow you to return to it with a fresh eye for polishing and revision.
COVER LETTER A cover letter is a brief letter of introduction that accompanies any submitted work. In many cases these are optional; in all cases they should be brief.
CRITIQUE GROUP A group to read, edit, and offer advice and evaluation of your work. VERY IMPORTANT for writers to have people they can trust to offer honest feedback on their work. Can be an organized group that meets at a regular, set time, or a loose group of friends who read each others' works as needed.
ESSAY: An essay represents the personal view/opinion of the writer.
FREELANCE WRITER / EDITOR A freelancer works on various projects by contract, and is not the employee of any single magazine or publisher. However, freelancers often do maintain long-term relationships with editors and/or publishers.
IDEA FILE A folder where you collect articles, columns, essays, phrases, words, reports, or anything else that catches your eye. When you're searching for ideas on what to write about, go to your Idea Folder for inspiration. A must have for writers!
GENRE The category a story, article, or script falls into. Examples: thriller, horror, science-fiction, romance. Non-fiction genres for magazine articles include self-help, how-to, opinion pieces, essays, inspirational, question and answer, interview, fillers, etc.
HOOK The opening of your article or story is usually referred to as your hook; it is how you grab a reader's attention. In a short story it is usually your first paragraph or two; in a magazine article it can be a little as your first sentence or even your title. In a novel it can be as much as you entire first chapter.
MARKET GUIDE Includes submittal information on how to query magazines, editors, and publishers. Writer's Market by Writer's Digest books is probably the best known market guide.
MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS Sending more than one piece of work at a time, i.e., mailing an editor 3 different query ideas all at once. USUALLY NOT A GOOD IDEA.
NICHE Defining a specialty area to write for. For example, parenting, cooking, technology, etc.
OUTLINE / SYNOPSIS A detailed description of a book (fiction or non-fiction) that you have written/are proposing to write. These can vary in length from one page to fifty pages, depending on the requirements of the publisher.
PIECE Casual/industry term used almost interchangeably with 'article.' Refers to a 'piece' of work you're submitting. (See 'Work' under CONTRACTS.)
QUERY / QUERY LETTER In fiction, a query letter can either be a letter checking on the status of a previously submitted piece, or an inquiry as to a publisher's interest in seeing a particular piece. In the case of the latter (gauging interest), this is done almost exclusively with novels, not with short fiction.
RESPONSE TIME Term usually found in writer's guideline indicating how long an author should expect to wait before hearing a response from the editor/publisher who is assessing their work. Do not query editor/publisher until after this time is has elapsed.
SASE Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (your new best friend).
SELF-PUBLISHED This means exactly what it sounds like: you published it yourself. On the one hand, it means that you incurred all the costs and risks associated with publishing a work (usually a book). On the other hand it also means that you did all the work and are entitled to 100% of the profits. Opinions vary on the pros and cons of self-publishing.
SIMULTANEOUS SUBMISSION Piece (query letter, article, short story, or novel) sent to more than one market at a time. VERY GOOD IDEA to simultaneously submit if allowed; VERY BAD IDEA if not. Check writer's guidelines (usually posted on the publisher's website) to see if allowed.
PUBLISHER This term generally applies to any of the smaller publishers working
SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES A set of guidelines or rules the publisher wants all writers to follow concerning, when, where, and how to submit work for publication. It covers everything from subject matter to font size and margins. Guidelines are readily available on the publisher's website and should be strictly adhered to.
WRITER'S BLOCK Times when you feel uninspired or unable to write. Some writers believe writer's block to be a real obstacle while others consider it little more than an excuse to be lazy.
VANITY PRESS Term used to describe any of the companies that you can pay to publish your book. Similar to self-publishing, but usually of a lower quality. This is generally considered to be the bottom-rung of the publishing food chain.
VOICE - The distinctive manner in which you choose and arrange words, phrases, ideas, and sentences on the page. Your writer's 'voice' reflects your personal take on a subject. Well-developed writer's voices are often immediately recognizable on the page.
WRITER'S GUIDELINES Specific details set out by a magazine on what type articles they're seeking, length of articles, how to submit, who to contact, etc.
ARTICLE A piece of non-fiction writing published in a periodical (as opposed to a non-fiction book).
CLIP / CLIPPING A sample of a writer's work, preferably a published article. It is cut from a newspaper or magazine, photocopied (high quality, but doesn't have to be color) and sent to a magazine editor. A clip should represent your best work and/or work that is in a similar vein to work you are proposing to write for an editor.
Example: If a pet writer queried Dog World about an article on the best way to train puppies, they would send clips where they've written breed profiles to show they have experience writing about dogs. Editors would be less impressed with clips on career strategies, no mater how well-written.
