Advice That’s Hard to Follow

I was fortunate enough to attend a fantastic writer’s conference a couple of years ago. It was a fantastic experience on many levels, and I hope that I can return someday when I have a completed manuscript to share.

One of the benefits of the conference is that you get in-the-moment advice on your work in progress from published authors. (My daughter would say “real, live authors!”) It’s such an honor, to have these talented men and women read your work and offer you suggestions.

One of the pieces of constructive criticism that’s stuck with me the most was that I am overly reliant on figurative language. This is not a surprise to me. I know it well. I spent many years reading, writing, and studying poetry, and the poems that most resonate with me are those that use imagery as stand-ins for feeling or to evoke a particular emotion. I can’t resist a good metaphor. I enjoy personifying inanimate objects, especially elements of the natural world. I love analogy and allegory. Figurative language is my JAM. (Are we still saying “my jam”?)

I gravitate toward fiction that also uses figurative language. The book that leaps to mind as an example of figurative language done expertly is Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.  I feel like you can open any page in that book and find at least a few instances of metaphor and simile and beautiful imagery. It’s a big part of why All the Light We Cannot See is one of my all-time favorite books.

Doerr 1Doerr 2

That said. I do understand that you can have too much of a good thing. Besides, just because you use a metaphor doesn’t mean it’s a good metaphor. Or that it fits the narrative. Or that it moves the plot forward. The wrong descriptive passage, the wrong verb, the wrong simile can pull you right out of the experience of reading and break the spell of the book.

The negative (for me) term for figurative language is “flowery.” I am wrinkling up my nose just thinking about flowery writing. That’s the kind of writing I skim. To me, it’s excessive, it’s clichéd, it’s not teaching you anything about the universe of the book or the motivations of the characters. Yuck.

I don’t want my writing to be “flowery.” I don’t want a reader to trip over my metaphors and lose interest in reading.

But I also LOVE figurative language. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I write.

And I have to tell you, if I think about avoiding figurative language while I’m writing… I stop writing. Trying to avoid it makes me very self-conscious.

So I’ve been struggling with that piece of criticism. Valid though it is, I don’t know how to retrain my brain to write plainly. Part of me wants to believe that this is a wholly subjective opinion, and I should feel free to reject it. (The reasonable part of me realizes that writing this off as subjective is arrogant and dumb.) Part of me thinks that what I need to do instead is to MASTER figurative language. If I can do it at a high enough level, even people who don’t really care for metaphor and allegory and symbolism will love it anyway. Well, I have a LONG way to go before I am a master, that’s for sure.

My current plan is to ignore the suggestion to write plainly, fill up my WIP with metaphors and similes and symbols and imagery and analogies, and then try to weed most some most of them out in the editing process. That way, I can get it all out of my system… and hopefully I’ll pare my writing down until only the very best, strongest, freshest, most apt language remains.

Aristotle Quote

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