Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Your Similes Are Like a Giant Flood Washing Over Me

More common than air.... Damaging like a giant tornado hitting a chainsaw factory.... Similes are sweeping the nation as fast as a cheetah on a motorcycle.

For the grammatically disinclined (you know who you are, or rather, you SHOULD know who you are), a simile is a comparison between two or more things, often using the words "like," "than" or the ever popular "as [blank] as a [blank]."

Now, as with any other writing device, similes can be done well. 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.

But as Johns Hopkins MFA grad and author May Vanderbilt told me this weekend as we were discussing writing over drinks at the San Francisco Writer's Conference after our panel with editor Christine Pride (yes, this is what agents and writers do at writer's conferences), she was once told in writing school that you get one or two similes a book. No more.

No doubt this is hyperbolic advice and not meant to be taken literally. You don't got ONLY two similes. But unless your gift for similes is as grand as a Steinway piano (get it??), this is something to keep in mind. Similes are like jalapeno peppers. They can add some spice, but too many of them and your reader will spit out your novel and run away.






107 comments:

Anonymous said...

One or two? ONE or TWO?

Whaddaya mean, one or two?

AKKKK!

Taylor K. said...

Reminds me of a joke a comedian named Demetri Martin once told:

"I have a friend who's really into similes. He's like...annoying."

Similes can be particularly annoying, IMO, especially when they try to be overly grandiose (such as my just now use of the word grandiose).

May Vanderbilt said...

Similes make me sadder than a baby with a full diaper, more frustrated than Nathan reading a query letter that opens with a rhetorical question, and angrier than Hillary when Texas votes for Obama.

My profs at Hopkins were Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon. Another thing they told us is two adverbs a book.

Try it some time. It will make your head explode.

Katie said...

First, "Hi," and it's good to be back! I had to spent two tortuous months offline for an extended move, and I've missed your blog!

On to the subject... I see two main types of similes, and I'm wondering if you see or care about this distinction.

The basic type (of which there are far too many) is when they're simply used to describe something... and you end up wondering if the author resorted to the simile because they couldn't describe whatever-it-was well enough.

The other type, which I find very effective when I'm reading, is when the simile tells more about the fantasy world or the person's character than lots of description possibly could. For example, the author is in deep POV, and the person is thinking about how something is more beautiful than XYZ... and you gather from that choice of XYZ, not only that XYZ exist in this fantasy world, but that they are considered extremely beautiful by that person, who doesn't get to see them so often because they are so far away, but they journey there once a year just for the privilege.

I'm afraid that that (I hate typing double "that's.") was a really bad example, but what do you think about this type simile? Do they still irk you, or do you also find them effective?

Lauren said...

When I was a wee 12-year-old novelist, I would give my novel drafts to my two best friends to read. Generally, I got glowing reviews (especially when I inserted one of my pals into the story, or had one of the popular girls from our grade be struck down by an ultimately disfiguring illness or injury). But one time, I decided my writing wasn't writerly enough, so I rewrote my first few chapters and inserted similes and metaphors on nearly every page. Suddenly, my 12-year-old characters were "running like wild horses" down the streets of Manhattan.

My friends' reviews for that draft were about as scathing as Michiko Kakutani's review of that Jonathan Franzen memoir.

That being said, I recently finished reading Lorrie Moore's short story collection BIRDS OF AMERICA and her use of similes astounded me. Recommended reading for anyone who wants to see a really masterful use of figurative language.

Nathan Bransford said...

katie-

I don't know if it would be fully possible to break down similes into categories. It's one of those things where they either work or they don't. They're extremely hard to do well, and to my eye the good ones seem to be both apt, unique, and consistent with the world of the book. But it's so hard to pin down what makes good ones work. Maybe other people have some ideas about what separates the good similes from the bad?

C.J. said...

kim - i agree with you on the adverb front. somewhere way back a prof told me to avoid them altogether. what he didn't explain, but i figured out later, is that often the adverb serves to tell instead of show. saying 'he walked furtively' is difficult to picture, and you can't trust the reader to stop reading, think 'hmmm, what does a furtive walk look like?' then start reading again after he/she has the image in mind. the same kind of idea applies to similes. too often you're pulling the reader out of the scene. if your crime drama has a henchman with a long neck, saying he has a neck like a giraffe pulls the reader out of the gritty alley and puts them into the savanna for a moment. i think it's considering the full ramifications of your phrase that separates an effective simile from a cumbersome one

Brian said...

