Tightening the Belt on Your Prose, Pt.2 ~
There are times when you can vividly imagine something happening or you’ve decided to use a more literary technique and venture into metaphor to better describe how something feels or smells… editors look for clarity in these images – here’s how.
They ask themselves:
1) Has the author painted the right picture?
2) Is the metaphor complete?
The Right Picture
The wrong picture often happens when imprecise vocabulary is used.
~ The viper swirled around her leg before slicing into her artery.
The first image focused on here is “swirled”. Now, that’s not to say that a snake can’t swirl but consider the standard uses for this word – lolly pop swirl, water swirled, a cherry swirling in an alcoholic beverage… these connotations don’t quite ring true for a snake “encircling” someone’s leg. Now, I’m not saying that encircled is the only word that could be used here; what I do as an editor is explain why I’ve flagged this word, give one possible example and then prompt the author to find the best word.
The second image is “slicing”. While a snake’s fangs are sharp enough to “pierce” flesh, a traditional snake does not slice like a knife into its victims, and while it gives the right connotation it’s the wrong denotation for what is actually happening.
an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning
the literal or primary meaning of a word
A Complete Metaphor
Often as we write, these great notions come to mind about how we can relate one idea to another. We scramble to jot them down but our brain has already moved on to the next thing that is happening. This is more of an issue with vomit writers (writers who need to get everything out as fast as possible in the first draft and don’t self-edit, or not much, until the draft is done) than precision writers (who tend to carefully craft even in the earliest stages). Maintaining the continuity of a metaphor is not as important as how we feel about what we’re writing and mixed-metaphors creep in to distort what should be a clear image.
~ Her body appeared to undulate, floating on invisible waves before igniting and lighting up the room with a million little fireworks.
The first visual reference focuses on the idea of water: floating, waves, undulate – all great words to help a reader visualize what is happening to this poor woman.
The second visual reference does a 180 degree turn on the brain as suddenly we’re talking about explosions: igniting, lighting, fireworks – yes, in and of themselves the image these words create works but not when paired with the earlier image of water.
In order to maintain continuity, and build a stronger image (and thus a stronger metaphor) the writer needs to consider how a similar effect can be made using water – like a wave crashing into rocks and sending out a spray with millions of little refracting droplets.
Helping clarify these ideas is a lot like a surgeon wielding a scalpel… you don’t want to make the wrong choice or the results could be deadly. This is why distancing yourself from your work before you begin a first edit is so important. If you’re not trained to see these kinds of fumbles, the closer you are to the text the harder it will be for you to admit there might be anything amiss at all. But it’s possible to train your brain to look for these instances… edit writing for friends, take a few workshops, practice on old manuscripts of your own… by familiarizing yourself with these techniques, you won’t be taken aback when someone points it out to you in your own work.
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