Creative Similes: The Essence of Your Unique Voice

An iceberg and a waterfall

This freezing sensation also rose from within like the realization that she had been formed from an iceberg all along.

Simile – a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. Comparisons and associations are how we help others to see the world from our unique perspectives.

Ralph Cornish, a fellow writer and friend, recently challenged our critique group to write a short piece consisting only of similes. To tackle the challenge, I noted the similes that popped into my head for a day. The next day, I organized my list of similes into a description of morning ritual:

She woke abruptly like the finality of the explosive light bulbs in her house that always need replacing at the same time and don’t sputter out but break suddenly with a loud retort when she hits the light switch. Her fragile grip on sleep had been broken by the sound of the entire house cracking like it had finally stretched “the spot” that released its stiffened spine. She didn’t feel refreshed but wilted like the flowers she left in the vase on the breakfast table because she didn’t want them to be dead. Restful sleep continued to be torturously out of reach like whispers of urgent news too quiet to comprehend. The room smelled sweet as syrup and the air felt as thick. As she dressed, the pulled muscle in her back worried her like an alligator’s jaw ready to snap. This morning, she made her coffee strong as a ranch hand and bitter as a dreamless atheist. She liked it black as Ape Cave and hot as the sulfur smelling mud pots of Yellowstone, so it felt like molten lava pouring down her throat and pooling in her middle. Sitting at the breakfast table, she smelled the rotting flowers and felt a sudden change in the room as if someone shoved ice down the back of her shirt. Her skin pricked like she had fallen into a nest of fire ants, like she had leapt into the still winter lake fed by dripping glaciers in the first heat of spring. This freezing sensation also rose from within like the realization that she had been formed from an iceberg all along. Then her lava coffee warmed her and she sighed like a steam train after it settled into the station releasing the concocted vapors and set pen to paper.

Completely over the top? You know it, but I had so much fun writing it, I wanted to continue exploring and writing similes.

So how do we create similes that are unique and stay away from cliches? One way is to write what you know. Draw from personal experiences and the things that make you different. For instance, if you love chess or have horses you might come up with:

He zigzagged the path like a rook.

His options were limited like a knight.

She kept her hand on him as she walked behind him like she would with a horse. She had a feeling he kicked.

As she brushed her fingers through his sweat-matted hair, dust flew into the light like she was brushing a horse after a ride.

I lived in New Orleans so I relate things to alligators and fire ants but now live near a sleeping volcano which makes me think of molten lava and glaciers. I studied psychology which would explain a simile in my work in progress –

She felt all of these recent slights tapping at her rage button like a pigeon in an experiment desperate for a seed.

When writing similes for your novel, think about your characters’ interests and environs as well. What similes would your characters create?

Speaking of my work in progress, I went to the find function in Word, typed “like a” and found two problems. One, there were very few similes and two, many were cliche:

like a veil had been removed from his eyes

be treated like a queen

his torso and arms were chiseled like an action hero

Now that I’m excited about creative similes and plan to come up with new ones every day as part of my writing warm up, finding places in my manuscript that beg for similes should be organic. However, not finding similes could be a sign that I need to provide more sensory information. Tastes, smells and textures are difficult to describe without using simile: She tasted like chewing tobacco and pixie-sticks; she discovered a spot behind his ear that smelled like lavender and cucumbers drizzled with a salty musk; His trimmed beard defined his jaw, but painfully pierced her face like needles and pins fused to porcupine quills. Thus, I think a good place for me to start is with finding places to add sensory detail to my manuscript.

And how will I deal with my cliches? Well, I will need to get more creative. Let’s see what we can do with the examples above:

“like a veil had been removed from his eyes”- What else clears cloudy vision?

like the ophthalmologist gave him a stronger prescription

like he had all the Visine in the world

like he finally found his other contact

“be treated like a queen”- How are queens treated? Everything I think about how a queen is described is a cliche, so this one’s tough.

you’ll never chip a nail again

your heels will never blister

you’ll be worshiped like Bonnie Lu Nettles (maybe a bit gauche)

“his torso and arms were chiseled like an action hero” – What is another way to describe well defined muscles?

like the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains

his muscles were large enough to house hobbits

his muscles were as sharply defined as cliff walls meeting the ocean

Please write your suggestions in the comments. I can’t wait to read how you would deal with these pesky cliches.

I was inspired by this simile challenge, so to continue it and share it with others, I’ve started posting daily Tweets with #similes. Please join me in creating and sharing creative similes.

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Part Two The Worrying Wave of Weak Verbs: a cautionary tale of the murderous search for to be, to have, to do, to get, to go and to make

Action verbs

He went down the slide.
He slid. He zipped. He whooshed!