I went to school with someone who used two similes per PARAGRAPH. Minimum. I'm not kidding. She believed that if a paragraph looked skinny, it could be fattened up with a couple nicely phrased similes. The workshop always smiled nicely at her and tried to talk her out of them. To her, similes made writing come to life. If you could get past the similes, she wrote very well. But, man, if her prose got any more purple the Oompa Loompas would need to cart it off to the Juicing Room.

Now, if you want to talk emerging cliches, I think "washing over me" should be on the new Forbidden Phrases 2008. Ick. Or maybe it already is and I missed the memo? Can the memo go out again? Preferably in red, block letters.

Cicily Janus said...

Quick as lightening, the editor crumpled up the submission due to its overuse of similes and pitched it as fast as Cy Young into the trash can next to her.

Great advice, Nathan.

And as for the comment left by May Vanderbilt, yes, cut the adverbs out! Two a book? Sure! I'll go for that.

Sophia said...

I read that title as "Your SMILES are like a giant flood washing over me", and thought, "That's so nice! A feel-good wave spreading across the country". :)

Eric said...

One observation I've had is that in real life people very seldom use similes. When they do, it is far more likely to be done to mock and/or cast dispersions, not to breathe poetry into whatever they're offering up. And, more often than not, it's cliché rather than something truly original.

"He's like a broken record...always repeating himself."

Hardly ever do you hear, "The waves seemed to have a greater purpose that day, keeping us from straying out too deep like a gentle mother's voice calling us back to the shore."

"Yeah, glad you enjoyed your vacation. Listen, I gotta be like a tree and leave."

Janet said...

Thank you! This is your public service post for the year.

Anonymous said...

I just looked up Lorrie Moore's short story collection BIRDS OF AMERICA.
I wish they had an excerpt.
One of the reviews I read did. It was short but gave me a look. (The description of love like raccoons in the chimney.)
I was knocked out!

(Hint: the excerpts on Amazon, etc. help sell the book - I almost never buy without one.)

Just_Me said...

May~
Two adverbs per book??? Can I sign up for special dispensation of some kind? Papal allowance to use "ly" perhaps?
Simile I think I can live without, but adverbs will live at least through a rough draft, maybe not to the final draft but if I set a goal of not using adverbs on a first draft, yes, my cranium would go kaboom!

Adaora A. said...

I think it's really hard to make it not be remotely cheesy. That's the rub. How do you do it without people cringing when they read.

Have you been getting them in query letters lately Nathan?

Anonymous said...

Nathan, (or anyone)
Would love to read more examples of "well done" similes.

Anonymous said...

I think the best similes are the effortless ones, the ones that don't make you think "hey, lookit this fancy-pants writer!" I think that's quite difficult. But they are fun to write. ("Silvered hair swept straight back across his scalp like scratches on a chrome bumper." Survived until the third draft, alas.)

As for adverbs, I strike them down like Zeus hurling thunderbolts.

moonrat said...

thanks for this. my opinion has crystalized like ice on a pond. (that would be a phrase i struck this morning.)

Katie Alender said...

What separates good from bad, for me, is that a good one clarifies and a bad one makes things worse.

Nothing is worse than reading a bad simile and having to stop, get out of the story, and think about what exactly the writer is trying to get you to think.

Margaret Atwood uses figurative language wonderfully. So does Elizabeth Gilbert in "Eat, Pray, Love".

The most laughable (in a bad way) use of similes I've seen lately is the book "You: On a Diet".

Other Lisa said...

HAH! This is one of my pet peeves. Just because a writer throws in a bunch of similes doesn't make it "literary." I'm thinking of a particularly well-regarded book by a young author that had a couple of these things per page - drove me crazy.

Anonymous said...

No similies or adverbs in narrative. Especially no laughingly, exceedingly, or frustratingly...at least not unless it's necessary, like when a character in the book is known for his/her adverbs or similies, and it's used in dialogue.

Bob said, "Laughingly, like the clown at the annual church Easter picnic, this exceedingly wide young woman, in a green and white striped tent dress, sat on a basket of colored easter eggs so gently you would have thought she'd laid the little devils herself."

You can't punish or embarrass your characters, and you can't teach them how to speak, ah, correctly.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes all these writing rules make me want to pull my hair out.
I always learn from them.
But there are dangers.

An example I will give is an artist I know.
He is accomplished.
But he has a set of rules for design stuck in his head and now all his work looks formulistic. He is a good designer, but not much of an original, unique artist.

I have written things that people will not give back or request personal copies of, including college papers, e-mails, stories.

