I have this friend. I’ll just call her Nik, though that’s not her real name. She writes fanfic, or at least she used to. Now she just writes for her work, and says that most of the time it’s incredibly boring. I don’t know why she doesn’t write fanfic anymore, she says she just can’t find anything to say. And maybe that’s because while she was writing it, she was so brilliant, she burned herself out. She was the kind of writer I aspired to be, and in fact, we had a kind of synergy going, and she says I inspired her as well, because she would write something and then I would riff off of that, and then she would riff, and the whole thing was so electric and bright, it’s a wonder we didn’t burn ourselves to ash.
She had such power over the language, such command, that when she would write, phrases would get stuck in my mind like flies in a jar, and I would ruminate over them, trying to break them apart to see what made them tick. For example, I’ll give you the following excerpt from a story she wrote called “Trial by Fire,” which is the story of a young man pressed to his limits by a promise that he made to his boss. (Or, rather, a deal he made.) This particular bit is of him washing up in his miserable little room before he goes to bed. Here is the excerpt, it’s not too long:
“The water in the basin steamed like a soup pot coming to a boil. Not because the water was so very hot, but because the room was so dreadfully cold.
Willie put the kettle back on the hearthstones where the faint circle of heat radiating from the coals would keep it simmering. he dropped a clean washcloth into the basin, added a sprinkling of shredded soap, and only then paused to peel off his sweater in jerky, shivery movements, like a locust shedding the last of its brittle summer skin.
Even sitting this close to the fire, it was impossible to stay comfortably warm in this meat locker of a room. His front roasted while his backside froze. But there was no way he was going to bed with a day’s worth of sweat and wood chips sticking to him. Sleeping cold was bad enough. Sleeping cold and dirty was nothing short of miserable.
It was snowing again, and miniature drifts were piling up along the window ledge to press against the windowpanes like the pallid cheeks of frosty ghosts begging to be let in. Fridgit gusts of wind swirled down the chimney to spin drifts of ash across the rust-flecked grate. The hardwood floor creaked with the particles of ice that were swelling in its dampest fissures beneath the perpetually leaky window.”
The phrase that GOT me rather hard was the one about the ghosts. “… to press against the windowpanes like the pallid cheeks of frosty ghosts begging to be let in.” I tell you, I cannot, to this day, see a drift of snow and not think of frosty ghosts and their pallid cheeks. Sometimes I even go as far as to put the whole sentence in a word doc, to print it up and stick it by my computer. It’s a simile, right, in that one thing is like another, but it’s so apt and so visual, that I’m stunned by it. I’ve never in my life written anything that evocative. And what did she do here, besides simply connecting two things that were white and cold? I want to stomp around in frustration, and in fact, sometimes I do.
I think it’s because I’m not a simile user by nature, because they seem a little forced to me. Like reaching really hard to connect two things using a bridge of “like” or “as,” when to me the structure there, the connection, should be invisible. For example, I tend to describe things with adjectvies, like “icy ribs,” or “scrubby lawn,” or “tired boy.” Or I’ll use participles, as in “simmering fury,” or “whistling belt,” or “creeping air.” My “glances flick” and “blood pools,” and “air whistles” but they don’t flick or pool or whistle like anything, which distresses me, especially when I think of how Nik would say it. It might be vivid the way I do it, but not AS vivid, if you’ll pardon the punnish comparison.
But then Nik stopped writing fanfic and I thought that for a while, I had a chance of catching up and figuring it out. However, without her writing continually coming at me like a well-aimed bullet, I forgot about the simile issue. (And maybe it’s also because so many similes are cliches, that I avoided them like the plague. Hmmmm.)
There was a description that I remember getting to me and that was by Anne McCaffery in her sci-fi novel called “Dragonsinger,” in which is told the adventures of Menolly, who wanted to be a musician but her father had other plans for her. Well, she runs away and gets picked up by another family/clan, and is allowed, finally, to reach her full potential. She gets shown around her new digs, and in the process is shown the store room, wherein is stored all kinds of things, among which is “sleeping furs.” The word “sleeping” here is actually a participle, which means that the “-ing” verb is being used as an adjective. That is, the furs are used for sleeping. However, being a little excited at the prospect of Menolly finding a new home, I interpreted the phrase to be using the gerund form, that is, they were actually sleeping furs, that is, furs that were sleeping, which I think, to this day, is still pretty apt. Which might explain my fondness for using participles.
Then along comes big pink to remind me all over again. It was like a slap in the face or a punch to the gut, and whatever other simile I can think of, that brought the whole thing to my attention again. Along with the myriad other things she does in her writing, her brilliant use of similes jumps to the top of the list like a grasshopper in a field of corn.
Here’s two excerpts from her, the first one is from Dazzleland, and the second one is from Red. You can access both of these at her site here.
“Sam needed to make this fast, because John was now shutting down, closing doors like a vendor at the end of a busy day and Sam knew he was right about this. “Yeah, we were looking at a photo of the dry Falls, and Dean was explaining about how all these guys had gone over – you should have seen their barrels, something supernatural must have gotten into them – and if the workers in ’69 disturbed something big under there, like maybe the Snake-””
“They sat at a table, general, rookie and grunt, Sam staring out the window the exact same way he had in the car, John scanning the menu like it revealed the enemy’s battle plans. Wave after wave of anger came from both of them, so strong Dean was surprised they were all just sitting. A normal family. If you didn’t count the broken bones and bruises.”
Interestingly, both of these similes are about John, and maybe the reason they struck me so is because big pink writes John as such a powerful character, casting his shadow over everything the boys do, even he’s not in the scene.
In Dazzleand, Sam and The Dad are not getting along, on account of two things. First, that Sam is in his senior year at high school, and is accompanied by all those angsty things seniors are accompanied by, one of which is where do I want to go to college, and even do I? Second, this is the Winchester family, they put the fun in dysfunctional after all, and not only is John not interested in what Sam wants outside of hunting, he’s not even interested in Sam’s opinion when it’s about hunting. It’s a no win situation for poor Sammy, and the visual of him approaching a vendor at the end of the day when it’s just shutting up, and the vendor being completely unconcerned that Sammy really needs something from said vendor was just perfect. I could see John, putting away his stuff, not looking up, or if he did, pretending not to see Sam. It’s writing like this, this powerful, clever, and non-cliched way of using similes that gets me every time.
In Red, everything that could go wrong, has, and that’s just in the first chapter. It was a brilliant story that crossed over three timelines. The particular line that this excerpt comes from is the middle one, where The Dad, Dean, and Sam are on the road, as usual, and the descriptions are so vivid, this is really only just one of them, that I could actually taste how miserable Sam was, even if this was from Dean’s POV.
So the upshot of all this ranting is that while similes might be cliches in less capable hands, in the right hands, they become crystal clear images that sparkle and bounce right off the page just as sweet as you please.
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