Friday, February 22, 2008

Q & A 132 Who is this Nathan Bransford clown, and Why Is He Taking Away My Similes?


What's your position on similes and adverbs? Are they in fact text-poison? (Nathan Bransford suggested so today...but you are the one whose authority on style rivals that of Emily Post on the proper placement of soup spoons). I hate the thought of giving up my similes. And adverbs.


While Evil Editor trusts his minions like an astrologer trusts his star chart, I felt I should take a look at the post in question before responding. What the post says about similes is:


Some writers use them to tremendous effect, some wonderful writers even use them often, and I would not take their similes away from them. This doesn't apply to everyone.
It does, however, apply to you, so rest easy.

Apparently Bransford's source for his anti-simile stance was an MFA grad with whom he'd been drinking--perhaps a bit too heavily?--and who declared that she'd been told in writing school that you get "one or two similes per book. No more. That's it."

Now, ignoring the obvious question: What the hell is "writing school"? and also ignoring the fact that someone who's been drinking can hardly be expected to remember accurately anything she was told in writing school, let's look at this quote:

Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Methinks it is like a weasel.
It is backed like a weasel.
Or like a whale?
Very like a whale.

What's that, four or five similes in six lines? I'm too lazy to look it up, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the passage continues:

Or perhaps like a tortoise shell?
Somewhat, but more like a big blob.
Wait, I have it! Like the 13th green at Augusta.

You may not recognize the passage because I left off the speakers' names, but here are some more similes from the same book:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end.


No, I'm not quoting lyrics from Hair and the intro to Days of Our Lives. All these similes and dozens more appear in what was once considered by many the greatest book ever written,* Hamlet.

Here's another list of similes. Recognize them?

a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice

His room was as black as pitch

there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.

It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

Four similes. All from the same book? No, all from the same puny 2100-word short story called "The Tell-Tale Heart."


Last year, you may recall, I offered my editing services in the Brenda Novak Juvenile Diabetes Auction. I mention this for two reasons:

1. If I had told the author of the winning book to cut his similes to a maximum of two, the word count would have dropped from 100,000 to 23,000. Instead I talked him down to two per page.

2. I'm offering the same "prize" this year. I'm also offering the four-pack of Evil Editor books, all autographed, so if the reason you haven't bought the books is because it wasn't tax deductible, now's your chance. Well, not now; the auction begins May 1.


Emphasizing Mr. Bransford's original point (namely that if your similes make your book richer and clearer, similize away), if you've read the "bad analogy" writing exercises on this blog, and found yourself admiring the literary quality of the similes, you may be someone who should lay off. But if your similes rival in quality those in Evil Editor's contribution to the recent Valentine's Dinner writing exercise, you should be dispensing similes like change from one of those cash registers that sends your coins down a channel and into a metal container shaped like a hollowed out half of a yo-yo.


Moving on to adverbs, they're words. Of course you can use them. Profusely. Abundantly. Copiously. But not excessively. The problem comes when the verb has been modified already by the context in which it's used, and you then re-modify it. For example:

"GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME, YOU BASTARD!!!!!!!" she screamed loudly.

I pretty much had the volume figured out long before you clarified it.

Try this one, though:

"Would you look at my manuscript, Evil Editor?" she asked reverently.

Here again we don't need "reverently" because it's understood that anyone speaking to EE would do so reverently.

Okay, but how about, "I'm having an affair," she said softly.

You could say "she whispered," but what if she didn't whisper? You could leave off the adverb, but then we wouldn't know whether she was meekly confessing or whether she said it mockingly or gloatingly or in Croatian. Sometimes we want more than the verb. Of course we could change the verb to she mocked or she gloated or she Croated, but it gets a bit tiresome when authors come up with a different word for "said" every time someone speaks. Variety is the spice of writing. Replace "said" with "declared" once in a while (twice per book; that's it; no more), but also, once in a while, you have EE's permission to write, "said confidently."


* until Novel Deviations 3 came out recently . . . and ND 3 contains more than 40 similes!

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh, my. I feel so totally, like, liberated.

amy said...

Thank you for speaking some sense on this topic! It seems the first piece of advice any aspiring writer hears these days is to avoid *all* adverbs, and many take this wisdom all too literally.

Yes, it is often the mark of amateurish writing to overuse adverbs. But it's just as amateurish to religiously excise them all. Better to think carefully about where and when they may be used appropriately.

Precie said...

Aw, don't diss good-hearted Nathan for giving writing advice that you don't essentially disagree with. :)

Evil Editor said...