In my last post, I shared an amazing discovery, a  little book full of helpful tips called The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by Bonnie Trenga. At the end of exploring Chapter Seven, you’ll recall I encountered a “there was” problem in my manuscript. After my battle with “there was”, I moved on to Chapter Four: The Delicious Drama of the Weak Verb. Finding specific verbs is important, interesting and sometimes fun, but I didn’t find it delicious.

In Bonnie Trenga’s words:

“Weak verbs are everyday, normal verbs we use all the time. However, they’re often repetitive, passive, wordy, or too general. These verbs frequently fail to clarify the action, and they make readers work too hard.”

Which verb does she start with? You guessed it, our friend “to be”. Along with the battle of “there was” that we discussed last time, she also mentions “it was” and “this was”. Because “there was” introduced me to my worrying workload of weak writing, I won’t linger on “to be”, but introduce you to the other worrying weak verbs and how I began to weed them out.

action verbs

He got up the rock wall.
He climbed. He hauled himself up. He tested his upper body strength.

As the title of this post suggests, other weak verbs include: to do, to get, to go, to have and to make (Trenga also suggests to occur and to use). Because my manuscript is written in past tense, I started my search for the past tense of each verb: did, got, went, had and made. When I typed “did” into the find bar in Word an astounding, heart-breaking 826 instances came back. However, a friend and fellow writer, Sherri Ann DeLost offered a very helpful tip: when typing a word into find type a space before and after it, so the results only include the word not the letters within another word (such as candid). This made a large difference bringing my did count down to a reasonable 180 or so (though many “didn’t”s may still need to be dealt with).

After seeing the staggering number of verbs in need of more specific replacements, I decided I needed lists of specific action verbs at the ready. I started with my thesaurus and found some replacements.

Did: acted, performed, achieved, executed, completed, concluded, determined, ended

Had: kept, controlled, enjoyed, held, owned, possessed, retained, included, contained

Got: acquired, gained, obtained, took, received, knew, bought, gathered, understood

Went: moved, exited, left, retired, escaped, traveled, ran, walked, passed, wended

Made: initiated, originated, started, created, produced, shaped, formed, crafted, built, constructed, fixed, readied

These are only a few examples of the words I found, but I didn’t feel like I had enough replacement verbs, so I searched online. I printed out these three lists:

http://www.westga.edu/~rmcrae/FYW/Awesome-Action-Verbs.pdf

http://www.cvisual.com/film-techniques/writer-action-verb-list.pdf

http://cdn.writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Active-Verbs-List.pdf

and here are some other lists you may find useful:

http://www.fourcornerslearning.org/TechTips/Resources/Action%20Verbs.pdf

http://www.wellesley.edu/sites/default/files/assets/departments/cws/files/complete_list_of_action_verbs.pdf

http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~cainproj/writingtips/preciseverbs.html

http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-verbs.html#verbs%20list

I created a key: D=did, H=had, W=went, G=got and M=made and scoured my lists, writing the correlating letter or letters next to the strong verb that could replace the weak verb.

With all of these active, descriptive, precise verbs at the ready, was I prepared to attack my weak verbs? Some of them.

Here’s an example from my work in progress with the verb “got”:

“Ben grabbed a handsaw and got up on the step ladder while Anna attempted to twist the branch and tug at it to help it along.”

Ben grabbed a handsaw and climbed the step ladder while Anna attempted to twist the branch and coax it along.

I found stronger replacements for hundreds of  weak verbs, but I also found new issues. Many of these weak verbs were like parasites in symbiotic relationship with other words to create a different meaning than the replacement verbs I so obsessively collected. Example:

“Went back” led me to find as many words as I could for returned.

“Had to” led to must, needed, and wanted.

“Did his/her best” to = I don’t know. I’m still working on this one.

After I worked through each of the weak verbs, examining my sentences over and over again, I thought it would be fun to do a new word cloud of my manuscript to see if this exercise had changed my overused words. I was sure changing so many “went back”s would get “back” off of my list at least. If you haven’t read my earlier post about overused words, you can make your word cloud here. Sadly, “back” was still there, but more shocking was “make”. Hadn’t I just spent an entire day replacing make?

The answer was no. I had focused on the past tense of the weak verbs and, like “there was”, led to “there is”, and “there were”, I needed to search for each of the other weak verbs in all of their variations.

“Make” presents interesting challenges: “Make any sense”, “Make sure”, “Make it look like”, “Make this work”. At least one or two “make sure”s can become “ensure”. I would greatly appreciate other suggestions.

As you can see, verb choice presents unending challenges and sparks the neurons.

