Metaphors: Tricks and Tips for the Everyday Writer

Welcome to March’s Editor’s Corner. Seeing as this month is all things fairytale, I wanted to touch on something (vaguely) related and a nice slide into my next post.


So… the basics…

What is a metaphor?

Anyone who made it past primary school knows what one of these bad boys is and roughly how to use them. For completeness, I shall include Google’s definition:

“a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”

It’s not just a literary tool. We use them all day and every day in our lives.

“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.”

“It’s all hands on deck today guys.”

“Came stumbling in he did, three sheets to the wind he was.”

If you are a teenage girl.

“I saw Taylor Swift yesterday. She smiled at me and I just died.”

And my favourite two at the current time…

“Not my circus, not my monkeys”

“We don’t have a dog in that race.”

We use them so often in fact, we sometimes have to stop and actually think about it to realise we are being metaphorical. We each have our favourites that become like catchphrases that follow us around our lives.

Metaphors in writing:

In the wider sense, we have all got this one down. Metaphors are used as a descriptive tool to heighten the reader’s experience of our world… bla bla bla… And for some writer’s that’s enough. That is how a good writer uses metaphors. A great writer uses them for so much more.

Metaphors are one of your most powerful tools when it comes to giving readers a powerful sensory experience so here’s a few tips to keep in mind while editing:

1. Beware The Cliché.

Beware of the overused metaphor. Yes, there is a reason that things become a cliché but hear a thing often enough and it looses any of its power. It stops being associated with the story you are telling and becomes just a dead metaphor because it has lost any impact it could have had. English is one of the most dynamic languages on the planet. Our dictionary and phrase books are constantly changing and so should be the way we use it. Try and be original with your choices where you can but…

2. Don’t Be Too Original

I feel sorry for EL James. She really should have words with her editor. It still astounds me that the following quote made it to the final published edit.

I feel the color in my cheeks rising again. I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto.

This goes down for me, as a crash course in how to turn a metaphor into a trainwreck. I examined this one in a post a couple of months back with a simple conclusion – the reason everyone knows (and makes fun) of this quote is because it jars with the story and its characters. As I said at the time, “if I was where she was, I promise you, the communist manifesto would be the last thing on my mind.” James had the chance here to help us see the world through Anastasia’s eyes but instead she’s gone with the first red thing she could think of. She panicked. She didn’t want to go with the cliché (red as a tomato traditionally – and let’s face it, that’s no prettier a picture) but instead of thinking about it, she threw down the first red thing she could think of. Learn from her my fellow writers. Metaphors, at the end of the day, should be background. If they are jumping up and down and waving a flag, you might want to think of toning them down.

3. Achieve Something

Okay, yes, metaphors are for description but that doesn’t mean that’s the only function they can play. Here are just a few possible secondary uses to keep in the back of your mind when editing:

  • seeing the world through the protagonists eyes (e.g. character development),
  • story mirroring (e.g. using environment to reflect character inner emotions),
  • tone setting (e.g. Dickens is rather renowned for using weather to set the mood for each section of his story).

4. Beware the Invisible Metaphor

What do I mean by this? I said at the top of this post that we all have those go-to metaphors that we use day in, day out without even thinking about it. And they are the ones you won’t see in your writing but I promise are there. Beware of them. Unless you are writing specifically so that it is your voice and the way you personally view the world that is to come out through the prose, steer away.

5. Theme and Genre Up

A quick exercise I like to do before I launch into editing is on two sheets of paper, I write on one my genre and on the other, I write my key theme. And then I’ll spend an hour or so writing down words and ideas I associate with both. I first came across this idea at high school and a tip from my English teacher. He said that my writing lacked depth. On the surface I was doing everything right. Let’s say I was writing a fairytale. I had the prince and princess, the goofy sidekick and evil witch and the plot was suitably heroic but it felt shallow. He suggested I looked not at what I was writing but how I was writing it. Instead of just using the first words that came to me, to sit down and reduce my lexis into one of words that echo the story I was trying to tell.

Clear as mud right?

It has taken me a long time to get my head around it. It was only after I started seeing it in the work of others, I began to understand.

Here’s an example. Let’s take a base phrase.

“He’d hit a brick wall.”

Generic. Cliché. So let’s fairytale it up.

“He’d worn his pickaxe down to wood but the mine refused to fall.” (Snow White)

“He’d kissed so many frogs his mouth had gone dry but still the happy ending eluded him.” (Princess and the Frog)

“He’d run out of dragons to fight.” (Sleeping Beauty)

Of course, this isn’t a simple swap exercise. I refer back to point 2. Unless the prose will suit it, all three of the above are purple flag waving metaphors and in this case it is on purpose to emphasis the point of the exercise. In reality, if you choose this path, your choices will be subtle and linked very deeply to your own themes you have running through your book. If your style is very straight forward and to the point (what I like to think of as the German way of writing – precise, no-nonsense, like a good BMW – it does the job and does it well) then you’ll probably find these more trouble than they are worth to slip in. However, if your style leaves you open for a little bit of floral artistry (let’s call this the Italian approach – like a Ferrari – always pretty, rarely the most efficient, likely to break down at a moment’s notice) then I’d really suggest having a play around with these. If nothing else, it’s a fun writing exercise to spend an afternoon coming up with the most wacky themed metaphors you can. It really makes you think about the language and moreover the words you choose.