I dissed Nathan? The questioner claims Nathan called similes text-poison. I show that he actually said "some writers use them to tremendous effect, some wonderful writers even use them often, and I would not take their similes away from them," in effect agreeing with Nathan that you can't have too many similes. And now I get accused of dissing him?

PJD said...

My two favorite similes are these:

"A day without sunshine is like... night." -- Steve Martin

"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." -- Douglas Adams

A few comments on your post, EE:

Regarding tax deductibility: Bidders in the auction should be aware that if they itemize their deductions, they must deduct the fair market value of any goods or services received in return for their auction "donation". Be careful out there.

Regarding the change-rolling-down-the-chute simile: I think it's less like a hollowed out half a yo-yo and more like the empty space left behind when a hockey puck that was frozen in the ice is removed by a kid who is careful as an archaeologist. But maybe we've frequented different grocery stores.

Evil Editor said...

Maybe. In any case we certainly frequent different hockey rinks.

Precie said...

Okay, okay, I guess the Q&A title just rubbed me the wrong way. Sorry, EE! I haven't had my coffee yet!

Please accept my most recent simile violation to make amends:
"He was bony--like a skeleton dressed up for Halloween."

Yup, I'm definitely revising that later. Oy.

none said...

Can we use "was" and "had", too?

Steven LaBree said...

"Excellent article!" he said reverently to Evil Editor.

And, As clear as crystal.

Thanks for the dose of common sense.

Evil Editor said...

Can we use "was" and "had", too?

Wait a minute, let me check my unabridged dictionary.

Whirlochre said...

Like the very best sequinned dogwear, similes should enhance, not smother, the beauty of their subject - especially if the dog in question is a pack of hyenas.

Sound advice, EE.

I'd rather be apt in the final analysis than capped at the outset by paralysis.

PJD said...

Can we use "was" and "had", too?

This begs a question that has bugged me for some time.

When you have a single word in quotation marks followed by a comma, does the comma go inside the quotes or outside?

I'm asking you because, well, you're you and I'm too lazy to break out a style guide.

Evil Editor said...

There may be some highly technical rules, and as I recall, the rules vary by country, but my policy is to put quotation marks outside periods and commas, and inside question marks and pretty much anything else.

Wes said...

Marvelous. EE, we amateurs (maybe I should just speak for myself when I write about amateurs) need perspective as we grope along trying to learn our craft. I can't wait to present this to my critique group who love to pounce on every adverb and simile they can identify.

none said...

In Britain, we put the punctuation outside the quote marks unless it's an intrinsic part of what's being quoted.

In the US, punctuation seems to be placed inside the quote marks regardless of whether it's intrinsic.

So, what I wrote was correct for English, but not necessarily for American English :).

Dave Fragments said...

There's not much difference between:
"I'm having an affair," she said softly.
and
"I'm having an affair," she said ins a soft voice hoping to lessen the severity of her sin.

It's style.
However, I will say that I think it's the difference between writing for the page and writing for a visual medium. The visual media allows close examination of the subject (pictures). The written media requires description (words) to illustrate its point.

PJD said...

Wasn't trying to criticize you, Buffy. Genuinely curious as to the "right" rule wrt single words. Thanks for the answer, EE.

writtenwyrdd said...

Thanks for the clarification, EE. I already had enough confidence (she said confidently) to use metaphores and similies as I see fit, but it's nice to know that I can use more than 2 per book!

The big worry is, of course,being labeled an idiot for the occasional misfire.

Robin S. said...

Thanks, EE.

If I couldn't 'similize', my writing would be dead in the water.
I'm a very analogical person (and no, BT, stick and move, or Wes, this has nothing to do with anuses).

Blogless Troll said...

I don't want to be too crude here, but I followed the link on Bransford's site to his MFA drinking buddy's site, which has a picture of her and her friend, and, I dunno, it's possible his post isn't really about similes.

Robin S. said...

Oh, crap. Now I have to go look.

PJD said...

Um... OK blogless. I don't, um... get it.

Robin S. said...

OK- I don't get it either.

Evil Editor said...

Are you going here? http://goodgirllit.blogspot.com/

Are you looking at the photo of the women Nathan was drinking with? Are you thinking he was with these women because of their writing talent?

Of course he wasn't. It was their moral compasses.

Robin S. said...

Yeah, it was the moral compass that got me all confused. Perhaps because mine may be thought of as slightly ajar, in the traditional sense.

Unless BT is just doing one of his plays on words, and he meant the blonde's smile was more important than any similes going on.

Whirlochre said...

http://goodgirllit.blogspot.com/

I'm reading South on this one - but East to West when I got to the pictures of Jesus.