This week I will be reading my entire novel for content: plot, action, consistency, etc. I will also pay close attention to whether my verb choices have changed the distinctive voices of my characters. I tried to keep that in mind as I made changes, but I’ll only know for sure after I’ve looked at the big picture. Wish me luck.

Happy Writing!

The Worrying Workload of Weak Writing Part One: the discovery of the stretched-out sentences.

Book coverOver the last two years, I thought I had read every book my local library system offered on writing: instructional, anecdotal, genre specific, technique specific–the works. Last time I went to the library, however, a cute little book I hadn’t noticed before jumped out at me: The Curious Case Of The Misplaced Modifier by Bonnie Trenga. Modifiers were part of my research for my Hemingway post and I enjoy film noir and spent a lot of time researching film noir imagery for a puzzle design of Edward Hopper’s Night Hawks (believe it or not, I created a puzzle piece shaped like a man under a lamppost). Maybe that was why I brought it home, or maybe it was perfect timing; I was finally primed and ready for the serious revision this fun, easy read hid within its pages.

Editor Bonnie Trenga has created a humorous and entertaining study of seven mistakes writers make and how to remedy them. She starts each chapter with a catchy detective story title and weakly written scene that includes the specific errors discussed in the chapter. Once the reader learns to recognize and correct the errors, she is encouraged to correct the opening anecdote. Though I chose to take the exercise to my manuscript instead, I found the book format clever and inspired.

Though every chapter is informative, I started reviewing my work in progress with the tips from Chapter Seven: The Stretched-Out Story of Wordy Writing. I thought I would breeze through my manuscript correcting a few wordy sentences and move on to changing a few weak verbs, but my eyes have been opened and my writing will never be the same.

I started by opening the find function in word to highlight “even though”. Trenga recommends changing it to although, but I found other ways to tighten the sentences as well. Examples:

“He never talked about them, but even though he betrayed them and lied to them every day, she knew that he somehow loved them and didn’t want to harm them, or leave them.”

I changed to

He never talked about them. He betrayed them and lied to them every day, but she knew that he loved them and didn’t want to harm them or leave them.

and

“Even though he held her arm, she still wanted to run away.”

became

Even with Rick holding her arm, she wanted to run away.

After even though, I took a look at “Not only . . . But also”. Trenga recommends replacing both parts of the phrase with “and”. Let’s see what I came up with:

“He felt an urge to call Karen, not only to get it out of the way, but to make sure she wouldn’t mess things up.”

He felt an urge to call Karen, to get it out of the way and make sure she wouldn’t mess things up.

“She and her husband not only traveled to all the places Anna still needed to go, but sent her postcards and the most gorgeous invites to the best parties.”

She and her husband traveled to all the places Anna wanted to go and sent her postcards. She also mailed handmade invitations to her wonderful parties.

So far so good, right? Not too many instances to tighten up. The sentences were fun to play with, but then–I typed in “there was”. The sea of “there was”s was momentarily overwhelming. I dreamed of going AWOL or lying down and playing opossum, but I battled on for you, dear future readers, for you.

Trenga recommends to delete the offender which works in this example:

“He went into the ladies’ room and happily saw there was a lock on the door.”

He went into the ladies’ room and happily saw a lock on the door.

and this one

“Now, he saw that there was a faux stone facade along the back wall with pillars and statues so it looked like an ancient Greek temple.”

Now, he saw the faux stone facade along the back wall with pillars and statues like an ancient Greek temple.

Here are some other ways I struck down and defeated “there was”:

“He had evidently put in some effort. There was champagne and chocolate covered strawberries.”

He had put in some effort evidenced by champagne and chocolate covered strawberries.

“He was surprised there wasn’t any apparent bruising on his face.”

He expected more apparent bruising on his face.

“Rick knew there was no reason for worry.”

Rick wasn’t worried.

“There was a bright red light glaring out of the front of this fabulous piece of hunting technology.”

A bright red light glared from this fabulous piece of hunting technology.

“Brittany wished there was a way to make sure she would never see him again.”

Brittany wished for a way to make sure she would never see him again.

and a fun example of the many ways to reword one sentence

“Maybe there was something to what that stupid jerk Pat said.”

Maybe that stupid jerk, Pat, was right.

So that stupid jerk Pat wasn’t completely wrong.

She refused to admit that Pat could be right.

Oh F@#!, could Pat be right?

This is a small sampling of the epic battle I fought through the night to wipe out the rampant “there was”. “There were” still awaits on the horizon with “there is” and “there will be” as reinforcements. I will fight on.

Stay tuned for my next post in which we discover that the battle with “there was” was only a skirmish–a prelude, an aperitif–compared to the war on weak verbs to come.