I know I have broken most if not all of the rules. Hell, I don’t know the
rules. I learn as I go.

And I get ALL my sayings backwards. Me and Yogi Bera.

But those people I affected, were affected! That’s what I noticed.

So, since I probably screwed up the rules, should I politely take back and burn everything?

I appreciate learning more, here. Really, this IS helpful. I am developing a further appreciation for being well read and being totally confused about writing.

Kerouac said:
“5. Something that you feel will find its own form”

Thank God, I have some direction into the unknown too.


-

Anonymous said...

Don't get hung up on the rules, since they're mostly just suggestion anyway. Except for Elmore Leonard's. Those are funny.

Laurel Amberdine said...

Huh.

Fine by me; I can't ever think of good similies, and in SF/F they're hardly usable anyway.

Occasionally, though, they can be useful for worldbuilding in a backwards kind of [familiar thing] is like [alien thing] way.

But too much of that gets meaningless fast.

Steph Leite said...

Interestingly enough, in middle school they teach you to use as many description devices (metaphors, similes, adverbs, adjectives) as possible.

And they also said never to use the word "said", so I take all the advice there acquired with a grain of salt.

Nathan, what about said-bookisms? Any personal agent thoughts on those? I read somewhere that editors loathe them. I would've never guessed, considering half of a YA book nowadays is replacing the word "said" with something like "interjected", "shrieked", "protested", "cajoled", etc.

I found that "said" works as well as anything else. Your dialogue has to be powerful to get the manner of speech across with just a "said", and that's always a plus.

- Steph

Redzilla said...

Sometimes, Nathan, your blog is a like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but mostly it is helpful.

lauramanivong said...

Three hours of my life gone--gone I tell you, haggling over a stupid simile. My critique partners should have shut me down like a toilet seat in a locker room, but noooo, they kept telling me the wording wasn't quite right. So I kept tweaking.

My paragraph wasn't cured until I hit delete.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan (and Nathan's blog community)!

I've been lurking here for a while now and very much enjoy reading your posts and comments.

I was moved to comment because I wanted some clarification. We all know the difference between similes and metaphors (or at least we should); however, both are figurative language. Whether it is said overtly or not, they both provide an image that (ideally) further explains how someone is feeling, how something looks, etc.

In the novel I'm currently working on (my first), I have the following metaphor:

"On the night of Henry’s death, I forced myself to be there in the nursery. Of course, I was there in body, but my mind flapped against the edges of the room, beating itself bloody on the wallpaper."

This is a metaphor, of course. The implied comparison is that her mind is like a trapped bird. So here is my question: Do you believe that use of metaphors such as the above should be restricted in the same way you suggest for similes? What do the other writers here think as well?

Thanks!

--Kate

R.J. Anderson said...

Thank heavens Peter S. Beagle didn't listen to that advice, or The Last Unicorn would have been a very short and much less entertaining book.

Josephine Damian said...

Adverbs are the kiss of death for me - a big no-no.

Anonymous said...

I just looked over some things of mine that have been described as "the best thing you've ever written." Two per page. That's me. In all the years I've been writing, no one has ever informed me before that you're not supposed to use similes. In the hundred words I submitted to the Bookends contest, I used three (three!) in one paragraph. I don't know if I can break myself of the habit, and I may need to give up writing now. I have to say, though, things I've written that contain several similes usually get more attention and praise than those which contain none. ???

no-bull-steve said...

This article was as helpful as a college course and as useful as a um, an advanced college course.

My newest pet peeve is "as if." It's become as if people use it every page. It's as if they need to avoid the POV violation and tell rather than show. It's as if we don't get tired of....ARRRRGH.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Thank you, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 12:58...Similies can look good in short bites if they're clever. A contest opening with a great simile earns great praise; a manuscript crammed full of them may leave the reader wondering when you're gonna stop being cute and just tell the story already.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous/Kate: On your "flapping mind." Mind & brain are different, but your metaphor makes the mind physical, which makes me think gray matter. Particularly when you talk about it getting bloody against the walls.

Charlotte said...

Hmmm, interesting tip. And metaphors? Any limit on those?

sylvia said...

Clearly that was a typo. Nathan meant one or two per paragraph.

Kylie said...

I like metaphors a lot more than similes (I think I have barely used to or three similes in my writing career so far, while I do love to read and write metaphors).

So I would second Kate's question and also like to add, how about the big "extended metaphors"? Are these better or worse than similes?

Jennifer Walker said...

Simile is like your friend, but not your best friend. You can invite him over from time to time, but don't live with him for Pete's sake.