N.B. has added a comment to his simile thread. It's all true, of course - but turn down the brightness on your monitor or you'll be blinded for life.

Scott from Oregon said...

"like an orange in a fried fish shop"

"like a viper swimming in skim milk"

What would Joyce Carey's "The Horse's Mouth" be without similes?

Anonymous said...

Will you marry me?

Unknown said...

Hopefully not one of those creepy clowns who don't shave properly and where you can see their stubble beneath their sloppily applied face paint. Those clowns scare the living crap out of me.

And just to set the record straight, May received the advice from either Stephen Dixon or Anne McDermott.

Thanks for posting all of the wonderful similes, Evil Editor. And of course, where would we be without Annie's Song by John Denver? Our senses just wouldn't be filled by nights in forests, mountains in springtime, and walks in the rain, that's what.

May Vanderbilt said...

Evil Editor, I'm a Good Girl, didn't you hear?

May Vanderbilt here, the MFA grad in question. I went to Johns Hopkins, as Nathan reports. And now I write chick lit and use my diploma to prop open a window, so what do I know? hahaha

Anyways, I can't remember which prof said it exactly (you are correct there, sir) but I do believe it was intended to be a hyperbolic goal.

Either way, we've all heard ones we loved and ones we hated. I'll probably go to my grave saying, Use them sparingly and cautiously.

(Oooh! Look at all those adverbs!)

Whirlochre said...

If it was my balloon, I'd lose the Bee Gees long before John Denver. All three thirds of the latter ascended to a higher plane ten years ago - plus, he kept nightmares of a falsetto eunuch rampage at bay with his quietly contemplative lyrics.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I blame the internet. Especially now we're in the time of forums and blogs and, of course, texting -- you see those damn things everywhere. It's like these days people can't put a simple sentence together without inserting a simile in there somewhere. At first it was just the simple similey face and frowney face; now there's winking and angry and it seems there's a whole industry around thinking up new ones of these similes. I hate 'em.

/rant over. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Robin, I would never have suggested that, but thanks for saving me the trouble.

Off on a tangent, I'm of the Elmore Leonard school when it comes to using adverbs in dialogue tags, and I rarely use a verb other than said, though "asked" and "lied" are a couple that don't flame up in the face of the reader. I think you can usually show the way something was said with some action on the part of the speaker, rather than tell the way it was said with an adverb. I won't say I never do it, but I think twice in a book would cover it, since that seems to be the popular maximum for questionable tactics. Robert Ludlum gets away with a lot of adverbs, but I guess if you've sold 400 humpzillion books you can do pretty much anything you want.

Xenith said...

Don't forget the adjectives, can't use them either.

Must read rules for writing:

http://mumpsimus.blogspot.com/2006/11/rules-for-writing.html

This has been around for a couple of years, but I still like it.

talpianna said...

Very Like a Whale

One thing that literature would be greatly the better for
Would be a more restricted employment by the authors of simile and metaphor.
Authors of all races, be they Greeks, Romans, Teutons or Celts,
Can't seem just to say that anything is the thing it is but have to go out of their way to say that it is like something else.
What does it mean when we are told
That that Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold?
In the first place, George Gordon Byron had enough experience
To know that it probably wasn't just one Assyrian, it was a lot of
Assyrians.
However, as too many arguments are apt to induce apoplexy and thus hinder longevity.
We'll let it pass as one Assyrian for the sake of brevity.
Now then, this particular Assyrian, the one whose cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
Just what does the poet mean when he says he came down like a wolf on the fold?
In heaven and earth more than is dreamed of in our philosophy
there are a great many things.
But I don't imagine that among them there is a wolf with purple
and gold cohorts or purple and gold anythings.
No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was
actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red
mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?
Frankly I think it is very unlikely, and all you were entitled to say, at the very most,
Was that the Assyrian cohorts came down like a lot of Assyrian cohorts about to destroy the Hebrew host.
But that wasn't fancy enough for Lord Byron, oh dear me no, he
had to invent a lot of figures of speech and then interpolate them,
With the result that whenever you mention Old Testament soldiers
to people they say Oh yes, they're the ones that a lot of wolves dressed up in gold and purple ate them.
That's the kind of thing that's being done all the time by poets, from Homer to Tennyson;
They're always comparing ladies to lilies and veal to venison,
And they always say things like that the snow is a white blanket
after a winter storm.
Oh it is, is it, all right then, you sleep under a six-inch blanket of snow and I'll sleep under a half-inch blanket of unpoetical
blanket material and we'll see which one keeps warm,
And after that maybe you'll begin to comprehend dimly
What I mean by too much metaphor and simile.

Ogden Nash