Successful fiction writers have a few pieces of advice they all have in common. In this post, I want to address this one: read more fiction. According to this popular viewpoint, one of the best ways to learn how to write fiction is to read a lot of it. In the past few years I’ve tried to follow this advice by both reading more fiction and reading a wider range of fiction. Outside of my mainstay genre of science fiction, I’ve read mysteries, thrillers, YA, and adventures. This has given me a broader perspective on many aspects of story writing.
A consequence of reading more is I also read more closely. And hence, also more critically. I think this is natural for me as I’ve spent much of my life analyzing things. I tend to read the first sentence of a paragraph, consider its meaning, and then go to the next and repeat the process. I mentally combine the meanings as I read along and form a collective overall interpretation of the paragraph. If the paragraph is well structured it is clear to me what it says and what it accomplishes in the narrative.
I’ve found that some sentences can be very disruptive to this process. The nature of this disruption can be described by my reaction to reading one of them; usually the reaction is, “Say what?” I’ve noted that certain types of sentences cause this reaction more often than others. Specifically, this seems to happen the most when I come across similes.
Many fiction writers either believe, or have been taught, that similes are essential creative “brushstrokes” in the world of literary fiction. There’s no doubt that a well-formed simile is a joy to encounter. It tends to enrich us, perhaps even provide us insight. On the other hand, poor similes can throw me right out of the story. What follows is what I consider a pretty good simile:
“Getting Joe to take out the trash is like trying to push a rope.”
What makes this a good simile is that we are all familiar with rope and we all know that, while it works well for pulling things, it is not good for pushing things. Unfortunately, rope does not give us any insight into Joe.
The following is a sentence I arbitrarily picked from a published fiction novel involving sailboats:
“His fingers kept crawling up the sides of his jacket like crabs”.
Not bad in my view. We’ve all seen crabs or videos of them and have seen their sideways movement. There may even be a bit of insight if the jacket wearer’s fingers are slender.
Let’s try another one, also from a fiction novel but this one was published by one of the big five publishing houses:
“The blossoms smelled like sex as the warm breeze scattered a confetti of pedals upon us.”
Ugh! I have all kinds of problems with this sentence. First, I did a Google search and there are many opinions about what sex smells like. Only a few mentioned anything about blossoms or the like. Second, sex doesn’t really have much to do with the paragraph this line appears in (take my word for it) although the first-person author may have had romance on her mind. Third, the phrase a confetti of doesn’t work well when we all know that confetti is composed of different colored very small pieces of paper. I would drop out the phrase entirely. Here is how I would have written the sentence:
“The warm breeze scattered the fragrant blossom pedals upon us.”
Of course, this is no longer a simile. However, we all have experienced fragrant blossoms and can readily envision the wind scattering them on us. Sometimes as writers we work too hard to try to form creative, enriching similes. I’m especially mindful of the definition of words when composing a simile. If I end up with a simile that I feel might be a stretch, or is awkward, I take it out rather than risk throwing the reader out of my story.
Here is one last one – taken from a book on fiction writing:
“Fiction writing can be a difficult, lonely job – like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”
This is pretty good although I’m not a big fan of it. On the one hand, I get what the author means. On the other hand, why the Atlantic Ocean? The Pacific Ocean is by far the largest ocean. Perhaps the author didn’t think people would know that, or be that picky; after all, the Atlantic is the second largest. I think I understand the bathtub: we all are familiar with them, they have no locomotion, and no way to steer. Also, they are too small for much company. Thus, the trip would certainly be slow going and lonely at best.
Unfortunately, the bathtub offers no insight into writing (not even if one is talking about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho). Another reason I am not a fan of this simile is that, while I’ve done a lot of travelling, I’ve never crossed the Atlantic Ocean (so I have no personal reference as to how big it is). I have flown across the Pacific Ocean, but that goes back to my earlier comment. Lastly, there is a strong element of danger in crossing an ocean in a bathtub that has no counterpart in fiction writing.
If I had tried to write this simile I would have left the ocean and bathtub out of it. Rather, I’d have gone for phrases like self-incarceration with extended periods of solitary confinement. The thing about self-incarceration that appeals to me is that, interestingly enough, it would give me plenty of time to both read and write fiction.