Furious D said...

That post about similes was like... ...ummm... like.... great, now I'm similed out.

Anonymous @ 1:58 said...

Anonymous @ 1:26: Guess we'll see. If I don't make the cut, at least I'll have some idea as to why not.

Anonymous @ 12:58 said...

12:58! Gah! 12:58! Damn cat!

Anonymous said...

i think this may be the first time i've witnessed you actually giving aspiring writers BAD advice. the entire point of a simile is to trigger stronger seeing-in-the-mind for the reader. claiming that a good novel should have "one or two" similes is a lot like saying only select writers are allowed to join the exclusive "simile-club." everyone else should just give it up. utterly moronic.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

As I mentioned repeatedly in my post, similes can work. But too often aspiring writers think similes are "writerly" and they pepper their novel with them when simple description would be much more effective. Others are better at it and make the similes work in their favor. But everyone should take a close look to see if they're necessary/effective.

Honestly, there IS a simile club, and very few are allowed in. Everyone else only gets a taste.

And you don't have to take my word for it -- May went to a writing school taught by Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon, and that's where I heard this advice.

Dave Wood said...

It seems that some writing is just out to tell a really good story: the "Just the facts, Ma'am," school. That's great as far as it goes, and I love a lot of those books. Other writing strives to dig deeper or do something more. Those books represent a bigger risk (and a smaller market, probably) for the author, but often provide a greater reward for the intended reader. I'm glad our language provides so many tools (judiciously used) for that kind of effort.

C.J. said...

kate - for me, the same advice goes for metaphors as for similes: you have to consider both the meaning of the metaphor/simile (does his neck look like a giraffe's?) and the flavor of the metaphor/simile (do i want my reader to picture the african landscape while i'm describing this character?). so, in your case, the metaphor seems appropriate if want the tone be very macabre and blunt.

Nicole Del Sesto said...

I think Tom Robbins is a master of the simile craft!

I love a simile that makes me laugh out loud.

Unrelated, Nathan, I'm sure you seen this but a well-done rebuttal to the Steve Jobs reading bomb can be found here:

http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/20/book-lust/index.html

Nicole Del Sesto said...

Hmmm ... I don't think I got that whole link, let me try this:

We do too read

Anonymous said...

The dear departed Ogden Nash wrote a poem on similes and metaphors -- "Very Like a Whale." Check it out.

I'm with him.

Terri B. said...

I like YOUR simile! Jalapeno peppers. Something to think about.

AmyB said...

I'm surprised to hear this advice. There's a writer in my critique group who's gifted with physical description and the use of similes and metaphors. He uses them freely, sometimes 3 or more on a page. His writing gets raves from almost everyone who reads it, and I'll be very surprised if he's not published someday.

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows everything already, Nathan. Their minds are closed...ya know, like a book.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why some people have to argue certain points. Nathan is the expert, he is the seasoned agent and the man who goes to all the important conferences where all the important people in publishing are.

I'm sure Nathan didn't get to be where he is without knowing a great deal about good writing and bad writing. After all, he is one of the most popular blogging agents on the web today. And that says something.

TransformingPeople said...

It doesn't pay to take any advice too literally because if something works then it works.

That being said, the problem with any literary device - whether it be simile or metaphor or alliteration or assonance or any of them is that used too often, or in the hands of the unskilled practioner, they strip the music from the prose and just leave it sounding pretentious and 'try hard'.

IMO adverbs are great in a first draft when the focus is on story and not the writing but should be discarded like the rubbish they are (not use of simile!) in second and third drafts where its all about the writing ....

Southern Writer said...

Interesting advice. I've always been SO bad at following rules. My entry in Nathan's First 500 contest contained several:

White sheets hung from nails at the windows, drooping in the center like an old man's middle.

Feeling as smothered as I imagined the lilacs did, their fragrance pressed upon by the fog and mist like petals between the pages of a book, I couldn't put my finger on exactly what, but I needed more.

I felt like Snow White, and wanted my own cottage.

In the center of it sat an old aluminum pizza pan, black with age and use, heaped with marijuana, chunks of ochre-colored hash, orange Zig-Zags, one hitters, and a blue bong filled with water that smelled as if it had been drawn from a pond.

And that was in just the first 500 words! True, Nathan didn't choose it, but Holly gave it an honorable mention. I wouldn't mind hearing from her about whether she was distracted by them. In the meantime, I have to think that like everything else in writing, it's subjective.