 As always, happy Monday

Maxi 🙂

Editor’s Corner: Five words to cut to make your writing stronger

This month is all about inspiration. Let’s face it, editing is the antithesis of inspiration. It is where inspiration goes to die. It sucks out our soul and makes us wonder why we ever thought writing a book was a good idea. So my editing tip this month has two goals.

  1. Keep it light
  2. Something quick that gives you a quick sense of achievement (hence keeping the inspiration alive)

So here’s…

Editor's template

This is a super quick exercise you can do with your writing that will make it stronger. I was dubious too when I saw some of these popping up on blogs I follow. I’m with you with the ‘it’s never that simple’. And it isn’t. Don’t, whatever you do, do a search all and delete because you’ll end up with gibberish but it is a really good way to highlight some dead weight your prose may be carrying that you can cut quickly and, most importantly, painlessly.

So here’s how it works.

Press go find (Control + F on most processors) and search for the following five speculative modifiers:

  • Just – this word, in 90% of cases, means absolutely nothing. It serves no purpose. We put it there because it’s a common verbal tick but honestly, it’s padding. General rule I try to follow, I use ‘just’ as an emphasis. Wherever it appears in my books, I justify it to myself. If I can, it stays but if I can get rid of it without impacting the rest of the sentence, it goes.
  • That – this one I still have problems with. I place it on this list because I’m well outvoted by my peers on this one and there are cases where I do agree it can go. The argument is the sentence “she said that it was fine” could be written “she said it was fine” without any impact. Class discuss.
  • Seems (and other conjugations) – seems suggests uncertainty from an author. Again, it has its place in prose but is often well overused in first drafts. The key here is to remember you are seeing the story through the eyes of the narrator and/or the character view-point of that passage so the reader already knows what they see is biased by that angle. A quick check I like to do is if I can add “to her” after seemed, then it can go. So…

“It seemed as though he was nervous to be stood in the shadow of the tower.” Add “It seemed to her as though he was nervous to be stood in the shadow of the tower.” On the premise that the reader already knows they are seeing the scene through the eyes of his female companion, it can be reduced to “He was nervous to be stood in the shadow of the tower. She watched as he played with the ends of his scarf.”

Again, this is a style based choice. But it’s another good place to look for fat to cut. If the impact is stronger if it is presented with certainty, err on the side of certainty is the general rule here.

  • Almost/nearly – same logic as seems. But that said, again, don’t take a blanket approach. After all “the bullet almost hit his heart” is somewhat different to “the bullet hit his heart”. Beware of accidentally killing your characters.
  • Slightly – as with three and four, this is all about committing. Slightly should be used sparingly to emphasis nuances in the prose. The question I tend to ask myself here is “is it possible to do this thing ‘slightly'”. For example “she slightly hitched her breath” doesn’t make sense. Your breath either hitches or it doesn’t. But “She ever so slightly shifted her body away from him” has a very different nuance to “She shifted her body away from him” so again, not a blanket rule but another useful one to keep an eye on.

Thus ends today’s lesson. Hope you have a happy Monday.

Maxi 🙂

Five Fun Words You’ll Never Use

Silly post for the day. During my many writing journeys, I spend a good deal of my time in the glorious land known as Thesaurus. This is a mystical place where archaic words are resurrected and sold as ‘used regularly’, where tenuous links are redefined and where you can find some words I’m not even sure English knew it owned. I like to collect the wackier ones. Below are five of my favourites from my recent travels…bacchanalia polemics



Writer’s Corner: A Single or a Double?

Sadly not a post about whiskey. No rather, this is a post about quotation marks. When I was at school, I never even considered the idea of a single quotation mark. We were always taught to use double. Which is odd as it turns out, given the ‘rules’.

So, now that I am into that nitty-gritty stage of editing, I thought it was about time that I checked out this rule once and for all. First stop, the books on my desk. They go as follows:

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (US) – Uses single quotation marks for speech.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (UK) – Uses single quotation marks for speech.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (US) – Uses double quotation marks for speech.

The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson (Swedish) – Uses single quotation marks for speech.

So it’s a mixed bag but lending towards single. Second stop, check out the grammar guides and the supposed ‘rules’. According to the Oxford Guide to Style:

British practice is normally to enclose quoted matter between single quotation marks, and to use double quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation:

‘Have you any idea’, he said, ‘what “dillygrout” is?’