QUERY / QUERY LETTER A letter written to a magazine editor or non-fiction book publisher where the author outlines their idea for an article or book. The majority of magazine articles and non-fiction books are written AFTER the idea has been approved by an editor.
SIDE BAR Short side-article or list that enhances the main article. Editors love these!
SPECULATION (ON SPEC) An editor may want to see your work before
agreeing to accept it so they'll ask you to write the article and submit it 'on
spec.' The editor is under no obligation to pay for or accept the piece.
However, offering to submit a piece 'on spec' may help beginning writers who
don't have clips to offer.
**Think of it less as 'selling' your work and more as 'licensing' your work.
ADVANCE / ADVANCE AGAINST ROYALTIES This is money paid to you by the publisher for a book (fiction or non-fiction) before the book is published. You will not be paid any more money until the book sells enough copies to earn this amount back for the publisher. Some publishers (usually smaller ones) do not pay an advance; they simply start paying royalties right away.
AGENT / LITERARY AGENT This is a essentially a professional negotiator who will represent your book when it is time to get/sign a contract. A good agent will protect the interests of you, their client, and only get paid when you get a contract from a publisher. If anyone claiming to be a literary agent offers you representation but asks you for money up front (anything from a signing fee to administrative fees), they are probably a scam artist.
ALL RIGHTS Avoid this clause. This means you are selling every right you have to your work and so, in effect, it is no longer yours. You forfeit the right to ever use the work again and you are not entitled to additional payment if the magazine goes on to use your article again in any way.
ELECTRONIC RIGHTS Becoming more common. Some print magazines will offer an extra fee to publish your work on their website (as they should!), though most will state in their contract that they're buying unlimited electronic rights. You usually have to fight on this one if you don't want to give it away.
FIRST RIGHTS Rights that the writer offers a magazine/web site to publish an article for the FIRST time, i.e., the work cannot have appeared anywhere else (including blogs) before appearing in the magazine you've offered first rights to.
FIRST NORTH AMERICAN SERIAL RIGHTS (FNASR) The
magazine/publisher has the right to be the first one in
KILL FEE Usually 20-30% of the agreed upon fee, this is the amount you'll be paid if the magazine accepts your piece but then decides not to use it.
NON-EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS You retain the right to resell the piece.
ONE-TIME RIGHTS Gives the magazine the right to publish the piece once, but not necessarily first.
PAYS ON ACCEPTANCE / PAYS ON PUBLICATION This clause of a contract determines when the writer will be paid for their work, and is primarily used for short stories and magazine articles, not for books. Payment on Acceptance means the writer will be paid when the magazine accepts the story for publication. Payment on Publication means the writer will be paid when the story is published (ranging anywhere from six weeks to nine month or more after acceptance). It should come as no surprise that Payment on Publication is the much more commonly used clause.
REPRINT RIGHTS / NON-EXCLUSIVE REPRINT RIGHTS Reprint rights tell the publication the piece has been published prior. Usually reprint rights are approximately 35% of the agreed upon fee for First Rights. Non-exclusive reprint rights mean you retain the right to re-sell the work yet again, maybe even simultaneously.
RIGHTS Publishers are contracting for the right to use/publish your work and they should pay you to do so. (Some smaller magazines only have the resources to pay you in copies of the magazine in which your work appears, but hey, you've got to start somewhere) There are a lot of different kinds of rights; the more the publisher asks for, the more they ought to pay you. In the absence of a formal contract, it's usually assumed that the magazine gets FNASR.
ROYALTIES This is the percentage of the profits that will be paid to you for sales of your book. If you've received an advance, you do not receive any royalties until the book earns out its advance. Royalties are commonly between 10% and 15% of the book's profits (though some publishers pay a percentage of the books net profits, and some pay a percentage of the gross profits). This only applies to books; magazines do not pay royalties.
ROYALTY PERIOD This is how often your publisher will pay you royalties. It is usually twice per year, but some contracts call for either annual or quarterly royalty periods.
WORK Formal industry term used in contracts, interchangeable with 'piece' or 'article.' Refers to the 'piece' of 'work' you are signing the contract for.
WORK FOR HIRE Pretty much the same as giving away all rights for a set fee. All work you do becomes the property of the employer to use as they like.
Writers' Party Secrets
(This article was originally published by The Writers' Post Journal, June, 2004)
Summer, 2003: I was on my way home from my first writer’s party and felt like I had pulled off the caper of a lifetime. Finding myself in a house full of authors who had published not only short stories, but multiple novels, I had the audacity to ask for their secrets. And they had told me! I sped down the highway, half-expecting to see a posse in hot pursuit once they realized they had forgotten to swear me to secrecy.