A year or two ago, I disagreed with an editor who said we should never (such a definitive word, never) use the word was. Or that. Technically, I think the use of could sounds passive. I could hear him snoring from the next room. vs. I heard him snoring from the next room. Yet, I see it all the time.

Sometimes rules work, and sometimes they don't.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this advice. I have also noticed the trend of way too many similes in novels (at least in my observation). Thus, I was coming to the conclusion that a writer needs a slew in her writing. Now I don't have to stress about inserting a ton in my work:-)
(I guess one simile is okay in a short story?)

Anonymous said...

I think this must be an issue, like so many related to writing, that doesn't have a simple answer.

Yes, I can easily see how similes and metaphors could be misused. I think I remember reading an interview with Anne Tyler where she said that she didn't want to be visible behind the writing. If you overuse descriptive language of any kind, it could be distracting for the reader and just call attention to you back there as the puppet master (oops, there's one right there).

On the other hand, there's that old adage of "show, don't tell" that we've all heard from countless writing teachers. Similes and metaphors evoke an emotional response (when done well). They can make things come alive, especially for those of us who actually tend to see things in terms of how they are like other things.

I'm sure Nathan knows what publishers want, though.

Southern Writer, I love your simile about the sheet.

Dr. Dume said...

Rules are like beers. One or two, fine, too many and your head spins like a fast-spinny-thing.

My father, Ignatius Dume, was a big fan of similes. 'He's as much use as an ashtray on a motorcycle/a handbrake on a canoe/a mortgage consultant'.

I avoid them like the plague.

Southern Writer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
austexgrl said...

Honey, down here in Austin, Texas...where Barack and Hillary are today...we have a LOT of jalapeno peppers in our food.not just one or two, but a lot.and a lot of tequila in our margaritas, and a lot of similies in our stories..Nathan, it depends on where one lives, sweetheart! It's regional......

Anonymous said...

said avoidance being lifted, dr. dume, when comparing rules to beers. a noteworthy exception.

Melanie Avila said...

Nathan, your advice is like a live writing manual. Always fresh and changing with the trends, with enough bite to discourage the all but the hardiest writers. Muchas gracias. ;)

superwench83 said...

So do I sense a simile contest coming on? ;)

Anonymous said...

My two favorite similes:

"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

Whirlochre said...

Similies are like a werewolf paratroop squadron pumped up on courage-enhancing hormones: great if you've splashed out good money to gasp at their death-defying aerobatic trickery - but not so good when they crash without warning through your living room ceiling while you laze in front of the TV.

Anonymous said...

Ooops. I spent 10 minutes reading the first 10-15 comments before I realised everyone was talking about 'SIMILES' - I thought they were talking about 'SMILES'..as in show your teeth and grin.

Hehehe. What a muppet!

millhousethecat said...

As a 5th grade teacher, I am required to do a "unit" on figurative language. While I watch my kiddos struggle writing metaphors, laugh out loud at their alliterations, and puzzle over words to use in place of the retired "said," I cringe. It goes against all of my writerly (Hey look! A made up adverb!) sensibilities.

But, I do understand the purpose.

Kids who are just learning to write need to be cajoled into finding new words and alternate ways of expressing themselves. They'll be awful at it initially, but they get better.

And then, when they are adults who want to continue writing, they will learn and understand the "rules" for writing.

Yanno, like sands through the hourglass, those are the ways of our lives.

Bernita said...

Nathan, please.
The comparison must be between two otherwise unlike things - that essential fact is often left out of the definition and so I've seen claims that "John is like his brother" is a simile.
As for two per book, that's bullshit.
Am glad you expressed caveats.
I like a good simile.

Anonymous said...

"And you don't have to take my word for it -- May went to a writing school taught by Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon, and that's where I heard this advice."

And a double snap right back at ya, m'man. But seriously, dear young Nathan, haven't you ever heard the old saying, "writing school has ruined more good writers that booze."

But, I really do agree with the post, and I do know what you're trying to say; I even have a masters in CW. You didn't execute it very well, and that's important with a post like this so new writers will "get" the point.

Anonymous said...

I like this blog and get a lot of useful information out of it. Kudos to Nathan for being blunt and giving us a dose of what is "required" by the industry. Any bit helps.

But, with all these rules about what a writer can't do out there, I'm beginning to wonder what a writer is allowed to do. Maybe no metaphors next? Maybe no foreshadowing? Is minimalism really the key to good storytelling? Yes, you never want to overdo something, but one or two similes per book? Ridiculous.