This is the preferred OUP practice for academic books. The order is often reversed in newspapers, and uniformly in US practice:

“Have you any idea,” he said, “what ‘dillygrout’ is?”


And from Grammar and Style in British English:

Quotation marks (or inverted commas) may be used singly or doubly. Single marks are generally preferred in British English, while double marks are obligatory in American English.


These both mean that Harris is breaking convention for her form of English, unless of course, the book has been formatted two ways for the different audiences which – if you ask me – is probably one step too far. I am yet to meet a person who has said “loved the book. Pity about the use of single instead of double quotation marks though.” Which begs another question, does it matter all that much? Books are now global, so if we take the general rules above as true, you are going to be ‘wrong’ in the eyes of half your readership anyway. Plus we also have to look at publishing houses. They are often the ones that dictate style. So a British author with an American publishing house – whose rules do they play by? (As it happens, the version of Dead Until Dark I have was printed via an English publishing house so perhaps my answer to the previous question is the latter).

Frankly, I think the rule should just be consistency. At the end of the day, the difference between the two forms is purely aesthetical. They do not each have a different role or a slightly different nuance of use, they do the same job. I always saw it that double is for speech because that is the more ‘powerful’ and ‘dominant’ of the appearances and the single for quotes within speech as it is the ‘lighter’ punctuation. But my point is that I think, like most stylistic issues, the most important thing is to stay true to your own choice of style. Because you might hear someone say “Good book but I did notice that she couldn’t make her mind up on quotation marks”. If you use single for speech, use double for quotation and the inverse should also be true. It can get confusing if you use the same for both or worse, mix and match at random.

I have a style-guide that goes with each of my books – particularly important for me because I’m Indie Publishing so I am my own gatekeeper when it comes to these things – and on that I keep details like this. I decide on the rule, explore all of the variations and then apply it without exception. If you are traditionally published or going that route, the chances are the choice will be taken away from you. As I say, the publishing houses tend to get the last word.

Thus ends today’s lesson.

A Quick Grammar Guide: Enquire vs Inquire

So, as I said the other day, I’m having a bit of a grammar clampdown this month. This one came up in my proof work yesterday and I thought I would pass along the valuable lessons I learnt.

This is one of those where which form of English you are talking is important. If you are American English, then you will look at enquire and want to change the spelling. Current form uses inquire (and all subsidiaries) as first choice with enquire being considered, for the most part, a spelling mistake.

However if you speak real English (British English), then a nuanced difference between the two comes to be known. Inquire has come to mean that related to a form of formal investigation, i.e. “The police inquiry was not going well”, “He was going to inquire into the situation.” Enquire implies a question or an ask, i.e. “He enquired as to the nature of their relationship,” ” ‘Who are you?’ he asked but his enquiry fell on deaf ears.” If you are unsure, most guides recommend using enquire as a basic standard in British English, certainly the Oxford English Dictionary lists enquire as the primary choice.

Personally, I think this is one of those many examples of English getting lazy. Both words have meanings, similar meaning, but individual meanings. However, because we live in a world of such speed and laziness, people have started interchanging them rather than learning which one to choose, they have just chosen one and stuck with it. I sense the words effect and affect are going the same way. Which, to me, is terribly sad. We have a beautiful language. We should use it properly. Me personally, for so long as two words are listed as two separate entities in the dictionary, I will use them as such.

Lesson (and mini rant) ends.

Writer’s Corner: The Proofreading Challenge

So, a new month and a new challenge. As regular readers will know, I’ve been proofreading and self-editing my novel for the last couple of months and honestly, I’ve always thought I was pretty good at the spelling thing and while I am not picture-perfect on grammar, I always figured I pretty much knew what I was doing…


About that…

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders offers a free on-line test to see just how much you do know. I just (and I mean just) passed. The link is below. Go on, I dare you. Try it yourself and comment below with your scores.

Proofreading Test

But it got me thinking. It is like grammar has been forgotten somehow. Just look at the way we all speak and talk each day. I am sure, without question, that there are errors in this post you are reading simply because no one ever taught me better. At school, if you could get the difference between a comma and a semi-colon, you were onto a winner. So I’m making June my grammar month. I want to relearn the skills I was never given a chance to learn.

So… lesson one: Less v Fewer.

I have lived my whole life thinking they were interchangeable. And I’m blaming the supermarkets for that one. “Less than eight items”. Apparently no one ever schooled them in grammar. The rule is actually pretty simple. If you can count it, use fewer. If its more of a ‘conceptual’ amount, use less. So the above should be “Fewer than eight items” because the number is specific. But “There were less of them than he had expected” because that is not a quantifiable amount (unless he can count how many less and then it should be fewer). Simple. Right?