Fifteen months earlier I had met the party’s host, Allen Wold, author of nine published novels, at a science fiction convention. Allen was conducting a writing workshop – as he frequently does for East coast-based SF conventions – and I was among the attendees. I managed to strike up a lengthy conversation with him though, and in the ensuing months our conversation continued over the Internet and grew into a friendship.
Naturally, being invited to Allen’s party set visions of literary sugar plums dancing in my head. But with only a half dozen short stories accepted for publication I was also a bit nervous, knowing that I was sure to be the most junior writer present. Being a gracious host, Allen went out the day before his party and picked up a copy of a magazine featuring one of my stories, setting it in an obvious place in his living room so everyone would know I ‘belonged.’
Unfortunately, he also left in that same room a copy of another story I had sent him. Looking for some feedback, I had e-mailed him a draft of a story I was still working on; and though the print-out had been tucked away in a corner, another curious writer found it and began reading it aloud, dissecting it right before my horrified eyes. A small crowd quickly gathered.
One of the first comments made about my story was, "Well, it doesn’t suck."
I threw my arms in the air as if someone had scored a touchdown and said (probably too loudly), "Wha-hoo, it doesn’t suck!"
Of course, inside my head another voice was saying, "If that’s where they’re beginning, I’d like to just die now and get it over with."
However, I overcame my angst and took advantage of the opportunity to ask the same questions any new writer would ask: What do editors want? What does it take to get published on a regular basis?
According to not just one or two people, but a whole room full of published authors, there is a single trait which differentiates so many of the stories that are accepted for publication from those that come back with a hastily scrawled note that amounts to: "Almost. But not quite."
And that’s Character.
These authors told me that it doesn’t matter how well written your story is, how cool your plot twist is, or how unique the ‘voice’ of your story is - if the reader doesn’t know and care about your characters. And that those are two separate issues.
First, reader needs to know the main characters thoroughly. They must understand those characters’ motivations well enough that when the character does something, the reader knows instantly that it’s a logical action, consistent with everything the author has already described. One way to achieve this is to clearly establish your character’s primary motivation from the beginning. Skillfully laying out the reasons why an issue is vital to a character will help make those issues vital to the reader as well.
Even more importantly though, readers have to care what happens. The more they empathize with the character, the deeper the writer has the reader in their hip pocket. Readers will wade through scads of material not especially well written for the sake of a compelling character, but they’ll drop a meticulously crafted tale if their feeling is ‘Who cares?’ And any character that displays qualities people admire – qualities such as courage, fair play, a positive attitude, cleverness, and accountability - is going to endear himself to them.
Why is this so important?
Because editors are readers too, readers who need to fall in love with a character before they can believe their magazine’s subscribers will too. That’s how they keep their customers coming back for more. Help the editors do that and they’ll reward you with publication. Then you’ll be the one throwing the party - and novice writers will come looking for your secrets.
At least, that’s one what one room full of writers told me.
Experiencing A Story
(This article was originally published by The National Writers' Association, Summer 2004)
The reason Mark Twain is infamous among writers and editors for saying, "If you catch an adjective, kill it," is that a story that possesses energy and precision depends more on the verbs a writer chooses.
Look at that last sentence. I could have written: A story that has energy and precision is about the verbs a writer uses. (In fact, in my first draft, I did, but that’s a separate issue.)
But tell me, would you rather be known as a writer who chooses words, or merely uses them? Which expresses a greater degree of intention and deliberation? And would you rather possess a diamond, or simply have it? Which word conveys a greater sense of ownership? What about being a person everyone can depend on, as opposed to a person who just is? There’s no life in merely being. Life is in doing.
Each word has its own emotional impact and you must exploit the emotional value of every word chosen. Sometimes you need to use a gentle or even a (gasp) passive verb, to allow the reader to rest. All that possessing and choosing and depending can be exhausting. But when the time is right, kick your readers into high gear and race them through the action.
And nothing sings, dances, jolts, pounds, twitters, or leaps quite like a verb!
So I say again, forget adjectives and adverbs. A story that crackles with energy and precision depends on the nouns and verbs a writer chooses. (Third draft – see what you can do with a fourth.)
If your main character walks into the room, even if he walks carefully or tentatively or painfully, he’s still just walking, no matter how you try to dress it up. However, if your character limps into the room, you’ve painted a vivid picture; you’ve really told us something - and with just one word. Not only that, but at the same time you’ve raised a flurry of questions. Why is he limping? How badly is he hurt? Is this a new injury or an old one?
You’ve not only painted a picture, you’ve captured your reader’s attention. Now you own them. And isn’t that what every writer craves? Heck, it’s what every reader craves. They don’t want to read your story; they want to experience it. They want to be immersed in the character’s situation and swept away, lost in the excitement. Use the right verbs to create that experience and they’ll always return for more.