How the hell are we supposed to find our voices -- that voice we're always told to develop, because it'll attract an agent -- when we're not given any tools to do so?

I use similes and metaphors, a lot. But they're loaded, emotionally charged. Not just for that phrase, but how they fit with narrative style. How they fit into the tone of the book and the themes in it. It's about crafting the story as a whole, phrase by phrase. When they're used properly by a writer, they should just fade into the background and the reader won't even notice that they're reading one.

Summed up: the book is only as good as the tools that a writer has access to. Apparently, using tools can't sell books anymore.

Nona said...

How the hell are we supposed to find our voices -- that voice we're always told to develop, because it'll attract an agent -- when we're not given any tools to do so?

Anonymous:

I believe that when it comes to creative endeavors, it's better to lock oneself in a closet to work than listen to "advice" about anything.

When I write, I basically take dictation from my subconscious. While I'm typing it I think, "What is this? Have you gone completely insane?" and when I reread it later with a clear head I say, "Oh my God, this is brilliant. Who wrote this?"

Anonymous said...

Good Lord, what a tempest in a teapot. There are no hard and fast rules. Use whatever you want. Five similes a page? Go for it. Similies within metaphors? Knock yourself out.

If it's done well, it works.

If it's clumsy and doesn't work, well, perhaps complaining that Nathan's advice is constraining your isn't the best place to start.

When it comes to the elements of the story, language tools like the use of simile are way down the list of priorities. If the plot's dull, the dialogue's stilted, then the cleverest similies in the world won't save you. If everything else comes together, skillful use of tools like simile make a good story better.

I seem to hear some "but MY style is this way and these rules squash my creativity." Nathan's making suggestions, not passing down edicts.

Nathan Bransford said...

Wow, I can't believe people are getting angry over similes. What's next, a war over dangling modifiers?

If this post made you angry, you might think about why it made you angry. I feel like if you read this post and were confident in your simile mastery you would have seen my obvious and numerous caveats and it would have slid right off of you. You know... like a duck's back.

If, however, it struck an discordant note, I'd think about whether you're mad at me or mad at the fact that it struck a little close to home and you need to reexamine your novel.

Anonymous said...

Sorry. I'm just cranky because I've been marking exams and pounding my head on my desk with every question that they screw up.

Maybe it's also because there's one more thing on the list of things we're not allowed to do. A knee-jerk reaction on my part.

Get it? I'm acting like a jerk?

Whatever. Your comment certainly doesn't hit home because of the similes I use.

Yeah, back to those exams...

Other Lisa said...

Nathan, maybe the problem is that you should have compared similes to habaneros instead of jalapenos.

Other Lisa said...

Okay, that was a lame attempt at humor on my part and a good example of why I don't use many similes...

Larry Harkrider said...

Speaking on behalf of all clenched tooth fairies, I would just like to say that we like our similes like we like our cigarettes -- in PACKS.

No, seriously, I LOVE similes, and they love me, and no 1st grade arithmetic will ever disrupt our union.

But, let's face it, similes ARE an easy target. If your manuscript fails to inspire, then the critic will reach for the nearest cliche:

This story sucks. First of all, you used too many (insert random literary device), and you forgot to SHOW, not TELL, and...

Anonymous said...

Wow, such a lively group!

I always thought art should come from that wild crazy badlands of an idea, and then you should go into town, squint at some nuts and bolts and find out how to build it,
sort of like the creative process of the architect, Gaudi.

Other people think you should learn all about the rules of things and then invent from the rules.

But some of the best stuff comes from both schools and meets somewhere in the middle.

Anonymous said...

"If, however, it struck an discordant note, I'd think about whether you're mad at me or mad at the fact that it struck a little close to home and you need to reexamine your novel."

I don't use similies or adverbs, and I'm well published. I just don't think you got your point across very well, is all. And that's why there's such a minor uproar, even with some of the published writers who come here.

The thing that frustates me is that you're right, and some people aren't getting it because of the way you executed the point, and that's a shame because this is so basic, and it could help so many people.

Ulysses said...

I think of similies the same way I do adjectives and adverbs. I avoid them whenever I can find a noun or a verb that expresses what I mean in an effective fashion. However, English doesn't have enough nouns and verbs to convey all the shades of meaning associated with human experience so sometimes you've got to bring in "the help."

I can tell you that a character smelled bad, but "He smelled like he'd bathed in rotten eggs and towelled off with an old sock," really brings it home. On the other hand, I suppose I could tell you nothing and just show you by having other characters holding hands over their noses, coughing, wiping at streaming eyes and running away from him. . .

I also find similes useful to ground an unusual experience in something familiar. No one has ever heard the sound of a hand-held railgun firing, but if I say it fired "with a hum like a plucked E string," then the vague and imaginary becomes a little more grounded.

Of course, if you bring in similes alot, they'll bury your work like a dumptruck full of used diapers, like a gravedigger on speed, like a paranoid doberman with the neighborhood's best bone. . . like something that buries something else very effectively.

Too much of anything sucks.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I will be sure and increase my quota of clarifications and caveats to double digits next time.

Nathan Bransford said...

And why are you posting anonymously anyway?

Anonymous said...

Because I probably couldn't have explained it any better :)

Grace said...

One of the finalists in the First Page contest (Still Life With Flowers)had no fewer than three similes into her opening paragraph. I noticed, because at the time I was going through my MS and removing as many similes as I could. I momentarily questioned my decision to continue cutting them, but did so. Ultimately, I removed about two-thirds of them and I know my book is stronger for it.

My criteria for letting a simile stay was that it had to add something that couldn't be conveyed well some other way, or add humor, or be a vital part of characterization in dialog. I cut some rather good ones that were too nearby other good ones. Nowhere in my MS do three appear in one paragraph.

Most things simply are what they are, and don't require similes to be understood. For example, we can imagine wads of tissue tumbling out of a purse without being told that they tumbled out "like lost sheep."

That said, I think that using only one or two similes (or one or two adverbs, for that matter) in an entire book is a bit of an extreme approach. Don't let the rules hamstring you, because as one of the First Page finalists proved, the rules aren't all that rigid.

Larry Harkrider said...

I think it's generally beneficial to impose constraints on prose style. The absence of a particular literary device is, after all, a significant component of the style itself. Constraints force you to think as a writer, instead of doing something easy.

Which brings up another point. I get the feeling that this anti-simile-sentiment derives from the "show don't tell" philosophy, where the writer is expected to emulate cinema, and provide a textual account of sensory data to the reader, as opposed to using labels to convey entire ideas. It's not a bad way to write, and I tend to agree with the SDT camp, but not always, and often point to dialogue as the exception.

Question. This anti-simile-sentiment, does it apply to dialogue? Seems like it can't, given the diversity of human expression, from lofty to to low.

And what about narrative voice? Why should narrative voice obey different rules than dialogue? What happens when your character thinks in simile terms? You might say, "yes, but if it's CLEARLY the thought of a character, then it's NOT narrative voice."

Which would lead to a discussion of POV, and whether or not it deserves more attention than, say, the number of similes used in its conveyance.

Displaced said...

Clearly the a trend is for writers to abuse the use of similes in their writing. Its obvious from your point of view that many agents are probably sick of reading too many of them! While reading some popular periodicals today I noticed a ton of similes and adverbs. Likewise, while pursuing many current best seller novels on my desk, I noticed the abundance of similes (and adverbs). Anyhow, your concern is well taken and will definitely make me reconsider using similes more sparingly (oops, sorry for the adverb).

sylvia said...

Oh my! Nathan told me I shouldn't write the way I write! How dare he! Clearly my novel (like a long breath, held deeply) can't possibly come to fruition. Damn you Nathan, damn you damn you damn you!

*deep breath* Y'all are aware you can write what you like, right? Nathan isn't the only agent out there and he's not, actually, in charge of what you do.

I laughed at this post, because I'd JUST decided that I really wasn't using similes and metaphors and should make a greater attempt to include them in my work ... just to hear that they were over-used.

The fact is, my favourite authors use them so skillfully that I despair of ever getting close. I won't stop using them (MY choice, Nathan can't make me) but the reminder that I might not wish to splatter them all over the page was quite timely.

Different Drummer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

Ok everyone, I'm declaring this thread a no-free-speech zone. Negativity and hostility? Will be deleted henceforth.

I'm all for polite and respectful disagreement. The advice proffered yesterday was (I thought) obviously hyperbolic and meant to be entertaining.

I would respectfully submit that some people might be better served channeling their hostility into something a little more important than some advice about an element of writing on a random blog.

Anonymous said...

Shhhh...don't tell Dennis LeHane. He may never write again, and he'd be sorely, horribly missed.

Anonymous said...

I live in Europe and I've never heard of Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon.

Anonymous said...

Like a blind man signing off on a list of rules he can't read, the old writer slogged on, unsteeped in any kind of true craft, but purer of vision nonetheless.

Twill said...

Tell it to Toni Morrison. (Tar Baby)

The fog is like maiden aunt's hair. Then the maiden aunts are whispering around the eaves.

The guy has a savannah for a face. emotions blow like winds across the savannah of his face. etc.

I don't know if this counts as 2 metaphors or 200, the way she does it, but it sells books.

benwah said...

"...my novel (like a breath, held deeply)" THAT's a gem.

I orginally came to the blog for the advice. Now it's grown into a source of entertainment: are people really ready to come to blows over simile use? And how is it that Nathan dispenses his opinions to me through the computer screen, yet apparently for others he's standing over their keyboards, ready to deliver knuckle raps with a ruler should they include one-too-many similes?

Andrew said...

I live in Europe and I've never heard of Alice McDermott and Stephen Dixon.

I live in the US and never heard of them. But the point isn't whether they are famous, it's whether, assuming they are authorities, something one of them once said to his/her student/class was meant for that student/class or for every writer. If the students in Alice M's class use too many adjectives and she tells them two per book, would she give the same advice to someone who uses no adjectives? What she said to one person/class may well be the polar opposite of what she said to another, and shouldn't be presented as gospel.

Nathan Bransford said...

If you haven't heard of Alice McDermott.... well, let's just say your problems are much worse than a possible misuse of similes.

I'll give you a hint: you might want to google for "winners of the national book award." Or "three-time nominees for Pulitzer Prize in fiction."

Now, Ms. McDermott probably uses plenty of similes in her wonderful books, I haven't gone and counted. And I'm sure, whichever teacher said this to May (she herself, to my knowledge, doesn't remember exactly who it is), they didn't mean it literally. But I'd also imagine they wouldn't probably encourage people to get really mad.

Larry Harkrider said...

"Wouldn't encourage people to get mad."

Where's the fun in that? Controversy makes for good conversation. Unfortunately, the blog format doesn't foster discussion, being little more than a digital graffiti wall.

The delightful news is that I got linked to this topic from a literary forum where the fate of the simile, semicolon, and kenning (among other things) dangles by the slenderest of em dashes.

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard Lewis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Just so it's 100 said...

I hate similes myself, but then, I suck at writing them. My similes are like...

See?

pete peterson said...

I thought this was a humorous post as I read it after just having finished Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Not only is it amazing but it is full of page long strings of similes that are nothing short of mind blowing. A feat that certainly ought not to be tried by just anyone.

Beth said...

A good simile is a shortcut. In a few words, a simple comparison, a thing is defined with far more clarity, vividness, sophistication, or subtlety than could possibly achieved with a more straightforward description.

A bad simile is tired, cliched, or boring, and does nothing more than add words to the page.

A novel can be enriched by the former, but dragged down by the latter.

Nathan Bransford said...

Well said, Beth.

mkcbunny said...

I had to come back to this post after a couple of days spent editing my novel. I know that I am a simile user, so of course, now I'm reviewing each one to determine whether it's, to use beth's terms, a good shortcut or a tired cliche. Thanks for the post. Very helpful, if terrifying.

litlove said...

I'm sure this is excellent advice as, when in doubt, uncluttered prose is always the best decision. But from a literary critic's point of view, I have to say that there are notable exceptions to this rule. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, who was once described as 'ten outstanding similes a page', and in recent times, Michael Chabon has made his name with an avalanche of similes, almost in every sentence. He might be a good reason not to do it, however, as his prose can be claustrophobic at times. I wonder to what extent writers need to consider why they are using similes, rather than counting how many they use, and whether other devices for conveying richness in imagery might not be equally appropriate. Perhaps it's a rare writer whose style accommodates the simile with ease and grace.

Heidi said...

I'm about two weeks late on this one, but as I'm writing I've been dealing with this and have two questions for you:

1) The novel I'm currently writing takes place in Texas and some of the characters are, shall I say, colorful. One has a penchant for using very Texas language, which includes similes.

For example: Sheila's husband is happier than a rooster in a henhouse.

or: You alright? You look jumpy as spit on a hot skillet.

It's not on every page, or even in every chapter, but it is the way he talks. It's part of his character. Does this fall under the same general criteria of one or two good ones a book? Or does this character get a bye?

And 2) Would it be all right to use one of these colorful similes in a pitch? Not as a quote, but as part of the voice and a taste of the overall feel of the writing?

You may not respond to old posts, but if you do, I'd love to have your take on this.

Anonymous said...

What about Shapiro's "Country Western Singer"

I used to feel like a new man/After the day’s first brew/But then the new man I became/
Would need a tall one too.

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